'H.M.S. Pinafore'

W.S. Gilbert, who could be his own severest critic, referred to the current attraction at Rockville's F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre as "that infernal nonsense 'Pinafore.' " He was, of course, not expressing his own opinion but putting the words in the mouth of the Modern Major General in "Pirates of Penzance."

The description is at best dubious. As performed by the Victorian Lyric Opera, "H.M.S. Pinafore," the first smash hit produced by Gilbert and Sullivan, is slightly naughty but by no means infernal. And the current production, with repeat performances next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, might benefit from a bit more nonsense.

"Pinafore's" satire on British class structure, bureaucracy and snobbery still scores on multiple targets, and the tunes are as fresh as they were on opening night in 1878. In this production, the women's voices are better than the men's, with particularly fine singing by Alicia Oliver as Josephine, the captain's daughter.

Elaine Dalbo is also excellent as Little Buttercup, and Deborah Peetz is believable as the ubiquitous Cousin Hebe. As Captain Corcoran, John Perine acted well and sang with verbal clarity but suffered intermittent problems with tone and support.

David Williams is properly pompous and vocally imposing as Sir Joseph Porter, Jonathan Schultz is a stalwart Ralph Rackstraw and Michael Galizia a rough-hewn Dick Deadeye. The chorus sings splendidly but seems tentative in its stage movements. Joseph Sorge conducts stylishly an orchestra that could use more strings.

-- Joseph McLellan

National Orchestral Institute

Every summer since 1988, the National Orchestral Institute has gathered young musicians on the cusp of professional careers. They train intensively for three weeks at the University of Maryland School of Music in what's been called "orchestral boot camp." Each week the students, with help from professionals, prepare a concert with a different resident conductor. Michael Stern closed out the first week Saturday evening at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, conducting three complex pieces with some success.

Anton Webern's youthful "Im Sommerwind" is a lushly upholstered paean to nature. The music owes a debt to Richard Strauss but reveals Webern's own precise brush strokes of instrumental coloring. The NOI performance was tentative at times, with bold colors muted and dynamic contrasts compressed, a little like gazing at a van Gogh through smudged glass.

Leos Janacek's dramatic "Taras Bulba" depicts the tragic life story of the Ukrainian Cossack. The piece often makes an about-face between rough-hewn prickliness and tender passion. There were soulful English horn phrases and a feisty moment for solo clarinet, but Janacek's yearning and sorrow were missing.

From the opening measures of Richard Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"), however, we heard a different orchestra, or so it seemed by the newfound confidence and energized playing.

Strauss's autobiographical tale presents a youthful hero battling his enemies, finding his soul mate and retreating in triumph. A bloated showpiece for overstuffed orchestra, "Heldenleben" can topple under its own weight. But the NOI players made the music fresh, rarely sounding like a student ensemble, especially the principal violinist, who shed prior signs of timidity to portray the character of Strauss's wife with a perfect flair for frivolity, nagging and tenderness.

-- Tom Huizenga

Washington Early Music Festival

Billing any event as a "first annual" bespeaks optimism, and it was such hope for the future that most characterized Friday's installment in the first annual Washington Early Music Festival, which began June 6 and spans three weekends.

Friday's event, a concert and introduction to early instruments, was held at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Bethesda. It was one of three festival activities held over the weekend, including a youth workshop on Saturday afternoon and another concert that evening.

Five of the festival's early music experts collaborated on Friday's presentations: Cheryl Stafford, who is primarily a dancer but who sang for this event; John Tyson, a splendid recorder player; Michael Holmes, a master of the crumhorn, recorder and sackbutt (and also director of the Washington Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble, which will perform next weekend); lutenist Betsy Small; and harpsichordist/organist Vera Kochanowsky (who also conducts Carmina, a chamber chorus that is also scheduled at next weekend's concerts).

All of them demonstrated their instruments and those instruments' siblings and cousins. As might be expected, most of the music was Renaissance fare, but some was contemporary, including a fanfare for recorder by Bob Margolis that Tyson played with considerable flair.

That only a handful of people were in the audience might dampen anyone's optimism. But a glance through the program sends another message. Over the last six years, a new generation of early music ensembles has sprouted in this area. There are vocal groups (Chantry, the Suspicious Cheese Lords and Carmina) and instrumental groups (Modern Musick, Ensemble Gaudior, Washington Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble and Armonia Nova), all of which will perform in this festival, which bodes well for a "second annual."

-- Joan Reinthaler

David Williams, Alicia Oliver and John Perine in the Victorian Lyric Opera's "H.M.S. Pinafore."