Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Richmond Symphony Chorus
May 9, Richmond CenterStage

The final Masterworks program of the Richmond Symphony’s 2014-15 season coincides with the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, the end of World War II in Europe. The concluding work on the program, Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, composed late in the war and first performed in January 1945, can be heard as one of the most extroverted and optimistic, if not explicitly triumphal, products of the war years.

In the first of two weekend performances, Steven Smith obtained an assertive and finely detailed reading from the orchestra, enlarged with extra strings and winds for the piece. The symphony’s big brassy and percussive episodes sounded with impressive heft, and the conductor and musicians consistently brought out the unique sound texture – brilliance in high-register strings and winds coexisting with thicker, steel-wooly tonalities rooted in low-register brass and contrabassoon – that makes this music sound simultaneously ethereal and earthy.

Smith’s close attention to details of internal balance, especially among woodwinds and the percussion section, and to realizing various special effects in string and wind playing, gave this reading greater depth and dimension – and, in the allegro giocoso finale, a clearer than usual soundstage for Prokofiev’s musical wit.

Sharing the program with the Prokofiev symphony, two vivid, if quite dissimilar, showcases for the Richmond Symphony Chorus: the “Polovtsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”

Bernstein’s settings of Psalms 100, 23 and 131, along with selected verses from Psalms 108, 2 and 133, all sung in Hebrew, employ unusual orchestration – strings with full brass and percussion sections, but no woodwinds – supporting a large chorus. A boy alto – 10-year-old Jack Rigdon in this performance – introduces Psalm 23, while a quartet of adult soloists – here, soprano Jennifer Hagen, alto Erin Stuhlman, tenor Wesley Pollard and bass Joseph Ciulla, all drawn from the Symphony Chorus – are featured in the final section.

Subject and language might suggest music in “ancient” style, but Bernstein wrote in a modern and American vernacular, at times echoing blues and Latin-accented jazz. (One of the most prominent tunes in “Chichester Psalms” was originally intended for “West Side Story.”) His setting of Psalm 2, verses 1-4 (“Why do the nations rage”) is as percussively violent as any music he ever produced; but the overall tone of the work is hopeful and pacific.

The Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, gave a characterful, borderline-theatrical performance, quite in keeping with Bernstein’s style, while the instrumental forces emphasized the brightness and animation of the score.

The orchestra and chorus held nothing back in the “Polovtsian Dances,” rendering its romantic lyrical sections voluptuously and its war cries and orgiastic dances with a frenzy that seemed uncontrolled. Actually, effective musical frenzy requires a lot of control, which Smith and his charges exercised very capably.

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