Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Mark Russell Smith conducting
April 18, First Baptist Church, Richmond

In Northern Europe and German-settled American towns such as Bethlehem, PA, Easter-season performances of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" are a custom, as Christmastime performances of Handel’s "Messiah" are in Anglophone lands. (Never mind that "Messiah" was written for Easter.) In Richmond, a "St. Matthew Passion" comes along about once in a decade; so performances are never routine or encrusted by traditions built up in years of repetition.

It’s not especially surprising, then, that this "St. Matthew" contrasts markedly with the two others heard in Richmond in 1985 and 1999. Mark Russell Smith, the outgoing music director of the Richmond Symphony, leads a shortened (but still nearly three-hour) version in an English translation (largely his own). His interpretation draws extensively (but not slavishly) on the instrumental and vocal techniques of the "historically informed," period-performance-practice school. (The only actual period instrument used in these performances is a viola da gamba, played by Ann Marie Morgan.)

Smith employs a fairly large orchestra, divided into mirrored contingents of strings and winds, with high strings surrounding low strings and winds. In the April 18 performance, the Richmond Symphony Chorus also was divided, singing in the balconies on either side of the First Baptist Church altar/stage; the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir, which joined in the opening and concluding choruses of Part 1, sang lined up in front of the orchestra on the sanctuary floor.

Smith has the instrumentalists play with minimal vibrato, sometimes with antique techniques such as messa di voce, a swelling effect that gives long notes the quality of a sigh. Most of the vocal soloists, similarly, rein in their vibrato. Tempos are lively in arias, especially those of Part 1, with audible roots in the dance. The conductor emphasizes the dark, rather fibrous orchestral sound imparted by bassoons, low strings and organ (played by Joanne Kong).

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, is not immersed in baroque performance practice and does not attempt to impersonate period-style singers. The 80-odd voices sing straightforwardly and with a rich, robust ensemble sound, heard to best effect in the chorales that dot this work. The crowd-scene choruses of Part 2, in which the choir portrays the priests and mob tormenting Jesus, are treated with punchy exclamatory energy but not enough emotional heat. The children’s choir, led by Hope Armstrong Erb, brings a welcome lighter texture to the big choruses it joins.

Any performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" rises or falls on the strength of its Evangelist, whose vocalized narration consumes about a quarter of the work’s time span. This series of performances is blessed with Derek Chester, a tenor, also at ease in alto range, who knows how to ornament and inflect baroque recitative and treats his text as a story of high drama and urgent importance.

Kamel Boutros, a high baritone with the bright timbre of a tenor, brings deep character – and a striking imperturbability – as well as baroque stylish fluency to the role of Jesus.

The four aria soloists – soprano Linh Kauffman, alto Rebecca Ringle, tenor William Ferguson and bass Michael Dean – offer varying levels of projection and varying notions of baroque vocalization. Several seem to struggle with a new English text in a piece normally sung in German. But they make their expressive, emotive points – most tellingly in Kauffman’s reading of "Lord to Thee my heart is given" and Dean’s delivery of "Make yourself now pure, my heart."

The violinists, oboists and flutists playing obliggato in the arias consistently complement the vocalists and seem to revel in the timbral brilliance their instruments bring to a mostly dark tonal palette.

The Richmond Symphony’s "St. Matthew Passion" repeats at 8 p.m. April 20 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212,

The April 20 performance will be broadcast live on WCVE (88.9 FM).