Review: Richmond Symphony Summer Series

Jason McComb, cello
Joanne Kong, piano
July 12, Dominion Energy Center

This year’s Richmond Symphony Summer Series, staged by the orchestra in league with the music departments of the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, is titled “Stories in Music” and focuses on works by Robert Schumann and his extended circle of family, friends and those influenced by them.

That influence was peripheral in the case of the most explicit musical storyteller of the series’ opening concert, given by Jason McComb, assistant principal cellist of the symphony, and UR-based pianist Joanne Kong.

The work at the center of their program was “A Life” by Ernst Bacon, a 20th-century American composer best-known for his art-songs. Bacon borrowed from those songs in “A Life,” a two-installment musical biography of his son, Paul. The first three sections were written shortly after Paul’s birth in 1941, the last two after his sudden death in 1968. The work was introduced in 1986 by Joel Krosnick, the longtime cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet and McComb’s teacher.

“A Life” is lyrical in a mid-20th century American neo-romantic dialect (think Samuel Barber or the later Amy Beach), unsurprisingly somber in its final two movements but not much more upbeat in the first three, in which celebration of a new life seems to be outweighed by a gently, wistfully expressed love of the parents for their child and for each other.

This tone plays to the dusky hued, long-lined expressive strengths of the cello, which McComb emphasized, and to subtly atmospheric piano accompaniment, which Kong handled masterfully. Their more emphatic treatment of the turbulent fourth movement, “Young Manhood,” was a welcome contrast.

The cellist also exploited long musical lines and soulful expressiveness in “Prayer,” the first section of Ernst Bloch’s suite “From Jewish Life.”

Schumann, the central figure in this series of early evening chamber programs, provided musical bookends in this concert, which opened and closed with sections from his “Fünf Stücke im Volkston” (“Five Pieces in the Popular Style”), Op. 102, and the third section from his Fantasie in C major, Op. 17.

Kong’s interpretation of the latter, sweeping in expression yet full of classically inflected detail, resonated with reminders of the Fantasie’s genesis – a work to support the erection of a monument to Beethoven – and of the musician to whom the piece was dedicated, Franz Liszt.

The Richmond Symphony Summer Series, “Stories in Music: the World of Robert Schumann,” continues with chamber mini-concerts at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 16 at Gottwald Playhouse of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $20 (limited availability). Details: (804) 788-1212; http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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