Alexandria Choral Society

When you hear the Alexandria Choral Society singing Handel, you can assume that the holiday season is imminent. But credit the chorus and its new artistic director, Philip Cave, with imagination. What they performed, quite expertly, Saturday night at the Episcopal High School in Alexandria was fresher and less familiar than the seasonal "Messiah."

The program opened with music from the heart of the British choral tradition in which Cave (formerly a student of Simon Preston at Oxford and a founding member of the Tallis Scholars) began his career: anthems that Handel composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727.

"Zadok the Priest," "My Heart Is Inditing" and "Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened" are ceremonial music, solemn and stately, punctuated with "Alleluias" and seasoned with advice for the newly installed monarch: "Let justice and judgment be the preparation of thy seat! Let mercy and truth go before thy face!"

The continuo instrument was an organ, well played by assistant conductor Neil Weston, and there were timpani and two trumpets, which dominated the orchestral texture at moments of special glory.

Weston also soloed in the jaunty Organ Concerto No. 5 in F, Op. 4, which interrupted the solemnity. Cave's soloists, sopranos Janet Coxwell and Sally Dunkley, alto Marjorie Bunday, tenor Ole Haas and bass Francis Steele, were mostly recruited from Magnificat, a baroque vocal ensemble Cave founded in England in 1991. They sang (mostly ensemble work in the anthems) with finely polished tone and a secure grasp of baroque ornamentation.

After intermission, the composer was still Handel but the style changed drastically to the psalm "Dixit Dominus," composed in Rome in 1707 when Handel was clearly intent on showing the world his brilliance. The music and performance were dazzling. The soloists, given a chance to show their technique, did so. The chorus rose to the music's challenges with clear, well-balanced tone, dynamic power and excellent treatment of the text.

-- Joseph McLellan

Dresden Philharmonic

The Dresden Philharmonic made its George Mason University Center for the Arts debut with two fine, fresh-sounding Sibelius works and a fine but surprisingly stale Beethoven symphony on Saturday evening.

Principal Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos set a deliberate, saturnine opening tempo in Sibelius's "Finlandia," Op. 26, catching a few of his 95 musicians off guard -- a good indication, as it turned out, of spontaneity in its performance. The brass's dark harmonies, the woodwinds' sweet melodies and the strings' rich colors pooled into a grandiose sound capable of sprinting or glowing almost indefinitely.

De Burgos enjoyed that sonority by lingering on section-ending chords, then charging onward with new energy.

Ethereally shimmering strings commenced Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, featuring 21-year-old Julia Fischer. An intense, virtuosic violinist, Fischer thrives on the sonic journey, her focus constantly scanning vistas. She played with a pungent quality, like a spicy citrus perfume, creating urgent undertones throughout the concerto. The Dresden, often whispery soft, gave her copious room to dash up and down arpeggios, to spin out her melodies as a soprano would sing a tragic aria. Though Fischer conveyed emotions while churning notes at impressive velocities, she was oddly less adept at doing so during the Adagio.

If you prefer Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, performed with meticulous adherence to the score, the Dresden's triumphant reading of it would have thrilled you. Still, some innovative interpretations would have been welcome.

-- Grace Jean

Fairfax Symphony

It was hard to not coo at the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's featured soloist Friday as he stole across George Mason University's Center for the Arts stage with a bashful yet poised stride. But 13-year-old Ji-Yong delivered an impressive, mature performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, that belied his age.

From his stately opening in the first movement, the New Jersey teenager revealed a heightened awareness of melody. He played with unwavering confidence, blending with the responsive orchestra as his fingers danced across the keys. A calm delicacy marked his second movement. Though finely crafted, at times Ji-Yong's concerto seemed more of a regurgitation of an adult's ideas than an exploration of his own. But the precocious pianist has time to develop such musical identity.

Music Director William Hudson's gentle conducting style was conducive to phrasing the tranquil melodies found in Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll." He coaxed warm, pastel colors from the orchestra, making the audience feel contented.

He produced circumspection in Schubert's Overture in C, D. 591, "In the Italian Style," where elegant, lilting rhythms rolled forth carefully and imitative Rossini passages resounded tactfully. But through a rare departure from his gentlemanly gestures, Hudson inspired some sharply punctuated chords in a spry account of Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25.

-- Grace Jean

Philip Cave is artistic director of the Alexandria Choral Society.Violinist Julia Fischer was soloist with the Dresden Philharmonic.Pianist Ji-Yong performed with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra.