Monday, March 19, 2007

Post-Classical Ensemble

The Post-Classical Ensemble may be the most thought-provoking music group in town. It's certainly one of the most innovative, using its concerts as laboratories for musical thought experiments. Often focusing on a single piece -- or even a single movement from a single piece -- the group probes a work's cultural "back story," pulling away layer after layer of context to expose its innermost core. Their performances can be demanding -- but they're invariably beautiful, and never dull.

That was the case Friday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, when the ensemble focused on the "The Farewell" -- the final movement of Mahler's song-symphony "Song of the Earth." Based on translations of three 8th-century Chinese poems, the work is redolent of Eastern influences, and the evening opened by going directly to the roots: traditional Chinese music, followed by a reading (in Chinese) of the original poems that inspired the composer.

Those same poems were also the basis of the next work on the program, a new "Farewell" by composer Zhou Long. It was a masterly work -- atmospheric, finely wrought music that captured the delicate melancholy of the poems without ever descending into sentimentality. Long speaks a thoroughly modern language and has one of the most striking sonic imaginations of any composer around, but it was the sheer grace of this music that lingered in the ears.

Barely pausing for breath, conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez led the ensemble into the Mahler -- a chamber version for 13 instruments, reduced from the vast orchestral original. And it was a revelatory performance: Pared down to its essentials, "The Farewell" gained in clarity what it lost in mass, and mezzo Delores Ziegler was able to take an intimate approach that brought out all the elusive beauty of the Chinese poems.

-- Stephen Brookes

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra presented a satisfying three-course program on Saturday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts that pushed the group's sonic boundaries to new heights.

With Music Director William Hudson at the helm, the FSO played so transparently in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, that Ji-Yong's sheerest textures peered through confidently. The 16-year-old pianist, whose mature expression and fastidious articulation belied his youth, returned the favor by hovering beneath the bassoon and flute solos with a whispery chiffon of arpeggios.

That sensitivity to balance continued in Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, where every instrumentalist acquiesced to the melodic lines that were suspended in the air with fragility and warmth. On occasion, the orchestra sounded such a muted timbre that the number of players onstage became illusory. Surely such faint sounds could not come from a group whose roster comprises nearly 100 players.

The evening began with Joan Tower's "Made in America," a work centered upon fragments of "America the Beautiful" and stark, cinematic landscapes. It paired nicely with the Dvorak. Led by Assistant Conductor Glenn Quader, the FSO gave it a focused and emotive performance. It was a pity, though, that Tower, who was scheduled to conduct the work, was snowed in in Upstate New York. Her appearance would have been the cherry on top of a fine concert.

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