At Fortas and Washington Concert Opera, fine pairs and doomed couples

At Fortas and Washington Concert Opera, fine pairs and doomed couples

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At the Kennedy Center on Friday night, violinist Jennifer Koh gave her first performance on the Terrace Theater stage as artistic director of the Fortas Chamber Music Series, which this season has hosted violinists Augustin Hadelich and Maxim Vengerov, a farewell from the Emerson String Quartet and a recital from bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. Still, if you’re a Fortas faithful, Friday’s program may have triggered déjà vu.

Joined by former mentor Jaime Laredo, Koh and about two dozen players from the Juilliard Orchestra revisited a program titled “Two x Four” — a celebration of four classical and contemporary concertos for two violins, first presented by Fortas in 2013 with an orchestra of musicians from the Curtis Institute.

Repeating a program from 10 years ago nearly verbatim may seem like a strange way to signal a fresh start, but with her stewardship of Fortas, Koh aimed to pay tribute to pianist Joseph “Yossi” Kalichstein, the longtime Fortas artistic director who died in 2022 — and whose trio with Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson The Washington Post once dubbed “the greatest piano trio on the face of the Earth.”

Apart from a swapped-out closer (instead of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, we finished with Mozart’s delightful Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat), Friday’s menu was precisely the same. Yet this reprise felt more like a refresh — a welcome reminder of the unique pleasures of the double concerto.

In Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor (BWV 1043), Koh and Laredo seemed to tell a story about their former dynamic as student/teacher at Curtis: Koh’s lines were bright, lively and piquant; Laredo’s rustic and leathery. Trading lines and smiles, they played the hell out of it. At one point, Koh even kicked off her heels.

Violinists Gabrielle Després and Coco Mi were led by conductor Sasha Scolnik-Brower in “Seasons Lost,” an entrancing (and slightly despondent) homage to Vivaldi by Juilliard dean and birthday boy David Serkin Ludwig. The two violinists beautifully etched a winter of stark stillness; a gusty, indecisive spring; a summer of slumping glissandos and whirring bugs; and a pouncing autumn, crisp and scrubby.

Violinist Hina Khuong-Huu joined Koh for Anna Clyne’s evocative “Prince of Clouds,” which sends streaky contrails of violin skyward over lowing bass and stretches of percussive pizzicato before coming in for an impossibly soft landing. Matthew Hakkarainen and Maya Kilburn offered a strikingly human reading of Philip Glass’s “Echorus,” weaving its mechanistic repetitions into a cozy blanket.

Koh and Laredo reunited onstage for Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, which showcased each musician’s singular voice: Laredo, in particular, loves to finish his grainy lines with folksy serifs. The whole evening felt less like a study of a form than a celebration of a friendship. I’ll look forward to “Two x Four: Part Three.”

The following evening at Lisner Auditorium, Washington Concert Opera opened its 37th season with the area debut of “Ermione,” a nearly forgotten Grecian romp that purports to be a tragedy, despite a clear outbreak of satisfied smiles at its conclusion.

In his program notes, WCO co-founder Peter Russell pointed out that the 1819 premiere of “Ermione” was received by audiences at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples as a “bewildering hot mess” — and those folks were not wrong. Based on Jean Racine’s 1667 play “Andromaque,” this convoluted post-Trojan War tragedy is constructed upon an actively collapsing quadrangle of unrequited love, with the confusion and occasional fury of its characters racing through Rossini’s instantly recognizable and conspicuously rollicking score.

But the unruly tangle of the plot paired with the undeniable tastiness of Rossini’s music make “Ermione” an ideal candidate for a concert opera presentation. Spared the added dimension of a staging, and supported with Antony Walker’s sure-footed conducting, Rossini’s rich and restless score really popped, which is no mean feat at the Lisner, a venue that eats sound. The woodwinds were especially fine and brimming with character.

Soprano Angela Meade is herself a seasoned Ermione, who has sung the role in Lyon, Moscow, Paris and the very house in Naples where the opera premiered. On Saturday, there was only a trace in Meade’s voice of the respiratory infection she was reportedly fighting off — and her subdued powers may have worked to her advantage in the hall. Torn between fragile grace and murderous rage — sometimes in the same aria — the role of Ermione requires enough control to seem properly out of control, and enough humor to lend her crackpot tendencies some tenderness. Meade met the challenge fearlessly, if not flawlessly.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson was sensational as the newly widowed Andromaca, her show-opening aria (“Mia delizia”) an early showstopper delivered with striking clarity. She brought an electric presence to her podium whenever she stepped onstage. (I heard more than one audience member comment on the piercing eye contact she dealt across the auditorium.)

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The show’s two tenors made fine foils: David Portillo delivered an exceptionally peevish Pirro, his powerful voice nimble and gleaming, especially his Act I aria (“Balena il man del figlio”) and his Act II duet with the reluctant Andromaca (“Ombra del caro sposo!”). Lawrence Brownlee was a captivating Oreste, his voice a skillfully flicked blade that cut through the rest of cast, reinforcing Oreste’s outsider status. The pacing of his duet with Pilade (“Reggia abborrita!”) struck me as a touch a too tick-tocky, but Brownlee’s decoration softened its sharper edges.

Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin as Fenicio and tenor Matthew Hill made magnificent work of Fenicio and Pilade’s Act II duet, and soprano Erin Ridge offered an endearing, sympathetic Cleone that made me wish she had more to say/sing. And in ensemble, the entire cast sounded smartly balanced and cohesive — even as their respective relationships downgraded into ecstatic mass confusion.

Each singer brought just enough characterization to spark a scintilla of semi-staged drama, but it was Rossini’s music that brought the biggest surprises and carried the night.

From the lively overture — repeatedly interrupted by an unseen horde of woebegone Trojan soldiers — to the climactic anticlimax (“Ah! Ti rinvenni”), Walker’s orchestra and David Hanlon’s chorus bestowed lovely texture and depth to a score that races by and loiters in your memory. Such are the pleasures of a well-selected concert opera — nothing to take home but a song in your heart.

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