Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists, Richmond Symphony Chorus
Mark Russell Smith conducting
March 15, First Baptist Church, Richmond

Verdi’s Requiem is the most operatic of the well-known settings of the Catholic Mass for the dead, both in vocal demands and dramatic punch. It’s the be-good-or-else version, Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Judgment Day fresco in sound – terrifying, woeful, desperately pleading.

Not the sort of piece in which you’d expect to hear much subtlety. Yet subtleties abound, in string figurations, wind ensembles, vocal duets and trios, and in much of the choral writing.

Mark Russell Smith, conducting the Richmond Symphony, Symphony Chorus and an unusual quartet of soloists, emphasizes many of Verdi’s finer details, to such effect that the tumult of the Dies Irae is not the strongest impression the listener carries out of the performance.

The second of three performances was at First Baptist Church, a venue whose stage is too small to accommodate the full orchestra and chorus. Basses sang on the stage, other sections in the balconies on either side of the orchestra. The chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, sounded generally unified, robust and/or blood-curdling when appropriate; but in quieter sections its sound seemed to float over the room. Whether Verdi had such a literally angelic quality in mind we’ll leave for musicologists to ponder, but the effect was unexpected, striking and often quite moving.

Among the soloists, tenor Dan Snyder had the bright projection and expressive sob one expects from an Italianate tenor. Soprano Kerri Marcinko’s voice was brilliant but lighter than optimal. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines and bass-baritone Michael Dean sang darkly and with great weight (Hines' low notes were enormous). Dean sang with little vibrato and Hines with virtually none.

Mismatched as their voices were, they sounded fine, and usefully transparent, in ensembles. Their different vocal characters brought more than the usual musical contrast to solo numbers, and expressively enhanced the most emotive passages of the text.

Dean’s stage-whispered "Mort stupebit et natura" in the Tuba mirum, his ominous delivery of the Confutatis, Hines’ exceptionally stark reading of the Liber scriptus (thin high register aside) and her duet with Marcinko in the Agnus Dei were the soloists’ best moments.

Bassoonist Martin Gordon was as no less expressive an instrumental voice in his accompaniment of the soprano, mezzo and tenor in the Quid sum miser.

The Verdi Requiem will be repeated at 8 p.m. March 17 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road, in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212;