Monday, February 19, 2007

Richie Spice at Zanzibar

On his most recent albums, Jamaican singer Richie Spice cleverly displayed a modern take on roots reggae; the production was more polished, his group used some contemporary keyboard-generated rhythms, and his singing displayed traces of rhythm and blues. Friday night at Zanzibar, Spice and his New Kingston Band took a rawer approach -- the tempos were faster, the instrumentation was noisier, and he chanted his vocals more than he crooned them. This method proved successful as well, thanks to Spice's engaging presence, his combo's skills and the harmonies of his backing female vocalists.

Dressed in a white suit with a bright red wrap over his dreadlocks, the 35-year-old Spice exuberantly delivered his bouncy songs and between-songs patter. Early in the set, though, his enthusiasm got the best of him: Spice awkwardly cut off the oh-so-catchy "Earth a Run Red," his best-known composition, to jabber with his band and the crowd. However, he soon regained his momentum with the lilting sociopolitical anthems "Black Like Tar" and "Brown Skin." Both cuts not only showed off his cultural pride, but also gave the band a chance to get in a groove.

Later, Spice shifted gears vocally and exhibited more of his soulfulness on "Ghetto Girl" and especially "Spinning Around," on which he wonderfully sang in falsetto. On "Youths Are So Cold," he and his band seamlessly pulled together all of their disparate strengths. The group mixed together laid-back '70s reggae rhythms with upbeat dancehall and rap elements as Spice drew on his vocal chops, his Rastafarian faith and his familiarity with the bleakness of life in Jamaican slums for the most impassioned selection of the night.

-- Steve Kiviat

Mastodon at the 9:30 Club

The braininess of Atlanta quartet Mastodon's fusion of metal and prog rock is apparent from the group's intricately cultivated elemental themes (fire on 2002's "Remission," water on the "Moby-Dick"-inspired "Leviathan," and earth on last year's "Blood Mountain") and from its consistent brand of album art executed in close collaboration with Philadelphia painter Paul Romano. On Saturday night at the 9:30 club, despite being removed from a calculated studio setting, the group still showed that intellect in a tight 75-minute set of raging guitar riffs and thunderous drum fills.

In fact, the only decidedly non-brainy moment of the performance came when singer-guitarist Brent Hinds motioned to the club's kitchen and asked whether the crowd ever threw food at a band. (Thankfully, no one succumbed to the power of suggestion.) For the rest of the smoothly flowing set, the group blazed through riff after stunning riff with few between-songs interruptions. Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders traded and shared vocal duties, their anguished bellows amplifying the passion on "This Mortal Soul" and "Aqua Dementia."

Though ardent, those vocals may have been the show's only weak spot, as it was nearly impossible to distinguish words (and therefore, those clever themes) in Hinds's and Sanders's roars. But the sold-out crowd hardly seemed to notice, judging from the sea of fists pumping in the air during the heavily cadenced "Blood and Thunder."

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Friday Morning Music Club

Relatively few people today know that Washington's Friday Morning Music Club helped establish the National Symphony Orchestra in the years before World War II, contributed to the development of the Washington Performing Arts Society and has supported many other area cultural organizations. The club started 120 years ago as a group of 15 women playing together on Friday mornings in the members' drawing rooms. By the 1940s, the FMMC Orchestra was launched as a string ensemble giving women an outlet for performing. (Until a few decades ago, female string players were rarely members of symphony orchestras; until the 20th century, in fact, it was generally deemed "improper" in most quarters of society for women to play string instruments publicly, if at all.)

On Friday, the coed string players of the FMMC Orchestra offered a free noontime concert of music by Arcangelo Corelli, Edvard Grieg, Wayne Barlow, Giacomo Puccini and Johannes Brahms. Playing at the Sumner School Museum, the musicians opened with Corelli's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7, a five-movement work for a small solo ensemble pitted against the full orchestra -- a genre virtually invented by this Italian baroque composer. Led by conductor Pablo Saelzer, Friday's performance was spirited in temperament, buoyed by energetic flourishes of sound that highlighted the music's tonal sweetness and busy contrapuntal textures.

Grieg's "Two Elegiac Melodies," Op. 34, followed, with Saelzer concentrating on its nostalgic compassion and folk-like tunefulness. The young oboist Joshua Arvizu soloed in Barlow's rhapsodic "The Winter's Passed." Arvizu has a generous, finely nuanced tone, beautifully rounded sustained notes and a warm vibrato -- all these qualities nicely supported by the orchestra. After a reading of Puccini's "I Crisantemi," a meaningless essay best left on the shelf, the program concluded with some of Brahms's "Liebeslieder Walzer." Saelzer was sensitively attuned to the many contrasting emotional inflections and rubato freedom of the music's rhythmic landscape.

-- Cecelia Porter

Robert Mann and Friends

There was a time when violinist Robert Mann and his Juilliard String Quartet colleagues roared through the repertoire, taking on Beethoven and Bartok and the rest with a fearless abandon that sometimes left debris in their tracks but much more often an aura of exhilaration and delight. But these days the Robert Mann who is now in his mid-80s -- and who, on Friday, was back at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium -- is taking his pleasures in quieter and more contemplative musical explorations.

With his "Friends" violinist David Fulmer, violist (and son) Nicholas Mann and splendid cellist Bonnie Hampton -- he led the way through a quiet but deeply felt reading of the last of Bartok's six string quartets. This is the most tranquil of the six, the one in which Bartok seems most trusting of his own lyrical powers, and the performance, focused and intense as it was, seemed leisurely and thoughtful.

Mann, whose other activities over the years have included conducting and composing, began the evening with two movements from his own 1951 Five Movements for String Quartet. The opening, titled "Suspended," in its quiet layers of sound and relaxed silences, was a splendid introduction to what the rest of the program had to offer, and the "Violent" movement gave notice that a fire of risk still burns in Mann's belly.

Violist Hsin-Yun Huang joined the ensemble for a well-balanced, unemotional and easygoing performance of Mozart's very complicated and harmonically adventurous String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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