PERFORMING ARTS

Marian McPartland: Happy birthday, and please let the lady play.
Marian McPartland: Happy birthday, and please let the lady play. (Kennedy Center)

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Marian McPartland

Some unsolicited advice for the producers of "Piano Jazz," Marian McPartland's acclaimed and long-running NPR program: Cut down on her paperwork, please!

Sure, it was a treat to hear the British-born pianist playing so well at her 89th-birthday concert Sunday night at Kennedy Center's Family Theater. Adding even more enjoyment to the performance, part of the center's Jazz in Our Time series, was McPartland's guest, pianist Billy Taylor. But the taping of "Piano Jazz" was so riddled with false starts and retakes that the snafus threatened to outnumber the concert's pleasures. Looking understandably befuddled while sorting through her notes in order to plug Web sites, podcasts, streaming audio and the like, McPartland may have felt the urge to ask: Is there a professional announcer in the house? It's a marvel someone didn't.

McPartland is nothing if not a trouper, though, and both she and Taylor managed to shine despite the numerous glitches. Indeed, when the pianists weren't dropping illustrious jazz names and swapping amusing tales about their early years playing in Manhattan, they traded choruses with cheerful aplomb. None of Taylor's tunes proved more soulfully alluring than "In Loving Memory," though there were other gems, including a sparkling duo performance of "Capricious." The duets found Taylor laying down a lush carpet of altered chords or producing rumbling, left-hand momentum while McPartland deftly embellished the melodies. Still, some harmonies were entirely audience-generated, as everyone in the house sang "Happy Birthday" to McPartland at evening's end.

-- Mike Joyce

Zukerman Chamber Players

Pinchas Zukerman, the world-renowned violinist, brought five young colleagues to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Sunday evening for an engrossing but curious performance of quintets by Mozart and Dvorak. Zukerman's matchless bow arm and smoldering musical intensity are those of a soloist through and through, which is not ideal for this sort of tightly integrated repertoire. The musical communication in the group was one-way: Everyone looked to their mentor as they played, even when they had the principal voice. Zukerman, playing Zeuslike, hardly ever interacted with anyone (other than occasionally his wife, the group's cellist).

Given this implacable center of musical gravity, it was remarkable how well-balanced the group sounded. The two violists in Mozart's String Quintet No. 3, K. 515, gamboled with warmth and humor, trading lines and blending wonderfully. Pianist Benjamin Hochman, playing with the lid up, tamed the thick writing in Dvorak's Piano Quintet, Op. 81, allowing everyone to be heard while finding moments of fluid individuality in his few solos.

The Dvorak Scherzo was both the high point and the one miscalculation of the evening. While Zukerman's virtuosity infused the outer sections with irresistible zest, he would not relax sufficiently for the sublime Trio section; and the lazy summer idyll by the lake felt like someone was watching the clock. One also wonders why, with only two pieces to play, Zukerman and company were so parsimonious with repeats. The omission of exposition repeats in both works did violence to the composers' careful structures and shortchanged an admiring crowd.

-- Robert Battey


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