Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
May 12, Richmond Center Stage

The finale to this season’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks series is an invitation to the dance, with the twist that all of this program’s dances, except the waltz, are of Slavic origin.

Conductor Steven Smith starts out with the familiar – a set of three of the second set of Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic dances, centering on the eloquently sighing E minor (Op. 72, No. 2) – but soon moves into less frequently programmed, and content-rich, dance suites of the early 20th century by the Czech Leoš Janáček and the Russian-American Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940), the composer’s last major work, tempers the lush Russian romanticism of his earlier, better-known music with impressionistic tone coloring (Rachmaninoff audibly knew his Ravel) and a rhythmic sensibility that figuratively stretches from the Urals to the Hollywood hills.

Earlier this season, Smith brought out the impressionistic color and character of another late Rachmaninoff work, the “Paganini Rhapsody;” this reading of the Symphonic Dances is similarly almost French-accented.

The orchestra’s concertmaster, Diana Cohen, and its wind section, joined by alto saxophonist Roland Dowdy, are showcased in numerous solos and small ensembles; their animated and/or soulful contributions were one of the main attractions of the first of two weekend performances of the Rachmaninoff.

The symphony has mustered a larger than usual complement of strings for this program. They’re needed to maintain balance with enhanced wind and brass forces and extensive percussion in both the Rachmaninoff and Janáček’s “Taras Bulba.”

The violins sounded just right in the rarified upper registers of the Janáček and the Dvořák dances; and the lower strings played with craggy solidity and power in “Taras Bulba.” The brasses and percussion packed the requisite wallop without overpowering the strings.

Naggingly missing in this otherwise well-played, characterful program was the edge – partly rhythmic, partly expressive – that’s essential in Slavic dance music. The orchestra sounded idiomatic in waltz time, but often turned flabby when accents became sharper and rhythms more angular.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 13 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $18-$73.
Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);