The ninth and last candidate for the job of Richmond Symphony music director made his final appearances with the symphony at CenterStage on Nov. 14 and 15. In a performance that included the music of Beethoven, Cesar Franck and contemporary composer Bright Sheng, the elder statesmanlike Arthur Fagen guided the ensemble through works of tremendous emotional weight without allowing the proceedings to veer into funereal depths.
Beethoven's “Egmont” Overture was tarnished by Saturday's talking and playbill-masticating audience. Photographers and CenterStage's late seating procedures did not enhance Beethoven's score. I'm not against ambient noise — in John Cage.
Franck's only symphony has been derided as a “lumbering dinosaur. … collapsing under the weight of its lugubrious themes” by Allan Kozinn of The New York Times. Fagen's alternately pensive and impassioned reading rescued the work from the darker abysses of melancholy. Deirdre Chadwick delivered a near flawless English horn solo in the spectral second movement.
Yang WeiThe emotional core of the evening was “Nanking! Nanking! A Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa,” described by its creator Bright Sheng as a commemoration of the lamentable World War II episode now known as the Rape of Nanking. An articulated narrative begs the question: If we did not know the back story — or the program — would we be as moved by this music? It did seem a bit like stacking the deck, but guest artist Yang Wei's transcendent mastery of the four-stringed pipa, an instrument akin to a lute, successfully exorcised those concerns.
Wei's performance was as much theatrical as musical — bewilderment, fear, blank terror and heartbreak emerged from his breathtaking turn. A showpiece of orchestration, “Nanking!” exploits the possibilities of brass and enlarged percussion sections to create disjointed sonic assaults that lay waste to centuries of accumulated musical and cultural beauty. The assistant concertmaster, Simon Lapointe, and principal cellist Neal Cary were stylistically on-point in extended conversations with Wei's instrument
An astonishing virtuoso, Wei treated Saturday's listeners to an encore, “The Ancient Battlefield,” and was forced to calm an ecstatic half-filled hall with “Home on the Range,” rendered as a humorous lullaby. It was a most satisfying conclusion. To paraphrase art critic Simon Schama, it's precisely when things are bad — when the bombs are dropping, when the economy crashes, when our children maul each other, when the waters won't recede — that we need symphonies, threnodies and a gentle lullaby to send us on our way.
The Richmond Symphony's next appearance at the Carpenter Theatre will include holiday favorites such as selections from Handel's “Messiah” and Vince Guaraldi's “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Let It Snow,” scheduled for Dec. 5 and 6, will be conducted by Erin Freeman and include guest appearances from the Richmond Symphony Chorus and the Richmond Boys Choir. Tickets: $17-$75. www.richmondsymphony.com.