Thursday, October 22, 2009

Richmond Symphony: Debussy, Prokofiev, Berlioz

My review of this concert appeared in Monday's Times-Dispatch, but there's no appearance of it online, so I'll post here. Read through for a few additional thoughts at the end.

Imagine a cup filled so full that the water makes a dome above its brim. The liquid trembles, bulges—but stays within the cup’s edge, held in place by surface tension until some outside force intervenes.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is music that plays, metaphorically speaking, at the edge of the cup. The emotional tension was portrayed keenly on Saturday night by the Richmond Symphony and guest pianist Jeremy Denk, under the baton of conductor Christian Knapp, a candidate for the postion of music director of the symphony.

Written in C Major, but with melodies that quiver at the brinks of various minor keys, the concerto strains at the boundaries of simple categories like “happy” and “sad.” Denk’s performance showed this brilliantly. The piano cavorts into the first movement, but as the music spills over the edge of glee, Denk played with a near-vicious ecstasy. When a brooding equilibrium is reached, he didn’t let the music become complacent.

In introducing the concerto, Knapp remarked on Prokofiev’s fascination with machinery. The concerto does have passages of mechanical insistence, musical figures that get repeated like a step on the assembly line of sound, but Denk’s no automaton. He translated such moments into a manic playfulness that let the audience marvel at both his skill and the larger context of the music itself.

Denk performed with sensitivity to the orchestral voices, and the musicians played in harmonious partnership with him. At moments in the first and third movements, the violins and woodwinds seemed to have trouble hearing each other. Knapp worked quickly to bring them together.

The theme of tension at the threshold connected the first and last pieces on the program as well. “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune” by Debussy and “Symphone fantastique” by Berlioz both explore the boundary between dream and waking worlds.

In Debussy’s dreamy afternoon, the surface shimmers, but doesn’t break. It’s easy to imagine the flute, oboe and other solo parts as light-footed fauns and nymphs. The musicians voiced these passages beautifully against the lush backdrop of harps and strings.

The opium-fueled dream Berlioz depicts is in sharp contrast to the languid eroticism of the Debussy. The music is by turns graceful, plaintive, violent and comic—and more—and requires quick mood shifts, which the musicians handled with ease.

Knapp directed emphatically, often using his full body, as if he were inside the dream himself. When the music ended, there were murmurs and sighs from the audience as we returned to the world of the concert hall to applaud.
Except that the sounds I heard were not so much murmurs and sighs as little gasps and burbles. That last movement's music is pretty crass, after all. But I couldn't use those words in a review, as they'd convey entirely the wrong meaning to readers who don't know the music.
(Burbles: you know, that sound some Educated People make when they laugh at something they think only Educated People realize is funny.) 
I also deliberately didn't use the word "animated" to describe Knapp's conducting. It's such a cliche, and I worried some readers would read it as a positive commentary ("Yay! the conductor is entertaining!") or as a negative commentary ("Humph. Too wacky. Undignified.") depending on their inclination. I hope "emphatically" came across as purely discriptive.
There were several points in the Berlioz and even once or twice in the Prokofiev that I thought the music sounded bottom-heavy. (Were six basses really necessary?) Personally, I'm all for a conductor who likes cellos and basses, but they were occassionally distracting in this performance.

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