Suspicious Cheese Lords
The first order of business when reviewing a concert by the Suspicious Cheese Lords is to explain their curious name. They are an a cappella male chorus specializing in medieval and renaissance music, and their name is based on a witty mistranslation of the name of a motet by Thomas Tallis, "Suscipe quaeso, Domine" ("Accept, Lord, I ask"). "Suscipe" morphs into "Suspicious," "quaeso" is close to the Spanish word for "cheese" and "Domine" is Latin for "Lord." The 14 members of the Suspicious Cheese Lords are resident artists at the Franciscan monastery in Northeast Washington, where they gave a concert of English sacred music titled "From Bede to Byrd" on Sunday afternoon. The repertoire included several top-40 items in this specialized category, notably Tallis's magnificent, superbly polyphonic "Lamentations of Jeremiah" and William Byrd's simpler, elegant little "Mass for Three Voices."
The medieval segment of the program included a plainsong, "Te Deum," that was exactly suited to the monastery's resonant acoustics in the group's beautifully styled performance, and a fascinating Middle English adaptation of the "Stabat Mater." Singing with precise ensemble in Latin and in English, the Lords showed exemplary understanding of the words and a fine awareness of their proper pronunciation.
The acoustics enlivened further the sprightly dance rhythms of "Angelus ad virginem" and were ideal for John Dunstable's "Ave Maris Stella" and Robert Parsons's "Ave Maria."
-- Joseph McLellan
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
Lag time at concerts doesn't go over well with young audiences. Luckily, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra's "Harry Potter" concert on Sunday afternoon, part of a Children's Arts Festival, was fast-paced both in the medley played from the film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and in its accompanying videography. Hundreds of drawings and paintings by Alexandria and Fairfax County public school students were projected onto a screen behind the orchestra in an ever-moving phantasmagoria created by Brad Avery. The orchestra jammed the stage as much as children and parents did the audience space at Alexandria's Schlesinger Concert Hall.
Like the concertmaster, principal cellist and superb 14-year old-narrator, Marshall Swing, conductor Kim Allen Kluge sported attire inspired by J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel. Kluge wielded his "magical wand" (baton) over enthusiastic players in fine musicmaking, ending the concert with a fitting call for his young listeners to "be creative" this summer.
John Williams's arrangement, packaged from his movie score, underpins a rite-of-passage story but musically is a predictable, unadventurous rewrite of his film scores for "E.T." and the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" series -- with obvious homage to the outworn didacticism of Dukas's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1897), Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" (1936) and Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (1946).
-- Cecelia Porter
National Gallery Orchestra
The atrium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building fascinates the eye and inspires the mind, but its resonant marble and open spaces mean it can't bring the sounds of an orchestra to your ears without a lot of echoing. Unfortunately, for the 2,500th concert at the National Gallery (which also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the East Building), the National Gallery Orchestra under Jorge Mester played in the atrium.
Even on the relatively closed-in second level, the orchestra had to be amplified, which meant that brass and winds dominated the texture and massed strings sounded wiry; the amplified sound still diffused uncontrollably more than a few rows back from the stage.
The acoustic problems obscured some intriguing performances. The subtle astringencies of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite sounded pale next to the artificial roughness coming from the speakers. Silvestre Revueltas's "Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca" boasts more overt astringencies, which Mester vigorously explored, while the slow, sad melodies of the solo trumpet achieved great dignity. Ravel's "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte" sounded a bit less sweet than usual, but the tenderness of the interpretation and playing came across. Alberto Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes riffed on a somber theme using bright blocks of orchestral color that worked well both acoustically and musically, with each section of the talented pickup orchestra given a chance to sound off.
A free orchestral concert, as this one was, is an enterprise not to be discouraged, but one wished that the audience could have heard the orchestra in a venue worthy of its artistry.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone