Correction to This Article
A May 22 Style review incorrectly listed James Weaver as a baritone in a Cathedral Choral Society performance of "Serenade to Music." The singer was Jon Bruno.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Eclipse Chamber Orchestra

Soprano Emily Pulley, narrator Rich Kleinfeldt and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under conductor Sylvia Alimena gave a superb performance Sunday of composer Mark Adamo's "Late Victorians" at Alexandria's George Washington Masonic Memorial. The piece was commissioned for the orchestra's inaugural season in 1991-92.

Reminding me of Arnold Schoenberg's expressionist monodrama "Erwartung" (1909), Adamo's work is essentially a captivating chamber opera (though labeled "Symphony"). It unfolds in a series of episodes interspersing arias (extracted from Emily Dickinson's poetry) with spoken and orchestral sections. In the arias, Pulley gave her role every ounce of its emotional journey from despair to reconciliation in a stunning performance. Between the songs, Kleinfeldt narrated the tragic story of an AIDS victim's suffering and death. Made up mostly of National Symphony Orchestra members (including Alimena), the Eclipse orchestra gave a powerful account of the drama, one dotted with instrumental solos played with beauty and conviction.

The remaining performances deserve equal praise. Violinists Jane Bowyer Stewart and Paula Akbar were the elegant soloists in Antonio Vivaldi's throbbing Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 3, No. 11. And the instrumental solos in Ottorino Respighi's warhorse "Gli Uccelli" ("The Birds") were rapturous. "Musetta's Waltz" from Giacomo Puccini's opera "La Boheme" proved oddly interruptive though nicely rendered by Pulley.

-- Cecelia Porter

Opera Theatre Of Northern Virginia

Think of a really funny musical comedy, with pratfalls, plots and counterplots, doddering servants and fast-paced ensemble numbers in which everyone goes off on a different tangent. It tells a well-worn story: Young lovers, kept apart by an unreasonable old man who thinks himself sprightlier than he is, get their revenge and are eventually united. It's in English, and is a sort of reverse "Taming of the Shrew," with a pleasant young woman turning witchy -- call it "The Shrewing of the Tame."

Or just call it "Don Pasquale," as performed Sunday by Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, in Arlington. The music of Donizetti's 1843 opera looks back to Mozart while moving with some of the clockwork precision that Gilbert and Sullivan later perfected. Under Artistic Director John Edward Niles's sure hand, this production was all fun, all the time -- though the nine-member chamber group he conducted was thin for this music.

As Pasquale, Lewis Freeman combined a strong, solid baritone with fine vocal and physical acting. John Dooley was smoothly urbane as the manipulative Malatesta, hatcher of the plot to bring Pasquale down a notch or three.

Katherine Osborne was charming as Norina, although her sweet, clear soprano became a little screechy at the top. Keith Hudspeth as her lover, Ernesto, was passionate but often strained, his voice too breathy and rather thin. Loren Smith, senior judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, was a scene stealer as a silent, slowly shuffling factotum. Everyone else constantly raced hither and thither -- and will do so again tomorrow at 8 p.m.

-- Mark J. Estren

Michael McHale

Bravura playing in the music of Franz Liszt drew extended ovations at pianist Michael McHale's Sunday afternoon recital at the Phillips Collection. The young Irish artist, appearing in the third of four "Rediscovering Northern Ireland" concerts at the gallery, was clearly up to the demands of Liszt's far-ranging "Apr├Ęs une Lecture de Dante": He handled with gusto and skill the powerfully climbing themes and the thunderous climaxes that one expects in this evocation of Dante's hellish "Divine Comedy."

Yet, one could draw deeper satisfaction from the more delicate and calibrated sides of McHale's artistry that dominated this pleasing concert. At the start was a beautifully proportioned and energetic account of Mozart's Sonata in C Minor, K. 457. This is one of the composer's more dramatic works, which, as McHale pointed out, inspired Beethoven's impassioned "Pathetique" sonata.

Surprisingly, McHale highlighted the work's intricate construction and carefully spaced textures with a focused tone and sense of forward movement. This coolness carried into Samuel Barber's "Excursions," Op. 20, a set of four character pieces. Scenic moments, like the bluesy third movement and the hoedownlike finale, surely received their due. Yet McHale's greater concentration came out in less picturesque passages, the dewy harmonies and rhythmic driving sequences, at one point scrunching his face within inches of his fleet fingers scurrying around the upper registers.

McHale paid tribute to his homeland with a mysterious account of Ian Wilson's "For Eileen, After Rain," combining rich reverberation and more songful lines. The playing was again anything but over-the-top and effusive. Such a smart, restrained and fastidious display raises expectations for pianist David Quigley, McHale's compatriot who closes out the Phillips's Northern Ireland series this Sunday.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Cathedral Choral Society

One of Britain's greatest composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, melded romanticism, impressionism, folk song and Renaissance polyphony into an utterly seductive style all his own. But he's virtually ignored on American concert stages -- a point driven home on Sunday, when the Cathedral Choral Society gave the Washington premiere of his "Five Tudor Portraits" (based on 15th-century satirical poems by John Skelton), 72 years after the work's composition.

Granted, unlike Vaughan Williams's more frequently heard masterpiece, "Serenade to Music" (which received a rapturously beautiful performance elsewhere on the program, featuring soprano Laura Lewis, mezzo Stacey Rishoi, tenor Matthew Smith and baritone James Weaver), some of the "Portraits," such as the mock-reverential funeral ceremony for Jane Scroop's sparrow, seriously overstay their welcome.

But the work was given a committed reading under J. Reilly Lewis's baton, the rollicking and inventive score benefiting from the assured playing of the pickup orchestra and the customary blend and tonal allure of the Choral Society. (Though between Washington National Cathedral's swimmy acoustics and the composer's Technicolor orchestrations, Skelton's witty couplets smeared into what might as well have been Norwegian.)

In a Shakespeare-themed program that included shorter works by Mendelssohn and Berlioz, a highlight proved to be the suite from William Walton's score to the Laurence Olivier film of "Henry V." My only regret was that actor Andrew Long's colorfully delivered Shakespearean speeches were kept separate from the atmospheric musical movements designed specifically to underscore his words.

-- Joe Banno

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