Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Magdalena Kuźma, soprano
March 26, Ryan Recital Hall, St. Christopher’s School

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major is the shortest and smallest of his nine symphonies. Short and small are relative terms: The piece lasts nearly an hour and is scored for a more or less standard (i.e., pretty large) orchestra of the late-romantic period.

There are, however, versions of the Mahler Fourth that are truly small. There’s a somewhat convoluted back-story to their existence.

A century ago, Vienna was the European cultural center most resistant to new trends in music. It was also home to a group of composers, led by Arnold Schoenberg, who produced some of the most radically new music of the time. Getting no love from the city’s musical establishment, they organized the Society for Private Musical Performances, which presented programs of contemporary works (their own and others’), including many chamber arrangements of orchestral pieces.

Among the most ambitious of these reductions was a Mahler Fourth, prepared by Erwin Stein in 1920, for string quintet, woodwinds, piano, harmonium and percussion, along with the soprano who sings “Das himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life”) from Mahler’s song collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) in the final movement. Stein’s arrangement survives only in sketch form, from which several “reconstructions” have been crafted.

A version by the German pianist and conductor Klaus Simon, introduced in 2007, is being played this weekend by a chamber contingent of the Richmond Symphony.

The first of two performances was staged in St. Christopher’s School’s new Ryan Recital Hall, a 450-seat venue that’s physically suited to music-making on this scale. (The repeat will be in a larger space, Blackwell Auditorium of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.)

Like many small-ish music rooms built recently, Ryan Hall has a bright, transparent acoustic that gives each instrument or voice its own sonic space. Every note (right or wrong) carries clearly, high pitches tend to stand out, and ensembles have to put extra effort into producing warm collective tone.

A 16-member symphony ensemble, led by Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, had mixed success in coping with the hall’s acoustical character.

The string quintet, undergirded by an electronic version of a harmonium, consistently realized Mahler’s bucolic lyricism, the low strings playing with especially glowing warmth. The winds were more vividly colorful and atmospheric than they generally sound in the full orchestration; but they were also far more prominent, at times flat-out loud. Piano and percussion were gratifyingly subtle.

The soprano’s song in the symphony’s finale is meant to convey a child’s vision of heaven. This is a challenge, as few sopranos past teen-age sound child-like. (Some conductors – Leonard Bernstein, famously/notoriously – have tried giving the part to a boy soprano.) Magdalena Kuźma, the soprano in these concerts, sang like a woman who remembers being a girl with a wistful imagination, an agreeable reconciliation of character and tone.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 27 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland. Tickets: $22. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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