Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Jan. 27, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Debussy to the rescue.

The Richmond Symphony’s latest Metro Collection program concluded with “La boîte à joujoux” (“The Toybox”), a ballet score composed in 1913 by Claude Debussy, orchestrated by André Caplet in 1919, a year after the composer’s death. Full of Debussy’s trademark harmonic and expressive traits, the piece is unusual for this composer in its light-hearted whimsy.

That quality came through consistently in the performance by the symphony, led by Steven Smith. Pianist Russell Wilson and several wind players, notably Shawn Welk in an extended English horn solo, paced a stylish and subtly colorful reading of the score, bring to life a scenario of a three-way romantic entanglement among figures from the commedia dell’arte tradition.

The Debussy salvaged a program otherwise plagued by qualitative woes.

The opener, the Overture in C major by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (Felix Mendelssohn’s sister), was a forgettable exercise in early romantic orchestration and musical structure, blandly rendered by the orchestra.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, the composer’s most substantial venture into the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) genre of 18th-century composition, received a choppily metrical reading, with rather slow tempos (especially in the finale), blunt accenting and minimal dynamism. Oboe solos by Mark Debski served to underscore the expressive quality otherwise lacking in this performance.

The Randolph-Macon concert, a condensed version of the “South Asian Connections” program staged on Jan. 23 in the University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival, featured “Open My Door” (2015) by Dewa Alit, an Indonesian composer who leads a Balinese gamelan, a traditional ensemble of resonant percussion instruments, and also works in jazz and Western classical forms.

This piece seeks to translate the form and sonorities of the gamelan to Western instruments – a string quintet, piano, woodwinds and brass – in a style also drawing upon the jazz/blues shuffle. An interesting concept, to be sure, but one that sounds to be a very gradual, almost glacial, evolution from stray tonal fragments into a coherent composition.

Smith and the symphony ensemble ably negotiated Alit’s complex rhythmic constructs of sound and silence and intricate interplay of instrumental voices. Pianist Wilson reliably provided the rhythmic and tonal connective tissue that, to Western ears, gave “Open My Door” some sense of continuity.

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