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PERFORMING ARTS

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.

-- Mike Joyce

National Philharmonic Opera

Some operas work well in concert performance. "The Magic Flute" is not one of them.

Longtime WGMS radio personality Dennis Owens, host and narrator of the Philharmonic Opera's Saturday night performance at Strathmore Music Center, called Mozart's work "an opera for people who don't like opera." True -- its fairy-tale elements and exotic settings give it wide appeal. Without these, this variegated opera is reduced to black-and-white -- the predominant colors in this non-staging.

This is too bad, since the singing was mostly good and in two cases excellent: Leon Williams charmed as a resonant, full-voiced Papageno, and Esther Heideman was a marvelous Pamina with a ringing upper register. Israel Lozano as Tamino was outclassed, distractingly carrying his music around and singing from (and by) the book.

Amy Hansen as Queen of the Night looked misplaced in an off-the-shoulder gown, but sang vibrantly if without real menace. Colin Eaton (Monastatos) had a thin but clear voice. Julie Keim was cute as Papagena, though the decision not even to color-coordinate her with Williams was bizarre. The Three Ladies -- Danielle Talamantes, Rosa Lamoreaux and Yvette Smith -- sang brightly and with nice ensemble. So did the Three Boys -- area residents Devin Gajewski, Benjamin Parzow and Nicholas Teleky. But David Langan, dressed like a wedding usher, was out of his depth as Sarastro: He could not handle the low notes.

Piotr Gajewski conducted with economy and the National Philharmonic played with precision as Owens helpfully traced the plot while he unhelpfully critiqued it. The music was marvelous, but most of the magic was missing.

-- Mark J. Estren

Ustad Mahwash and Ensemble Kaboul

The percussion section of a Western symphony orchestra typically includes timpani, snare and bass drums, cymbals, gongs, tambourines, wood blocks and triangles played by a host of musicians. On Friday, Afghan drummers (singly or in duos) forged musical sounds of orchestral proportions that transfixed an audience at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. All these effects were created solely by hands in a sophisticated art involving the fingers, palm and whole hand flickering over drum surfaces and rims with mind-blowing gradations of tone, volume, vibrato and pitch.

The drummers were part of the Ensemble Kaboul, a group forced into exile from its native Afghanistan when the Taliban imposed a five-year ban on musical performance. The ensemble included Daud Khan Sadozai on the rubab and sarod (short-necked lutes), Prabhu Edouard on the tabla (Indian hand drum), Gholam Nejrawi on the zirbaghali (a vase-shaped hand drum), and Khalil Ragheb on the harmonium. These instruments reflect Afghanistan's ethnic complexity, one encompassing Persian, Arabian and Indian influences.

Despite Afghanistan's long-standing restrictions against women in music, Ustad Mahwash made her way to fame in Afghan ghazals -- classical and popular vocal music. Together with the virtuoso instrumentalists, Mahwash covered a lot of territory with rhythmically and melodically florid songs rich in imagery and touching on both human emotions and religious themes.

-- Cecelia Porter

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