Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Louis Schwizgebel, piano
Sept. 25-26, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted Sept. 29)

During his three-year stay in the United States in the 1890s, Antonín Dvořák told his hosts that a genuinely American strain of classical composition could grow from the roots of Black and American Indian melodies and dances. Over the next generation, a number of US musicians took his advice, none more successfully than Black composers whose works resonated to spirituals, work songs and dances.

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), an Arkansas-born pianist and composer, is one of the last of that generation whose music has been revived. Few of her works were heard after their premieres in the 1930s and ’40s; some have waited until this century to be published and performed. Not surprising – the composer was a Black woman in a White man’s world. Also working against her, posthumously, was that some of her major scores barely survived being kept in storage in a house that was falling apart around them.

The US classical establishment is rushing to make up for decades of neglect: The Philadelphia Orchestra has just released recordings of Price’s First and Third symphonies; the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington will play the Third Symphony next weekend; and several of her works figure in Richmond concert programs this fall, starting with her Piano Concerto in D minor, presented alongside Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) in last weekend’s season-opening program of the Richmond Symphony’s Masterworks series.

The concerto, completed in 1934, is roughly contemporaneous with William Grant Still’s First Symphony (“Afro-American”), the “Negro Folk Symphony” of William Levi Dawson and The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Price’s concerto resembles those works melodically and expressively, but in style and construction the piece more closely echoes European late romanticism – a rhapsody in concerto form.

Louis Schwizgebel, a Swiss-born pianist based in London, proved to be a winning advocate for the Price concerto, technically pristine without turning anodyne or denatured as he shifted seamlessly between playing as the concerto’s protagonist and as a partner to the orchestra’s musicians – notably in duets with oboist Shawn Welk in the dreamy, bittersweet central slow section of the concerto – and playing energetically and idiomatically in the symphonic cakewalk that concludes the piece.

Valentina Peleggi, conducting a full complement of musicians for the first time since the March 2020 concerts that secured her appointment as the symphony’s sixth music director, consistently kept the orchestra on the wavelengths of Price’s creation and Schwizgebel’s interpretation – richly rhapsodic and rhythmically on its toes.

The conductor’s treatment of Dvořák’s “New World” was unabashedly late-romantic, with highly flexible tempos and dynamics and phrasing in long arcs of melody. Peleggi’s pacing was generally measured in the opening movement and scherzo, surprisingly brisk in the largo – featuring a songful but unindulgent reading of the “Goin’ Home” theme by English horn player Lauren Williams – and dramatic and energized, bordering on headlong, in the finale.

The curtain-raiser, “Fanfare on ‘Amazing Grace’ ” by the Virginia composer Adolphus Hailstork, signaled one shortcoming that cropped up repeatedly in the performances, at least as heard in the audio mix of the online stream. Brass and woodwinds consistently over-balanced strings, often pushing supportive or internal instrumentation too far into the aural foreground. This inside-out quality was especially pronounced in Hailstork’s fanfare, obscuring the hymn tune that is projected by strings.

Occasionally jolting camera work gave this viewer a sensation akin to motion sickness.

The Richmond Symphony’s “Symphony at Home” Masterworks streams, posted on the Wednesdays following the concerts, are accessible through June 30, 2022. Access: $30 per concert, $180 for the full series. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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