Performing Arts

Performances by the Washington Bach Consort and Alessandra Marc

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Every year, the Washington Bach Consort's Christmas program proves a refreshing break from the sugary, dumbed-down fare one finds at most of the city's other choral holiday concerts. On Sunday, in the airy yet beautifully focused acoustics of National Presbyterian Church, conductor J. Reilly Lewis presented a program that not only had an international reach but placed its emphasis squarely on 20th- and 21st-century composers -- with not a single mainstream carol heard all afternoon.

Every piece showcased the scrupulously molded tone and flawless internal balances Lewis has made the Consort's signature -- whether the full chorus was melding into a seamless unity in Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov's Russian chant "Salvation Has Been Created," or individual sections were showing off their solidity in John Tavener's "Today the Virgin," or small groupings of singers were displaying madrigal-like suppleness with their counterpoint in Norwegian composer Trond Kverno's "Corpus Christi Carol."

Throughout the concert, Lewis used singers from the ensemble as soloists -- most of them drawn from his pure-voiced and confident pool of sopranos. All of them revealed accomplished voices, not least Esther Brazil, whose soaring, radiant sound crowned a serene, Welsh-language reinvention of "Silent Night" (scored entirely for sopranos and mezzos) by Geraint Lewis.

Each group of modern pieces was preceded by a short organ work by Bach, dispatched with satisfying vigor and crystal-clear registration by Edward A. Moore.

-- Joe Banno


Dramatic soprano Alessandra Marc returned to the National Gallery of Art for the museum's free concert on Sunday evening. The inevitable holiday theme and occasional raggedness in Marc's voice led to a far less interesting concert than her last appearance there, in 2004. Marc seemed only partially involved in the performance -- even choosing to remain seated, perhaps because of fatigue or stress, while singing some pieces.

There were admirable moments, such as the shapely line Marc spun out for Schubert's "Ave Maria" and the soaring exaltation of "Höre, Israel" from Mendelssohn's "Elijah." For the most part, however, the programming and singing were unadventurous, from jejune selections from Handel's "Messiah" to Lawrence Schreiber's trashy harmonization of "Amazing Grace."

Happily, the concert opened with something more satisfying, a rare performance of Ernest Bloch's first concerto grosso, a flirtation with the neoclassicism in the air in the 1920s. Under guest conductor Dingwall Fleary, the National Gallery Chamber Orchestra smoothed out the jagged metrical accents in the first-movement prelude and wallowed in the post-romantic harmonies of the second-movement dirge. After two more long movements, it was clear Bloch had many good ideas, but, as in so much of his music, he did not know quite when to stop.

This pickup orchestra of freelance professionals played with impressive sensitivity and unity, focused especially around the resolute piano of Danielle DeSwert in the Bloch. The group faltered only in Corelli's Christmas Concerto, Op. 6, No. 8 -- played without a conductor, which led to some ensemble imprecision and misalignment, mainly due to rushing in the violin section.

-- Charles T. Downey

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