Saturday, December 6, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mark Russell Smith conducting
Dec. 5, Second Baptist Church

In the first of three sets of concerts in his final season as the Richmond Symphony’s music director, Mark Russell Smith leads the most stylish and dynamic reading of Handel’s "Messiah" that the orchestra and Richmond Symphony Chorus have presented in years.

In the first of two performances, Smith set generally brisk, at times very speedy, tempos, with sharp accents and marked contrasts of volume. The quartet of solo voices – soprano Awet Andemicael, countertenor David Walker, tenor William Ferguson and baritone Philip Cutlip – and the symphony’s principal trumpeter, Rolla Durham, ornamented melody lines elaborately.

All this was in line with "historically informed" high-baroque performance practice. Whatever one thinks of these techniques, and how judiciously or freely they should be applied, they certainly enlivened what otherwise might turn into a routine run-through of a Christmas perennial.

To my ears, Cutlip and Andemicael had the surer grasp of baroque vocal stylization, and generally showed good judgment in elaborating on melodies. The soprano air "I know that my Redeemer liveth," for example, has an austere beauty that doesn’t need operatic dressing up, and Andemicael imparted a sense of simple wonder in her interpretation. The bass number "Why do the nations rage so furiously together," on the other hand, benefits from the full-blown dramatic treatment that Cutlip gave it.

Ferguson, a Richmond-born singer who has returned frequently to sing "Messiah" with the symphony, was very sparing in baroque-isms, opting to treat his solos more as songs than arias. (This, too, is historically informed – some early editions of "Messiah" identified solo numbers as songs.) While not lacking in theatricality – his "Thou shalt dash them in pieces" was emphatic and stirring – Ferguson was at his best in more intimate, narrative sections such as the recitative "Comfort ye, my people."

Walker, a male alto with extensive experience in baroque opera and oratorio, produced finely rounded tones but tended to swallow consonants. His melodic ornamentation also took some eccentric turns.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, was outstanding, not just in the big showpieces "For unto us a child is born," "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the Lamb," but also in the subtler "His yoke is easy" and "Since by man came death." The choristers’ ensemble and negotiation of counterpoint were consistently fine; and when they punched out big exclamatory lines, the effect was truly thrilling.

A repeat performance begins at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 788-1212;