There was something doubly satisfying about Sunday evening's Chamber Music by Candlelight program at Second Presbyterian Church.
The place has never seemed cozier, with the snowfall outside and the subdued lighting inside (including some real flickering candles). Given the very small turnout, I wouldn't have been surprised if the musicians also had been subdued, and merely gone through the motions. But the performance was anything but perfunctory.
This chamber series primarily features members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, providing a good opportunity to focus on the component parts that go into the BSO's success. The series has established a strong track record for committed music-making as well as imaginative programming. Both qualities were very much in evidence on Sunday.
Capping the concert was Bartok's String Quartet No. 1, delivered with considerable incisiveness by the Atlantic String Quartet - violinists Gregory Mulligan and Rebecca Nichols, violist Christian Colberg and cellist Bo Li.
Although not as dense or quite as technically demanding as his later quartets, Bartok's First is no small challenge. The music is unsettled, anxious, always searching but never quite finding repose. There is a strong emotional pull in the tense chords, a strangely, starkly beautiful feeling to the melodic lines.
The players captured those qualities compellingly. Although a few spots in the first movement could have been a little tighter, coordination overall was strong from the start. Manic rhythmic changes were handled with aplomb, and there was considerable bravura in the final moments. Throughout, all four players produced an admirably rich tone that was intensified by Second Presbyterian's marvelous acoustics.
The evening's other rewards included Poulenc's colorful Sextet for piano and winds with Elizabeth Rowe (flute), Jane Marvine (oboe), William Jenken (clarinet), Julie Gregorian (bassoon), Phil Munds (horn) and Sylvie Beaudoin (piano).
The smoky middle section of the first movement and the darkly lyrical Divertissement inspired particularly sensitive work from the ensemble. A bit more jazzy kick would have been welcome in the finale, especially from the pianist.
Jenken, Gregorian and Beaudoin collaborated on an agile, elegant account of Mendelssohn's short and sweet D minor Concert Piece. To open the evening, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Adcock offered a lithe, mostly refined performance of a Bach sonata.
`Orphee' at U of M
Battles about opera don't often break out these days (Kathleen Battle battles in opera are another story altogether). But at different stages in the development of the art form, vigorous debates raged over style, form and content.
One of the most significant such debates occurred in the mid-1700s as one faction began railing against the excesses of Italian operas, in which florid arias obscured the significance of words. Helping to lead the "reform" movement was Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose first major effort in the cause was Orphee et Eurydice, an exquisite telling of the mythical tale of Orpheus. It will be presented in dressed-up concert form Sunday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Orphee actually started out as an Italian opera in 1762, but Gluck refashioned it into a French work in 1774, the version that will be performed this weekend. One result of the transformation was to recast the male lead, originally written for castrato, for what the French call a haute-contre - a high tenor. Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, one of the world's leading specialists in this field, will sing the role of Orphee.
Also in the cast will be sopranos Catherine Dubosc and Suzie Leblanc. This co-production with Opera Lafayette, conducted by Ryan Brown, will feature members of the New York Baroque Dance Company, who, in period costume, will re-create the style of the dancing Gluck would have seen in performances of his opera.
Orphee et Eurydice will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Tickets cost $20 to $35. A pre-performance discussion will be held at 2 p.m. Call 301-405-ARTS.