Washington Symphony Orchestra
The Washington Symphony Orchestra, a mix of professional and amateur players who performed at Constitution Hall on Saturday night, managed to shoehorn an entire musical program into an evening strong on ceremony, speeches and plaque-giving. It was an odd mix of VIPs (including Mayor Anthony Williams) and musicmaking on a decidedly exploratory and tentative level.
The WSO, not to be confused with the National Symphony Orchestra, lays claim to being the oldest orchestra in the city, and an ensemble that devotes itself very much to its namesake by being the city's populist orchestra. Schoolchildren may well have outnumbered their elders Saturday evening, and the audience was drawn from a different cross section of the city than the one that regularly turns out at the Kennedy Center.
The performance was billed as a "Salute to Singapore" and a celebration of "Excellence in Youth." Violin soloist Lee Hwee Min, a 16-year-old prodigy from that country, was the featured artist, in Henri Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 5.
Min has appealing tone and, despite a few small stumbles, an accomplished technical mastery. She played the meltingly beautiful but brief third movement with heartfelt commitment. She is not yet a strongly individual player, but her professional coolness in dealing with orchestral difficulties suggests a promising talent.
Conductor Julius P. Williams led the program, which included Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and "Prometheus" Overture. The Beethoven works were problematic.
The Bach Sinfonia melded baroque scholarship with acutely expressive musicianship in performances of vocal works by Bach and Handel Saturday evening at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.
Conductor Daniel Abraham avoided the ice-rink legatos, overripe vibratos, boxed phrasing and heaving ritardandos of a performance style now thoroughly out of fashion, and never fell into the traps of the newer period style--minute bulges in dynamics, whitened notes virtually without vibrato, quixotic tempo changes, cluttered decorations.
Bach's "Gottes Zeit Ist die Allerbeste Zeit" (God's Time Is the Best Time), BWV 106, emerged as a miracle of simplicity, an unstaged opera of the soul. The theme--the certainty of death, the need to prepare for its reckoning--was gentled and personalized through deeply felt singing from the soloists and chorus, and beautifully integrated playing from the period-instrument orchestra. The glories of the final fugue emanated from the intensity of the voices and airy contrapuntal clarity, rather than heightened volume or quickened pace. Another early Bach cantata ("Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," BWV 152) flourished for precisely the same interpretative reasons. Handel's "Dixit Dominus," HWV 232, is a virtuoso display piece that received uncommon precision and exuberant vitality from the performers, but Abraham slowed the tempos just enough to savor Handel's compositional inventions without compromising drama.
The many vocal and instrumental soloists all deserve high praise, but it must suffice to mention only their dead-center intonation and subtle, unforced coloration of the texts.
It would be hard to imagine a program more shopworn than the one that opened the Fairfax Symphony season at George Mason University over the weekend: Beethoven's Fifth and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Carl Maria von Weber's "Euryanthe" Overture thrown in for a bit of exotic flavor.
Given that kind of program, many a conductor would be tempted to indulge in a bit of deconstruction: to put his own stamp on the music, to try to improve on Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (or at least on his colleagues' view of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky) by tinkering with tempo, balances, accents or phrasing. Some conductors did more than this in the past, as the National Symphony Orchestra will demonstrate next year when it devotes its Beethoven Festival to Gustav Mahler's "improvements" on Beethoven's orchestration.
To his credit, music director William Hudson resisted such temptations Saturday night with straightforward interpretations that contained no surprises or disappointments. He stuck to traditional treatments and by doing so showed why these two pieces have won perennial places on most people's Top Ten lists.
The orchestra performed with its usual polish and very few technical lapses. There was some insecure horn intonation at the beginning of the Beethoven (in contrast to the woodwinds, which played subtly and with precision), but the horns made a strong comeback in the Beethoven finale and the Tchaikovsky.
James Tocco, piano soloist in the Tchaikovsky, upheld his strong international reputation with a performance that combined power and lyric grace--notable particularly for his limpid phrasing and pointed dialogue with the orchestra in the slow movement.
Pan American Symphony Orchestra
The Pan American Symphony Orchestra brought a lusty "Zarzuela Anthology" to the Lisner Auditorium stage Saturday. The evening mingled the kaleidoscopic hues of Spanish folk music with the more abstract symphonic visions of Iberia composed by Manuel de Falla.
These elements coalesced in a program centered on the zarzuela, a dramatic musical genre that by this century had fully established its homage to both popular Spanish idioms, operetta and opera. Artistic Director Sergio Alessandro Buslje led his volunteer orchestra in a series of works--several by de Falla--for orchestra alone and as accompaniment to sopranos Guadalupe Kreysa and Ana Castrello, tenor Jose Sacin and dancer Anna Menendez.
The soloists gave the most satisfying performances (though they would have been more effective if the audience had been provided with texts). Kreysa's voice has an earthy power modified nicely by a certain mellow quality. Castrello's is concentrated and energetic. Sacin shows a good grasp of the Spanish melodic embellishments that also echo their plaintive Moorish legacy, and Menendez's dancing was fluid and evocative, with the percussive force of her heels swirling in flamenco fury. It was too bad the orchestra was clearly not up to par, its effectiveness deteriorating as the event wore on.