Monday, May 4, 2015

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Lynette Wardle, harp
May 3, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Lynette Wardle, principal harpist of the Richmond Symphony and Albany (NY) Symphony (some commute!), sprang one of those rare but always welcome “where have you have been all my life?” compositions on a near-capacity audience in the season finale of the Metro Collection series.

Alberto Ginastera, Argentina’s preeminent composer (of music other than tango, anyway), drew on his country’s indigenous music but generally filtered those strains through a rather hard-edged neoclassical style. That tone of voice informs his Harp Concerto, but so does an infectious urban energy, a full and richly varied palette of impressionistic color, and, in the concerto’s central movement, an almost romantic lyricism.

Ginastera lets the harp do what harps do best – plenty of glissandos and rarified crystalline tones – but he also makes the instrument highly percussive and has it impersonate a guitar. The solo harp at times floats above a colorful and busily rhythmic orchestration; at other times, the instrument weaves through the orchestra.

Wardle masterfully negotiated the score’s many technical challenges and the harp’s shifts of tone and mood. Conductor Steven Smith led alert and animated orchestral accompaniment.

With the exception of the opening selection, the Overture to Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers,” the program was devoted to Spanish-accented music. The Ginastera concerto was followed by the Suite No. 1 from Manuel de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat” and the Symphony in D major of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, a short-lived Basque composer of the early 19th century.

The Falla suite, from a ballet score introduced in 1919 for a Serge Diaghilev production with scenic design by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine, is a brightly colored, cheerful romp, centered on a fandango. Smith and the orchestra played up its extroversion and comic touches. Bassoonist Tom Schneider played his role as lead comic voice broadly.

Arriaga’s symphony, written in Paris shortly before the composer’s death (probably of tuberculosis) a few days shy of his 20th birthday, is a mature and polished composition – not up to the standards of Beethoven or Schubert, to be sure, but better than most symphonies being produced at the time outside of Vienna. Arriaga’s craftsmanship is evident throughout, notably in the way he exploits tension between major and minor passages to give his music a dramatic edge and to keep things moving.

Smith and the orchestra delivered a warmly voiced and, where appropriate, urgently expressive account of this obscure but rewarding work.