Monday, November 7, 2005

21st Century Consort

The 21st Century Consort is a crack group of instrumental and vocal forces committed to bringing contemporary music to the public. Saturday's gripping performance at the Hirshhorn Museum was no exception, the group coursing through music composed in the past 50 years.

The most touching work heard was "Camp Songs," a mini-drama involving mezzo Milagro Vargas and baritone William Sharp, joined by Elisabeth Adkins (violin), Rick Barber (bass), Paul Cigan (clarinet) and Lisa Emenheiser (piano). Composer Paul Schoenfield based his music on five poems by Alexander Kulisiewicz, a Polish survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Kulisiewicz's seething anguish, couched in bitterly satiric verses, was set to equally mocking music that is a fusion of Berlin cabaret fare, Viennese waltzes and Slavic folk dance melodies. Christopher Kendall conducted a transfixing reading of Stephen Jaffe's "Homage to the Breath," a striking piece based on a mournful text that ultimately turns joyful.

Though played with vibrant intensity, two other works on the program were less than engrossing. Pianist Emenheiser did an imposing job with Nicholas Maw's "Personae VI," a rambling, astringent essay falling short of its composer's intent -- "to take the piano as a kind of drawing room orchestra" in a "metamorphosis of song," but, to my taste, moving nowhere. Cigan and Emenheiser made their way expertly through Arthur Benjamin's "Le Tombeau de Ravel," a dreary set of monochromatic waltzes.

-- Cecelia Porter

Bill Charlap Trio

No doubt a lot of people at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Friday night turned out to hear the Bill Charlap Trio peruse the Great American Songbook with an elegant touch. And no doubt most went home feeling they got their money's worth, thanks to freshly harmonized and deftly executed arrangements of tunes written by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other composers.

Indeed, some of the familiar melodies seemed to float on air, what with Charlap spinning feather-light thematic variations, drummer Kenny Washington employing brushes to create a cushiony swing pulse, and bassist Peter Washington (no relation) outlining the chord progressions with a warm, resonating tone.

Charlap has a romantic bent, to be sure, but as one might expect of someone who grew up in a jazz household before playing alongside the likes of Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, he mines pop standards with cunning intelligence. The trio's take on Porter's "Where Have You Been?," with its rubato introduction, swinging nonchalance and emphatic drum solo, was typical of the shrewd arrangements that used contrasting sections and shifting dynamics to delightful effect. Likewise, bluesy trills and tremolos sometimes dotted the pianist's rhapsodic flights, soulfully punctuating the mood.

The concert, however, wasn't entirely devoted to vintage pop tunes. The trio opened by paying tribute to Mulligan with an exhilarating performance of his zigzagging theme "Rocker." Later, a sublime interlude was inspired by guitarist Jim Hall's ballad "All Across the City," which found the trio quietly evoking its reflective tone and cinematic aura.

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