Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

May 8, Bon Air Baptist Church

In the final program of this season’s Haydn Festival, the Richmond Symphony begins gravitating away from focusing on a single composer – the format of its chamber-orchestra concerts over the last four years – and toward the more varied, entrée-with-sides programming that the series will present next season under the new name "Metro Connections."

Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major, the "London," is this program's entrée, and Erin Freeman, the orchestra’s associate conductor, gives it red-meat treatment: measured tempos and big, rounded sonorities, with a few singular interpretive touches in extra emphasis (especially in the trio section of the third-movement menuet) on counter-rhythms and figures customarily consigned to the innards of the orchestration.

In the first of two weekend performances, Freeman and the orchestra delivered an account of the Haydn that played up its big tunes and some of its surprising gestures, but that never quite took off. Missing the pouncing attacks and whiplash accents that make this music sound adventurous, even precarious, the performance came across in the jovial, not too frisky voice of "Papa" Haydn.

The most adventurous selection of the program is "Postcards," a set of scenic miniatures written in 1997 by the Chinese-émigré composer Bright Sheng. The piece was commissioned, for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, by a Minnesota couple who fondly remembered a trip to China. Sheng obliged with a piece whose first two movements, "From the Mountains" and "From the River Valley," recall chinoiserie, the European evocations of Asia that were fashionable a century ago. A more authentically Chinese sound begins to emerge in the third section, "From the Savage Land," and really takes hold of the final "Wish You Were Here," in which Western strings, winds and percussion impersonate the sounds and expressive language of Chinese instruments.

The program opens with another contemporary work, "Voyage," John Corigliano’s reworking of a choral setting of Baudelaire’s poem "L’Invitation au Voyage" for flute and string orchestra. The featured artist, Mary Boodell, the symphony’s principal flutist, seems to hear the chaste romanticism of Samuel Barber in this piece; Freeman obtained a more lushly lyrical sound from the strings.

Molly Sharp, the orchestra’s principal violist, is featured in the rarely heard full orchestration of Hugo Wolf’s "Italian" Serenade, more commonly encountered in its original version for string quartet or in a string orchestration. Compared with those, this big-band version gilds the lily with picturesque but ultimately extraneous orchestral detail. Sharp, as a concertante soloist and in duets with cellist Neal Cary, summons the warmth and lyricism of Wolf’s original.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 10 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St. in Ashland. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 788-1212;