Sunday, March 2, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

March 2, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Erin Freeman, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, led chamber contingents of the orchestra and Richmond Symphony Chorus in a darkly expressive, rhythmically taut reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s early cantata "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death"), BWV 4, sure to be remembered as one of the highlights of this season’s Bach Festival series.

Freeman paired the cantata with the comparably austere "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a brief, proto-minimalist work for strings and bells that, although separated from the Bach by two and a half centuries, proved to be a striking introduction to the cantata.

The chorus, whose direction Freeman assumed this season, was trimmed to two dozen voices (among them, founding chorusmaster James Erb, singing in the tenor section), providing the right balance for the small string orchestra. The singers’ ensemble was generally unified and their diction good, but they could not compensate for the dry acoustic of Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Auditorium.

Dry sound also affected the more cheerful second half of the program, devoted to Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 2, and Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 in D major, known as "the Clock" for the tick-tock tempo of its andante.

Gustav Highstein’s gracefully lyrical oboe solo in the andante was the high point of the Bach sinfonia, a fine example of the early classical or rococo style of the mid-18th century.

Haydn’s meatier symphony, one of the best-known of the symphonies he wrote for performances in London in the 1790s, received a solid "big-band" treatment, emphatic in its gestures and blunt in its accents. Like many conductors, Freeman has yet to master the peculiar rhythmic character – the musical equivalent of hydroplaning wheels on a wet surface – of Haydn’s string writing at the speediest tempos.