Review: Richmond Symphony

Marin Alsop conducting
with Inmo Yang, violin
& Richmond Symphony Chorus
Sept. 21, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

In 1988, the Richmond Symphony offered a first professional chance for a young female violinist-turned-conductor who had been turned down by other ensembles. Marin Alsop went on to lead a succession of ever-more-prominent orchestras on three continents. Today, she is one of the leading US conductors of her generation.

Alsop returns to Richmond for the first time since her two-year tenure here in the opening concerts of the symphony’s 2019-20 Masterworks series, launching an eventful season in which the orchestra will audition five candidates to become its next music director and conclude by playing co-host to the 2020 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition.

The conductor shares the spotlight with Inmo Yang, the 24-year-old Korean violinist fresh off a rapturously received recital last weekend in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts. Yang, winner of the 2015 Paganini Competition in Italy, is featured in that composer’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, a piece whose virtuoso twists and turns almost compensate for its excessive length and musical shortcomings.

In the first of two weekend performances, Yang ignited all the quick-fingered technical fireworks packed into this concerto, but was even more impressive in his ability to coax tonal warmth and genuine expression from what often comes across as a succession of dazzling fiddle tricks separated by orchestral tutti that sound like third-rate Rossini. Yang’s shaping of phrases and subtleties of timbre often brought to mind a coloratura soprano making the most of a bel canto aria, and his treatment of fast passages and virtuoso flourishes conveyed real joy.

Rewarded with a roaring ovation, the violinist offered more Paganini, the Caprice No. 14 for solo violin, as an encore.

Alsop opened the program with a rarity, Alexander von Zemlinsky’s setting for chorus and orchestra of Psalm 13 (“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?”). The composer, best-known as the principal teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, was a prolific composer of concert works for voices and orchestra, written in the large-scale, late-romantic style of his contemporaries Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

His treatment of the Psalm is rather literal, beginning as a dark and thick-textured lament – a kind of chanted chord progression in its choral writing – that gradually brightens as the text reaches its hopeful conclusion (“I will sing to the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me”). Zemlinsky, oddly, breaks the textual flow with an elaborate and turbulent orchestral section leading into the finale.

The conductor maintained reasonably good balance between the Richmond Symphony Chorus and an often busy orchestration, not an easy feat as choral sound tends to be recessed as the singers are placed behind the orchestra on the Carpenter Theatre stage.

Alsop chose a seemingly odd pairing of masterpieces for the program’s second half: Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” and Stravinsky’s 1919 concert suite from “The Firebird,” the 1910 ballet score that established him as a major composer.

Conducting both works without a score, Alsop looked to be devoting much of her attention to obtaining the desired articulation and balances among string sections, at times at the expense of balances between strings and winds. Woodwinds were unusually prominent in the Brahms – not unpleasantly so, nor even inauthentically so, as Brahms’ source, the “St. Antoni Chorale” from a Feld partita (outdoor serenade) by Haydn, was originally for a wind ensemble.

Orchestral sections were better balanced in the Stravinsky, and string sound, unexpectedly, was warmer. Alsop drew out the colors and sound effects of the score quite vividly, conveying the ballet’s story line – a Russian folk tale on the culturally widespread “phoenix rising” theme – as effectively in sound as it might have been in words. The orchestra’s winds and brass played their prominent roles to the hilt.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$100. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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