Choral Arts Society

In an eclectic celebration where the picture was more important than the performance, the Choral Arts Society of Washington hosted "I Still Believe," a multicultural tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. It was a chance for artists of different races to cross a cultural divide that so often exists in music. The predominantly white Choral Arts Society and the Children's Chorus of Washington departed from classical music to sample gospel and spirituals while the BET Urban Nation Hip-Hop Choir exchanged high-octane funk for spirituals performed a cappella.

But the well-intentioned event often felt like a musical town hall meeting where everybody wanted to be heard. There was too much passing of the microphone, too many marginal soloists and not enough reasons for the audience to stand and applaud. Then there was a group of modern dancers who kicked and twirled a lot, though their routine did not appear to be choreographed to the music.

Still, the tap-dancing of 10-year-old Cartier Anthony Williams deservedly brought the audience to its feet, as did the precise vocal textures in "Soon Ah Will Be Done" sung by the Choral Arts Society, led by Arphelius Paul Gatling. And with a little help from the Church of God in Christ combined choirs, the stage of singers found redemption when they performed a selection by Glenn Edward Burleigh titled "The Dreamer."

Burleigh, who has written other works for large choirs, made good use of all voices and a brass ensemble with an inspirational melody that reminded those gathered that King's dream didn't die on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968.

--Hamil R. Harris

Woodley Ensemble

It wasn't just the clear and fluid vocal lines that helped transform the Woodley Ensemble concert into an exquisite experience Saturday, but also the timbre and blend that guest conductor Gary Davison commanded from the choir. Washington is a buyer's market when it comes to choral ensembles, yet the Woodley Ensemble stands out as one of the more talented groups. The new-millennium celebration at St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill included Durufle's Four Motets on Gregorian Themes and Vaughan Williams's Mass in G Minor. All of the compositions were set in the style of Gregorian chant.

The most ethereal rendition came in the Durufle motets, in which a sonorous blend of voices elicited a plaintive yet sweet cacophony. Durufle is often linked with Faure as one of the more accomplished choral composers of early 20th-century France; because of this, timbre becomes a major element. And this is where the group's strengths were highlighted, as the composer's colorful harmonies were caressed with delicacy and refinement.

Although all of the compositions accented the Gregorian chant form, Davison preferred to bring out coloristic effects throughout the concert. His own composition "How shall I sing that majesty" emphasized the major-second interval--a prominent turn-of-the-century French element. Even the original medieval plainchant included hand bells in order to evoke a quasi-impressionistic effect. As long as one took Davison's interpretations on these terms, the evening's renditions emerged as sumptuous and engaging.

--Bob Waters

Weilerstein Trio

The Weilerstein Trio is a family affair. Originally a husband-wife duo (violinist Donald and pianist Vivian), it expanded to three with the addition of their 17-year-old cellist daughter, Alisa. On Saturday the ensemble brought composer Libby Larsen's "Three for the Road" to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, sandwiching it between Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio, Op. 70, No. 1, and Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio, Op. 90.

Larsen, born in 1950 in Wilmington, Del., stands at the forefront of the American musical scene with a prodigious number of works to her credit. A post-avant-gardist, she has explored the interaction between live performers and synthesized sound, the integration of electronic instruments with acoustic ensembles, the idioms of pop music, and multimedia effects.

The Weilersteins charged through Larsen's boogie-woogie-propelled textures, making the most of the work's abruptness, cacophony and showy accessibility. "Three for the Road," arranged from a piano quartet, belongs in the permanent chamber music repertoire.

Dvorak's "Dumky" is based on Slavic folk-ballad style, with sudden bipolar mood changes seesawing between ruminative melancholy--sweetened by folk idioms--and effervescent ebullience. The trio gave the piece a luminous vibrancy touched by whimsy.

In a quite different way, Beethoven's "Ghost" fluctuates from one emotion to another--but more violently as it dives from sonic outbursts to brooding intensity. The trio never quite came to grips with its problematic challenges and elusive cohesion. The performance wasn't helped by the overwrought theatrics of mother-daughter body English.

--Cecelia Porter

Edward Newman

Schubert wrote his B-flat Sonata, D. 960, when he was dying, and death permeates it, beginning with a portentous trill in the bass--a tremble of mortality--that stops Schubert's initial, bittersweet little melody in its tracks. Here, and throughout the piece, life and death entwine as aspects of a deeply personal testament.

A rendition that limns the musical ideas but slights their underlying drama misses the point. The more common interpretative trap, however, is tortured, Mahleresque exegesis that slows momentum and sullies the music's glistening purity.

In his recital Saturday night at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, pianist Edward Newman gave a lucidly intelligent, deeply committed performance of this work, a chiaroscuro of gentle darkness and dappled light that was technically satisfying and philosophically acute.

Schubert's exposed, skittering passage work flowed effortlessly; tempo transitions evolved naturally, without a sense of gear-shifting or intellectual maneuver; and the music was always moving, propelled forward unhurriedly but decisively. A memory slip in the last movement dissipated Newman's concentration momentarily.

Newman essayed the Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35, slowly and objectively, smoothing out Chopin's aggressive rhetoric and squaring the melodic lines rather too carefully. Like the Schubert, this is death-infected music, but its grand romantic contours were more suggested than realized. The irruptive, bone-chilling indifference of the last movement, marked presto by Chopin, rolled along with unruffled calm, its terror forfeited to legato symmetry.

A sweetly sung Chopin Ballade, Op. 47, opened the program.

--Ronald Broun