Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Sterling Elliott, cello
Oct. 23-24, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted Oct. 27)

Cellist Sterling Elliott, well on his way to being the most stellar member of a highly musical Newport News family, winner of the 2019 Sphinx Competition and the 2014 Richmond Symphony League Concerto Competition, brought out the lyricism within classicism of Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major in his return to the Richmond Symphony.

The concerto, written as the mid-18th-century rococo or early classical style was evolving into the mature classical style that prevailed later in the century, is Haydn on good behavior: no rhythmic or structural quirks, no sudden silences or dissonant exclamations, and only one real joke – a “hunt” finale in which the solo cello is the prevailing voice while the usual hunt-masters, the horns, are bit players. It’s also Haydn at his most expansively lyrical, especially in its first movement, one of the largest pieces in sonata allegro form that the composer ever penned.

Throughout the concerto, Elliott balanced impeccable technique with warm projection of Haydn’s almost romantic melodies. And he treated listeners to solo cadenzas that sounded truly improvisatory.

Chia-Hsuan Lin, the symphony’s associate conductor, obtained orchestral playing that was closely attuned to the cellist’s conception of this music.

The second half of the program was devoted to two of the best examples of 20th-century composers writing in “antique” style, Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony (No. 1 in D major).

“Pulcinella,” a 1920 ballet setting the adventures of a familiar commedia dell’arte character to tunes from a variety of then- (and still-) little-known 18th-century composers, is more orchestrally adventurous than similarly inflected, contemporaneous scores, such as Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” suites and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

In the suite drawn from the ballet, Stravinsky produced a work that, like Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” is peppered with cameos for solo strings, woodwind and brass – notably, in this performance, contributions by violinist Daisuke Yamamoto, oboist Shawn Welk, flutist Mary Boodell, trumpeter Samuel Huss and trombonist Evan Williams.

Lin and the orchestra made comparably animated yet suave work of the Prokofiev symphony, with the full orchestra creating a gratifying balance of expressive and coloristic detail and full-blooded sonic mass.

The odd piece out in this program was its opening selection, “Overdrive” by the contemporary Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy. Her brief score is eventful, colorful, rhythmically charged and more than a bit cinematic, often recalling the bustling and wackily characterful music that Carl Stalling wrote for the “Looney Tunes” cartoons.

The online stream of the program remains accessible through June 30, 2022. Single-concert access: $30. Full Masterworks season access: $180. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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