Reviews: The season begins

The opening concerts of Richmond’s 2017-18 classical season set some high standards, and suggested some artistic parameters for what we’ll be hearing in concerts to come.

The headline kickoff event, of course, was Joshua Bell’s appearance in the Richmond Symphony’s opening-night concert on Sept. 14 at Dominion Arts Center’s Carpenter Theatre.

The star violinist played to his strengths in Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole,” a hybrid symphony-concerto in which the violin puts a brilliant gloss on five tuneful and rhythmically infectious movements. Bell, unsurprisingly, more than met the piece’s virtuosic demands, and looked to be as physically immersed as he was musically. As gratifying as his playing was in the splashy outer movements, I was at least as taken with his sensuous treatment of the central beguine.

Bell was joined by Yesong Sophie Lee, a teenage violinist from Seattle who won high honors in last year’s Menuhin Competition, in J.S. Bach’s Double Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043. Lee dug into the lower-riding, more technically intricate part, with Bell answering in semi-sweet high lines.

The orchestra seconded Bell colorfully in the Lalo, and a chamber-scale ensemble of strings and harpsichord gave warm backing to the violin duo in the Bach.

The orchestral showcase of the concert was Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), a grand-scale tone poem and musical roman à clef casting the composer himself as the heroic protagonist.

Running the better part of an hour and scored for an enormous orchestra – nine French horns, five trumpets, extra stands of woodwinds, full percussion battery, two harps – the work is a major challenge to the conductor as air traffic controller, maintaining sectional balances in massive tutti passages and allowing frequent solos and duos to be voiced with suitable prominence and character.

Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, kept his forces in their assigned lanes, projected this music’s wide contours of volume and expression – intimate exchanges and violent outbursts, lushly romantic tunes and quirky asides – and sustained the piece’s narrative flow. Smith gave plenty of space to the solo voices, notably violinist Daisuke Yamamoto, and generally kept orchestra sections in balance.

Orchestral sound was remarkably consistent and refined, considering the number of substitute musicians an orchestra Richmond’s size must bring in for a work on the scale of “Heldenleben.”

Smith and the symphony opened the program with an assertively jaunty reading of Ulysses Kay’s “Theater Set (Overture) for Orchestra.”

* * *

The chamber-music season was launched with performances at the University of Richmond by the Escher Quartet with guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia.

Opening the classical series of UR’s Modlin Arts Center on Sept. 10, the Escher – violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Brook Speltz – delivered an account of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet in B flat major, K. 458, that landed solidly in the modern-instruments mainstream, and a vividly detailed and expressive treatment of “Arcadiana,” a 1994 work by Thomas Adès, a British composer whose modernist style is punctuated with evocations of earlier music (here, Mozart, Schubert and Elgar) as well as literary and visual-art references.

Vieaux, playing Richmond for the second time this year (he performed with the symphony last February), joined the Escher in an elegant-turned-rollicking reading of Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in D major, known as the “Fandango” for its high-stepping dance finale, in which cellist Speltz traded his bow for castanets. The five players turned the corner nicely as the piece swerves from high-classicism to exuberantly gritty folksiness.

Vieaux preceded the Boccherini with a solo mini-recital of excerpts of J.S. Bach’s Lute Suite No. 1 in E minor, BWV 996, and arrangements of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mode” and “A Felicidade” from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Black Orpheus” film score. The guitarist’s technique was finely polished in the Bach; just as impressive was his range of mood-sculpting in his arrangement of the Ellington and Roland Dyens’ arrangement of the Jobim.

The cast recruited by cellist James Wilson, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, for its season-opener, Sept. 17 at UR’s Perkinson Recital Hall, offered its audience a rare opportunity to hear mid-19th century romantic works by Mendelssohn and Schumann played on gut-string fiddles and a reproduction of an 1830 Graf piano.

The sonic and textural differences were striking in Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, and Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44.

The quartet, arguably Mendelssohn’s most emotionally fraught composition (written in the aftermath of the death of his sister, Fanny), was played with high energy, vivid moodiness, strong accenting and a notable absence of standard-issue Mendelssohnian sweetness by violinists Aisslin Nosky and Guillaume Pirard, violist Max Mandel and cellist Wilson.

The string players, with Carsten Schmidt at the keyboard, gave an unusual perspective, almost inside-out, to the Schumann. The early piano, which has a more woodsy, less brilliant tone than a modern instrument, did not stand out in the ensemble. So, instead of piano with strings, we heard piano among strings.

Baritone Jonathan Woody joined Schmidt in a compelling traversal of “Dichterliebe” (“Poet’s Love”), Schumann’s cycle of 15 songs to texts of Heinrich Heine. These sometimes interconnected songs, some with extensive piano postludes, run the gamut of romantic mood and expression, emotional depth and surface bravado, and Woody realized their varied voices idiomatically and with spot-on diction.

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