Cantate Chamber Singers

Gisele Becker led her Cantate Chamber Singers through Bach's empyrean masterpiece Mass in B Minor on Saturday in a version as transfixing as it was bold -- one riveting in its fresh, impassioned and personal vision of Bach's universality. St. John's Episcopal Church Norwood Parish in Chevy Chase provided a bouncy acoustical setting.

Becker approached the Mass with a sensitive grip on its essential humanity as much in small-scale melodic ideas (which Bach endlessly unfurls) as in her overall perception of this wondrous score. Anchored on solid metrical underpinnings, single phrases were clearly etched without losing Bach's irrepressible momentum.

Whole movements were enlarged bit by bit, pressed by turmoil beneath the surface; each erupted ultimately with unforgiving ardor, these volcanic eruptions borne on slowly unwrapped crescendos and exploding resonance. Becker's animated tempos worked well with a few scrambled exceptions.

Pauline Edmonds's glistening soprano had agile certainty; her duet with Roger Isaacs, an eloquent countertenor, was a winner. Mezzo Barbara Hollinshead sang with mellow warmth; William Clark's tenor had a vibrant fluidity; Steven Combs's baritone was sturdy in his middle and upper register, though his lowest didn't quite reach the listener. Orchestral solos and ensembles were as dazzling as they were impassioned.

-- Cecelia Porter

'Concert for Life'

For each of the last 14 years, Dupont Circle's Foundry United Methodist Church has offered a "Concert for Life" to benefit AIDS organizations. If the size and enthusiasm of the audience that packed the sanctuary Friday is any indication, this year's effort has extraordinary backing.

Friday's concert was a celebration of music about music -- some serious, some comic, and all performed with zest, skill and devotion. There were big choral pieces, the Handel "Utrecht Jubilate," a movement from the Rachmaninoff "Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom," a Saint Francis hymn written by Africans and sung in Swahili, and the Vaughan Williams "Serenade to Music," all sung powerfully by the 50-member Foundry Church Choir under the direction of Eileen Guenther.

There were art songs by Purcell and Schubert, well handled by members of the choir's talented solo quartet, and three pieces by Hans Leo Hassler, Grieg and Hoffman sung by the male quintet Viri Animarum and delivered with the precision and incisiveness that only an expert vocal chamber group can achieve. There was a gorgeous unaccompanied performance of the spiritual "Over My Head There's Music in the Air" by soprano Millicent Scarlett, who sang from the balcony. Ending the evening were four wonderful self-deprecating American songs, "I Hate Music" by Bernstein, "Vocal Modesty" by Thomas Pasatieri, Vincent Youmans's "Without a Song" and Victor Herbert's "Art Is Calling for Me."

Soloists Theresa Severin, Patricia Caya, Robert Baker and Darren Perry, all members of the choir, acquitted themselves admirably. The small orchestra sounded well rehearsed, and baritone Baker and the percussionists who joined in for the African piece added spice.

This may not have been the most coherent program imaginable, but it brought a powerful message of energy, concern and goodwill to a cause the church and its community are committed to.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Virginia Chamber Orchestra

Two highly gifted teenagers, Felix Mendelssohn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, provided most of the music Friday night for the Virginia Chamber Orchestra's free concert at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus.

But the evening's highlight was a seldom-heard work by the fortyish Claude Debussy, the "Sacred and Profane Dances," dating from 1903, which made the program span (just barely) three centuries.

The guest soloist in the Debussy work was Dotian Levalier, principal harpist of the National Symphony Orchestra and a virtuoso on her instrument. Closely coordinated with the orchestral strings, under Music Director Luis Haza, her harp laid a glittering patina on the underlying sound -- calm and Apollonian in the gently moving sacred dance, giddily swirling in the Dionysian profane dance that followed without a break. The music was designed to test and develop a harpist's skills and to show the instrument's potentials interacting with a string orchestra. Its purposes were well served in this performance.

The program opened with Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 7 in D Minor, one of the precocious works for string orchestra that he composed in his teens. After intermission, the strings were joined by pairs of oboes and horns for the 18-year-old Mozart's Symphony No. 29, his first fully mature symphony (written when the form itself was still maturing), full of bright colors and rhythmic energy and bubbling with fresh ideas. The performances were good throughout the evening, though another rehearsal or two could have made them even better.

-- Joseph McLellan

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra

Inspired by the "Caliphs and Kings" art exhibit at the Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, Alexandria Symphony Orchestra music director Kim Allen Kluge put together a flavorful Spanish-themed program for the 61st season-opening concert Saturday.

The evening began with a demonstration of flamenco dancing. Anna Menendez and Edwin Aparicio stomped, twirled and clapped through a rhythmic routine, setting the Schlesinger Concert Hall stage for the music to come.

Receiving its East Coast premiere, Loris Chobanian's Concierto del Fuego featured flamenco guitarist Marija Temo. Fiery and dramatic, she performed as though she owned the piece. (Indeed, she has claim to it: Chobanian, a Baldwin-Wallace College professor, wrote the concerto in 2000 for Temo, his former student.) The guitarist played in poetic stanzas; one minute her fingers would strum with the velocity of a bullet train and another minute they would linger through heartfelt melodies. With percussion instruments simulating the stomping and clapping of flamenco dancers, the ASO functioned as a large guitar, duetting with the soloist.

The orchestra's evocative playing carried over into Manuel de Falla's ballet "El Amor Brujo." Joined by the dancers and a singing Temo, the orchestra gave a seductive and sultry performance. Temo's voice, with its distinctive peppery tone, had a rustic appeal. But perhaps more satisfying was the foot-stomping choreography.

-- Grace Jean

The Cantate Chamber Singers performed Bach's B Minor Mass on Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase.The Foundry Church Choir, left, and soloist Theresa Severin were featured on Friday in the Foundry Methodist Church's annual Concert for Life.Luis Haza is music director of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra.Kim Allen Kluge directed the Alexandria Symphony in a Spanish-themed program.