Arlington Symphony Orchestra

The Arlington County Board proclaimed Saturday "Arlington Symphony Orchestra Day" in honor of the first concert of the orchestra's 60th season. Pianist Awadagin Pratt celebrated by joining with the ASO and its music director, Ruben Vartanyan, at Schlesinger Hall for a truly simpatico performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor.

After the opening timpani roll, Pratt's entrance thundered in the best high-romantic manner, and his piano dominated the action when the occasion demanded it. However, what really distinguished this performance was the model partnership between soloist and orchestra. Dynamics were handled with great care; when an orchestral player soloed over pianistic filigree, Pratt provided sensitive support without upstaging the melody. As he and the orchestra traded heart-wrenching passages at the beginning of the slow movement, the seamless transitions heightened the sublimated mood. Pratt also took great care with small things, like using subtle rubato to freshen familiar themes but dropping it at times for the sake of momentum. If the Grieg has become a warhorse, Pratt, Vartanyan and the ASO showed that it can still provide a thrilling ride.

A rousing Brahms "Academic Festival" Overture opened the concert, and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony closed it. The Rachmaninoff is always in danger of sinking under the weight of its own brooding harmonies, and Vartanyan's implacably even tempos didn't help, nor did imprecise articulation that made some fast string passages sound soupy. But the ASO did deliver what most people really want from this symphony: a super-lush account of the famous slow movement, with principal clarinet Jeff Snavely eloquent in his big solo.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

William Hudson, longtime conductor and music director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, keeps his finger on the pulse of his audience, and the payback was the almost full house that greeted his orchestra's season opener at the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday. He brought in a world-class soloist, Jaime Laredo, for the ever-popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and assured concertgoers that the Shostakovich that ended the evening would not jar them with harsh dissonances (encouraging them to boo if they felt in some way "jarred," in the grand tradition of offended Italian audiences).

That the Shostakovich "Suite for Variety Orchestra" was, in fact, applauded and not booed is, I devoutly hope, evidence of appreciation for the quality of the performance and not for the quality of the music -- for if ever there were a piece that deserves its obscurity, this is it. It is eight movements of heavy, Soviet-inspired waltzes, polkas and other dances mostly characterized by oom-pah-pahs. One or two of these movements could have been fun (none were short) but eight in a row was a stretch. The orchestra tootled and huffed through it all sounding just like the circus band that Shostakovich must have had in mind and, I suspect, gave the music far more than its due.

Laredo and Hudson collaborated on a sweet and gentle reading of the Mendelssohn. At this point in his career, Laredo has nothing to prove and he made no attempt to project over the orchestra, insisting instead that the orchestra keep themselves in check, which it did beautifully. For the most part, except for the violin-woodwind duet in the last movement, the ensemble was splendid and Laredo's performance was nimble and weightless.

The concert opened with a performance of the Brahms "Academic Festival" Overture that seemed more devout than triumphant but did serve to show off the strengths, exceptional balance and skills of this unusually fine community orchestra.

-- Joan Reinthaler

'The Songs

Of Charlie Chaplin'

On paper, the program Friday night in Catholic University's Ward Recital Hall looked intriguing. It was titled "The Songs of Charlie Chaplin," and it drew a substantial audience, evidently made up mostly of those who admire the legendary comedian's work in silent film.

Chaplin (known as Sir Charles in England) has had a modest reputation as a songwriter, but his songs are never heard, with one striking exception: the haunting theme from his movie "Limelight."

So the opportunity to hear such numbers as "Smile," "Now That It's Ended" and "Without You" in a free concert was irresistible.

The performers, lyric tenor Michael Snyder and pianist Barbara Wilkinson, both have substantial reputations -- he in opera, oratorio and recital, she as a teacher, accompanist and soloist. Both fell easily into the appropriate style for the Chaplin songs, and if the performance can be criticized for anything, it would be for never facing the musicians with a significant challenge.

And therein lies the problem. Chaplin's songs are technically assured, adhering to well-established formulas and imbued with familiar sentiments: "Smile, though your heart is breaking," "You are the song," "I'll be loving you, eternally." They were enjoyed by the audience and warmly applauded. But they never made a statement, verbal, melodic or harmonic, that truly touched the soul or lingered in the memory as so much of his film work does.

The theme from "Limelight" was by far the best music on the program. It made two appearances, in a slightly elaborated piano solo by Wilkinson titled "The Terry Theme," and a song titled "Eternally." It made the evening worthwhile.

-- Joseph McLellan

Fairfax Symphony conductor William Hudson, whose orchestra drew a large crowd to George Mason University on Saturday. Michael Snyder performed songs by Charlie Chaplin at Catholic University.