'Murder & Other Operatic Mayhem'
The Wolf Trap Opera Company has recruited an extraordinary group of young singers this summer. That is hardly a news item; the company recruits an extraordinary group of young singers in its nationwide auditions every summer. But on Saturday night at the Filene Center, 10 members of the company made an especially strong impression.
They sang some of opera's most popular selections, inviting comparison with the greatest stars, past and present, and they emerged with honor. Sharing in the acclaim were the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington Chorus, brilliantly conducted by Emile de Cou.
The program, titled "Murder & Other Operatic Mayhem," opened with Verdi's overture to "La Forza del Destino," and de Cou brought out all its intense drama. The final work was a virtuoso showcase for chorus and orchestra, the triumphal scene from "Aida," performed with high impact. But solo and ensemble singing were the main events and they were handled gloriously. The company's director, Kim Pensinger Witman, gave a witty and informative introduction to each selection. The end of Act 1 in "Tosca," she said, is "one of the best arguments for the separation of church and state." Then it was performed, with the chorus singing a triumphant "Te Deum" while baritone Weston Hunt sang of his lust for Tosca.
Other high points included Dimitri Pittas's "La Donna e Mobile," Lord High Executioner Jason Ferrante's "little list" (which included talk show hosts, senators and "Hillary, but not until '08"), "Not While I'm Around" from "Sweeney Todd," performed by Javier Abreu and Audrey Babcock, and the Sandman's song and evening prayer from "Hansel and Gretel," sung by Evelyn Pollock, Maureen McKay and Kate Lindsey. Elegant ensemble singing was also part of the program, with the quartet from "Rigoletto," the quintet from "Carmen" and the sextet from "Lucia di Lammermoor."
-- Joseph McLellan
Embassy Series: Vietnam
With the possible exception of cuisine, scant attention is paid to Vietnamese culture in the United States. Friday night the Embassy Series helped change that by presenting an evening of traditional music and dance from Vietnam.
The event marked both the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam and the first public arts presentation at the Vietnamese Embassy.
Overall, the audience got just a taste of Vietnam's vast cultural heritage, which ranges over four millenniums, 60 separate ethnic groups and 300 musical instruments.
The dan bau produced a sound somewhere between a pedal steel guitar and a musical saw. With one hand, Le Giang plucked a single string stretched over a soundboard. With the other, she tugged on a bamboo stick, controlling the tension, bending notes expressively.
In a medley of folk tunes, Duc Lien played seven bamboo flutes. The tiniest was pencil-size. Another looked like a corncob pipe. Lien had exquisite control, and a wild sense of improvisation.
The two-stringed fiddle (dan nyi) told the "Harvest Story." Thu Giang's animated playing alternated between something like a fiery bluegrass hoedown and sweet lyricism.
A full ensemble backed up the soloists, playing hanging marimbas, drums, lutes, a hammered zither and the odd k'longput, which is never touched. Instead of striking the bamboo tubes, hands are clapped over the holes to produce a coke-bottle sound.
Dances alternated with the instrumental numbers. Sadly, they were accompanied only by over-orchestrated music from a boombox. As is common in Asian dance, the performers' expression came through detailed movements in the arms and hands.
-- Tom Huizenga
Attacca Percussion Group
An eight-minute piece of music played only on claves could be downright painful or, at the very least, strikingly dull. But Friday at the Arts Club of Washington, the Attacca Percussion Group embraced Mary Ellen Childs's 1990 work "Click" more as performance art than chamber music. Attacca's Marc Dinitz, Adam Green and Scott Pollard moved like jugglers as they performed the tightly synchronized choreography specified in the score. Standing shoulder to shoulder, striking each other's claves -- pairs of cylindrical hardwood sticks -- first to the left, then to the right, even tossing the stubby instruments with a casual flip and hitting them high over their heads; the impressive effect was certainly more visual than musical.
While "Click" proved what the group could do with just one note, Green's arrangement of Alberto Ginastera's "Tres Piezas" (1940), originally for piano, proved what they could do at a single instrument. Standing before an enormous marimba, the three shared the space with balletic grace as their mallets danced over the wooden bars. The piece was rewarding to watch, especially as Dinitz briefly took over the playing space for a three-octave glissando. Since notes played on marimba die out quickly, tremolos and trills approximated sustained chords, lending an ethereal quality to the performance.
Also on marimba, the group tackled Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. With soft mallets and smooth technique, the piece, arranged by Pollard, was convincing. The three had excellent command of dynamic range, although the execution didn't quite fully capture the stirring emotional value of the piece.
-- Gail Wein
'The Sound of Music'
Downtown Bethesda took on the delights of the 1959 musical "The Sound of Music" Friday in a version that had all the pluses of a congenial family affair. An enthusiastic, mostly young cast sang its way through the familiar story of the von Trapps, enlivened by the spirited novitiate nun Maria bubbling over with the familiar songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The ambitious community undertaking was warmly met by applause after every song by a sizable audience of supporters ranging from grandparents to active 4-year-olds. Conducted by Samuel Bill, the event marked the third season of the Bethesda Summer Music Festival, a two-week grass-roots project featuring young professionals, backed up by students ranging from college to elementary school age. Mira Yang was artistic director.
Clad in everyday wear, the cast made the best of limited resources, yet re-created the fresh-air feeling of the Austrian Alps with effective staging by Jamie Roberts. A single set with minimal props was squeezed onto the chancel of Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
Bill carefully paced the singers and tiny orchestra (three strings, percussion and piano) at an easy gait, finely attuned to the needs of individual soloists -- most of them promising if at noticeably early stages of vocal training. With her sweet voice, Julie Hiscox made an entrancing Maria while the nuns elegantly tackled some hefty a cappella numbers. Natalia Brighindi sang with resonant clarity as Frau Schraeder; Richard Bozic (Captain von Trapp) and Albert Niedel (Uncle Max) provided strong, convincing support; and the youngsters (the seven von Trapps) sang with gusto.
-- Cecelia Porter
Flutist William Montgomery, who has long been an important figure on the Washington music scene, gave a splendid recital Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. A professor at the University of Maryland, he has guided decades of aspiring flutists along the path to professional careers and has served as principal flutist of such distinguished performing organizations as the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Theater Chamber Players and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. He has also championed new music, especially in works of local composers. On Saturday he focused on 19th- and 20th-century flute sonatas, as the opening performance of his annual week-long master class at the College Park campus.
Montgomery's perceptive and skilled partner was pianist Roy Hakes, who, through a slew of sonatas (some little known), nailed down the precise character of every piece. The duo covered music by five composers: Giuseppe Rabboni, Darius Milhaud, Pal Jardanyi, Otto Luening and Francis Poulenc. In three of Rabboni's Twelve Sonatas, Montgomery underscored the composer's bel canto fluidity, at times yielding to the music's mischievous bent. While he drew out the sultry exoticism of Milhaud's Sonatina, Op. 76, he highlighted the primeval folk ambiance of Jardanyi's Sonatina. Luening's Short Sonata No. 1 offered a brief glimpse into Coplandesque fresh-air Americana by a composer who was long involved in electronic composition. Poulenc's Sonata had a dusky cabaret tinge, and Montgomery merged the sassy and the absurd in a uniquely French mix.
-- Cecelia Porter