Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists & Richmond Symphony Chorus
Erin R. Freeman conducting
May 21, Richmond CenterStage

The Richmond Symphony Chorus is marking its 40th anniversary this weekend with the work in which it made its 1971 debut: Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” James Erb, then at the University of Richmond, organized the ensemble and prepared it for its first performance, led by Robert Shaw, the pre-eminent American chorusmaster of the last century. Erb went on to lead the chorus for 36 years; in 2007 he handed over direction to Erin R. Freeman, one of the youngest protégés of Shaw.

In the first of two concerts concluding this season’s Masterworks series, Freeman, who doubles as associate conductor of the symphony, led the Beethoven Mass very much in the manner of Shaw, with moderate tempos, rich, robust choral sound and warm, weighty orchestral sonorities.

The chorus, which at times has struggled to project properly since the acoustical refit of the Carpenter Theatre, this time maintained a strong presence and good sectional balance, even when singing softly.

Male choral voices were especially striking in the “stage whisper” effects of the Et incarnatus section of the Credo, and the full ensemble handled Beethoven’s subtly varied dynamics and tidal surges of choral sound securely and, at its best, with seeming spontaneity. The chorus could have sounded more unbridled in the Gloria, but its semi-full cry suited Freeman’s overall approach to the work, one of solemnity liberally garnished with lyricism.

The soloists – soprano Lori Hultgren, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor John McVeigh and bass Michael Dean – were not vocally complementary. The women employed much wider vibrato than the men; Hultgren’s voice leaped out of ensembles (an occupational hazard for soprano soloists in this piece); and only Dean consistently resisted injecting sentimentality into vocal expression.

The singers might have taken their cue from the violin solo introducing the Benedictus section of the Sanctus, played with chaste expressiveness by Karen Johnson, the symphony’s former concertmaster, returning to her old stand for these concerts.

Erb, the founding director, still sings in the chorus’ tenor section. He took a solo bow after the performance, to well-earned cheers.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 22 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);