Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Sept. 22, Richmond CenterStage

It would be gratifying to report that the Richmond Symphony launched its 2012-13 season with compelling performances of crowd-pleasing blockbusters by Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

Graftifying, but untrue.

This orchestra does not perform over the summer, so the season-opener is the first time the musicians have played together in three months. The ensemble often sounds as if it hasn’t fully gelled. The symphony opens this season without a permanent concertmaster; a new assistant concertmaster, Jeanine Wynton, is the lead violinist in this weekend’s concerts. The orchestra also has a new principal bassoonist, Thomas Schneider, and a recently hired principal French horn player, James Ferree. In the program’s orchestral showpiece, Mahler’s First Symphony, woodwind, horn and trumpet sections are doubled, so half of those players are substitutes.

Discontent among the musicians, who greeted opening-night concertgoers with handbills protesting management’s proposal of a new contract “that requires drastic cuts in wages, season length, and benefits,” probably had no direct effect on performance quality – these people are professionals; but it couldn’t have helped matters.

The symphony sounded listless alongside pianist Norman Krieger in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B flat minor, and sounded thin and intermittently ragged in the Mahler. In a third selection, Copland’s “Old American Songs,” the full Symphony Chorus took the place of the solo baritone or bass usually featured in this set; sonic bloat and indistinct diction inevitably resulted. Also listener confusion, as the songs were performed in a different order from that printed in the program.

Krieger, a veteran pianist who usually can be counted on for solid, sonorous readings of the big standard concertos, brought out much of the color and piquant quality of Tchaikovsky’s more lyrical writing. In the recurrent torrents of thunderous octaves, he lost his footing a few times. Neither Krieger nor conductor Steven Smith could bring much coherence to the final movement, which may be the most disorderly piece of music in the canon of masterpieces.

Mahler’s First Symphony needs hefty string tone with rich bass to balance its large complements of winds, brass and percussion. In this rendition, strings are relatively underpowered – eight violas, eight cellos and six double-basses up against eight French horns and four trumpets. The composer’s paraphrasing of Alpine Ländler and Jewish-gypsy dances gives the central movements of the symphony folkish, swinging rhythmic inflections, which eluded the musicians in this performance. The spacious qualities and hushed tension of the symphony’s introduction also were lost, thanks in part to coughing in the audience, squeaking doors and other extramusical distractions.

The Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, was richly sonorous and not excessively sentimental in Copland’s settings of the hymn tunes “Zion’s Walls” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” characterful and broadly comic but rather fractious in “I Bought Me a Cat.” Singers and instrumentalists audibly had the groove of these American folk tunes in their bones.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$73. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);