Monday, December 10, 2007

Kathleen Battle and Joel Martin

The performance that soprano Kathleen Battle, pianist Joel Martin and the WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir gave in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday night resembled a dress rehearsal more than a concert.

The performers, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, had an interesting idea: Take holiday repertoire -- some classical, some pop, some gospel -- and treat it all with a license to swing. "Rejoice Greatly," from Handel's "Messiah," got an unexpected rhythmic bump from Martin's piano, and Battle, with a voice lovely enough to recall her past glories, stylishly erased the bar lines in her solo rendition of "Wasn't That a Mighty Day."

But the famously temperamental diva spent as much effort pouting at Martin when he wasn't doing what she wanted as she did on singing. At least once during each of their songs, Battle gestured at Martin to play faster (even though Martin had slowed down only to match Battle's fluctuating tempos) or to cue chords that Martin had delayed in order to add a little swing. She actually stopped singing in the middle of "Mary, Did You Know?" to have a brief discussion with the accompanist, who then gamely began playing in a different key. The soprano even "conducted" Martin when he accompanied the choir, which just confused everyone. It was difficult to enjoy the music with Battle constantly indicating her own displeasure with it.

Mercifully, the Children of the Gospel Choir showed up ready to sing under its artistic director, Stanley J. Thurston. The ensemble's music sounded passionate and joyful, especially Thurston's arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," whose searing, soulful dissonances added to the hymn's longing.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Washington Bach Consort

One of the great examples of recycling in music history, Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" was splendidly performed by J. Reilly Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night.

The ensemble brought enthusiastic singing and idiomatic playing, with the use of original instruments adding immeasurably to the charms of this series of six cantatas. They were designed to be played one at a time, from the first day of Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany, but hearing them as a group makes their distinctive intricacies especially clear: Only the second starts with a sinfonia, matching its pastoral mood; only the third starts and ends with the same chorus; the fifth is especially tender and contemplative. (The fourth, the only one requiring horns, was omitted Friday.)

Lewis was blessed -- that seems the right word -- with marvelous clarity from the 19-member chorus, and with wonderful soloists fully conversant with Bach's style. The dark, rich, buttery tones of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines were an unending astonishment. Soprano Mary Ellen Callahan and bass-baritone Sanford Sylvan enunciated clearly and blended beautifully: Their duet in Part 3 was a highlight. Tenor Alan Bennett's voice was sweet and stirring. And tenor Ole Hass, as the Evangelist, narrated with strength and feeling.

"Heartfelt" does not begin to describe the performance -- the Washington Bach Consort proclaims this music with both heart and soul.

-- Mark J. Estren

21st Century Consort

The gently inflected reading given "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by NPR personality Martin Goldsmith, in the 21st Century Consort's program on Saturday at McEvoy Auditorium, allowed the nostalgic atmosphere of Dylan Thomas's words to register with clarity and sly wit.

The music with that text was as expertly played as one might expect from this ensemble, though much of it had a tenuous connection at best to the memoir's mood. Three carols by Peter Warlock -- sung with a fresh-from-the-conservatory callowness by soprano Mary Bonhag -- brought to mind the kind of Christmas Thomas would have known, but sounded wan beside his vivid prose. In stark contrast, even in pianist Lisa Emenheiser's riveting reading, the ominously tolling chords and haunting, strummed piano strings of George Crumb's "A Little Suite for Christmas" conjured a far bleaker midwinter than Thomas's story did.

Crumb's "Federico's Little Songs for Children" and Paul Schoenfield's "Slovakian Children's Songs," programmed no doubt for the word "children" in their titles, were no more appropriate to Dylan Thomas than, say, Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." Crumb's thorny score -- tackled with flair by Bonhag, harpist Susan Robinson and flutist Sara Stern -- evoked sultry summer nights in Spain. And Schoenfield's flute-and-piano piece (Emenheiser and Stern again terrific in difficult music) filtered Eastern European folk songs through Satie and Stravinsky. Both are intriguing works. But they're a long way from Christmas, or Wales.

-- Joe Banno

American Opera Theatre: 'Messiah'

American Opera Theatre's staging of Handel's "Messiah" at Georgetown University's striking new Gonda Theatre on Saturday was not the first time the work's been staged in America, as the company claims -- Millennial Arts Productions in New York mounted a theatrical version in 1999 -- but it was likely a Washington first. Not everything made cogent sense, but director Timothy Nelson's ambition to wrestle this oratorio into something viably dramatic was admirable.

In Part 1, on a stage littered with torn-out Bible pages -- and lit gorgeously by Kel Millionie -- an ensemble of supple-voiced, dramatically engaging soloists (radiant-voiced soprano Sherezade Panthaki a standout) was introduced as a set of recognizable contemporary types -- confused yuppie, evangelical proselytizer, crazy homeless guy spouting doomsday predictions, etc.

But as Parts 2 and 3 progressed, with their preponderance of contemplative text over actable narrative, the attempt to weave a story with these characters was replaced with the pacing, posing and semaphoric gesturing familiar from the last 30 years of postmodern theatre. It was an interesting notion to have the cast bludgeon and crucify a smug Advent-calendar angel later in the production. But that pesky, reverential text kept contradicting Nelson's impulses, and he didn't find the ironic tone that might've sold his grim, disaffected "Hallelujah" Chorus.

As a conductor, Nelson was far more convincing, drawing lithe and lovely phrasing from the 16-member GU Chamber Singers and ear-teasingly pungent work from a 10-piece period-instrument orchestra.

-- Joe Banno

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