Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Jacques Houtmann conducting
May 15, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

In 1979, Jacques Houtmann, then music director of the Richmond Symphony, led the orchestra in its first concert in the former’s Loew’s movie palace. Three decades later, Houtmann returns to conduct the finale of the symphony’s first Masterworks season in the hall now known after its second renovation as the Carpenter Theatre. He started then, and ends now, in music of Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns and Houtmann are a good match. The composer, sometimes known as "the French Beethoven," absorbed the German classical-romantic orchestral style more fully than any of his countrymen. The conductor, who comes from the French-German border region of Alsace-Lorraine, has always shown an affinity for the German repertory. Both, however, filter their German inclinations through French sensibilities.

Houtmann’s interpretation of Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony – dubbed the "Organ" Symphony because the instrument figures so prominently in its finale – was Beethovenesque in its bluntly resolute statement of the broadly sung theme of its closing section, and quintessentially French in its renderings of tone color, the transparency of its woodwind parts and the quicksilver rhythms of the work’s internal sections.

Organist Michael Simpson did his best with the old Loew’s Wurlitzer, and blended well with the orchestra in the organ’s accompanying passages. At its loudest, though, this theater organ demonstrated almost painfully that it was not, is not and never will be a symphonic instrument.

In the Saint-Saëns, as well as the orchestrations of Brahms’ "Gesang der Parzen" ("Song of the Fates") and "Nänie," Houtmann obtained robust and assertive sound, even at low volume, from the symphony’s violas, cellos and double-basses, and consistently rich sonority from all string sections.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, delivered fine diction and some remarkably effective "stage whisper" effects in "Gesang der Parzen," although it sounded under-powered and sonically recessed at full voice. Choral-orchestral balance improved in the more lightly orchestrated "Nänie," and the choristers sang with gratifying lyricism and warmth.

The opening selection, Christopher Theofanidis’ "Rainbow Body" (2000), is a symphonic fantasy on a liturgical song by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century German abbess whose music was the happiest discovery of the medieval-chant revival in the 1980s and ’90s. Theofanidis wraps Hildegard’s song, "Ave Marie, O Auctix Vite," in multicolored, rather cinematic symphonic trappings, with entertaining if not especially reverent effect.

Houtmann and the orchestra gave it an appropriately colorful performance, with an organ-like collective sonority that hinted at the Saint-Saëns to come.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 16 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);