Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists & Richmond Symphony Chorus
Steven Smith conducting
Feb. 25, Richmond CenterStage

The 19th-century romantic literature has been plumbed deeply and systematically by classical musicians. It takes some digging to find a work both obscure and deserving enough to be called a “neglected masterpiece,” as Richmond Symphony Music Director Steven Smith terms Felix Mendelssohn’s “Die erste Walpurgisnacht” (“The First Walpurgis Night”).

This cantata, introduced in 1832 by the 23-year-old Mendelssohn, setting a text by Goethe for orchestra, chorus and (in these performances) three solo voices, deserves Smith’s encomium. Well-crafted, brilliantly orchestrated for both instruments and massed voices, boasting several memorable tunes, the piece is as atmospheric as the “Hebrides” Overture, written around the same time; both stylistically and structurally, it pre-echoes the “Scottish” Symphony (No. 3), finished a decade after the cantata.

After a few tries in teen-age, Mendelssohn never composed an opera. Had he done so in maturity, it likely would have sounded like “Die erste Walpurgisnacht.”

Goethe’s poem begs for scenery and lighting: a witches’ sabbath under what sounds to be a threatening sky, an epic confrontation of forces (Druids vs. Christians), a warmly radiant outcome in a “Hymn of Light.” (Imagine a Germanic version of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” stirring if a bit earnest.) Goethe aimed high philosophically: The poem, he said, is about the “old, established, tested and reassuring [being] probed, harrassed and oppressed by the emergence of new ideas, and if not destroyed . . . at least entirely hemmed in and immobilized.” Mendelssohn pulled out most all of the stops in crafting a piece lofty and dramatic enough to do Goethe’s work justice.

The solo vocal parts are borderline-Wagnerian (Wagner would cringe – let him) in their tonal character and declamatory quality. The trio singing in these performances – bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico, tenor Jorge Prego and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis – did not sound very comfortable with the work in the first of two weekend performances. I don’t know whether “Die erste Walpurgisnacht” is new to them; that wouldn’t be surprising, given its obscurity.

It’s certainly new to the Richmond Symphony Chorus, and the choristers, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, went at it with gusto and theatricality. I’ve never heard these singers sound as much like a good opera chorus as they did here.

The Mendelssohn is bracketed in this program by two apotheoses of the dance. That was how Wagner characterized Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The characterization applies just as well, in a later, differently motivated century, to John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances.”

Adams’ “foxtrot for orchestra,” an outtake from his opera “Nixon in China” reworked as a symphonic poem, strikes the listener as pretty steadily pulsing, but in fact the piece is a thicket of shifting time signatures, syncopations within syncopations, and its musical figures are often repeated at length, challenging players to remember where they are. “You can go crazy counting in Adams,” a young musician (coming to listen, not perform) remarked on her way to the Carpenter Theatre.

Smith and the symphony musicians, in this second go at an Adams score in the new year (they played his even trickier “Chamber Symphony” in January), quickly got into the groove of “The Chairman Dances,” rode its jittery energy securely and subtly played up its “oriental” touches.

Their Beethoven Seventh was a straightforward reading, rhythmically crisp, with solid bass lines and distinguished work from the woodwinds (paced by oboist Gustav Highstein and flutist Mary Boodell) and French horns. Smith’s tempos were brisk: The allegretto was not an andante in disguise, so not as funereal as it often sounds; the whirlwind finale was not so fast as to smear string figures, but speedy enough to rob the movement of some of its tension and dynamism.

The concert opened with a tribute to Jonathan Friedman, retiring after 38 years as the symphony’s principal bassoonist, and as one of the musicians’ most articulate spokesmen.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $9-36.50. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

UPDATE (MARCH 7): It turns out that this was not the first time the Richmond Symphony has performed “Die erste Walpurgisnacht.” Jacques Houtmann, the orchestra’s second music director (1971-86), obtained the score “just to read it, and I was so surprised that I decided to [program] it,” the conductor e-mails from his home in France. Houtmann led the symphony and Richmond Choral Society in the Mendelssohn cantata in April 1973.