Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin R. Freeman conducting
with Joseph Conyers, double-bass
and Richmond Symphony Chorus
Feb. 16, Richmond CenterStage

A lot of music is written with some virtuoso soloist in mind, but surprisingly little is “biographical,” touching on the performer’s life, personality or spirit. John B Hedges’ “Prayers of Rain and Wind” is one such rarity, having been written for and about Joseph Conyers, a Savannah, GA, native who is now assistant principal double-bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Conyers is a self-professed weather freak. (This is not unusual among people who grow up along the southeast coast of the U.S., living in the path of hurricanes and other violent storms.) Composer Hedges parlays that interest into a concerto-cum-suite full of atmospheric effects, the most memorable of which is a stormy finale.

Hedges gives Conyers a couple of extended unaccompanied solos, more soliloquies than cadenzas, that provide the bassist prime opportunities to show off advanced technique and, more importantly, ability to make a bull fiddle sing.

Performing with Erin R. Freeman, associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, added another biographical layer to the occasion. When Conyers was a student at a Savannah prep school, Freeman was one of his teachers.

The conductor and musicians, including an offstage chorus intoning a Southern gospel melody, reveled in the colorful score Hedges crafts for the orchestra. A bit more string density was needed to convey the “humidity” of the first movement.

“Prayers of Rain and Wind” shared the program with two staples of Mozart: The “Magic Flute” Overture and the Requiem.

Freeman and the orchestra gave a solid but propulsive reading of the overture, especially effective in its treatment of silences following fanfares. The Symphony Chorus, which Freeman directs, brought a welcome combination of heft and sensitivity to detail in the Mass.

The four vocal soloists featured in the Requiem, soprano Melissa Wimbish, mezzo-soprano Janna Elesia Critz, tenor Peter Scott Drackley and baritone Jeffrey Gates, are winners of the Peabody Singers Program of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. Critz’s straightfoward tone proved more suited to Mozart than the more 19th-century-style “operatic” vocalizations of her colleagues.