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An exciting but uneven nod to the Reformation

Almost 500 years to the exact date that Martin Luther posted, as tradition suggests, his 95 theses on the doors of the All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, thus starting the Reformation, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra chose as its musical theme that very reference Friday in the Ferguson Center.

“From the Music of Bach to the Reformation Symphony” was a beautifully balanced program that opened with a nod to the Reformation period in Bach’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” more commonly known as “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” written by Luther and later appropriated by Bach, among others. Developed as Cantata No. 80, the work is among Bach’s 50-some cantatas. It wastes not a moment in getting into his often spirited challenges, immediately opening with complex and detailed choral counterpoint fast-moving passages that set things in motion. With the “Mighty Fortress” theme quickly appearing after the high energy start, the work found four guest soloists and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus in fine voice, if not a tad uneven in results.

Diligently prepared by chorus director Robert Shoup, the chorus delivered finely shaped and articulate renderings of its three main musical moments, the remaining five falling to four guest vocalists--soprano Sarah Yanovitch, mezzo-soprano Janna Critz, bass-baritone Andrew Padgett, and tenor Gene Stenger.

Aside from the well-shaped choral output, the most lasting moments came from Stenger whose German was clean and concise and easily heard above the chamber-sized orchestra, and Yanovitch in an emotionally and lyrically done aria. Sadly, the remaining artists, while clearly talented vocalists, found too many moments when balance with the orchestra weighed against them preventing uniform clarity of line and expression.

Fortunately, resident conductor Benjamin Rous led the opening Bach with desired restraint, holding back on excessive physical movement and allowing the baton to shape clean and concise beats. Balance aside, the interpretation was excellent, though quibbles did surface over the almost lethargic singing of the final “Mighty Fortress” chorale.

A refreshing take on Bach came with his “Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor” with the acclaimed pianist Simone Dinnerstein. One of the great Bach interpreters on the scene, Dinnerstein wowed the audience with her dazzling keyboard skills that easily met Bach’s unrelentingly spaghetti-type passage challenges. Technically she was tops, however, the essence of her artistry came with an emotion filled Adagio and her depth of expression. As with the Cantata, balance between orchestra and soloist was not always even.

Bach of a different sort came with Anton Webern’s transcription of the “Ricercare from ‘Musical Offering.’ ” Webern was a proponent of atonality and other things often causing cringe-like reactions from audiences. Yet, this work, was quite accessible, his deconstruction of the basic Bach and its reassembly into a colorful canvas of sound analysis resulting in an engaging hearing courtesy of the VSO’s fine performance.

The evening closed with Rous in a more notably physical podium performance and Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 5 in D major,” the “Reformation,” which again drew on the “Mighty Fortress” theme. From its stately opening and lightness of the scherzo-like Allegro, to the more reflective and expressive Andante and the closing Chorale in which the “Mighty Fortress” theme quietly and delicately, even reverentially, surfaced before leading into more robust developments, the performance was exacting and exciting.

John Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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