Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Richmond Symphony Chorus,
University of Richmond Schola Cantorum & Women’s Chorale,
Joanne Kong & Paul Hanson, pianos
April 13, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

In the penultimate program of his 10-year tenure as music director of the Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith led a showcase of dynamic, richly detailed and acutely color-sensitive performances of repertory spanning Europe, Asia and America.

The program featured the premiere of “she will transform you,” an orchestral-choral work by Reena Esmail, an American composer of Indian ancestry, as well as pieces by Ahmet Adnan Saygun, a French-schooled Turk who became his country’s first prominent symphonic composer; Colin McPhee, a Canadian so taken with the music of gamelan, the resonant percussion ensembles of Indonesia, that he emigrated to Bali; and Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, whose French impressionist style was informed by tonalities and stylistic influences far from Paris.

It was a fitting conclusion to the musical component of the University of Richmond’s Tucker Boatwright Festival, which has explored encounters between Western art forms and those of non-Western cultures, especially those of Asia.

Cross-cultural or “world” music is not as exotic, or as new, in the West as many assume. Medieval Italian dance music has many echoes of the Levant and Middle East, whose melodies and dances flowed along with its other exports into the trading ports of Venice and Genoa. Spanish music is a melding of European, North African (“Moorish”) and Jewish tones and rhythms. Balkan music has considerable kinship with that of the Middle East and Central Asia, either from ethnic inheritance (in the case of the Hungarian Magyars) or from centuries of rule and cultural dominance by the Ottoman Turks. The percussive military bands of the Ottoman Janissaries are echoed in the “Turkish” music of Gluck, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Previous Tucker-Boatwright concerts have sampled some of that Turkish/Viennese music, but the Western side of the equation mostly has been of more recent vintage, in the Asian resonations heard in Debussy’s music – the young composer was indelibly influenced by exposure to gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889 – and in works of the last couple of generations, in which Western composers work from Asian templates and first- or second-generation Asian-Americans write in Western forms while tapping their ancestral musical roots.

Esmail belongs to the latter group. In two works presented in the last Tucker Boatwright concert on the UR campus in February and in “she will transform you,” the 36-year-old, Los Angeles-based composer draws on Indian antecedents (in the new work, the Hindustani raga “Rageshree”) but produces music that fits snugly into the Western canon. The musical style and instrumental and vocal voicings of “she will transform you” could easily complement the impressionist-romantic music of Gabriel Fauré or Samuel Barber.

The work’s text, from “Homeland” by the Indian-American poet Neelanjana Banerjee, is a mother’s contemplation of the conflict between her native or adopted cultures and her wish that her child can bridge that divide. Email couches the text much like a prayer, effectively answering the prayer in music of lyrical repose.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus and UR’s two student chamber choruses, the Schola Cantorum and Women’s Chorale, produced a strikingly effective floating quality as they sang over an orchestration of shimmering tone colors.

The Esmail premiere followed a performance of Saygun’s “Ayin Raksi” (“Ritual Dance”) (1975), a miniature tone poem that recasts Turkish melodies and dance rhythms in a colorful, intricate orchestration that stylistically echoes Debussy and Bartók.

McPhee’s “Tabuh-Tabuhan” (1936), a gamelan-inspired quasi-concerto grosso for two pianos and large, percussion-heavy orchestra, could be described as proto-minimalist, an exercise in progressively layered and elaborated ostinato that predates such efforts by the likes of Terry Riley and Philip Glass by several musical generations. Unlike the more recent minimalists, McPhee enhanced the repetition with plentiful tonal and cross-rhythmic filagree, making this work less mesmerizing or tedious (depending on how you hear minimalism).

UR-based pianists Joanne Kong and Paul Hanson played their collective part, sometimes augmented by the symphony’s Russell Wilson on celesta, amounting to a kind of enhanced continuo, with bright-toned assertiveness, while Smith and the symphony milked McPhee’s orchestration for maximum exuberance.

Smith, who has demonstrated his mastery of French impressionist music throughout his tenure here, punctuated that history with performances of Debussy’s Nocturnes and Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole” that could scarcely be bettered.

The choral forces were a bit too tremulous in the opening of “Sirènes,” but otherwise the Debussy unfolded with all the timbral subtlety and atmospheric breadth a listener could desire. The quizzically lyrical English horn solo of Shawn Welk set an exploratory tone at the beginning, and the exploration was a joy to join.

Smith paced “Rapsodie espagnole” rather deliberately – Welk again played a key role in musical characterization – establishing from the beginning that this would be a performance of tone painting as well as an evocation of Spanish dance. While the dance rhythms were vivid and extroverted, notably in the concluding “Feria” (“Festival”), an unusually sensuous treatment of the Habanera may have been even more satisfying.

Given the unfamiliar music that filled so much of this program, and the complexity of orchestration and range of tonal demands in every selection, this must count as one of the true virtuoso outings by this orchestra in recent years. Its outgoing music director proved to be an unerring guide.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 14 in the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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