Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review: Virginia Symphony

with soloists & chorus
JoAnn Falletta conducting
May 26, William and Mary Hall, Williamsburg

The late newspaper columnist Guy Fridell once wrote that you should always go to the circus when it’s in town, because you never know when you’ll get to see an elephant again. About the same can be said of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, in both timing and taxonomy. Mahler 8 is a great rarity; I suspect it would be even if it weren’t also elephantine in scale.

“The Symphony of a Thousand,” as an impresario dubbed it, is in fact a symphony of 500 or so – 400 voices, 100-piece orchestra – in this weekend’s Virginia Arts Festival performances by the Virginia Symphony and guests, including members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and (if my eyes didn’t deceive) several instrumentalists from Richmond as well.

The first of two performances was staged in William and Mary Hall, a basketball arena on a somewhat more intimate scale, with somewhat less cavernous acoustics, than most such places. The stage was erected on one of the broad sides of the hall, positioning performers closer to the audience than in the usual arena setup. The Virginia Symphony is recording the weekend’s performances for a subsequent disc; but it sounded as if the many microphones onstage were also linked to a sound system.

Balancing voices with the orchestra is a challenge in much of Mahler – and much more so in the Eighth Symphony. Eight solo singers have to carry over a busy orchestration; the orchestra, in turn, has to hold its own with hundreds of choristers, often in full cry.

Conductor JoAnn Falletta managed the balancing acts remarkably well – especially considering that the orchestra, big as it is, is still relatively under-strength in the string sections. Falletta set a brisk pace in Part 1, a fantasy on the hymn “Veni, creator spiritus.” Her pace was more measured, appropriately almost conversational, in the lengthy Part 2, a setting of the final, redemption scene from Goethe’s “Faust;” and her buildup of expressive intensity through the closing sections was almost operatic. (Making the two parts sound like they belong in the same work is a feat of a different kind.)

The eight vocal soloists – sopranos Jennifer Check, Rebecca Nash and Jennifer Welch-Babidge; mezzo-sopranos Ann McMahon Quintero and Robynne Redmon; tenor Gregory Carroll; baritone Lester Lynch; and bass Jason Grant – all summoned tones of Germanic late-romantic heft, some (Quintero, Lynch, Nash) more consistently than others.

The Virginia Symphony and Richmond Symphony choruses, the Christopher Newport University Chamber Choir, the Old Dominion University Concert Choir and the Virginia Children’s Chorus produced plenty of volume when it was called for; but past a certain point in amplitude, the ear heard mass more than tone.

None of the soloists or the chorus had much success at projecting the texts. The arena acoustic soundly beat the performers on that score. Many finer details of orchestration also were lost in this space. These issues presumably won't arise in Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, the smaller venue being used for the second performance.

This straightforward but highly expressive reading is the last chapter in a Mahler symphony cycle that Falletta has been presenting with the Virginia Symphony over the past two decades. The cycle closes with a work that is at times rousing, at times weirdly arousing, and one that calls on all of the conductor’s skill in directing a large cast through a complex score.

The Virginia Symphony Mahler Eighth repeats at 3 p.m. May 27 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. Tickets: $20-$85. Details: (757) 282-2822 (Virginia Arts Festival box office);