Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Neal Cary, cello
Nov. 10, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Beethoven’s Second Symphony is the stepchild of the nine, the least often played and, commonly, the most underrated. Unlike the First Symphony, it does not clearly echo the classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Unlike the Third (the “Eroica”), it is neither epic in length nor as overtly revolutionary in back-story (no Napoleonic inspiration) or expression. In many ways, though, the Second Symphony anticipates the “Eroica” and later works. The mature orchestral Beethoven begins here.

Chia-Hsuan Lin, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, and the orchestra gave the Beethoven Second its due, and then some, in the second concert of the symphony’s Metro Collection series.

Lin’s attentive, unfussy direction produced a performance that was propulsive and rhetorically grand, with sharp accents, crisp articulation and unusually fine balances between winds and strings. (That latter quality is a challenge in these concerts, staged in a hall where winds typically overbalance a chamber-orchestra string complement.) Exchanges among sections were especially rewarding in the symphony’s slow movement, a musical essay with comparable complexity, if an entirely different spirit, to that of the “Marche funèbre” of the “Eroica.”

The balance problem arose at times in an otherwise richly expressive reading of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, featuring Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, as soloist. The Schumann is very much on Cary’s wavelength, both in its broadly romantic expressive qualities and the tone this musician draws from his instrument.

Cary delivered a soulful reading that emphasized the concerto’s dark mood and its songful solo lines. The orchestra’s contributions were warm in tone; but the smallish string section lacked the tonal mass and sonic bloom that this score needs. And the strings’ relative weakness made wind contributions unnaturally prominent.

The fiddles’ performance of Elgar’s Serenade in E minor had that bloom, and showed a keen collective ear for the uniquely elegiac tone that this composer brings to his string compositions. Lin obtained deft treatments of the piece’s rhythmic theme, introduced in the first movement and reprised in the finale.

The program opened with the rarely performed overture to Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo.” One reason for its not being heard is that it lacks a real finale – in the opera, it segues into an aria; in concert, it simply peters out. A more telling reason is that its succession of rum-tum-te-tum gestures don’t add up to first-rate, or even second-rate, Mozart. Lin and the band made of it what could be made.

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