Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: Richmond Symphony

with James Jacobson, timpani
Feb. 19, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Many authoritative figures have made ill-considered remarks about Beethoven’s music. The prize-winner may be Robert Schumann’s characterization of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.”

While slender in length aside Beethoven’s nearly hour-long Third (“Eroica”) Symphony, slender in portent compared with the Fifth Symphony, even conceivably Greek in terms of its classical symmetry (à la Mozart and Haydn), the Fourth is no maiden. Short, sturdy, hard-hitting and fast on its feet, it’s more like a ninja.

The Richmond Symphony’s performance of the Fourth in its latest Metro Collection concert certainly punched above its weight. Conductor Steven Smith drew from the chamber-scaled orchestra a forceful, flexible and propulsive reading that made the piece sound as big in sound and spirit as the better-known, odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies.

The Beethoven Fourth followed two novelties, Bruce Adolphe’s “Tryannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto,” a musical fable with narration on the life and times of a dinosaur, and Johann Carl Christian Fischer’s Symphony in C major.

Fischer’s opus would be a garden-variety mid-18th century rococo sinfonia were it not scored with eight obbligato kettle drums, played in this performance by the orchestra’s timpanist, James Jacobson.

Wielding period-appropriate hard-headed sticks, which produce real drumbeats rather than the percussive rumbles that timps so often contribute to 19th-century orchestrations, Jacobson stylishly and exuberantly amplified the martiality of Fischer’s score, a rather well-mannered member of the family of “battle” music that stretches from the late Renaissance to modern times. Jacobson added some extra rambunctious merriment in a couple of cadenzas.

“Tyrannosaurus Sue,” the imagined biography of a critter whose skeleton greets visitors to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, set to music by the composer best-known for his “Piano Puzzler” features on public radio’s “Performance Today,” is fancifully noisy as its protagonist, played by a trombonist (here, the symphony’s Zachary Guiles) squabbles at mealtimes and fights to the death with other prehistoric carnivores, portrayed in turn by clarinet (David Lemelin), bassoon (Thomas Schneider) and French horn (James Ferree).

Fight scenes aside, the piece is a sophisticated homage to musical modernism, indebted especially to Stravinsky but also nodding toward other 20th-century masters and the melange of atonalism, neoclassicism, impressionism, primitivism, dada, cabaret and jazz, plus a few other exotic spices, in the musical stew cooked by composers over the past century.

The symphony’s performance was suitably savory.