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 April 5.

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Katerina Burton, soprano
Lauren Decker, alto
Richmond Symphony Chorus
April 1-2, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Life, death and the hereafter, consistent themes in Gustav Mahler’s music, are addressed most directly in his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the “Resurrection.”

Its title comes from Mahler’s setting of a poem of that name by the 18th-century German writer Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. The story goes that Mahler heard a hymn setting of the poem at the funeral of a colleague, and was inspired to use it in a choral finale of a symphony for which he had already composed a first movement, titled “Totenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”).

In the latest of the Richmond Symphony’s mainstage programs, Music Director Valentina Peleggi conducted the “Resurrection” with the largest ensemble of instrumentalists and singers the orchestra has mustered in years. The ensemble was enlarged in virtually every section, most vividly and audibly among horns, brass and percussion. Strings, seated with violins divided to the conductor’s left and right and violas, cello and double-basses in the center of the orchestra, added needed weight to sections that, while considerably larger than usual, could easily have been overwhelmed by winds and percussion.

Peleggi headed off imbalances with carefully graded dynamics throughout the symphony, and she adopted rather measured tempos that gave time and space for instrumental solos, subtle exchanges and atmospheric touches in the strings and offstage ensembles of French horns, trumpets and percussion. This treatment brought out lyrical and rustic qualities that don’t always come through in performances of the “Resurrection.”

Not that this reading lacked fire and tension: From the first sharply accented chords of the “Totenfeier,” Peleggi and the orchestra maintained taut rhythms and exploited sudden shifts in volume, tempo and tone color. The listener never lost the sense that this was a story going somewhere.

The last two (of five) movements of the symphony introduce voices in settings of “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”) from Mahler’s song cycle “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), sung by an alto, and the “Resurrection” hymn, for soprano, alto and chorus. Alto Lauren Decker and soprano Katerina Burton brought heft, refinement and character, from the nostalgic to the angelic, to their solos and ensembles, and the Richmond Symphony Chorus covered a comparable expressive range, from earthy to heavenly, in one of its most memorable performances in decades.

The program opened with a lively account of “Icarus in Orbit,” George Walker’s very brief (4 minutes or so) but very colorful and eventful sonic retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the boy who flew too close to the sun. A curious prelude to the “Resurrection” Symphony, but played with animation and precision.

These concerts also were the debut of the orchestra’s new onstage attire, a “performance wardrobe system” of outfits, black with sapphire accents, designed by an international team brought together by Lauren Solomon. The clothes were crafted to accommodate physical movement, provide space for instrumental accessories such as woodwind reeds, and enhance overall comfort. Mahler gave the system quite a workout; no one looked worse for wear when it was over.

The stream of this program remains accessible until June 30. Access: $30 Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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