Monday, May 22, 2006

Palestrina Choir

May all performers giving their final concerts do so with the gracefulness and graciousness of the Palestrina Choir. After its appearance at the Washington Early Music Festival on June 11, Director Michael Harrison will dissolve the group he founded in 1986. For the choir's penultimate performance, at St. Rita's Catholic Church in Alexandria on Saturday night, Harrison and his 14 singers stayed with the ensemble's original focus: the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Palestrina, the greatest composer of liturgical music in the Renaissance, was key to musical reform during the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the mid-16th century. Determined to purge secular themes from church music and eliminate any elaborations that might obscure the liturgical text, Palestrina wrote works of remarkable purity and restraint. This is music that moves in gently lapping waves of sound.

The Palestrina Choir performed nine motets and the "Missa Brevis" of 1570. The uniformly lovely vocal blending respectfully highlighted Palestrina's careful emphases: The final "Deus" in "Exaudi Domine" ("Hear, O Lord") had tremendous sweetness, while the phrase "Salve, Crux" ("Hail, O Cross") in "Doctor Bonus" ("The Good Teacher") had subtle intensity.

The "Missa Brevis" was a compressed marvel of religious feeling, from the single-voice openings of the Gloria and Credo, to a triumphant "Hosanna in excelsis" in the Sanctus, to a gorgeous concluding Agnus Dei that drifted into ethereality.

-- Mark J. Estren

Bach Sinfonia and Chantry

The music of Vivaldi that most people know chugs along in its hyper but inexorable way in performances much more notable for mechanical perfection than for soul. But it was a different Vivaldi that the Bach Sinfonia and the 12-voice Chantry brought to the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church on Saturday. This was music for the church, much of it couched in voices of introspection and in a baroque romanticism that, at times, bordered on the mystical. The performances had none of those hard Vivaldi-like edges. Instead there were nuance and lyricism, the leisure to dwell on passing dissonance and to internalize the mysterious.

The program re-created what might have been a vesper service at the "Pieta" in Vivaldi's early-18th-century Venice with six elaborate Psalm settings, a communion motet and a concluding setting of the "Magnificat" canticle, interspersed with a plainsong introit, offertory and psalm, and a couple of "sacred sonatas."

Sinfonia conductor Daniel Abraham paced things very well, not dwelling on extremes of tempo but not shying away from them either. Fortunately he had a soprano soloist, Jennifer Ellis, who could fly through the thicket of runs in both the fifth verse of the "Dixit Dominus" and the "Alleluia" finale of the Motet "Nulla in Mundo" with astonishing agility and clarity. He also had instrumental forces that could maintain tension through the excruciatingly long suspensions of the "Al Santo Sepolcro" Sinfonia. And he had fine soloists from the chorus itself in alto Naomi DeVries, soprano Susan Vaules Lin, tenor Jason Sherlock and bass Ryan Lewis.

There were moments in this long program when the playing and singing got a little ragged, but these were few and Vivaldi emerged from the evening in a new light.

-- Joan Reinthaler

ClancyWorks and Gesel Mason Performance Projects

Dance Place, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, is not only a model of longevity but is also the venue of choice for District choreographers. Two of them, Adrienne Clancy and Gesel Mason, shared the program there over the weekend.

"Balancing Acts" began with "Mermaids and Other Tales of Truth," presented by ClancyWorks Dance Company. Ten dancers of various body shapes and abilities were costumed in flowing garments, turbans and corsets. Their undulating backs and filigreed hand movements were not only inventive but hypnotic to watch. Assuming sculptural forms followed by still poses, the dancers resembled figures that had stepped off an ancient Grecian urn. However, the piece disintegrated into choppy choreographic choices and the dancers seemed uncomfortable.

Clancy's gift for invention was more apparent in "Taking Steps." In this piece, a man and a woman explore the myriad possibilities of dancing in, around and atop a simple household stepladder.

Gesel Mason understands how to move her audience to tears and laughter. "Giselle Must (Not) Die," a spoof of the classical ballet "Giselle," shamelessly lampooned the peasant girl who kills herself for love lost. In Mason's version, the heartbroken girl is rescued by seven dancers -- dressed in white stiletto boots and tutus -- who have regained their personal power. It's a work that both Carl Jung and Gloria Steinem would applaud.

"Giselle" was the audience favorite of the program's second section, but Mason's other pieces had much more force. When she appears in her heart-wrenching interpretation of Donald McKayle's 1948 work "Saturday's Child," she owns the stage. And though trained as a dancer, it's her talents for blending video, text and movement that make her company, Gesel Mason Performance Projects, so engaging to watch.

-- Janet Lynn Roseman

Cast Change for WNO's 'Clemenza'

At 35, Mozart was seeking a neoclassical spirit of polished restraint while composing his last operas, "La Clemenza di Tito" ("The Mercy of Titus") and "Die Zauberfloete" ("The Magic Flute"). Conducted by Heinz Fricke, the Washington National Opera's current production of "Clemenza" at the Kennedy Center Opera House captures the qualities of reflection and emotional conflict that course through this entire opera seria.

But the WNO has also brought to life the implied dramatic action that hides under "Clemenza's" outwardly static succession of tableaux. This rendering gives the recitatives -- which divulge the story line -- such arresting conviction and subtle body English that the emotionally turbulent arias that follow make dramatic sense. The dramatic impulses of the opera were brought to fervent life Friday by a superb cast, reinforced by the orchestra, which was, by turns, properly martial for a setting in ancient Rome and lyrically vibrant as Mozart pours out his incredible melodies. The chorus was equally effective as the loyal Roman populace.

Soprano JiYoung Lee replaced Hoo-Ryoung Hwang for the evening as a captivating Servilia, sliding into her role perfectly. Lee has a commanding presence, despite her modest stature, as in her passionate "S'altro che lacrime." Her voice is one of ample resonance and depth, fitting comfortably with the rest of the cast. At every turn she portrayed a character of loving devotion, pure righteousness and spirited independence.

"La Clemenza" repeats tonight and Saturday with Hwang returning to the role of Servilia.

-- Cecelia Porter

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