Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Nov. 16, Second Baptist Church

Jacques Houtmann, a former music director (1971-86) revisiting the Richmond Symphony during its 50th-anniversary season, is a conductor the likes of whom few of the orchestra’s present members have encountered: a practitioner of the nearly lost art of old-style romantic symphonic interpretation.

In the manner of now-distant historical figures such as Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler, Vaclav Talich and Jascha Horenstein, Houtmann favors broadly paced, highly rhetorical, temperamentally high-strung music-making. He doesn't craft crisply articulated, briskly metrical readings (which he likens to “slicing salami”), but strives to make every melody, turn of phrase, dynamic shift and silence integral to the larger context or "long arc" of a work.


His beat is often imprecise, his cues abrupt, his gestures intense and wild. He’ll stretch a tempo close to the breaking point if that creates the desired expressive effect. He gives orchestral soloists unusually wide latitude. He inspires ensemble playing rather than whipping it into shape.

The result can be unruly at times, but ultimately transcendent, especially in the 19th-century Austro-German repertory that is closest to this conductor's heart. (Houtmann is French, but from Lorraine, an eastern border province with historical and cultural ties to Germany.)

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” the main course of the program he serves on this visit, receives the kind of interpretation that listeners would have heard 100 years ago. Houtmann paces the symphony almost as if it were one of Bruckner’s. (Nowadays the “Eroica” normally runs about 50 minutes; last night’s performance lasted nearly an hour, and that was without the first-movement repeat.)

Very broad tempos brought a yearning quality to the immense first movement, which sounded more like a tone poem than an exercise in sonata form, and darkened the brooding of the second-movement funeral march. Deep silences framed solo passages (oboist Gustav Highstein exploited these to great effect). Houtmann freely stretched phrases and manipulated dynamics, and the orchestra responded with emotionally charged, seemingly improvisatory playing.

Last night’s audience was as sensitized as the musicians to this extraordinary conception of a familiar score. Nearly 800 listened in the kind of silence that comes with concentration.

Houtmann uncorks two vintages of champagne in the first half of his program, leading measured but sparklingly detailed readings of Mozart’s “Cos√≠ fan tutte” Overture and Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

The symphony’s winds paced the Mozart, which sounded blithely songful rather than skittishly energetic. Houtmann mined a deeper, darker lyrical vein in the Ravel, whose brightness and animation were tempered with an especially bittersweet nostalgia.

This Masterworks series program repeats at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and 8 p.m. Nov. 19 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$50. Details: (804) 788-1212, http://www.richmondsymphony.com/