Monday, May 30, 2005

Wagnerian Voices At the German Embassy

For a decade the Emerging Singers Program has made a noticeable mark in Washington's expanding opera scene. Led by star opera veterans Evelyn Lear and husband Thomas Stewart, the project seeks out young American singers to mentor and promote toward careers as the next Wagnerian vanguard -- a tall order, since Wagner's operas, earth-moving forces in the cosmic reordering of the operatic world, make extraordinary and singular demands on the human voice. Seven singers proved themselves right on track at the German Embassy Friday.

In a concert sponsored by the Wagner Society of Washington, the performers offered excerpts from eight Wagner operas, three from his seminal "Ring" cycle. Not least, the superb pianist Betty Bullock transformed the embassy's Bluethner instrument into a virtual opera orchestra.

Soprano Diane Barton greeted the Wartburg's hall ("Dich, teure Halle" from Tannhaeuser") with seemingly effortless movement between her vibrant mezzo range and her topmost notes. An ardent Senta ("Der Fliegende Hollaender"), she was also a sonorously ecstatic Sieglinde ("Die Walkuere"). In the title role of "Lohengrin," tenor Joshua Saxon tended toward a sturdy if strained quality with noticeable breaks between vocal registers; as Lohengrin's father ("Parsifal"), he took on greater lyricism.

A steely baritone, Nathan Bahny made a stolidly lecherous Alberich ("Das Rheingold" and "Siegfried"). Daniel Brenna set his tenor on a blissful course lightly trod in Erik's dream ("Hollaender") and rapturously proclaimed by Siegmund in his duet with Sieglinde ("Walkuere").

Attired in an imposing long, dark coat, Charles Robert Austin employed his vibrant baritone to portray a Wotan of commanding presence rent with despair ("Siegfried" and "Walkuere"). Bass Pawel Izdebski was a basso profundo both as a booming Fafner ("Siegfried") and an anguished King Marke ("Tristan und Isolde"); while soprano Rebecca Teem, the newest of the group, ended the exciting evening with a rousing" "Hojotoho," Bruennhilde's belligerent call to arms ("Walkuere").

-- Cecelia Porter

Fairfax Symphony: 'Lord of the Rings' Symphony

There's nothing wrong with Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" Symphony that a good editor could not have fixed. Shore wrote the musical score for the movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy and, like all good scores, his contributes an evocative, emotional landscape.

The trouble is, Shore seems to have been in love with every single note and every single event in the original unraveling of this sprawling tale. His symphony, a reworking of the film material, in six movements (two for each of the trilogy's volumes) and two-plus hours, is a monument to self-indulgence. A good editor could have halved it, and it would have been a much better concert piece.

The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, Fairfax Choral Society and Children's Chorus, along with a pair of excellent soloists, took it on this past weekend with three performances at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, guest-conducted by Markus Huber, who has been traveling the world performing the work (his day job is as conductor of the Bulgarian Chamber Orchestra).

Clearly Huber has the piece internalized and he guided his forces incisively through the unfolding of its 36 scenes. The orchestra was at its colorful best (and I suspect that never before has the tuba had so much to do) and the chorus, although frequently overwhelmed by the instruments, contributed moments of a human dimension to the orchestral sonority.

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