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Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page C08

Alessandra Marc

Through the foliage of strategically placed trees at the National Gallery of Art's West Garden Court, Alessandra Marc appeared Sunday in a black dress with shiny rose imprints, suggesting camouflage. But Marc, a truly grand soprano and classical music all-star with a huge, radiant voice, couldn't be missed. Indeed, her voice was far bigger than the venue, causing at times a good deal of distorting reverberation.

Accompanied by impeccable pianist David Chapman, Marc was the featured artist at the second concert of the National Gallery's 63rd season.

Beethoven's occasionally enjoyable "Ah! Perfido!" was followed by Alban Berg's "Seven Early Songs," the evening's highlight. Marc's voice was perfectly suited for these pieces, and its raw power was aptly and gently employed. She made such a good case for them that I would not be surprised if many audience members, usually disinclined toward music from the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) later sought a recording of them.

A Tosca excerpt -- "bravoed" at maximum decibels -- followed, and the second half's works by Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Carlisle Floyd were popular sweets but less suited to her singing. Gershwin doesn't need that much operatic bombast, nor does "The Sound of Music's" "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." With her instrument, used to greater effect, Marc could have sung poor Julie Andrews right off a cliff -- but who cares after that sublime Alban Berg.

-- Jens Laurson

Fairport Convention

Fairport Convention, which played the Birchmere on Sunday, has an identity problem. It's not just the big-fish, small-pond issue of having pioneered and triumphed in the obscure genre of English folk-rock. (Simon Nicol, the group's only remaining original member, introduced "Crazy Man Michael" as "a song that attempted to bridge the gap between traditional song and contemporary music by stealing from them both.") It's that the members must simultaneously please the fans who have been listening since the mid-1960s and please themselves as continuously working musicians.

Guitarist Nicol and bassist Dave Pegg, another longtime member, protest too much about their ages; their music is ageless. The group blended the expected selection of old favorites such as "Michael" with compositions by other contemporary British musicians. Ralph McTell's song "The Hiring Fair," a slow, rural ballad with a happy ending, benefited from Nicol's sonorous vocals and a soaring bridge by Pegg on bass and Ric Sanders on fiddle. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie brought out many of his own compositions, including "I'm Already There." Percussionist Gerry Conway matched his fellows for instrumental prowess.

If the traditional song "Matty Groves" -- about which Nicol quipped, "We started doing this in 1969, so it's even more traditional now" -- took a self-indulgent route, lurching from Britfolk into reggae and back again, and featuring several musical and sight gags, it was no problem for the faithful crowd. Whether it wins new converts, Fairport's skill and energy in its chosen genre will surely endure at least as long as its members can raise their voices and move their fingers.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Lise de la Salle

Sixteen-year-old French pianist Lise de la Salle chose forbiddingly difficult works of Bach and Liszt for her local debut, presented Sunday afternoon by Young Concert Artists of Washington at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. It was a daring choice for such a young pianist to dive into the deep end of the repertory, but de la Salle played so well that, for much of the concert, it was the audience that had to remember to breathe.

De la Salle's Bach showed an apparent inclination towards Liszt. The Toccata in D, BWV 912, and two choral preludes in transcriptions by Busoni received choppy, somewhat stiff performances. However, she tore headlong into Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903 (a work beloved by Liszt), bringing real fire to its cascading scales, disorienting harmonies and close-interval counterpoint, and gave Liszt's transcription of the Organ Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543, a similarly rousing performance.

With expectations thus raised for the Liszt half of the program, de la Salle, if anything, exceeded them. She found the delicate rapture in the "Sonetto del Petrarca" No. 104, painted vivid pictures of the waves crashing over Saint Francis de Paola in the "Legend" No. 2, and even plumbed the existential unease in the tritone-saturated "La Lugubre Gondola" No. 1. De la Salle closed the concert with that showiest of showcases, the "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1, and after a brief, pregnant pause launched its opening, repeated chords in the highest of spirits and at breakneck speed; the exhilaration didn't let up for a second until her hands came off the keyboard and everyone could finally come up for air.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

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