Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Brahms's Butter & Barber's Brilliance

My older daughter says she once saw a cooking show in which Paula Deen mixed butter, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs, rolled something in the mixture, deep fried it (whatever the base food was didn’t seem to be the point), then dipped it into mayonnaise to eat it.
Brahms’s cooking show—I think he had one—was similar. If he didn’t, his music, at least, was created on the principle, “Try more butter.” This is why you should never listens to Brahms on a Sunday afternoon without a pot of coffee and an open window.
But I like Brahms, even in serving sizes as large as a symphony, such as his Number 2 in D major, with which the Richmond Symphony ended its performance last night at St. Michael’s. I could have used even more butter, so to speak. Partly that’s because I think any time the cellos get a gorgeous melody, as in the first and second movements here, everyone, including the conductor, should drop to his knees and weep.
Daniel Meyer, auditioning conductor #2, (who did not drop to his knees) was an expressive but not excessive director for the whole program, which began with a piece from 1994, “Javelin” by Michael Torke.
This sprightly music was full of shapes and gesticulations; the only melody of more than a few repeated notes was inspirational in nature. As a whole, it was a pleasantly invigorating listen. Lest you think this too much faint praise, here are Torke’s words, which I saw in the program notes after the piece was over: “What came out was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps… The piece’s fast tempo evokes the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”
So, in fact, the composition and its performance was a rousing success, as defined by communication of intent.
Second on the program was Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Op.14); concertmistress Karen Johnson soloed. (I had never heard this piece before, but I like the Barber music that I know.) As at times in the Brahms, it seemed as if the orchestra wasn’t responding the way Meyer wanted. Especially in the first movement of the Barber, a lush Allegro, the big parts could have been bigger, the small parts smaller.
I think, however, this was mostly a factor of the St. Michael’s in-the-round arrangement and compartmentalized ceiling. When the average audience member is only 12 feet away, it’s practically impossible for an orchestra to play a good piano or pianissimo. And—though I don’t know much about acoustics—the forte parts seemed to go straight up and get stuck in the cross-shaped ceiling.
Also, Johnson had her back to my section, and it was sometimes hard to hear her. (This was my first ever and last ever St. Michael’s concert.)
In the second movement, Andante, the music descends from introspection into lethargy. You hear the self trying to rouse; by the end of the movement, resolution is reached, but it seemed like Meyer wanted to get to that point of awakening sooner than the RSO.
"Presto in moto perpetuo” is as brilliante as it sounds on paper. Listening to the third movement is like a riding full-tilt up the Empire State Building in a glass elevator with a fast-talking Manhattanite jacked up on sugar pointing out representative bits of American culture.
Just when you think the elevator and your tour guide couldn’t possibly go any faster, you smash through the roof and everyone jumps to their feet clapping.
In the music, snatches of vernacular whip by, a whirlwind tour of American music up to 1939. It’s truly giddy, and about half a minute before the end I did worry that something was going to fly apart. When Karen Johnson started her last lick, I thought, “My god, I don’t think her fingers are going to make it!” But they did, and so did she!

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