Review: Richmond Symphony

George Manahan conducting
with Aaron Diehl, piano
Sept. 19, Dominion Energy Center

While Virginia’s classical-music organizations and presenters remain largely inactive – one of them, Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony Orchestra, has furloughed its musicians until February – the Richmond Symphony launched its mainstage Masterworks series with a chamber-orchestra program played by masked and physically distanced musicians before a live audience limited to 400 in an 1,800-seat hall and to several hundred more who viewed and heard an online stream live.

Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s new music director, made a pre-concert cameo appearance, calling the weekend performances, and a Sept. 12 outdoor concert at Maymont that she led, “a tribute to Richmond’s resilience, hope and connection.” Pellegi then passed the baton to George Manahan, the symphony’s music director from 1987 to 1999, who has been serving as its interim music advisor.

The program, “A Century of American Sound,” featured two repertory staples, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” in non-standard versions – the Gershwin in a chamber-orchestra arrangement by Iain Farrington, the Copland in its original 1943 version (then known “Ballet for Martha,” written for Martha Graham’s dance company) scored for 13 instruments.

Farrington’s slimmed-down orchestration was not the only twist on the Gershwin. The piano soloist, Aaron Diehl, added plentiful ornamental touches and improvisational cadenzas, creating what amounted to a “Fantasy on ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ ”

Such elaborations are not unprecedented – a number of pianists, starting with Gershwin himself, have added notes to and adjusted phrases in the written score; and Diehl’s proved to be more stylistically pertinent than many, driving home the debt that the composer owed to contemporaries such as James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith, pioneers of the stride-piano style of the 1910s and ’20s.

Diehl’s contributions lengthened the rhapsody, which generally runs about 16 minutes, to about 20 minutes; but there was never a dull moment.

The Farrington orchestration, a hybrid of Ferde Grofé’s original jazz-band orchestration of 1924 and the more familiar symphonic version that Grofé introduced in 1942, emphasizes the music’s rhythmic angularity and drive. Diehl’s treatment of the piano solo further sharpened that edge.

The orchestral ensemble sounded suitably jaunty, although the unusually prominent wind musicians grasped the ’20s jazz idiom unevenly, with the muted-brass sounding more idiomatic than the woodwinds.

Winds also stood out in the chamber version of “Appalachian Spring,” with clarinetist David Lemelin, flutist Mary Boodell and bassoonist Thomas Schneider playing almost concertante roles. Russell Wilson’s piano was prominent as well, as he played a quasi-percussion part somewhat akin to keyboard continuo in a baroque score. Copland might have faulted the romantically lyrical tone of the strings in this performance, but he wouldn’t have had much else to complain about in the nuanced and flowing performance that Manahan and the ensemble delivered.

The symphony’s string players met sterner challenges in Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” which combines strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” and other anthems into a compact tone poem whose sometimes rarified, sometimes fibrous tonal effects in the strings and rhythmic patterns from varied cultural sources produce music that manages to be both celebratory and contemplative.

A brass-and-percussion ensemble opened the program with the traditional season-opening “Star Spangled Banner,” followed by short pieces by Joseph Turrin and Adolphus Hailstork.

Hailstork, the best-known Virginia-based composer and one of the leading African-American voices in classical music today, submitted his “American Fanfare” for the 1985 opening of the American gallery of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The museum selected another work, he noted wryly in an online intermission talk with Titus Underwood, principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony, who is teaching this fall at the Richmond Symphony School of Music, a new online venture for youngsters and adults launching in October. (For more information, go to: http://www.richmondsymphony.com/richmond-symphony-school-of-music/)

Hailstork’s piece incorporates jazz-inflected rhythms and modern harmonic language, effectively taking the fanfare form both backward and forward in time.

Turrin’s “Jazzalogue” No. 1, written for a 1997 Latin American tour by the New York Philharmonic, doesn’t sound explicitly Latin in style, more an evocation of the vividly brassy sound that prevailed in the later years of the swing era.

The symphony’s brass players made fine work of all three pieces, their mass and punch not diminished by physical distance.

The stream of the Sept. 19 concert, produced by VPM, suffered from intermittent freezing and some weirdly fuzzy audio, most noticeable in woodwind sound, when viewed in real time. Those technical difficulties disappeared in a subsequent replay.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 20 in the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (seating limited). Home viewing of online stream: $20 (viewable through Oct. 19) . Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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