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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Monday, February 7, 2005; Page C05

Washington Bach Consort

Washington's most notable Bach specialists crossed over Saturday night to honor the other great German composer born in 1685. In a program titled "Hallelujah Handel," conductor J. Reilly Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort explored George Frideric Handel's music in fine detail, not only with technical precision but with obvious affection.

The performance, at the University of Maryland's Dekelboum Concert Hall, was an evening to remember, not only for its music but for its festive atmosphere. In the collegial spirit that makes Washington's choral community different from those in most other cities, "Hallelujah Handel" was a tribute by one esteemed choral conductor to another: Lewis not only praised Paul Traver, founder of the University of Maryland Chorus and the Maryland Handel Festival, but he also brought him onstage for an encore to conduct one of the most powerful and enthusiastic performances the "Hallelujah" Chorus has ever had. Actually, the evening was full of conductors; Erik Reid Jones stepped out of the University of Maryland Chamber Singers (who joined the Bach Consort for some numbers) to conduct Handel's "Dixit Dominus," and Edward Maclary, Traver's successor as the university's choral director, took his place humbly to sing in the baritone section of the chorus.

Soprano Tamara Matthews and tenor Charles Reid stood out among the four excellent soloists, with strong performances of "Oh, had I Jubal's lyre" and "Where'er you walk." Mezzo-soprano Lorie Gratis's gentle "O Lord, whose mercies numberless" provided a graceful contrast to "Sound an alarm." And baritone Philip Cutlip rose splendidly to the rhetoric of "Arm, arm, ye brave!" The consort's orchestra accompanied expertly throughout and played gracefully in sinfonias from "Saul" and "Solomon." But the focus of the evening was on choral singing, joyful, martial, reverent, militant and triumphant.

-- Joseph McLellan

'Theatre of Song'

Two young sopranos took the stage of the French Embassy Friday with an exciting program of songs reaching into every corner of a woman's emotional life, voicing feelings ranging from bliss to despair. The concert was the second of the embassy's "Theatre of Song" series conceived with pianist Mikhail Hallak.

Already opera veterans, Lyubov Petrova (of the Metropolitan and Washington National operas) and Christine Antenbring (of the Spoleto and Ravinia festivals) performed nearly two dozen songs in six languages, defining that elusive point where the song recital's intimate subjectivity and opera's outward-thrusting drama intersect. And Hallak was right there with each singer, turning the piano into a partner in dialogue or a multicolored orchestral commentator on the emotions being sung.

Petrova was most touching in the hushed restlessness of Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and most gripping in Tchaikovsky's "So Soon Forgotten." Her long-breathed pianissimos glowed with intensity, her crescendos were meticulously timed and her upper range glistened with cosmic lyricism.

Antenbring reigned supreme in her dramatic characterizations of every setting -- with a mezzo resonance of purest honey in Debussy's "Pan Flute" and a dark, sultry contralto for Kurt Weill's "I Don't Love You." The concentrated power with which she underlined the devastating anger of Dominick Argento's "War" was simply ravishing.

-- Cecelia Porter


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