Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Richard King, French horn
Nov. 8, Richmond CenterStage

Interpreting romantic music is very subjective business, for the performer and listener alike.

How subjective? Well, consider this: Of the 29 movements in Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (Nos. 1-6 plus “Manfred”), only two carry an unmodified tempo indication. In all the others, the composer engages in the Italianate music-speak equivalent of “yes, but:” from the relatively straightforward allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast) to the likes of andantino marziale, quasi moderato (a bit slower than a walking pace and martial, sort of moderate).

In Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, highlight of the Richmond Symphony’s latest Masterworks program, conductor Steven Smith, faced with a succession of composer entreaties to modify tempos in the first two movements, settled on the old-time romantic formula of “speed up when loud, slow down when soft.”

This resulted in some felicities – resolutely brassy fanfares, lusciously upholstered waltzes, highly lyrical solos – but at high cost. The music meandered, with bursts of energy followed by interludes of quiet that threatened to dip into lassitude. The fabric of the orchestration frayed; melodies dulled; accompanying figures in the woodwinds leaped into undue prominence; tension dissipated.

These shortcomings extended into the scherzo, one of those aforementioned two movements with a straight tempo indication: allegro. Here, moderately paced string pizzicato lacked brightness (dare I say “pluck?”) while wind interjections sounded terse rather than playful.

The finale salvaged this performance. Tchaikovsky marked it allegro con fuoco – fast and fiery – and Smith and the orchestra delivered accordingly and brilliantly. So much so that at least one listener let loose an exclamation during the performance. A roaring ovation erupted after it was over.

Richard King, principal French horn player of the Cleveland Orchestra, was the evening’s guest soloist, playing Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major. This is very early Strauss – he was 18 when he wrote it – and it sounds more like Schumann or “Flying Dutchman”-vintage Wagner than like the tone poems that Strauss produced later.

King seemed to have that more mature (and to an orchestral musician, more familiar) Strauss in mind as he played with a bright sonority and a rather declamatory tone. It was a gratifying display of solo horn playing (a few flubs and smeared phrases notwithstanding), but King’s performance lacked the warmth and shaded color needed in music of German high-romantic style.

The program opened with “Lumen” (2007) by the Polish-born, Chicago-based composer and percussionist Marta Ptaszynska. The piece, audibly influenced by Ptaszynska’s mentor, Witold Lutoslawski, as well as by Bartók, is described by the composer as a musical realization of the properties of “gradually unfolding light, such as a beam of light traveling through a crystal prism.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, much of the orchestration is darkly colored and ominously heavy – perhaps a sonic backdrop for the “luminous and radiant sounds . . . full of luminous colors” that Ptaszynska seeks to represent. The motto that she gave the work, via Dylan Thomas – “Light breaks where no sun shines” – accurately describes what the listener senses in this piece.

Smith, who conducted the premiere of “Lumen” with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony in 2008, showed complete command of its busy orchestration and kaleidoscopic welter of tone colors.

The Richmond Symphony, notably its string players, percussionists, pianist Russell Wilson and harpist Lynnette Wardle, treated Ptaszynska’s score to a performance of edge-of-the-seat concentration.

If only some of the warm, hefty lower-string tone lavished on “Lumen” had returned in the Tchaikovsky.

* * * 

UPDATE (Nov. 18) – During his appearance with the Richmond Symphony, Richard King told Zachary Lewis of The Plain Dealer that he is relinquishing his position as principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra after 17 years. “I’m getting pretty tired,” King said:

King will continue playing with the orchestra.