Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Kevin Zhu, violin
April 17, Dominion Energy Center

The final program of the Richmond Symphony’s Masterworks series in a season sorely tried by pandemic-driven limitations, and gratifyingly mounted despite them, contrasted early and late realizations of 18th-century classical style.

Led by Chia-Hsuan Lin, the symphony’s associate conductor, the program opened with two works by Joseph Boulogne, his Symphony No. 2 in D major (written as the overture to his opera “L’amant anonyme” [“The Anonymous Lover”]) and his Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, the latter featuring Kevin Zhu as the soloist.

Boulogne, born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to an aristocratic French colonial planter and his wife’s enslaved maid, brought in youth to France for his education, known in adulthood as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was one of the most fascinating figures of his time – a champion fencer, prominent soldier, sometime diplomat/intelligence operative and active socialite in addition to being a celebrated violinist and orchestra leader and active composer.

Boulogne was the first prominent musician of African ancestry to compose European classical music. His pioneer’s role in the history of black classical musicians, however, is misunderstood in a key sense: Unlike later generations of black composers, whose works echoed musical traditions of Africa or the African diaspora in the New World, Boulogne was a musician of entirely European outlook, writing in the early classical or “rococo” style that prevailed in the mid-1700s. There is no racial or cultural distinction between his music and that of contemporaries such as François-Joseph Gossec, Johann Christian Bach and the younger Joseph Haydn (whose six “Paris” symphonies were commissioned and first conducted by Boulogne).

Zhu, the 20-year-old Chinese-American winner of the International Paganini Competition and earlier a prizewinner in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition for young violinists, currently studying with Itzhak Perlman at the Juilliard School, proved to be an ideal exponent for the Boulogne concerto, whose emphasis on tonal beauty and decorously elaborate touches of fiddle technique might have been crafted with Zhu and his instrument (the 1722 “Lord Wandsworth” Stradivarius) in mind.

In the concerto’s opening movement, Zhu ably balanced classical stylishness with uninhibited voicing of the rich melodic content that Boulogne brought to this music. That balance was even more welcome in the central slow movement, where the solo violin’s singing tone and subtle displays of technique are paramount, and in the cheerful, dancing rondeau that concludes the piece.

Zhu followed the concerto with an encore: a vividly accented, technically dazzling performance of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor – an enticing preview of the violinist’s ambitious project to play the full set of Paganini solo-violin caprices in concerts.

In the Boulogne concerto, Lin and the orchestra’s strings gave Zhu solid support in the “big band” style in which classical-era works were commonly heard before period instruments and historically informed performance practices began to influence modern orchestral playing. Sonorities were rich, tempos moderate, dynamics evened-out, accents more blunt than sharp-edged.

This approach effectively underplays early classical works, whose affect and momentum need more assertive projection. It also reduced the impact of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, performed in the program’s second half.

K. 550 is a rarity among Mozart symphonies not only in its being the only one of his later symphonies in a minor key, but also one of the few in which expressiveness and tone color are more essential than musical form. It is the most dramatic and characterful of the symphonies, and needs to sound deeply felt as much as, or even more than, well-played.

In this performance, heard in the online stream of the April 17 concert, the conductor and orchestra were slow to rise to Mozart’s emotional temperature. Form and lyrical lines outweighed expression and dark moodiness in the first movement. The andante, not the most memorable of Mozart’s symphonic slow movements, sounded even more routine and forgettable here. The performance didn’t really ignite until the third-movement menuet, where this work’s underlying turbulence and intimation of menace finally came through.

This was the first symphony concert since the onset of the pandemic to employ full-size string sections, which at least partly explains the richer sonorities than in performances with reduced string sections heard earlier in the season.

The more populated stage also may account for less transparent – at times, rather congested – orchestral sound realized by the VPM audio engineers for this stream.

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster and one of the area’s most prominent musicians of Asian descent, opened the evening reading a pointed statement decrying increasing violence against Asians and Asian-Americans during the pandemic.

“Growing up in Georgia, I’ve often felt the sting of racism and blame associated with being Asian in America,” Yamamoto said. “When people chip away at your heritage, little by little, you start to lose a part of your identity and become lost. . . .

“As a father-to-be, I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she will be understood and accepted for who she is. I do not want her to endure the verbal abuse and bullying I and many other Asians have experienced growing up.”

Yamamoto’s remarks drew sustained applause.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 18 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream of April 17 concert: $30 (viewable through June 1). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com