Thursday, February 22, 2007

Marnie Stern

The most fascinating racket we might hear in 2007 comes from a virtuoso metalhead with the fashion sense of a soccer mom. Her name is Marnie Stern and she put on a dizzying show Tuesday at Warehouse Next Door, her blond ponytail bobbing as she dashed through a repertoire of brain-scrambling guitar riffs on her Fender Jazzmaster.

The guitar-slinging Brooklynite's excellent debut album, "In Advance of the Broken Arm," landed in stores earlier that day -- it's a manic and mystifying affair, teeming with kiddie-friendly melodies and heavy-metal histrionics. But Stern, clad in jeans and hooded sweat shirt, didn't have time to plug the album's release. She performed solo while an iPod attached to her belt loop served up a quick succession of backing tracks. The rushed delivery made her whirlwind six-song set feel unhinged, yet perfectly succinct -- enough to make your head spin, without making your head ache.

The woman has chops, but unlike the losers who spend their weekends showboating at the local Guitar Center, Stern's unorthodox finger-tapping suggested someone frantically typing an e-mail. With both hands streaming down the fret board during "Vibrational Match," Stern appeared to be both amused and perplexed by her own talents, smiling and grimacing between vocal outbursts. She flashed another look during the virtuosic "Precious Metal," sticking out her tongue like Michael Jordan winding up for a dunk. Either that, or she was taunting all the guitar players in the crowd.

-- Chris Richards

Amedeo Modigliani Quartet

The Amedeo Modigliani Quartet made its Washington debut Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Not yet four years old, with members still completing conservatory studies in Paris, this impressive group is clearly an up-and-comer. From the very first notes of the insouciant but treacherous "Italian Serenade" by Hugo Wolf, the quartet displayed an assured, high-voltage profile.

The Modigliani is scrupulous with dynamics, conveying extreme intensity in the softest passages, and commands the widest range of color and articulation. In the Ravel Quartet, every bar of this familiar masterpiece seemed to have a fresh aspect. But here, the group's main shortcoming appeared: It lacks a sense of pulse. Ravel's pellucid score is very detailed, but the ensemble read into it a slew of tempo changes, pauses and ritardandos that are not to be found. It was here also that one noticed the first violinist's aversion to moving his bow evenly, causing all sorts of peaks, valleys and swells in the sound. Fortunately the other musicians were not similarly afflicted; but creating long musical lines, using a continuous and graded vibrato, is not yet in this group's arsenal.

The Beethoven Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3, began with an unpleasantly astringent Andante, and the main Allegro then flew by. Indeed, the tempos all night were on the fast side, sometimes uncomfortably so (for the listeners if not the players). Beethoven's epic took on a rock-video quality, lacking any moments of repose or awe. With its immense musical gifts, though, this foursome has the potential to someday reach the top echelon.

-- Robert Battey


Paul McCandless, co-founder of the innovative jazz and world beat ensemble Oregon, doesn't travel light. He arrived at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Tuesday night with "all the instruments the airline allows," he said -- including oboe, English horn, sopranino, soprano and tenor saxophones, penny whistle and flutes. Oh, yes, and a bass clarinet that produced deeply resonating tones and noir-ish tints.

The arsenal of woodwinds and McCandless's unflashy virtuosity were put to good use during a concert that encompassed 30 years of recordings, including pieces that didn't always square with the quartet's reputation for favoring serene moods and chamber jazz sonorities. True, some of guitarist Ralph Towner's compositions, particularly the minor-key musing "Distant Hills," were quietly evocative, full of long tones, gut-string arpeggios and drummer Mark Walker's rustling percussion.

But the mood pieces were dramatically punctuated by rhythmically animated and harmonically complex interludes, either composed or improvised. At one end of the spectrum was "Hoedown," an exuberant showcase for Walker and bassist Glen Moore, who playfully blended country, Celtic, jazz and funk influences. At the other end was a free-jazz interlude, ringing with spiky intervals and dissonant chords. Towner, who played piano and synthesizer in addition to guitar, helped color the vibrantly orchestrated pieces. Having just completed a recording session, the band also unveiled a new piece -- still untitled -- that took full advantage of McCandless's extraordinary versatility and Moore's fat tone and melodic flair. Following a long standing ovation, the quartet offered up a calming encore: Towner's lovely ballad "Green and Golden."

-- Mike Joyce

© 2007 The Washington Post Company