Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello;
Amit Kavtheka, tabla;
Saili Oak & Lucy Fitz Gibbon, vocals
Feb. 22, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

“South Asian Connections,” the third concert by the Richmond Symphony in the University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival, was a bit of a surprise: Music evoking Indian classical forms and styles sounded unexpectedly Western.

The program offered two works by Reena Esmail, “Avartan” and “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz,” and the premiere of a third iteration of “Lalit – 2nd Prism” by Shirish Korde. Both composers are Americans of Indian ancestry: Esmail was born in Chicago; Korde, born in Uganda, came to the US in 1965. Both were schooled in Western composition (Korde in jazz as well), and have written extensively for Western instruments.

So, while Korde’s “Lalit” featured tabla (Indian hand drums) and Esmail’s “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz” (“My Sister’s Voice”) hinged on Indian-style vocalization, listeners rarely heard symphonic instruments trying to impersonate Asian instruments, which had figured prominently in the orchestra’s two previous Tucker-Boatwright programs.

The sound of the sitar, the lute at the heart of Hindustani (North Indian) instrumental music, was echoed almost subliminally in “Avartan” as Russell Wilson plucked the strings inside his piano, and again in some of Esmail’s more rarified high-string timbres. Cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, who with tabla player Amit Kavtheka formed the featured duo in Korde’s “Lalit,” carried on a exchange much like that heard in an Indian raga; but he played his cello very much like a cello.

Listeners versed in Indian music would have recognized the raga scale in “Avartan,” the idiomatic quality of Kavtheka’s extended tabla solo and call-and-response with the cellist in “Lalit,” and the Hindustani vocalizations of Saili Oak in “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz;” but the overall tonality and musical progression of these pieces were thoroughly accessible to Western ears.

“Avartan” has an Idyll-like quality that would sound complementary with an English pastoral work of Vaughan Williams or Delius. “Lalit” at its most animated has an orchestral-jazzy tone that might accompany a car chase scene in an updated film noir.

“Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz,” which featured Lucy Fitz Gibbon, an operatic soprano, in duets with Saili Oak, was the most overt of the program’s meldings of Indian and Western music. The three-movement piece begins with an extended cross-cultural contemplation of the “Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ “Lakme,” one of the most familiar examples of Western musical orientalism (a recording of the Delibes opens and closes the section), then shifts to vocalizations in Indian forms, first slow, then sprightly and vocally florid.

This shift from one musical culture to another is gradual, and mitigated by Esmail’s choice of melodies and figures that don’t sound markedly alien to Western ears. The final section, in fact, could easily be recast as a pop song (assuming you could find pop singers able to negotiate its speedy, high-flying coloratura).

The orchestrations of these pieces are not especially challenging – lots of whole notes and repeated string figures, for example – but are sometimes surprising in the composers’ choices of registers. “Avartan,” for example, calls for a large cast of bass and baritone wind instruments; “Lalit” similarly is largely dark in orchestral tone.

The works of Esmail and Korde were performed alongside three of the five movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”), which received brisk but flowing readings by conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra. Unfortunately consistent imbalances between winds and strings – not uncommon in a hall that is famously kind to string tone, but in which winds and brass can easily over-project – detracted from fluent and nicely detailed playing by the symphony.

Steven Smith will conduct the Richmond Symphony in Reena Esmail’s “Avartan,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture and the complete Sixth Symphony of Beethoven at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at Brandermill Church, 4500 Millridge Parkway in Midlothian (tickets: $20), and 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., in Ashland (tickets: $22). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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