Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with William and Mary Middle Eastern Music Ensemble
Oct. 3, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

As an anchor participant in the University of Richmond’s 2018-19 Tucker-Boatwright Festival of Literature and the Arts, the Richmond Symphony returned to Camp Concert Hall of UR’s Modlin Arts Center after a decade’s absence in a program blending Viennese classics with Middle Eastern music.

“Beyond Exoticism” is the theme of the festival. Its aim is to explore “expression across difference and [to recognize] the ethical ambiguity and expressive complexity this entails,” including contrasts between Western representations of the “exotic” and authentic non-Western art forms.

Western “orientalism” – familiar examples in classical repertory range from the “Turkish” music of 18th-century Vienna to late-romantic pieces such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Puccini’s “Turandot” – now can be heard alongside works by composers from the Middle East and South and East Asia evoking their musical vernaculars in Western instrumental ensembles.

This first of four festival programs by the symphony contrasted the Overture from Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and the “Turkish March” from Beethoven’s incidental music for the play “The Ruins of Athens” with the Symphonic Dances (2015) of the Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say and a string orchestration of “Dabke,” a section of “A Voice Exclaiming” (2013) by the Syrian-American Kareem Roustom.

Mozart’s and Beethoven’s Turkish accents were largely decorative, employing the bass drum, cymbals and triangle of the Ottoman Empire’s Janissary military bands. Say and Roustom draw more directly from folk dances of Turkey and Syria both in thematic material and in the sound textures and tone colors they call for.

The orchestra, conducted by its music director, Steven Smith, sounded equally fluent on familiar Viennese-classical turf and in exploring the new ground tilled by Say and Roustom. The symphony strings proved especially adept in producing the Arabic tonal accents of “Dabke,” while the brass and winds gave weighty treatment to the Janissary-revisited tone of the central movements of Say’s Symphonic Dances.

West Asian music without Westernized mediation came from the William and Mary Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, presenting a sampler of Persian music and instrumentation, with the group’s director, Anne Rasmussen, playing santur (dulcimer) and guest artists Nader Majd playing tar (lute) and Ali Reza Analouei playing tombak (hand drum).

The ensemble of plucked and bowed strings, ney (flute) and dafs (frame drums) played two dance pieces; “Bote Chin” (“Chinese beauty,” a Persian literary trope for distant or unattainable love), sung by A.J. Goldstein; and, most strikingly, an improvisatory interlude, played by Majd and Analouei, that effectively linked Persian musical tradition with those of Arabic music to its west and Indian music to its east.

The program concluded where it started, in Vienna, minus Turkish accents, in the menuet and finale from Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major. Smith, who has shown a particular affinity for Haydn in performances throughout his tenure with the symphony, delivered once again, crafting a bright, stylish, rollicking reading.

Acoustically, Camp Concert Hall treats most classical ensembles very well, the symphony definitely so. It’s gratifying to hear the ensemble in this space again. Here’s hoping its performances there will outlast the festival.

Orchestral selections from the program will be sampled in a symphony Rush Hour casual concert, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Overbrook Road at Ownby Lane in Richmond. The Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Say works and two pieces by Charles Ives will be played in full in the season’s opening Metro Collection concert, 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at Blackwell Auditorium of Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $15 (Hardywood – seating limited), $22 (Randolph-Macon). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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