CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Washington Choral Ensemble, directed by William D. Usher II, performed Masses by John Rutter and Zoltan Kodaly on Saturday at St. Alban's Episcopal Church.
The Washington Choral Ensemble, directed by William D. Usher II, performed Masses by John Rutter and Zoltan Kodaly on Saturday at St. Alban's Episcopal Church. (By Joshua Roberts)

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

There have been many careers launched by a high-profile last-minute substitution. Thirty-two-year old conductor Ludovic Morlot's could be one of them after he filled in for an absent Yuri Temirkanov with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over the weekend, this on the heels of a highly acclaimed eleventh-hour stand-in with the New York Philharmonic earlier this month.

As a conductor -- last-minute sub or not -- Morlot made many magic moments with the BSO on Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Stravinsky's ballet "Petrouchka," chock-full of color and contrast, is a challenge for both conductor and instrumentalists, with its constantly shifting meters and overlapping thematic material. Balance is very important in this piece, and Morlot and the BSO artistically wove the rapidly changing cartoonlike scenes into one another.

The excitement was fueled by the exemplary work of the brass and percussion sections and the perfectly executed woodwind solos.

The BSO's strings were appropriately light in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, allowing a real conversation between soloist Emanuel Ax and the orchestra. Morlot achieved a perfect balance between orchestra and soloist, with woodwind solos wafting over the piano like a fine silk scarf. In the fluidly brilliant cadenzas, Ax emulated an entire orchestra by himself, bringing out myriad colors of the piano.

-- Gail Wein

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Many spent Friday night celebrating real or imagined Irish heritage, but at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the world-renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir turned its talents toward music from its home country. Under artistic director Paul Hillier and with organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, the choir's performances inspired a transporting awe, hard to find no matter where you're from.

The choir did sing some non-Estonian music, specifically excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil." Those who know Rachmaninoff as Mr. Big Tune will be surprised by this rapt devotional work of Russian Orthodox harmonies and complex vocal techniques. The choir realized every detail of the composer's conception, with perfect blending up and down the tonal spectrum and the kind of virtuosity that makes everything sound easy.

These same virtues shone in the native Estonian works as well: Cyrillus Kreek's imaginative, loving arrangements of five Estonian religious folk songs, and five separate choral pieces by Arvo Part, whose spare harmonies and hypnotic textures have made him Estonia's most famous composer. (Besides providing accompaniment, organist Bowers-Broadbent also soloed in two intriguing Part works.)

The choir's flawless intonation, pure, thrilling tone, and careful attention to text and structure brought out the surprising narrative energy and ebullience of Part's "Dopo la Vittoria," the riveting dissonances in "Nunc Dimittis" and the harmonic ebb and flow of "Da Pacem Domine." At the close of the program, as each word rang out clear and urgent in the breathtakingly intense prayer "Salve Regina," earthly concerns of any kind felt trivial indeed.


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