Alexandria Symphony at NVCC
John Corigliano took a significant risk in his song cycle "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan for Amplified Soprano and Orchestra," which had its local premiere Saturday evening at Northern Virginia Community College. It was not the first time a composer has written new music for songs that already had excellent tunes (many composers have done it for Shakespeare's songs, ignoring the fine work of Thomas Morley, Henry Purcell and others). But it would have been prudent to wait a century or two until the original music had faded from people's memories -- a luxury unavailable to Corigliano.
Corigliano ignores Dylan's music completely, except for one tiny cadence that may or may not be a quick allusion, and Dylan's often apocalyptic words lend themselves well to Corigliano's 21st-century treatment with lots of percussion, dissonances, frequent fortissimos and occasional bits of lovely melody, all handled with the composer's usual superb craftsmanship. But overtones of the original music lingered in some listeners' minds.
The growling bass worked well under "How many roads must a man walk down." Soprano Sharon Christman needed no amplification in the Schlesinger Concert Hall's bright acoustics (maybe Corigliano is hoping for stadium performances), and her high, ethereal "the answer is blowing in the wind" was exactly right for the words. But one couldn't help feeling that the text sometimes called for a voice like a rusty hinge accompanied by a (preferably unamplified) guitar.
The Corigliano cycle was the highlight of an all-American program, with Kim Allen Kluge expertly conducting the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, that included Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man," Barber's Adagio for Strings and Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom," powerfully sung by the National Men's Chorus. The choral diction was excellent, as was Christman's, but texts should have been printed in the ecstatic but uninformative program notes. So should a statement written by Corigliano that his cycle traces Dylan's artistic maturation, and precise information about the music and the composers.
-- Joseph McLellan
You can take the "chamber" out of an orchestra's name, but you can't always take it out of its sound. With players numbering just over 30, the National Philharmonic -- until recently called the National Chamber Orchestra -- took scores usually served up by much larger ensembles and gave them intimately scaled, notably transparent readings, at Rockville's F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre on Saturday.
In a clear demonstration that size isn't everything, conductor Piotr Gajewski lost little sensual languor in Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun," in spite of winds, brass and harp poking more brazenly through the haze of string sound than they would with a more populated string section. The musical architecture of Ives's "Three Places in New England" registered with uncommon clarity -- Ives's invention sounding all the more astonishing as a result -- but again, something was lost of the composer's deliberately ambiguous clouding of textures. The players were fully on top of the killer writing in the "Putnam's Camp" movement. But in the opening movement, a slight lack of tonal finish and ensemble precision rendered its teasing dissonances gray and queasy.
Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, though, was a model of classical poise and sensitive phrasing in Gajewski's hands. And Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" sparkled and danced, boasting tight coordination between the orchestra and violinist Chee-Yun. Yun played with flawless technique, buoyant and silvery tone, and supreme confidence. Thoroughly enchanting.
-- Joe Banno
One can disagree with Richard Wagner's belief that his operas were "the music of the future," but there is no doubt that this music was sung by some of the musicians of the future, Friday night at Northern Virginia Community College. In the friendly acoustics of the Schlesinger Concert Hall, a strong impression was made by four young singers: soprano Jennifer Wilson, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer, tenor Roy Stevens and baritone Matthew Leopold. The program was notable for its inclusion of extended scenes and relatively unfamiliar material.
Conductor Sylvia Alimena accomplished wonders with the Friday Morning Music Club Orchestra, not only in her sensitive accompaniment for the singers but in the Prelude to "Tristan und Isolde," which opened the program.
The program was the eighth in the Emerging Singers concert series presented by the Wagner Society of Washington and the husband-wife team of Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear, two of the finest Wagnerian singers of the 20th century. The singers, selected and prepared by Lear and Stewart, are already launched on substantial careers, and all sang with the security and polish of professionals.
Wilson made a strong impression as Elsa in the scene of Ortrud's Curse from "Lohengrin," which was dominated by Roderer, a superb Ortrud. The climax of the evening was Wilson's Brunnhilde, ably partnered by Stevens in the title role of the "Siegfried" scene. Stevens did the evening's most impressive acting as Tristan on his deathbed. Stevens did two scenes from "Tannhauser," including the "Evening Star" aria, perhaps Wagner's most beloved, which he sang with the proper warmth and awe.
The concert made a strong impression, but would have been even stronger if the Wagner Society's limited budget had permitted the use of surtitles or the printing of texts in the minimalist program.
-- Joseph McLellan