Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Kennedy Center Chamber Players

It's probably not fair to hold year-long celebrations of any composer, no matter how great. Poor Mozart -- he's been on so many programs this year that concertgoers are starting to cringe at the sight of his name, muttering: "Oh -- you again."

But in their last concert of the season Sunday, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players put any Mozart fatigue to rest with the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478. It's an astoundingly beautiful and complex work, and pianist Lambert Orkis, with Marissa Regni on violin, Daniel Foster on viola and David Hardy on cello, gave it an engaging, well-crafted reading. The work's stormy emotions felt a bit pallid, as if the musicians were unwilling to give offense, but it was a treat to hear nonetheless.

Clarinetist Loren Kitt gave a similarly thoughtful reading to Paul Hindemith's Clarinet Sonata in B-flat. It's a warm but dry work, full of wistfulness and restrained ardor, and Kitt played it with immaculate taste.

The quiet, however, was about to explode. Richard Strauss's youthful Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13, was next on the program, and Nurit Bar-Josef -- the National Symphony Orchestra's formidable concertmaster -- took the stage, decked out, Gypsylike, in fringes and sashes and glittering whatnots as far as the eye could see. And from the moment she put bow to strings, the entire Terrace Theater came alive.

Bar-Josef plays with white-hot ferocity, and she unleashed this exuberant work -- written when Strauss was not yet 20 -- like a thunderbolt. And what more could you wish for on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in June?

-- Stephen Brookes

American Youth Philharmonic

Talk about a two-for-one special: Two American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras brought top-notch end-of-season programs to George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Sunday.

The American Youth Symphonic Orchestra, formerly called the Junior Orchestra, had nothing junior in its program or its playing.

Conductor Carl J. Bianchi started with two encores: The Prelude to Act III of Wagner's "Lohengrin" was a field day for the trombones, and the Turkish March from Beethoven's "Ruins of Athens" was a showcase for the triangle.

An extended suite from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" was the main offering. The large string complement had the necessary oomph, and every soloist gave it his or her all: oboe, bassoon, trumpet, harp, flute and more.

A few instrumental entries were slightly off, especially in the Valse, and the music was played rather than interpreted, but the overall effect was impressive.

The American Youth Philharmonic's more advanced players were simply outstanding in works that were excellent choices for a concert dedicated to Adel Sanchez, who is retiring after 16 years as AYP winds coach.

Excerpts from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" were played idiomatically, with very smooth-sounding strings and warm, prominent brass.

Music Director Luis Haza did not so much conduct the music as conjure it -- beautifully.

Respighi's "Pines of Rome" was raucous and thoughtful by turns, if scarcely subtle. String precision was excellent, the solo trumpet and clarinet were wonderful, and the lengthy concluding crescendo -- with added brass and percussion -- shook the rafters, getting a richly deserved standing ovation.

-- Mark J. Estren

Sumi Jo

Perhaps the aria from Vivaldi's opera "Griselda" that opened soprano Sumi Jo's recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday was not the best choice to showcase her talents. The South Korean singer knocked off its fusillade of runs and high notes with sure technique. But the coloratura sounded detached (the text's fraught emotions barely registered), her voice coming across as diminutive and insubstantial.

Another Vivaldi aria, from the opera "Bajazet," made a very different impression. Jo's emotional involvement here only reached a level of generalized melancholy, but the shimmering, full-toned beauty of her singing, together with her ability to float high notes with a ravishing delicacy, made the performance one to cherish.

And so went the remainder of the recital: brilliantly executed, emotionally neutral coloratura of the windup songbird variety -- it's no accident that a high point among her encores was the mechanical doll's song from "The Tales of Hoffmann" -- alternating with softly wafted singing of a swooning, almost unearthly beauty (most notably in a perfumed reading of Eva Dell'Acqua's "Villanelle" and an almost too-sensuous gloss on Copland's plain-spoken "Pastorale"). If Jo's rendition of Violetta's bravura Act 1 aria from "La Traviata" was one of the more gorgeous ones I've heard, it was also singularly devoid of dramatic awareness.

Pianist Vincenzo Scalera proved a superbly responsive partner throughout and contributed sparkling, elegantly turned performances of Gershwin's Three Preludes.

-- Joe Banno

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