Review: Richmond Symphony

George Manahan conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
& Daniel Stipe, harpsichord
Dec. 12, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

With “Messiah” and other choral music out of bounds during the pandemic, the Richmond Symphony turned to “A Baroque Holiday,” a sampler of instrumental works roughly contemporaneous with Handel’s oratorio.

This was the first all-baroque program staged by the orchestra in years. Its conductor, George Manahan, music director of the symphony from 1987 to 1998, currently its music advisor, was the last conductor to feature baroque works other than “Messiah” as a regular part of the orchestra’s musical diet.

The program mixed Christmas or seasonally themed works – Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 (popularly known as the “Christmas Concerto”), an instrumental suite from “Messiah” assembled by Manahan, the “Winter” Concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” – with pieces that had no special link to the holidays: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzona No. 2 for brass quintet; J.S. Bach’s “Air on a G String” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, and the first movement of his Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; and the Overture from Handel’s “Royal Fireworks Music.”

The overall effect, though, was an enticing blend of festivity, chaste lyricism and instrumental virtuosity – the essences of baroque musical style.

The symphony’s musicians proved remarkably conversant in a musical idiom that they’ve rarely had the chance to essay. Manahan eased the ensemble into the baroque by adopting fairly relaxed tempos and not calling for too much in the way of “historically informed” performance practice such as vibrato-free string playing.

Several of the orchestra’s principal players and one guest took leading roles. Concertmaster Daisuke Yamamoto was the featured soloist in the Vivaldi concerto, playing up the solo violin’s expressive contrast of ice and fire. Violinists Adrian Pintea and Meredith Riley and cellist Neal Cary formed a pure-toned, atmospheric concertino trio in the Corelli. And Daniel Stipe, Richmond’s keyboardist for all seasons – organist, pianist, harpsichordist – was a forceful and virtuosic soloist in the Bach concerto.

VPM, which has been producing the symphony’s online streams since July, showed in this production that its technical crew is hitting its stride. A good thing, too: Given the tragic course of the pandemic, and the likelihood that normal concert life won’t resume any time soon, its contributions will be essential to the orchestra and its audience for months to come.

The online stream of the Richmond Symphony’s “A Baroque Holiday” may be accessed through Jan. 8. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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