Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Neal Cary, cello
and Molly Sharp, viola
Jan. 11, Richmond CenterStage

The tone poem, the romantic era’s medium of choice for literary, atmospheric and emotional allusion, reached its pinnacle in the works of Richard Strauss. Of Strauss’ various tone poems, none is more literally tied to a literary work than “Don Quixote,” the composer’s vivid evocation of Cervantes’ classic novel.

Steven Smith led the Richmond Symphony in a colorful, richly detailed account of “Don Quixote,” whose putative instrumental stars – Neal Cary, the orchestra’s principal cellist, portraying the Don; and Molly Sharp, the symphony’s principal violist, as Sancho Panza – wound up sharing the spotlight with a number of other soloists and orchestral sections.

Cary’s playing was warm and characterful, at least when I could hear it. From my front-center-balcony vantage, the solo cello was barely audible whenever a significant part of the orchestra accompanied it. Placement of the cellist, just out from under the proscenium arch of the Carpenter Theatre, may account for the instrument’s weak projection – other soloists, even pianists, have had audibility problems when placed too far forward on the stage.

A patron seated further back in the balcony section heard more of the cello, in better balance with other instruments.

Cary’s rather oratorical interpretive stance, often elaborated upon with violin flourishes from concertmaster Daisuke Yamamoto, contrasted nicely with the more conversational approach of violist Sharp and her various instrumental collaborators. Soloists and choirs of the orchestra, notably principal clarinetist Ralph Skiano and the symphony’s horn section (enlarged to six for this score), reveled in their interjections and sound effects.

Conductor Smith took audible care in keeping a large orchestra’s many voices in reasonably good balance. Enhanced brass sections and a generously deployed array of percussion instruments did not overwhelm, even at their loudest, while strings and woodwinds sounded with richness and unanimity. Three bassoons added numerous degrees of shading to Strauss’ largely primary colored tonal palette.

Preceding the Strauss were three orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and “Foils for Orchestra (Hommage à Saint George)” by George Walker.

Smith drew true Wagnerian sonority, in both color and heft, from the orchestra in the “Lohengrin” selections, notably in the Act 1 Prelude.

The conductor ably directed the thrusts and parries of orchestral sections in “Foils,” a 2006 opus in which Walker, a contemporary African-American composer, evokes both the musical and martial artistry of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born to a French father and Afro-Caribbean mother, who became a leading violinist, composer and fencing master in late 18th-century France.