Review: Richmond Symphony

Kazem Abdullah conducting
with Orion Weiss, piano
& Samuel Huss, trumpet
Feb. 6, Dominion Energy Center

“Russian Treasures,” this month’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks program, offers two gems – Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major for string orchestra – preceded by one choice piece of costume jewelry, Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey.”

Guest conductor Kazem Abdullah, who recently completed a five-year run leading the municipal musical establishments of Aachen, Germany, obtained cogent, stylish readings of all three works. His interpretive imprint was most pronounced in the Tchaikovsky serenade, which sounded even more sonically plush and lyrical than it usually does thanks to moderate tempos, judicious pauses and phrasing that seemed to breathe as a singer would.

Some of that same quality came through in the Shostakovich, which in the hands of Abdullah clearly (and rather unusually) echoed strains of Russian romanticism, notably in the strings’ treatment of the big melody of the first movement, while pianist Orion Weiss projected the composer’s more energetic, nervy and intermittently witty modern style.

Weiss’ brightly emphatic pianism was echoed by Samuel Huss, the symphony’s principal trumpeter, in his instrument’s prominent role. (The piece originally was intended to be a trumpet concerto.) The exchanges between these two lead voices were consistently animated and complementary, although not consistently balanced in projection – at least in the audio of the online stream of the performance, in which the trumpet sounds markedly louder than the piano.

Balakirev’s “Islamey,” normally heard in its original, famously challenging version for solo piano, loses none of its virtuosic busy-ness in a chamber-orchestra arrangement crafted by the British pianist-composer Iain Farrington, but it does lose some of its Russian romantic sound-character. This arrangement for strings, winds and percussion enlarges the palette of tone colors and features more sophisticated wind writing than that heard in most mid-19th century Russian orchestral writing, giving this version a more Russo-French tonal profile.

In all three works, conductor Abdullah and the symphony musicians proved attentive to detail without losing focus on the bigger musical pictures. The orchestra’s strings produced a well-knit and robust collective voice despite the distance between the musicians.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating). Access to online stream: $30 (accessible through March 23). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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