Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Alexis Seminario, soprano
Dashon Burton, baritone
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Anthony Blake Clark directing
Sept. 18, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was 19th-century Europe’s greatest composer of ballet music, and one of its major composers of symphonies. His Symphony No. 4 in F minor, completed in 1878, two years after “Swan Lake,” is built of tunes and dance rhythms that might have pirouetted out of a ballet score.

That’s the work’s allure, and its greatest challenge to interpreters. A ballet is composed of episodes, its music presented in the context of narrative, physical movement and the visual trappings of theater. A symphony is “abstract” – sound on its own, usually without any guide to its meaning – and its themes complement and contrast with one another in larger, longer, more complex musical constructs. When a symphony dances or tells a story, it does so in the listener’s imagination.

In the opening program of the Richmond Symphony’s 2022-23 mainstage season, Chia-Hsuan Lin, the orchestra’s associate conductor, substituting for its music director, Valentina Peleggi, who fell ill before the weekend concerts, crafted a Tchaikovsky Fourth that dancers could have danced to. Lin set steady, measured tempos and saw to it that discrete themes and instrumental voices, dramatic pronouncements and colorful asides, sounded clearly.

Her meticulous yet unfussy treatment of the score made for a rewarding listening experience, but not, to my ears, a completely compelling Tchaikovsky experience. Exposition of fine details, tone-painting of moody atmospherics, rhythmic fluidity and abundant lyricism came through almost flawlessly; but the music’s buildup of passion and sonic intensity was too gradual, too moderated, to provoke the emotional rush that Tchaikovsky uniquely provides.

The Tchaikovsky concluded a program otherwise devoted to American works of different vintages and stylistic strains: William Grant Still’s “Festive” Overture, Antonín Dvořák’s Te Deum and Zachary Wadsworth’s “Beyond the Years,” the latter two featuring the Richmond Symphony Chorus.

“Beyond the Years,” the Richmond-born Wadsworth’s setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, receiving its premiere in this symphony program, casts its elegiac words (“Beyond the years the soul shall find / That endless peace for which it pined”) in vaguely old-English liturgical harmonies, filtered through a pastoral-cum-impressionistic orchestration recalling the scores of Frederick Delius or Frank Bridge – an evocation of solace and peace on several dimensions.

The Symphony Chorus, directed by Anthony Blake Clark, gave Wadsworth’s brief work a warm, affectionate reading, nicely contrasting with the more declamatory choral voicing of the Dvořák Te Deum.

The Dvořák, written in 1892 to launch the Czech composer’s three-year teaching and composing residence in the US, is an extroverted setting of the Latin hymn “Te Deum laudamus” (“God, We Praise You”), mixing celebratory, borderline-martial choral-orchestral sections with more devotionally expressive solos, sung here by soprano Alexis Seminario and baritone Dashon Burton.

Like the Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, Dvořák’s Te Deum is more operatic than liturgical in tone, and was projected in that quasi-theatrical mode in this performance. Slavic-folk echoes – ever-present in most of Dvořák’s music – are less explicit in this piece, mostly sensed in its exclamatory choral writing.

The Symphony Chorus sang with rustic gusto, but with recessed presence when Dvořák’s orchestration was at its brassiest.

Still’s curtain-raiser, winner of a “best overture” competition staged in 1944 by conductor Eugene Goosens and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (a year earlier, a similar Cincinnati project introduced Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”), is a miniature showpiece of orchestration, vividly colorful, tuneful and rhythmically propulsive. Lin and the orchestra gave it the brash yet suave tone of a golden-age Hollywood musical.