CHRISTMAS MUSIC

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Two Versions of 'Messiah'

We're barely into December and Washington audiences have already heard two significant presentations of Handel's "Messiah." Both were scrupulously prepared and effectively performed, yet they still made "Messiah" sound like two entirely different pieces of music.

The National Cathedral Choir and Baroque Orchestra employed a 21-piece period-instrument orchestra and a 39-member British-style choir of men and boys (with a contingent of girls swelling the ranks of the trebles). The choir and orchestra possessed the tang of authentic Handelian sound and, under Michael McCarthy's seasoned baton, vividly communicated the work's drama without losing a chamber-music-like litheness and transparency.

At Friday's Washington National Cathedral performance, McCarthy was masterly at linking movements to give the score a compelling unity and trajectory, and at balancing exuberance and gravitas to perfection. (The quiet, wonder-struck opening to the "Halleluiah" chorus was a marvelous touch.) This was the first Washington area "Messiah" I've encountered that could give the forces at New York's St. Thomas Church (long an authentic gold-standard in annual "Messiahs" on this side of the Atlantic) a true run for its money.

That's not to say that Saturday's Strathmore Hall performance by the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, conducted by Stan Engebretson, was any less impressive. With a modern-instrument orchestra nearly twice the size of the cathedral's, and a mixed chorus 140-strong, this was an old-school, big-guns "Messiah" for those allergic to the rarefied sounds of vibrato-less strings and boys' voices. Engebretson's reading kept the music energized with fleet tempos, crisp attacks and choral phrasing that was handsomely blended but responsive to the score's biggest moments -- with "Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs" becoming a splendidly rich-toned, full-frontal assault.

There was little to choose between the two baroque-savvy, word-sensitive quartets of soloists: soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo Yvette Smith, tenor Rufus Muller and bass Nathan Berg at the cathedral; soprano Esther Heideman, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, tenor Robert Petillo and baritone Kevin Deas with the National Philharmonic. The two venues, though, provided a study in contrasts. Even from a seat as close as the sixth row at the cathedral, I lost the countertenors, the lower strings and the continuous group in the acoustic soup much of the time, and the soloists were amplified to sound unnaturally oversize. But hearing those wafts of gossamer violin tone and the soaring purity of the trebles in that space was pretty glorious. The warmth and immediacy of Strathmore's acoustics clarified everything that the cathedral obfuscated.

The Philharmonic has added another Strathmore performance for Dec. 20. And those who missed the Cathedral Choir might want to investigate their fine, atmospherically recorded CD set of "Messiah" -- taken from last year's live performances, with practically the same lineup of soloists as this year's.

-- Joe Banno

McLean Orchestra

This is the centennial of Leroy Anderson, who deserves more respect than he gets. Classically trained and melodically gifted, Anderson straddled the line between classical and popular music, creating many short works designed to fit on one side of a 78-rpm record.

The McLean Orchestra, which made Anderson's music the centerpiece of its holiday concert at Oakcrest School on Saturday, deserves more respect, too. Music Director Sylvia Alimena has honed the ensemble into a full-sounding, even sumptuous group that is equally at home in Tchaikovsky ("Waltz of the Flowers"), Leopold Mozart ("Toy Symphony," with orchestra members playing pint-size noisemakers) and Irving Berlin ("White Christmas").

For the many children in the audience, Alimena introduced individual instruments and entire sections, but she was quite serious when it came to the music. Well, except when she was repeatedly interrupted by comedian Tim Marrone, dressed as a reindeer, who at one point broke in on a kazoo, and at another point used the bells on his collar to play along with Anderson's "Sleigh Ride."

Anderson wrote more-serious as well as lighter works: Naxos, which is releasing his complete orchestral music, has already produced five CDs. Anderson was also a skilled arranger: "A Christmas Festival of Carols" gave the whole orchestra a workout while cleverly juxtaposing well-known tunes. Still, it is for such pieces as "A Trumpeter's Lullaby" -- showcasing James McClarty's lovely solo -- that this composer remains best known. His uniquely American style is still worth hearing, as is the McLean Orchestra's newfound flair.

-- Mark J. Estren

Boston Camerata

The Boston Camerata might have been born some 54 years ago, under the star of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but it's hard to imagine a more perfect setting for its artistry than the Dumbarton Oaks music room. It was there Sunday -- in candlelit Renaissance splendor, surrounded by tapestries and framed by marble arches -- that the Camerata kicked off its newest Christmas program, a collection of the music of the Iberian Peninsula and the New World that the Camerata is calling "The Brotherhood of the Star." "Brotherhood" is the operative word here. As Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen explained, the cultural riches of both of these regions derive their diversity from various races and religions.

The music flowed seamlessly, knitting Gregorian chant, 13th-century cantigas, Renaissance motets, 18th- and 19th-century foot-stomping indigenous celebrations, and 20th-century chants from Moroccan and Turkish Sephardic Jews into a many-colored tapestry that rivaled those on the walls. The six singers and four instrumentalists grouped and regrouped almost imperceptibly, and there was almost as much rhythm to the morphing from one piece to another as there was in the music itself.

Sections of the program were framed by readings of the familiar Christmas portion of the Gospel of Saint Luke and some wonderful declamatory reading of Spanish texts, and the program ended in an exuberant and ecstatic free-for-all on "Convidando Esta la Noche" by 17th-century Mexican composer Juan Garcia Zespiedes.

Cohen's comments emphasized the music's diversity. To my ears, what is so fascinating is how much these pieces have in common. They share a spirit grounded in a harmonic idiom, a melodic shape and a rhythmic energy that makes their Hispanic origin unmistakable. The Camerata's elegant performance highlighted and made accessible their pleasures.

-- Joan Reinthaler


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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