Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Lynette Wardle, harp
Jan. 16, Dominion Energy Center

The small-orchestra works of the French impressionists might have been written for this socially distanced time. When instruments are played well apart from one another, open-textured orchestrations are naturally emphasized. Winds occupy physical as well as tonal space; a wind choir’s tonal blends sound enlarged and their contrasts sound more pronounced. The music breathes real air.

These qualities came through consistently, and delightfully, in “Les danses françaises,” the Richmond Symphony’s first Masterworks program of the new year.

The program featured Lynette Wardle, the orchestra’s principal harpist, in the Concertino for harp and orchestra of Germaine Tailleferre and the “Danses sacrée et profane” of Claude Debussy, two of many works of early modern French music that showcase what at the time was a new instrument.

While harps have been around for millennia, widely played in ancient Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations, the chromatic pedal harp played by Wardle and other modern performers is a 19th-century invention. The pedal harp was first perfected by Sébastien Érard (also a pioneering builder of the modern piano), subsequently refined by Érard’s firm and by Gustave Lyon, working for a competing Parisian instrument maker, Pleyel. To promote Lyon’s innovation, the harpe chromatique, introduced in 1894, Pleyel commissioned Debussy to compose his pair of dances in 1904; from then on, the harp was prominently featured in works by French composers and those of other nationalities who studied or worked in France.

Wardle was a more prominent voice in the Debussy dances, scored for harp and small string orchestra, than in Tailleferre’s concertino (little concerto), a 1927 score in which the soloist mostly plays a complementary or concertante role within an orchestration for strings, winds and percussion.

Whatever the sonic perspective of her instrument, Wardle played with a winning combination of animation, character and refinement. Her treatment of the Tailleferre, a too rarely heard piece that she was playing for the first time, enhanced the pastoral quality of the first two movements, the harp sounding like rustling leaves in a breezy tonescape.

Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s new music director, followed the harp-centric opening of the program with three standards of romantic-to-modern French repertory: the Can-Can from Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” and “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

“Le Tombeau,” originally a six-movement piano suite written during World War I in memory of friends killed in battle, four movements of which Ravel orchestrated in 1919, is one of the classics of modern adaptation of antique forms – in this case, the dance suites of the baroque period. The orchestral version sounds less referential to the baroque than to the friskier, more eventful orchestrations of classical-era composers such as Haydn and C.P.E. Bach; but most of all, the music speaks Ravel’s distinctive dialect of urbane, witty musical conversation, here touched with bittersweet nostalgia.

Peleggi and the orchestra brought out those qualities, without the sentimental overstatement that interpreters are tempted to inject into performances of the suite. The symphony’s winds, most of whom played standing, were unusually prominent voices in the orchestration, and welcome ones.

Ravel’s miniature tone poem, whose title translates literally to “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” more accurately to “Pavane for a Princess of a Lost Past Time,” was treated to a loving, subtle reading, paced by a warm French horn solo, while the Offenbach Can-Can exuded both theatrical panache and classical finesse.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating). Access to online stream of Jan. 16 concert: $30 (viewable through March 2). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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