Wednesday, October 24, 2007

St. George's Chapel Boys Choir

One of the perks of being the queen of England is that there's plenty of music around -- you even have choirs on tap in your personal chapels. The downside, of course, is that you're obliged to listen to a lot of English music, which -- at least since Henry Purcell laid down his pen in 1695 -- has enjoyed about the same global admiration as English cuisine. Alexandria got a taste of both Monday night, when the superb Choir of St. George's Chapel (based at the queen's own Windsor Castle) delivered an hour of hymns, motets and religious anthems at Christ Episcopal Church. As expected, the boys sang gloriously -- and (also as expected) the music was stodgy enough for a queen.

There were a few gems in the mix: William Byrd's "O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth, Our Queen" is a stunning motet, done in a rather strict Protestant style but radiant with feeling, and Josef Rheinberger's "Abendlied" was one of the loveliest things you could ever hope to hear. Brahms made a quick, engaging appearance, as did Felix Mendelssohn, but the rest of the program was overwhelmingly English, late 19th-century and rather humdrum, with no fewer than three knighted (but relatively obscure) composers and a handful of lesser lights.

Whatever the merits of the music, the singing was beautifully controlled and a joy to hear. It was best at its softest; Christ Episcopal Church is a compact place with unforgiving acoustics, and it's hard to find much sweetness in the sound when your fillings are rattling, as they often were on Monday. The atmosphere may be better tonight, when the choir performs at 7:30 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Rock Creek Parish; free admission). There's a final concert Thursday at the National Gallery of Art, but blink and you'll miss it -- it starts at 3 and ends at 3:15.

-- Stephen Brookes

Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra

Maestros have had trouble finding work here lately. Last week we heard America's preeminent conductorless orchestra, Orpheus, and on Monday the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra also went it alone in a program of 18th-century music at the Library of Congress. Though the Czechs operated at a distinctly lower voltage than Orpheus (and took on a less challenging repertoire), a unifying, guiding hand was even more badly missed.

From the ensemble and intonation problems in the Adagio of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, to the straitjacketed, breathless phrasing in the playful outer movements of the Haydn Symphony No. 8, this practice came off as a stunt not worth the candle. As with Orpheus, instead of playing freely and expressively within a framework provided and maintained by a good conductor, the musicians' attentions went to trying to keep together and trying not to stick out. Hard to make compelling music that way.

As for the two soloists, it was feast and famine. In the Mozart, violinist Barbora Kol¿rov was pert and poised but played with the expressive range of a middling undergraduate. The only possible explanation for her appearance as a featured soloist with an internationally known ensemble is that she is the founder/concertmaster's pupil. From the very first arching phrase of the Marcello Oboe Concerto in D Minor, Jana Brozkova then delivered everything that had been missing in the Mozart solo part. The sound was nimble and colorful, but firmly centered throughout the range. The Adagio offered the most achingly beautiful wind playing I have heard in years.

-- Robert Battey

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