Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with George Li, piano
Feb. 26-27, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(Reviewed from online stream, posted March 2)

Music can be an escape, or it can meet the moment. That’s especially true of classical music, which requires a substantial investment of both mind and heart by the listener to be heard as more than a lengthy, complicated construct of sounds. And it can meet the moment unexpectedly: Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” would not rank high on many lists of anthems for Western civilization, but that’s how it came across in the Richmond Symphony’s first concert after the 9/11 attacks.

Flash forward two decades: The orchestra’s long-planned program of two Russian works, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, presented a few days after the would-be tsar of today’s Russia, Vladimir Putin, launched his invasion of Ukraine, looked to be a glaring mismatch of music and moment.

It didn’t turn out that way. The ribbons in Ukraine’s national colors, blue and yellow, worn by many of the musicians reflected the sound and spirit of their performance, especially – perhaps surprisingly – in the Shostakovich.

The Rachmaninoff concerto is a product of pre-Soviet Russia, in both its vintage (1901) and its sensibility, by a composer who spent his later years as an émigré in the US and Switzerland – a refugee from the regime that would spawn a Putin.

This music found an advocate of unusual sensitivity in George Li, a 26-year-old Bostonian of Chinese parentage who was a silver medalist at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition and subsequently has earned international acclaim as an interpreter of Russian repertory.

Li deftly managed the elusive balancing of roles that Rachmaninoff requires of the soloist. The concerto needs a pianist with abundant and tonally brilliant technique and an ear for high-romantic expressivity and rhetorical flourish; but it also needs a musician who knows when and how to collaborate with the orchestra, especially in the instrument’s exchanges with solo winds in the central adagio movement.

Without underplaying its passages of pianistic dazzle or the soulful tunefulness of its main themes, Li was attentive to the subtleties of tone and color and the long arcs of expression that make this concerto more than a virtuoso showpiece with plush orchestral padding. His performance sang and sighed and glittered, but it never gushed or skimmed the surface.

Following the concerto, Li played an encore, Chopin’s Prelude in D flat major, Op. 28, No. 15, with a contemplative, elegiac air that was both profoundly musical and remarkably attuned to the somber, hope-against-hope atmosphere of the world outside the concert hall.

The Shostakovich Fifth, introduced in 1937, was characterized, purportedly by the composer but more likely by some apparatchik ghost-writer, as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” In that phrase, the only true adjective is “creative.”

Fanfares and pounding drums notwithstanding, this piece is anything but Stalinist, socialist-realist triumphalism, as anyone who listens to the music that lies between its brassy outbursts can sense immediately. Its big tunes are bleak, introduced mostly by solo instruments playing with stark purity, as lone voices in a spiritual wasteland, and its loudest moments exude more menace than triumph.

In comments at the beginning of the program, Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, called the largo movement of the Shostakovich “a powerful cry against any form of brutality,” and observed that, sadly, “little has changed” in the 85 years since its composition.

That verbally signalled a measured, sober reading whose most affecting moments were its quietest, thanks largely to the contributions of the symphony’s wind principals – flutist Mary Boodell, oboist Victoria Chung, clarinetist David Lemelin, bassoonist Thomas Schneider – and the imposingly dark tone of the cello and double-bass sections that served as the foundation of the performance. Brasses and percussion came through with the needed impact, but more as sonic contrast than as emotional climaxes.

It was powerful; but more to the point, it was a compelling lamentation.

The stream of Li’s performance of the Rachmaninoff concerto will be accessible until March 31, and the Shostakovich symphony through June 30. Single-concert access: $30. Full Masterworks season access: $180. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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