Orquesta Sinfonica de Puerto Rico

Though one doesn't often hear classical music from Puerto Rico, the Orquesta Sinfonica de Puerto Rico's concert Sunday night at the Kennedy Center included a work by a homeland composer and French and Russian masterworks alongside opera arias and Spanish popular song.

Zarzuela, a Spanish version of light opera (think Gilbert and Sullivan) is a genre in which the ensemble excels, and singers Ana Maria Martinez and Cesar Hernandez seemed quite at home with three selections from this vast body of work. When performing in duets from operas by Felipe Gutierrez Espinosa and Charles Gounod, the two had a strong dramatic chemistry. Martinez's powerful soprano was well matched by Hernandez's robust tenor, though the latter reached out of his range at times and his flawed diction hindered his interpretation.

Castanets accentuated the Spanish flair of Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos." The orchestra embraced the irregular rhythms, which were punctuated by the surprising timbres of marimba and bass clarinet.

The evening got off to a weak start with a laid-back rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture. The opening was melodic and romantic when it should have been majestic, and much of the performance had a patina of sweetness about it when tart would have been more idiomatic.

Not until the finale did the ensemble uncover the emotional heart of the piece.

The orchestra didn't seem entirely comfortable with Maurice Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis and Chloe," either, though here conductor Guillermo Figueroa's romantic interpretation worked very well. Figueroa sailed the orchestra to an exhilarating conclusion.

-- Gail Wein

Air Force Chamber Orchestra

The Air Force Band unveiled its new Chamber Orchestra at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall on Sunday for the opening program of this year's extensive Chamber Players Series. Conducted by Col. Dennis M. Layendecker, commander and music director of the Air Force Band, this group of 43 instrumentalists is more of a mid-size orchestra (as orchestras go), with a big, confident sound and the promise, particularly in the first violin section, of outstanding ensemble.

Layendecker chose a program that demanded technical skill and considerable stylistic versatility of his forces: Rossini's overture to "L'Italiana in Algeri"; Beethoven's Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F, Op. 50; Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin"; and Mozart's "Linz" Symphony No. 36. The technical end of things was handled with consummate ease by this group of fine young instrumentalists, but there is work yet to be done on matters of style.

Among the pleasures promised by chamber orchestra performance is the opportunity to savor musical intimacy, subtlety and detail. But this orchestra's palate of dynamics, which ran the gamut from fairly loud to very loud and which offered little distinction between a "French" sound, an "Italian" sound and a "German" sound, did not offer a lot of subtlety or intimacy (the details were more promising). The Ravel needed to sound French, the Mozart needed a lighter touch and the Beethoven needed a sense of wonder. Concertmaster Mari Uehara, who played the Beethoven with a secure sense of musical shape and with admirable virtuosity, got sucked into the "bigger is better" mind-set and was never able to capture its sense of romance.

This is an ensemble that has exciting promise, however, and it will be good to watch it develop.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

It's highly doubtful Pierre Boulez's tough, disorienting Piano Sonata No. 1 will ever gain the kind of popular following that, say, Beethoven's sonatas enjoy. But Pierre-Laurent Aimard brought such rhetorical swagger and architectural coherence to the score at La Maison Francaise on Sunday evening, he made it sound like the atonal sonata Beethoven never wrote. Doing full justice to the Weberian concision of sparer moments and the Lisztian bravura in the more extroverted writing, Aimard avoided any hectoring or overstatement, and linked the piece coloristically with the music of Debussy and Messiaen -- both of whom shared the program with Boulez.

If Aimard made a thorny modern work like Boulez's Sonata feel like part of a grand tradition, he was equally adept at making a classic like Debussy's 12 Preludes, Book 1, sound fresh-minted. The pianist brought Debussy's challengingly forward-thinking writing to the fore, while losing nothing in languorous atmosphere or dry, Gallic wit. Aimard's technique is truly exceptional -- nuanced with a thousand half-lights and minute shifts of color, rich-toned even at the quietest dynamics, and phrased with an inevitability that makes it hard to imagine the music going any other way.

Ditto his work in Messiaen's early Eight Preludes, a work that anticipates the cascading brilliance, gnarled chord clusters and restless polytonality of the composer's later years. Aimard's mesmerizing advocacy made this work feel like the place where Debussy left off and Boulez picked up.

-- Joe Banno

Orquesta Sinfonica de Puerto Rico conductor Guillermo Figueroa.Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed at La Maison Francaise.