Clarke Bustard – Richmond Times-Dispatch

When Richmond Symphony Music Director Steven Smith planned this weekend’s Masterworks program more than a year ago, he couldn’t have anticipated the past week’s violence in Syria and Sweden. But, with the world being what it is, and with the coming of Holy Week and Passover, he could count on music that evokes war and peace, loss and redemption, sounding timely.

The program’s main selection, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”), for two vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, is a musically eventful setting of sections of the Catholic Mass, three poems that Walt Whitman wrote during the American Civil War, lines from a speech delivered by the British parliamentarian John Bright during the Crimean War, and a sequence of biblical texts.

Begun during World War I — when Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front — and completed in the mid-1930s, “Dona nobis pacem” is a soulful, at times vividly turbulent contemplation of war and its toll on humanity.

The composer’s “pastoral” style of long-limbed, hymnlike melodies is run through a brassy and percussive gauntlet, sounding by turns ominous, mournful, triumphant and ultimately both resigned and hopeful.

Saturday’s performance was paced by the stentorian yet lyrical vocalizations of bass-baritone Kevin Deas, notably in Whitman’s “Reconciliation,” the chorus’s finely detailed treatment of the elaborate closing biblical sequence and the orchestra and chorus at full tilt in Whitman’s “Beat! beat! drums.”

Soprano Michelle Areyzaga brought restrained passion, and welcome gradations of expression, in her role as a lone, pleading voice in recurring recitations of the “Dona nobis pacem” chant.

The long central section, set to a third Whitman poem, “Dirge for Two Veterans,” is the most challenging part of the piece, both for performers and listeners, because it is relentlessly somber and focused on a text that must be projected by massed voices. The chorus singing from the back of the Carpenter Theatre stage was darkly expressive but verbally indistinct.

Choral sound also was disappointingly recessed relative to that of the orchestra during much of Anton Bruckner’s celebratory setting of Psalm 150 (“Praise ye the Lord, praise God in his sanctuary”), which also featured Areyzaga in a short but potent vocal cameo.

Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor (long known as No. 8, nowadays designated No. 7) served as a substantial overture to the choral works. Smith and the orchestra delivered a solidly middle-of-the-road, romantically inflected reading of this familiar music.

The symphony’s low strings and horns set a suitably dark, rich tone, and were seconded ably in the solos of oboist Shawn Welk and clarinetist David Lemelin.

—Clarke Bustard: Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 8, 2017