Monday, January 30, 2006

Margaret Leng Tan

Margaret Leng Tan has been called the diva of avant-garde pianism, a label she lived up to in a vigorous performance Friday at the Freer Gallery.

With long, slender arms and large hands, Tan conjured an extraordinary collection of sounds from the piano, plumbing its bowels to produce scrapes, squeals, buzzing bees, woodblocks and windstorms.

Tan's Asian-themed program included Erik Griswold's attractive arrangements of two Chinese folk songs, and Ge Gan-Ru's "Ancient Music," both composed for prepared piano. Tan explained the term, demonstrating how inserting bolts, screws, rubber and even chewing gum into the instrument creates a miniature percussion section. The tin-can high tones and low buzzes became stand-ins for the Chinese pipa (lute) and qin (zither).

But for all the fascinating sounds Tan summoned, an essential ingredient was silence, especially in "The Seasons" by her mentor, John Cage. The Indian-inspired philosophy behind the music claims to imitate nature, but what was actually imitated sounded more like Satie in slow motion, smudges of Debussy and sputtering flashes of color.

Tan closed the concert by connecting two contrasting pieces by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, and delivering a warning, "It's going to get loud." "Litania" built slowly, then blossomed into full rage. Loudspeakers blasted a recording of Tan pounding out an additional part. Then, with her forearms, she pummeled half the keyboard, creating a swirling tornado of sound.

"A Gate to the Stars" followed without pause and provided the calm after the storm. Its warm, slowly unfolding chords let you know you were still alive, and thankful for the reprieve, and for the bold artistry of Margaret Leng Tan.

-- Tom Huizenga

Minetti String Quartet

If you're a card-carrying Mozart fanatic (and if you're not, what's the problem?), you were probably at the great composer's 250th birthday party at the Austrian Embassy on Friday night, where a packed house greeted the young and spectacularly talented Minetti String Quartet.

Let's just say this upfront: The Minetti has a huge future, boasting thoughtful interpretations, beautiful ensemble work, crisp articulation and flawless technique -- not to mention the fact that the players are drop-dead gorgeous.

Yet despite all that, the party got off to a rather slow start, with two very early Mozart quartets (the G Major, K. 156, and C Major, K. 157) that can only be described as slight. The works fluttered prettily like leaves in the breeze, leaving minimal impact on the ears, and were followed by yet more fluff and puff: Franz Schubert's Quartet in E-flat, D. 87. Schubert was only 16 when he wrote it, and it's not completely awful. But frankly, it felt like being stuck at dinner with a precocious, self-involved teenager. Unusual kid, talented, you wish him well, but really . . . doesn't he have somewhere to go while the grown-ups talk?

But never mind, because after intermission things got interesting. The Minetti dug into the first and only mature work of the evening, Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," D. 810, with a vengeance. And let there be no doubt: This was very high-caliber musicianship -- a nuanced, passionate, profoundly satisfying interpretation. Too bad for old Wolfgang, who got upstaged at his own party. But for the rest of us, it was simply a stunning and brilliant display of what string quartet playing is all about.

-- Stephen Brookes

Cravin' Dogs

The Cravin' Dogs celebrated their 20th year and the release of their new CD, "Will the Circle Be Housebroken," Friday night at the Barns at Wolf Trap with the kind of delirious frenzy they've been creating since their founding in 1986. In those days the ensemble sharpened its canine teeth at Babe's, Mr. Henry's, Food for Thought and the Grog 'n' Tankard, along the way refining its own vision of what folk rock should sound like and accumulating a following of dedicated Dogheads.

By night's end some 20 of the performers who were listed on the six-foot-tall "Cravin' Dog Pedigree" family tree in the lobby were onstage, reeling through the years for a roomful of blissed-out Dogheads who were once again caught in the band's swirling, jamming spell.

At the center of the maelstrom was singer-songwriter Caldwell Gray, who happily shared the microphone with vocalists Lisa Venable Gray and Aruz Kanegis. Core band members John Penovich on guitar, bassist Barry Warsaw, percussionist Tom Helf and electric violinist Todd Baker seemed pleased to make room for returning compatriots as they revisited "Circus Town," a terrific breakup song, "Resign" and "Roadtrip," in addition to dozens of other numbers the band created in the last 140 dog years.

It didn't hurt to have Bruce Hornsby's keyboard player, J.T. Thomas, and producer of note Doug Derryberry on piano. There was no indication the Dogs couldn't continue for another 20 years.

The event's opening act, the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours, continue to strengthen their reputation as one of the area's most reliably engaging bands. This local "super group" of sorts, with two hot guitarists -- Jake Flack (Thousand Dollar Car) and Dave Chappell (Billy Hancock) -- and bassist Mark Noone (Slickee Boys) and drummer Jack O'Dell (Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun), pumps out playfully catchy roots rock that never fails to satisfy.

-- Buzz McClain

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Bach fans came out in full force Saturday for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Pared down to a chamber ensemble, the orchestra brought a sterling "Evening of Bach" to the Music Center at Strathmore and a capacity audience obviously savoring every minute. Things opened with the Orchestral Suite No. 2, followed by the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R, and "Brandenburg" Concertos Nos. 2 and 5.

A new nationwide survey shows that increasing numbers of traditional classical musicians now also play early music (Bach and before), and the BSO is following suit. The higher strings stood baroque-style, the group's assistant concertmaster, Igor Yuzefovich, commenting, "The players enjoy playing in a small group where they can make music as individuals and more closely relate to each other."

Really a flute concerto, Bach's suite gleamed as principal flutist Emily Skala -- on a modern instrument -- whirled through what are essentially courtly dances. She gave no hint that Bach rarely allows time for performers to breathe (as singers know). Most spellbinding were her luminous melodic embellishments The oboe-violin concerto was reconstructed from the original for two harpsichords. In it, principal oboist Katherine Needleman showed she has fine-tuned the art of letting sustained notes glimmer and grow to glorious heights. While directing the musicians in baroque fashion, concertmaster Jonathan Carney responded with a tone of sweet resplendence. Soloists Skala, Needleman, principal trumpet Andrew Balio (working miracles on his high clarino instrument) and violinist Rebecca Nichols soloed with the Baltimoreans in a buoyant "Brandenburg" No. 2. Skala, Carney and harpsichordist Eric Conway led a driving, rhythmically punctuated version of No. 5. Conway sailed through the wildly florid cadenza of the first Allegro with improvisatory abandon.

-- Cecelia Porter

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