Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Judy Kuhn

Welcome back to the '60s, kids. The moment Judy Kuhn opened with the ooo-la-la-la's of Laura Nyro's groovy "Blackpatch" on Friday night at the Kennedy Center, you could feel the hippie wind begin to blow.

That may not have been what some in the Terrace Theater crowd were expecting. After all, Kuhn's credits include "Les Miz" and three Tony nominations on Broadway, plus highbrow musicals with Signature Theatre and a starring turn in "Passion" during the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration. Given that this was the second installment of the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series of cabaret performances, certain folks may have been surprised by the Blood, Sweat and Tears vibe.

Any objections should have been laid to rest as Kuhn and her seven-piece band (along with two backup singers, plus a cellist now and then) swept from "Blackpatch" to the blithe "Sweet Blindness." A slow, slapped electric bass and breathy sax gave way to the song's swinging inebriation, with Kuhn sounding like Carole King with a slightly steely edge.

Kuhn has just released a CD of Nyro material called "Serious Playground," which was the basis of her 70-minute set. The evening had its dark side, with Kuhn starkly rendering the junkie dirge "Been on a Train" and its documentary-intense lyrics, and giving the bluesy "Buy and Sell" hollow loneliness and a brief Broadway belt at the crescendo.

All well and good, but nothing next to the sheer joy and raw musical ambition of the best Nyro songs, many of which -- like "And When I Die" and "Stoney End" -- she wrote in her teens. Kuhn began "Stoney End" backed by an acoustic guitar, and the arrangement gained muscle even as Kuhn homed in on the loneliness of the lyric. "And When I Die" was played with more than a touch of funk, and Kuhn made the giddy but eccentric romantic melody of "Captain St. Lucifer" sound effortless.

With the lovely weirdness of "Stoned Soul Picnic" ("Can you surry/Can you picnic?"), the shifty and ebullient antiwar anthem "Save the Country" and, by way of an encore, a delicate piano and cello arrangement of "Mother's Spiritual," the modestly beaming Kuhn had made a solid case for her Nyro infatuation.

-- Nelson Pressley


One of music's most glorious choral works, Brahms's "German Requiem," was performed by Choralis at National City Christian Church on Sunday. Purely as music, the requiem reaches the heights, but with its text it is an even more soul-wrenching work, pitting the inevitability of death against an equally certain promise of consolation for grief. Brahms chose Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible as his text, rather than the Latin of the traditional Catholic requiem Mass.

But Sunday's concert, conducted by Gretchen Kuhrmann, proved disappointing in many ways, especially noticeable in this city of top-notch choruses. From the start, the score calls for a soft, throbbing pulse low in the orchestra, creating a strong kinetic sense of foreboding. But this was swallowed up in a muddied, overbearing forte. Likewise, the motion propelling "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras" ("For all flesh is as grass") was smothered in sonic density. Optional in the orchestral score, the organ merely added to the mire. The chorus could not be heard singing any consonants, making the text incomprehensible -- as in the piercing defiance of "Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?" ("Death, where is your sting?"). Surtitles would have helped.

Brahms's powerful fugues often sounded out of control, and the gradually intensifying counterpoint of "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" ("How lovely are your dwelling places") was lost in a voluminous din of choral sound. In addition, ensemble between choral and orchestral forces was often unsteady.

Danielle Talamantes's lovely operatic voice was marvelously vibrant and nuanced. Baritone Tad Czyzewski had an intonation problem in the third movement but recovered nicely in the sixth.

-- Cecelia Porter

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