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-- Mike Joyce

National Philharmonic Opera

Some operas work well in concert performance. "The Magic Flute" is not one of them.

Longtime WGMS radio personality Dennis Owens, host and narrator of the Philharmonic Opera's Saturday night performance at Strathmore Music Center, called Mozart's work "an opera for people who don't like opera." True -- its fairy-tale elements and exotic settings give it wide appeal. Without these, this variegated opera is reduced to black-and-white -- the predominant colors in this non-staging.

This is too bad, since the singing was mostly good and in two cases excellent: Leon Williams charmed as a resonant, full-voiced Papageno, and Esther Heideman was a marvelous Pamina with a ringing upper register. Israel Lozano as Tamino was outclassed, distractingly carrying his music around and singing from (and by) the book.

Amy Hansen as Queen of the Night looked misplaced in an off-the-shoulder gown, but sang vibrantly if without real menace. Colin Eaton (Monastatos) had a thin but clear voice. Julie Keim was cute as Papagena, though the decision not even to color-coordinate her with Williams was bizarre. The Three Ladies -- Danielle Talamantes, Rosa Lamoreaux and Yvette Smith -- sang brightly and with nice ensemble. So did the Three Boys -- area residents Devin Gajewski, Benjamin Parzow and Nicholas Teleky. But David Langan, dressed like a wedding usher, was out of his depth as Sarastro: He could not handle the low notes.

Piotr Gajewski conducted with economy and the National Philharmonic played with precision as Owens helpfully traced the plot while he unhelpfully critiqued it. The music was marvelous, but most of the magic was missing.

-- Mark J. Estren

Ustad Mahwash and Ensemble Kaboul

The percussion section of a Western symphony orchestra typically includes timpani, snare and bass drums, cymbals, gongs, tambourines, wood blocks and triangles played by a host of musicians. On Friday, Afghan drummers (singly or in duos) forged musical sounds of orchestral proportions that transfixed an audience at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. All these effects were created solely by hands in a sophisticated art involving the fingers, palm and whole hand flickering over drum surfaces and rims with mind-blowing gradations of tone, volume, vibrato and pitch.

The drummers were part of the Ensemble Kaboul, a group forced into exile from its native Afghanistan when the Taliban imposed a five-year ban on musical performance. The ensemble included Daud Khan Sadozai on the rubab and sarod (short-necked lutes), Prabhu Edouard on the tabla (Indian hand drum), Gholam Nejrawi on the zirbaghali (a vase-shaped hand drum), and Khalil Ragheb on the harmonium. These instruments reflect Afghanistan's ethnic complexity, one encompassing Persian, Arabian and Indian influences.

Despite Afghanistan's long-standing restrictions against women in music, Ustad Mahwash made her way to fame in Afghan ghazals -- classical and popular vocal music. Together with the virtuoso instrumentalists, Mahwash covered a lot of territory with rhythmically and melodically florid songs rich in imagery and touching on both human emotions and religious themes.

-- Cecelia Porter

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