Sunday, October 21, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with Curtis Opera Ensemble
Oct. 21, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

In recent seasons, the the Richmond Symphony’s "core" (chamber) orchestra series has been centered on single composers – first Mozart, then Beethoven, now Bach – although with frequent digressions into contrasting repertory. The opening program of this season's Bach Festival, for instance, found Bach bracketed by Grieg and Mozart.

And while the program offered a nice bit of Bach in the "Wedding" Cantata, its highlight, hands down, was Act 4 of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."

The orchestra’s music director, Mark Russell Smith, will be conducting "Figaro" in a few weeks with the Curtis Opera Ensemble of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (his alma mater), so the weekend’s performances in Central Virginia were an uncostumed out-of-town tryout. Judging by the Sunday matinee in Ashland, the production (Nov. 15-18) should be a winner, at least vocally.

The cast is young, ranging in age from 19 to 25, and as fresh and energetic as one would expect, but also emotionally authentic and technically polished. The 19-year-old Susanna, Sarah Shafer, and 20-year-old Count Almaviva, Elliot Madore, held their own alongside Evan Hughes (Figaro), Karen Jesse (Countess Almaviva), Tammy Coil (Cherubino) and Marquita Raley (Marcellina), all in their mid-20s; and their performance as an ensemble (bolstered by Jason Coffey as Basilio and Allen Boxer as Antonio) was well-balanced and expressive.

Another member of the troupe, the 23-year-old Israeli Rinnat Moriah, was the vocal soloist in the "Wedding" Cantata, blending beautifully with orchestral soloists Gustav Highstein (oboe), Neal Cary (cello) and Karen Johnson (violin). This account was tonally richer and more measured in tempo than the "historically informed," mainly European, performances that set the contemporary standard for Bach, but was convincing on its own stylistic terms.

One hopes, though, that Smith will pick up the tempo and give freer expressive rein to soloists in subsequent Bach performances in the next three programs of the festival.

To keep to this program’s "wedding" theme, Smith selected an orchestration of "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" from Grieg’s piano set "Lyric Pieces" as the curtain-raiser.