Saturday, February 24, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Richmond Symphony & Chorus
with baritone Richard Zeller, soprano Sarah Gartshore

Feb. 23, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Brahms’ "A German Requiem" is an acquired taste that even James Erb had to acquire. The veteran Richmond chorusmaster didn’t care for the work as a young man – getting next to this music takes some living, and some exposure to the dying; but Erb clearly has embraced it in maturity.

This weekend the Brahms embraces him. Figuratively, as he prepares to take his leave after 36 years
as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. And literally, as he’s singing in the tenor section.

Erb founded the Symphony Chorus in 1971 – it made its debut in Beethoven’s "Missa Solemnis," led by Robert Shaw – and he continued to direct the ensemble after his retirement from the University of Richmond faculty and the disbanding of his community chorus, CAFUR, in 1994. He will prepare the women of the Symphony Chorus for Debussy’s Nocturnes at the end of this season; but this weekend’s Brahms is his last undertaking with the full ensemble.

The chorus and orchestra, conducted by Mark Russell Smith, give Erb a richly sonorous, audibly heartfelt premature sendoff. Rarely have these voices sounded as well-blended, rhythmically pointed or emotionally engaged. Their expressive warmth largely offset the starkly bright acoustic of the Second Baptist Church sanctuary in the Feb. 23 performance. They should sound sumptuous in the sonically mellower First Baptist Church on Feb. 24.

Brahms introduced a torso of the Requiem in 1867 in a Vienna concert hall, but its first success came the following year in the cathedral of Bremen in northern Germany. That lag in appreciation may not be coincidental. Much of this music speaks intimately, and even at its loudest and most dramatic a kind of resigned serenity lies not far beneath the surface. I first heard it in a church, and have always found it more satisfying musically and more potent spiritually in that setting. (The Fauré Requiem is similarly "churchy" in its intimacy and palpable reverence.)

These performances of the Brahms are greatly enhanced by Richard Zeller, a journeyman American baritone whose voice is both dark and penetrating, and whose German is so fluent and communicative that translation is almost superfluous. (He's no less impressive in Russian repertory, judging by his performance in the Shostakovich 14th Symphony with the Richmond Symphony in January.) Deeply contemplative in "Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende" ("Lord, make me to know mine end"), robust and emphatic in "Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis" ("Behold, I tell you a mystery"), Zeller delivers one of those performances that resonate in the mind’s ear long after they conclude.

Sarah Gartshore, in the soprano solo "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" ("You now have sorrow"), engages the listener with less tonal richness or volume but with a portrayal of human sorrow that neither holds back nor wallows in emotive excess.

The Brahms is preceded by four short instrumental evocations of the physical universe. The sequence begins with "Chaos" from the beginning of Haydn’s oratorio "The Creation," and continues with Judith Shatin’s "Piping the Earth" and the miniatures "Stars" and "Sand" by Mary Howe.

Shatin, a member of the University of Virginia music faculty, parlays an old Chinese proverb – the wind sounds different as it moves through one space or another, but nonetheless remains the wind – into an eventful tone poem, seemingly focused on the sounds of things set in motion by wind. The current itself is an almost subliminal presence.

Howe (1882-1964), born in Richmond, was a prominent musical figure in her adopted home, Washington, where she helped found the National Symphony, among other endeavors. Of greater interest to posterity, she was one of the pioneer American female composers. "Stars" and "Sand," both dating from the late 1920s, are her best-known orchestral works.

The two pieces, each lasting less than five minutes, are impressionistic treatments of their subjects. To today’s ears, they sound less like Debussy or Ravel, more like bits of a film score – well-wrought music, and well-mannered in that it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

In the first of three concerts of this program, Smith and the symphony delivered alert accounts, more refined than might have been expected as they had to balance rehearsal time between three unfamiliar pieces and a major choral-orchestral work.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and at 8 p.m. Feb. 26 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: (804) 788-1212;

The Feb. 26 concert will be broadcast live on Richmond’s public radio station, WCVE-FM (88.9).