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.

The soloists were Kaitlyn Lusk, a soprano who knows how to sing into a mike and whose voice needs a mike, and boy soprano Xavier Flory, whose voice doesn't and for whom the amplification was not kind. On Friday, after a passage or two of a solo, Flory figured this out, stepped back and let the clarity of his voice speak more naturally. Both carried off their assignments with sensitivity and accuracy.

There was also a visual component to this production. Black-and-white sketches of an eye, the ring, a map of the shire, scowls, hands and other more ambiguous shapes were projected onto a large screen that hung down over the chorus. The chorus itself was highlighted, sometimes in red and sometimes in blue, and the orchestra was frequently gold (but sometimes green). All of this seemed to be more an add-on than an integral component of the music.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Folger Consort

There's room for personality in the world of Renaissance music. Because few interpretive clues have been passed down, today's players are free to -- in fact, they need to -- put their own stamp on the music. But you wouldn't have found much personality in the playing of the Folger Consort Friday at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Much of the evening felt like little more than a run-through. Along with lackluster playing, the ensemble reversed the order of 15 pieces in the second half and substituted a tune in the first half, and didn't bother informing the audience until after the fact.The confusion drove listeners to the stage afterward to quiz the musicians about what they heard when.

To all but the Renaissance music connoisseur, this might have been a frustrating evening. The Consort employed more than a dozen eye-catching instruments -- recorders, flutes, lutes, viols, even a sackbut (medieval trombone), yet none was identified or explained.

In contrast to the presentation, Consort directors Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall took obvious care in choosing the music. The program, "Playing with Fire," grouped dances from England, France and Italy. Among the most affecting were a set of English country-dances.

Tom Zajac's mournful flute added warmth to "Long Cold Nights," which sounded like a sad Irish air. Another standout was "Schiarazula Marazula," one of Giorgio Mainerio's Italian dances from the 1570s. David Douglass's gutsy fiddle playing sped the dance to a frenzy, ending on a hilarious squawk from Zajac's bagpipe.

Maybe it was end-of-the-season-fatigue. Maybe it was an unscheduled personnel change (viol player Mary Springfels replaced Margriet Tindemans). But "Playing With Fire" only sparked, and never caught flame.

-- Tom Huizenga

© 2005 The Washington Post Company