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Former Prodigy Hahn's Prime Time

By Terry Teachout
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page N05


Ididn't expect wonders when I went to Lincoln Center to hear Hilary Hahn play the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the New York Philharmonic -- just a beautiful performance. Nor was it my idea to go in the first place, even though I'm one of Hahn's most ardent fans. I don't make it to all that many orchestral concerts nowadays, but a friend wanted to hear this one, so I got the tickets, showed up at Avery Fisher Hall in the pouring rain and settled into my seat, little knowing that I was to behold a miracle.

What made the concert so special? Let's start with Hahn, a profoundly gifted woman who has somehow retained much of the mystery of her early days as a child prodigy. Her playing is wholly unaffected, yet in no way naive. Perhaps the right word is transparent: You can see through her all the way to the music itself. To hear such artists is to wonder in vain where their inspiration comes from. Especially when they're very young, I sometimes feel as though they might almost be angels, carrying a message they themselves cannot yet fully comprehend.

Richard Easton, left, and Matt Letscher, part of the winning production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. (Joan Marcus Via AP)

Sir Edward Elgar was himself a complicated child of the Victorian era, an artist who longed to be a gentleman. He knew ecstasy, but only for fleeting moments, and the essential quality of the Violin Concerto is a passionate yet oddly innocent longing that speaks of final unfulfillment. It's anything but surprising that he meant it as a musical portrait of a woman friend with whom he had what appears to have been an intense but unconsummated romance (a well-known fact, of which the author of the Philharmonic's program notes was evidently unaware).

Such a piece might have been made for an ex-prodigy, and Hahn played it perfectly. She recently recorded it for the DGG label, and her CD will give you some idea of what you missed, but some unexpected visitation of grace caused her performance with the New York Philharmonic to go deeper still. I wept to hear Elgar's unfulfilled yearnings confided from the stage of Avery Fisher Hall with such heartfelt simplicity.

What's more, I was surprised by how Hahn and her colleagues managed to overcome the distractions that now seem to be part and parcel of formal classical concertgoing, at least in Second City: the ugly halls, the dull acoustics, the absence of under-50 faces in the audience, the cell phones and coughing and compulsively premature applause. All these things depress me so much that I find it hard to push them aside and listen. Yet as I walked home, I realized that I'd forgotten all about them when Hilary Hahn started to play. They might have been a million miles away. Or maybe I was.

Despite the splendor of this particular evening, I generally find myself taking more pleasure in musical performances given in less formal spaces. Though jazz, for instance, is now an accepted part of concert hall life, I like it best in clubs, the smaller the better. The Triad is one of the Upper West Side's more interesting rooms, with a singer-oriented policy that wanders unpredictably from cabaret to hard-core jazz, so when I heard that Julia Dollison was playing there in December, I went out of my way to save the date. I've been going out of my way to hear her ever since she moved from Miami to New York a few years ago, and this gig -- a warm-up for her appearance Thursday at the prestigious International Association for Jazz Education conference in Long Beach, Calif. -- left no doubt that a promising young vocalist has come into her own.

Dollison's full-bodied yet sweetly airy voice has always been a wonder, and her self-penned arrangements are subtle to a degree rarely found among the present generation of once-over-lightly jazz singers. (At Triad, for instance, she offered a version of "Night and Day" cunningly superimposed atop the wild harmonic steeplechase of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps.") What's new is the band that accompanies her. No piano, no drummer, just Steve Cardenas on guitar, Thomas Martin on bass and Samuel Torres on the cajon, a hollow wooden box out of which a keen-eared, light-handed percussionist can draw a rainbow of intriguing sounds. (You sit on it when you play.) The spacious, uncluttered musical textures of this unconventional lineup set off Dollison's singing to memorably appropriate effect.

Second City may be short on ingratiating concert halls, but it has an abundance of excellent theaters, some charmingly run-down and others bright and shiny. Among the latter is Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where Mark Lamos's rollicking production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" is playing to audibly happy crowds.

"The Rivals" is best remembered for Mrs. Malaprop (Dana Ivey), the grande dame whose command of the English language is absurdly approximate, plus a stage full of variously preposterous characters whose romantic travails stimulate the kind of laughter I expect to hear at a Broadway musical, not a classic written in 1775. Great cast, great staging, great set -- what's not to like? Absolutely nothing. "The Rivals" is supposed to close Jan. 23, but it's hard to see why it shouldn't run until spring.

Neil LaBute's "Fat Pig," produced by MCC Theatre and playing off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Jan. 15, is a "comedy" of a tougher-minded kind. Can a cute guy (Jeremy Piven) who loves a chubby girl (Ashlie Atkinson) stand up to the savage kidding of his unmerciful "friends" (Andrew McCarthy and Keri Russell)? In LaBute's disillusioned hands, this isn't a one-sentence pitch for a sappy love-conquers-all fable, but a glittering morality play that lets no one off easy, least of all the audience. Crisply directed by Jo Bonney ("Living Out") with bull's-eye performances by everyone in the cast, "Fat Pig" is the strongest piece of work LaBute has turned out in as long as I can remember, and the first play of his that I've ever recommended without a list of qualifications as long as my arm.

I wouldn't be surprised if "Fat Pig" transfers to Broadway -- it certainly should -- but if you can, catch it at the Lucille Lortel first, where you can sit up close and watch the characters sweat.

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