Review: Richmond Symphony

I am medically advised to avoid crowded public events, and so cannot attend concerts. The Richmond Symphony is making video streams of its mainstage concerts available to ticket-holders. The stream of this program became accessible on Feb. 2.

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Inbal Segev, cello
Courtney Collier & Michael Dunton, dancers
Jan. 28-29, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

“DANCE,” a cello concerto by the English composer Anna Clyne, written for and introduced in 2019 by the Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev, was the centerpiece of the latest mainstage program by the Richmond Symphony – and quite a piece it was in this staging. Two dancers from the Richmond Ballet physically responded to Segev’s performance of Clyne’s music, which was inspired by a poem by the 13th-century Persian Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

The symbology and/or metaphysics of that verse seem rather open-ended, at least to a 21st-century Westerner, and may or may not be useful in assessing Clyne’s score or the choreography, by Malcolm Burn, for this performance. For what it’s worth, I saw the dance of “DANCE” as interactive between the two dancers (a physical realization of the ups and downs of a relationship?) and between them and the cello, which served as kind of sonic beacon.

Segev’s fluency in Clyne’s score and its expressive potential were audible throughout the concerto, whose five movements, each titled after a line of the poem, exploit most every technical resource of the cello and the wide range of lyrical and dramatic voices the instrument can produce.

Unusually for a contemporary piece that isn’t minimalist, “DANCE” is tuneful and traditionally tonal for most of its nearly half-hour duration. Until some orchestral dissonance arises in the final movement, listeners might imagine that the work was written around the same time, and from a similar stylistic vantage, as the piece it followed in this program, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which dates from 1910.

Like the Vaughan Williams, Clyne’s work is built on slow, somber melodies – but neither English nor Persian, sounding instead to emanate from the Balkan/Jewish/Romani/Turkic musical melting pot of southeastern Europe. The most memorable tunes, from the first and last movements, are among the most soulful given to a cello in the concerto repertory.

Segev’s and the orchestra’s treatment of more rhythmic and animated sections of the piece were earthy, with abundant and gritty double-stopping on the cello, weighty bass lines and bright interjections from the winds.

New and recent compositions typically don’t leave non-specialist listeners hankering for repeat performances. “DANCE” is an exception, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it enter the standard repertory of cello concertos sooner rather than later.

In the Vaughan Williams fantasia and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s music director, led accounts with measured tempos and rather soft-edged rhythms, emphasizing tonal beauty from the strings and highly expressive solo playing from the winds.

“Scheherazade” can benefit from this kind of interpretation – all kinds of enticing details emerge from Rimsky’s orchestration that might be barely noticed at a brisker pace. The score’s lyrical solos and lush orchestral sonorities are enhanced. More upbeat sections, especially in the final movement (“Festival at Baghdad” – “The Sea” – “The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman”) sounded more blunt than eruptive in this reading.

Daisuke Yamamoto, the orchestra’s concertmaster, nicely contrasted silver and bronze tone in the solo violin’s introductory and culminating solos in each movement, sensitively and colorfully partnered by harpist Alicia Romeo. Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, made richly lyrical work of the instrument’s less frequent but expressively potent solos.

Among the winds, standout solos came from bassoonist Thomas Schneider, clarinetist David Lemelin, flutist Mary Boodell and oboist Victoria Chung. The orchestra’s trumpets and trombones scored high both for massed sonority and pinpoint detailing, and did not overpower the strings (at least in the audio mix for the online stream). Percussion sounded a bit recessed.

The “Tallis Fantasia,” scored for a string orchestra and a separate string ensemble – originally situated at the opposite end of a cathedral nave, here placed in the hall’s balcony and led by Chia-Hsuan Lin, the symphony’s associate conductor – showcased rich tonal beauty, a gratifying approach to be sure, but at the expense of the more austere beauty of the 16th-century liturgical melody on which the fantasia is based.

The review has been revised to credit Alicia Romeo, the harpist in this program.

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