Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review: Richmond Symphony Chorus

Erin Freeman directing
April 28, Second Baptist Church

The Richmond Symphony Chorus remembered its founding director, James Erb, in a program ranging from sections of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” and the Renaissance polyphony of Roland de Lassus to Erb’s own compositions and arrangements.

The emotional highlight of the program, not surprisingly, was its climax: the arrangement of “Shenandoah” that Erb prepared for his University of Richmond Chorus to take on its first European tour in 1971. (He founded the Symphony Chorus that year, as well.)

His “Shenandoah” has been sung by hundreds of choruses worldwide, and has been put to sometimes unlikely uses, such as accompanying the end credits of Oliver Stone’s film “Nixon.” Erb liked to joke that royalties from its many performances financed quite a few family vacations.

In this concert, the Symphony Chorus sang “Shenandoah” once onstage, then descended to the aisles of the Second Baptist Church, where the choristers were joined by audience members – among them, many alumni of Erb’s collegiate and community choruses – to sing it again.

It was the finale of a set of American and Anglo-Celtic folk-song arrangements that Erb had made over the years, all of them wistful or yearning in lyric content. Erb’s treatments mostly introduced the tunes in straightforward folk style – “Amazing Grace,” for example, at the outset clearly echoing the late-18th century shape-note tradition – then developed them in a mid-20th century style that might be described as romantic with modestly modernist touches.

Four members of the ensemble – Steve Travers, Gabriella Francesca Bergeret, Rondy Michael Lazaro and Colleen James – took solo turns in three of the folk tunes, most affectingly Lazaro in “Colorado Trail” and James in “Now Is the Cool of the Day.”

The chorus also sang Erb’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” and his arrangement of the Scottish song “John Anderson, My Jo,” by way of Robert Schumann’s “Romances and Ballads,” Op. 145.

The Brahms requiem was the last large-scale work that Erb prepared with the Symphony Chorus before his retirement in 2007. In this concert, his successor, Erin Freeman, led the ensemble in three of the work’s most solemnly lyrical sections, “Seilig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they that mourn”), “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are Thy dwelling places”) and “Seilig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”).

The choristers sang these pieces with affectionate warmth and satisfying collective heft, the latter underscored by Michael Simpson in his organ accompaniment.

A chamber contingent of the chorus was on less familiar ground in Lassus’ chanson “Dessus le marché d’Arras” (“Near the Marketplace in Arras”), whose bawdy lyric describes a Spaniard bargaining for the favors of a French girl (Freeman eschewed translation in this church setting), and the Magnificat that the composer based on the tune – a piece that, nearly years later, Erb edited for the scholarly edition of Lassus’ compositions.

The singers strained to negotiate the heavy traffic of notes in the chanson. They produced a firmer ensemble sound in the Magnificat.