Review: Richmond Symphony

Erin R. Freeman conducting
Maria Brea, soprano
Miles Mykkanen, tenor
Michael Dean, bass-baritone
Richmond Symphony Chorus

April 9-10, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
(reviewed from online stream, posted April 13)

Erin R. Freeman began wrapping up 15 years as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus (doubling as the orchestra’s associate conductor for the first seven of those years) with a staple of the choral-orchestral repertory that, despite its stature, is not often programmed by symphony orchestras: Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation.”

The work had been scheduled last season to mark the 50th anniversary of the Symphony Chorus, but was delayed because of the pandemic.

During Haydn’s visits to England in the early 1790s – occasions for his 12 “London” symphonies, plus a pile of chamber and vocal works – he heard performances of Handel’s oratorios “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt,” which inspired him to write an oratorio of his own.

He returned to Vienna with “The Creation of the World,” an English text by an unknown author, drawn from the biblical Book of Genesis and Psalms and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Haydn gave the text to Gottfried van Swieten, a prominent composers’ patron who was fond of oratorios – in 1789, he had commissioned Mozart to produce a re-orchestrated, German-language version of “Messiah.” Van Swieten translated “The Creation” into German (“Die Schöpfung”) and advised Haydn on its composition. The work was introduced in 1798 and published two years later, with both German and English texts.

These performances, in English, boasted one of the finest ensembles of solo voices to perform with the orchestra and chorus in recent years: soprano Maria Brea, tenor Miles Mykkanen and bass-baritone Michael Dean, portraying the angels Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, respectively, in parts 1 and 2, and Adam (Dean) and Eve (Brea), with Mykkanen in a narrative (recitative) role, in Part 3.

Well-balanced in duets and trios, the singers conveyed distinctive vocal characters in their solos. Brea’s bright coloratura was heard to best effect in ornamented numbers such as “The marv’lous work beholds amazed.” Mykkanen’s leaner, more focused tone and characterful projection of texts enhanced every piece in which he sang. Dean, whose tone production was consistently fine from deep bass to near-tenor, proved to be a commanding yet nuanced angelic narrator (some of those nuances may not have carried to the back rows of the Carpenter Theatre), as well as a contented spouse when he and Brea repaired to the Garden of Eden in Part 3.

The Symphony Chorus, whose full complement hasn’t had many chances to perform in the two years of the pandemic, sounded warmly expressive but rather soft-grained in massed vocal texture, at least as it came across in the audio of the online stream. Even with microphones in place and an audio mix made for the stream, the chorus sounded almost as distant relative to the orchestra as it so often does to listeners in the hall.

The ensemble’s best work came in numbers with more differentiated voice parts, notably the fugal “Glory to His name forever” that concludes Part 2 of the oratorio.

Freeman set moderate tempos and sounded to concentrate more on melody than drama or evocations of nature – not, to my ears, the way to do full justice to this work. Haydn wrote some good tunes, but none of his best made it into “The Creation.” The representational effects in his orchestration and his emotively assertive solo-vocal and choral writing are the qualities that sell this piece. Here, they were mostly undersold.

The orchestra, more populated than usual with substitute musicians, played like a capable pick-up ensemble, turning in a dutiful account of Haydn’s score – all the right notes at the right times, but without much inflection or animation.

The stream of the program remains accessible through June 30. Single-concert access: $30. Full Masterworks season access: $180. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com