Sunday, March 2, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
March 1, Richmond CenterStage

Who knew dinosaurs could tango?

Mason Bates . . . well, sort of. The Richmond-bred composer’s Violin Concerto, which evokes the evolution of the bird-like dinosaur Archeopteryx into birds as we know them, is built on a musical cell of three notes – long-short-long – that, with a bit of swing, sounds quite like a tango rhythm, even more so as it is fleshed out into a five-note motif.

If that seems like a pretty thin basis for a concerto lasting nearly half an hour, recall what Beethoven made of da-da-da-dumm.

This piece, however, is not about epic classicism, nor really about paleontology. Bates wrote it to showcase the musicianship and temperament of Anne Akiko Meyers, a violinist who balances sizzling technique with a lyrical voice that reminds the composer of bird song. Meyers introduced the concerto in 2012 with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and played what Bates calls a “tweaked” revision late last year with the Detroit Symphony. (The latter performance can be seen and heard on the composer’s website:

Unlike many of Bates’ orchestral works, the concerto does not employ electronic sounds; but many of the rhythmic and/or nature-inspired effects he uses electronica to produce are present here, coming from a busy percussion section, augmented at times by string players percussively patting the bodies of their fiddles, as well as generous coloristic effects apportioned throughout the orchestra.

Meyers’ playing in the first of two weekend concerts was technically assured – she all but romped through the challenges that Bates poses, especially in the final section, “The rise of birds” – and generally silvery in tone and playful in spirit. Her exchanges with orchestral sections and soloists were sensitively voiced, at times conversational.

Her stamina was almost as impressive as her technique. The concerto’s three sections segue into one another, and the soloist gets only a couple of real rests.

Bates’ Violin Concerto proved to be as tunefully, rhythmically listener-friendly as any piece of his that I’ve heard.

It shares the program with music of ominous portent and explosive expression: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, completed in 1953, the year of the death of Josef Stalin, the most sinister and bloody of the Soviet dictators. Its brutally energetic second-movement scherzo is said to be a sound-portrait of Stalin. The composer’s own four-note tonal autograph also figures prominently, as the hopeful motif that ultimately overcomes the earlier brutality.

Steven Smith, the Richmond Symphony’s music director, burnished his already well-established credentials as a Shostakovich interpreter. (His performance of the Fifth Symphony four years ago musically sealed the deal on his Richmond appointment.) From the dark opening measures, played by the low strings, to the work’s triumphant finale, the conductor showed unerring judgment in tempos, dynamics and tone coloration, as well as sensitivity to the deep moodiness pervading this symphony.

The orchestra delivered an assured and assertive account, even in the symphony’s most fevered or rarified passages. Violas, cellos and double-basses produced a sound of authentically Slavic darkness; violins sounded with extraordinary intensity. Among many solo cameos, the most striking came from bassoonist Tom Schneider and flutist Mary Boodell. And, as in the Bates concerto, the percussionists made a powerful impression.

It’s purely coincidental, but chillingly timely, that this echo from the depths of the old Soviet Union is being performed as the military of the neo-Soviet Russian regime of Vladimir Putin is seizing territory from neighboring Ukraine.

The program opens with “The Enchanted Lake” by Anatoli Liadov, a Russian composer of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. This moody little miniature, which garnishes a rather understated Russian romantic style with impressionistic effects (imagine a reticent Scriabin), received a deft performance from Smith and the orchestra.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 2 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$76. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);