Violinist made fairly favorable impression


January 14, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The weekend's musical lineup included accomplished vocalism, promising pianism and violin-ism (you're right, that's not a word), as well as a spirited, grass-roots opera production.

On Friday night, pianist HouFei Yang, winner of the 2002 Yale Gordon Concerto Competition at the Peabody Institute, gave a recital for the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. Actually, half a recital. She switched to collaborative status for the second half, accompanying violinist Tao-Change Yu.

On the solo side, HouFei made the strongest impression in the multi-colored Scarbo from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Her technique was up to the music's many twisting challenges, her phrasing evocative. I'd like to hear what she can do with the rest of this score.

She also delivered a fleet account of Bach's B-flat major Partita. Some inner details were obscured, especially in the third movement; a warmer, more reflective touch would have been welcome in the Sarabande. Chopin's Polonaise-fantasie did not quite hold together, but flashes of bravura and passion easily affirmed HouFei's artistic potential.

Faure's intensely lyrical A major Violin Sonata found Tao-Chang generally smooth in tone and articulation, thoroughly engaging in expression. HouFei brought out the many riches of the piano part with elan.

BSO salutes MLK

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered its annual salute to Martin Luther King Jr., "Let Freedom Ring," Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall. I stopped by the dress rehearsal to hear 17-year-old violinist Gareth Johnson, junior division winner of the Sphinx Competition, an invaluable effort to assist gifted young African-American and Latino string players.

Johnson revealed assurance and style in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, producing a tone that had considerable sweetness and a nice bite underneath when needed. A slip of intonation or articulation and a routinely molded phrase here and there testified to Johnson's youth, but the overall solidity in the playing suggested a career well worth cultivating.

A chance at opera

Saturday night, I caught the latest venture by the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church. Founded to give minority singers stage experience in major operatic roles, the ensemble draws from the entire community.

There is a disarming, let's-put-on-a-show feel about the productions - a mix of the distinctly amateur with the fully or nearly professional, all unified by a determination to present grand opera (in English) as honorably as possible. The company's presentation of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was a case in point.

Cute, budget-priced sets and costumes provided the atmosphere. A small group of instrumentalists offered a surprisingly persuasive, mostly disciplined reduction of the original, Wagnerian orchestration under conductor Stanley Thurston's very sensitive guidance.

The most vivid vocal efforts came from Christopher Steward, as the Father, and Joan Merritt, as the Witch. All of the singers, however, needed to pay much more attention to diction, phrasing and rhythm. And although the church hall venue is not very opera-friendly, that's still no excuse to use amplification, the mortal enemy of the true operatic experience.

Taken on faith

On Sunday afternoon, Community Concerts at Second presented a recital of sacred music by soprano Janice Chandler, whose personal faith, devoutly expressed in a long program note, largely defines her as an artist. Excellently accompanied by pianist Eric Conway, she filled Second Presbyterian Church with rapturous sound.

Admirable breath control and lush low notes enriched the soprano's account of the Laudames Te section from Mozart's C minor Mass. Strain and thinness in the upper reaches took some of the bloom off other Mozart selections, as well as an item from Mendelssohn's Elijah. But she brought remarkable solidity and beauty to such pieces as Gounod's O Divine Redeemer and, especially, Albert Hay Malotte's familiar setting of The Lord's Prayer.

Traditional hymns were transformed into deeply communicative mini-arias; the high, soft note that capped O Love That Will Not Let Me Go was magical. John Carter's souped-up treatment of great spirituals inspired vibrant singing and brilliant work from Conway. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think these busy arrangements hold a candle to the standard ones by the likes of Hal Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh.

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