Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

with Richmond Symphony Chamber Chorus
Erin R. Freeman conducting
Feb. 23, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

The marketers of live classical music in this country make a number of assumptions about what does and doesn’t sell tickets. Near the top of the “doesn’t” list is English music other than Handel’s “Messiah.” Also scoring high (that is, low) is baroque music other than “Messiah” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

So, for the weekend’s chamber-orchestra concerts, highlighted by Handel’s “Coronation Anthems,” sung by members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and led by Erin R. Freeman, the orchestra’s associate conductor and choral director, the symphony promoted . . . Mozart’s Symphony No. 34.

Those in the near-full house attending the Ashland performance may have gone home humming a tune from the Mozart symphony; but more likely they were recalling the chorus concluding the third Handel anthem, “The King Shall Rejoice,” which Freeman smartly positioned as the finale of the set. To top off a Handel choral show on a balmy afternoon, you could hardly improve on a jaunty number whose refrain is “Ha! Ha! Hallelujah.”

Mozart’s sublime choral miniature, “Ave verum corpus,” a late addition to the program, which the choristers sang lined up in the aisles of Blackwell Auditorium, proved to be an inspired start, too.

Three of the four anthems, which Handel produced in a hurry for the coronation of English King George II in 1727, are relatively obscure. The first and shortest of the set, “Zadok the Priest,” with its all-but-shouted refrain of “God save the King!” (or Queen, as the case may be), has been performed at every coronation since it was written. Its text has been used since the coronation of King Edgar, a century before the Norman Conquest.

In this performance, “Zadok the Priest” made its customary strong impression; but the longer, multi-part choruses that followed – “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened,” “My Heart Is Inditing” and “The King Shall Rejoice” – generated more interest with their higher contrasts of mood and more elaborate interplay of choral and instrumental voices. The minuet “Upon Thy Right Hand,” from “My Heart is Inditing,” was probably the musical highlight of the set.

The chamber chorus of about 30 voices sometimes lacked the heft to project over the orchestra – standing on the stage floor, rather than on risers, behind the band didn’t help – but compensated in expressiveness and attention to musical detail. Vocal-instrumental balance was better in “Ave verum corpus,” not suprisingly since the singers were just a few feet from most listeners and since Mozart’s orchestration of the piece is much less extroverted than Handel’s in the anthems.

And the top-billed Mozart symphony? Freeman introduced this three-movement work, Mozart’s last symphony before leaving his hometown of Salzburg to try to make it in the musical big time of Vienna, as an instrumental pre-echo of his later operas, particularly “The Marriage of Figaro.” Whatever the musicological merits of this argument, this short symphony is richly tuneful and nicely contrasts high-spirited outer movements with a proto-romantic central andante.

In her last classical subscription program before vacating the post of associate conductor in Richmond – she takes over the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus next season – Freeman obtained spirited, sonorous performances from voices and instruments alike.