Review: Richmond Symphony

George Manahan conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
Feb. 9, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Early in his career, New York musicians nicknamed conductor George Manahan “Mr. Rhythm” for his ability to beat markedly different time signatures with each arm – a very useful skill in certain classic repertory, such as Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” as well as a lot of contemporary and avant-garde music, a specialty of Manahan’s then and since.

In his return to conduct the Richmond Symphony, which he led as music director from 1987 to 1999, Manahan did not have to negotiate too many cross-rhythmic extremities; but his keen rhythmic sense proved quite handy in music ranging from the syncopated rondo of Antonin Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor to the fight scenes in Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” Suite and Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite.

Just as helpful was Manahan’s gift for balancing solo voices and instrumental choirs in complex orchestrations – no doubt honed in his other conducting specialty, opera. The Copland and Bernstein scores are peppered with such balancing acts among strings, winds, brass and percussion.

Another of this program’s selections, Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” – originally the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1, heard here in his subsequent string orchestration – poses a different challenge in balancing fine threads and subtle colors of string tone.

To the surprise of no one who remembers his Richmond years, Manahan met most of those challenges with a seeming minimum of fuss, and his mastery spilled over to the musicians under his direction. Some of the most fervent applause at the end of the concert came from within the orchestra.

He deserved an ovation even before the concert began, for a singularly lucid and engaging pre-concert lecture and demonstration of the music to come. Back in the day, Manahan was celebrated for his deceptively easygoing explications, flipping through the conductor’s score as he spun piano reductions out of full orchestrations. He proved even better at this than I remember him being; I doubt that anyone since Bernstein could match him.

This Masterworks series program, devised last year for a guest-conducting date by Ankush Kumar Bahl, who withdrew when he was named one of the six finalists to become the symphony’s next music director, might have been crafted to play to Manahan’s strengths: All American scores except for the Dvořák (one of this conductor’s favorite concertos), and two of them written for dramatic scenarios.

The conductor and orchestra played up the atmospherics and drama of “Billy the Kid” and “On the Waterfront,” which, as Manahan noted in his pre-concert talk, share compositional traits that Bernstein’s music for Elia Kazan’s 1954 film absorbed from Copland’s 1938 ballet score. Their similarities in harmonic and rhythmic language came through in these performances, as did their differences in scenic settings (the Western prairie and New York waterfront) and contrasting applications of tone color (more pastels from Copland, more primary colors from Bernstein).

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster, sounded rather belabored in the big opening movement of the Dvořák, whose violin solo awkwardly see-saws between the declarative and the lyrical, but hit his stride in the folkish melody of the concerto’s adagio and the cheerful Slavic dance of the finale. Manahan and the orchestra gave him warm, robust support throughout the concerto.

Warmth of a similar temperature was not as welcome in Kernis’ “Musica Celestis.” String tone was borderline lush in music that wants rarified impressionism. The celestial sounded earthbound.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);
http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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