Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Joshua Bell, violin
Sept. 20, Richmond CenterStage

If Joshua Bell has kept count of the number of times he has played Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, he hasn’t shared the tally. A lot, for sure – enough for the Bruch to be widely known as his signature concert piece.

Bell played it again with Steven Smith and the Richmond Symphony to open the orchestra’s 2014-15 season. The violinist played with evident affection for this music, and with a seeming inclination toward what musicians of the 18th century called affectus – a calculated projection of mood and emotion.

From the first long, low note on the fiddle to the brilliant conclusion, Bell’s performance was highly expressive. Hardly a phrase went by without some touch-up, usually but not always rendered subtly. His signature tone, combining richness and brilliance, was present in abundance, especially in the central adagio of the concerto. His instrument, a 1713 Stradivarius formerly owned by Bronislaw Huberman, is one of the finest violins in existence, and its owner knows how to get the most out of it.

Bell nowadays is both a solo violinist and conductor, in his third year as music director of Britain’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; so it was interesting to see how he interacted with the orchestra in this performance. Attentively – he often faced the accompanying musicians when he wasn’t playing – but without any overt moves toward directing them. Their conductor, Steven Smith, had the performance well in hand, and shared Bell’s emphasis on expressivity.

Smith anticipated it, in fact, in the music that preceded Bell’s appearance, “Vltava” (“The Moldau”), the best-known piece from Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic cycle “Ma Vlast” (“My Fatherland”) and perhaps the most evocative “water music” of the romantic era. Smith and the symphony’s strings and winds expertly navigated Smetana’s swells and eddies, with the orchestra’s French horns adding richly atmospheric touches.

The concert, which drew a capacity crowd, concluded with two popular orchestral showpieces by Ottorino Respighi, “The Fountains of Rome” and “The Pines of Rome.” Respighi is one of the figures without whom the Hollywood film score as we know it simply wouldn’t exist; many of the splashier coloristic effects of film music are inherited directly from these two pieces.

Smith and the symphony splashed spectacularly – the raucous “Triton Fountain at Morn” and the militant conclusion of “The Pines of the Appian Way” were some of the loudest performances the orchestra has delivered in years; but they also handled atmospherics and representational touches with sensitivity as well as vividness.

The brass players and percussionists audibly relished their showcases, playing with great sonority as well as impact. Wind players, including flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Jared Davis and oboist Shawn Welk, contributed excellent solos, as did trumpeter Rolla Durham in an offstage passage.

Stationing trumpeters and trombonists at three points in the balcony enhanced the room-filling sound of the "Appian Way" finale.