Monday, October 2, 2006

National Philharmonic

The American Symphony Orchestra League, the service organization Meet the Composer, and the Ford Motor Company Fund have commissioned new American orchestral works to be shared among small-budget orchestras across the country. The first composition fostered by their program, "Ford Made in America," is a piece by Joan Tower -- unenterprisingly also titled "Made in America" -- that premiered last fall and will have been performed by 65 orchestras in 50 states by spring.

The National Philharmonic, under music director Piotr Gajewski, gave Tower's piece its Maryland premiere on Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. Unashamedly tonal and firmly in the American neo-romantic tradition, "Made in America" weaves snatches of "America the Beautiful" through a gutsy, vividly colored tone poem of chugging urban rhythms, searching string melodies and shimmering planes of sound. It's a more poker-faced deconstruction of the song than Charles Ives's wry "Variations on 'America.' " But it's quite lovely, possesses a stirring seriousness of purpose and neatly avoids anything treacly or homespun.

The remainder of the program was well-turned boilerplate -- a cogent reading of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony (featuring some notably beautiful wind playing), and a performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1, showcasing a sparkling, splendidly balanced, technically immaculate interpretation by soloist Piotr Paleczny.

-- Joe Banno

Washington Bach Consort

On the evidence of the Washington Bach Consort's all-Mozart program at Strathmore Friday, conductor J. Reilly Lewis's Mozart is as lithe and light-filled as his Bach. The composer's great, unfinished Requiem (performed here in the standard Sussmayr completion) may sound more trenchant in attack under other conductors' batons, but Lewis's performance revealed a rare mix of warmth, transparency and elegance.

This performance of the Requiem was advertised as the first in the area to employ period instruments, and Lewis gained much in melancholy color by balancing the basset horns and 18th-century trombones prominently in the ensemble. But it was the airy and supple choral blend (so characteristic of this ensemble) that most seductively drew the ear.

The vocal quartet in the Requiem -- soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo Jessica Grigg, tenor Dan Snyder and bass Curtis Streetman -- was a strong one. Earlier in the concert, Brandes sang a ravishing rendition of Mozart's popular solo cantata "Exsultate, Jubilate" -- her amber tone, glowing high notes, fluidity with coloratura and telling inflection of the text were tailor-made for this music. The composer's rarely heard "Regina Coeli," K. 276, and his ubiquitous "Ave Verum Corpus" benefited particularly well from the purity of soprano tone in the chorus, and the Epistle Sonata, K. 329, drew a fizzing response from the orchestra and from chamber organist Scott Dettra.

-- Joe Banno

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra

Abetted by a wealth of local talent, in recent years a number of community orchestras have been aspiring to a professionalism several cuts above what the term "community orchestra" usually brings to mind. The opening concert of this year's Alexandria Symphony Orchestra made clear that the ASO is among those on the move.

With Midori as featured soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto and singers from three local choruses on hand to assist in an explosive performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Schlesinger Concert Hall on Saturday, conductor Kim Allen Kluge served notice that he has big ambitions for his orchestra. And well he might. The concert showed off a solid, balanced and responsive string section and woodwinds that can play with both agility and sensitivity. Once the brasses add nuance and more sophisticated phrasing to their already impressive mix of power and energy, all systems ought to be go.

The Brahms concerto is an ideal vehicle for Midori's brand of intensity tempered with sweetness and lyricism. Except for some hectic moments in the Finale, the orchestra did a nice job of accompanying her on her ride.

During the Beethoven, the orchestra was at its best in a sparkling and beautifully integrated reading of the Scherzo. The chorus, drawn from the Metropolitan Chorus, the Heritage Signature Chorale and the NOVA Community Chorus, sang with power, fervor and accuracy; and the soloists from the Opera Theater of Northern Virginia did nicely, particularly in the ensemble sections. What made the performance particularly notable, however, was the tempo that Kluge chose for the closing section of the Finale, about 20 or so ticks above the prestissimo markings in the score. It was a tempo that brought the symphony to a conclusion not in triumph or in exaltation but in an almost Mendelssohnian dance, exciting and kind of fun -- but maybe not Beethoven.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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