Monday, June 2, 2008

National Philharmonic

In Washington, with so many accomplished "second-tier" orchestras, it would be easy to take the National Philharmonic for granted. But this ensemble, conducted by Piotr Gajewski, plays with greater refinement and virtuosity every season.

At Saturday's Strathmore Hall concert, the Philharmonic played Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture with silken string tone, supple woodwind soloing and sensitive dovetailing of melodic lines and inner voices. Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 received a hale-and-hearty reading that tapped all of the score's sentiment and wit, and offered the kind of confident execution that would make any smaller city justifiably proud to call the Philharmonic its premier orchestra.

If attacks in Brahms's Violin Concerto sounded a bit tentative, Gajewski still drew lovely phrasing and subtle dynamic shading from his musicians in an understated approach to the piece that suited soloist Cho-Liang Lin -- a violinist who has been noted more for small-scale nuance than for bravura grandstanding.

Lin offered an expectedly un-showy reading of the Brahms. Perhaps there's a little less purity in his tone now than in his youth, and technically punishing passages revealed a trace of more effort and less consistency with intonation than in the past. But this fine player's approach to the score retained all his accustomed elegance and musical insight, and he was still able to spin meltingly lovely pianissimo lines that held the audience rapt.

-- Joe Banno

Barnatan-Ferschtman-Weilerstein Trio

The Library of Congress closed out its chamber music season with a bang Saturday, as three world-class musicians, still in their 20s, joined forces for a memorable all-Schubert evening. Pianist Inon Barnatan and violinist Liza Ferschtman, apparently making their local debuts, were joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

The evening's undisputed star was Barnatan, who opened with the C Minor Sonata (D. 958). He displayed the widest variety of touch and dynamics that I've ever heard from the library's aging, balky Steinway. From barely audible, feathery trills to heaven-storming thunderbolts, Barnatan orchestrated every phrase with sovereign mastery. Though sometimes a little too sensitive to Schubert's harmonic divagations, pulling back the tempo more than necessary for the secondary key areas, this was still fine musicmaking wedded to astounding technique.

The high point was the Fantasy in C, D. 934. No music was on hand for either Ferschtman or Barnatan, for one of the longest, most difficult duos ever written. I'd never seen this feat attempted anywhere, and the performance was extraordinary at all levels. Ferschtman's intonation was not infallible in the variation section, but the unanimity between the artists, down to the tiniest nuance, was almost eerie. It was a true tour de force of ensemble playing.

The E-flat Trio, D. 929, clearly had less rehearsal than the fantasy, and here Barnatan did not sufficiently scale his sound to the ensemble. But the impassioned, seat-of-the-pants performance brought down the house.

-- Robert Battey

Wolf Trap Opera Company

Although billed as a birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom, Saturday night's performance at the Barns at Wolf Trap was really a celebration of Steven Blier, artistic director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company. A witty raconteur as well as a fine piano accompanist, Blier provided the only connective tissue in a program that lasted as long as an opera but consisted of more than two dozen unconnected songs.

Bolcom, born May 26, 1938, came off better than Bernstein. The evening's high point was soprano Rebekah Camm's "Golden Babies" from Bolcom's opera "McTeague," a scene in which love of money is the root not only of evil but also of insanity. Soprano Jamie Van Eyck did a fine vampish take on "How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around" and "The Sage," both from the song cycle "I Will Breathe a Mountain." And baritone James J. Kee made the Weill-ish "Song of Black Max" effectively atmospheric.

The performers did what they could with the mostly minor Bernstein that Blier chose. Kee and soprano Leena Chopra neatly declaimed "Storyette H.M.," with words by Gertrude Stein, and Chopra brought sweetness and innocence to "A Little Bit in Love" from "Wonderful Town." Tenor Rodell Rosel had a showstopper from the same show, "100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man." Rosel's comedic gifts were also displayed in the gay cabaret trifle "Bruce" by John Wallowitch, one of several non-birthday numbers that sort of wandered onstage.

It wasn't really a dual birthday bash anyway: Bernstein was born in August.

-- Mark J. Estren

Quatuor Ebene

They are the very epitome of the "young musicians" cliche -- intense, foot-stomping, black-suited, huddled together as if either for support or for esprit. But for a time during their performance of the Bartok String Quartet No. 1 at the Corcoran on Friday, the artists of the Quatuor Ebene broke away from the rest of this cliche, the part about loud and fast, and delivered some beautifully measured and deeply felt, quiet musical conversations.

The two violins phrased with exquisite unanimity in the first movement. That they also had the chops to barrel intact through Bartok's concluding Allegro Vivace came as no surprise after the opening Mozart Divertimento in D, K. 136. Here and in the concluding Schubert "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, loud and fast ruled.

One thinks of the Mozart Divertimenti as cheerful, gracious, lighthearted works. Clearly the Quatuor Ebene has a different vision. They went at this one with a furioso intensity that clothed the first movement in Schubertian lushness and cast the finale as an aggressive race that left some fugal entrances behind. It wasn't much fun, and neither was the over-interpreted Schubert work.

The Quatuor Ebene has all the technical equipment needed to offer fresh and revealing interpretations that retain the voice of well-known composers. The question is, do they have the will?

-- Joan Reinthaler

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