What a difference a decade makes.
Ten years ago, the Richmond Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary with a re-creation of its 1957 debut concert. The newest work on that program was a 1942 orchestration of a keyboard piece written in the 1620s. In the orchestra’s 60th anniversary concert Saturday night at Dominion Arts Center’s Carpenter Theatre, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) was the oldest piece performed.
Just how present- and future-tense the symphony will become is an open question – its audience is hardly a crowd of avant-gardists; but to celebrate a milestone with the Bartók, Steven Stucky’s “Jeu de timbres” (2003) and “Travels in Time for Three,” which Chris Brubeck (son of jazz great Dave Brubeck) wrote in 2010 for the genre-crossing string trio Time for Three, is another bit of evidence that symphony orchestras are stepping out of their old Mozart-to-Rachmaninoff comfort zone.
Time for Three – violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang and double-bassist Ranaan Meyer – affects the look of a ’90s grunge band and performs with joyful animation. Brubeck clearly had these musicians’ energy level, as well as their stylistic versatility, in mind when he wrote “Travels in Time for Three.”
The piece, which mixes and matches blues, boogie-woogie, New Orleans-style street-band music, jazz-funk and Celtic folk styles, is structured much like an 18th-century sinfonia concertante, with solos and duets riding more or less constantly over the orchestra. The featured musicians are given long “jams” – most notably, a big bass solo in the final section – which add personality at some cost to musical continuity.
The trio’s infectious performance earned a long, loud ovation, which they rewarded with an encore, an original tune called “Joy,” featuring Yang as both fiddler and singer.
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is playful, too, on its entirely different terms. The score is packed with brainy spoofs of conventional symphonic writing, and its orchestration spotlights every section of the orchestra at one point or another, with especially witty and characterful solos and ensembles for woodwind instruments.
The symphony, paced by its bassoonists, flutists, oboists and trumpeters, and undergirded by richly sonorous low strings, delivered a crisp, finely detailed account of this modern masterpiece. But the spectral quality that distinguishes Bartók’s slower, quieter music wasn’t much in evidence here.
Stucky’s “Jeu de timbres” (“Play of Colors”), which opened the program, lived up its title sonically, and conveyed a subtle bit of humor in a recurrent stuttering rhythmic figure borrowed from the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Smith and the symphony followed the Bartók with an encore: Mikhail Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmilla” Overture.
One more anniversary night performance deserves mention: Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s recitation of a congratulatory resolution as a hyper-soliloquy. He must have practiced that as hard as the symphony players practiced the Bartók.