From left, Phillip Bender, Alicia Oliver and John Boulanger in the Victorian Lyric Opera Company production of
From left, Phillip Bender, Alicia Oliver and John Boulanger in the Victorian Lyric Opera Company production of "The Yeomen of the Guard." (By Todd Whitehead)
Monday, June 13, 2005

National Orchestral Institute

You gotta love Mahler. Indefatigably in search of perfect self-expression, he could create vast personal landscapes, people them with the exuberance of tubas and timpani and the intimate wistfulness of a solo violin, a guitar and a mandolin (not to mention the other 115 members of his huge orchestra) and easily wile away an hour or so in luscious soul-searching. It was his E Minor Seventh Symphony (not among his three or four top hits) that served as a splendid canvas for the opening concert of this year's National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center on Saturday, and the performance was triumphantly Mahlerian.

For 18 years the NOI, run by the University of Maryland's music department, has brought together aspiring orchestral players from universities and conservatories around the country for three weeks of study, coaching and playing under the guidance of some of the country's finest conductors and instrumentalists. Saturday's conductor was Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony and of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and he led, with admirable clarity, a performance that was spacious but always under control. His young musicians moved easily from the angularity of martial dotted rhythms to the sinuousness of dance passages. Both macro- and micro-ensemble were carefully attended to, and quiet moments were as powerful in their intensity as were the opulent orchestral climaxes. For many onstage, this must have been a first performance of this piece, and the sense of involvement and excitement was palpable.

The concert opened with a reading of the Mozart "Haffner" Symphony No. 35, and here, at least in the first and last movements, things did not go quite as well. Schwarz likes his Mozart fast, too fast in my opinion, and the reduced orchestra sounded as if they were falling all over themselves to keep up. Scale passages sounded like races, and most of the grace and delicacy got left in the dust. The more deliberate middle two movements were quite lovely.

-- Joan Reinthaler

'The Yeomen of the Guard'

"The Yeomen of the Guard," now in production by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company, is unusual among the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in having a plot that sometimes looks serious and an ending that is not entirely happy. It also has music of surpassing charm and sweetness, but that is not so unusual. This production, at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, made the music sound rather tentative in the first minutes of its opening night on Friday, but conductor Joseph Sorge soon pulled it together with results that were quite impressive. Some of Gilbert's words (as important as Sullivan's music) did not come across with perfect clarity; this should be improved in the repeat performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The plot hinges primarily on Colonel Fairfax (Philip Bender, the most impressive voice in the production), who is unjustly sentenced to death, and Jack Point (John Boulanger), who has the best tune in the show and is left isolated at the end when six others are united in three more or less happy couples. Both performed well, as did Blair Eig in the grotesquely comic role of Wilfred Shadbolt, though on opening night their performances seemed sometimes slightly understated.

The leading women's roles were well filled by Alicia Oliver (Phoebe), Denise Young (Elsie) and Lauren McDonald (Dame Carruthers). Matt Williams and Jonathan Schultz played well in supporting roles. The chorus was excellent throughout, and so was the orchestra after some ensemble problems at the beginning of the overture. Debbie Niezgoda's stage direction made the story clear. The Tower of London set was simple but effective.

-- Joseph McLellan

American Chamber Players

The June Chamber Festival at the Kreeger Museum opened Friday, and what an opening it was. The American Chamber Players, six in all, were front rank from start to finish, and the program was perfectly timed to sweep listeners away: two blockbusters -- Mozart's bubbling Quartet for Oboe and Strings, K. 370, and Brahms's transfixing Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60 -- and three refreshing and rarely heard pieces by Henri Dutilleux, Madeleine Dring and Alberto Ginastera in between. The group was founded by its artistic director, Miles Hoffman.

French oboist Gerard Reuter and Washington flutist Sara Stern proved a perfect match in Ginastera's Duo, Op. 13, a fiendishly tricky piece sadistically riddled with interlocking counterpoints around every corner. Both players favored a beautifully molded, intimately vibrant sound, a tad lean, that is often labeled "French." (He is French, she is American). This distilled tone quality also did Stern well in Dutilleux's Sonatine for Flute and Piano, harmonically and melodically Gallic to the core. Stern found every way to unleash luminous cascades of color, beautifully husky in her lower notes and precisely balanced by French pianist Jean-Louis Haguenauer's delicate tracery.

Dring's Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano is a bit of whimsical fluff for the dance hall, but well worth hearing. The Mozart is a marvelous cross between a chamber work and a concerto, with Reuter's endlessly sustained lines and unbelievable pianissimos echoed responsively by the strings' warm resonance. Haguenauer, violinist Joanna Maurer, violist Hoffman and cellist Alberto Parrini made the Brahms sound brand-new, magisterial and profoundly moving.

Not to be missed, the festival continues tomorrow and Friday.

-- Cecelia Porter

Palestrina Choir

The Washington Early Music Festival, now in its second summer, is a young institution celebrating very old music. This year, the festival theme is "Music From Spain and its Colonies," some of which the Palestrina Choir explored in its Saturday night concert at St. John's Catholic Church. The choir -- 12 unaccompanied voices strong -- sang motets and hymns by Tomas Luis de Victoria, a Spanish liturgical composer from the 16th century and a contemporary of the choir's namesake, the Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The individual works -- the motets "Ne timeas, Maria" and "Sancta Maria," for example -- tend to blend together, but the sound is unique to this type of music. The singers use no vibrato, which makes the sound pure and clean, like tracing a finger along the edge of a water glass.

The potential downside to no vibrato and no instruments is that the choir is entirely exposed, and every slip of intonation becomes immediately obvious -- a cracked jar among crystal. But the Palestrina Choir was nearly perfect, with only the occasional hairline fracture. They have an exceptional technique and sound, which, combined with the beautiful performance space of St. John's, gave the audience a taste of the transcendent effect of this music.

-- Claire Marie Blaustein

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