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PERFORMING ARTS

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

Anonymous 4 and the Cathedral Choral Society

Never did the Washington National Cathedral resound more grandly, sometimes with haunting overtones, than it did during Sunday's evensong service, a lengthy one titled "American Mystics." The rarely heard spiritual songs of an earlier America, performed by Anonymous 4, and the Cathedral Choral Society's 20th-century offerings both reached the cathedral's deepest recesses with reverberations down to the merest whisper.

J. Reilly Lewis conducted the choral music (with a few selections led by Todd Fickley). The vocal quartet, which has entranced audiences around the world with its intriguing repertoire and astounding vocal intensity, alternated with the chorus's handsome anthems. Amid the vocal works, Scott Dettra imaginatively probed the wide-ranging sonic possibilities of the cathedral's magnificent organ.

Anonymous 4 toured the musical past of Northeastern cities and the rural South though folk hymns, revival songs and gospel tunes. Themes of hoped-for deliverance from a hard life and spiritual rapture came across in the quartet's unwavering resonance, perfect intonation and unbridled conviction.

The style of Sunday's choral music relies chiefly on repetition and sustained sound, reflecting a British tradition that has lingered on while Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Elliot Carter and other composers have made quite different waves in contemporary music. Choral highlights from the program included movements from Randall Thompson's exquisitely vocal "The Peaceable Kingdom," Frank Ferko's sonorous "O Gracious Light" (its torrents of recurring sound recalling Wagner's "Rheingold" Prelude) and two vibrant anthems by William K. Trafka and Dan Locklair. Both composers were present for the audience's warm reception.

-- Cecelia Porter

Verdehr Trio

When the time comes, the Verdehr Trio's legacy will be vast -- decades of wonderful performances and, probably more lasting, the commissioning of hundreds of pieces for a violin, clarinet and piano ensemble whose repertoire, until now, has been small.

Three new pieces were introduced at the Verdehr's performance at the Phillips Collection on Sunday: the Washington premiere of Stefan Freund's "Triodances," the world premiere of Gerard Schurmann's four-movement "Partita" and the U.S. premiere of Yinam Leef's "Canaanite Fantasy No. 5." All of these were written within the last three years and all reflect a maturity and a comfort with a contemporary idiom that is as attuned to the needs of the listener as to the imaginings of the composers.

Freund's three-movement dance set is witty, wry, soulful and cheerful. His idiom is tonal and accessible and he uses the syntax bequeathed to him by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok and the rest fluently in ways that are neither self-conscious nor stilted.

Schurmann is a contrapuntist at heart. In the "Partita" his thematic material is crafted to be easily recognized, four-note snippets that leap out at you in all their variety of identities. The concluding "Capriccio" movement, driven brilliantly by pianist Silvia Roederer, violinist Walter Verdehr and his wife, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, was a triumph of coordination.

Leef's piece was the most adventurous and, in some respects, the most difficult to make sense of. At times there seemed to be a story line hidden in the music's agenda. Moments of blissful repose were interspersed with events fraught with tension and anxiety. Textures and sonorities were always interesting but there seemed to be a lack of direction that made the piece seem longer than it actually was.

Max Bruch's "Nachtgesang" and two happy Slavonic Dances by Dvorak rounded out a brilliantly played program.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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