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Musical Healing 

Richmond Symphony’s Maymont Big Tent Festival offers a collaborative celebration of Black creativity.

click to enlarge Musical Director Valentina Peleggi

Bo Lutoslawski

Musical Director Valentina Peleggi

After six months of sonic distancing, under new top leadership, the Richmond Symphony is back. Flush with fresh purpose, streamlined by pandemic rules, the latest edition is sleeker, more adventurous and seeking to stream out to a wider audience. The debut Big Tent Community Festival, African American Voices, is a timely celebration of Black creativity.

“We wanted something relevant, meaningful, to connect us all in a deep sense, to celebrate life and inclusion,” says its new musical director, Valentina Peleggi. The Italian-born conductor was the unanimous choice to replace the departing Steven Smith. The program includes poetry, living history portrayals from Maymont African American staff, music from the Jouwala Collective and underperformed music from African American composers, including Old Dominion University’s Adolphus Hailstork and New York breakout Jessie Montgomery.

“Everything is a collaboration,” Peleggi says. “Between the musicians, the departments of the symphony, Maymont, the playwriter. One idea leads to another, always better idea.”

For her, the program, like all musical programs, is a journey.

“You need to know the audience. What do they expect? What makes them comfortable or uncomfortable?” It is a physical and emotional passage for player, audience and conductor alike. “When the concert ends, do you feel richer? Do you take that feeling with you? That is always the goal.”

Which means picking up where Peleggi’s final audition, and the last symphony concert before the March shutdown, left off.

“Everyone had just been washed over with a fantastic wall of sound,” says Jennifer Arnold, its director of artistic planning and orchestral operations. “They were vibrating when they came out of the auditorium.”

This time around, the need for social distancing scales back some of the sonic power.

“Everyone in the orchestra will be present,” Peleggi explains, “but we can’t all be onstage at the same time. We’ll be performing in smaller groups, a brass and percussion ensemble, a woodwind quartet, a string section. But what you miss in numbers and majestic sound is compensated in deepness and intimacy.” This is the essence of chamber music, she says, noting “it is written to be played by friends, family, people you love in a living room. There is one player per part, it is a more natural interaction than when there are 14 players in a section.”

And it’s not just the players. Distancing constraints have slashed the permitted size of the Carpenter Center audience from 1,800 to 400. The symphony has added a Friday night performance to the Saturday night and Sunday matinee schedule, but that is still less capacity than a single non-coronavirus event. The new normal means no programs, no refreshments, new rules for queuing and the always required masks. Even the stagehands have had to become more efficient resetting during performance breaks.

“The biggest change is streaming,” Arnold says. “We were forced to do it, but the response has been very positive. It’s more affordable and it reaches more people.” The symphony worked with VPM for professional camera crews and production.

The concerts are shorter, more sharply focused and the content more diverse. “We’ve played the same pieces for years, occasionally sneaking in the odd new commission along with something by Beethoven,” she adds. “Now they have more prominence.”

In this new world, innovation is an imperative. That may seem like a challenge in a genre whose iconic works are at least a century old. But this isn’t these great works’ first plague, and there is a reason their genius has survived. And with refreshed material, a new delivery approach, and the first female musical director in the organization’s 63 years, the symphony is positioned to catch the almost-post-pandemic wave.

“These are peculiar times,” Peleggi says. “The last six months have been crazy. Being isolated has changed us. After Zoom and Skype, we are hungry for something different and more real. Having the chance to play pieces that are absolutely meaningful will impact the emotional side. After isolation, it is different form of healing, a balm. This is exactly what music can do, connect without touching.”

The Maymont Big Tent Community Festival will be held on Saturday, Sept. 12, from 3 to 8 p.m. The event is free but there will be a limited amount of walk-up tickets. Registration is required. richmondsymphony.com.

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