Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Washington Musica Viva

The Atlas Performing Arts Center was developed from the bones of the old Atlas Theatre as part of the ongoing effort to revitalize the H Street NE corridor. Washington Musica Viva is one of the arts groups bringing energy to the attractive new facility; its concert at the Atlas on Sunday afternoon was the first in a series concentrating on composers born in or working in Washington.

As is common at Washington Musica Viva concerts, though, other arts were brought into play; Burmese poet Kyi May Kaung read her work protesting the Burmese military dictatorship, both live onstage and in Lisa DiLillo's video "Tongues Don't Have Bones." Although Robert Schumann was not a Washington composer, the group gave a fine autumnal reading of his "Marchenerzahlungen" for clarinet, viola and piano. Washington-born Scott Wheeler conducted a piano quartet in a performance of his "Dragon Mountain," an appealing mix of pastoral Celtic influences and nervous, tight oscillations.

Two of the Musica Viva musicians deserve special mention. Carl Banner, a co-founder of the group, made the Atlas upright piano sound good all afternoon and played fluently in a kaleidoscopic array of styles. Banner often accompanied bass Gary Poster, whose lustrous voice, flawless diction and sensitive phrasing enlivened songs by Washington area composers Thomas Kerr, George Walker and Michael Strand. Longtime local Maurice Saylor's "Alta Quies," a cycle containing five bleak poems by A.E. Housman, made a fine finale: evocative, communicative, powerful music that Poster and Banner brought vividly to life.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Choir of Westminster Abbey

British choirs of men and boys seem uniquely equipped to deliver the kind of airy sound that wafts like incense through vaulted cathedral spaces. But while some of those choirs trade on a certain disembodied fragility, the Choir of Westminster Abbey can produce the requisite ethereal sound without losing its substantial, richly hued body of tone.

At the choir's concert at the National Cathedral on Sunday -- part of the Cathedral Choral Society's invaluable Annual British Choir Festival -- the climactic moments in William Byrd's Magnificat and in Philip Moore's haunting "The King and the Robin" didn't merely carry in this gargantuan space, they expanded to fill it. The 12 men and 18 boys of Westminster, under the sensitive baton of James O'Donnell, possess a beautiful sound, with a remarkably even blend and unanimity in phrasing. And, as the frequent solo work throughout the afternoon proved, the voices sound as well honed individually as they do in ensemble.

The especially arresting second half of this well-varied program led off with Francis Grier's alternately ecstatic and unsettling Missa Trinitatis Sanctae, which flirted with everything from plainchant to atonality, from Russian liturgical polyphony to Arabic music. A rousing organ transcription of Walton's "Orb and Sceptre" March (played with tremendous panache by Robert Quinney) then introduced a sequence of coronation music by Byrd and Elgar, concluding with Walton's vividly word-responsive Coronation Te Deum. All the works received readings of nuance and stirring conviction.

-- Joe Banno

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