National Chamber Orchestra

The National Chamber Orchestra's performance Saturday under Music Director Piotr Gajewski at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville was a pleasure throughout. Beethoven's First Symphony breezed by with muscular grace, Rossini's Overture to "L'Italiana in Algeri" swaggered infectiously, and the pitch discolorations that troubled the orchestra in past years had all but disappeared.

Steven Gerber's subtle, closely argued Cello Concerto (1994) proceeds modestly from flowing lyricism to a last-movement passacaglia, or constantly repeated phrase, that reprises the opening theme of nine notes and binds the composition from back to front. A form this strict and uncompromising usually chews up the content and makes for a dry austerity, but the effect was instead sensually attractive. Cellist Rachel Young played with an open musicality and finely wrought tone and the orchestra provided tight accompaniment.

Tchaikovsky wrote his Variations on a Rococo Theme as a showcase for the cello's unique vocal qualities, but the variations noodle on without building organically; this piece too often crosses the line between sentiment and sentimentality. Young minimized the work's potted-palm blandness with aristocratic phrasing and a warm, unexaggerated tonal spectrum.

--Ronald Broun

Buju Banton, Beres Hammond

It's not unusual for reggae stars Buju Banton and Beres Hammond to perform on the same bill. But they don't always appear at the same time, so when headliner Banton invited Hammond to join him onstage at the D.C. Armory on Saturday night, the audience responded with ecstatic cheering.

As special concert moments go, it was pretty special: Banton, the growling dance-hall deejay, and Hammond, the soulful singer, revisited several of their early-'90s hit collaborations. To the further delight of the audience, they briefly swapped roles: First Banton tried his hand at Hammond's loverman-style singing, then Hammond briefly turned out a few dance-hall-style sandpaper chants.

A decade after he first exploded on the Jamaican music scene, Banton has become reggae's greatest living artist. For most of his set, he concentrated on the "conscious" material he's recorded since his mid-'90s conversion from unrepentant bad boy to religious visionary. The prayerful "Untold Stories" and "Destiny" were masterful examples of how contemporary reggae can expand on Bob Marley's themes of struggle and redemption without resorting to covers of "One Love." Banton's performance of "Hills and Valleys" was particularly compelling, as he repeated the same verse again and again, until the words became an indelible kind of mantra.

For those who have closely followed his career, Banton's transformation to mature, thoughtful adult was not unexpected: Both "How Massa God World a Run" and "Murderer"--the latter recorded after the assassination of two dance-hall stars--marked the early stirrings of his social consciousness.

Still, Banton hasn't completely given up defiance: Near the end of his set, he offered snippets from many of his early hits--"Batty Rider," "Dickie" and even the notoriously homophobic "Boom Bye Bye."

--Alona Wartofsky