Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
Neal Cary, cello
April 21, Dominion Energy Center

Location – location – location matters, and not just in real estate. How the instruments of a symphony orchestra are positioned on the stage profoundly affects the orchestra’s sound. The more delicate or precarious the internal balances of an orchestration, the more active the interaction of single instruments and cross-play of sections, the more important the positioning of instruments becomes.

The audience at this weekend’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks program is getting an object lesson in instrumental placement and its consequences in music where imbalances exact a high cost.

It has become standard practice for the symphony to seat its woodwinds in a low-to-medium-height stairstep arrangement of risers, and to place brass and percussion instruments on fairly high risers, while strings remain on the stage floor. This placement can make internal details and subtleties of a complex orchestration more audible; but it can also spotlight instruments, especially high-pitched ones such as trumpets, when they are supposed to be subsidiary.

That’s what happened, chronically, in performances of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) and the “Suita Rustica” (1938) by the early modern Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. Brass and percussion overpowered string sound, both in loud climaxes and in passages where they were supposed to be supportive or collaborative.

At least that’s how it sounded from the aural perspective of the first row of the Carpenter Theatre’s first dress circle (i.e., the second balcony section).

Were the risers to blame? That’s my suspicion. I’ve noticed this imbalance in previous concerts, but it was far more pronounced this time. It appeared that the symphony’s music director, Steven Smith, heard it, too, as he repeatedly signaled the brass to produce less volume.

It was a glaring drawback in what otherwise was an excellent performance of the Dvořák. Smith and the orchestra exposed many tonal and expressive details that often get lost in this familiar work, especially in its largo movement, home of the great “Goin’ Home” theme introduced by the English horn (here, played with austere beauty by Alexandra von der Embse). Tonal shading and stronger-than-usual accenting by the strings also were noteworthy, at least when they could be heard.

Imbalance of a different sort arose in Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor, with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, and principal cellist Neal Cary as the featured duo.

Yamamoto played with his customary fine-textured brilliance and great sensitivity in phrasing and collaborative playing with the cellist. This proved to be a challenge, as Cary produced unusually dark, bass-centered tone that didn’t project well outside the most assertive rhythmic chords. Even low-volume orchestral accompaniment tended to cover the cello.

The imbalances were most evident in the concerto’s first movement, especially in exchanges between the two featured instruments and fiery orchestral rebuttals. (Here, Brahms made musical argument argumentative as few other composers have.) The lyrical andante, in which the cello sets the singing tone, and the Hungarian-dance finale were more cohesive collaborative efforts.

The program’s opening work, Kaprálová’s suite on Czech folk themes (one of them a dance also used by Bedrich Smetana in his opera “The Bartered Bride”), is audibly indebted to the composer’s two biggest influences, Igor Stravinsky, whose “Petrouchka” was a particular fascination of hers, and Leoš Janáček, who was Kaprálová’s principal teacher.

Swinging between bumptiously brassy and percussive sections à la “Petrouchka” and more lyrical sections, spiced with tastes of Janáček’s tart string tone, “Suita Rustica” is a promising early bid at orchestral mastery by a composer who didn’t live to realize that promise. Just as she was winning recognition, Kaprálová died at 25 of tuberculosis.

Putting this piece on the same program as the Dvořák “New World” was a canny move, as both works filter folk themes through the prevailing compositional styles of their times – classical-romantic for Dvořák, modernist-neoclassical for Kaprálová.

Smith and the symphony treated “Suita Rustica” – being given one of its first performances in this country – as a discovery well worth making, and the audience gave it a warmer reception than unfamiliar music usually receives.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 22 in the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$80. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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