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Eclipse Chamber Orchestra

Two contemporary pieces highlighted the opening of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra's 16th season on Sunday, with both composers present. Largely made up of National Symphony Orchestra members (including conductor Sylvia Alimena), the Eclipse is one of the Washington area's leading chamber ensembles. Sunday's performance at Alexandria's George Washington Masonic Memorial concluded with Mozart's eight-movement "Haffner" Serenade, K. 250/248b, with Elisabeth Adkins, associate concertmaster of the NSO, as the commanding, richly expressive soloist.

Both Mark Adamo's "Alcott Music," a suite from his much-acclaimed opera "Little Women," and Truman Harris's Concertino for Flute and Chamber Orchestra were heard in new revisions. Cast in freshly conceived tonal language, the Adamo piece consists of three subtly differentiated character sketches drawn from Louisa May Alcott's Victorian-era novel: Jo, Meg and (together) their parents, Alma and Gideon. Though clearly contrasted, all three portraits parallel each other in their translucent textures and striking sonic effects -- both defined in contrasting combinations of strings, percussion, harp and celesta.

Flutist Alice Kogan Weinreb gave a stunning performance as soloist in Harris's capricious essay. Written for Weinreb (also a member of the NSO), the piece bubbles over with that whimsical wit typical in the flute's bag of tricks -- such as its capacity for cavorting throughout its range and for fleet tonguing in quasi-avian effects. An NSO bassoonist, Harris assigns the orchestra the role of agile protagonist, often favoring the collective, cooling timbres of woodwind quintet writing -- the flute coupled with clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon.

Played Sunday with vitality and lucidity, Mozart's piece, like the typical classical-era serenade, is a conglomeration of proto-symphonic styles designed largely to entertain. Unfortunately, from my seat on the far left, the horns often outweighed the violin solos.

-- Cecelia Porter

Verdehr Trio

The Michigan-based Verdehr Trio has been one of the most influential chamber groups in contemporary American music for three decades, commissioning more than 170 new works. The trio -- Walter Verdehr on violin, Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr on clarinet and Silvia Roederer on piano -- continued that worthy mission Sunday afternoon, presenting three recent works (including two world premieres) by American composers at the Phillips Collection.

The standout piece was Augusta Read Thomas's "Dancing Helix Rituals" from 2006. It's a dance, certainly -- but a wild, driving, exhilarating dance that hurtled out of the gate and built into a riot of jazzy rhythms and colorful gestures. Like all good rituals, it was intoxicating -- and the trio brought it off with a fine, eloquent frenzy.

Equally interesting, if opposite in every way, was James Holt's 2005 "Frisson." Holt is a newly minted PhD, but don't hold that against him -- he's clearly no ivory-tower pedant. Opening with dark, shifting clouds of sound, the work's initial shudder slowly grew to an anguished climax; not always easy on the ears, but extremely powerful. Though it followed a well-worn dramatic arc, the piece was full of intriguingly suspended tensions and probing ideas, and the ending -- awash in ambiguity -- worked beautifully.

Verdehr introduced William Wallace's 2004 "Sonata a Tre" as a "romantic" work, and with its warm sonorities and flowing passagework, gently seasoned with asymmetric rhythms, it was the most accessible of the new works. But for all its sophisticated charm, it lacked the distinctive personality and sense of adventure of the other pieces on the program; romantic on the surface, but rather mechanical underneath.

-- Stephen Brookes

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