Review: Richmond Symphony Summer Series

Ron Crutcher, cello
Joanne Kong, piano
July 11, Dominion Energy Center

Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata in C minor, Op. 6, composed when the 22-year-old Barber was concluding his studies at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, anticipates much of his later instrumental music, wavering in style between neo-classicism and romanticism, most memorable when it emphasizes the latter.

In the opening concert of the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, whose theme this year is “Exploring America,” Ron Crutcher, the cellist who serves as president of the University of Richmond (a co-presenter of the series), and his UR colleague, pianist Joanne Kong, delivered an ardent account of the Barber sonata.

Crutcher’s instrument, which has a markedly deep tone, was at times overbalanced by the piano – Barber’s piano part is busy, often brilliantly so. The cellist prevailed where it counted, though, in the succession of lyrical themes that crop up throughout the sonata.

Kong’s solo moments came in two of Philip Glass’ etudes for piano. Glass, who with several collaborators played all 20 of these pieces several years ago at UR, remarked at the time that the first 10 were written primarily for his own practice, with the second set of 10 more attuned to public performance.

Sure enough, the Etude No. 2 sounded like a technical exercise, a miniature exemplar of Glass’ “music with repetitive structures,” while the Etude No. 12 was a more elaborate and finished product, a piano rag with neo-romantic trappings. Kong played the former with disciplined clarity and the latter with freer phrasing and richer tone.

Crutcher opened the program with his signature piece, “Argoru II” for solo cello by Alvin Singleton, written for Crutcher when both were graduate students at Yale Unversity, and subsequently recorded by the cellist.

The title, from the Twi language of Ghana, translates as “play,” Crutcher explained in introductory remarks, adding that play in this context is serious business. The cellist is run through a veritable gauntlet of techniques and sonic gestures, plucking as often as bowing, frequently bending notes, and putting frequent silences into context with sound. It is decidedly uneasy listening, but compelling as one sees and hears the cellist negotiate its many challenges.

Crutcher and Kong concluded the program with an arrangement of the second of George Gershwin’s three preludes, originally for solo piano. This bluesiest and most lyrical of the preludes lends itself nicely to the songful qualities of the cello.

The Richmond Symphony Summer Series continues with violinist Adrian Pintea and pianist Russell Wilson playing works by Samuel Barber, George Walker, John Corigliano and Max Stern at 6:30 p.m. July 18 in Gottwald Playhouse of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $20 (seating limited). Details: (804) 788-1212; http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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