Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Tom Schneider, bassoon
Nov. 13, Richmond CenterStage

Tom Schneider, who joined the Richmond Symphony as its principal bassoonist in 2012, is making his debut as a concerto soloist this weekend, and he’s starting on a high note – a bunch of high notes, in fact.

Schneider is playing the Bassoon Concerto (1999) by Peter Schickele, whose comic persona, P.D.Q. Bach, overshadows his compositional career. Schickele the comedian pokes fun at classical music, its conventions and pretensions. Schickele the composer has fun with classical music, using its forms to frame a style that draws liberally from folk and popular idioms, and often to spring surprises and to concoct sophisticated musical jokes. He’s America’s Haydn.

The Bassoon Concerto is prime Schickele, written for the instrument he played as a young performer (in the pit band for “Oh! Calcutta!” among other settings), filtering Americana from blues to balladry to be-bop through a form closely related to the suites and early concertos of the 18th century.

The bassoon, whose role in orchestrations is generally supportive and coloristic, here becomes a lead singer, with a surprisingly smooth and melodic, and perhaps even more surprisingly high-register, voice. Through much of the piece, it could be mistaken for an alto saxophone.

In the first of two performances, in the symphony’s Rush Hour series of mini-concerts in Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse, Schneider audibly relished the lyrical opportunities that the composer gives the bassoon – notably in the opening “Blues” and fourth-movement “Song” – as well as the concerto’s technical twists and turns.

Conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra, paced by percussionist Clifton Hardison and pianist Russell Wilson, supported Schneider admirably and rendered Schickele’s animated, cheerful orchestration in high relief.

Schneider is only the second bassoonist to play the Schickele concerto in concert. (Schneider’s teacher, George Sakakeeny, premiered the piece and performed it on six other occasions.) Considering the sparsity of bassoon-and-orchestra repertory, and the abundant delights of this music, its neglect is baffling.

Good cheer resonated through the rest of this program, in excerpts from David Diamond’s “Rounds” (1944) for string orchestra and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major.

Smith led the symphony strings, the violinists and violists performing while standing, in a merrily percolating reading of the richly layered yet sonically transparent first movement of “Rounds.” The strings were sonorous lead voices in the larghetto of the Beethoven, one of this composer’s most lyrical symphony movements, while the full orchestra played up the high spirits of the symphony’s finale.

The program will be presented in full at 3 p.m. Nov. 16 in Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);