Wagnerians set nice tone for weekend

Varied concerts filled with musical agility


May 07, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

This past weekend's typically wide array of musical choices included a full opera and operatic excerpts, concerto and symphony repertoire, and sacred choral works. There were rewards - big rewards in most cases - everywhere I turned.

I started out Friday night at the German Embassy, where the Wagner Society of Washington presented the fourth Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Concert. It's hardly news that great Wagner singers are in short supply; the field has never been over-populated. Lear and Stewart are doing something about that.

Stewart was one of the most commanding and inspiring Wagnerian baritones of his generation; he held the lease on Valhalla in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Lear concentrated on different repertoire in her career, but the soprano got close enough through the operas of Richard Strauss. They know good Wagner singing when they hear it.

In partnership with the Wagner Society, a vibrant group founded in 1998, the couple has been helping to identify, mentor and promote singers who show promise as Wagnerians. Concerts such as this one are part of the process.

The scarcest of all voice types is the heldentenor - the heroic-scaled tenor needed for Wagner. Thomas Rolf Truhitte demonstrated considerable potential in arias from Rienzi and Die Walkure (he'll tackle the role of Siegmund in Virginia Opera's production of the latter next season). His tone is bright and beefy, with a lyrical coating that could be further polished to allow for subtler expression.

Jennifer Roderer's plush mezzo commanded attention in excerpts from the Ring and Tristan. Her confident, vibrant vocalism heated up the room. Soprano Gail Sullivan offered fearlessness and power; greater sensitivity and flexibility should be well within her grasp. Nathan Bahny's potential came through in character-rich phrasing, if not a particularly broad tonal palette.

The concert, valiantly accompanied by pianist Betty Bullock, offered the tantalizing notion that a new vanguard of Wagnerians just might be in the offing.

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra closed its season Saturday night at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts with a world premiere, a great and under-performed cello concerto and a standard symphony. Throughout, the playing went a good deal beyond a typical regional orchestra level.

The premiere was Sinfonia by Patrice Rushen, best known for TV and film scores (including Men in Black). The three-movement piece is technically very accomplished - expert orchestration, keen sense of momentum, colorful variety of mood. But ideas that start out vividly tend to dissipate into movie-music pleasantness or classical music cliche.

No qualms about the performance. Conductor Leslie B. Dunner coaxed a dynamic, nicely detailed response from the ensemble, which also gave a warm account of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. The strings made up in expressive point what they lacked in richness; the winds held on firmly throughout.

In between those two works came Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto with an impressive young soloist, Julie Albers. She might want to tame her publicity just a little (according to her program bio, she is "destined to be one of the most acclaimed and beloved American artists of the 21st century"); her talent speaks for itself.

Albers' smooth technique, penetrating tone and lyrical phrasing tapped the score's dark beauty. Dunner and company provided firm support.

The Municipal Opera of Baltimore's revival of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha wrapped up Sunday afternoon at Frederick Douglass Senior High School.

The opera has built-in problems - weak libretto, loosely constructed score - that were not solved here. That would take more theatrical and musical resources than this community company can afford.

But the earnestness of Joplin's plea for racial advancement through education and mercy emerged nonetheless, thanks in large measure to the poised, sweet-toned singing of soprano Jocelyn Taylor in the title role. Keith Craig, as Remus, also enlivened the proceedings with his vibrant tenor, especially in the almost Mozartean aria Wrong is Never Right.

Among other effective performances were those by Dorothy Lofton-Jones (Monisha) and John Pollard (Ned). More consistent conducting and playing by the small orchestra, not to mention more imaginative stage direction, could have shed a much brighter light on Treemonisha's charms.

On Sunday evening, the choral forces of St. David's Church in Roland Park offered remarkably assured and illuminating performances of two rarely encountered works - Herbert Howells' Requiem from 1936, Zoltan Kodaly's Missa Brevis from 1944. Both are responses to tragedy (one personal, the other universal); both offer hope.

Under conductor Randall Mullin's sensitive guidance, the choristers articulated Howells' a cappella harmonies with discipline and finesse. Organist Henry Lowe provided potent support as the St. David's Singers (and, not quite as audibly, the Boys and Girls Choir) phrased Kodaly's Mass eloquently, especially at the close of the Benedictus and in the reiterated pleas for peace in the Agnus Dei. Elegant solos from mezzo Victoria Lee Miller and tenor Byron Jones provided the finishing touches.

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