Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
March 19-20, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted March 23)

In the Richmond Symphony’s latest Masterworks program, “From Scotland’s Highlands,” all that was missing were . . . Scots.

So it usually goes. Most of the familiar classical works on Scottish themes have been composed by outsiders – in this case, two Germans, Felix Mendelssohn and Max Bruch, and the English-born Peter Maxwell Davies. (Davies was an adopted Scot, living on the Orkney Island of Sanday for the last 45 years of his life.)

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster, was the soloist in Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” a showpiece for violin virtuosos (written for Pablo de Sarasate) built on well-known folk tunes, most prominently “Through the Woods, Laddie,” its recurring theme, and “Scots Wha Hae” in the fantasy’s finale.

Yamamoto gave the work’s sonically brilliant fiddle figurations and Scottish rhythmic “snap” their due, but more constructively concentrated on Bruch’s free phrasing and coloristic shading of melodies. The violinist’s sound was bronze as often as silver; the moods he conveyed were more often contemplative or nostalgic than declarative.

Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s music director, set a complementary tone in the orchestra’s accompaniment, managing along the way to bring some continuity to a piece that can sound like an episodic succession of orchestral pronouncements followed by violin elaborations.

Continuity more or less takes care of itself in Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony (No. 3 in A minor), one of the most perfectly constructed, no-notes-wasted, no-theme-undeveloped works in the orchestral literature. The only interpretive interventions it really needs are balancing of instrumental voicings and properly contrasting animation and songfulness in treatments of its tunes.

On those interpretive scores, Peleggi opted for high contrasts in voicings – solo and ensemble winds sounded more prominently than strings, at least in the audio stream of the performance – and generally fleet tempos.

That seems to be the current fashion in performances of early 19th-century works whose styles straddle the classical and the romantic. A classical approach can enhance some of this music (Franz Schubert’s early symphonies, for example); but in pieces like the Mendelssohn “Scottish” that are driven by evocative melodies and outdoorsy atmospherics, too brisk a pace effectively underplays the music. That’s what happened in this reading.

“An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise,” the most popular of Davies’ many Scottish-themed compositions, could be characterized as Scottish with generous shots of Scotch. The composer, a onetime “bad boy” of British musical modernism, liberally garnishes the piece with massed instrumental collisions – drunken brawls – alongside representations of folksy nuptials and the early morning after.

The work’s highlight comes at the end, when a bagpiper plays while pacing from the back of the hall to the stage. Robert Mitchell, the piper in this performance, brought both flair and gravitas to his cameo appearance.

The stream of the program remains accessible through June 30. Single-concert access: $30. Full Masterworks season access: $180. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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