Monday, November 17, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Stravinsky's Psalms

Maybe I was tired after a long week, or maybe the unexpected, chilly evening rain tempered my spirits, but Saturday's performance by the Richmond Symphony left me uninspired.

I was most eager to hear Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" (with the Richmond Symphony Chorus) and curious about Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra"--both of which I did not know--and anticipated being happy enough with Schubert's 9th symphony. And of course, I wanted to form an opinion about Director Candidate #3, Steven Smith.

The performance was the least precise I've heard by the RSO for as long as I can remember--which isn't saying much, as I'm happy to forget failings, and furthermore, they've been doing a lot of bombastic music recently, and it's much easier to hide imperfections when you're playing loud and fast. Both the Barber and the Stravinsky are quite spare, even austere in parts, with simple, exposed lines that have to be both accurate and beautiful. (And if you're singing in the choir, for Dominum's sake, get your "laudate"s together. I felt peppered with "d"s and "t"s.)

Stravinsky set Psalms 38, 39 and 150 (in Latin) to music, scoring for an intriguingly dark orchestra: no violins or violas. There were also 5 flutes, 4 oboes and no clarinets (as opposed to the typical 3,2,3. I didn't take proper notes, but there were bassoons, Fr. horns, trumpets and a trombone, and timpani.)

Dark, but not dismal. The psalms' texts move from plea to relief to praise, and the music is powerful without being sentimental. I especially liked the fugues in the second movement, with the oboe and the flute taking long-legged steps, as up a rocky mountain--enormous intervals between notes, creating a melody unsingable but ethereal: "And he led me out of the lake of misery, and out of the mire. And he set my feet upon a rock, and directed my steps." (Photo: Adrien Siegel)

Never having heard the Barber or the Stravinsky before, I didn't have anything to compare Smith's direction to, but my general impression was one of dryness. No note was sustained any fraction of a second longer than strictly indicated (I imagine) and no extra decibels milked from the crescendos or pilfered from the decrescendos.

Smith didn't seem to be drawing the best out of the musicians, but perhaps I was imposing my own lackluster attitude on the performance.

I did hear rumors earlier in the week, however, that nobody liked rehearsing the Schubert. I'll tell you one thing: it's not nicknamed "Great" because it's an exceptional piece of music; it's "great" because it's so blasted long. Actually, I'll tell you another thing: C Major must have been on sale when Schubert wrote the thing, because he sure does throw around that C Major key like beads on Fat Tuesday.

But it's a fine piece, and even if I haven't figured out yet how it fit on the program with the other two, I'm glad to have heard it again.

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