PERFORMING ARTS

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Russian-born New Yorker Regina Spektor could easily be compared to Tori Amos and Cat Power based on her piano-playing prowess alone. But as a singer she has much more in common with Bjork than most of her ivory-tickling counterparts.

Sunday night at the 9:30 club, Spektor spent most of her 75-minute set behind her keyboard. She did more than just croon like a lounge singer, though. She gurgled, sputtered and grunted to add percussion to her songs. On "Poor Little Rich Boy," her passion bordered on violence as she played keyboard with one hand and pounded a wooden chair with a stick with the other. She even switched to guitar on two songs, playing it more like a bass on "That Time" by emphasizing a long string of low, repetitive notes rather than strumming typical guitar chords.

The audience recognized the first few bars of Spektor's older songs with thunderous applause. But she also debuted a number of tracks from her upcoming album "Begin to Hope:" the bouncy, catchy "Better"; "20 Years of Snow," which paired her wailing with rolling keyboard lines; and "Fidelity," which stood out with its bright, delicate melody.

Even with such a heavy emphasis on new songs, Spektor obviously commanded the audience's attention. During the pensive "Summer in the City," she elicited a flurry of giggles with her declaration, "Summer in the city is cleavage, cleavage, cleavage."

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Haskell Small

Renoir's wonderful "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is back at its home in the Phillips Collection, and to mark its return, Sunday's concert there featured the premiere of Haskell Small's "Renoir's Feast," a study for piano of the personalities immortalized in the painting. The Phillips commissioned the work for the occasion, with Small himself at the piano before an audience full of some of Washington's most distinguished pianists.

This is a big piece, 35 minutes and 23 movements of character sketches tied together by gentle and rolling glimpses of "the river" that shines in the background of Renoir's scene. There is the burly Fournaise, river captain and boat owner who presides over Renoir's canvas and whose musically brusque but cheerful presence sets the tone for the whole group. The actress Ellen Andree is painted suggestively in slightly disheveled jazz colors as she drinks her wine. The Italian journalist Maggiolo's volatility is tempered by his companion actress Angele's calm.

Small's idiom includes a comfortable mix of impressionistic color, jazz and blues inflection, whiffs of Stephen Foster and a sense of improvisatory freedom. Small's personalities are as muted as Renoir's softened outlines. The people he portrays are good friends who share many characteristics, and so the personalities are drawn subtly and cerebrally; you get a sense of companionable conversation and French understatement rather than of enthusiastic partying.

Small almost dared comparison by programming the Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition" after intermission. Mussorgsky's bold outlines and splashes of color are the antithesis of Small's, with Russian subjects that are larger than life in their exuberance. But Small, approaching this music with a dollop more than usual of introspection and reflection, lacing passages with rubatos and keeping tempos on the slow side, proved that in the right hands, even Mussorgsky has his subtle side.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Haskell Small

Renoir's wonderful "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is back at its home in the Phillips Collection, and to mark its return, Sunday's concert there featured the premiere of Haskell Small's "Renoir's Feast," a study for piano of the personalities immortalized in the painting. The Phillips commissioned the work for the occasion, with Small himself at the piano before an audience full of some of Washington's most distinguished pianists.

This is a big piece, 35 minutes and 23 movements of character sketches tied together by gentle and rolling glimpses of "the river" that shines in the background of Renoir's scene. There is the burly Fournaise, river captain and boat owner who presides over Renoir's canvas and whose musically brusque but cheerful presence sets the tone for the whole group. The actress Ellen Andree is painted suggestively in slightly disheveled jazz colors as she drinks her wine. The Italian journalist Maggiolo's volatility is tempered by his companion actress Angele's calm.

Small's idiom includes a comfortable mix of impressionistic color, jazz and blues inflection, whiffs of Stephen Foster and a sense of improvisatory freedom. Small's personalities are as muted as Renoir's softened outlines. The people he portrays are good friends who share many characteristics, and so the personalities are drawn subtly and cerebrally; you get a sense of companionable conversation and French understatement rather than of enthusiastic partying.

Small almost dared comparison by programming the Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition" after intermission. Mussorgsky's bold outlines and splashes of color are the antithesis of Small's, with Russian subjects that are larger than life in their exuberance. But Small, approaching this music with a dollop more than usual of introspection and reflection, lacing passages with rubatos and keeping tempos on the slow side, proved that in the right hands, even Mussorgsky has his subtle side.

-- Joan Reinthaler


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