Monday, May 15, 2006

Daedalus Quartet

Despite the name, the Daedalus Quartet seemed it was flying Friday not on wings of waxy feathers, but rather on jet-propelled rockets of blistering virtuosity.

Since bursting onto the scene six years ago, this young ensemble has been making a name for itself as one of the hottest quartets around -- and at its Corcoran Gallery performance, it showed why.

The program opened with the first of Mendelssohn's string quartets, Op. 44, No. 1, in D. It's a light work that critics love to dismiss. Sure, the drama gets a little high sometimes, the gestures a little too sweeping, but there's so much pure pleasure in it that you forgive the indulgences and yearn for more. The Daedalus gave it a heady reading: The Allegro exploded out of the gate, the Menuetto ached with bittersweet longing, and the Presto con brio -- well, refer back to those "rockets of blistering virtuosity."

While Mendelssohn sweeps you off your feet, Bela Bartok would rather just pull the rug out from under you -- and then hit you with it. His Quartet No. 3 is a wild and unfettered masterpiece, a storm of ear-bending sonorities and inventive, edgy rhythms.

The Daedalus dove into it with fearless abandon -- the music rang gloriously, and the audience emerged wowed and grateful.

But that was mere prelude to Mozart's String Quintet in E-flat, K. 614, which the Daedalus (joined by Roger Tapping on viola) gave a full-blooded, magnificent reading -- one so hot you could almost smell wax in the air.

-- Stephen Brookes

Woodley Ensemble

"Sacred Kaleidoscope" was an apt title for the program that Frank Albinder and his 17-voice Woodley Ensemble brought Saturday to St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill. The five featured composers (from Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, Sweden and Estonia) explore colors, rhythms and textures in very different ways, and their superposition was in fact kaleidoscopic in its effect.

There were three knockouts among Albinder's choices for his D.C.-based group. Christopher Marshall's five-part "O Fragile Human," written over the course of the last three years on texts drawn from Saint John of the Cross, the medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and several contemporary poets, draws on a remarkably rich palette of colors and textures and handles them with astonishing restraint and delicacy. Even with the four vocal lines going their individual and busy ways, textures were transparent and balanced. Some of this is due to Marshall's sensitivity, but a lot was thanks to an ensemble that can produce sounds both rich and gloriously focused, that can field fine soloists but also a blend to die for, and that can move seamlessly from a brilliant fortissimo to an equally brilliant pianissimo almost instantaneously.

Daud Kosasih's 2003 "Haleluyah! Puji Tuhan" was a study in intricate rhythms in constantly evolving patterns that built from quiet serenity to ecstasy, and Arvo Part's stunning ". . . which was the son of . . .," a chantlike setting of the "begats" running back 75 generations from Jesus to Adam and then to God, built up tremendous tension in a context of almost surreal tranquillity.

The other two pieces on the program, an Ave Verum Corpus setting by Imant Raminsh, and "Fem Latinska Motetter," a set of five Latin hymn texts by Michael Waldenby, were comfortably in the mainstream of contemporary church music, well constructed and, perhaps, more useful as music for the church than for the concert hall.

The soloists, soprano Jolene Baxter and mezzo-soprano Marjorie Bunday, handled their assignments beautifully.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Prince George's Philharmonic

Ahappy indication of the Washington area's proclivity for musicmaking is all the community orchestras doing good work in our midst.

One example is the Prince George's Philharmonic, which gave the final concert of its 40th-anniversary season Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. While the orchestra's efforts under conductor Charles Ellis lacked professional polish, the concert showed the joy that can come when talented amateurs make music together.

The orchestra and pianist Mark Kennerly Clinton played their separate parts well for the most part in Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 but struggled to play together, entering late or veering apart into slightly variant phrasings.

The concerto's surpassingly serene Adagio inspired luminous, concentrated playing from all concerned; Ellis led the movement at an unusually fast tempo, but the music flowed easily without ever feeling hurried.

The orchestra played more consistently in the work that followed intermission, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. Ellis's reading supplied the proper sweep and power, especially in the super-size tune of the famous "Nimrod" Variation. The hushed viola-clarinet duet of the "Romanza" Variation blossomed nicely in the hands of Howard van der Sluis and Evan Solomon, respectively, while the brass section came out with rip-roaring force for the emphatic finale.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

Recipe for the finale of the Fairfax Symphony's 49th season: Find two disparate works that both begin in the cellos and basses. Mix well.

This is not as easy as it sounds -- but it generally sounded very good at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday night.

The first work was Beethoven's infrequently played "Triple Concerto." Beethoven composed about 11 trios for piano, violin and cello -- plus this trio with orchestra, written for Archduke Rudolf of Austria, whose modest keyboard skills are reflected in a minimally virtuosic piano part. But with a modern concert grand, the pianist tends to dominate the trio, as Edward Newman did. He seemed more comfortable with the music than did his wife, National Symphony associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins, or cellist Michael Mermagen; both string soloists, especially Mermagen, bobbled some difficult passages. But the tone of the 1774 Nicolo Gagliano cello was lovely, and conductor William Hudson provided thoughtful support.

Rachmaninoff's syrupy, overplayed but still lovely Symphony No. 2 sounded even better. As is distressingly common, the hour-long work was truncated to 45 minutes through cuts in the first, third and fourth movements. This does the piece no favors, making it seem simultaneously amorphous and bloated. Rachmaninoff's motivic structure is actually very elegant -- he is not all "big tunes" and great yawps of sound. The orchestra was top-notch here: warm strings, lovely woodwinds, monumental brass, intense percussion. But this was scarcely a creative end-of-season choice. Recipe suggestion for next year: Add some spice.

-- Mark Estren

Villa-Lobos Trio

Rather adventurously, the young Villa-Lobos Trio focuses as much on classical and contemporary Latin American music as on traditional European fare. Named after the influential Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, who died in 1959, the group is based in Vienna, its tours including concerts in Latin America.

On Friday the ensemble (violinist Florian Wilscher, cellist Katrin Schickedanz and pianist Rosangela Antunes) performed at the Austrian Embassy in music by their namesake as well as Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, Mozart and Schubert. They did much more than merely justice to it all.

In two Piazzolla pieces from his cycle "The Four Seasons" (a third made an encore), the group found the undercoating of brutal restlessness that pervades the late composer's "nuevo tango" style, digging deeply into its brazen dissonances, jazz-pop incursions and conflicting emotions. Strangely, Schubert's Adagio, D. 897 ("Notturno"), fit perfectly with the Piazzolla. Anguished foreboding suffuses both. In the Schubert, the pianist's rippling, harplike arpeggios and the strings' pizzicatos hinted at a nocturnal calm while also conveying the music's dark innuendos.

The musicians' approach to Mozart's Piano Trio, K. 502, was lustrous and commanding. Ever the opera composer, Mozart created a drama here in the guise of a piano concerto; Antunes's luminous keyboard cascades and the strings' delicately matched phrasing were as human as Mozart's characterizations. Though expertly played, Villa-Lobos's Piano Trio No. 2 tended to be long-winded. Yet the musicians played as one, infusing it with the timbres of French impressionism.

-- Cecelia Porter

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