Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Adam Golka, piano
Jan. 17, Richmond CenterStage

The acoustical quirks and deficiencies of the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage, where the Richmond Symphony presents most of its concerts, have been known since the renovated hall reopened in 2009.

Bass string sound projects weakly, more so when strings are moved out from under the stage’s orchestra shell and beyond the proscenium arch. A piano placed front and center on the stage extended into the hall loses volume relative to the orchestra, and its tone tends to sound brittle or hollow.

These shortcomings were on glaring display in the weekend’s symphony program, at least from my listening vantage – front row center, first dress circle, which ought to be a prime location acoustically.

Pianist Adam Golka, the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, was frequently barely audible when the orchestra was playing full tilt, which is to say through much of the first and last movements, most unfortunately during stretches when the solo piano plays important accompanying and contrapuntal roles.

His virtuosity and musical fluency came through in more exposed, less heavily orchestrated passages, and his lyrical gifts were gratifyingly displayed in the memorable tune at the heart of the concerto’s adagio, as well as in his encore, Schumann’s “Des Abends,” Op. 12, No. 1, which Golka played in memory of his teacher, José Feghali, who died last month at 53.

The other major work on the program, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major, was sapped of warmth by the weak bass string sound. That would have been bad enough – what is Brahms without sufficient warmth? – but the performance also was sapped of momentum by conductor Steven Smith’s variable, often sluggish tempos and emphasis on lyricism at the expense of the “pulse” that is essential in this composer’s music.

In the third movement, an allegretto that here was paced more like a fatigued andante, the pulse was so weak that it all but flat-lined. Some resuscitation was effected in an energetic finale.

The imbalance of high and low string sound was less pronounced in the program’s opening work, Jennifer Higdon’s tone poem “blue cathedral,” in which string sound is generally thin and rarified; its bass lines are rooted in the brass section. But this performance’s rather primary-colored string tone – seemingly at odds with the impressionistic intentions stated by the composer in her program note – sounded to be at least partly a consequence of the strings’ placement and imbalance.

And the large percussion-and-keyboard array called for in Higdon’s score, taking up nearly a quarter of the space onstage and remaining in place although mostly not in use for the rest of the concert, effectively shoved the orchestra forward into sonically unfriendly territory for the Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$78. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);