A mostly fine bill of French fare

NSO turns on Gallic charm

Music Reviews

January 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Give Leonard Slatkin a festival and he's like a kid in a Game Boy store. The music director of the National Symphony Orchestra seems to thrive on all the possibilities for building programs around a particular theme or era. He has enlivened recent seasons with festivals of music by film and emigre composers; for the NSO's month-long contribution to the current Festival of France at the Kennedy Center, Slatkin has chosen a broad sampling of repertoire.

Last week's lineup was capped by a semi-staged - much more than semi, actually - presentation of Ravel's exquisite one-act opera L'Enfant et les sortileges. That would have been novel enough for one program, but the rest of the bill was out of the ordinary as well. Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche doesn't get much attention; Saint-Saens' once-prevalent Violin Concerto No. 3 qualifies as a novelty these days; most audiences would consider anything written by Gabriel Pierne to be a discovery. And while Faure's gorgeous Pavanne is hardly unknown, it is almost never heard in its choral version.

Friday afternoon's performance got off to an iffy start, with ill-tuned brass taking the joy out of the Joyeuse Marche, but things quickly improved. With the smooth voices of the Washington Chorus, the Pavanne floated by in beguiling fashion, and Pierne's Entrance of the Little Fauns got a delectable delivery. NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef reaffirmed her value to the ensemble in a technically refined, juicy-toned, poetically phrased account of the Saint-Saens concerto. Her colleagues offered stylish support under Slatkin's careful guidance.

Ravel never entirely left childhood behind, never lost his love of fantasy. L'Enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Sorcerers), with its witty libretto by Colette, could not have been composed by anyone else. Ravel had the ideal musical voice for this fable of a cruel boy who learns lessons in kindness and respect from animals and objects he has abused. The composer also knew how to avoid sentimentality, creating a thoroughly grown-up work that charms, but never cloys.

The top-notch cast was headed by Marguerite Kroll, sporting a baseball cap worn backward and conveying all the sulky body language of a spoiled kid. Her warm, flexible voice and superbly detailed phrasing had a disarming impact. The Washington Chorus and the Children's Chorus of Washington excelled. Douglas Fitch devised the clever staging and scenery (oversized black-and-white props that suggested Edward Gorey drawings).

Slatkin, strongly attuned to the subtleties of the silken score, coaxed a luminous performance from the orchestra; the woodwinds emerged from the tonal fabric in particularly telling detail.

Music in the Great Hall

Igor Yuzefovich, one of the most impressive talents to emerge from the Peabody Institute in recent years, gave an arresting recital Friday night for the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.

The Russian-born violinist achieved especially potent results in Franck's A major Sonata, never letting up on the tension and making each climactic point count, without slighting the score's softer side. Equally dynamic support from pianist Michael Sheppard added to the emotional pull of the performance. Here and there, Yuzefovich could have articulated with more clarity and control, but that proved a minor matter.

Likewise, a silkier touch was needed in some parts of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1, smoother fingering in others, but the violinist brought terrific character to the piece.

Stylistically, there was not much difference in the way Yuzefovich delivered Franck and Prokofiev, or, for that matter, Beethoven (Sonata No. 1). One grandly romantic approach fit all. Perhaps greater subtleties will emerge in time, but it's hard to complain about the excitement he can generate now.

Ravel's showpiece Tzigane received a suitably impetuous, bravura account, while the encore, Tchaikovsky's Melodie, generated some beguilingly lyrical work.

Pro Music Rara

The annual "SuperBach Sunday" presented by Pro Music Rara offered assorted strengths and weaknesses at Towson Presbyterian Church.

The program focused almost entirely on Johann Sebastian Bach, including one of his most sublime creations, the Concerto for Two Violins. Julie Parcells and Greg Mulligan were the nimble, sensitive soloists in that work, adding a fresh touch to the intricately interwoven lines of the slow movement and driving the other movements forward with great vitality. They enjoyed generally tight support from their colleagues.

Things were likewise fleet and expressive in the Concerto for Three Violins, featuring Elizabeth Field, Cynthia Roberts and Ivan Stefanovic. Both performances, along with that of a Sinfonia by one of Bach's talented sons, Johann Christoph Friedrich, made a great case for Pro Musica Rara's devotion to period instruments and historic stylistic practices. Even the occasional slippage of intonation - the bane of such ensembles - seemed inconsequential in light of the spirited music-making.

But it was much harder to find a bright side to oboist Washington McClain's contributions. He squeaked through the Concerto for Violin and Oboe (Cynthia Roberts was the fine violinist), but had so much trouble just getting out the notes in Bach's A major Concerto for Oboe d'Amore that it became a case of Anti-Musica Rara.

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