Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Nov. 4, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

“Little Symphonies,” the program that conductor Steven Smith devised for the Richmond Symphony’s second Metro Collection concert, looked better on paper than it played out in the second of two weekend performances.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 6, known as the “Little” C major (the Ninth being the “great” one), sounded dull. The slowish tempos that Smith adopted in its first and fourth movements robbed them of much of their forward momentum and songful swing. The sharp accenting of the scherzo was needed but lacking elsewhere. The burbling animation of the orchestra’s winds was not matched in string playing that was, at best, dutiful and routine.

Could it be that Smith and the orchestra rehearsed the piece in a warm-sounding, lively acoustic, only to hear the performance deflate in the lukewarm, dry acoustic of Randolph-Macon’s Blackwell Auditorium? This has been known to happen in the past.

The opening half of the program contrasted Gounod’s “Petite Symphonie” for nine wind instruments (the standard octet of paired oboes, bassoons, clarinets and horns, plus flute) with the Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings by the late 20th-century Polish master Witold Lutoslawski. (The Lutoslawski was omitted in a Nov. 2 concert at First Baptist Church of Centralia in Chesterfield County.)

The Gounod was treated to a reading by a conductorless nonet (flutist Mary Boodell served as de facto leader of the ensemble) that was warmly sonorous but over-cautious, especially in its finale.

The Lutoslawski is one of the knottier works that Smith has programmed in his three-year tenure with the symphony. Its seven overlapping preludes are not audibly linear for much of their duration, and so make a stronger impression as colorful episodes or sound fragments than as music with beginning, middle and end; and the closing fugue sounds only fitfully related to the preludes. A successful performance requires great concentration (from both performers and listeners) and a combination of technical virtuosity and ensemble balance. Smith led the string players with care; they responded, for the most part, carefully.