Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Jinjoo Cho, violin
March 4, Dominion Arts Center

“Pétrouchka,” second of the three ballet scores that launched Igor Stravinsky’s career in early 20th century Paris – introduced in 1911, it followed “The Firebird” (1910) and preceded “The Rite of Spring” (1913) – is a work that, while still regularly staged by ballet troupes, also has become a staple of the orchestral repertory.

Conductors and orchestras typically perform such pieces more “symphonically” in concert, with more propulsion in fast sections and greater flexibility in slower or more lyrical passages, than they might while accompanying a ballet production.

Steven Smith, the Richmond Symphony’s music director, paced this “Pétrouchka” for invisible dancers. His fairly strict, generally measured tempos enhanced the music in some ways – clarifying the colors and textures of Stravinsky’s elaborately detailed orchestration, giving its many solos and small-ensemble exchanges the space to be fully realized – but lowered the voltage of the score’s more exciting parts.

“The Shrovetide Fair,” the opening section, came across as a colorful procession rather than a display of musical fireworks, and subsequent big moments sounded similarly understated.

The orchestra played splendidly, painting Stravinsky’s wide pallette of tone colors vividly and producing his many novel sound effects effectively. Trumpeter Brian Strawley, English horn player Alexandra von der Embse, flutist Mary Boodell, bassoonist Thomas Schneider, clarinetist David Lemelin and the orchestra’s percussionists were the stars of the show, playing with the expressiveness and attention to timbral detail more often heard in chamber music than in orchestral performances.

The evening’s guest soloist, the Korean-born, Cleveland-based violinist Jinjoo Cho, treated Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major to an ultra-romantic interpretation, phrasing with plentiful rubato, lingering on expressive details, emphasizing dynamic contrasts and playing up big rhetorical gestures. Tchaikovsky invites this kind of italicization, and Cho was not shy about accepting the invitation.

Listening to Cho, I was reminded of singers who have distinctly different head, throat and chest voices. Her high-register playing was light, sweet and focused, her low notes solid and rounded. Her “throat” took awhile to clear: A rather raw, congested tone afflicted her middle register, especially in double-stopping, during much of the concerto’s first movement, but became less throaty as her performance progressed.

Smith and the symphony supported her admirably, producing the rich, robust and grandly lyrical sound that Tchaikovsky demands of an orchestra, while reducing the orchestral bulk when Cho played quietly.

The curtain-raiser of the program was “An American Port of Call,” which the Virginia Beach-based composer Adolphus Hailstork wrote in 1985 for his hometown band, the Virginia Symphony.

Like Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Hailstork’s score is a miniature concerto for orchestra, a succession of colorful scenes with bluesy asides. Hailstork faced a bigger challenge than Gershwin – Paris in the 1920s was a vastly more enticing subject for sound-scaping than Hampton Roads in the 1980s – but he took up the task with enthusiasm and produced a work of enduring appeal.

Performing with the composer in attendance, Smith and the symphony gave “An American Port of Call” an energetic, consistently engaging performance.