Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic

There were winners aplenty at the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic's concert at Schlesinger Hall in Alexandria on Sunday. The first was Steven Gerber, the orchestra's composition winner for 2007; audiences last season voted him the composer whose works they would like to hear more often, so three will be performed this season. Sunday's was the Washington-born composer's Serenade for String Orchestra (1989-90), a subtle and rhythmically complex piece that calls for a multiplicity of string techniques. For example, the second movement, a theme and variations, at one point features the violins being strummed like banjos while the cellos play legato. As conducted by Music Director Ulysses S. James, the work flowed smoothly and effectively throughout.

The next winner was Wonkak Kim. He was first in the orchestra's concerto competition and performed Carl Nielsen's fascinating Clarinet Concerto (1928 -- but it sounds much more modern). Like the composer's Fifth Symphony of six years earlier, the concerto features a prominent snare drum, which often seems at war with the soloist. Kim evinced excellent breath control and fine command of his instrument's full range, with not a hint of screechiness.

Soprano Tiffany Bostic and the NOVA Community Chorus concluded the concert with Poulenc's odd and curiously affecting Gloria (1959). Conductor Mark Whitmire brought out both the surprisingly playful, almost trivial tunes and the more serious sections, in which Bostic's sweet and lovely voice floated ethereally above chorus and orchestra.

Those who heard this unusual program of 20th-century works turned out to be the biggest winners of all. The concert will be repeated Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany.

-- Mark J. Estren

Vienna Boys Choir

The Vienna Boys Choir brought early holiday cheer to Washington on Sunday afternoon with a program at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Led by choirmaster Nikolaus Muller, who alternated between accompanying the 25 boys on piano and conducting them a cappella, the 10- to 14-year-old boys sang with sensitive balance and phrasing in Jakob Arcadelt's "Ave Maria" and nailed the harmonics in Mendelssohn's "Veni Domine," Op. 39, No. 1. They displayed exciting dramatics and mature musicality in "Kyrie," "Gloria" and "Agnus Dei" from Benjamin Britten's "Missa Brevis" in D, Op. 63.

Three boys descended into the hall's rear orchestra section for Orlando di Lasso's "Echo," written during the Renaissance. They sang a beat behind the onstage choir, mimicking the clarion voices for a delightful call-and-response effect.

The singers allowed a little bit of schoolboy charm to emanate in Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Vergnugungszug" ("Amusement Train"), Op. 281, and "Wiener Blut Waltz," Op. 354. But after intermission they appeared to lose their steam, singing several Christmas carols with lackluster intonation and spirit.

Fortunately, two Austrian carols helped to refocus the choir. It subsequently performed adorable renditions of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Let It Snow" and "Jingle Bell Rock."

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