Michael Stern, above, led the National Orchestral Institute in Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The Cantate Chamber Singers performed
Michael Stern, above, led the National Orchestral Institute in Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The Cantate Chamber Singers performed "A Crown of Stars" by Andrew Earle Simpson, left. David Taylor, right, directed Chantry in the Washington Early Music Festival. (Clarice Smith Center For The Performing Arts)
Monday, June 12, 2006

National Orchestral Institute

Mahler is not for wimps or people with short attention spans. For an orchestra full of young musicians just starting their careers, however, it's just the thing. Every instrument gets to play dozens of roles -- the jaded world-weary traveler, the ecstatic lover, the triumphant warrior, the mourner, the list is endless. And it's probably why Mahler's music keeps popping up on the programs of the National Orchestral Institute's concerts.

For three weeks, more than 100 musicians from conservatories around the country will be at the University of Maryland to work with some of the nation's finest orchestral players and conductors.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony was the main attraction at the institute's opening concert Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The performance was conducted by Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, and the Mahler worked not only for its length (it clocked in at a sprightly hour and five minutes) or its romantic fervor, but also for impressive performances by every section of the huge orchestra. Stern paced things beautifully and maintained fine balances as well as transparent textures. The musicians kept their cool, maintained their concentration and managed a splendid sense of ensemble, and the piece produced the sort of overwhelming impact that it should.

The concert opened with a brooding reading of Siegfried's funeral music from Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" and a gorgeous and thoughtful performance of the Britten "Sinfonia da Requiem."

-- Joan Reinthaler

Cantate Chamber Singers

An admixture of love and death, crowns and marriage seems odd, but the 30-member Cantate Chamber Singers blended the disparate elements smoothly at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda on Saturday night.

In Benjamin Britten's "A Wedding Anthem," soprano Deborah Sternberg sang "See how the scarlet sun" ethereally, tenor Robert Thompson showed off his light and clear voice, and Neil Weston performed solidly on organ.

Herbert Howells's "Requiem" sounds more resigned than anguished. The mostly low vocal writing -- a Howells characteristic -- conveys solemnity, but music director Gisele Becker made sure the work never sounded turgid.

Like Britten and Howells, Andrew Earle Simpson takes a small-c catholic approach to the texts of his wedding oratorio, "A Crown of Stars" -- a world premiere. He stirs together love-and-marriage thoughts from ancient Romans (Catullus, Propertius), Greeks (Sappho, Apollonius Rhodius), Dante, William Blake, the Rig-Veda, Lorenzo de Medici and others.

Simpson's music is effective, even though it wants to be so many things (jazz, opera, rock, etc.) that it lacks a unique voice. The work's title reflects both the legend of Bacchus and Ariadne and the gospel-tinged "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?" -- bouncily sung by the Thomas W. Pyle Treble Chorus.

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