Geoffrey Chaucer's mock-heroic "Nun's Priest's Tale" in "Canterbury Tales" tells of "a cock called Chanticleer: In all the land, for crowing, he'd no peer." The 12 men of the Chanticleer "orchestra of voices" sing more sweetly and with greater variety than the fowl from which the group takes its name, though their matching tuxedoes make them look more like penguins than roosters.
It was quite suitable that a highlight of Chanticleer's Sunday night performance at George Mason University's Center for the Arts was a 16th-century madrigal, "Le Chant des Oyseaux." The trills and warbling in imitation of bird song -- particularly that of the nightingale -- fully showcased Chanticleer's virtuosity. The group's highly eclectic program, given the loose umbrella title "Earth Songs," was a showcase in other ways, too: Three Palestrina motets offered clarity and sweetness of tone, and the Scottish traditional song "Loch Lomond" has never sounded lovelier.
Still, in a program spanning 450 years and a variety of genres, there were misses as well as hits. An arrangement of Gustav Mahler's "Ich Bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen" from "Ruckert-Lieder" was more pretty than plaintive. And Sarah Hopkins's "Past Life Melodies," a well-intentioned academic mixture of humming and sounds, was piercingly boring and much too long.
There were more pluses than minuses here, but the audience vociferously praised the two hours of music equally, as if Chanticleer were a rock band and the listeners its groupies. The singers should take heed: Chaucer's rooster, his head turned by flattery, was eaten by a fox.
-- Mark J. Estren
National Gallery Orchestra
"Vaudeville," a concerto for piccolo trumpet and orchestra by contemporary American composer Paul Schoenfield, embraces the tunefulness and razzmatazz of that bygone showbiz tradition. It's pastiche, nostalgia trip and wry commentary, all rolled into one shamelessly entertaining package.
The gifted young violinist Nicolas Kendall gave a witty, exuberantly committed performance of his own violin transcription of the solo trumpet part with the National Gallery Orchestra at the gallery's West Garden Court on Sunday. If the violin (amplified in this performance) evoked a klezmer sound more akin to Yiddish theater than to a traditional vaudeville house, the effect felt surprisingly natural against the composer's orchestral writing.
Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite also reflects the past through a modern prism -- this time, 18th-century music by Giovanni Pergolesi and Domenico Gallo, transformed into a 20th-century, neoclassical ballet. Conductor Christopher Kendall (Nicolas's uncle and a leading member of the Folger Consort and the 21st Century Consort) opened the evening with elegantly turned performances of movements from Gallo sonatas (specifically, Stravinsky's source material) and closed the program with a spiky, Technicolor reading of "Pulcinella."
But the heart of the concert was a gloriously slow, soul-searching performance of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which brought luminous playing from the orchestra. The hall's notoriously cavernous acoustics, which made the Gallo sound insubstantial and during the Schoenfield blared into incoherence, created a lovely halo of sound around the saturated string tone in the Mahler.
-- Joe Banno
Capitol Woodwind Quintet
On Sunday afternoon at Temple Micah, the Capitol Woodwind Quintet kicked off its 2005-06 season with an unusual challenge: A large-scale, academic-minded work, with cyclic themes, anguished climaxes and subtle romantic chromatics. Theodor Blumer's Quintet, Op. 52, stood out not for its methods but for its medium; most woodwind quintet repertoire sparkles and dances, unencumbered by attempts at profundity. But Blumer's quintet had its own attractions, including the heroic hunting-horn theme that gets the cyclic treatment and a lush, wistful buildup to an ardent close in the slow movement.
The Capitol players adeptly navigated the work's structure while bringing out its felicities at every turn. Hornist Laurel Ohlson took her extended thematic material with the proper robust stride and tone, and in that lovely slow movement, flutist Alice Kogan Weinreb and oboist Kathleen Golding both took brief yet memorable unaccompanied solos that contributed to the intense atmosphere. When Blumer turned on the charm in the last two movements, the quintet responded in kind, with a particularly rollicking finale.
The other repertoire played by the quintet made more typical demands on its abundant skills. Andrejs Jansons's "Suite of Old Lettish Dances" and John Barrows's "March" were both bright nothings that the quintet kept afloat with enthusiastic, precise playing, while the melancholy of Astor Piazzolla's "Milonga Sin Palabras" was expertly balanced with its steady dance pulse. Best was the group's irrepressible reading of Jean Francaix's wind quartet (sans Ohlson); its playful whirlwinds of notes, witty stops and starts, and general Gallic insouciance reminded one what chamber music for woodwinds is (normally) all about.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone