Review: Richmond Symphony & Chorus

Steven Smith conducting
with Martha Guth, soprano; Darren Stokes, bass-baritone
Nov. 10, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, once known as the Great War, which turned out to be not the greatest or deadliest of the last century’s conflicts, but one that continues to resonate powerfully. Some of the world’s most intractable crises can be traced to that war.

The Richmond Symphony marked the anniversary with what appeared to be an unusual program, framed by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, a work from the 1930s that became this country’s semi-official music of mourning only toward the end of World War II when it was played at the funeral of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” a personal expression of grief and hope completed in 1868, several years before the establishment of the German state, and several generations before Germany became the principal aggressor of the Great War.

Only one selection was directly relevant to the conflict: “The Banks of Green Willow” by George Butterworth, an English composer who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Still, these works, in sum, fit the occasion. Butterworth’s short tone poem echoed from the sylvan world and optimistic worldview all but destroyed in the war, while Barber’s austerely tragic music and Brahms’ somber, at times turbulent, contemplation of death and redemption testified to the catastrophe of 1914-18 from historical distances, much as we view it today.

Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, led a crisply phrased but nonetheless deeply moving account of the Brahms. This was, arguably, the most successful reading of a score by this composer during the conductor’s Richmond tenure.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, realized Brahms’ range of dark vocal colors, excelling both in the quietly contemplative sections that open and close the Requiem and in the more dramatic and declarative “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) and “Denn wir haben hie’ kleine bleibende Statt” (“For here we have no continuing city”).

Darren Stokes, a bass-baritone whose high register has the ring of a tenor’s, and Martha Guth, a soprano who can summon an alto’s richness and depth, were highly expressive in their solos, although Guth bordered on the over-emotive in “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“And thee now therefore have sorrow”).

When the chorus occupies the rear of the stage, the orchestra necessarily is pushed forward, with the woodwinds positioned under the Carpenter Theatre’s proscenium arch. This is an acoustical “sweet spot” that effectively amplifies instruments, and so it did here, with flutes and oboes sounding over-prominent in the orchestral texture.

The symphony’s strings found an interpretive sweet spot, between tonal austerity and romantic expressiveness, in the Barber Adagio, and the orchestra nicely captured the jovially pastoral flavor of Butterworth’s tone picture.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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