Review: the National Chamber Ensemble Mother’s Day Concert ‘Music of Our Time’ at the Spectrum Theatre

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For their Mother’s Day theme and as a tribute to the conclusion of their 10th anniversary season at Rosslyn’s Spectrum Theatre, the National Chamber Ensemble (NCE) selected a program inspired by film scores. Led by violinist and Artistic Director Leonid Sushansky, with brilliant support from renowned clarinetist Julian Milkis, and pianist Carlos Rodriguez, the group performed arrangements from The Wizard of Oz, Ladies in Lavender, The Scent of a Woman, Schindler’s List, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Sushansky and Rodriguez opened the program with the Fantasy from the movie Ladies in Lavender by British Composer Nigel Hess. The film is story of a young Polish violinist who gets shipwrecked on the English coast and is nursed back to health by two sisters, played by Judy Dench and Maggie Smith. The conclusion of the movie, which features the Fantasy, depicts the young man playing his London debut, attended by both ladies. Sushansky, almost looking the part of the violinist in the film, played the virtuoso fantasy with great beauty of tone and drama. He was perfectly balanced by Rodriguez at the piano.

Images from the National Chamber Ensemble’s Music of Our Time Concert. Photo by Robert Jansen.

Of particular note during the evening program was Clarinetist Milkis’ solo, accompanied by Mr. Rodriguez, “Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano” from Music of the Cinema by Giya Kancheli. In remarks delivered prior to his performance, Mr. Milkis emphasized the impact Kancheli, a Georgian composer, who resides in Western Europe, has had on symphonic and theatrical music. Calling Kancheli both a mentor and role model, Mr. Milkis emphasized the importance of the “silences” in the piece. The audience cooperated, achieving a remarkable absence of coughs, whispers, and fidgeting during the eight brief pieces, which were, indeed, very quiet while musically explosive.

Julian Milkis played the seamless melodies almost on one breath which made me wonder when he breathes. One could sense his personal connection and commitment to the music which further enhanced the performance.

Additionally, three performers from Arlington’s Bowen McCauley Dance, Joan Ayap, Alicia Curtis, and Dustin Kimball, took center stage for a ballet entitled “Dreamers,” a Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Alexey Shor. The music evoked elegance with a sense of wonder and simplicity which was expressed to great effect by Lucy Bowen McCauley’s choreography.

This was the fourth time Lucy Bowen McCauley’s award-winning company has collaborated with the NCE, providing once again a lyrical and evocative accompaniment to the NCE’s creative and dynamic instrumental concerts. Bowen McCauley Dance also joined Leo Sushansky and Carlos Rodriguez in the performance of Carlos Gardel’s famous Tango “Por Una Cabeza” arranged for Itzhak Perman by John Williams. Sushansky’s brilliant virtuosity was well complimented by the rhythmic drive of Rodriguez who made the piano part sound orchestral. The dancers provided the right balance of sensuality and passion to create an exciting conclusion to the first half of the program.

The second half of the program featured two pieces from John Williams brilliant score to Schindler’s List played with lots of soul and gorgeous tone by Sushansky. The performance made me think of the beautiful recording by Itzhak Perman and how well Sushansky’s performance compared to the violin masters recording.

The Trio On The Roof for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Alexander Goldstein concluded the very well rounded program. Inspired by the musical Fiddler On The Roof, the trio demands virtuosity from all three instruments and the audience was not disappointed. Julian Milkis (Benny Goodman’s only student) played the jazzy composition with lots of flair and exquisite nuance which accentuated some of the familiar melodies. Rodriguez had some show stopping moments in the second movement where it seemed as if he had 12 fingers going. Sushansky brought the most light-hearted and spirited playing of the night to this composition. The ease of communication and electricity between performers was undeniable which brought an ovation from the enthusiastic audience after every movement.

The program concluded with an encore, The Ballad, a transcription by Robert Russell Bennett for violin, piano, and clarinet of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. A wine and cheese reception followed the concert, capping a splendid evening of beautiful music, a perfect gift to the mothers in the audience and all others in attendance.

It was also the last performance by NCE at the Spectrum. A planned redevelopment of the Rosslyn building that holds the Spectrum theater will eliminate the auditorium. NCE’s 2017-2018 season will be divided between performances at Gunston Arts Center in Arlington (October 14, 2017 and May 19, 2018) and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington (Devember 16, 2017; February 10, 2018, and March 24, 2018.)

The National Chamber Ensemble’s Music of Our Time played for one-night-only on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at Rosslyn Spectrum Theater – 1611 North Kent Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets and information on future events, check their website.

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