Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin R. Freeman conducting
Dec. 10, Richmond CenterStage

No two performances of any piece of music are exactly the same, but some works are more changeable than others. Handel’s “Messiah” is a prime example: Tempos, accents, ornamentation of melody lines, even solo voice registers, are all subject to change – and have been ever since Handel’s day.

This year’s Richmond Symphony “Messiah,” led by Erin R. Freeman, the orchestra’s associate conductor and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, was more upbeat than many past performances. Freeman opted for brisk, dance-like tempos in many of the work’s most familiar airs and choruses, notably “Hallelujah” and “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.”

The Symphony Chorus responded with alert, finely articulated singing that didn’t stint on the work’s big choral exclamations but often sounded more intimate and expressively nuanced than this large ensemble generally does.

The solo quartet – soprano Michelle Areyzaga, countertenor José Lemos, tenor William Ferguson and bass-baritone Matthew Burns – varied in tonal and expressive character. Lemos was audibly more conversant in baroque ornamentation and expressive affectus than his colleagues, and that expertise yielded dividends in several alto numbers, notably “He was despised.”

Most of the solo numbers in this performance, however, were melodically straightforward and conversational or contemplative. Ferguson’s interaction with the chorus in the sequence beginning with “All they that see him laugh him to scorn” added a nice touch of theatricality.

The orchestra’s chamber-scale forces, the strings playing with historically informed low vibrato, maintained good balance with soloists and chorus, at least from my vantage. (I sat in a center-orchestra seat, not my usual perch in the balcony.)

Trumpeter Rolla Durham played “The trumpet shall sound” with his accustomed brilliance, and concertmaster Diana Cohen and principal second violinist Ellen Cockerham made fine work of their cameo duet in the “Amen” chorus.