Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with April Martin, soprano
Stephanie Foley Davis, mezzo-soprano
Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Damien Geter, bass-baritone
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Erin Freeman directing
May 21-22, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

(reviewed from online stream, posted May 25)

At its premiere in 1824, Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony (No. 9 in D minor) was a stand-alone musical event, and over most of the subsequent two centuries it remained so. In recent decades, though, the work increasingly has shared programs with shorter works by living composers, often styled as preludes or responses to the Ninth, but usually, in my experience, difficult for listeners to relate to the symphony.

In its Masterworks season-finale performance of the Beethoven, the Richmond Symphony adhered to that new tradition, preceding the Ninth with two contemporary pieces, Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and Joel Thompson’s “An Act of Resistance,” that do relate.

As Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, told the audience, all three works are emotionally driven by the human voice, evocatively in “Umoja,” literally in “An Act of Resistance” and the Ninth.

All three cast their song themes as resolution of contrasting material that is mournful or militant in tone and expression. They reach resolution differently: Beethoven in joyful outbursts of solo and choral voices, Thompson in an anthemic tune that might have stepped out of film-soundtrack music that’s heard when all is put right in the story, Coleman in a transition from what sounds like a 19th-century spiritual to an upbeat, jazzily rhythmic dance of joy.

Peleggi’s treatment of the Ninth presented the symphony’s lyrical orchestral content with shapely songfulness, using dynamics (especially long crescendos) and rhythmic flexibility to add depth of expression to otherwise linear melodies. She emphasized rhythmic precision and delineation of sectional voicings in the symphony’s faster, more turbulent or dramatic sections. This is a tricky contrast to pull off; it was largely successful (if, at times, episodic in effect) in the orchestral movements, but sounded more assertive than joyful in the choral finale.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared for the last time by Erin Freeman, who is relinquishing direction of choruses at the symphony and Virginia Commonwealth University to take over the City Choir of Washington, delivered a brisk, outgoing and alert account of Beethoven’s choral writing. Sectional balances were excellent throughout, and the choristers’ handling of quieter, more rarified sections – notably those following the full-throated “Ode to Joy” and preceding the skittering coda – gave striking displays of expressive sensitivity and vocal color.

Beethoven is notorious for torturing solo voices, especially in the Ninth and “Missa solemnis.” The quartet mustered for these performances was well-balanced, rhythmically acute and not audibly hard-pressed in ensembles peppered with high notes and precarious balances among the four voices.

Bass-baritone Damien Geter’s treatment of his oratorical admonition “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (“O friends, not these tones!”) and his introduction of the “Ode to Joy” highlighted the contrast between sternness and aspiration. Rodrick Dixon brought Heldentenor tonality and fight-song tone to his “Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn” (“Brothers, run your course”) solo in the central “Turkish” march.

Coleman’s “Umoja” (Swahili for “unity”), written in 2002 for women’s choir, then recast for wind quintet (the composer is the flutist of Imani Winds) and finally, in 2019, in a longer, elaborated orchestral tone poem, invites comparison with Aaron Copland’s “Americana” music in an orchestration that presents its big tune on a wide sonic vista and that seems to evoke times past. Coleman, however, is more emotionally engaged and romantically expressive than Copland was.

“Umoja’s” soulful main theme is introduced by solo violin – played here with a nostalgic sensibility by Daisuke Yamamoto, the orchestra’s concertmaster – but then is given largely to woodwinds, at key points to the very high-register piccolo and relatively low English horn. Bass clarinet further enlarges the winds’ palette of tone colors and range of vocal characters. Coleman’s writing for bowed vibraphone adds an otherworldly overtone to string passages. The work’s more upbeat and cross-rhythmic concluding section filters the African drum-circle genre through a more modern, urban American lens.

From the soulful to the high-stepping, Peleggi and the orchestra gave “Umoja” an account that delivered the goods, from big moments to finer details of orchestration.

Thompson’s “An Act of Resistance” (2017) is a more straightforward contrast of thematic material, with a bluntly propulsive war march (recalling “Mars” in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”) giving way to a hymn-like tune that gradually fades into peaceful resolution in a wordless vocalization by orchestra members.

On their instruments and through their voices, the symphony musicians gave the piece a high-definition but warmly expressive reading.

The online stream of the performance may be accessed through June 30. Access: $30. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

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