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Performing arts reviews

- Joe Banno


Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie

It takes a certain chutzpah for a regional orchestra in a nation that boasts at least a half-dozen world-class groups to call itself the "German Philharmonic" (Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie). But this worthy group, based in Ludwigshafen, is nearly 100 years old and raising the flag in its first U.S. tour. It appeared Saturday evening at George Mason University's Center for the Arts and is playing Monday night at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Oddly, it has not brought its music director or anyone else on its conducting staff; the concerts are led by the venerable conductor/pianist Philippe Entremont.

In a difficult but unadventurous program of Strauss, Mozart and Brahms, the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie gave the impression of a good, competent group that needs firmer discipline. The overall depth of its players was demonstrated, remarkably, by having the assistant principal winds play in Brahms's Fourth Symphony, while the principals played the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos - the exact reverse of what any American band would do. The strings played with energetic commitment to the last stand; no slackers were visible anywhere. But there was a general mushiness and muddiness throughout.

Entremont, once a preeminent pianist, has been a nearly full-time conductor for decades now but has not had the success of a Barenboim or Eschenbach. Between him and the orchestra, Strauss's orchestra minefield, "Till Eulenspiegel," came out blurred and unbalanced, though, as to the latter, George Mason's shallow, all-purpose hall is ill-suited to orchestra music. Entremont and a former pupil, Sebastian Knauer, navigated Mozart's amiable concerto together with affection and enjoyment, but it often sounded like typing.

- Robert Battey


Trio Bolero

The classical repertoire isn't exactly overflowing with music for two guitars and cello, which presented a problem for guitarist Miroslav Loncar back in the early 1990s. Wanting to play chamber music with his guitarist wife, Natasa Klasinc, and their friend Rebekah Stark Johnson, a cellist, Loncar began transcribing music far from the beaten guitar path. The result was both new music and a unique ensemble - known as Trio Bolero - and on Saturday night at Westmoreland Congregational Church, the group pushed the guitar repertoire into intriguing new realms.

Transcriptions can be controversial; some say they distort a composer's vision, others say they open windows into familiar works. Loncar's transcriptions should persuade the doubters. They were skillfully done and most successful when he combined long, sweeping lines in the cello with delicate accompaniment from the guitars. Johnson has a fine romantic imagination and a rich, singing tone on the cello, and she used both to great effect in Rachmaninoff's soaring "Vocalise" and the elegant "Pavane" by Gabriel Faure.

Not everything came off quite as well, alas. The Bolero played cautiously for much of the evening, and works that should have been electrifying - such as Luigi Boccherini's Spanish-flavored "Introduction and Fandango" - came off as merely pleasant. A little more brio would have brought Bela Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances to life, and the group's polite reading of a suite drawn from "Carmen" did little justice to Bizet's passion. But there was much to love - a two-guitar account of George Gershwin's Three Piano Preludes was just gorgeous - and the concert (part of the John E. Marlow Guitar Series) brought some refreshing new material to the familiar guitar fare.

- Stephen Brookes


National Chamber Ensemble

American composer Lowell Liebermann joined members of the National Chamber Ensemble for a concert in Rosslyn's Spectrum Theater on Saturday night. The program paired music by Liebermann with that of Beethoven, one of his primary influences.

Violinist Leo Sushansky, the group's artistic director, had a meaty sound in Beethoven's Romance in F, Op. 50, and Liebermann gave a booming rendition of the orchestral reduction on a restored 1865 Steinway piano, a loaned instrument more beautiful to the eyes than the ears. The other Beethoven work, the First Piano Trio, Op. 1, was similarly lessened by momentary technical slips, occasional sour intonation and some ensemble blockiness. The venue's dry acoustics didn't help, although the third movement had a delightful spring in its step and the fourth was abundant in jovial wit.

Liebermann is known for a neoclassicist embrace of traditional tonality and classical forms, a historically oriented style that either ignores a half-century of musical development or is the path forward from the dead end of atonal complexity, if you prefer to see things polemically. The less pleasing Piano Trio, Op. 32, alternated between stormy outbursts and a rather somber, contrapuntal turn, but Liebermann's fine Piano Quintet, Op. 34, does feature atonal elements within a tonal framework. Comparison could be made to Brahms in the quintet's dialogue of piano with string instruments, as well as a delight in the juxtaposition of duple and triple rhythms, and the sardonic bite of Shostakovich is heard in the savage second-movement dance in 5/16 time and ferociously brutal last movement (influences confirmed by the composer in a post-concert conversation). This music is ultimately not about polemic or complicated theories, but melody and harmony.

- Charles Downey


David Jolley

Friday night's concert at the Barns at Wolf Trap offered its audience a rare opportunity. Veteran hornist David Jolley, along with pianist Eduard Laurel, devoted the entire evening to music composed or arranged for his instrument. Jolley founded the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has soloed with a number of distinguished chamber music groups and orchestras. Several contemporary American composers, such as John Harbison and George Perle, have written works for him, though their music wasn't included in the program.

Jolley began with the Sonata for Althorn (1956) by Paul Hindemith, a patriarch of 20th-century composers. The piece had its moments: Hindemith's signature melodic style and bare open intervals, a frisky, teasing second movement and a concluding sparkling dialogue between the two instruments. Alec Wilder's Sonata No. 3 (1970) straddled the world of Bach (in skillful contrapuntal passages) and Louis Armstrong (in its ruminative jazzy syncopations). Jolley also programmed his own arrangements of Five Preludes, Op. 16 (1895), by Alexander Scriabin and Four Songs of Charles Ives. The Ives characteristically incorporated some fetching old American hymns.

All in all, Jolley highlighted the horn's legato beauty, but there's more to this instrument than sonic fluidity. Why not venture into more exciting repertoire? In fact, pianist Laurel really stole the show with his virtuoso accompaniments.

- Cecelia H. Porter

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