This may be the best time in decades to catch the Richmond Symphony.
Under the dynamic leadership of increasingly world-renowned conductor Valentina Peleggi, named a rising star by the BBC, the group is experiencing a golden era. Timeworn classics become bracing and fresh, mixing with new, diverse compositional voices.
While this is a delight to long-term audiences, the challenge comes, as always, in attracting new listeners. Classical music can seem dated or elitist to those who only hear it in passing. Modern music is crafted for technology-mediated consumption through speakers and, more likely these days, earbuds. Orchestral music comes alive directly in the simultaneous artistry of dozens of players on an instrumental menagerie in an expansive concert hall. There are fine digital recordings out there but, to quote eclectic producer Kip Hanrahan: “Once something is hamburger, it can never be steak again.”
The upcoming Richmond Symphony season definitely offers a full meal.
“There is just so much to experience in the fall at the Richmond Symphony, it is hard to pick one,” says Peleggi, responding by email while on vacation. “From Gladys Knight to Mahler’s First Symphony to open-air concerts at Pocahontas State Park, to the premiere of [Adolphus] Hailstork’ Second Piano Concerto. There are visionary collaborations with artistic partners [the Richmond Ballet] in ‘Carmina Burana,’ and stellar soloists for our Symphony series.” In addition, there are also free-range concerts at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and the year-ending blizzard of holiday performances which include “Let It Snow,” “Holiday Brass,” and “The Nutcracker.”
A particular highlight is Roxanna Panufnik’s “Across the Line of Dreams,” one of two modern pieces, with the aforementioned Hailstork enriching a mid-November program headlined by William L. Dawson’s 1934 “Negro Folk Symphony.” Dedicated to pioneering American female conductor Marin Alsop, it is a work of sweeping ambition a piece for two orchestras, two choirs and two conductors. It tells the story of two incredible women who fought for the freedom of their people: Rani Lakshmibai, who led an 1857 Indian revolt against British rule, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was leading enslaved people to freedom in the U.S. at the same time. “I have performed this piece quite a few times,” Peleggi says. “In Baltimore, in Brazil, and even last week with the Chicago Symphony. I can’t wait to bring it here with the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond Symphony Chorus, and sharing the podium with our wonderful Associate Conductor Chia-Hsuan Lin.”
The season opener, Mahler’s First [“Titan”] Symphony may seem retrograde, given that the spring season ended with a stunning rendition of Mahler’s Second. “What we did is similar to the approach of ‘Star Wars,’” Peleggi explains. “The first movie starts in the middle of the story. I had the chance to work with the orchestra on a slightly more elaborated sonority … where the vocal lines sometimes guided the shape of the phasing but also informed on the maximum and softer dynamics.” This acclimated the players to Peleggi’s approach to the repertoire, with the violins split in the German tradition and the lower stings placed centrally to project more effectively in the Dominion Energy Center acoustics.
While it is the composer’s inaugural symphony, it also is the work of a mature artist, building on and incorporating earlier, smaller-scale works. “Mahler is such a hero,” Peleggi says. “He never writes [mere] notes, he paints emotions in the shape of cathedrals that have trees as columns and stars as a ceiling. His first Symphony is the perfect way to start a new cycle with new ideas, fresh canvas. The sky is the limit.” October’s highlight is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and final symphony, “Pathetique.” The title translates to “passionate” not “pathetic,” but given the composer died just a few weeks after the symphony’s debut performance, it generated a swarm of retroactive theories of hidden meaning. The main piece in every performance is complemented by works with thematic relevance. In October’s program that will be Richard Strauss’ yearning and melancholic poem, “Don Juan,” and Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Viola.”
It is a deep team effort. “I travel a lot for my job, and I have the chance to work with different orchestras and organizations around the world,” Peleggi says. “I can assure you that what we have in Richmond is something very special and rare. The artistic level of the orchestra is incredibly high, their passion, commitment, and will to grow is a joy to witness; and a huge responsibility that I accept with even more enthusiasm. I enjoy every time I work with the chorus and educational department.” She adds that it is a privilege to work with the team behind the scenes that makes everything happen, including “our wonderful Executive Director Lacey Huszcza, Director of Artistic Planning and Orchestral Operations Matt Wilshire, and an incredible, visionary board.”
But what does she enjoy the most? “It’s Richmond, our people, our audience, the depth and openness, the kindness, and the elegance,” Peleggi says. “Because this is reflected in the wonderful way we make music and share it with others.”
The heart of the music is in the performance, but the soul requires an audience.
Mahler’s First (“Titan”) Symphony, with Violin Concerto [Portera] at Carpenter Theatre — Sept. 30, Oct. 1
Tchaikovsky Sixth (“Pathetique”) with Richard Strauss “Don Juan,” Bartok “Violin Concerto” at Carpenter Theatre — Oct. 21, 22
“Negro Folk Symphony” (Dawson) with Piano Concerto [Hailfork] and “Across the Line of Dreams [Panufnik] at Carpenter Theatre — Nov. 11, 12
Gala Opening concert with Gladys Knight at Altria Theater — Sept. 9
“Ghostbusters” and live performance of the score, conducted by Chia-Hsuan Lin at Altria Theater — Oct. 28
Other fall performances
Pocahontas Park concert — Sept. 16; “Carmina Burana” [Orff] with the Richmond Ballet — Sept. 22, 23, 24 at Carpenter Theatre; Hardywood Park Craft Brewery performances — Oct. 5, Nov. 16; “Let it Snow!” holiday program at Carpenter Theatre — Nov. 25, 26