Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Ellen Cockerham, violin
Feb, 21, Richmond CenterStage

It looks like the Richmond Symphony has a hit on its hands in the Rush-Hour Concerts, a casual concert series whose second installment in its tryout season drew a capacity crowd to Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse. Instead of waiting till fall for a third go, the symphony should consider exploiting the buzz by adding one or more spring dates.

Ellen Cockerham, the orchestra’s principal second violinist, was featured soloist in Henri Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, a compact but action-packed showcase for solo fiddle by one of the instrument’s leading 19th-century virtuosos. Cockerham made sparkling, at times soulful, work of the piece, to especially good effect in its brilliant finale.

For this abridged version of a Metro Collection program to be staged over the weekend in Ashland, symphony Music Director Steven Smith and a chamber-scaled contingent of the orchestra played the first and last movements of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, Steven Hartke’s “A Brandenburg Autumn” and Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” Suite No. 1.

The Hartke piece was introduced in 2006 as part of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Brandenburg Project, in which contemporary composers wrote companion pieces to Bach’s six “Brandenburg” concertos. Hartke employs the same forces that Bach did in the First Concerto  three oboes, two French horns and strings with harpsichord continuo – and, like Bach, based his music in dance rhythms; but while Bach’s music stresses elegance, Hartke’s is more animated, at times jittery, with frequent humorous asides.

Smith and the symphony players, joined by harpsichordist Joanne Kong, not surprisingly sounded more focused in the unfamiliar Hartke than in the Bach, which received a straightforward, rather mellow reading.

Some extra engagement was audible, too, in the Respighi, which, as Smith observed in introductory remarks, is the least performed of the three “Ancient Airs and Dances” suites. The woodwinds, paced by oboist Gustav Highstein, sparkled in this perrformances, as they had in the Bach and Hartke.

The program, with complete performances of the Bach, Hartke and Respighi works, will begin at 3 p.m. Feb. 23 in Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);