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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

The bluegrass band Punch Brothers performed a high-energy set, including a four-movement suite, at the Birchmere.
The bluegrass band Punch Brothers performed a high-energy set, including a four-movement suite, at the Birchmere. (By Autumn De Wilde)
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When Jean-Yves Thibaudet bounced into the air a few inches off the piano bench during Friday night's performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it was no affectation or surprise: This was a night of power-Gershwin at Meyerhoff Hall.

Music director Marin Alsop led a concert whose hallmarks were forward-driving energy, transparent cleanliness and rhythmic precision -- a no-triplet-left-behind approach. As Thibaudet barreled through the solos of "Rhapsody" and the Piano Concerto in F, Alsop took up his vigor, though not all his sensitivity.

Thibaudet's performance was an idiosyncratic combination of broad, Rachmaninoff-ready virtuosic strokes and carefully colored character sketches. He exudes star quality -- and he can swing. From a bluesy amble to an all-out wail, he fulfilled the composer's intention of raising jazz to the grandeur of a symphony.

Fantastic sounds came from the BSO, whose musicians seem to have united under their still fairly new leader. Their ensemble was even tauter than usual, and solos were categorically musical and tonally rich. There was, however, an uncharacteristic rigidity to their playing, particularly in "Rhapsody."

Sandwiched between the Gershwin pieces was Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," a series of dances dedicated to the 18th-century French composer. A baroque architectural frame dipped in impressionist harmonies and timbres, the piece benefited greatly from the jewel tones of the BSO's wind section. It was a delight to hear Alsop bring out the many layers of counterpoint, showing its finely calibrated structure, and, this time, lingering on its playful and enchanting details as well.

-- Ronni Reich

Masterworks Festival Chorus and Orchestra

Eleven choirs from the East Coast to the Midwest assembled their forces in various combinations Saturday for a festival of classical and contemporary music at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The most impressive musicmaking came during the concert's first half, when six groups joined in a single chorus. Conductors Kevin McBeth and Duane Davis took turns leading the singers in Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom" and Gabriel Fauré's Requiem -- both eloquent staples of choral literature worldwide.

Of World War II vintage, Thompson's music pulses with military-march rhythms that enforce texts peppered with angry overtones and timely irony ("We Have Counted the Cost" and "We Fight Not for Glory"). Soprano Danielle Talamantes and bass Jeffrey Tarr provided powerful, vibrant solos. And the chorus sang with fitting nobility, pungent dynamic contrasts and clean-as-a-whistle diction. Organist John Cargile accompanied with telling effect.

An anthem by Joseph Martin was a weak follow-up to the Thompson. But, accompanied by orchestra and organ, Fauré's familiar Requiem was given a full measure of flowing lyricism voiced by the chorus in counterpoint that was smooth as glass.

After intermission, a sizable multi-choir ensemble and orchestra took the stage, the entire performance based on the music of conductor John Leavitt. His compositions were dressed-up, easily accessible versions of American spirituals cast in tired harmonic cliches -- unlike beautiful settings of this literature by prominent composer-arrangers such as Aaron Copland and Alice Parker. Leavitt also gave a Liberace-style grand finale as accompanist/conductor, offering painfully exhibitionist keyboard antics in his own arrangement of "River in Judea."

Judging audience reaction to the performance proved iffy, for only a few rows of the concert hall were occupied by non-participants.

-- Cecelia Porter

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