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Tenor Randal Rushing, another late replacement, sang with a firm, golden tone, great sensitivity and impressive assurance for a man who had only had one rehearsal with the consort. Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler's meltingly rich voice and evident feeling for Mahler showed themselves to particular advantage in the transcendent final song, "Abschied" ("Farewell"), when the cosmic implications of "Slow Boat to the Universe" became clear.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

David Salness and Evelyn Elsing are artistic directors of the Left Bank Concert Society, heard on Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. (Stan Barouh)

Gewandhaus Orchestra

On Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, pianist Mikhail Pletnev reminded listeners what an introspective and understated work Brahms's First Piano Concerto is. This prodigiously talented Russian took his time with the piece, phrasing in a simple, quietly eloquent way that enabled melodies to find their natural arcs and inner voices to emerge subtly from the textures around them. His rounded and unforced playing was leagues away from the barnstorming approach -- but then, despite the churning energy of its opening and closing pages, this concerto is no barnstormer.

How apt it was to partner Pletnev with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Blomstedt drew wonderfully hushed playing from his orchestra -- particularly in the prayerful slow movement -- supporting the soloist with a silken cushion of string sound, and coaxing expressive work from the piquant, ear-catchingly individual woodwinds and horns. This was the Central European tradition at its mellowest -- a polar opposite to the sinewy, high-octane Brahms that Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra brought to the Concert Hall last season.

Blomstedt gave a similarly supple reading of Brahms's bucolic Second Symphony, though here the climaxes were allowed to accrue greater breadth and mass. The contrapuntal writing late in the first movement suggested the power and architectural strength of a Bach organ fugue, and the symphony's final moments possessed a genuine feeling of exhilaration without the need for acceleration.

-- Joe Banno

Left Bank Concert Society

If beauty is still anathema to serious modern classical music, the Left Bank Concert Society's program Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was a complete failure. Founded to foster and perform living composers' works in juxtaposition with works that influenced them, the society featured Luciano Berio's surprisingly sweet 1986 "Naturale" as its first piece. Inspired by and using (via tape) traditional Italian folk songs in local dialects, with running viola commentary by Katherine Murdock, it also used a variety of percussion instruments including the biggest, baddest marimba I have ever seen -- all played by the seemingly four-armed, eight-handed Lawson White.

Those fearing Boulez-like difficult music at the reading of fellow post-World War II composer Berio (who died just last year) need not have worried. With its folk song relations, the work had obvious parallels to Bartok -- and while undeniably modern, it is also extraordinarily (given the genre) accessible.

Apparently flutists are either very grateful or very desperate for new music, given the amount of work written for solo flute. Marina Piccinini, talented and gorgeous in equal measure, played Nicholas Maw's 1982 "Night Thoughts." In his pre-concert talk, the composer (of "Odyssey" fame) said he hopes his work sounds "not good played on any other instrument." At least in imaginary versions for bass tuba or kettledrum, I wager to say that he is right. With flute, though, it was downright pretty.

Michael Mauldin's "Birds in Winter" preludes for solo harp, a luscious and very enjoyable work skillfully plucked off her instrument by Astrid Walschot-Stapp, was the last contemporary piece before Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp and the Beethoven "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, took over. The Debussy brought the soloists (save for White) together, if to slightly less effect than the sum of its parts would have suggested.

The Left Bank Quartet -- consisting of Murdock and Sally McLain (violin) along with Artistic Directors Evelyn Elsing (cello) and David Salness (first violin) -- performed the Beethoven string quartet amiably and clearly enjoyed their musicmaking. For someone who had just come off two hours of Gewandhaus-orchestrated Brahms, the Left Bank Concert was a wonderful cleansing of the musical palate.

-- Jens F. Laurson

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