Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists, Richmond Symphony Chorus
Steven Smith conducting
Oct. 18, Richmond CenterStage

Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (No. 2) may be the most challenging work that Steven Smith has undertaken in his four years (and counting) as music director of the Richmond Symphony.

The piece is long, lasting about an hour and 20 minutes. Its big outer movements, veering between tempestuous and softly lyrical, at times otherworldly, passages, can seem episodic or internally disjointed. It is scored for a very large orchestra, with double or triple the standard complements of winds, brass and percussion, including several offstage ensembles, with chorus, organ and two vocal soloists in its conclusion.

So, the Mahler Second is an epic job of traffic control for the conductor. All the more so with an orchestra, like Richmond’s, that must bring in a large number of extra players to muster a band of this size, meaning that the conductor must meld an ensemble from musicians not used to playing together.

Moreover, this is not a piece that speaks fluently if you just play and sing the notes. It is more spiritually charged than many overtly religious works; and it requires deep immersion in Austro-German romantic style, especially the long arcs of phrasing and expression that are uniquely characteristic of this style.

In the first of two performances of the “Resurrection,” Smith showed a firm grasp of most of the demands this music makes. He paced the symphony unerringly, and with great sensitivity to its extraordinary dynamic range, from earth-shatteringly loud to a level of quiet that is almost sensed more than heard. He maintained fine balance between string sections not much larger than the orchestra’s usual complement and oversized wind and percussion sections. He obtained idiomatically Viennese waltz tempos in the second and third movements.

The only shortcoming was a slackening of tension in quiet sections, especially in the first movement, “Totenfeier,” a sprawling funeral march that, along the way, poses a query in tone: “Wherefore hast thou lived? Wherefore hast thou suffered? Is it all some great, fearful joke?” The questions are posed in lyrical music, but need to retain some audible edge.

The orchestra performed splendidly, both en masse and in solos and ensembles. An 11-member French horn section paced the band in expressive sonority. The percussion section, with two sets of timpani and plentifully employed bass drum and cymbals, was suitably emphatic but never coarsely loud. Lower strings sounded with impact and plenty of bite. English horn player Shawn Welk, oboist Gustav Highstein, flutist Mary Boodell, trombonist John Sipher and violinist Daisuke Yamamoto contributed characterful solos.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein proved to be an ideal Mahler singer in “Urlicht,” the solo song preceding the symphony’s “Resurrection” finale, and blended beautifully with a richly sonorous soprano, Michelle Areyzaga, in that finale.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, was in generally fine fettle but sounded distant, as it usually does when pushed to the back of the Carpenter Theatre stage and fronted by a large orchestra. The male choristers’ exclamatory passages, more than faintly echoing Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” projected better than massed choral sections.

A performance of great concentration and gripping tonal drama was rewarded with a lengthy ovation.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$78. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);