Monday, April 2, 2007

National Philharmonic

To slim down, you have to bulk up. That was the basic message from the National Philharmonic on Saturday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore. In chamber orchestra form with fewer players, the ensemble brought both greater transparency and glow to a Mozart-dominated program. They were no Orpheus -- the American chamber orchestra that can give a shimmer to even the shortest little note -- but the Philharmonic delivered a highly respectable and enjoyable performance.

In the opening "Anamnesis," by the recently deceased local composer Andreas Makris, the orchestra's conductor, Piotr Gajewski, seemed to understand intuitively that success would require more than simply cutting the number of players onstage. In the vividly rendered Greek-inspired tunes and more cutting-edge dissonances, the group showed how the individual playing must become warmer, more blended and bigger. There was nothing weak or wan here.

The highly focused tone from violinist Sandy Cameron put the soloist a bit out of sorts with the orchestra in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218. The 20-year-old rising performer seemed to be locked in afterburner mode in the faster movements, fighting against the music, dropping notes and missing the supple sense of tension and release. Yet she etched the gorgeously unfolding musical line of the second movement with more patience and grace, showing that there is a sensitive artist inside who might emerge with additional practice and life experience.

The program featured a lovely, reverberant account of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed in the hall two evenings before. (Can't the two main resident ensembles there avoid this sort of overlap?) Some shaky intonation took little away from a brisk yet strong reading, filled with rapt woodwind solos and a confident traversal of the ever-shifting emotional terrain.

-- Daniel Ginsberg


It takes audacity for a chorus to program a sequence of songs by Veljo Tormis (a modern Estonian composer), Gordon Lightfoot and Sting. It takes wide-ranging stylistic fluency and a boatload of talent to pull it off. The men's chorus Cantus proved it had all that and more on Friday night in the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, as its enthusiasm and exquisite singing unified a concert that also included 16th-century polyphony, spirituals and a Bill Withers song.

The songs contributed by the composers named earlier, part of a set of sea-related tunes, showed Cantus at its best. In Tormis's "Incantatio maris aestuosi," small melodic cells lap at each other, building to shattering climaxes; the group navigated the close intervals and spare harmonies with ease, producing sounds both severe and beautiful, and nailing the eerie whistling that helps to conjure a gathering storm.

The group scraped off the Lightfootian cheesiness from "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to reveal a sturdy melody and heartfelt sentiment. And the gorgeous part-song harmonies in its rendition of Sting's "Valparaiso" never obscured the text, making the lyrics an equal partner to the music.

Refreshingly, Cantus embraces the occasional bit of silliness, opening the second half of the program with a hilarious pantomime-and-percussion number that featured possibly the finest moonwalk ever executed on the Coolidge Auditorium's stage. Moments like that made the sequence of Lee Hoiby's "Private First Class Jesse Givens," a letter from a soldier killed in Iraq set in anguished, clear chords, and the Appalachian folk song "Bright Morning Star" all the more affecting, particularly in Cantus's committed performances.

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