Review: Richmond Symphony

Ankush Kumar Bahl conducting
with Anthony McGill, clarinet
Jan. 11, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Mozart wrote the clarinet concerto – his A major, K. 622. Most every clarinetist who performs as a soloist is expected to play it convincingly. Playing it transcendentally, especially its sublime central adagio, is a much less common gift, one that Anthony McGill displayed in the first of two weekend Masterworks concerts by the Richmond Symphony.

McGill is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic and previously played that role in the Metropolitan Opera’s MET Orchestra. The opera-house experience almost surely gave him a leg up in Mozart interpretation, as the composer’s instrumental writing, especially for woodwinds, is deeply informed by his writing for the human voice. In some of his operas, notably “Così fan tutte,” Mozart often weaves vocal and wind lines, and in a number of his instrumental works winds effectively sing wordless arias.

McGill treated the Mozart concerto’s melodies as if his instrument were a lyric alto-cum-tenor voice, bringing a romantic undertone to the performance. Ankush Kumar Bahl, the music-director candidate conducting the symphony in this program, led an ensemble with a full-sized complement of strings, producing well-upholstered accompaniment to the clarinetist. While they didn’t depart too far from mainstream classical style, they produced a sound texture not too far removed from what one might hear in music a generation or two later than Mozart’s.

The clarinetist played with an enticing combination of pitch-perfect clarity and warmth. He was more than capable of meeting the technical demands of the fast outer movements, but maintained a focus on the concerto’s wistfully lyrical qualities. His performance earned him a prolonged ovation.

Bahl, former associate conductor of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra and an active guest conductor internationally, made some pretty gutsy choices in devising his audition program: In addition to the Mozart, John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major.

He isn’t the first conductor to introduce himself to Richmond with an Adams score. George Manahan auditioned with the composer’s “Shaker Loops” in 1986, and that performance helped him secure the music directorship. “The Chairman Dances,” an orchestral foxtrot built on “out-takes” from Adams’ 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” is a shorter, more colorful and more accessible sample of the composer’s work.

The Bruckner Seventh is an altogether greater challenge for both performers and listeners. It’s long – about an hour and 7 minutes – and is couched in a form quite unlike that of the typical 19th-century symphony.

Most romantic composers made of their symphonic movements the musical equivalents of complex sentences, whose dependent clauses and asides do not veer too far off the subject or disrupt continuity. Bruckner wrote in paragraphs of free-standing clauses, tunes and gestures that aren’t smoothly bridged from one to the next and rarely reconcile or merge. The ear is tempted to hear them as episodes. Making something musically whole out of these contrasting, seemingly disparate elements is one of the most daunting tasks a conductor can undertake.

Bahl proved to be one of the select few who can organize a sprawling Bruckner score coherently, and can draw an audience into it both as a piece of music and as an extended expression of the spirit.

The orchestra, enlarged in its brass sections and with the addition of four Wagner tubas, produced the needed masses of tone in Bruckner’s epic fanfares and pronouncements. The musicians also were unabashedly expressive in the symphony’s lyrical themes, most affectingly in the first movement, and produced instrumental voicings whose transparency made the composer’s proto-modern harmonic touches sound intentional and in context. Bahl took special care to draw full-bodied bass tone from relatively small cello and double-bass sections.

The conductor and orchestra conveyed the garishly celebratory, Hollywood-inflected tone of the Adams, with pianist Russell Wilson and a large percussion section keeping the pace chipper and enhancing the tongue-in-cheek quality of the score. Though Adams’ style is sometimes called “minimalist,” this reading of “The Chairman Dances” was maximal in all the best senses.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 12 at Mount Vernon Baptist Church, 11220 Nuckols Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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