Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Eduardo Rojas, piano
Nov. 16, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Chia-Hsuan Lin, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, whose work here generally is limited to pops and family programs, has made the most of opportunities that arose when Paolo Bortolameoli, one of the six aspirants to become the orchestra’s next music director, withdrew over the summer. Lin took over the concerts that he was to conduct this month.

After acquitting herself admirably in a Nov. 10 Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concert, Lin faced two formidable conducting challenges, Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, in this subsequent Masterworks program. She rose to those challenges, and then some, in the first of two performances.

The Brahms Fourth is arguably the greatest – certainly the most interpretively daunting – symphony of the romantic era, an essay of extraordinary expressive gravity, full of complexities of form and gradations of pacing.

Romantic music has more than its share of tragedy – “oh, woe is me/she/he” is a pretty common mode of expression in the era’s concert and theatrical compositions; but the existentially tragic is rare. Not many composers treated “to be or not to be” as an open if not unanswerable question, as Brahms does in this work. Not many conductors and orchestras plumb its depths successfully, without overstating its emotions or glossing over its fine points of orchestration.

Lin, conducting from memory, and the orchestra’s musicians, playing with both passion and precision, brought out every quality one wants to hear in this music. Tempos were flexible, but the essential Brahmsian pulse never faltered. The internal details of the score, especially in its great outer movements, came through with clarity and in context. The slow movement’s poignant lyricism was fully voiced, and its continuity, which often eludes interpreters, was maintained. Stray small imperfections of execution or balance counted for little in a reading of intense concentration and unmannered sincerity.

I’ve heard the Brahms Fourth played in concert by half a dozen great orchestras, led by some of the most esteemed conductors of the past three generations. I’ve never heard a more compelling live performance than this one.

Much the same can be said of the orchestra’s treatment of the Bartók, at least technically. Lin and the ensemble of strings built the fugal theme that opens the piece with deliberation and inexorability, and gave its reprise appropriate weight at the close of the piece. In the inner sections, where percussion, piano, celesta and harp join strings voiced with spooky austerity, the musicians realized Bartók’s extraordinary range and variety of tone colors and textures, projecting the otherworldly, often ominous quality that has made this music a model for composers scoring supernatural and horror films. (Stanley Kubrick skipped the middlemen, using the adagio section in the soundtrack of “The Shining.”)

Lin ably guided the orchestra’s percussionists, celesta player Russell Wilson and pianist Daniel Stipe, as well as string sections divided and subdivided on either side of the stage, through Bartók’s complexities. The performance could have been a bit edgier, the music’s tension more overt, but technically it was all but faultless.

The Colombian pianist Eduardo Rojas, featured in Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, would qualify as the star of any other program. His treatment of what ordinarily comes across as a virtuoso warhorse very nearly made it a fitting companion of works as imposing as the Brahms and Bartók.

Pianists can play Liszt as a contemporary of Chopin, exploring nuances of tone and mood, or as a contemporary of Berlioz, reveling in rhetorical bursts and vivid, even garish, colors. Rojas generally took the Chopin route, playing Liszt’s lyrical material with delicacy and flexibilty, while applying the appropriate muscle and amplitude to the concerto’s big pianistic outbursts. He produced the momentum and waves of tone that listeners expect to hear in this showpiece, and illuminated its subtler eddies as well.

His encore, a solo-piano version of Astor Piazzolla’s famous tango “Oblivion,” similarly exposed subtleties of color and expression that too often are missed in this music.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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