Monday, February 25, 2008

Carrie Newcomer

Folk singer, activist and Quaker Carrie Newcomer considered adding a line to her business card after a recent appearance at a peace conference in Tennessee where a protester -- "Yes," she said, still disbelieving, "they were protesting peace" -- branded her a "whore of Babylon." As she is anything but, the unlikely label got laughs whenever it was mentioned onstage at a sold-out Jammin' Java on Saturday night in a 90-minute set that revealed remarkable maturity punctuated with occasional whimsy.

Accompanied by fellow Hoosier Gary Walters on electric keyboard, Newcomer played gorgeous, bright melodies on acoustic guitar as she lyrically explored the territory between the mind and the soul, the clean newness of the spirit after troubled times, and the search for goodness in the community of mankind. And she did it deftly, without proselytizing or berating, and just as things threatened to get too serious she rolled out the up-tempo and humorous blues-based "Bowling Baby" and, a potential breakout hit, the ragtime-flavored and universally understood "Don't Push Send."

Newcomer has a big, clear voice for a small woman, but she uses its breadth sparingly, saving the top and bottom of her range for maximum impact on the song's messages. That vocal technique was particularly effective on the dark "A Mean Kind of Justice," the sprightly "There Is a Tree" and the contemplative "The Clean Edge of Change." And after two encores and three standing ovations, it would appear her audience appreciated the music as well as the sentiments.

-- Buzz McClain

Tak¿cs Quartet

Friday night was frustrating for string quartet fans. How could one possibly choose between two top ensembles -- the Alban Berg Quartet at the Library of Congress or the Tak¿cs Quartet at the Corcoran Gallery of Art?

Those opting for the Tak¿cs understood why the quartet garners such lofty praise -- even when the program appeared nothing more than an ordinary serving of Haydn, Brahms and Bartok.

The risk-taking quartet has been known to perform with Hungarian folk musicians or combine Philip Glass with dramatic readings of Philip Roth, but perhaps it's even more risky to program three common string quartets and then play them like your life depended on it.

At the center was Bartok's Quartet No. 5, an intricate and belligerent masterwork that still sounds completely new. The music seems to emanate from its core, a delirious scherzo, backed by Bulgarian rhythms that kick, slither and whirl in a drunken blur.

Virtuosity aside, the beauty of the performance was often in little details: cellist Andr¿s Fej¿r's sliding note, softly sealing the Adagio; a fleeting melody in the finale, efficiently strangled by violist Geraldine Walther; and violinist Edward Dusinberre's caterwauling mini-melodies in the Allegro.

Haydn's Quartet Op. 74, No. 2 couldn't have sounded more opposite. The Tak¿cs chose well to highlight the humor -- with extra pregnant pauses -- in this lightweight quartet, not among the master's most imaginative.

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