Review: Richmond Symphony

Laura Jackson conducting
with Julian Schwarz, cello
Feb. 1, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno (NV) Philharmonic, third of five music-director candidates to audition with the Richmond Symphony this season, opened her bid with splashes of bright color in a novel contemporary work and a blockbuster late-romantic symphony.

She began her Masterworks series program conducting four excerpts from “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” Michael Gandolfi’s evocation of a scientifically themed Scottish garden.

The four pieces, musically representing long, unbroken waves, two of the human senses and galaxies swirling into a black hole, ride insistent, increasingly complex rhythmic patterns with complex interplay of instrumental voices, atmospheric effects that combine the spacy with the earthy and echoes from the musical past – a baroque-inflected gigue and a chiming reconception of a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Jackson, who learned Gandolfi’s work while serving as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which introduced it in 2007, guided the Richmond musicians through animated, sure-footed performances of the four excerpts, quite likely leaving many listeners primed to hear the rest of the more than hour-long composition.

The conductor made a compelling sonic impression, but a less persuasive musical one, in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major. Jackson obtained vividly sonorous playing from the orchestra’s wind and brass choirs and percussionists, drawing out rarely heard details of Mahler’s woodwind scoring, and vigorous contributions from the symphony’s strings – although at times not vigorous enough to match brass amplitude – in a reading that emphasized the work’s most dramatic sections.

Her interpretation fell short, though, in sustaining continuity. In Mahler’s more pastoral and lyrical passages, Jackson slowed tempos and blurred focus, only to speed up and sharpen when volume increased or climaxes approached. This accentuated the episodic qualities of the first and third movements of the symphony, as well as sapping tension from the quiet before the thunder-burst of the finale.

After some flabby attacks early in the performance, the orchestra followed Jackson’s lead alertly and with all the extroversion listeners could have desired in the music’s brassy and percussive passages.

Cellist Julian Schwarz, son of the noted conductor Gerard Schwarz and a faculty member at the conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, was the featured soloist in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” This was his 40th concert performance of the work, Schwarz said in a pre-concert talk with Jackson, and his long familiarity with the score was evident throughout the performance.

The cellist nicely contrasted virtuosic fiddling with abundant lyricism, and intimacy of expression with robust tonal projection in a piece that exuberantly elaborates upon but never overplays its gently decorous theme.

In an encore, Schwarz played the allemande from Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, for solo cello, played as a tribute to his onetime teacher, Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist.

Laura Jackson conducts the Richmond Symphony, with its concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, and principal violist, Molly Sharp, as featured duo in a program of Mozart, Britten, Bartók and Gabriela Lena Frank, excerpted in a Rush Hour casual concert at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Overbrook Road at Ownby Lane in Richmond, performed in full at 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at Blackwell Auditorium of Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $20 (Hardywood), $22 (Randolph-Macon). Details: (804) 788-1212;

Peter Serkin (1947-2020)

Pianist Peter Serkin, scion of one of classical music’s most distinguished families of performers and a leading advocate of living composers, has died at 72.

The son of pianist Rudolf Serkin and grandson of violinist and string-quartet leader Adolf Busch, Peter Serkin grew up near Marlboro College in Vermont, home of the summer musicians’ camp and festival that his father and grandfather had founded in 1950.

The younger Serkin, who enrolled at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 11 and made his debut a year later, proved to be a reluctant heir to the Old World classical tradition, leaving the stage to immerse himself in the 1960s counterculture, then upon returning to concert performances making a regular practice of juxtaposing standard repertory with contemporary compositions.

He was a founder of Tashi, one of the most musically adventurous chamber ensembles of the 1970s. The group’s 1975 recording of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” helped usher the piece into the standard chamber repertory. Serkin subsequently became a regular collaborator with a number of ensembles. He was last heard locally performing Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, with the Dover Quartet in October 2018 at the University of Richmond.

An obituary by The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini: