Saturday, September 29, 2007

NSO Pops With Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack, who grew up in Arlington, graduated from Howard and sang in D.C. nightclubs before she became a star, returned to Washington on Thursday night to perform a string of her hits with both her band and the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Marvin Hamlisch, the NSO's principal pops conductor and an unabashed Flack fan, spent much of her set giving her praise, and Flack's magnetic performance merited all of it.

Except for the loss of a little brightness, Flack's voice sounds as smooth and warm as it did during her 1970s heyday, and her phrasing has only become more imaginative, as shown in an effortlessly flowing version of "Feel Like Makin' Love." She hasn't rested on her musical laurels, either, giving the beat behind "Killing Me Softly With His Song" a new Latin kick and caressing the tender melody of the newer song "Eternally."

Two skilled singers subbed for the late Donny Hathaway: Darius de Haas delivered a riveting solo as Flack tinkled the ivories in "For All We Know," and Tony Terry suavely matched Flack's vocals on "Where Is the Love." But the most memorable moment of the evening came when Flack sang with just her own piano accompaniment on "The Water Is Wide," her voice ringing out soulfully and pure, before the band and orchestra came in for an ecstatic "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Hamlisch and the NSO, relegated to providing background color during Flack's set, presented utterly superfluous music before intermission, the nadir of which was a disco medley that exposed the NSO's horn section as completely funkless. If you attend tonight's repeat performance, which begins at 8, you should arrive late.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Washington Bach Consort

Why does Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor still draw large audiences, who place it first above all other sacred music? It's anything but practical with its Latin text and tremendous scope in an age preferring more "accessible" church music with guitar or piano accompaniment instead of an organ, for example. And it is stupendously difficult to perform, challenging the stamina of both voices and instruments with long chains of winding melodic lines set in intricate contrapuntal textures that leave little time to breathe.

Yet the concert hall at Strathmore had few empty seats Wednesday when the Washington Bach Consort, conducted by J. Reilly Lewis (without a score), performed the Mass. And it was a night to remember: From start to finish, this chamber-size group of choristers, orchestra and soloists -- both vocal and instrumental -- made that leap beyond human abilities, which Bach demands, with compassion, tonal beauty and a sense of inevitable momentum. After a rather muted "Kyrie," the performers seemed to adjust to the hall's expansive acoustics, the musicmaking so magnificent and moving that the audience took a second to gasp at the end before its cheers.

This piece centers on the chorus, Lewis leading this premier ensemble (celebrating its 30th season) from peak to peak, as in the solemn and imploring "Qui tollis." All the instrumental soloists were superb on their devilishly demanding period instruments, as were the sensitive vocal soloists: sopranos Dominique Labelle and Kendra Colton, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone William Sharp. Inserting an intermission after the "Kyrie" and "Gloria" worked well since Bach composed them two decades before the other movements -- though the piece also works effectively when performed straight through. After intermission, Lewis slipped in a rarity, a fetching instrumental introduction to the "Credo": a hymn tune setting by Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

-- Cecelia Porter

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