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Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page C05


Yanni's touring days look numbered.

This is, after all, a guy whose career kicked off with a gig at the Acropolis and who refers frequently to the time he booked the Taj Mahal and a big space inside the Forbidden City for shows. Just as Christo's art works only on canvases the size of Central Park, Yanni can't play coffeehouses. Yet Yanni's market pull is no longer such that he can fill the big rooms: The upper deck was utterly empty for his Sunday show at MCI Center. But, after coming to the stage in a blitz of prefab thunder and lightning, Yanni thrilled fans in the arena's lower sections with a set of supersized New Age classical music.

For many followers of popular music, the fame of the 50-year-old composer (real name: Yanni Chryssomallis) is harder to understand than any Greek export since the Oedipus complex. Most of his tunes are sweeping synthesizer-based instrumentals ("The Storm," among others in his 130-minute set) that seem best suited for soundtracks of Olympics highlights packages. A few others ("Keys to Imagination," "Nightingale" and "Until the Last Moment" ) are sanguine piano dramas that could accompany the credits on a soap opera. Think John Tesh, if Tesh were shorter and free of unctuousness.

Backed by a full orchestra, Yanni spent most of the set at the front of the stage, hopping up and down or running in place while hunting and pecking keys from his bank of six synthesizers. In this digital age, that's about five more synthesizers than he really needed to make any sound he desired, but their placement allowed him to face the crowd with his arms spread wide while tickling two sets of ivories. Fans waved their hands over their heads, closed their eyes and smiled throughout, giving the event a vibe similar to that of a Christian rock concert, though there were no spiritual references more overt than Yanni's poses and a video of a sunset. Some way, somehow, he made everybody in the room feel good. And, again, it was a big room.

-- Dave McKenna

Prague Symphony

The Prague Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Serge Baudo, visited Washington for the first time in 20 years Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. The all-Dvorak program, under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society, was notable for its high energy and the tightness of the ensemble playing. The orchestra is rhythmically compelling and well-balanced in tone, though by American standards an ensemble its size would have one or two more double basses.

The program opened with a bang -- the hyperactive "Carnival" Overture, Op. 92. But there was a wonderfully effective contrast in the overture's calm middle section with its curiously lyrical use of the tambourine.

In the performance of pianist Martin Kasik, who soloed in the relatively unfamiliar Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33, there was a similar balance of fiery technique (in the first and third movements) and calm lyricism (in the "Andante sostenuto" central movement). The finale of this work is one of the places in which Dvorak can be heard finding his definitive style, which is deeply rooted in Bohemian folk music and which was prominently featured in the other selections.

The second half of the program was devoted to a half-dozen Slavonic Dances, including one played as a vigorously demanded encore. If any music is closely identified with this orchestra, these dances are. The performances had energy, color, rhythmic precision and a feeling that the musicians were doing what they knew and loved best.

-- Joseph McLellan

Contrasts Quartet

The late clarinet music of Johannes Brahms offers some of the most sublime moments of chamber music. The composer, reaching the end of his life in the 1890s, casts an autumnal spell with these lush scores, washing the gentle glow of the clarinet over rich, flowing textures. Sunday evening at the Phillips Collection, listeners had the chance to hear the energetic Contrasts Quartet bring out the full hue of the composer's Clarinet Trio in A Minor.

Contrasts started and ended its approach to the trio with a fine tone. Each member -- cellist Ariane Lallemand, pianist Evelyne Luest and clarinetist Ayako Oshima -- can make his or her instrument sing with purity and precision. Those qualities helped expose all the nostalgic sounds lurking beneath the surface of each movement. The playing was everywhere sensitive to the propulsive rhythms of the opening Adagio, the undulating lines of the third movement Andante, and the shifting mosaic in the careening finale.

The quartet's excellent violinist, Monica Bauchwitz, joined her colleagues for flanking works on the program. Contrasts kicked things off with the world premiere performance of Jing Jing Luo's "A Drama for Four Spirits," which smartly integrates such different colors as whispering voices and bright percussion. The ensemble gave a committed reading. The detailed style paid off again in a rapt account of Paul Hindemith's clarinet quartet of 1938, which was elegantly restrained yet agile and vivid.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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