Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
Nov. 14, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

For the last of this fall’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks concerts, Music Director Valentina Peleggi assembled a program surveying nearly the full chronological and stylistic range of German romantic music with limited forces but not lacking the sonorous heft of German romanticism – no easy feat.

The centerpiece of the program was Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen,” a “study for 23 solo strings,” written in the closing months of World War II, a somber yet lushly voiced elegy to both the musical tradition and physical surroundings in which the then-elderly composer had spent his life. (This performance used the 1994 arrangement by Rudolf Leopold drawn from both Strauss’ early septet version and his subsequent full orchestration.)

This music is Strauss at his most bittersweet, mourning “12 years during which the fruits of Germany’s 2,000-year-long cultural development were condemned to extinction and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed.” The piece darkly echoes the the most intimate and emotionally rich moments of his operas while crafting a complex interplay of string voices. “Metamorphosen” falls prey to the curse of German late romanticism, obsessing at length on its thematic material; but that obsessiveness is essential to its musical character and emotional force.

The symphony strings played the piece with intense concentration and fine balance of solo and ensemble voices.

The Strauss was preceded by Gerard Schwarz’s string orchestration of Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (“Slow Movement”), an early (1905), lushly romantic work by a composer who in maturity was known for extreme brevity and pointillistic expression. Similar in style to the slow movements of Mahler symphonies, but without the full load of Mahler’s psychological baggage, the piece is a showcase for richly lyrical string sonority, and got that treatment in full from Peleggi and the orchestra.

After that weighty first half, the program turned to two familiar 19th-century scores, Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major.

Peleggi set a fairly brisk tempo for the Wagner, making the piece less “idyllic” in the romantic-poetic sense of lolling in the meadow, more like a moderately energetic stroll along the lakefront. Winds, played standing, were more prominent than in many performances of the work, and the strings seemed to feed off their colleagues’ oudoorsy expressiveness.

The Schubert Fifth sang and danced as Schubert always should, but it also had the needed earthy undertones, especially in its gutsy menuetto. (In an old-style touch, Peleggi paused, then downshifted the tempo for the movement’s trio section.) Her tracing of the expressive arc of the work, from the light-hearted classicism of the first movement to the emphatic, almost Beethovenian character of the finale, made for an impressive introduction to this conductor’s approach to German classical-romantic style.

In this and other works on the program, Peleggi’s background in conducting voices was constantly evident. She led the orchestra without a baton and with fluid, at times florid, hand gestures, but without ever letting tempos lag or ensemble become muddled. Every piece on the program sang, eloquently or ingratiatingly, as the music demanded.

VPM, which has produced the video and audio of the symphony’s Summer Series and Masterworks concerts during the coronavirus pandemic, has grown into this ongoing project, with steadily improving camera work and more pertinent closeups of individual players. One especially revealing aspect of these productions is seeing the conductor head-on, as the musicians see her – a view that listeners rarely enjoy.

The online stream of the concert can be accessed through Dec. 14. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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NOTE: Sorry for the delay in posting this review. I’ve been involuntarily offline for a few days.

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