Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
May 6, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

With its associate conductor, Chia-Hsuan Lin, at the helm, the Richmond Symphony closed out this season’s Metro Collection series with a program ranging from the baroque to the neo-classical.

The anchors were Johann Sebastian Bach and his youngest son, Johann Christian Bach – kinship notwithstanding, two quite different musical figures.

J.S. Bach was represented by his Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066, one of the best-known of many baroque suites in the French overture format, a decorous overture followed by sets of dances – in this piece, a courante, forlane and paired gavottes, menuets, bourées and passepieds. J.C. Bach’s Sinfonia in E flat major, Op. 18, No. 2, which served as the overture to his opera “Lucio Silla,” filters dances and airs through sonata form in an early(ish) example of the classical symphony.

Another selection on this program, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony (No. 1 in D major), harkens back to the format and style of J.C. Bach and his best-known student, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, spicing the old style with modestly modernist harmonic twists.

Lin and the symphony players made this leap across two centuries smoothly, treating the Bach suite to a stylishly ornamented reading but without injecting much in the way of historically informed performance practice. String vibrato was not significantly reduced, and rhythms rarely dotted. The most overtly baroque playing came in trio sections from oboists Shawn Welk and Alexandra von der Embse and bassoonist Thomas Schneider, and in quietly eleborate figures from continuo harpsichordist Daniel Stipe.

J.C. Bach’s three-movement symphony sounded, as it should, like a precursor to the symphonies of Mozart, Joseph Haydn and their late-18th-century contemporaries. The central andante, unusual for its time in being free-standing (rather than segued into the finale) as well as being fairly lengthy, was rendered appropriately as an instrumental aria with oboist Welk as a soulfully lyrical protagonist.

The orchestra, with fuller wind and brass compliments, gave the Prokofiev an animated, at times borderline brash reading, with fine detail from the first violins and exuberant flourishes from wind instruments.

The (relatively) odd piece out in the program was Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” a gift for his wife, Cosmia, and their new-born son, and one of the few non-theatrical works produced by the composer in maturity. Lin paced this gentle music ably, with special care given to dynamics and subtle fluctuations in tempo. String tone was not as lush as one usually hears in this piece, partly due to small sections of fiddles, partly because of the rather hard-edged acoustic of Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Auditorium.

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