Performing Arts

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


To call Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Sunday night performance at Verizon Center "bombastic" doesn't really cut the mustard. It was like watching the spacecraft at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" touch down for 2 1/2 hours. This was a Christmas pageant cranked up to 11 -- complete with explosions, airborne platforms, screeching guitar solos and a light show so blindingly luminescent that it could seemingly cause brownouts along the Eastern Seaboard. And the spectacle was so gargantuan that the best seats would not have been at the lip of the stage, but rather inside a helicopter circling the arena.

Guitarist Paul O'Neill spent the first half of the show leading an ensemble of roughly 23 people through Trans-Siberian's 1996 multi-platinum album "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" -- a record that placed heavy-metal umlauts over such pious holiday fare as "The First Noel" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Suffice it to say that devotional song and manly decollete have seldom been placed in such close juxtaposition this far beyond Nashville's city limits.

After a brief intermission, the band returned to perform such original compositions as "Wizards in Winter" and a flame-kissed arrangement of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" -- during which a row of flaming multicolored geysers erupted behind the drummer. If you looked past the shock and awe of it all, however, it was possible to glimpse the true meaning of, well, nothing, except maybe mondo-ness. Whatever the holiday message was, it was thoroughly obscured by stage fog and transplendent hair-rock riffage.

-- Aaron Leitko


From the first notes of Mozart's E Minor Sonata, K. 304, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, Joanna Marie Frankel proved herself an uncommonly fine young violinist. Her darkly burnished, consistently rounded tone went right to the melancholy heart of the piece. The Adagio of Brahms's D Minor Sonata, Op. 108, was gorgeous stuff in her hands, yet she was able to find the right balance of incisive power and classical proportion in the score's more heated rhetoric. And in Ravel's Sonata in G, the swoony faux-blues and tricky pizzicatos were dispatched with technique to spare.

Poetry, though, was Frankel's Achilles' heel. Asking us to join her on "a journey into the light" (a singularly unfortunate phrase, given the advanced age of many in the audience), she proceeded to read poems meant to mirror the music's sense of darkness giving way to light. Suffice it to say that her mastery of the spoken word falls a good way short of her superb musicianship -- her rendition of a Langston Hughes poem about a poor musician in Harlem was wince-inducing on several levels -- and she might want to hire an actor for such things in the future.

Throughout the program, pianist Young Kyung Hyun partnered Frankel beautifully, astutely gauging dynamics, and knowing when to support and when (as in the Brahms) to seize a commanding lead in the musicmaking.

-- Joe Banno


As anyone who has attended the Norwegian Christmas at Union Station knows, the Norwegians do Christmas well. The corresponding Norwegian program at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night was not only a mostly painless option in the endless sequence of Christmas concerts in Washington, but it also offered some delights.

The program opened with its best material: songs by Scandinavian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the four young Scandinavian singers brought together by the New York Opera Society, soprano Mariann Fjeld Olsen quickly distinguished herself with a polished, rounded tone that filled the West Garden Court. Her renditions of two Grieg songs, an enigmatic "En Svane" and a bittersweet "Varen," showcased her ability to control her potential volume, creating a shimmering tone pregnant with melancholy nostalgia.

The second set, consisting of "familiar operatic selections," was mostly as hackneyed as that description would lead one to expect. The "Song to the Moon," from Dvorák's "Rusalka," sat beautifully with Olsen's voice, which blossomed on a gorgeous and potent high note at the end. The "Canzone di Doretta" from Puccini's "La Rondine," however, showed her limitations. Tenor Didrik Solli Tangen had some forceful moments in his high register but tended to shout, something for which his background as a lead singer of a pop band might be responsible. He did himself no favors by choosing to sing Neapolitan and Christmas chestnuts one might tolerate from a legendary singer, but not from a 21-year-old. The piano of accompanist Danielle DeSwert was refined, sensitive and supportive to the voices, no matter how large or small.

-- Charles T. Downey


On the local scene for almost four decades, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic likes to probe the unusual in its programming. Sunday's performance filled the sanctuary of downtown's Church of the Epiphany, and conductor Ulysses S. James divided the concert into contrasting halves. He opened with Joseph Bertolozzi's "An Age Will Come," winner of the orchestra's composition competition this year, followed by George Whitefield Chadwick's "Symphonic Sketches," which received its debut a century ago by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, in fact, played several first performances of the New Englander's music, indicating his importance earlier in his career. But only a decade later, his works fell victim to European modernism. It's easy to see why, for the "Sketches" -- lengthy tone poems depicting an older America -- lack much structural meaning. They are weakly intimate snatches of Mendelssohn and Brahms, and they speak a cloying, languorous language devoid of dissonance. The orchestra gave an appealing account of the work, despite moments when entrances and intonation proved short of the ideal.

The players also struggled a bit with Bertolozzi's technical demands, perhaps due to insufficient rehearsing. Inspired by an ancient visionary prophecy of Seneca, the music offered plentiful opportunities to spotlight individual instruments and, overall, spoke an elegiac tonal language with few surprises. After intermission, things took a drastically different turn after solo violinist Jenny Oaks Baker's deft version of Vivaldi's "L'Inverno" ("The Winter"), Op. 8, No. 4. She then switched to her now-trademark hoedown fiddling style, but added hyped-up amplification. The result was a raw, coarse-grained sonority and imbalance as the orchestra lent some Christmas carols -- Schubert's "Ave Maria" and Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" -- a certain lurid quality.

-- Cecelia Porter

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