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.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

Pablo Casals once said of the instrument he played so brilliantly, "The cello is like a beautiful woman who has not grown older, but younger with time, more slender, more supple, more graceful." Youthfulness, suppleness and grace were the hallmarks of Fairfax native Zuill Bailey's playing of his 1693 Matteo Goffriller cello with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday night.

Saint-Saens's Cello Concerto No. 1 sounded warm, sweet and rich, and Bailey's arrangement of the "Meditation" from Massenet's "Thais" was deeply heartfelt, duskier and less plaintive than it sounds on the violin. William Hudson led the orchestra -- with the cellist's sister, Allison Bailey, as concertmaster -- with subtlety and careful balance.

The all-French program was ambitious, including two harps, celesta, seven percussionists and a brief appearance by the 100-plus members of the Fairfax Choral Society. Debussy's "La Mer" was strong on detail -- the muted trumpets and harps were especially good -- but a little lacking in overall sweep.

Of two excerpts from Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust," the "Dance of the Sylphs" was brisk and bright, but lacked crispness. The famous "Hungarian March" fared better, with the always-strong brass a big plus and the woodwinds also very fine.

In the Suite No. 2 from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," the chorus sang expressively, Lawrence Ink's solo flute was excellent, and the huge orchestra made rhythmic changes with aplomb, proving that French music -- so colorful, so passionate -- can be thrilling as well.

-- Mark J. Estren

Roberto Cominati

Roberto Cominati is a thoughtful and capable pianist, as was clear from a set of softly played Debussy works on the first half of his recital Saturday afternoon at the Terrace Theater. There is a more spirited aspect to his playing as well, and he infused a grand work of Robert Schumann with color and panache. Yet a decorous restraint keeps the demonic fire in check, and it is the sense of refinement and clarity that draws you to his artistry.

Cominati's Debussy is not watery impressionism, but something more transparent and articulate. Control and finesse were the watchwords in an intelligently rendered account of "Suite Bergamasque," which showed a patent mastery of shape and flow. He evoked the rhythms of the "Passpied" as much as the quiet stillness of the "Clair de Lune." This deft approach also worked beautifully in "L'isle Joyeuse" and "Images," Book 2, with the swooping "Poissons d'Or" especially evocative.

The pianist was helped by a fine interpretative imagination, showing special sympathy for the characters that Robert Schumann portrays with such fancy and vigor in his "Carnaval," Op. 9. Cominati superbly varied rhythm, phrasing and texture to put on this colorful parade. His cool-handed style made this revue eminently tasteful -- something more akin to a choreographed fashion show. There were picturesque testaments to Paganini and Chopin, along with tender musical representations of the two sides of the composer's personality and a nicely done-up knockout cast.

The Washington Performing Arts Society presented this suave performer as part of its Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes Piano Series.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Washington Choral Ensemble

St. Alban's Episcopal Church lent an intimate setting for the Washington Choral Ensemble's presentation of two Masses on Saturday evening.

Led by Music Director William D. Usher II and complemented by a small cadre of instrumentalists, the group's 18 men and women sang passionately in John Rutter's Requiem. The sweetness of the melodies blended seamlessly with the mystery and repose of underlying harmonies. Finding the choristers responsive to his gestures, Usher probed the score and elicited some fine musical moments.

Originally composed for the organ in 1942, Zoltan Kodaly's "Missa Brevis" for mixed choir combines the color of modern music with the constructs of earlier eras. With organist Sophia Vastek accompanying, the ensemble sang out brightly and featured four of their own in solo roles: soprano Katie Katinas, alto Marjorie Bunday, tenor Philip Cave and baritone D. Raul West.

But Kodaly's writing exposes the difficulty of singing in the upper registers at a sustained soft dynamic, and the group's fragility was present throughout its performance. A lack of confidence in the moving parts also contributed to tempo fluctuations. But whenever the choristers energized their voices, they found they could succeed at the task, with haunting tones in the lower range.

Between the Masses, Usher sat down at the organ to perform Cesar Franck's Choral No. 3 in A Minor -- a virtuoso piece that when taken a notch too fast, as was done, veers dangerously close to the brink of spinning out of control.

-- Grace Jean

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