Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dog Waggers

It's not at every show that you get a free package of dog treats with your admission, but that's the Dog Waggers for you.

The Northern Virginia roots band has a wry sense of humor -- demonstrated in its lyrics as well as in its presentation -- and the canine jerky was its way of getting an audience to sit, stay and maybe roll over.

Not that any extra inducement is needed. Sunday night at Jammin' Java the five-piece band, which formed in 2004 and released a fine debut album this year, "Chasin' Tales," played an impressive set of rootsy country rock that had a welcome Texas spiciness in the melodies and instrumentation.

The show kicked off with a countrified arrangement of "Deck the Halls" that brought Hunter Jones's bright mandolin picking to the top of the mix.

It wouldn't be the last time Jones's playing -- on keyboard, on banjo, on harmonica and on a 1953 double-neck steel guitar -- enlivened a number with an authentic Americana accent. Bassist Rick Thiele and drummer Kurt Sayce laid down a galloping rock beat that served as the foundation for lead guitarist Geoff Pemble's clever solos and occasional vocals (including "God Save the Pork Queen," a novelty item that got the band on Des Moines TV).

Rhythm guitarist and primary singer Dave Bloom sang with easy confidence and a knowing grin. And why not with such slightly askew songs as "Mean People Suck" and "Another Northern Virginia Snowday" ("I got my milk, I got my T.P. . . . Let liberals take leave this morning") on the set list. On less whimsical numbers, such as the elegant "She Rode an Appaloosa," he invoked the spirit and timbre of one of his influences, Ray Wylie Hubbard, no easy feat.

It was, in all, a fetching night of homegrown music. Clearly the Dog Waggers are barking up the right tree.

-- Buzz McClain

Cantate Chamber Singers

Claudio Monteverdi's monumental but seldom-heard Vespers was performed by the Cantate Chamber Singers at St. Paul's Lutheran Church on Sunday. Of colossal proportions, the 1610 work is a four-part collection: a Mass, Vespers psalms, two Magnificats honoring the Virgin Mary, and a set of free-standing motets. Sunday's performance, which offered the psalms, motets and one Magnificat, was dedicated to the memory of the early-music virtuoso Scott Reiss, who died last week.

Poorly paid as music director at the Italian court of Mantua, Monteverdi sought greener fields, designing the Vespers to demonstrate his versatility in composing in both an older, Renaissance style for the Mass section and in the newer operatic fashion for the other parts -- emphasizing single words with florid, even flamboyant melodic ornaments and white-hot dissonances. Conductor Gisele Becker underlined the transcendence and novelty of Monteverdi's writing. The chorus offered its usual shimmering clarity and thoughtfulness. The chamber group of strings and recorders joined with the period winds of the Nieuw Haarlem Consort in a beautiful display of virtuosity. Unfortunately, from a seat far to the side, my view of the consort was blocked, while choral and instrumental balance sounded somewhat askew.

The soloists (soprano Joan McFarland, mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, tenors Robert Baker and Adam Hall, baritone Bobb Robinson and bass Mark Mason) spun out the score's elaborate melodic forays, trills and echo effects with skill, eloquence and a deep understanding of its compelling drama.

-- Cecelia Porter

Washington Chorus

As holiday concerts go, the Washington Chorus's "Music for Christmas" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday had a comfortable familiarity, from its all-carol program to the traditional sonorities of the accompanying National Capital Brass and Percussion. Carol arrangements ranged from the orb-and-scepter high-Anglicanism of David Willcocks to the feel-good American perkiness of Jerry Brubaker and Roger Ames -- the latter's "Rejoice" medley particularly appealing for its smart brass writing and rhythmic deconstructions.

The sluggish soprano solo in Mozart's Laudate Dominum and consistently anemic organ registrations were the afternoon's only missteps. Otherwise, there was much to admire in the punchy attacks, refined blend and satisfying vocal mass that conductor Robert Shafer drew from his 150-strong chorus. Shafer's own, Bach-derived composition, "Non Nobis Domine," proved a gorgeous highlight of the concert. But even more ear-catching was the harmonically pungent setting of "There Is No Rose" that Washington Chorus member Brian Bartoldus wrote for the H-B Woodlawn Chamber Singers, a high school ensemble that performed as guests on the program.

High school choirs can be a purgatorial experience, but these 19 students were terrific. Under Jeffrey Benson's fine musical direction, they sang with an exquisite blend, subtlety of phrasing, confident musicianship and fully supported tone -- even when dynamics were at a whisper -- that would be the envy of some professional ensembles. Good call on Shafer's part to offer them the spotlight.

-- Joe Banno

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