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Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page C08

Choral Arts Society

As conductor Norman Scribner patiently drew out the first measures of J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" from the Choral Arts Society on Sunday at the Kennedy Center, you knew you were in for a blissfully long afternoon. This was not going to be one of the fleet readings so common today among baroque groups. No, this was performance from the school of Otto Klemperer, the late German maestro whose legendary 1962 recording of the work clocks in at almost four hours. You could not help but look at your watch in those initial moments and imagine the concert might finish up, say, in April.

Yet by all means it was a glorious afternoon as the Choral Arts Society gave a reading of tremendous luster, sweep and, above all, strength. Wonderful singing from the soloists traded off with warm yet precise chorales and arias, while the society's orchestra provided loving accompaniment. The performance added up to more than the sum of these parts and a shimmer seemed to float over the concert hall as the work unfolded. For an amateur ensemble, the concert was no less than a triumph.

Conductor Luis Haza was also the violin soloist with the Virginia Chamber Orchestra on Sunday. (Louis Sica)

This dramatic retelling of the story of the Crucifixion is one of the cornerstones of the sacred music repertoire if not all of classical music. Evolving over 60 movements in two parts, the work possesses celestial and cinematic qualities.

Tenor Alan Bennett sang the role of the all-important Evangelist who continually narrates the story and propels the action. Bennett's laserlike voice, concentrated ardor and clear diction superbly rendered the texts. His recitatives were highly musical, filled with acute rhythmic sense and smart phrasing. Baritone Christopheren Nomura's spoken Jesus was powerful and questioning, while bass-baritone Steven Combs played up the sinister speaking roles like Judas and Pilate.

Yet much of the performance's cathedral-like quality came from the fine singing of the double chorus. After a bit of a shaky start, the Choral Arts Society came together, sensitively fusing a colorful tone with dynamic precision in the repeating chorale "O Lammes Gottes, unschuldig," while expertly rendering antiphonal phrases in which the sound darts from one chorus to the other. The Children's Chorus of Washington injected the requisite element of innocent purity in the first part.

The afternoon's soloists -- soprano Ellen Hargis, mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, tenor Stanford Olsen and bass-baritone Michael Dean -- sang with equal parts skill and splendor.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

'St. John Passion'

It is high season for Bach's passions. Unlike his "St. Matthew Passion," which is focused on poetry that lyrically meditates on Jesus's trial and crucifixion, the "St. John Passion" centers directly on the Gospel narrative itself. On Sunday, conductor Michael McCarthy led the Choirs of Washington National Cathedral, its Baroque Orchestra and soloists in a telling account of the "St. John" in the massive Gothic church celebrated for its reverberant acoustics.

The core of the work, its universal humanity, came through -- except for the blurred opening chorus -- in the cathedral's vast spaces. It was as riveting as a performance this reviewer heard recently in Leipzig's modest-size St. Thomas, Bach's main church. (Though it premiered at the nearby St. Nicholas.) The chorus delivered the fiery drama of John's text, a tale of spite and anger, as if by a bloodthirsty mob. But the singers also conveyed the gentle message of consolation in the final chorus and chorale (German Lutheran hymn). Here, as throughout, the young girls and boys of the group sang with precision, fine German diction and a full dramatic sense.

On baroque-style instruments, the orchestra played an equal role in moving and clearly articulated ensemble and solo work. Tenor Robert Petillo brought dignity, depth and drama to his taxing Evangelist role. Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux voiced her part with sweetness, light and strength. As Jesus, bass James Shaffran offered much warmth and dignity; countertenor Roger Isaacs sang with glowing power. In addition, Tony Boutte and Jon Bruno performed with conviction and polish.

-- Cecelia Porter

Virginia Chamber Orchestra

The Virginia Chamber Orchestra greeted the first day of spring with an all-Mozart program at the Ernst Community Cultural Center in Annandale.

The Sunday afternoon performance, led by Music Director Luis Haza, featured a cheerful reading of the Overture to "Bastien und Bastienne." Haza then picked up his violin for the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216.

Performing in memory of a VCO violinist who recently passed away, Haza displayed a sweet, shiny tone that easily permeated the orchestra's textures. He created drama not through aggressive athleticism but through emotional expression that was especially winning in the first movement's cadenza.

During his breaks, Haza would occasionally turn to conduct with his free hand. But the sensitive orchestra hardly required such direction. Each of its entrances was precisely in sync both musically and metronomically. At times, the VCO's accompaniment encroached upon Haza's gentle melody in the concerto's Adagio. But in the Rondeau, their jaunty give and take of melodies culminated in a charming pizzicato ending.

With baton in hand to direct the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, Haza infused the orchestra with the same energetic excitement he brought to the concerto. The players responded with darker tones and intense dynamics that created the aural illusion of a larger orchestra. Some curious intonation problems drifted across the string sections midway through the symphony, causing its third movement to sound less assured. But everyone pulled together for a dashing finale.

-- Grace Jean

Orchestre de Chambre Francais

Of all the ways in which the Orchestre de Chambre Francais excelled during its concert of French romantic music Sunday evening, perhaps the most striking was its exquisite playing of pizzicati. Many times, orchestral string players treat plucking the string as a distraction from bowing it, playing off the beat, too loud or too soft, or with indelicate tone, all of which also pluck concertgoers' nerves. But under conductor Brian Suits, these 12 string players plucked with uncommon care and taste, whether accompanying a tender melody, laying down a carefree rhythm or even sounding that last devastating note at the end of a solemn passage.

In this performance at the National Gallery of Art, the pizzicati were especially poignant when tick-tocking against the gorgeous swoons of the melody in Ravel's "Pavane pour un Infante Defunte," which, like most of these pieces, was arranged for the orchestra's modest forces. Debussy's "Petit Suite" and "La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin" sparkled with gracious, stylish playing, as ripe yet lucid Gallic harmonies were enlivened by decorous plucking. Try as they might, though, Suits and the orchestra could not make Guillame Lekeu's monotonously somber Adagio for Strings interesting.

Violinist Kyung Sun Lee joined the orchestra for three numbers: the "Canzonetta" from Benjamin Godard's "Concerto Romantique," in which Lee made her melody into a carefree dance atop (again) delicious pizzicati, and two showpieces by Camille Saint-Saens: the relatively obscure "Romance in C" and the extremely familiar Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Lee certainly pulled off their virtuoso high jinks with aplomb, but her warm tone and supple, natural phrasing were what made the Saint-Saens performances memorable.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

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