March 6, 2016
Music review: Richmond Symphony
By Clarke Bustard
Steven Smith has a way with Shostakovich.
A 2010 performance of the composer’s Fifth Symphony secured Smith’s appointment as music director of the Richmond Symphony, and his treatment of the Sixth Symphony, capping this month’s Masterworks series program, was just as powerfully convincing — maybe more so — in the first of two weekend concerts Saturday night at the Carpenter Theatre of the newly renamed Dominion Arts Center.
The Shostakovich Sixth is harder to put across than its predecessor. The piece is weirdly constructed, with a long, slow, bleakly intense first movement followed by two relatively brief fast ones whose surface boisterousness barely conceals ominously martial undertones.
Making musical sense of that radical transition in expression is tricky; making the headlong, rowdy finale sound like something other than elephants on amphetamines is trickier still.
Smith and the orchestra pulled it off with a pointed, punchy reading that made ample room for moody, atmospheric wind solos without stinting on the crashing climaxes.
The symphony’s low strings, contrabassoon and timpani projected the needed darkness and weight, and the horns, brass and percussion sounded brash without lapsing into crudeness.
The central movement, perhaps the most genuine scherzo in all of Shostakovich’s symphonies, actually sounded like a joke.
Orli Shaham, the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, was a bit too assertive, almost Brahmsian, in her entrance in the first movement, but soon adjusted her touch and tone production to the more classical scale of early(ish) Beethoven.
Shaham excelled in finer points of articulation, in her highly lyrical treatment of the concerto’s central largo and in her playfully extroverted handling of the finale. Smith and the orchestra gave her warm, animated support throughout.
The first work on the program, “The Dream of the Peasant Gritzko” (also known as “St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain”), the rarely performed choral version of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” threatened to be an insurmountable challenge to the Richmond Symphony Chorus even before it began rehearsing the piece.
When the chorus’s director, Erin Freeman, received the score, the text was in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia. Fortunately, two of the chorus’ members, Rick Sample and Don Irwin, have studied Russian; with help from the Richmond Ballet’s Igor Antonov, they prepared a transliteration.
It was worth the trouble. Saturday’s performance all but blew the lid off, with the chorus sounding frighteningly demonic — the tenors seemed especially possessed — and the symphony’s strings and winds pacing an explosive yet pointed reading of Mussorgsky’s orchestration. Next to this, the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite sounds tame.