Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rock Creek Festival Choral Concert

The presence of renowned composer and conductor John Rutter filled Saint Paul's Rock Creek Church with excitement at the Fifth Rock Creek Festival on Tuesday evening. Conducting his Mass of the Children, Rutter brought out the best in local musicians, who also showed talent and enthusiasm under their usual leaders.

Leading up to Rutter's work were performances by the New England Symphonic Ensemble directed by Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse and the Columbia Collegiate Chorale directed by James Bingham. Rittenhouse and her ensemble displayed boundless energy in upbeat music by Mozart, Vivaldi, Telemann, Haydn and Smetana. Highlights were the Finale from Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, showcasing Jose Oviedo, and the Allegro from Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins with Kelly Wiedemann, Jennifer Penner, Devon Nicoll and Preston Hawes. The Chorale joined the instrumentalists and Bingham took the podium for a heartfelt rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Serenade to Music," in Denis Williams's orchestration for strings and harp. Soprano Karla Rivera's solos were exquisite.

Mass of the Children is classic Rutter, possessing an approachable, timeless quality consistent with his well-known carols. Use of complex, playful rhythms in the Gloria and the incorporation of English texts added freshness. To accommodate the large-scale work, the Bel Canto Chorus of the Children's Chorus of Washington and the Choir of St. Paul's, Rock Creek augmented the performance contingent. Rivera and clear-voiced baritone Ryan Dolan were the soloists. As a result of Rutter's meticulous, dynamic conducting, precision and nuance increased along with the number of performers.

The final Rock Creek Festival performance will feature the Davey Yarborough Big Band tomorrow evening at 7:30.

-- Ronni Reich

Alash Ensemble, Marshall Allen

If you weren't at Warehouse Theater on Tuesday, you missed one of the most surprising and breathtaking double-bills to blow through Washington this year. Tuvan throat singers the Alash Ensemble and legendary avant-jazz saxophonist Marshall Allen offered so many feats-of-breath, the gig should have been sponsored by the American Lung Association.

The Alash Ensemble's opening set was utterly stunning. The young quartet specializes in an ancient vocal style cultivated by the shepherds and horsemen of central Asia who discovered ways of singing three or four notes simultaneously. Imagine a subsonic growl, a bullfrog's croak, some electric barber's clippers and a high-frequency whistle -- all reverberating out of a single larynx at once.

With a single, sustained breath, each member's voice would glide over the music's loping rhythms as they plucked and bowed an array of stringed instruments, one of which was made from a horse's skull. There are plenty of recordings of Tuvan throat singing out there, but they can't compare to witnessing such sonic magic in real time.

Once audience members picked their jaws up off the floor, 83-year-old Allen shuffled onstage and led his quintet into a righteous racket. Clad in a shiny gold baseball cap, the octogenarian -- who spent most of his career performing alongside the late jazz pioneer Sun Ra -- swiped at the keys of his sax like a petulant teenager slashing away at a guitar. He blew his horn into a soulful frenzy, then seemed to delight in slowing things to a crawl before erupting into another fit of squeals and squawks.

The two groups crammed onto the stage for a final set, but Alash's steady gallop didn't leave much room for Allen and company to find their footing. Maybe that was for the better -- it gave everyone in the audience a chance to catch their breath.

-- Chris Richards

Fessenden Ensemble

Two cheerful works, one by Dvorak and the other by Brahms (both in arrangements), closed the Fessenden Ensemble's season at St. Columba's Church on Tuesday. With a quintet of strings and five wind instruments busily at work, the musicmaking was more orchestral than chamber in dimension and the acoustics of St. Columba's sanctuary, immediate and rich, added extra oomph.

The Fessenden Ensemble is not a fussy group. The members play with energy, and while they achieve admirable balance, they take on their assignments with the enthusiasm of a group of soloists rather than with the attention to detail so characteristic of chamber musicians. This worked agreeably for both pieces on their program.

Dvorak wrote his "Five Bagatelles" for two violins, cello and harmonium (a sort of reed organ) and if the arrangement used here preserved none of the harmonium's distinctive sound, it was still convincingly idiomatic Dvorak, full of rough peasant dance romps and rhythmic fun. The Brahms Op. 11 was his first "Serenade," an early work full of bits and pieces of ideas that would see the light of day in much grander works. (This arrangement replaced one of Brahms's original clarinets with an oboe and added the double bass.) The ensemble handled the rhythmic morphing from four beats into three and back again with cool aplomb, the hunting horn passages with agility, and high-speed cello triplets with remarkable clarity.

Next year's Fessenden concerts will move from Tuesdays to Sundays and from St. Columba's to two new venues, some at Westmoreland Congregational United Church and others at St. Paul's Rock Creek.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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