Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Alexandra Dariescu, piano
Nov. 12, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
When Allan Kozinn, the longtime music critic of The New York Times, left the city and resettled in Portland, ME, the local newspaper persuaded him to review concerts by the Portland Symphony. A letdown after years of hearing the world’s finest orchestras? Less than might be expected.
“The standard of musical education is extraordinarily high in the United States these days, and young players with polished techniques are pouring out of conservatories and finding jobs in orchestras everywhere,” Kozinn wrote in 2015 in the Portland Press Herald (http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/30/music-critic-allan-kozinn-finds-a-home-in-portland/). “So it should not be surprising to find (or, for that matter, to expect) that the performance level of a regional orchestra is quite high.”
Kozinn’s observation was borne out in the first of two weekend performances by the Richmond Symphony of excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I’m not exaggerating or playing hometown booster in rating it as not just high-quality but up to the standards of a major-league orchestra in peak form.
Instead of using one of the composer’s concert suites from the 2½-hour ballet score, Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, selected a sequence of seven scenes that reflected Shakespeare’s storyline and traced a satisfying musical and emotional arc.
Peleggi was audibly attuned to this music’s dramatic potency, contrast of moods and wide range of tone colors and emotive effects. So were the symphony musicians, who played with both power and focus.
Balances among sections were consistently right; solos were characterful and well-voiced in both narrative and orchestral contexts; and Prokofiev’s sonorities, from glaring to bittersweet, earthy to otherworldly, were realized as well as I ever expect to hear them.
The Romanian-born, British-based pianist Alexandra Dariescu, featured in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, turned in a performance of sonic brilliance and dazzling technique, playing the Grieg as a virtuoso showpiece.
Dariescu was less persuasive in her treatment of the folk-inflected tunefulness and dancing quality at the heart of this score. Rhythmic passages sounded metrical and keyboard figurations often brittle, while lyrical themes, outside those of the central adagio, didn’t sing as they should.
Peleggi’s crafting of the orchestral accompaniment softened some of the edges of the pianist’s performance.
The program opened with the rarely heard “Preludio Sinfonico” by Giacomo Puccini. Written when he was a 24-year-old student at the Milan Conservatory, the piece pre-echoes the mature, operatic Puccini in its passionate melodic quality and his ear for drama in orchestration as well as vocal writing.
Peleggi and the orchestra cast the piece as a miniature opera without words. Puccini evidently heard it that way, as he recycled some of this music in his early operas.
In both the Grieg and Puccini, the orchestra’s brass choir overbalanced strings, possibly a consequence of the brasses’ placement on high risers, physically and sonically looming over the rest of the orchestra. Imbalance was not a problem in the Prokofiev, whose string sound is generally more pointed and assertive than the more mellow, rounded tone of romantic orchestral string writing.
The symphony’s brass players are more accomplished in ensemble and aligned in collective sonority than at any time in the orchestra’s history; but in this hall, in music of the romantic era, they are too often too loud. At least that’s what I’m hearing from the perspective of a balcony seat.
The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $15-$85. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://richmondsymphony.com