Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Jennifer Koh, violin
Oct. 22, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Violinist Jennifer Koh was a silver medalist in the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition. That might lead listeners to expect her to deliver a traditional Russian interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major – robust tone, plush lyricism and technical brilliance, echoing past masters such as David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein.

Koh also is known for her mastery of a decidedly different strain of violin music, the solo sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach, and for her advocacy of living composers working in varied contemporary styles.

All of those creative and re-creative paths converged in Koh’s performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Richmond Symphony. Her reading of the piece was high-romantic, with flexible, songful phrasing of its big tunes, thrilling displays of fiddle technique and dynamism; but it was not the big, fat, swooning Tchaikovsky that has long been the default approach of Russified American violinists.

In the first of two weekend performances, Koh played with a rather lean, highly focused tone that directed the ear to the finer strands of the solo part, but without underplaying this music’s passion and rhetorical sweep – a rare combination of almost clinical attention to detail and a spontaneous outpouring of expression.

The symphony and its music director, Valentina Peleggi, underlined the violinist’s reading of the concerto, playing both supportively and collaboratively.

In the second half of the program, the conductor and orchestra tuned to a wildly contrasting wavelength in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor.

Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year, is best-known for his English-pastoral style, typified by works such as “The Lark Ascending” and “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” (The symphony will play the latter in January concerts.) His Sixth Symphony, while bearing some melodic and harmonic vestiges of that gentler style, is much sterner, more explosive stuff.

Written during and just after World War II, the Sixth is one of the composer’s most challenging works for both musicians and listeners, aggressively brassy and percussive in its opening allegro and scherzo, lyrically somber in its slow(-ish) central movement, desolately rarified in a lengthy, fugal epilogue.

In pre-concert remarks, Peleggi noted that none of the symphony’s musicians had previously played the Vaughan Williams Sixth – no doubt adding to the challenge of performing it, but also bringing a sense of discovery to their interpretation.

To say that the conductor and orchestra rose to the occasion is putting it mildly. The music’s blockbuster moments busted every conceivable block, and its darker and more otherworldly sequences plumbed great depths.

The concentration with which the strings played the epilogue was riveting (and would have been more so without frequent bronchial contributions from the audience); the mass of sound from brass and percussion was potent without turning coarse; and the work’s numerous wind and string solos were arrestingly expressive and atmospheric.

The program opened with “The Block,” Carlos Simon’s musical response to Romare Howard Bearden’s 1971 painting/montage of a street scene in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Simon, one of the most prolific and widely performed contemporary Black composers, matches Bearden’s busy, primary-colored image with an infectiously rhythmic, vividly colorful score. Peleggi and the orchestra gave it a punchy, rollicking reading.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $15-$85. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);