Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Stefan Jackiw, violin
Jan. 29-30, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted Feb. 2)

The Richmond Symphony’s first Masterworks program of the new year was a Viennese evening, but with only occasional and subtle hints of the waltz.

The program opened with the US premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s “Alma’s Songs without Words,” which the symphony’s music director, Valentina Peleggi, described as a “free transcription” of three Lieder (art-songs) by Alma Schindler Mahler.

Alma (1879-1964) was one of the most thoroughly networked figures in 20th-century culture – daughter of a well-known landscape painter (Emil Jakob Schindler); pupil of two prominent composers (Josef Labor and Alexander von Zemlinsky); wife of an even more prominent composer and conductor (Gustav Mahler); subsequently married to leading lights of modern architecture (Walter Gropius) and literature (Franz Werfel); involved romantically with Zemlinsky and the painter Oskar Kokoschka; and sometime soulmate of the painter Gustav Klimt. Her daughter, the short-lived Manon Gropius, was the “angel” to whom Alban Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto. Alma’s salons in Vienna, and later in Los Angeles, where she and Werfel settled after fleeing the Nazi takeover of Austria, brought together many of the creative and intellectual luminaries of her time.

Her music – mostly Lieder, piano pieces and chamber works, all dating from the early 1900s – reflects the intensely romantic, soulful yet world-weary tone of Viennese music in its pre-World War I fin de siècle epoch.

Panufnik, who also has a lineage in modern musical history (her father was the Polish-born British composer Andrzej Panufnik), sonically brightens the tone of Alma’s songs in an eventful orchestration that, following a richly burnished cello solo, played here by Neal Cary, apportions melodies democratically among winds and strings. While rooted in the songs’ romantic style, Panufnik’s treatment of them ventures well beyond old Vienna into a soundscape of neo-impressionist tone color and atmospheric scoring for winds, harp, celesta and percussion.

Peleggi’s reading of Panufnik’s orchestration played up its post-Viennese, coloristic qualities, with winds and percussion sounding as prominently as strings through much of the piece. (Or so it sounded in the audio mix of the online stream of this performance.) The moody lyricism of the original songs came through clearly, but more as an undertone than as a foreground characteristic.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), the Viennese prodigy who became a leading composer of film scores in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, straddled the old and new worlds in his music, especially in the concert works he produced in the last decade of his life. The most durable of these compositions was his Violin Concerto in D major, written for Jascha Heifetz, introduced in 1947.

Heifetz cast a long shadow in American music. His brilliant, tonally sharp-focused, temperamentally febrile sound was the model of virtuosity for generations of violinists. Composers who wrote for him had to reckon with, if not outright cater to, that sound. Korngold’s concerto is one of the few Heifetz vehicles to have thrived without its original protagonist, because it is more than virtuoso fiddling with orchestral padding.

Stefan Jackiw, the featured soloist in the Korngold, summoned all the Heifetz-scale brilliance packed into the piece’s high-register phrases and quick-fingered filigree, but devoted as much or more care to the concerto’s lyrical and colorful qualities.

The violinist, as well as conductor Peleggi, clearly remembered that this music is a product of Hollywood – Korngold lifted some of the concerto’s themes from his film scores – and that much of the piece, especially its busy final movement, is a marriage of Mitteleuropische late-romanticism with the swaggering energy of mid-20th century America.

Jackiw’s willingness to balance solo pyrotechnics with more collaborative interactions between the violin and orchestra, and his audible determination to let this music breathe, made this an unusually fleshed-out, fully realized interpretation of the Korngold concerto.

The program closed, back in Vienna but predating Mahler (Alma or Gustav), with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. This was Peleggi’s deepest dive to date in her Richmond tenure into the German romantic canon, and the results were both gratifying and revealing.

The conductor captured and sustained the pulse that propels Brahms’ music, deeper than mere rhythm, sturdy enough to accommodate expressive shifts of tempo (which Peleggi applied fairly liberally) and to be sensed even in the symphony’s more dramatic and assertive passages.

Peleggi has spent much of her career leading voices, in both choral music and opera, and her ear for song-like phrasing and chorus-like ensemble playing was evident throughout the performance, from the full-hearted lyricism of the symphony’s slow movement to the anthemic big theme of its finale.

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);

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