Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NSO Players

It was Mozart's birthday this past weekend (he's 252, if you're keeping track), and though they hadn't planned it as such, more than a dozen virtuosos from the NSO gave him a rousing party at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Sunday night. In fact, it was really more of a tribute to the classical ideal itself -- the precisely calibrated balance of idea, expression and structure that Mozart brought to perfection.

And as if to make the point, the players paired Mozart with works by that progenitor and high priest of 20th-century neoclassicism, Igor Stravinsky.

It was an intriguing idea, and illustrated once again that when you catch the NSO players in chamber settings, they're usually up to something remarkable. The evening opened with Mozart's Sonata in G, K. 379, played by the orchestra's concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, and pianist Lambert Orkis. These sonatas are sometimes dismissed as lesser works, but there's always a lot of "there" there when Bar-Josef picks up her fiddle; from the stormy Allegro to the infinitely shaded pizzicatos of the final variations, she played it with a slow-burning intensity that was never less than riveting.

Stravinsky's wildly colorful "Histoire du Soldat" Suite followed, with clarinetist Loren Kitt joining the fray. It's a rambunctious piece -- proof that the term "neoclassical" has little to do with minuets and powdered wigs -- and Kitt and Bar-Josef tore into it with satisfying bite. More Stravinsky followed, but his Octet for Winds (with its Haydn-inspired opening and variations that include everything from a cancan to a fugue) was marred, unfortunately, by overly enthusiastic brass players; the winds were often blown away.

But the evening closed with a sublime -- there is no other word -- account of Mozart's Serenade for Winds in C Minor, K. 388. Full of floating beauty and delicately nuanced pathos, it's a paragon of the classical ideal: mysteries wrapped not in enigmas but in utter transparency and grace.

-- Stephen Brookes

Motion Mania

In 1987, anyone could turn on MTV and glimpse backup dancer Bonnie Slawson gyrating for the stars of A&M Records. But the network had yet to gain mainstream momentum, and Slawson realized it was more important to her to be seen live onstage than as a televised blur. So she went back to Rockville (defying a mantra R.E.M. was singing at the time) and founded Motion Mania, a studio for aspiring professional dancers and a school for girls already sliding around the house to Debbie Gibson.

Last weekend, Motion Mania celebrated its 20th anniversary with a retrospective gala that traced music of the past two decades from Janet Jackson through Hannah Montana. At 26 pieces, the concert got a little long in the seats for Motion Mania's loyal fans at Montgomery College's Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center. Friday's show was well attended; Saturday's sold out.

From carnations in the arms of cousins to the decoupage Tinker Bell toe shoes up for auction in the lobby, a reunion atmosphere energized Friday evening. Slawson assembled a company of 23 local and returning alumni dancers for the gala. They performed best when the motion was refined rather than manic. Two poignant numbers, the Aileyesque "Spiritual Light" (1992, to Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There") and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (2000, as sung by the late local songbird Eva Cassidy), prominently featured Kesha Johnson, a rising Gaithersburg dancer on break from her senior year of college in Chicago.

Several numbers could have been cut: the dated faux moon suits, the campy tapping and a vulgar vocalist who ended his R&B number by advertising his MySpace page.

There also were occasional amateur gaffes, like falling out of turns and throwing sluggish grand jetes, but these dancers smiled through the slip-ups. While all styles of dance require mastering technique, Motion Mania's endurance as a studio demonstrates that, in Washington, there should always be a stage for dancers that move to the music of the day.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel

Enso String Quartet

The Enso String Quartet, a polished young group formed in 1999 at the Yale School of Music, gave an impressive program on Sunday afternoon at the National Academy of Sciences.

Joined by soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, the program featured the rarely heard Quartet No. 3 by Alberto Ginastera. As with predecessor works by Schoenberg and Barber, the problems of adding a voice to the perfect (and perfectly self-contained) classical music ensemble are hard to overcome. When the objective is simply to support and project a setting of text, one gets the feeling that any group of instruments will do, and the result is something other (and lesser) than a string quartet, even including the instrumental interludes. Also, at this point late in his career, the Argentine master had begun to rely a little too heavily on cliches such as unisons that slowly dissolve into dissonant harmonies, and ensemble passages in a tessitura so high that nearby dogs are summoned. Still, it was good to hear this challenging, multifaceted piece again.

Lamoreaux, a longtime Washington favorite, exhibited admirable command of her difficult part, with perfectly sustained lines. She could not solve all the diction problems in the upper register, but that was likely more the composer's fault. The Enso coped well with the grueling string writing.

In standard repertoire by Haydn and Dvorak, the quartet's strengths and weaknesses were both underlined by the venue's wretched acoustics. Ensemble, pacing and intonation were of the highest caliber, but the group needs to learn to project a fuller range of dynamics.

-- Robert Battey

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