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Washington Ballet's 'Nutcracker' and Other Holiday Performances

Elizabeth Gaither and Jaret Nelson were the Snow Queen and King in the Washington Ballet's
Elizabeth Gaither and Jaret Nelson were the Snow Queen and King in the Washington Ballet's "The Nutcracker." (By Carol Pratt)
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-- Joan Reinthaler

FOLGER CONSORT

Christmas in Renaissance Spain was the focus of this year's holiday concert by the Folger Consort (and guest artists), which opened Friday night at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Think of it as an enjoyable Whitman's Sampler of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish seasonal tunes, with the performance neatly partitioned among the refined, rustic and robust. Rousing villançicos (carols) and delicate diferencias (instrumental variations) alternated with intricate, polyphonic motets by the period's heavyweight composers.

Life was quieter 400 years ago, and so was the music. Even the rowdiest of villançicos -- with voices imitating drums and muskets -- did not overpower the intimate Folger Theatre. Neither did the cornetto, the curved wooden precursor to today's trumpet, on which Alexander Bonus played mellow, sometimes mournful, tones. This was especially so in the diferencia "Vesti i colli," where his florid solos were supported by organist Webb Wiggins and the delightfully fat sound of Marilyn Boenau's dulcian (Renaissance bassoon).

Perhaps the most memorable diferencia was concocted by the ensemble itself. A tender, rising-falling melody from Charles Weaver's petite guitar was bolstered with plucked notes from Robert Eisenstein's viola da gamba and a crystalline solo whispered by Marcia Young's harp.

But the most significant music was the two sets of motets by the period's finest composers -- Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero and Cristóbal de Morales -- sung by the Concord Ensemble.

The performances were not glitch-free, but the nuanced emotion the singers found in Victoria's "Magi viderunt stellam" was moving. Special attention to dynamics and transitions between vowels made the layers of music bloom like a rose in slow motion, creating a dark, mysterious tale of the three wise men.

The program continues through Dec. 21.

-- Tom Huizenga


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