Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Richmond Symphony

Sept. 26, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Now that the Richmond Symphony again has a downtown hall to call home, the orchestra’s next challenge is to learn how to exploit the sound of the space. The opening-night program made it vividly clear that acoustically the Carpenter Theatre is not what it used to be.

Two of the works on the program, the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’ "Samson et Delila" and Orff’s "Carmina Burana," are sonic spectaculars, studded with exclamatory winds and percussion, boasting wide palettes of tone color, surging dynamism and, in "Carmina," a variety of unusual solo-vocal and choral effects. They are also, mostly, very loud. Tucked between them is Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," a sample of Austro-German classical-romantic orchestration at conventional concert volume.

Alastair Willis, the seventh of nine conductors auditioning to become the symphony’s next music director, took all three works at measured tempos, outright slow in much of the Brahms. He placed great emphasis on dynamism and phrasing, and seemed especially intent on producing warm string sound. He also played an old orchestral showman’s trick, quickening the pace as the music got louder, too indiscriminately for my ears.

The orchestra was audibly pumped for the occasion. The wind, brass and percussion players sustained rounded sonorities and maintained ensemble and balance at high volume, and the strings projected brightly and energetically. Woodwind choirs in the Brahms sounded perfectly balanced and beautifully tinted, and solo winds – notably Gustav Highstein’s oboe and Mary Boodell’s flute in the Saint-Saëns – were striking in their clarity and timbral shading.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus and Children’s Festival Chorus, collectively about 130 voices, sounded rather distant in the early going of "Carmina," but came into clearer focus as the performance progressed. (Was amplification being used and adjusted?) It sounded as if the children occupied a sonic sweet spot on the stage, while the Symphony Chorus’ sopranos inhabited more brittle-sounding space.

The vocal soloists were outstanding. Baritone Richard Zeller, who has performed with the symphony in several previous programs, made a meal of his prominent role here, delivering everything from near-crooning to rattling speech-song. Soprano Anya Matanovic was rich and quite sensual, with Earth Motherly inflections. Tenor Marcus Shelton sang his cameo for maximum effect, both in his urgent vocalizing and physical shtick that extended to a pratfall off the stage.

Commenting on the Carpenter Theatre’s acoustics, based on this program, is tricky. The orchestra is much larger than that heard in most symphony concerts, and Orff’s choral voicings are louder and less subtle (or differently subtle) than those in most symphonic choral writing. Saint-Saëns’ orchestration is also exceptional. The Brahms was the only "normal" work in this concert, so it’s from that performance that I'll make some preliminary observations about acoustics.

Orchestral sound in this hall is significantly more reverberant – a short, loud chord takes nearly 3 seconds to decay to silence, about 1 second longer than before the renovation. High-frequency instruments, such as flute, oboe, trumpet, violin and cymbals, sound noticeably brighter. But high frequencies clustered densely, as they are in "Carmina" and the Saint-Saëns, can produce a shattering effect at high volume (over, say, 90 decibels). Bass sound, especially in the strings, is comparatively weak. When the stage is extended into the hall, as it is in this weekend’s concerts, instruments or voices directly under the proscenium arch sound with extra prominence and clarity – beneficiaries on this occasion were flutes and oboes.

This is a space the symphony can work with; but it’s going to take months of work in a lot of different music, probably with the musicians moving to different locations, maybe elevated, maybe not, adjusting their sound with every move. We may not know how the orchestra really sounds in the Carpenter Theatre until this time next year.

The Richmond Symphony’s season-opening Masterworks program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (804) 927-2787 (Ticketmaster);