Review: Richmond Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting
with Brandie Sutton, soprano
Oct. 26, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Roderick Cox, first of the five candidates auditioning to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, opened and closed his program in the mainstage Masterworks series with contrasting samples of Russian romanticism.

Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest” Fantasy-Overture, his second go at a Shakespearian tone poem after the success of his “Romeo and Juliet,” is a rather explicitly narrative succession of episodes, some turbulent, some pixie-ish, given loose continuity by an earnest love theme.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last work, echoes the high romanticism of Tchaikovsky and his late-19th-century contemporaries, but filters those resonations through rhythms, coloristic touches and harmonies that no Russian romantic (except, perhaps, Mussorgsky) would have dreamed of.

In both works, Cox crafted big, bold orchestral tonescapes with vivid outbursts from brass and percussion, clearly etched wind solos and choirs and robust, often lush contributions from the strings – with extra weight from cellos and basses. Altogether, his orchestral sound was Russian in scale, but with the precision and refinement with which Western musicians mediate Russian tonal brawn.

In the Rachmaninoff, Cox and the symphony players nicely offset the starkly rhythmic main theme of the first movement with an interlude that, in classical formulation, would be a trio – a mini-fantasia of deftly voiced, delicately balanced wind solos and duets. In the central movement, a dark waltz, Cox brought out the needed melancholy without loss of momentum. The slow-boil energy of the waltz – likely, an homage to Ravel’s “La Valse” – came through, and served as an effective prelude to the work’s surging, Spanish-accented finale.

Brandie Sutton, a rich-toned, highly expressive soprano, presented contrasting works of her own: The aria “Depuis le jour” (“Since the Day”) from Gustave Charpentier’s opera “Louise” and Samuel Barber’s setting of James Agee’s prose-poem “Knoxville, Summer of 1915.”

The Charpentier aria is clearly a showpiece for this singer. She conveyed its romantic sentiment (“[M]y soul enchanted still by that first kiss”) with ardor bordering on ecstasy, lavishing a rounded and expertly inflected tone that carried consistently over the aria’s substantial orchestration.

Her treatment of the Barber was similarly operatic, helpful as she was singing in front of a full-sized orchestra, but not always attuned to the composer’s moody, impressionistic treatment of Agee’s wistful, nostalgic text. A gentle score got a pretty heavy workout.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 27 in Jarman Auditorium of Longwood University, 201 High St. in Farmville. Tickets: $20. Details: (434) 395-2000; richmondsymphony.com

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