Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Dec. 3, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

This season’s Richmond Symphony performance of Handel’s "Messiah," led by Steven Smith, the orchestra’s new music director, was Smith’s local debut in baroque music. In Handel, at least, the conductor proved to be a middle-of-the-roader, cognizant of period-style ornamentation, note-shaping and phrasing, but neither fussy nor excessive about it.

This also was the first time since the reopening of the Carpenter Theatre that I’ve heard the Richmond Symphony Chorus sing with real warmth and proper presence, a welcome and overdue correction of the thin, sectionally uneven and distant sound that has afflicted choral performances since the acoustical refitting of the hall. Whatever mixture of projection, placement and sound enhancement was tried this time, it worked. Let’s hope everybody remembers how they did it – and that they can replicate the achievement with larger instrumental forces than a Handellian chamber orchestra.

The chorus made fine work of its showcase numbers – "For unto us a child is born," "Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion," "Worthy is the Lamb" and, of course, "Hallelujah" – but was even more impressive in choruses that require canonical part-singing and those with expressive effects. The sequence from "Surely He hath borne our griefs" through "All we like sheep" was, to my ears, the choral peak of the evening.

The quartet of soloists – soprano Katherine Jolly, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle, tenor William Ferguson and Jason Hardy, billed as a baritone but sounding more like a bass – was reasonably well-matched (Jolly’s smallish and tightly focused voice was the outlier); and the singers showed generally good judgment on ornamentation and characterization (Hardy went a bit over the top in the climax of "The trumpet shall sound"). Ringle made a powerful impression in her austerely emotive treatment of "He was despised," and Ferguson consistently complemented text with tone and expression in the oratorio’s few but important tenor solos.

The orchestra, which might be forgiven for going on autopilot in this yearly Christmas staple, played alertly and stylishly. Trumpeter Rolla Durham gratifyingly balanced brilliance with restraint in "The trumpet shall sound."

While this was hardly a "Messiah" of Victorian heaviness or churchy solemnity, it needed more animation. Fast tempos in baroque music are dance tempos, and the dances are rustic, not genteel. (Like the Nativity, come to think of it.) Handel’s music is also theatrical, and not very subtle in its theatricality. That quality was not absent from this performance, but too often was under-realized.

NOTE: The symphony’s program book reversed the identities of the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists. This review has been revised to correct that error.