Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
April 20, Richmond CenterStage

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis, who performed with the Richmond Symphony last season in Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” returned to highlight the weekends Masterworks program in a tonally exquisite, richly expressive performance of Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’été.”

In this cycle of night sings, Leemhuis, brightly animated in the opening Villanelle, plumbed greater emotional and atmospheric depths in the likes of “Le spectre de la rose” and “l’Absence,” singing with a concentration and introspective passion that proved extraordinarily affecting.

Her dark lower register tones, while not especially loud, seemed to fill the considerable space of the Carpenter Theatre and impose a profound quiet on both the accompanying musicians and the audience. It was a remarkable display of artistry exercising spell-binding authority.

Conductor Steven Smith, meanwhile, displayed a mastery of Berlioz’s phrasing and tone-colorization in shaping the subtle orchestrations of both “Les nuits” and the “Béatrice et Bénédict” Overture. Smith brought an especially welcome touch of nostalgia to the waltz theme of the overture, and deftly balanced its lyrical and energetic sections to make the piece sound less episodic than it often does.

The program’s featured orchestral work, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, started promisingly with the somberly soulful clarinet solo of Ralph Skiano leading into a reading of the symphony’s first movement full of moody portent. The andante cantabile second movement, with the French horn solo of James Ferree pacing fine work by the woodwinds, sustained both moodiness and lyricism.

The performance began to deflate in a strangely matter-of-fact treatment of the third-movement waltz, and lumbered to a close in the symphony’s big finale. It was one of those cases of music mostly being played right – more than right in sweeping high-string phrases and sonorous wind choruses – but ultimately failing to take off. Reticent brass, thick bass and a plodding tempo, with little of the flexibility that kept the first movement going, sounded to be the prime culprits.

It was also one of those concerts in which my ears and those of the audience heard things quite differently. One of the rules of reviewing is not to criticize the audience unless it’s being overtly rude or inattentive; so I’ll simply note that the Berlioz selections were received politely, while the Tchaikovsky prompted a roaring ovation.

I’m not aware of any rule against criticizing an ineptly run house, so: What the heck was going on with the thumps, bumps and squeaking hinges that intruded on the music through the evening – not to mention the itchy fingers that cut the house lights several times while patrons filed out of the auditorium after the concert?