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Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C02

Ravinia Musicians

On Wednesday evening at the Library of Congress, you might have been forgiven for momentarily confusing the wealthy Chicago suburbs with the Green Mountains. The young musicians of the Ravinia Festival's Steans Institute gave a vibrant chamber music concert that was uncannily similar to something you would hear at the famed Marlboro Music Festival in southern Vermont. As in any Marlboro concert, the institute's skilled young musicians worked nicely with established performers to give readings of uncommon polish and energy.

The married Steans faculty duo of violinist Miriam Fried and violist Paul Biss inspired cellist Antoine Lederlin and pianist Finghin Collins to their best in the Washington premiere of Lewis Spratlan's "Streaming: Quartet for Piano and Strings." After episodes of ambiguous droning, songful lyricism and declamatory agitation, the musicians skillfully merged this disparate material.

Violinist Annie Rabbat and violist Eric Nowlin pitched in for Ned Rorem's flippantly titled and largely derivative piano quartet, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," which sounds like early Debussy with a sprinkling of dissonance. The musicians found the music in this occasionally alluring work, taking the chance to display a keen sense of proportion, balance and accent.

Swaggering, full-bodied accounts of Dvorak's Terzetto in C, Op. 74, and Brahms's String Quintet in G, Op. 111, were a bit overexposed. Taut phrasing, lightning tempos and thick vibrato overwhelmed some of the music's rich harmony. Yet you had to love the willingness of musicians, including violist Yuval Gotlibovich in the Brahms, to open up emotionally and take risks. In musical performance, being bold is often better than being absolutely precise.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Much has been written about the fine acoustics of the new Music Center at Strathmore. But soprano Barbara Bonney's performance of Haydn's cantata "Scena di Berenice," at Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's WPAS concert on Wednesday, revealed an even more thrilling immediacy and thrust to the hall's sound. Bonney's voice -- with its silvery top, plummy middle and scintillating vibrato -- pealed forth gloriously in the space, enlivened by her vivid, word-specific engagement with the drama.

The emotional arc of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" was no less arrestingly conveyed, its aching sense of loss made especially palpable. But here, Bonney's overly cultured diction and search for rounded tones rendered most of the James Agee nostalgic prose poem unintelligible. It was a frustrating weakness to encounter in an American singer performing in her own language -- particularly in a work that derives so much of its power from its words. (The lack of a printed text in the program, for the Haydn and the Barber, didn't do the audience any favors either.)

All evening, Orpheus played with its accustomed blend of elegance and sprightliness, of subtle inflection and trenchant attack. Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite was affectionately turned, with a lovely sheen on the strings (though the gaps between movements were too long to preserve a cohesive musical through-line). The Mozart Symphony No. 29 received a beautifully weighted account -- traditional in tone, but quite light on its feet.

-- Joe Banno


Three singer-songwriters recorded a collection of songs in a Wisconsin living room and called it "Redbird." Wednesday night the trio -- Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst and Peter Mulvey -- kicked off the Redbird tour at Jammin' Java, and if the rest of the performances are as well-received as this one was by the standing-room audience, the artists might as well consider making the arrangement permanent.

Seated across the stage with their acoustic guitars, and accompanied by guitarist David Goodrich, the performers sang into microphones positioned a distance away, and with the house volume set at "intimate." The intentionally low tones caused the listener to lean into the music, and the experience was the richer for it.

The songs were expressively played and performed with the same laid-back ease as in that Wisconsin living room. The three performed together on the opening numbers, Greg Brown's "Ships" and the standard "Moonglow," and then traded songs for two charming sets.

Delmhorst, who drew on a fiddle for some numbers, took the lead on Billie Holiday's "Me, Myself and I" and Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," giving the songs a warm, antique feel. Mulvey's rendition of Paul Cebar's "Lovely as the Day Is Long" perfectly caught the retro-blues vibe; he also performed with Goodrich on a show highlight, Goodrich's instrumental "Susquehanna Waltz," which presented echoes of the Civil War era.

Foucault brought some levity to the evening with a lively version of Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk"; he later did a moving version of Johnny Cash's ballad "I Still Miss Someone."

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