Monday, November 27, 2006

National Philharmonic

The juxtaposition of one of Shostakovich's dourest works with one of Tchaikovsky's sunniest scores produced a National Philharmonic concert of emotional extremes at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, for soprano, bass and chamber orchestra, is actually a cycle of 11 death-obsessed songs. Written in 1969, it abounds with unusual instrumental effects: five-string double basses, a duet for soprano and cello, a military march played on xylophone, and more. And it is a dark, dark piece, with moods ranging from the melancholy to the depressive.

Music Director Piotr Gajewski was bold to program this rarely heard work, and he understandably felt a need to explain it to the audience. Unfortunately, Gajewski's decision to talk after the first, fourth, seventh and ninth songs robbed the work of its considerable cumulative power. Surtitles or texts with translations would have been much more useful.

Bass Nikolai Didenko projected his strong, round tones well and was especially agonized in the setting of Apollinaire's "At the Sante Jail." Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya's dusky voice showed to good effect in two other Apollinaire poems: "Lorelei" and "The Suicide." Every one of the orchestra's 21 players excelled in his or her role in a work that is difficult to play and to hear.

Tchaikovsky's lovely Serenade for Strings functioned mostly as an encore and was to some extent an afterthought. There was more warmth than precision here, and tempos wandered. Perhaps the Shostakovich had left the musicians as emotionally drained as the audience.

-- Mark J. Estren

Binelli-Ferman Duo

There were ample chances to explore the tango and other Latin American musical styles at the Embassy of Argentina Saturday night. From Daniel Binelli's remarkable command of the bandoneon, it is hard to imagine any sonic possibilities beyond those he squeezed out of the small accordion (which has buttons on both sides and no keyboard). Polly Ferman, Binelli's partner, likewise plumbed every rapturous region of piano sound as the two alternated in duos and solos.

Some of the most stunning and elegant playing came with several works of Astor Piazzolla, who virtually transformed the Argentine tango into an art form. With Binelli and Ferman's teamwork, one missed none of the nostalgia, lyrical passion and throbbing dance rhythms that mark Piazzolla's works. The duo also performed tangos and milongas (which mix Afro-Cuban and other elements) by Horacio S. Salgan, Cobian Cadicamo, Cluzezu Mortet, Juan Jose Ramos, Angel Villoldo and Binelli himself. In different ways all this music seems to toy with dissonant tone clusters and fluctuating tempos, forging continual tension that is now tightened, now dissolved.

Binelli stretched and compressed the long bellows-like midsection of the bandoneon to create plaintive, melodic solos, sweeping orchestral timbres and crashing percussion effects. One of Ferman's most ravishing solos was her delicate, pondering approach to Piazzolla's "Oblivion." In their duos, the two musicians engaged in ravishing improvisatory flights of fancy that spelled pure jazz.

The concert was an Embassy Series event.

-- Cecelia Porter

In Series: 'The Magic Flute'

"Be truthful." Pamina's cautionary advice to Papageno in the Act 1 finale of "The Magic Flute" was the only line of Mozart's libretto retained in the In Series's current production at the GALA Hispanic Theater-Tivoli Square.

This ambitious, iconoclastic company specializes in contemporary updates of Mozart, and no one could complain that its latest offering was at all "yesterday." Set in and around a rehab clinic, its dialogue is sprinkled with such words as "phat," the eponymous flute is now a high-tech camera phone with Bluetooth capability, condoms are waved about, and characters sing lines such as "I'd like to think that happy endings don't only happen on TBS."

Much of this was amusing and, on its own terms, would likely have tickled the scatologically inclined composer. But the raison d'etre for this or any re-imagining of a musical masterpiece is to acquaint (or reacquaint) today's audiences with that which made it timeless. And when the music is disfigured, the update risks becoming meretricious.

The resplendent power of this work comes from the singers and the orchestra. While these singers were uneven, all parts were properly presented. Mozart's multi-hued orchestra, alas, was chopped down to six instruments, with a piano trying to fill the gaps. Space and budgetary considerations are formidable challenges for any small opera company, but numerous local groups of comparable scale manage to field a full, if modest, orchestra. This was like a Vermeer in black-and-white on newsprint.

"The Magic Flute's" run ends Sunday.

-- Robert Battey

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

On Saturday in Meyerhoff Hall, the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya presented two perennial favorites -- Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 -- preceded by a brief, invigorating new piece: "River's Rush" by Kevin Puts, a talented American composer who teaches at the University of Texas.

"River's Rush," written in 2004, joins a distinguished body of hydrographic works, from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony to Wagner's "Das Rheingold" Prelude to Smetana's "The Moldau" and, of course, various impressionist pieces. This work has echoes of all of these but carries its own foaming, hyper-kinetic style. Puts was present, and afterward the orchestra gamely applauded the guy who wrote licks a few of them clearly found unplayable.

Piano soloist Simon Trpceski was not perfectly suited to the Rachmaninoff. It is hard to imagine anyone's fingers moving faster or more accurately than his, but it was too often at the expense of phrasing, clarity and the composer's signature growling sonority.

His encore, Brahms's luminous Intermezzo in A, confirmed Trpceski's tendency to play on the surface of the keys, although here the musical line was perfectly etched.

In the Tchaikovsky, Harth-Bedoya led amiably but without much depth. He let his musicians play, rarely pushing or prodding them. The brass drowned everyone else out at will, and no effort was made to tame them. At other times, however, the strings displayed a lovely, focused, corporate sound, and in the end Tchaikovsky's genius carried the evening.

-- Robert Battey

Traffik at Zanzibar

The energy never ceased Saturday night at Zanzibar, as Trinidad and Tobago soca band Traffik celebrated its 15th anniversary. With the spotlight on flashy vocalists Shurwayne Winchester, Candy Hoyte and Olatunji Yearwood, the band members supportively kept the music festive. Although the ensemble's hour-and-a-half set focused on the sped-up calypso rhythms and singsong vocals that Trinidad is best known for, it also kept the dance floor packed via clever inclusion of reggae, hip-hop and R&B elements.

Winchester, who handled most of the singing, quickly confirmed his heartthrob reputation as he opened the night with a sweet-voiced rendition of the melody from "Don't Stop," a bubbly pan-Caribbean-meets-soul number. Later, Winchester nicely shifted from lilting up and down the scales to a more oratory style on compositions that emphasized rhythm more than melody. Behind Winchester, Traffik's eight instrumentalists showed what it takes to be a great party band. The keyboardists, drummer, bassist and guitarist tightly drove the intricate beats, as the horn players added flourishes. Performing material written by Winchester, band members and others, the musicians varied the tempos and shrewdly demonstrated how to pace a set.

Soca songs frequently feature exhortations to jump, and audience members were soon doing just that, as well as waving towels and Caribbean flags in the air. Hoyte's joyous, gospel-derived vocals carried "We Reach," while Yearwood added dancehall and rap-inspired verses to Traffik songs as well as covers. By the 3 a.m. Sunday closing, Winchester's shirt was off, Hoyte had added a spiritual aspect with her spraying of water over the crowd, and the band had thrown in a dose of flamenco-style guitar before powering through more of its frenzied international-style soca.

-- Steve Kiviat

Robert Randoph & The Family Band

Half an hour after Robert Randolph & the Family Band started playing at the 9:30 club on Friday night, nearly three dozen young women took the stage as the group performed "Shake Your Hips." The female fans made up a serpentine, undulating mass, shimmying as Randolph sat placidly in the center, strumming his sacred steel guitar.

Granted, it was not the coed topless dance party that had erupted on the same stage Thursday night during the Brazilian Girls' set. After all, this was a family affair.

As the name suggests, Randolph -- an Orange, N.J., native who grew up playing pedal steel guitar in his home town's Pentecostal House of God Church -- performs with his cousins Danyel Morgan on bass and Marcus Randolph on drums, while his little sister Lenesha provides backing vocals. (Keyboard player Jason Crosby rounds out the group.) Known for exuberant live performances, Randolph and his crew lived up to their raucous reputation with a two-hour set that incorporated elements of funk, go-go and even country music.

Many tunes on the band's recent album, "Colorblind" -- including the love song "Diane" and "Deliver Me" -- sound better in concert than on CD. When Lenesha Randolph sang out, "Do you want to be delivered?" the crowd responded with a roar. Few songs exemplify Randolph's musical flexibility more than "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That," the catchiest number on "Colorblind" and the tune he selected for his encore. "Whether it's rock-and-roll or old soul (it don't matter) /Disco, calypso (it don't matter) /Suit and tie or tie-dye (it don't matter) /Snakeskin or Timberlands (it don't matter)," he sang. And the audience, having gotten what it came for, cheered yet again.

-- Juliet Eilperin

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