Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
May 11, Richmond CenterStage

A substantially augmented Richmond Symphony this weekend is celebrating the centenary of the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”). The orchestra, which usually numbers about 70 for these mainstage programs, exceeds 100 in this one; most of the guest musicians enlarge the woodwind and brass sections – including nine French horns, which I believe is a record for the symphony.

For a regional orchestra and its conductor, those extra numbers compound the challenge of Stravinsky’s score. In pretty short order, the musicians have to create an ensemble from a group in which one in three players are newcomers or occasional participants. That’s in addition to playing the notes, rendering the distinctive colors and negotiating the tricky balances and famously complex rhythms of this piece.

Most of the pressure falls on the conductor. Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, coped very well indeed in the first of two weekend performances. His traffic control was exemplary; rarely was any solo instrument or instrumental choir too assertive or too reticent, and only in the brassiest or most heavily percussive passages were the strings overbalanced (as they often are at such times even in the biggest and best bands).

Smith’s most impressive achievement was coloristic. This “Le sacre” was almost pointilistic, with tone color of such clarity and nuance that one could mistake the score for a work of Ravel or Debussy. Principal bassoonist Thomas Schneider set a standard for color, phrasing and atmospherics that most every other wind soloist matched throughout the performance. Principal French horn player James Ferree and clarinetist Jared Davis also distinguished themselves on this score.

Tumultuous and violent sections of the piece must make a powerfully visceral impact – the scenario of the ballet, after all, revolves around frenzied fertility rites and human sacrifice. Smith and the musicians did not hold back, but their violent music-making was as well-crafted and deftly colored as their work in subtler passages.

In this program, titled “Musical Revolutionaries,” the Stravinsky is preceded by the Toccata and Ritornelli from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” (1607), generally considered to be the first modern opera, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one of the first orchestral scores to treat its themes cyclically, in addition to being one of the earliest and greatest examples of abstract music as drama in sound.

The Monteverdi is being played in a modern orchestration using full symphonic forces, but one that fairly faithfully reproduces the instrumental timbres and performance style of the early Italian baroque.

The Beethoven Fifth, like Smith’s previous performances of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies, was given romanticized “big band” treatment, focusing more on great arcs of structure and accumulations of tone than on the sharp, startling accenting characteristic of “classical” Beethoven. Grandeur tends to trump energy in romantic-style Beethoven, and did so here, despite tempos (especially in the first movement) that were quite brisk.

The Beethoven is being played with as full a string complement as the Stravinsky. The resulting rich string tone may have contributed to a collective sonority, notably among the cellos and basses, that smoothed away the edges of phrasing and accenting.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 12 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$73 (widely discounted). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);