Monday, December 25, 2006

Andy Williams

Easy-listening crooner Andy Williams has not so much mellowed with age as aged into his innate mellowness. At DAR Constitution Hall Saturday night he sang -- and danced! -- with a vigor seemingly impossible for a 79-year-old man, gliding onstage while singing his signature holiday tune, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Age has taken some of the effortless timbre Williams's voice once possessed, but give the guy a break.

After four more Christmas songs drenched in the schmaltzy tones of his 10-piece band's three keyboards, Williams stopped, puzzlingly, to answer questions submitted by audience members before the concert. This lasted 20 minutes -- as long as the opening set of songs -- during which those dying to know how Williams stays in shape or whether that's his real hair (it is) had their Christmas wishes granted.

Williams was charming and good-humored throughout this long interlude, peppering his answers with jokes, one of them even vaguely PG-rated.

Some surprising song choices finished out the first half: Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Red" held up to the lounge treatment, and "Every Breath You Take" sounded oddly close to the Police's 1983 original. Before he sang the Backstreet Boys' "I'll Never Break Your Heart," Williams commented, "I love the song -- it's the Backstreet Boys I don't like," as though reassuring a troubled constituency.

Introducing "The Shadow of Your Smile," 1965's Oscar winner for best song, he lamented that this year's winner was called "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" -- apparently oblivious that the bright red suit and canary-yellow handkerchief he wore made him look more than a little ghetto-fabulous himself.

Returning for Act 2 in a tuxedo, Williams returned to familiar territory, performing his early-'60s hits ("Days of Wine and Roses," "Can't Get Used to Losing You") with surprising power. Another half-dozen Christmas songs preceded his finale, "Moon River," which he introduced as "my favorite Christmas song."

It was predictable, it was conservative, and judging by the response of an audience made up largely of Williams's contemporaries, it was exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

-- Chris Klimek

National Philharmonic: 'Messiah'

This time of year, Handel's "Messiah" comes packaged in all shapes and colors. The National Philharmonic's rendition of the choral masterpiece resounded with vocal vibrancy Saturday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Under the baton of Patrick Walders, associate conductor of the National Philharmonic Chorale, the chorus and orchestra emphasized the oratorio's drama so much that it sounded nearly operatic.

From the subdued, half-voiced moments in "Since by man came death" to the triumphant cries of "wonderful counselor," the immediacy of the 100-plus voices was striking. They were underscored by the orchestra's dark tones and robust musicmaking.

As a group, the soloists were a well-rounded quartet, characterized by fluid singing and innate musicality. Walders allowed space for extemporaneous moments, which made this oratorio a true showcase for the voice.

Sharla Nofziger sent forth an elegant, larklike soprano whose glittery timbre flattered lyrical arias better than faster passages. Mezzo Delores Ziegler's warm, honeyed voice, on the other hand, was better suited for linear locomotion, her slower arias inflected with subtlety. Tenor Nathan Davis sang tenderly with myriad emotions informed by a natural sense of baroque decorum, while Philip Cutlip's molten-amber bass sustained phrases effortlessly and artistically for lengthy durations.

Though there were a few sour notes in the upper strings and hints of off-tempo moments in the chorus, the spirit of the music and the beauty of the human voice were never overlooked or lost.

-- Grace Jean

Master Chorale Of Washington

The Master Chorale of Washington sang a few unusual pieces for its Christmas concert on Saturday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, but much of the program could also be heard in the malls most Decembers.

Still, the familiar repertoire (and Music Director Donald McCullough's engaging patter from the stage) drew a packed house of holiday-spirited folks and their progeny, and the resplendent singing of the chorale made the old tunes involving once more.

McCullough himself composed the most substantial unfamiliar work on the program, "Canite Tuba" (Latin for "Sound the trumpet"). The composition returns too often to a hyper-bright sound in which loud brass chords support high notes from the chorus, a sound that became especially grating in the bombastic, overlong coda. But in the work's quieter moments, rich, close harmonies effectively evoke the mystery of the Nativity. The Master Chorale easily compassed all the demands of the work, making the best possible case for it.

The chorale's gorgeous tone colors and faultlessly clear diction enlivened the more familiar tunes, including "Christmas Time Is Here," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the conflation of beloved carols known as "Christmas Day." The candlelight processional and recessional, during which the chorale sang classics like "Silent Night" and "Angels We Have Heard on High," had a special intimacy, with the choristers spread throughout the hall.

And the singalongs were a real treat -- as McCullough said, "The act of 2,500 people singing communally doesn't happen often," and the sheer volume and joy in "O Come All Ye Faithful" produced goose bumps no matter how many times you've heard the hymn.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Luke Brindley

Rarely does a band put its music across live the way it does under the controlled conditions of recording, but Luke Brindley and his six-piece unit did just that Friday night at Jammin' Java. The performance was singularly impressive in its range of musical styles, from the triple-A "Never Alone" to acoustic guitar folk, including "Dervish," a duet with brother Daniel on hand drum.

There are dark overtones to Luke's originals, but now and again an early Springsteen vibe comes through, as well as a Van Morrison vocal quirk that catches the ear, two descriptions that are not new but valid nonetheless. For a rock band it was refreshing to hear Jared Bartlett's electric guitar, fine as it is, used as a background instrument instead of at the fore. The songs are intended to stand on their own merits, and they do.

"Hold On to the Mystery" emphasized Luke's heartfelt sentiments with a melody that smoothly goes up several registers on the chorus; "Keep Me in Your Heart" is an acoustic tune that defies the label of folk.

The evening was a CD launch for Luke's self-titled disc, as opposed to his work as part of the Brindley Brothers; be that as it may, Daniel's keyboards fit between Luke's deft guitar lines like pieces of an easy puzzle. And for a young band the Brindleys play like seasoned professionals, with a purpose that aims high.

The finale found the band accompanied by guest vocalist Mary Ann Redmond for "Man on Fire," a good description of Luke Brindley's possibilities.

-- Buzz McClain

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