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 26.

Tito Muñoz conducting
with Michelle Cann, piano
April 22-23, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, introduced in 1830 by the then-20-year-old pianist-composer, reflects the instrumental vogue of early 19th-century Europe, the busy-fingered, note-heavy style of virtuosos such as pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel and violinist Nicólo Paganini. Amid all those notes, the concerto also pre-echoes the masterful melodist and mood-setter that Chopin would become.

Michelle Cann, recent winner of a Grammy Award for her recording of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto with the New York Youth Symphony, negotiated Chopin’s abundant pianistic filagree with finesse and persuasively coaxed his tunes out of the arpeggiated undergrowth in performances with the Richmond Symphony.

Cann played with flexible tempos and well-graded dynamics in the big first movement, with more consistent animation and rhythmic punch in the finale, and pulled off one of most challenging tricks in the concerto – setting a discernable pace for the central slow movement as it opens with quizzical two-note motifs separated by pregnant pauses. Here, as elsewhere, Cann sustained the sensation of music going somewhere, however many decorative accoutrements it wears on the journey.

Guest-conductor Tito Muñoz underlined the melodic qualities of the concerto’s orchestration and, impressively, managed to make it sound less tubby and feel less perfunctory than usual.

Cann’s encore was an arrangement that runs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s iconic Prelude in C sharp minor through the filter of 1920s stride-piano style. If that seems outrageous, remember that Rachmaninoff attended the premiere of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and quite likely heard New York stride masters such as James P. Johnson. Rachmaninoff might have chuckled appreciatively at this take on his prelude, as Cann did before she played it.

The collective string tone obtained in the Chopin by Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony, bloomed more lushly in Edward Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme” (“Enigma”). The orchestra’s string sections sounded larger and more richly sonorous than their relatively modest numbers might have promised.

Muñoz’s conception of Elgar’s best-known work was not standard-issue. He treated the piece as domestic music – a gathering of friends (which it literally is: Each variation is a sound-portrait of a person close to the composer), their contrasting personalites interacting sociably. (Nimrod, for once, doesn’t entirely lord it over the party.)

The interactions proceeded at a fairly leisurely pace (about 32 minutes in all), which enhanced the work’s songfulness and gave its numerous wind and string soloists ample time both to sing and to dab tone color onto the orchestral soundscape.

The symphony’s musicians gave the conductor lush yet well-defined string tone, subtly inflected wind solos and ensembles, expansive brass choirs and punchy but not intrusive percussion.

It was, altogether, a companionable “Enigma.”

The program opened with “D’un matin de printemps” (“From a Spring Morning”) by Lili Boulanger, younger sister of the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and, before her death at 24, the composer of perhaps the greatest promise in continuing the French impressionist style of Maurice Ravel. This piece, in its various chamber and orchestral guises, could easily be mistaken for a work by Ravel – say, an extra movement of “Miroirs.”

Muñoz and the orchestra delivered a reading that nicely balanced atmospheric tone color and lyricism, and made the listener crave more of Boulanger. Sadly, there’s all too little.

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

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