Review: ‘Holiday Cheer!’ at National Chamber Ensemble

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The National Chamber Ensemble’s Holiday Cheer! on December 16 was a celebration of great music. The charming and witty Artistic Director and leading violinist, Leonid Sushansky, sees each performance as a party in which some of the guests are incredibly talented. The humor was especially entertaining; Sushansky described most Jewish holidays as, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” He noted in addition that we will be honoring Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday by playing lots of Vivaldi. NCE’s annual concert is deservedly one of the most popular events of the holiday season.

Holiday Cheer! at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. Photograph by Robert Jansen.

The National Chamber Ensemble was founded by Sushansky in 2007. Based on the model of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the NCE is designed as a group of internationally recognized artists who live in the DC metro area. NCE offers, among other things, jazz, ballet, spirituals, and opera, in addition to traditional chamber music. They also work with organizations such as Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. Hosted handsomely in a new venue, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, the ensemble brought us a scintillating evening of pure musical fun.

At first, we were treated to warm and welcoming opening remarks from Michael Goldstein, an NCE Board Member, and Special Guest Host Katie Cristol, Vice Chair of the Arlington County Board.

Holiday Cheer! at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. Photograph by Robert Jansen.

The initial piece, Sleigh Ride, by Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) a tribute to the joys of winter, was written, fittingly, in the middle of a heat wave. It was given a stirring performance, reminding us of the joys of the season.

The cheerful Slavonic Dances by famed Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was the next presentation. This piece was reportedly inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, but unlike Brahms, Dvorak employed the rhythms of Slavic music but used melodies of his own. It was followed by Hanukkah Festival, an enjoyable arrangement of favorites by Daniel Leavitt.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), composer of the Four Seasons, also composed over seven hundred pieces of vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular, music. He was, in his own time, a very successful composer of opera, although his popularity dimmed in his later years. Here, his Concerto in A minor For Two Violins (Allegro) was performed by, in addition to the adult performers, a group of young string musicians, ages 8-18 It was quite a thrill to see them troop in and view their remarkable abilities.

Next, the 2017 NCE Outstanding Young Artist Achievement Award was presented to Junliang Li, 15, who was born in 2002, in China. Sushansky then introduced a talented finalist for the award, pianist Andrew Wu, who first played Schumann’s Fable for us. German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a turbulent personality, whose life ended in an asylum for the insane. He married acclaimed pianist Clara Wieck, the daughter of his teacher, after fierce opposition from her father. Fable is a dialogue between Florestan, the man of passion, and Eusebius, the dreamer, essentially two aspects of Schumann himself.

Then Wu played Frédéric Chopin’s Etude No. 5 Op.10. Another artist with a complicated private life, Poland’s outstanding composer left Poland due to political unrest and became an expatriate in Paris, where he had a storied affair with George Sand, then a prolific novelist and enormous artistic presence.

The final offering before intermission was a delight to all who love vocal music. The composition was the rarely-performed Vivaldi motet: O qui Coeli Terraeque Serenitas. It was sung by the gifted soprano, Rebecca Littig, whom Sushansky rightly described as the diva of the evening. Littig has performed at leading opera theaters throughout Europe including the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and here at the Washington National Opera.

Holiday Cheer! at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. Photograph by Robert Jansen.

The internationally recognized adult musicians were: Leonid Sushansky (Artistic Director, violin); Jorge Orozco (violin); Uri Wasserstzug (viola); Vasily Popov (cello); and Natasha Dukan (piano). The young musicians were: Violin I: Zoe Fong, Jessica Zhu, Yuri Popov, Amy Huang, Jackson Pope—Violin II: Emily Yang, Kailin Bateson, Robert Sun, Sean Ganous. All performed to the highest artistic standards.

Our piano competition winner, Junliang Li, performed a dreamy and beautiful composition by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Sonatine, III, Anime. Ravel, unlike our other composers, is famous for the statement, “The only love affair I have ever had was with music.” His most recognized work is Bolero, but he is also remembered for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé which was commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. Ravel is said to be the most popular of French composers.

Li excelled in a passionate rendition of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A Flat Major, Op.47. A Ballade, a form invented by Chopin, consists of one movement for solo piano. Dedicated to Princess Pauline de Noailles, one of his students, it is sometimes said to be inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine. The poem is a tale of a human who falls in love with a watery sprite, but who cannot possess her because her embrace would be fatal. 

A highlight of the evening was the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Rondeau from Piano Quartet in G Minor. Mozart, another composer with a difficult life story, was dragged all over Europe by his father as a child prodigy to make money. His marriage to Constanze Weber, niece of the composer Carl Maria von Weber, was a love match but provided no social or financial advantage. Mozart, possibly our greatest composer, was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Johann Strauss’ (1825-1899) Fledermaus Waltzes was a monster hit in 1874. Strauss, whose father wanted him to become a banker, became instead an internationally famous composer of “light” music. These waltzes are lush and appealing, the kind of music you instantly enjoy upon a first hearing.

Holiday Cheer! at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. Photograph by Robert Jansen.

For the final performance, our soprano, Rebecca Littig, returned in a fetching red scarf to lead the Leroy Anderson Christmas Festival – Carols Sing-Along. It was a lively selection of carols, featuring, among others, Deck the Halls and Joy to the World.

Superb musicianship; dry humor, and a nod to the younger generation – the perfect holiday adventure.

The National Chamber Ensemble’s Holiday Cheer!  played for one-night-only on Saturday, December 16, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington – 4444 Arlington Boulevard, in Arlington, VA. For tickets and information on future events, check their website.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.