Saturday, November 22, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin Freeman conducting
Nov. 21, Bon Air Baptist Church

The second of installment of the Richmond Symphony’s Haydn Festival is titled "Haydn Meets Beethoven." Good marketing – Beethoven is a name that sells tickets – and literally true in that symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven are presented alongside each other. But the real point of the program is to present Haydn’s music in historical and stylistic context.

Erin Freeman, associate conductor of the orchestra, presented one of the earliest of Haydn’s 104 numbered symphonies: No. 7 in C major ("Le Midi"), the central work in a trilogy titled "Morning," "Noon" and "Night," and an example of the young Haydn (29 when he introduced the trilogy in 1761) as a voice in the transition between baroque and classical styles. This symphony is studded with instrumental solos, duets and trios, in the manner of a baroque concerto grosso; the adagio, its most striking movement, echoes the recitative-aria form of opera and expresses itself with the stylized emotion (affectus) that early classical (or "rococo") composition inherited from the baroque.

Preceding "Lei Midi" were a pair of sinfonias in the three-movement, fast-slow-fast form first used in opera and oratorio overtures and subsequently written as stand-alone orchestral pieces. Representing the theatrical roots, the brooding Sinfonia from Johann Josef Fux’s 1716 oratorio "Il Fonte della Salute aperto dalla Grazia nel Calvario" ("The Fount of Salvation, Opened through Grace on Calvary"); representing the orchestral branches, Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach’s virtuosic, percolating Symphony No. 11 in C major, third of his six "Hamburg" symphonies of 1773.

As Freeman explained in onstage comments during the first of two presentations of this program, Fux was a de facto teacher of Haydn and many other composers of the classical period by way of "Gradus ad Parnassum" ("Steps to Parnassus"), a text on composition that Fux published in 1725. C.P.E. Bach, the most prolific son of Johann Sebastian Bach, was known for spicing up classical style with quirky figures and unexpected outbursts, a practice that Haydn adopted to even more memorable effect.

Freeman led animated readings of the three early classical pieces. Violinist Karen Johnson, cellist Neal Cary, double-bassist Paul Bedell and flutist Mary Boodell reveled in their cameos; the extended duet by Johnson and Cary in the Haydn symphony’s operatic adagio was especially satisfying. The orchestra's string sections made fine work of their quick-time figures.

Early classical music, however, does not sell itself. Played "straight," it trundles along agreeably and, mostly, forgettably. To make a real impression, it needs interpretive intervention – sharp accenting, dramatic crescendos, high contrast between loudness and quiet, assertive pathos in minor keys – practices that composers of the time didn’t write into their scores because they assumed that performers would employ them. Freeman and the orchestra, playing these pieces as they lay on the page, did not project them convincingly.

They might have taken a cue from the work on the other half of the program: Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, perhaps the clearest echo of 18th-century style and expressive techniques that the composer (a onetime student of Haydn) produced in maturity. The dynamism and dramatic punch that were missing in the Haydn, Bach and Fux came surging out of the Beethoven.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $25. Information: (804) 788-1212;