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CHRISTMAS MUSIC

Monday, December 5, 2005

National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale

Mozart was the first modernizer of Handel's "Messiah," and thank goodness he respected his predecessor so much, calling Handel "the composer with the best instinct for the grand effect. When he wants to, he strikes like thunder." So when Baron Gottfried van Swieten asked Mozart to update "Messiah" in 1789 -- the 47-year-old work seemed a bit fusty -- Mozart preserved most of it. He cut some arias, rearranged others, added one recitative, and created parts for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, using the added instruments respectfully and ingeniously.

This hybrid "Messiah," rarely performed, got a rousing rendition Saturday night at Strathmore Music Center. Stan Engebretson conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale with great flair. All four soloists brought genuine emotion to the music. Soprano Ann McMahon Quintero excelled in "Rejoice Greatly," as did mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop in "He Was Despised," tenor Robert Petillo in "Thou Shalt Break Them" and bass Kevin Deas in all his arias, particularly "The Trumpet Shall Sound."

Engebretson remarkably kept the large, 120-voice chorus balanced with the classically sized orchestra. Instrumental playing was clear and light. Choral passages were enthusiastic -- especially "Unto Us a Child Is Born" -- if sometimes a bit muddy. The "Hallelujah Chorus" was sung with reverence and brightness.

Early arrivals got a pre-concert seasonal treat: Madrigals and carols enthusiastically sung by the sweet-voiced chamber choir from Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School -- a joyful noise, indeed.

-- Mark J. Estren

Air Force Concert Band

The Air Force Concert Band and Singing Sergeants were at Constitution Hall on Friday for the first of a weekend of free Christmas concerts, sleekly packaged and presented in an electronic wrapping that all but made the actual presence of the splendid musicians onstage superfluous. Everything was miked -- each singer as well as the instrumental sections, stand by stand. Two huge monitors flanked the stage so that several cameras could show the audience ever-changing close-ups of the musicmaking while projections of snowflakes, flags and Air Force emblems swirled about overhead. The audience might as well have been watching all of this on television, since most eyes seemed riveted on the monitors. The music, filtered as it was through amplifiers and speakers, sounded canned.

The performances, however, were top-notch, smoothly delivered and offered up with energy and an engagingly light touch. There were instrumental and choral medleys of pop favorites like "Frosty the Snowman" and "White Christmas"; festive band settings of traditional carols and "The Skaters' Waltz"; well-played klezmer arrangements of three movements of the Tchaikovsky "Nutcracker" ballet for instrumental quintet and, finally, a singalong. Santa and his elves made a brief appearance but, on Friday, the expected honor color guard was, mysteriously, a no-show.

Conducting all of this with calm assurance, Col. Dennis M. Layendecker led his forces incisively and kept things moving seamlessly and without ever sounding rushed or overblown.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Circle Singers

Even if you only make it to a smattering of the season's choral concerts, you'll likely encounter some fine new pieces you've never heard before. The Circle Singers brought a couple of these to their performance at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church on Saturday: Eleanor Daley's lullaby "Dormi, Jesu!" is a lovely and gentle setting of that text, eminently singable and free of the self-conscious modernisms that color much of what is written these days for the church. The other was an "Ave Maria" setting by David Conte that communicated angst along with its message of adoration, but did so simply and convincingly. Both of these were well sung by the small ensemble, made even smaller by the absence of one of its three tenors. The solo in the lullaby was handled nicely by soprano Carol Guglielm.

Conductor Sondra Proctor is an old hand at chorus-building and program-making, with an attention to blend that was particularly powerful in the two Gregorian chants on the program and in Gabrieli's double-chorus setting of the "Hodie Christus Natus Est" text. She needs a few more men's voices for ideal balance. Rhythmic attacks (as in the opening Sweelinck "Hodie" setting) might be sharper and more convincing if the impetus occurred at the bottom of her beat, rather than being scooped in on the rebound.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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