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Orpheus at Strathmore

After another one of WPAS President Neale Perl's unnecessarily dull fundraising speeches, the sound of Orpheus dancing through the Holberg Suite was pure bliss. Rich, plump basses and clean, vibrant violins gave Grieg's musical retrospective both the requisite freshness and lush sheen necessary to please.

Orpheus had always been—literally—a household name for me, as I have been exposed to their recordings since the onset of my musical consciousness. Thirty-three years old and with musicians having come and gone, the leaderless troupe at WPAS's concert at Strathmore on Wednesday (March 30) was every bit as impressive as I remember them from vinyl days.

Barbara Bonney
By sheer coincidence I had just listened to Rene Jacobs's forthcoming Haydn recording that includes the short secular oratorio Scena di Berenice. A smash hit when Haydn performed it in London, it has since been rather neglected. Jacobs has Bernarda Fink perform, while Orpheus was joined by a magnificent Barbara Bonney. Covering the entire dynamic range with ease, the soprano, whom I particularly admire in Alban Berg and Richard Strauss, did Haydn proud with her stunning performance of this little gem.

The following Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Barber is likely the finest American orchestral song, and only Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi comes to mind as being similarly engaging and beautiful. Summer of 1915 is one of those lucky works that has always been well served on record, but hearing it live with a voice like Bonney's added another dimension of joy, even if you couldn't follow the poem's text. In full control of every line and always with plenty reserve, no matter at what level of volume, Mme. Bonney filled all of Strathmore Hall with her luminous sound, and she more than deserved the audience's rapturous applause.

Mozart's Symphony No. 29 (A major, K 201) is seductive Mozart on the right side of the cusp of juvenilia. Very, very pretty indeed, its mellow beauty and lighthearted nature make for a perfect musical desert: not too sweet, not too heavy, not too substantive. Orpheus churned out a most amiable (this is not damnation with faint praise) performance that capped one of the most delightful musical meals enjoyed by any of those who found their way to the half-filled concert hall.

For early birds, there was a preconcert talk by NPR and the Washington Post's Gail Wein. I had no opportunity to listen to her musings on the Barber but was told that it was a "riveting" and "marvelous" talk. The person who told me so should have known: it was... Gail Wein. Joe Banno's review in the Washington Post can be read here. The next concert of the Washington Performing Arts Society is Lang Lang at the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon.

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