Saturday, October 4, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Oct. 3, Bon Air Baptist Church

Edgar Schenkman, the Richmond Symphony’s founding conductor, maintained that Handel, Haydn and Dvořák were the three most underrated great composers. Handel and Dvořák have risen in popular estimation since Schenkman’s day. Haydn remains overshadowed, at least in orchestral circles, by his younger contemporary, Mozart, and his rebellious pupil, Beethoven.

How come? Because there’s too much worthy repertory to choose from? Of Haydn’s 104 numbered symphonies, all but a handful are well above average and at least three dozen are exceptional. Add to that a half-dozen well-wrought concertos, two great oratorios and at least eight orchestral-choral pieces that rank among the finest liturgical music of the classical era. Abundance of riches isn’t a good excuse, though – string quartets, piano trios and solo pianists face comparable quantities of Haydn and aren’t daunted.

The real reason? Haydn is hard but has to sound easy. His musical arguments hinge on sharp contrasts, intentionally broken phrases, unexpected silences, sudden surprises. His style has an elegant surface with an earthy core. His music is full of dance, but it’s the dance of a peasant who’s snuck into the ballroom and taught the gentry how to shake a leg. In every musically meaningful way, Haydn is off-center; but he’s also a master craftsman whose quirky music demands precision and needs to sound like it couldn’t go any other way.

For those reasons, this season’s Haydn Festival featuring the Richmond Symphony’s core chamber orchestra promises to be more challenging, for musicians and audiences alike, than previous series devoted to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.

Daniel Meyer, the second of nine music-director candidates to appear with the orchestra, sets a very high standard for future installments of this series. He looks and sounds to be one of the few conductors outside the period-instruments circle who really gets Haydn. His timing is unerring, his accents are bracing, his dance tempos swing. He knows when winds are meant to sing and when they’re meant to bark or growl. He has mastered the hydroplaning bass lines that are unique to Haydn’s fastest movements. He understands the baroque-style affectus of Haydn’s lyrical or poignant music, and he embraces the unaffected exuberance of the rest.

The program Meyer is leading this weekend samples all those aspects of Haydn, largely in works from 1760s and ’70s, written in the rococo style straddling the baroque and classical periods.

Qing Li, principal second violinist of the Baltimore Symphony, joining Meyer and the orchestra for Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major, delivered a mostly polished account in the first of three weekend performances. She was most attuned expressively in the central adagio, which clearly echoes baroque style; her treatment of the outer movements emphasized brilliance and refined phrasing – arguably a shade too refined in music that needs a harder sell lest it sound lightweight.

Soprano Anne O’Byrne was featured in the recitative "Che mai m avvenne!" and aria "Come il vapor s’ascende" from "L’isola Disabitata" ("The Deserted Island"), one of the operas Haydn wrote for the in-house troupe maintained by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. O’Byrne appropriately invoked the spirit of Cherubino, the love-struck adolescent of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro," in this music of volatile youthful yearning.

A chamber contingent of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, sang robustly in Haydn’s "Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo," better known as the "Little Organ Mass" for its organ obbligato (played here by Michael Simpson) accompanying a soprano soloist (O’Byrne) in the Benedictus. The chorus rendered the "telescoped" (textually overlapped) liturgy of the Gloria and Credo with more clarity than might have been expected, and with the cheerful fervor that 18th-century Austrians brought to musical settings of Catholic liturgy.

The Richmond Symphony String Quartet – violinists Karen Johnson and Soojin Chang, violist Molly Sharp and cellist Neal Cary – made fine work of the presto finale of Haydn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 ("The Joke"), playing its halting final measures for optimal humorous effect.

In the Overture to "L’isola Disabitata" and in Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 ("La Reine"), Meyer obtained crisply articulated, strongly accented performances from the orchestra. String sound was markedly more brilliant than usual in the rather dry acoustic on the Bon Air Baptist Church sanctuary, and wind choirs sounded in fine balance with the strings. Oboist Gustav Highstein was a sparely lyrical solo voice in the opening movement of the symphony.

The program repeats at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at Goochland High School, 3250 River Road West, and 3 p.m. Oct. 5 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland. Tickets: $10-$25. Details: (804) 788-1212,