Review: Richmond Symphony

Laura Jackson conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
& Molly Sharp, viola
Feb. 9, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Before she was a conductor, Laura Jackson was a violinist, and it showed as she led the Richmond Symphony in a Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concert at Randolph-Macon College. In the second week of her audition to became the symphony’s next music director, Jackson assembled a string-centric program.

The centerpiece was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, K. 364, for violin and viola, featuring the orchestra’s concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, and principal violist, Molly Sharp. The two were contrasting but complementary voices, playing with a winning combination of brilliance and warmth.

Their performance reached its peak in the work’s central andante, a virtual operatic duet, mildly bittersweet in tone, that Yamamoto and Sharp projected with abundant but not overindulgent lyricism. In the faster outer movements, they displayed fine fiddle technique as well as high-spirited spontaneity. Jackson and the orchestra gave the duo animated support.

The conductor drew sharply detailed and well-balanced playing from the symphony strings in Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,” a technically and expressively wide-ranging work introduced in 1937.

Bridge, Britten’s principal teacher, was one the early 20th-century British composers attuned both to the country’s oldest musical traditions – folk songs and dances, modal church music – and to then-current musical styles, especially French impressionism. Britten’s set of variations acknowledges that foundation and builds on it in the starkly expressive, rather angular voice that would define his mature style.

Jackson’s grasp of the stylistic cross-currents in this fascinating piece, and her skill in conveying that fluency to the symphony musicians, made the Britten the most persuasive case the conductor has made for her candidacy.

(Long-ish pauses for page-turning between variations make the “Bridge Variations” a prime orchestral candidate for on-screen digital scores whose pages can be advanced with the tap of a foot.)

Jackson obtained comparably fine results in Gabriela Lena Frank‘s “Concertino Cusqueño,” a piece that updates the old European concerto grosso form and transports it to the highlands of Peru.

Frank, a onetime classmate of the conductor, has written a number of pieces evoking the indigenous music of Peru, her mother’s homeland. This work grows out of a theme melding an old Inca-Iberian hymn tune with the timpani motif that opens Britten’s Violin Concerto – in effect, inviting Britten to visit a Peruvian village.

Frank’s colorful and complex orchestration is full of novel touches from the beginning, when the tune is introduced in a duet by piccolo and bass clarinet, through numerous interactions of winds, strings and percussion, negotiating many rhythmic twists and turns. It’s an orchestral showpiece, and received showpiece treatment by Jackson and a large crew of musicians who barely fit onto the stage of Randolph-Macon’s Blackwell Auditorium.

The program concluded with the “Romanian Folk Dances” of Béla Bartók, a miniature suite drawn from material collected during the Hungarian composer’s expeditions to the Balkan countryside in the early 1900s. Bartók’s orchestration is true to his source material, well-documented in field recordings he made in his travels. Jackson and the orchestra, notably clarinetist David Lemelin, made such enticing work of the suite that its brevity – barely more than five minutes – was more frustrating than usual.

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