A Richmond Symphony Journey, Valentina’s Inferno, and Beethoven’s 9th

Richmond Symphony and Chorus at the Dominion Energy Center on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Richmond, VA – Three hours before I was to cover Richmond Symphony‘s season finale on May 22, 2022 at the Dominion Energy Center, I got a text from a friend in the performance. “It was FIRE!”, referring to the performance the night before. I was stoked and had nearly four hours before showtime! As it turns out, it was more than fire, Richmond Symphony, conducted by Valentina Peleggi was a musical inferno and no one would want to quench the raging fire. 

The performance was broken into 2 parts, the first being somewhat short and consisted of “Umoja” by Valerie Coleman and “An Act of Resistance” composed by Joel Thompson. After a brief intermission, we would be treated to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, complete with Richmond Symphony Chorus and special guest soloists, Rodrick Dixon (Tenor), Damien Geter (Bass Baritone), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mezzo Soprano), and April Martin (Soprano). 

Richmond Symphony performing “Umoja” on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

The name of first piece, “Umoja” comes from the Swahili word for unity. As we later learned from Valentina, the theme of the entire night’s performance was unity and this wonderfully composed piece was the perfect start. Rounding out the first half was “An Act of Resistance”. “Umoja” was a lighter piece, somewhat quiet with a few climactic moments. The elements of orchestral choreography, both in Peleggi’s conducting as well as in the motion of the musicians was a pleasure. Upon the conclusion there was indeed a calming sense of unity. 

The second piece was laden with internal conflict, with almost a chaotic, warlike sound with percussion and brass overpowering the sound. Through the chaos emerged the lighter sounds of winds and softer strings. Once the battle was over, unity and peace was the message in sound. As with life, unity is not permanent and again the peaceful tone changed and there was a feel of battle. The drums of angst pierced the peace, only to once again be quelled by the soft sense of unity as the piece came to a close. The story was not only told in the form of musical notes, but Peleggi’s body language from the podium was very powerful. 

Richmond Symphony performing on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

For those not familiar with Beethoven’s 9th, it is a piece you will never forget once hearing it. Peleggi led the orchestra through the first 2 movements with power and emotion. Doing a little backstage work at this time, the intensity in her facial expressions was harsher then I remember seeing in my previous forays into Richmond Symphony performances. What was amazing is how the intonation of the orchestra was in sync with her expressions and body motion. I would venture one in the audience could envision the power of her expressions just tuning into the intensity of the music. The best was yet to come, however. 

Valentina Peleggi conducting Beethoven’s 9th on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Up until the conclusion of the 2nd movement, the four chairs on the stage had been vacant. Prior to the commencement of the 3rd, the guest soloists emerged from backstage and took their seats. The 3rd is a little subdued, almost appearing to give Valentina and the musicians somewhat of a rest before the finale, that would be the 4th movement. 

The inferno was set ablaze when the 4th movement commenced. I think if you turned out the lights you would have seen a periodic spark coming from the bows, flying across the strings in unison with the metal in the instruments glowing red with heat. This is the most recognized movement in the 9th and, to the casual metalhead (had to throw that in), the heat generated by Richmond Symphony, the Chorus and the four soloists would melt the face off any hardcore headbanger! 

Martin, Davis, Dixon, and Geter with Richmond Symphony on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Unlike a face melting, riff laden piece, with musicians and vocalists dancing about the stage, the body language (for the vocalists) on stage was somewhat subdued with all the energy converging into powerful vocals. Looking around the audience, eyes were open wide, hearts appeared to be beating hard and fast, and the breath of all had been taken away by the searing voices. It was amazing to witness (with one’s ears) the vocal choreography as the words danced between tenor and chorus, chorus and soprano, back to chorus, from tenor to mezzo and on to baritone… and all around. The vocals were bouncing from wall to wall, ear to ear, and all about with the instrumentals keeping the adding fuel to the fire with Peleggi at the helm controlling the flow of water keeping the blaze under control. It was pure heaven through the final note. WOW!!! 

As the crowd stood and gave the orchestra a standing O, they all took their bows. Chorus Director Erin Freeman joined the team on stage to an even louder roar of approval. The near capacity crowd was on their feet for what seemed like hours. It was clear, while at the conclusion the blaze had been extinguished, the heat would be in hearts of those in attendance for days to come. And then the evening was done… 

Richmond Symphony taking their bows on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

While this performance was the official end to the 21/22 season, I had not heard the end of Richmond Symphony. I had the pleasure of attending their free outdoor concert at Chimborazo Park to salute healthcare workers on 5/28/2022. It was a different audience and a totally different reaction. Teaming up with Music and Medicine – VCU Health Orchestra they put on what several in attendance called, “The Most Metal Performance in Richmond”. Joined once again by the chorus along with soloists Dixon, Martin, Geter, and Davis they performed a little of everything, from the Beethoven’s 9th to some operatic pieces such as “La Donna E Mobile“, “Nessum Dorma” and “Brindisi“… which coincidently happen to be three of the opera pieces performed by Lords of the Trident (the most metal band on earth), two of which were highlighted in a previous DBM story. Yes, there was a little metal connection! The more I experience different genres, the more similarities I hear. 

It has been one hell of an orchestral journey. Before September of 2021, I could have never imagined taking a deep dive into the classical side of music. I had always been content being on the outside and seldom looking in. Hearing the music is phenomenal, ‘listening’ to the music through the lens is a whole new experience. Always one wanting to tell a story with pictures, it was fascinating to see the dynamics between conductor and orchestra, the dancing bows, choreographed in large part by the concert master, and even the subtle shifts as members lean and listen to others during their break, only to shift their weight back to center when preparing to join in the masterful production. I had missed so many things before and realized that one could ‘hear’ the music and even see where the story was going, just by watching all the elements come together. 

Do you see what I hear? Valentina Peleggi on 5/22/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

When I did the piece on Stefan Jackiw, guest violinist, I was given the chance to dig in a little deeper and talk to conductor, Valentina Peleggi; Concert Master, Daisuke Yamamoto; Principle Horn, Dominic Rotella; and guest, Stefan Jackiw. Their insights were amazing! I learned so much about the art of conducting (and being far, far ahead in the musical mind while the body is in the musical moment). I learned that the Concert Master also has a huge role in the orchestra communication. I also learned of the extreme fondness the members had for Valentina, in essence stating that her leadership and energy made the orchestra very strong. Being a guest musician has its challenges, but again, with strong leadership between the musicians, the conductor and the guest, a performance that will blow the socks off a casual observercan come together in short order.

Stefan Jackiw’s performance in January 2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

My desire from the start was to win the trust of the symphony. As an outsider and one not familiar with the organization, I did not know what to expect. Early on I learned that (camera) shutter noise, which is typically not an issue at a metal concert, can have a profound impact on the experience for both musicians and spectators. Extreme care (or a mirrorless camera) were good tools to have if one did not want to limit their story telling photos to moments when the music was loud or to an accented beat (timing was EVERYTHING). I also learned the importance of removing squeaky shoes if one desires to take photos from backstage during the performance. So much was about respect for the musicians and performance. 

I was honored to be asked to cover, from a hired gun perspective, various other events, including a small orchestra event at a local brewery conducted by Associate Conductor Chia-Hsuan Lin. Seeing the diversity of symphonic appeal was wonderful, knowing they not only appealed to an orchestral (wine crowd), but they were also in the beer drinker’s arena. 

I knew my desire to understand, to be part of the team, and just have the ability to capture the stories paid off when I was invited to work a donor event. Thinking back, serving as a paid photographer also gave me additional insights from a journalist’s perspective (all positive). One could not have asked for more. While I knew I was still an outsider, Richmond Symphony’s musicians, some of the staff, and even donors made me feel like part of the family. The donor event was wonderful, as I once again saw the diversity that makes up those who support the symphony so special. Probably the most memorable point in the evening was toward the end of the night, getting two of the Symphony hosts to do a little heavy metal guitar pose… of course to help the outsider feel a little more at home! Fun was had by all. 

Richmond Symphony and Chorus Photo Gallery

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While the seasonal journey is behind me, hopefully the journey will continue going forward. The relationship and bonds of trust I have developed with the musicians, conductors, and the PR team has been quite rewarding. Thank you to the musicians, conductors (the two I met, Valentina Peleggi and Chia-Hsuan Lin, have been a pleasure to work with), and a few others for making me feel like part of the Richmond Symphony family. Your support in this endeavor has been invaluable and memorable. Here’s looking forward to another great year!

Show Date: May 22, 2022

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Dave Pearson is based out of Richmond, VA by way of Hayward, WI. He has long had a passion for music. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, he rocked out to the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and The Lettermen. Then, one Saturday night, being the rebel he was born to be, he caught an Alice Cooper interview (it may have been on The Midnight Special) and saw him perform, “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Dave was hooked on Rock and Roll (and many other genres as well). Dave has enjoyed (amateur) photography to some degree most of his adult life. Recently Dave started to apply his event photography skills in various music settings with success. He finds that photographing a performance gives him a much greater appreciation for the artist.