A new -- well, kind of new -- chamber orchestra hit Washington last night at the French Embassy. The Washington Pro Musica, conducted by Philip Momchilovich, is moving into a very competitive scene, with high standards, but its quality demands attention and respect.
According to a program note, the Washington Pro Musica has been in existence for 11 years and its members are professionals, a claim that is fully supported by the way they play. But it has only recently decided to become a professional ensemble rather than one that plays for love alone. It launched itself last night with a $50-per-ticket, black-tie gala that gave its audience full value, not only in the post-concert refreshments but also in the music.
The highlight of the evening was Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, one of the most beautiful works in the classical repertoire, with Gervase de Peyer (who has recently moved to Washington) as soloist. De Peyer, a native of England and founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, has made more than 50 recordings, including many that have won awards and a recording of the Mozart concerto that showed a generation of clarinetists how it should be done. Last night he played as one expects him to, with keen intelligence and the kind of technique that makes difficulties seem nonexistent, a rich, well-rounded and subtly varied tone and seamless legato phrasing.
Dynamic nuances were subtle, and the orchestra's pacing and balances (among sections and with the soloist) were exemplary, but what gave this music a special vitality was the clarinet, singing like a human voice but with a range, control, precision of pitch and richness of tone beyond the capacity of any human voice.
In Bizet's "Jeux d'Enfants" and Schubert's Symphony No. 5, the orchestra (a chamber group of about 30 members) performed with a sense of ensemble that sounded like a product of long association. The playing was bright and lively, perhaps a shade more impressive in fast movements than andantes and adagios, but good throughout. If any quality was in short supply, it was probably a sense of emotional immersion in the music. But the program, like much of the chamber orchestra repertoire, did not demand much of that.
This is the first time I have heard an orchestra in La Maison Francaise, the embassy's exquisite little theater, and the results were impressive. The acoustics are clear and bright with a modest touch of resonance, and orchestral colors stand out in fine relief. It sounds (by design or happy accident) like an auditorium particularly apt for the French style of orchestration. The Bizet numbers (slight but enjoyable) profited from it.