Philharmonic, at 35, Forges Ahead

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

There's innovation aplenty marking the 35th anniversary of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic: an abundance of world premieres, infrequently heard 20th-century works and music by African American composers.

The season opened Sunday at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria with Music Director Ulysses S. James conducting Robert Starer's "Serenade for Brass" (1956), which mixes gentle dissonances with some oompah rhythms and opening and closing sections that recall early Shostakovich.

This contrasted interestingly with some real Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F (1957), which is simpler, brighter, more melodic and less bitter than the composer's norm.

Pianist Betty Bullock's rather light touch fit the music well, but she could not always be heard over the orchestra. Nor were soloist and ensemble in perfect rapport: James favored intensity while Bullock preferred lyricism. The sardonic moments -- Shostakovich always has a few -- came off best.

Between these pieces was the world premiere of District native Jamie Kowalski's "Unlikely Visions." Its four short movements are evocative -- but of nothing in particular. The second, for example, repeatedly swells with dramatic anticipation, then fades away. The third is the most interesting, giving each orchestral section a moment to shine and requiring vibraphone virtuosity.

The concert concluded with William Levi Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony" (1952 version), which has some of the lushness of Dvorak but offers tune sequences rather than developed themes. The work is more pensive than deep; its fragmented approach works best in the finale.

This out-of-the-ordinary program will be repeated Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington.

-- Mark J. Estren

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