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(By Chad Rachman -- Associated Press)

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Play the encores first. That was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra's clever approach at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Sunday. The Norwegian orchestra, which is on its first U.S. tour in 41 years, opened with two works that resembled reflections of each other in a funhouse mirror.

Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" was bold, brassy and raucous. Music Director Andrew Litton wielded his baton with such enthusiasm that the front-row cellos had to duck at one point. Knut Vaage's "Chatter," written for the orchestra in 2005, also featured jaunty rhythms and lots of percussion, with a mildly contemplative middle section.

In a more substantive vein, the Bergen Philharmonic's excellent cellos and basses provided strong grounding for clean and precise sound in Grieg's Piano Concerto. This orchestra surely knows the concerto inside out -- Grieg himself was once its artistic director -- but played it as if it were freshly minted. Soloist Andr¿ Watts started prosaically, with lots of pedal, but warmed up by the first movement's cadenza, which he turned into a rhythmically free miniature fantasia. The second movement melded gorgeous orchestral textures with pianistic tenderness. Watts opened the finale with strong rhythmic intensity, stamping both feet for emphasis, and then joined the orchestra in a striking mixture of power and lyricism.

There was lyrical potency in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 as well, with strongly accentuated rhythms and impressive solos by violin, flute and harp. Some other conductors find anguish in the finale, but Litton made it speedy and dramatic, providing an emotionally supercharged performance.

-- Mark J. Estren

Alan Mandel

Pianist Alan Mandel has spent many years championing American keyboard music, onstage and on recordings. (His discography includes the complete piano works of Charles Ives and extensive surveys of music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Edward MacDowell.) He is also a skilled composer whose new solo keyboard piece, "Phillips Phantasia," received its world premiere in a recital he gave on Sunday at the Phillips Collection.

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