Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Katherine Needleman, oboe
Nov. 13-14, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted Nov. 17)

Listeners long immersed in classical music, especially people like me who’ve long listened for a living, approach unfamiliar music with greater anticipation than most symphony concertgoers – a spoiler alert for what follows.

The Richmond Symphony’s latest Masterworks program featured two works by Ruth Gipps (1921-99), a British composer previously unknown to most of this audience and undoubtedly to most of these musicians, alongside the most familiar of symphonies, Beethoven’s No. 5 in C minor.

Too much appetizer, not enough main course? Not to my ears.

Gipps’ Symphony No. 2 in B major and Oboe Concerto in D minor, both dating from the 1940s, proved to be well worth hearing, and received more engaged and refined accounts than might have been expected. These were among the first performances of the two works by a professional US orchestra. The musicians played like they were glad to discover this composer and motivated to do right by her – always a good thing, whatever the music on their stands.

Throughout the concerto, Gipps ably exploits the oboe’s two prime expressive qualities, austere lyricism and witty, playful elaboration, and provides plenty of attractive interaction between soloist and orchestra.

The soloist in this performance, Katherine Needleman, onetime principal oboist of the Richmond Symphony who went on to fill the same post in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is now the most prominent non-British advocate for this work. She has done colleagues and audiences a favor in finding something other than Mozart and Richard Strauss for oboe soloists to play with orchestras.

Needleman was consistently virtuosic and interpretively persuasive, especially in the composer’s imaginative deconstructions of Scottish/Celtic tunes and dances in the final movement.

Gipps’ Second Symphony, in one movement but with distinct, contrasting sections, is green-and-pleasant-land atmospheric in the tradition of the British “pastoral” school, but with a more colorful orchestration (tambourine shakes the shires!) and with wider expressive contrasts than heard in most such works.

Some of the symphony’s asides and transitions are awkward; others, like the English horn solo between the animated first section and the subsequent idyll – realized beautifully here by Shawn Welk – are sublime. The piece tends to ramble – the curse of late-late-romantic composers generally, Brits especially – but is far from the worst offender in wearing out its welcome.

So, what to make of Ruth Gipps from these examples of her music? A deft orchestrator (oboe fronting big band ain’t easy), a composer who audibly and agreeably manifests her national/ethnic cultural DNA, doesn’t just orchestrally gloss folky themes but only occasionally transforms or re-invents them . . . a Kodály, not a Bartók.

Then, the Fifth: Certainly a contrast with Gipps, a century and a half and a lot of stylistic evolution separating them, but not chalk to her cheese. Both composers build big edifices from small, constantly manipulated thematic bits; both rise to dramatic heights, Beethoven with greater urgency; and both fully employ all their instrumental resources.

Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, and her forces lit into the Fifth’s first movement and finale – brisk bordering on terse, almost but not quite too fast for proper articulation and balances (except for some of the wind players). Inner movements were paced at more customary tempos, allowing for warmer, more breathing expression.

Was it a Fifth that made you hear the music as if for the first time? You’d be lucky to hear a warhorse classic played that compellingly in concert once in a lifetime, and this wasn’t such a performance. Did it do the Fifth justice? Outside of stray flubs and balance problems between strings and winds in the quietest passages, yes, it did.

The online stream’s camera work improves on past productions. Over-prominent winds and brass, whether from the performances or microphone placement and audio mix, persist.

The 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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