Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Joan Kwuon, violin
Oct. 20, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Masterful work in this month’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks program, as the orchestra delivered an epic and nearly note-perfect performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3 in E flat major) and a lushly textured, idiomatically voiced account of Zoltan Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.”

Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, has hit and miss in Beethoven during his 10-year-tenure, but with this “Eroica” in his final season, he’s leaving on a high note.

As the “Eroica” is both a summation of classical style and a birth cry of musical romanticism, there are many ways to interpret this epic score. (Check out this sampling of the divergent approaches of conductors in its two opening chords: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnhlQUBsd6g The options are compounded from that point onward.)

Smith chose a stylistic middle course, crafting a classically inflected, well-detailed account that fully exploited the sonorous resources of a full-scale modern orchestra, and that sprang Beethoven’s many surprises without undue italicization.

String tone was rich and robust in full-bore passages, nicely shaded in the second-movement funeral march, finely spun in the polyphonic writing of the finale’s variations. The wind choir, paced by oboist Mark Debski, was songful and, when appropriate, playful. Horns, trumpets and timpani packed the needed punch.

The performance was, in a word, heroic.

Kodály’s fantasy on Hungarian-Slovakian dances (Galánta now is part of Slovakia), pulsing to that region’s distinctive dance rhythms and vividly splashed with bright tone colors, is one of the great orchestral showpieces of 20th-century music. Smith and the symphony gave the piece sonically sweeping, rhythmically infectious treatment, with clarinetist David Lemelin adding extra shades of color and licks of ethnic flavor.

The putative centerpiece of the program, Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (“after Plato’s Symposium”), programmed to mark the composer’s centenary (his 100th birthday was Aug. 25), was a disappointment.

The piece is not quite a violin concerto, and guest violinist Joan Kwuon sounded to have chosen to underscore that not-quiteness by playing a partnering, concertante role rather than performing as a conventional soloist. She did not produce enough volume or summon enough panache to match the orchestra, which was fully, at times boisterously, engaged in this most ingenious and explorative of Bernstein’s concert works.

Kwuon’s most effective contribution came in the “Agathon” adagio, when her descant set a striking tone of austere lyricism.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 21 at Mount Vernon Baptist Church, 11220 Nuckols Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20 Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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