Virginia Opera

The Virginia Opera came to George Mason University on Friday with the best production of Puccini's final opera, "Turandot," that I have ever attended, a "Turandot" that any American opera company would be proud to call its own. Its excellence was pervasive, from the leading roles to the humblest supernumeraries, the chorus and orchestra, the stage direction, lighting, costumes and set design.

It is one of opera's toughest challenges to create the illusion of an ancient, mythical China where love and death are closely linked, and where the beauiful princess Turandot's icy heart is melted by the example of the slave girl Liu, who dies for love. The Virginia Opera took up the task and triumphed.

The first challenge is the title role; ideally, the singer should have the voice of a Brunnhilde and the looks of a princess whom men would be willing to die for. Mary Ellen Schauber filled this requirement, with a statuesque stage presence that called Katharine Hepburn to mind.

Opposite her, as the triumphant Prince Calaf, tenor Michael Hayes sang with tonal opulence and emotional intensity in his show-stopping "Nessun dorma." Wei Huang nearly stole the show in the role of Liu, as she is supposed to do. Supporting roles were capably filled by Sun Yu (Timur) and by Markus Beam, Tracy Wise and Dean Anthony (Ping, Pang and Pong).

"Turandot" departs radically from Puccini's previous practices in choral and orchestral writing, and the Virginia ensembles rose impressively to his challenges. The chorus, representing the long-suffering people of China, is a major participant in the action. The Virginia Opera Chorus contributed impressively not only to the production's musical impact but to its Chinese fairy-tale atmosphere. For the latter quality, great credit goes to stage director Lillian Groag, who contributed a host of small, telling details, including some borrowed from the traditional Peking Opera.

Peter Mark's conducting brought out the music's exotic color, rhythmic vitality and overall formal cohesion.

-- Joseph McLellan

Takacs Quartet

The Takacs Quartet -- justly famous for its interpretations of Bartok's string quartets -- brought the Hungarian composer's Quartet No. 3 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Friday. The quartet played this 17-minute, single-movement tangle of raw nerve endings with all the requisite mystery and tension, but also with admirable clarity and structural sense. Most important, this ensemble knows how to evoke the rough-hewn folk color of Bartok's scores without sacrificing the burnished beauty of their tone.

That beauty was sumptuously indulged in Borodin's gorgeous String Quartet No. 2 -- not as mere virtuosic display, but as part of an affectionate treatment of the work's lyrical writing. What proved so involving in the Takacs's performance was the way the musicians' phrasing seemed to breathe with the natural rise and fall of singing, turning a piece that can sometimes sound surfacey and overly sweet into a seemingly authentic expression of the heart.

But the truly outstanding performance of the evening was of Beethoven's late masterpiece, the C-sharp Minor String Quartet, Op. 131. Again, the quality of beautifully poised singing -- not to mention perfect chordal balancing -- informed the opening Adagio. But this is to single out one movement in a performance of consistent insight and the most natural narrative flow. The Takacs's way with Beethoven marries richness of tone, crystalline logic and a scrupulously calibrated approach to the score that's phrased to sound like urgent and spontaneous conversation.

-- Joe Banno

21st Century Consort

The 21st Century Consort performed works by Western composers transforming Chinese materials at the Hirshhorn Museum on Saturday, inspiring the concert's title: "Slow Boat to the Universe." But the consort itself also transformed for this concert, performing with the up-to-date name for the first time after a distinguished career as the 20th Century Consort, and turning personnel problems into opportunities for intriguing music-making.

A last-minute illness led the consort to substitute a clarinet for the soprano in Lawrence Moss's "Another Dawn," which sets poems from the Tao te Ching; Paul Cigan's clarinet tended to blend with the rest of the ensemble, which emphasized Moss's vivid tone-painting. James Fry's arrangements of Chinese folk songs for oboe and piano acted as effective delivery vehicles for lovely melodies, especially with Mark Hill's rhapsodic solo playing.

The highlight of the concert, though, was Gustav Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," six settings of Chinese texts written for a very full orchestra; the 21st Century Consort, a chamber ensemble, played an arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Rather than ape Mahler's orchestra, Schoenberg created his own somewhat eccentric sound-world, but guest conductor Kenneth Slowik ably shaped the contributions of these talented musicians to make the result utterly convincing.

Tenor Randal Rushing, another late replacement, sang with a firm, golden tone, great sensitivity and impressive assurance for a man who had only had one rehearsal with the consort. Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler's meltingly rich voice and evident feeling for Mahler showed themselves to particular advantage in the transcendent final song, "Abschied" ("Farewell"), when the cosmic implications of "Slow Boat to the Universe" became clear.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Gewandhaus Orchestra

On Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, pianist Mikhail Pletnev reminded listeners what an introspective and understated work Brahms's First Piano Concerto is. This prodigiously talented Russian took his time with the piece, phrasing in a simple, quietly eloquent way that enabled melodies to find their natural arcs and inner voices to emerge subtly from the textures around them. His rounded and unforced playing was leagues away from the barnstorming approach -- but then, despite the churning energy of its opening and closing pages, this concerto is no barnstormer.

How apt it was to partner Pletnev with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Blomstedt drew wonderfully hushed playing from his orchestra -- particularly in the prayerful slow movement -- supporting the soloist with a silken cushion of string sound, and coaxing expressive work from the piquant, ear-catchingly individual woodwinds and horns. This was the Central European tradition at its mellowest -- a polar opposite to the sinewy, high-octane Brahms that Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra brought to the Concert Hall last season.

Blomstedt gave a similarly supple reading of Brahms's bucolic Second Symphony, though here the climaxes were allowed to accrue greater breadth and mass. The contrapuntal writing late in the first movement suggested the power and architectural strength of a Bach organ fugue, and the symphony's final moments possessed a genuine feeling of exhilaration without the need for acceleration.

-- Joe Banno

Left Bank Concert Society

If beauty is still anathema to serious modern classical music, the Left Bank Concert Society's program Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was a complete failure. Founded to foster and perform living composers' works in juxtaposition with works that influenced them, the society featured Luciano Berio's surprisingly sweet 1986 "Naturale" as its first piece. Inspired by and using (via tape) traditional Italian folk songs in local dialects, with running viola commentary by Katherine Murdock, it also used a variety of percussion instruments including the biggest, baddest marimba I have ever seen -- all played by the seemingly four-armed, eight-handed Lawson White.

Those fearing Boulez-like difficult music at the reading of fellow post-World War II composer Berio (who died just last year) need not have worried. With its folk song relations, the work had obvious parallels to Bartok -- and while undeniably modern, it is also extraordinarily (given the genre) accessible.

Apparently flutists are either very grateful or very desperate for new music, given the amount of work written for solo flute. Marina Piccinini, talented and gorgeous in equal measure, played Nicholas Maw's 1982 "Night Thoughts." In his pre-concert talk, the composer (of "Odyssey" fame) said he hopes his work sounds "not good played on any other instrument." At least in imaginary versions for bass tuba or kettledrum, I wager to say that he is right. With flute, though, it was downright pretty.

Michael Mauldin's "Birds in Winter" preludes for solo harp, a luscious and very enjoyable work skillfully plucked off her instrument by Astrid Walschot-Stapp, was the last contemporary piece before Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp and the Beethoven "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, took over. The Debussy brought the soloists (save for White) together, if to slightly less effect than the sum of its parts would have suggested.

The Left Bank Quartet -- consisting of Murdock and Sally McLain (violin) along with Artistic Directors Evelyn Elsing (cello) and David Salness (first violin) -- performed the Beethoven string quartet amiably and clearly enjoyed their musicmaking. For someone who had just come off two hours of Gewandhaus-orchestrated Brahms, the Left Bank Concert was a wonderful cleansing of the musical palate.

-- Jens F. Laurson

Michael Hayes and Mary Ellen Schauber in the Virginia Opera's "Turandot."David Salness and Evelyn Elsing are artistic directors of the Left Bank Concert Society, heard on Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.