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Monday, March 14, 2005; Page C05

La Poeme Harmonique

In the performance of 17th-century music today, period instruments are taken for granted, but how many ensembles will strive for authenticity in all aspects of performance?

The group Le Poeme Harmonique performed a fascinating program of French 17th-century music (by, among others, Marin Marais, Etienne Moulinie and Barbara Strozzi) on Friday at La Maison Francaise. Period instruments were played with regal confidence by the ensemble's director, Vincent Dumestre (theorbo and baroque guitar), and Christine Plubeau (bass and bass viol). Soprano Claire Lefilliatre sounded steeped in early-music style, with her crystalline, forwardly placed, vibrato-less tone and sensual sculpting of the words.

Le Poeme Harmonique performed Friday at La Maison Francaise. (The Embassy Series)

But Poeme is dedicated to reproducing period costume, dance and spoken theater as well. Actor-dancers Julien Lubek and Cecile Roussat declaimed text by Theophile de Viau, Evariste Gherardi and Pierre Corneille in a high-flown song-speech (with R's dramatically rolled and silent syllables vividly spoken) and moved in a heavily gestural amalgam of folk and courtly dance, pantomime and commedia dell'arte slapstick. What's more, the stage was lit solely with banks of candles -- a stunningly evocative effect.

Too bad, then, about the endless pre-curtain speeches and boorish flash photography that destroyed magical moments of lighting and snuffing those candles. And Poeme should reconsider anachronisms like the string players' modern wardrobe and the huge, face-level recording mikes planted in front of the stage. Ah, well -- no illusion is perfect.

-- Joe Banno

Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras

For the first time in its 59-year history, the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras has found a permanent home: at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda.

At their inaugural concert there Saturday, high school musicians in the organization's top two ensembles gave mature performances that proved their abilities to uphold high standards as members of Strathmore's resident youth orchestra.

With a stately, baroque sound, the 125-member Philharmonic made quite an impression in the opening chords of Beethoven's Overture to "Die Weihe des Hauses," Op. 124, under MCYO Artistic Director Olivia W. Gutoff. But the sheer size of its violin section (which filled half the stage) tended to overwhelm other instrumental sections throughout the concert, overshadowing the trumpet solo in Gordon Jacob's "Passacaglia on a Well-Known Theme" and disrupting the winds' melodic flow with loud entrances in Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 ("Romantic").

Yet such violin power gave a grandiose intensity to "America the Beautiful" and added vibrancy to the premiere of Chen Yi's "Celebration for Orchestra," commissioned by MCYO for the occasion. In the former work, the Philharmonic readily responded to Gutoff's conducting with sensitive phrasing and tonal warmth.

Among the Philharmonic's many impressive brass players, principal horn Adedeji Ogunfolu was the standout soloist, especially in the Hanson symphony.

The evening began with an expressive and charming pre-concert performance by Sinfonia, MCYO's 40-member string orchestra, directed by Chris Allen.

-- Grace Jean

China Philharmonic

China has come far, musically, in the three decades since the Cultural Revolution, when owning a piano might have landed you on a labor farm. Today the country boasts the new China Philharmonic, which played the Music Center at Strathmore Friday as part of its first U.S. tour.

Long Yu conducted the orchestra he founded five years ago in an East-meets-West mix of music geared to show off his young musicians and guest soloists. Overall, he was successful.

Eighteen-year-old pianist Yuja Wang emphasized the lyricism in Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." The sweeping theme in the 18th variation was delicate, yet deeply felt. But she had to compete with an orchestra often too loud, plus harmonizing from several audience cell phones.

Along with the Philharmonic's vibrant percussion section, soprano Luwa Ke was spotlighted in "Das Lied auf der Erde," a fascinating response to Gustav Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth").

In 1909 Mahler set ancient Chinese poems amid a huge symphonic canvas. For this tour, composer Ye Xiaogang set the same poems, resulting in a dynamic blend of postmodern Western styles and Chinese traditions. Ke sounded best when bending notes like a Beijing Opera singer.

Bela Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" ballet suite was a reminder that the Philharmonic is still young. The notes were there, but Bartok's back alley sleaze, jagged violence and wit were not. Winds merely whimpered, and strings lacked the luster and weight needed to bite below the surface of the music.

Still, Yu and his China Philharmonic are well worth keeping an ear on.

-- Tom Huizenga

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