Thursday, December 20, 2007

Choral Arts Society

There's something about Finland that automatically evokes Christmas, even for those of us who've never been there. You imagine reindeer, snow and maybe even an elf or two. It was a pleasant surprise to discover -- as the Choral Arts Society of Washington demonstrated at the Kennedy Center on Monday night -- that the country has some of the world's most interesting Christmas music, too.

Artistic Director Norman Scribner began with a quietly dramatic entrance (singing the ethereal 13th-century plainsong "Of the Father's Love Begotten," with handbell accompaniment), the 190-voice choir delivered a tight, exciting rendition of "Jauchzet, frohlocket!" from Bach's Christmas Oratorio before shifting the focus further north.

Joined by the superb bass baritone Alvy Powell as soloist, Scribner led the group through what must be one of the most colorful pieces of Christmas music anywhere -- a suite of traditional Finnish carols called "Elves Around the Christmas Tree." It's a playful, even mischievous work, in which the women of the chorus take on children's roles and the chamber orchestra accompanies with light, lilting lines, conjuring everything from ticking clocks to dancing elves.

It's wonderful music, a definite don't-miss for the season. There was much more, including some Sibelius and a heartfelt solo by Powell in the spiritual "Hail Mary." But the most fun may have been when Finnish Ambassador Pekka Lintu took the stage to help the audience sing the traditional carol "Jouluyo" -- a tune better known as "Silent Night." Beautiful in English, the German carol was even lovelier in the soft, rolling vowels of Finnish.

The program repeats Sunday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 1 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

-- Stephen Brookes

Jennifer Stumm

There is an opal-like beauty in the viola playing of Jennifer Stumm, who made her Washington debut Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. On the surface it is a dark, baritone sound. But this young, Atlanta-raised musician also has a wonderful way of finding color in a phrase and injecting phosphorescent energy through rhythm. Her interpretations of the music of Schumann and Brahms, along with non-German scores, were smart and engaging. They displayed a self-effacing but boldly drawn style, revealing high-end conservatory training and intense summers spent at that chamber music temple, Vermont's Marlboro Music Festival.

The German scores, Schumann's "Marchenbilder" and Brahms's Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, were drenched in romanticism, rhetorically big, filled with melancholy and vigor. Stumm spun gracefully turned musical lines, conjuring rich textures and little points of color. Resting between these large works, "The Stream Flows" of Bright Sheng -- inspired by the high-pitched Chinese vocal style -- came off like a musical comma, if wonderfully rendered.

Stumm has made a showpiece of Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Viola. As well she should. It is a superbly crafted score, albeit a conservative one that looks back more to Brahms than ahead to the avant-garde. The work showed Stumm at her best, as reverberant sounds arched across the theater. Benjamin Britten's "Lachrymae" was similarly polished and elegant.

At the piano, Finghin Collins showed gifted technique and musicianship, though the nearly closed lid made his supporting role all too clear.

The Washington Performing Arts Society presented the fine concert.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

© 2007 The Washington Post Company