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CHRISTMAS MUSIC

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

'Messiah' Singalong

The 36th singalong performance of Handel's "Messiah" on Sunday had people camping out on the Kennedy Center's marble plaza overnight, some traveling a thousand or more miles to stand in line for the free performance, its 2,500-plus tickets gone in less than a day.

Five local choruses totaling over 250 voices and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra crowded onto the Concert Hall stage. Excerpts from all three parts of the "Messiah" resounded through the hall, with the complex "Hallelujah" Chorus repeated as an encore.

The chief conductor, Barry Hemphill, encouraged the audience to be fully "part of the performance" and occasionally corrected diction, quipping (to prepare the movement "For Unto Us a Child Is Born"), "Don't sing a New Yorker-type 'unto-yus.' " Two additional conductors, Ulysses S. James and Kim Allen Kluge, led single movements.

The "Messiah" singalong is an informal and fun occasion, full of choral and orchestral camaraderie. So some imperfections in the performance are not surprising -- most evident Sunday in insecure ensemble between the soloists and orchestra (though with a wonderful solo trumpet). And the solo singers weren't always in top form, though tenor Kevin Park has a burnished, powerful voice.

-- Cecelia Porter

Folger Consort

England's King Henry VIII was a powerful ruler not only politically but also musically, and his court was a bastion of Renaissance culture. His reign was marked by endless lusty revels, celebrations and tournaments. All these, even musical events, were given primarily for regal display, drawing in the best performers and compositions of the day. The Folger Consort's "Greensleeves" concert, at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Sunday afternoon, included Christmas carols, seasonal motets and dance-propelled instrumental works once heard at Henry's court and chapel. Some were composed by the king himself.

The Consort is an ensemble of remarkable versatility; many of Sunday's performers switched back and forth among a colorfully varied array of period string, wind and percussion instruments. Drew Minter, the group's splendid countertenor, at times joined in with the harp. Dan Stillman alternated between trombone and several types of recorders, along with a period oboe and bassoon. A co-founder of the group, Robert Eisenstein, moved with ease from the medieval fiddle to the gamba and recorder. Tom Zajac played the harp, recorders, transverse flute and bagpipe. Webb Wiggins darted back and forth between two organs -- one a tiny portative with a hand pump supplying air to the pipes. Besides Minter, the fine singers included tenors Philip Cave and Robert Petillo and baritone Bob McDonald.

Almost everything was excellent, but the highlights were the mellow yet exuberant "Noels," the joyful "Green Groweth the Holly" by King Henry and the mellifluous, poignant Latin motets. Wiggins's ornately embellished and pulsing dance pieces and the spicy carol "Somerset Wassail" rounded off a robust yuletide event.

-- Cecelia Porter

Cathedral Choral Society

On Sunday, the Cathedral Choral Society's annual "Joy of Christmas" concert packed all it could into Washington National Cathedral: the Choral Society itself and Music Director J. Reilly Lewis, the Children's Chorus of Washington and Artistic Director Joan Gregoryk, the Washington Symphonic Brass, soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, organist Scott Dettra and carillonneur Edward Nassor. There may also have been a partridge in a pear tree.

These excellent performers gave a program concentrating on modern carols that use ancient texts and musical materials. For example, John Tavener's "Remember, O Thou Man," receiving its world premiere, contrasted jubilant phrases with haunting repetitions of its title. Medieval texts also shone in David Sydney Morgan's bouncy "Make We Joy Now in This Feast" and Paul Trepte's shimmering arrangement of the French carol "People, Look East."

Washington composer John Pickard's setting of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," another world premiere, made a fine-grained, imaginative contrast to the familiar Lewis H. Redner setting of the same text. Geraint Lewis's "Tawel Nos" (Welsh for "silent night"), receiving its Washington premiere, soared on a rapt whisper of sound from Kampani and the Choral Society.

The Children's Chorus was in fine voice as well, but the concert's most memorable moment was Kampani's clarion reading of "Adeste Fidelis" from the back of the nave, just before the audience began singing the English version, "O Come All Ye Faithful."

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Kennedy Center Chamber Players

Aconcert need not be cohesive to be delightful. Case in point: The Kennedy Center Chamber Players at the Terrace Theater on Sunday -- six people plus three disparate pieces added up to plenty of enjoyment.

Clarinetist Loren Kitt, cellist David Hardy and pianist Lambert Orkis handled Beethoven's Trio No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 11 ("Gassenhauer"), with grace and charm. The work's title means "popular song" and refers to the melody of the finale, a big hit in 1797 (from a then-popular opera). This is a jaunty tune of no great profundity, whose variations -- from speedy to thoughtful to martial -- were all played with aplomb.

Orkis went solo in Crumb's "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979," which Crumb wrote for him. This 15-minute work elicits the many sounds of a "prepared piano," but from an unaltered instrument played from within as well as from the keyboard. The piano's percussive qualities were at once emphasized and attenuated, as Orkis brought forth harmonics, plucking, strumming, and chimes-like and harpsichord-like sounds by stroking and pinching strings and using his palms to mute them. The work is impressionism, Crumb style, of medieval Nativity frescoes. Its predominant impression is of quiet -- which could be awe or emptiness.

For Brahms's wonderful Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, Kitt and Hardy were joined by violinists Nurit Bar-Josef and Heather Ledoux Green and violist Daniel Foster. The near-intuitive flow among the players made the blending of sonorities seem altogether natural. The result was a dark-hued work burnished until it glowed -- a gorgeous capstone for a variegated program.

-- Mark J. Estren

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