Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Dorian Wilson conducting
March 7, First Baptist Church

Dorian Wilson, sixth of the music-director candidates to conduct Masterworks concerts with the Richmond Symphony, is joined by a onetime University of Michigan classmate, tenor Robert Breault, in one of the most striking selections in the orchestra’s current season: "Les Illuminations," Benjamin Britten’s song cycle on poems of Arthur Rimbaud.

Britten’s greatest compositions, by most critical estimations, are his operas and "War Requiem;" but this early work written in 1938-39 when the composer was 26, compares favorably with any of his subsequent music for voice. And few composers of the past century have drawn more expression and color from a string orchestration than Britten did here.

In the second of three performances of "Les Illuminations," Breault, positioned above and behind the strings, projected forcefully and sounded thoroughly immersed in both the spirit and imagery of Rimbaud's strangely evocative texts. Expressively, the French language was no barrier to the listener's understanding.

Breault was a clarion narrative voice in "Villes" and "Royauté." In more impressionistic texts, such as "Antique" and "Being Beautious," his tone was softer, more misty, and his inflection more poetic. His consistency of tone production, up to some very high notes, was remarkable. In all, he delivered an absorbing performance.

Wilson and the symphony strings were comparably engaged – scene-painters and storytellers in their own right.

The conductor and full orchestra also painted to fine effect, and with a much wider tonal palette, in a surging and vividly colorful reading of Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade." Wilson set a moderate pace through much of the piece, opening up expressive opportunities for the many soloists in Rimsky’s orchestration. The solo violin portraying Scheherazade, played to the hilt by concertmaster Karen Johnson, was a first among equals among solo and duet voices, ranging from harp (Lynette Wardle), oboe (Gustav Highstein) and flute (Mary Boodell) to cello (Neal Cary) and bass trombone (Scott Cochran).

While showing a sensitive ear for this music’s many colorful and exotic details, Wilson didn’t hold back on its lush, broad strokes. "The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship" couldn’t have sounded more swellingly tidal, or the "Shipwreck" more crashing.

The program opens with Charles Ives’ "The Unanswered Question," a signature piece of this orchestra during the years (1957-71) when it was conducted by Edgar Schenkman. In these performances, Wilson and Erin Freeman, the symphony’s associate conductor, lead physically separated strings, woodwinds and solo trumpet (played splendidly by Rolla Durham), clarifying the contrasting roles they play in a discourse of sublime futility.

At least it’s supposed to be sublime. In this performance, cell-phone noise broke the spell, not once but twice.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. March 8 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212; That concert also will be broadcast live on WCVE (88.9 FM) and its affiliates.