Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Sept. 21, Richmond CenterStage

An all-Beethoven symphony concert is a pretty sure bet to draw a crowd, which the Richmond Symphony did on opening night of its 2013-14 Masterworks season. To the brand-name attraction, this program added the artistic allure of two of Beethoven’s greatest works, the “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3 in E flat major) and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major.

Pianist William Wolfram, who has played repertory ranging from Gershwin to Brahms over 20-plus years of engagements with this orchestra, made an exceptionally strong impression in this concerto, balancing Beethovenian weightiness with the chaste lyricism of Mozart. (It often sounds as if the pianist is expected to play Mozart with the right hand, Beethoven with the left.)

Wolfram brought real poetic sensibility to the big first movement, drama to the second (more an entr’acte than a slow movement per se) and a nice balance of elegance and frolic to the finale. Conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra seconded Wolfram’s lyricism, the strings playing with gratifying warmth.

As seems to be his wont in Beethoven, Smith opted for a middle-of-the-road interpretation of the “Eroica.” The first two movements recalled the “big-band” Beethoven that was the norm through much of the 19th century and most of the 20th; the scherzo and finale were more sharply accented and dynamically terraced, in the “classical” or “historically informed” Beethoven style heard with increasing frequency in recent years.

Both approaches are legitimate in this monumental symphony. In live performance, though, the forward momentum and urgency of the classical style pack more punch. More of those qualities would have enhanced the first movement, to my ears.

The orchestra’s strings were in consistently fine form throughout the concerto and symphony. Three French horns, paced by principal James Ferree, and principal oboist Gustav Highstein’s solos in the funeral-march second movement, greatly enhanced this performance of the “Eroica.”

Altogether, I would rate these the best Beethoven performances of Smith’s tenure with the symphony to date.

The program opened with the last and shortest of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his much-revised sole opera, “Fidelio.” Smith and the orchestra dispatched it with more efficiency than passion or portent.

Again, squeaking door hinges and other random thumps and bumps intruded on the musical experience. Patrons in the upper balconies complained of poor sound, especially from the piano, apparently due to electronic “enhancement” of the theater’s acoustics.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$76. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);