Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Angela Chang, piano
March 7, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Technicolor, the film coloring process, was introduced in 1916. That same year, Ottorino Respighi completed “Fountains of Rome,” the first of his “Roman trilogy” of orchestral tone poems. What Technicolor did for movies, Respighi did for symphonic music – especially symphonic film scores.

So, when Valentina Peleggi, fourth of the conductors auditioning to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, concluded her Masterworks program with “Pines of Rome,” the second (vintage 1924) and sonically most spectacular of Respighi’s trilogy, listeners left with a kind of exhilaration not unlike that felt by moviegoers after seeing a film with extra helpings of primary colors and vivid special effects.

Visual blockbuster films are rarely great dramas. Similarly, it’s hard to make a case for Respighi’s score as great music. In both cases, though, so what? Technical mastery, lavishly applied, produces a great sensory experience.

Peleggi and the orchestra, its regular roster supplemented with extra brass, percussion and keyboards, on- and offstage, gave “Pines of Rome” full blockbuster treatment, Technicolorized from the finest details of woodwind solos and lyrical string playing to the thunderous militancy of the score’s final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” evoking Roman legions on the march.

The Italian conductor, lately based in São Paulo, Brazil, and London, gave comparably high-contrast, colorful treatment to the overture to Rossini’s comic opera “La gazza ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”), giving more than the usual attention to its witty instrumental characterizations and quirky accents without underplaying the sweeping grandeur of its great waltz tune.

Peleggi’s attention to detail proved less successful in Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” a tone poem inspired by the story of adulterous lovers consigned to the second circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” In this performance, the turbulence of Tchaikovsky’s music was slighted by carefulness. Steady tempos, step-by-step gradations of volume, clear deliniation of sectional voices – qualities one craves in performances of a lot of music – sapped this piece of the seething expressive tone it needs. Hell shouldn’t sound so well-ordered.

The program’s theme, “Tribute to Uncommon Women,” refers inferentially to Tchaikovsky’s doomed heroine, explicitly to works by two female composers: Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 2” and Clara Wieck Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

The concerto is the product of the teenaged Clara Wieck, a budding piano virtuoso whose performing career would span much of the 19th century, but whose compositional work largely ceased after she married Robert Schumann and gave birth to eight children.

In the first of two weekend performances of the concerto, the estimable Canadian pianist Angela Chang seized every opportunity to play up its virtuoso qualities, and made fine work of its lyrical passages – notably in the central slow section, hinging on a lovely duet by Chang and the symphony’s principal cellist, Neal Cary.

The pianist, however, could make only so much of a piece whose commonplace themes, predictably worked, then overworked, produce little more than a tepid echo of the early romantic concerto style of Hummel and Chopin.

Tower’s fanfare, one of a set of six “answers” to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare the Common Man,” is a brightly colored, at times unpredictably rhythmic miniature for a large brass-and-percussion ensemble. Peleggi and the symphony ensemble gave it an energetic reading that didn’t slight its occasional nuances.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 8 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Valentina Peleggi and the symphony, with dancers from the School of the Richmond Ballet, perform Copland’s Appalachian Spring in a Lollipops concert at 11 a.m. March 14 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $10-$20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com