Ensemble's program showcases pieces by women

MUSIC

March 02, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Maybe it's something in the water. Whatever the cause, Baltimore has long been a hothouse for choral singing. Sometimes, it seems as if there's a chorus on every corner, celebrating the wealth of repertoire for blended voices. And, for the most part, our local ensembles boast remarkably high technical quality. When it comes to pure expressive power, it's hard to beat some performances by, say, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society or the chorus of the Concert Artists of Baltimore.

The passion that people can feel for communal singing was confirmed with a vengeance after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disbanded its volunteer chorus in 2002. The ill will caused by that ineptly managed decision still reverberates. While some of the rage had to do with the way the unexpected decision was handed down and the impression of ingratitude that came with it, I think much of the pain resulted from the sudden loss of belonging and togetherness that the chorus provided for so many singers.

It was impossible to miss the sense of solidarity that choral singing can engender as the Jezic Ensemble gave a concert Sunday afternoon before an S.R.O. audience in a chapel at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Part of that solidarity obviously comes from the fact that this is an all-female group. When they sang Lili Boulanger's gently flowing The Sirens, the subtext of an anthem rang out clearly: "We are the immortal sisters." Switching gears from that impressionistic piece to Gwyneth Walker's snappy, urban-flavored Sisters only reinforced the notion of an ensemble that has bonded emotionally as well as musically.

Founded in 1998 to honor the late Towson University teacher Diane Peacock Jezic and directed by Margie Farmer, the chorus has about 40 members from the Baltimore/D.C. area. Although a few more - and more polished - low voices wouldn't hurt, the overall tone is generally smooth and sweet.

This particular program (I got to hear about two-thirds of it) was devoted mostly to brief pieces by women. Joelle Wallach, the winner of the ensemble's first competition for women composers, was represented by a colorful, if not quite distinctive, setting of a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Why the Caged Bird Sings. The vibrant performance was ably backed by horn player Larry Williams and pianist Daniel Lau. Lau's beautifully shaded playing was an asset throughout the concert, especially in the Boulanger piece. Percussionist Bob Novak was effectively called on to help propel a few items; he needed only hands and feet to give Walker's Sisters its kinetic beat.

Lau, violinist Simon Mauer and cellist Nancy Baun - collectively known as the Ravel Trio - made an ardent case for the 1921 Piano Trio by Rebecca Clarke. A mix of romanticism and impressionism, with a touch of the Far East, the score easily reveals the composer's talent, largely overlooked until recent years. A recurring theme, like a distant bugle cry, turns the trio into a haunting reflection on the Great War. It deserves more performances.

With a chamber work by Clarke and all the choral rarities, the afternoon spoke to the Jezic Ensemble's ability to fashion intriguing concerts - as does the rest of this season, which will include a dinosaur-theme children's concert and an appearance with the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble. For more information, call 410-374-9059 or visit www.jezicensemble.org.

Hardly a week goes by without a choral option. Here are a few in the next few days:

The Peabody Chamber Singers and Concert Singers, joined by the women of the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, present a wide-ranging program - from Bach and Mozart to Rachmaninoff and Jerome Kern - led by Erin Freeman and Jonathan Moyer. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Peabody Conservatory, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place. For ticket information, call 410-659-8100, ext. 2.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore, conducted by music director emeritus T. Herbert Dimmock, turns to a work of exquisite beauty, Maurice Durufle's Requiem, and Zoltan Kodaly's distinctive Missa Brevis. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St. Call 410-366-6544.

Dimmock will also lead the next installment in a monthly series of Bach cantatas performed by a choir assembled for the occasion at First English Lutheran Church Choir. Cantata No. 13, My sighs, my tears, will be performed at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the church, 3807 N. Charles St. Admission is free. For more information, call 410-235-2356.

Alisa Weilerstein

From the Jezic Ensemble's concert, I arrived in time to catch the second half of Alisa Weilerstein's cello recital Sunday for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. Just into her 20s, Weilerstein is quickly building a career, aided by a cello with a deep, burgundy tone and a flair for demonstrative phrasing. She brought to Manuel de Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole an appealing balance of insinuation and passion, superbly backed by pianist Adam Neiman, who produced quite a prism of sonic coloring on his own.

The duo tapped the Brahms-worthy lyricism in Prokoviev's C major Cello Sonata. The sturdy performance could have used a little more personality from Weilerstein, but Neiman offered enough for both of them. Their encore, a transcription of Faure's endearing Apres un reve, unfolded exquisitely.

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