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 May 25.
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting
May 20-21, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
The Richmond Symphony’s final mainstage program of the season was a showcase of orchestral tone color. The program’s highlight, inevitably, was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition;” but a first half of American works – John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” Florence Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” and “Amer’ican” by James Lee III – enlarged the coloristic palette and offered some unexpected parallels and echoes.
With guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, the Russian-born American music director of Chicago Opera Theater, and a number of guest and substitute players, the orchestra audibly had sweated the details of wind solos and ensembles, string articulation and often tricky balances and exchanges among sections. This paid off to special effect in subtler or more atmospheric sections of “Pictures” and Lee’s tone poem.
“Pictures” was receiving a belated 100th-birthday salute: Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano suite was commissioned by the Russian conductor and new-music advocate Serge Koussevitzky, and introduced in his Concerts Koussevitzky series in Paris in October 1922. While Ravel’s timbral language here is as much his own as in works such as “Daphnis et Chloé” and “La valse,” the Russian qualities of Mussorgsky’s music comes through clearly, especially in Ravel’s weighty string and brass writing.
Yankovskaya and the orchestra realized both composers’ styles and soundscapes in a performance rich in both tonal and expressive detail and in massed sonority. The symphony’s woodwind and brass players – notably trumpeter Samuel Huss, bassoonist Thomas Schneider and alto saxophonist Dusty Dowdy – were in fine form, and the orchestra’s strings maintained balance with the relatively oversized complements of winds, brass and percussion.
An unexpected echo of the Russo-French sound of early 20th-century Paris came in Lee’s “Amer’ican,” music of a Black American composer introduced in 2021. Lee has described his piece as a “21st century response to [Antonín] Dvořák’s charge to American composers to incorporate the music of Native and Negro American music melodies.”
Melodically, “Amer’ican” follows that trajectory, with intermittent quotations from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony (No. 9 in E minor). Lee’s sound textures and employment of tone color, especially in wind writing, often echo the more atmospheric, quasi-mystical sections of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”), music of very different aesthetic and folk traditions. That contrast enriches the piece sonically and stylistically.
Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America,” written in 1932, is a more straightforward response to Dvořák’s charge, deeply informed, like most of her music, by spirituals (especially mournful or contemplative ones) and African-derived juba (or Giouba, aka “hambone”) dance rhythms. In three parts, played without pause, Price’s tone poem is a sonic representation of African slaves’ transportation to America, their “resignation and faith” during enslavement and “adaptation, a fusion of [their] native and acquired impulses.”
Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” a popular curtain-raiser since its premiere in 1986, is a percussively propulsive, vividly colorful example of the composer’s early, quasi-minimalist style.
Yankovskaya and the symphony gave sonically and stylistically idiomatic treatments to all three American works, making their most lasting impression in Lee’s “Amer’ican.”
The stream of this program remains accessible until June 30. Access: $30. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://richmondsymphony.com