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Holiday Performances

Monday, December 15, 2008

WASHINGTON BALLET'S 'NUTCRACKER'

The holiday tradition of "The Nutcracker" ballet is solid and unassailable, and the Washington Ballet's version, which opened Friday at the Warner Theatre, is the kind of seasonal treat that raises the spirits and makes everyone smile. This is a bonbon of a "Nutcracker," a bite-size sweet that is beautifully wrapped in charming sets and extravagant costumes.

Artistic Director Septime Weber's rendering of this classic is now in its fifth year. He has set it locally, as have a number of other choreographers before him. This time, it's Christmas Eve, 1782, in a Georgetown mansion. The Rat King is King George III. His rat soldiers are redcoats, and they battle the Continental Army. In Act 2, Clara and her prince travel to the banks of the Potomac River in springtime, where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Not only are the characters decidedly American, but so is the dancing. There is an open and guileless quality to the performances of company members and Washington School of Ballet students. Nowhere was this more evident than in Elizabeth Gaither's delightful Snow Queen. This was no delicate snowflake, blown hither and thither by the wind only to land delicately and melt away. Gaither was more of a snowball, whizzing with confidence and good spirit through a wintry mix.

Talia Startsman danced a sunny, sweet Clara with an air of vulnerability. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Maki Onuki began like ribbon candy: exquisite to look at, beautifully molded and a little stiff. Over time, however, she softened and sparkled. Jonathan Jordan was a requisitely elegant Cavalier. Washington Ballet apprentice Norton Fantinel, doubling as the Kachina Doll and Frontiersman, commanded the stage like General Patton.

This year, the production went from using 200 children to deploying 350 in five full casts. They are drawn from the 750 students at the Washington Ballet's schools in Anacostia, Northwest Washington and Alexandria.

The production continues through Dec. 28.

-- Pamela Squires

CELTIC CONSORT

Allison Hampton and Linn Barnes, longtime purveyors of the pleasures of Celtic music, were back at Georgetown's Dumbarton Church on Saturday for their annual seasonal contribution to the Dumbarton Concert Series. Hampton, playing the Celtic harp, and Barnes, on a variety of guitars and banjos and the uilleann pipes, were joined by flutist Joseph Cunliffe, percussionist Steve Bloom and narrator Robert Aubry Davis, who read from a number of Welsh and British poets.

Surprisingly, it was a low-key (and, at times, low-energy) affair. Being a Celtic music lover, willing to travel some distance to hear a fiddle or a bodhran played well, I expect that the variations on familiar tunes will arise from the inspiration of the moment (or seem to); that the musicians will be making music collaboratively, not just side-by-side; and that they will be playing as much for each other as for their audience. It may be that this Celtic Consort (the name these musicians assembled under) is so well rehearsed and expert at their instruments that spontaneity has been scrubbed from their performance and replaced by cool, but the musicians seemed to be having fun together only in Barnes's own "Lord Ronan's Return" and the wild version of "Deck the Halls."

Not everything on the program was of Celtic extraction. Barnes strapped himself into a set of uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) for a delicate go, with Cunliffe on an Irish whistle, in a set of familiar dances by the 16th-century Flemish composer Tielman Susato and a couple of anonymous early Italians. "Christmas Suite," full of gauzy bells, ended the afternoon in a fuzz of New Age good feeling.

-- Joan Reinthaler

'LESSONS AND CAROLS'

Fielding a "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" is a little like reading from a fill-in-the-blank script. The format is the creation of the chapel of King's College, Cambridge -- a procession, scriptural readings offered by members of the community from the youngest to the most eminent and, of course, carols, liberally interspersed. The King's College service has been broadcast worldwide for the past 8o years.

The version offered at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel on Friday was happily in this tradition. The readings were those used in the original 1918 service, with the first, a lengthy paragraph from Genesis, read seamlessly by a member of the Maryland Boy Choir and the last, from John I, read by William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. The carols were an agreeable mix of the old (Byrd, Schuetz, Praetorius and Tschesnokoff) and the new (Whitacre, Niedmann and Biebl).

What set this performance apart was the number of different choruses that participated and the attention to logistics that kept things flowing smoothly. The Maryland Boy Choir proceeded to the traditional "Once in Royal David's City," with the first verse assigned to soloist Andrew Skinner, who sang it beautifully and ended it spot on pitch. The boys all sat in the front pews. Around the balcony were the university's Men's Chorus, Women's Chorus, MaennerMusik (a small men's ensemble) and the Palestrina Choir, these two last student-led. None of these groups enjoys the spotlight that the more famous University Chorus has attracted, but, in particular, both the Men's and the Women's Choruses sang with gorgeous tone, rich sonority and outstanding diction.

The men's conductor, Stephen Holmes (who also conducts the boys), and the women's conductor, Timothy Reno, did a fine job here. Organist Paul Hardy held things together comfortably and offered a beautifully articulated prelude program.

-- 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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