Monday, February 20, 2006

Mount Vernon Players

The Mount Vernon Players are one of the most venerable small companies in the area (they've been at it since 1936), and their home, in the little theater beneath the historic Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church on Massachusetts Avenue, is an ideal venue, comfortable but unassuming. They are in the midst of a run (through next weekend) of Franz Lehar's delightful 1902 operetta, "The Merry Widow," in a production marked by fine casting and gentle good humor.

The action centers around the efforts of Baron Vladimir Popoff, ambassador of the impoverished state of (in this translation) Marshovia, to marry off the widow Sonia, a Marshovian heiress, to Danilo, a playboy whose most important attribute (at least to the embassy) is that he is Marshovian. If the marriage takes place, the widow's fortune will stay in Marshovia, saving the state from bankruptcy.

The leads in this production were excellent. Both Amy Allen as Sonia and Michael Nansel as Danilo sing and act with subtlety and splendid dramatic timing. Lenny Levy's Popoff is very funny, and the unabashed gaps in his fake accent add to the humor. Heather Bingham is delightful as Natalie, Popoff's coquettish wife, and Martin Bestimt, as Mr. Nish, the embassy major-domo, is a fine busybody.

As might be expected, the rest of the large cast varied in quality from excellent to pretty good. A small ensemble of four high strings, synthesizer, percussion and piano struggled but did not detract. The show was produced, directed and conducted by Darryl Winston, a man whose skill and knowledge are, perhaps, the Mount Vernon Players' greatest asset.

-- Joan Reinthaler

National Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra

The 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth is bringing out a spate of "reflections," "adaptations" and "completions" of his music. On Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, conductor Piotr Gajewski and his National Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra followed sparkling performances of two Mozart concerti with Joel Hoffman's clever 1991 "Self Portrait With Mozart," a four-movement double concerto for piano and violin.

The impetus for composing this piece was the discovery by Gajewski of a two-minute fragment of a double concerto that Mozart never finished. Gajewski suggested to his composer friend, Hoffman, that he complete it (a time-honored undertaking in the tradition of Sussmayr's completion of Mozart's Requiem).

But Hoffman went a step further, completed the fragment a la Mozart and then wrote a tranquil, stylistically ambiguous introduction and two concluding movements during which Mozart's language morphs into Hoffman's and ends up barely visible in a sea of jazzy rhythms and fancy soloistic interchanges. It is well-crafted music and, while one might second-guess some of the choices Hoffman made as a Mozart alter ego, when he was being himself he was delightful.

The evening's soloists were pianist Brian Ganz and violinist Jody Gatwood. They and Gajewski have made music together for so many years that their collaboration has a patina of comfort and subtlety, reflected in their readings of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216, in an exquisite balance between solo and orchestra.

-- Joan Reinthaler

© 2006 The Washington Post Company