PERFORMING ARTS

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Robert Cray

"It's funky!" said bluesman Robert Cray at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, referring to the stifling humidity. Then he gave his Stratocaster a tug and added, "And it's gonna get even more so."

He kept that promise by surveying roughly 25 years of recordings, including such early hits as "Bad Influence" and "Strong Persuader," and by emphasizing the unmistakable elements of his guitar style: piercing tones, staccato riffs, offbeat rhythms and trademark vibrato. His guitar playing was as soulful as his vocals, which is saying something, and the single-note fills he used to punctuate the verses only heightened the emotional tension.

Over the years Cray has written and gathered a ream of narrative tales, but he's still able to keep each story straight in concert. At least one song is more relevant now than when it was written -- the Iraq war-inspired "Twenty" -- and the best of them, such as "Phone Booth" or "Poor Johnny," make the average blues lyric seem awfully trite by comparison.

Vigorously supported by keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes, Cray also flexed his fingers now and then, engaging in freewheeling, organ-powered jams that generated a series of rousing crescendos.

British singer-guitarist James Hunter opened the show with a small combo boasting tenor and baritone saxes. His voice cannily evoked a wide range of Southern soul music traditions, his guitar work was raw and percussive, and nothing heard all night proved more exhilarating than his cover of the 5 Royales' "Baby Don't Do It."

-- Mike Joyce

David Finckel and Wu Han

It's not often that you get to hear chamber music all-stars perform in an actual chamber-size hall these days because selling more tickets usually trumps any artistic imperative. So what a pleasure it was to listen to the great cello-piano (and husband-wife) duo of David Finckel and Wu Han at the Clarice Smith Center's modestly sized Kogod Theater on Tuesday. They were there as part of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival. This year the requirements for contestants have expanded to include a chamber music component and, as Han said in her opening remarks, they were there "representing chamber music."

The couple's program dutifully included pieces from the chamber repertoire's three big periods: the Classical, with Beethoven's Sonata No. 1, Op. 5; the Romantic, with Brahms's Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38; and the contemporary, with the Shostakovich Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40. As the equal partners they have always been on the concert stage, they chose pieces that assumed this balance.

The Beethoven, an early but daring work, was given a brilliant reading that emphasized kaleidoscopic mood shifts, humor and harmonic surprises. The performance might have been more powerful if it had been scaled down some (the gut strings and more delicate pianos of Beethoven's day would have done this automatically) and the clarity of the hall's acoustics might have been able to project details more subtly.

The Brahms was laid out in all its warmth and breadth, allowed to develop in its own time and to breathe. Together, Finckel and Han have figured out how to keep lyrical lines plastic without compromising rhythmic integrity, and they did that beautifully here. The Shostakovich was a blaze of color and passion. I've heard them play it more poetically in the past but never more powerfully.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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