Master Chorale of Washington

The Master Chorale of Washington (formerly the Paul Hill Chorale) dug deeply into American choral history for a tribute to its late founder, Paul Hill, yesterday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program, titled "Melodious Accord," was devoted to hymns in the shape-note tradition, which originated in the American Colonies in the 18th century and is still strong today. Shape-note hymnals, designed for ordinary voices with no musical training, used notes of various shapes (diamond, triangle, circle, etc.) to indicate the various notes of the scale. The hymns' rhythms and harmonies were strong and simple, and singing them together helped form cohesive communities.

Paul Hill loved this music, and it was a fitting tribute to him, as were other mementos. Alumni of his chorale joined the current members onstage for the program's final hymn of benediction dedicated to his memory, and singers from other choruses occupied, and sang from, seats around the periphery of the Concert Hall, recalling not only the "hollow square" in which shape-note music was often sung but also the "surround sound" effect that was a striking feature of Hill's candle-lit Christmas concerts. Finally, there was audience participation, recalling the "Messiah" sing-alongs that Hill introduced to the Kennedy Center.

There were essentially three levels of singing: the chorale proper, which was superb; the alumni and other choristers, who produced mighty cascades of well-shaped sound; and the audience, which had the kind of voices the music was meant for.

Sometimes we ticket-holders seemed to be applauding ourselves, and perhaps we deserved it--particularly after we sang "Amazing Grace" under the direction of conductor-arranger Alice Parker, who led the first half of the program. She divided the audience into four segments and had them sing "Amazing Grace" as a round, with a new section added for each of its four verses, until we were singing a four-part canon and loving it. Parker, a longtime associate of the late Robert Shaw, dedicated part of the program, including some of his arrangements, to his memory.

After intermission, the chorale's music director, Donald McCullough, conducted Parker's "Melodious Accord" suite, which harmonizes shape-note hymns with harp, brass ensemble and four vocal soloists (soprano Angela Powell, mezzo-soprano Grace Gori, tenor Charles Reid and baritone Steven Combs). Parker enriched the material with carefully considered variations of tone color, contrasts of mood and performing personnel without spoiling its essential simplicity.

--Joseph McLellan

Pianist Maxim Philippov

In his program Saturday afternoon at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Russian pianist Maxim Philippov included seven Mendelssohn "Songs Without Words," the Grieg "Holberg" Suite and Czerny's Variations on a Viennese Waltz--pieces that once had cachet on concert stages but have long since faded into yesteryear's lofts and corners.

Both the Mendelssohn "Songs" and the antique charm of the Grieg Suite test a pianist's most fundamental equipment, the ability to float a melody lyrically and naturally above the decorative filigree surrounding it, and to keep the resulting musical line uncluttered and always singing. Philippov's tone was meltingly simple and straightforward, and climaxes came and went without hardening or coarseness. This was patrician playing, though the volume remained mostly mezzo-forte (moderately loud) and above. The flamboyant Czerny variations surged dramatically within a romantically elastic metrical framework.

Philippov sharpened the edges of Rachmaninoff's "Moments Musicaux," Op. 16--six varied works ranging emotionally from bleak melancholy to large-scale romantic heroics--with a lean sonority and the technical equipment to keep the composer's whirlwind figurations and massive harmonic weights under firm control.

This is a young pianist of considerable musical gifts and undeniable keyboard command. He is never tentative, but at the highest level his virtually note-perfect interpretations might benefit from more spontaneity, risk-taking and temperament, and he has not yet found the wealth of expressive colors at the softer end of the dynamic curve.

--Ronald Broun

Vilnius String Quartet

While it's not necessary or perhaps even desirable for the members of a chamber ensemble to submerge their individual personalities into some sort of corporate personality, it was a little disconcerting to hear the Vilnius String Quartet's players cling so tenaciously to their very different tone qualities in a concert Friday at the Meridian International Center.

Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet was well served by the juxtaposition of a heavy (and in this case, coarse) cello base, a steely violin on top and a pair of mellow inner voices. These are five peasant dance movements with decidedly ethnic coloration, and they need all the character an ensemble can bestow.

But Mozart's last quartet, K. 590 in F, needed far more attention to balance and sonority. This is a cheerful piece for a finale to the genre and, although it moved with agility and rhythmic poise, it seemed busy rather than graceful and, in the Allegretto, somewhat unsettled.

The most satisfying performance came in a well-planned and carefully executed reading of the Shostakovitch Quartet No. 1. The first two movements unfolded deliberately and led to bright and humorous accounts of the two final movements, but even here the contrast between the opulence of the cello, the darkness of the viola and the biting brightness of the first violin seemed jarring.

The concert opened with a quartet by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, a rather long piece with pretty melodies but without much in the way of ideas.

--Joan Reinthaler

Guitarist Raphaella Smits

Classical guitarists typically borrow from the repertoires of other instruments, but Raphaella Smits's program Friday night at the Woman's Club of Chevy Chase featured composers who wrote directly and idiomatically for her instrument. Actually, the Belgian guitarist used two instruments, a fine modern guitar and a second, made in 1899 by Vicente Arias, whose argent, ethereal treble moved downward through beautifully voiced complexions to a bass range of such warmth and lucidity that its sound alone was transfixing.

The rich atmospherics and pensive melodies of Fernando Sor's "Fantaisie Elegiaque," Op. 58, and his Theme and Variations on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 9, were quietly impressive. Smits's clean, expressive technique calls no attention to itself, but her purling legato and natural phrasing made this essentially decorative music sing out. Joaquin Turina's Sonata, Op. 61, and three pieces by Antonio Jimenez Manjon were similarly attractive and sensitively played, though the tempos and ambiance remained outwardly similar.

Five Villa-Lobos preludes and touching encores written by Ariel Ramirez and Rasquido Doble enlivened the latter part of the program, but by then the Andalusian skies had begun to fog and one was left wanting more contrast, more linearity, more assertion and less loveliness. But this subjective and accumulated perception stands aside from Smits's flowing artistry at any given moment in the recital.

--Ronald Broun

Eclipse Chamber Orchestra

One of the hardest things to achieve in music is a deliberate tempo that feels sprightly. Conductors Hermann Scherchen and Robert Shaw were masters of this, and the sense of inevitable motion they achieved was heavenly. Sylvia Alimena, who conducts the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, seemed to be aiming in this direction yesterday in the orchestra's concert at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, and if she was able to pull it off only in the concluding Haydn symphony, it was worth the try.

The composer's Symphony No. 63 is a treasure. Rarely played, it is a compendium of the pleasures that make Haydn's music such fun: folk tunes, unexpected harmonies, lighthearted prestos and a general feeling of optimism. Alimena's tempos (until the finale) were slow but the orchestra's response was alert and on the front edge of the beat. The textures were transparent and everything seemed balanced but unpremeditated.

Carole Bean was an outstanding soloist in the Mozart D Major Flute Concerto, K. 314. She, too, managed to move the music with dynamic grace and irresistible momentum while never rushing the beat, and she played with a wonderful sense of line. The orchestral accompaniment, however, often sounded bogged down.

The program opened with Britten's charming "Simple Symphony" for String Orchestra, and it was here that Eclipse's tendency to play just after the beat defeated Alimena's efforts. In the slow tempos she chose, the music sounded labored rather than light; only in the slow "Sentimental Sarabande," where the upper strings managed a gorgeous sonority, did the ensemble sound comfortable.

--Joan Reinthaler