Chamber Music Society

The Smithsonian Hall of Musical Instruments has been renovated and the sound has improved. Of course, you don't necessarily need to restore a hall to make a host of Amati string instruments resonate, but you do need exemplary string players. The Smithsonian Chamber Music Society provided musicians worthy of the instruments Saturday, as the Axelrod String Quartet delivered Janacek's String Quartet No. 1 and were joined by an additional cellist for Schubert's Quintet in C, D. 956.

Janacek's music is among the most underrated and yet significant of the early 20th century. This Czech composer was one of the first Eastern Europeans to succeed in renouncing many of the stylistic elements inherent in the Western European tradition. His first string quartet is based on Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata," and the music includes plaintive yet bitterly intense emotions reminiscent of the Russian novelist's work. This is accomplished through a lyricism that is often juxtaposed with a series of galloping rhythms. Unfortunately, the interplay between the string players here was untidy and rhythmically erratic.

But in Schubert's colossal quintet the group became a tightly knit ensemble and got down to business. They played with more technical agility and provided an imposing sweep and buildup. This was most noticeable in the scherzo as well as the abrupt modulations of the finale--a section that alone earns Schubert the designation of being one of the first true romantics.

Although all of the musicians were accomplished, special mention must go to first violinist Mayumi Seiler for a particularly vigorous and mellifluous performance.

--Bob Waters

Cornell Meets Camerata

It was Cornell night at St. Columba's Church Saturday.

The Cornell University Glee Club turned standard college chorus fare into an evening filled with robust sound bolstered by a high energy level. And the Washington Men's Camerata, founded 16 years ago largely by Cornell graduates, hosted the concert and joined in the program. The audience was filled with enthusiastic alumni, who quickly joined in some alma mater sentimentality on "Hail, All Hail, Cornell!"

Glee club conductor Scott Tucker has forged an ensemble of a cappella singers fully in touch with one another. Their set of Renaissance and baroque sacred pieces, followed by a Poulenc snippet and an anonymous English part song, combined a keen sense of phrasing and clean articulation of the text, though at times intonation faltered and the lowest notes of the young basses tended toward the problematic. The glee club reached its most buoyant level with a group of African songs, one a plea, two others recounting the feelings of lost souls. The use of African dialects and the singers' percussive stamping made for some spirited moments, but two well-known spirituals lacked the pliancy of the improvisatory style embedded in this vocal genre.

The Hangovers, the glee club's chamber group, entertained listeners with some soulful contemporary pop.

Frank Albinder led the Washington Men's Camerata in two endless works he unearthed by Franz Ribel that should be reburied.

--Cecelia Porter