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PERFORMING ARTS

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.

A lighter approach to Brahms's Quartet No. 2 was also a good choice. The music can sound like fabric too tightly woven, but the Tak¿cs aired out Brahms's thick textures, allowing colors to shine through. Oddly, the group rushed the opening movement with unnecessary compression.

Overall, it was a small quibble among memorable performances.

-- Tom Huizenga

Red Priest

If slapstick and the frenetic are your idea of a good time, then the show Red Priest put on at the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown on Saturday was right up your alley.

The recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord quartet, a purveyor of reconstructed (or perhaps deconstructed) baroque music, has put together a program called "Pirates of the Baroque," mostly its own arrangements (and spoofs) of music by such revered names as Bach, Telemann, Tartini, Corelli and Vivaldi (the original "Red Priest"). This the quartet romped through dressed in pirate-like garb and with heavy reliance on a small repertoire of sight gags.

The musicians' technical virtuosity is impressive. Ensemble leader Piers Adams can play faster and with cleaner articulation than any recorder artist I've ever heard. Violinist David Greenberg plays with splendid agility. Cellist Angela East, who spent most of the evening unenviably assigned to cellistic snarling, showed her true colors in a relatively straightforward and lyrical account of the Prelude from Bach's First Cello Suite. And harpsichordist Howard Beach roared around the keyboard in a manner that, to baroque ears, would have sounded thunderous.

Musically, the evening's main message and laugh producer was speed; the faster the notes burbled out, the more the audience seemed to enjoy it. The spotlight may have been on irreverence, but the repertoire of punch lines seemed thin indeed.

Of course, Red Priest hasn't invented the art of spoofing classical music. Among others, Victor Borge, Anna Russell and even Mozart (with his "Musikalischer Spass") were there first -- and a lot funnier.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Pro Musica Washington

A chance November meeting among three recent transplants to the area sparked the formation of Pro Musica Washington, a piano trio whose debut Saturday evening at the Lyceum in Alexandria was as unabashed as it was intense in decibels and emotions.

The chamber group's power derived in part from the piano played by Zeyda Ruga Suzuki. Known for its full tone and lingering resonance, the Boston grand anchored the ensemble and pushed it to sonic extremes.While the keyboard's timbre saturated the outer movements of Haydn's Piano Trio in C, Hob. XV:27, its lyrical qualities worked advantageously in the Andante movement.

The Boston was more conducive to the Romantic idioms found in Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, where Suzuki created a tapestry of vibrant colors upon which cellist Laurien Laufman and violinist Hidetaro Suzuki could generate dimensions of melodic textures, at first velvety, then silky and sometimes leathery. In Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, the musicians achieved an ensemble balance that allowed them to convey more subtleties in the score, especially in the variations. Among the finer moments, the strings' faint evocation of bagpipes as they accompanied the piano's music box passages left a lasting impression.

Violinist Suzuki said the trio promises to present more works in the future. It's worth keeping an ear out for the next performance.

-- Grace Jean

Aurora Guitar Quartet

The Aurora Guitar Quartet gave a charming performanceof Mozart's overtures to "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute" at Westmoreland Church on Saturday, drawing out the scintillating color and contrapuntal play of voices in the music.

Bizet's "Carmen" Suite suited the quartet even more handily, its Spanish-inspired material well paired with instruments of centuries-old Spanish pedigree. The arrangement (like the Mozart, uncredited in the program) drew considerable allure from flamenco strumming and castanet-like percussion created by fingernails on the guitars' sounding boards.

More recent Latin music by Cuban-born Leo Brouwer, Brazilians Sergio Assad and Paulo Bellinati, Los Angeles-based Carlos Rafael Rivera and Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla provided a kaleidoscopic range of timbres and polyrhythmic evocations of dance. Of the group, Brouwer has the headiest reputation as a guitar composer, but his minimalist techniques sounded simplistic and awkwardly structured here, with programmatic titles mismatched with the actual music: Wooden sticks wedged between the strings for a steel-drum effect in "Cuban Landscape With Rumba" created a sound more Asian than Cuban, and evoked rain more tellingly than the bell tones and locomotive rhythms in "Cuban Landscape With Rain."

-- Joe Banno

Daniel Johnston

The love was flowing for Daniel Johnston at the Black Cat on Saturday. A vocal, sold-out crowd comprising the kind of hipsters whose usual concert behavior is motionless and stoic bopped their heads, cheered and shouted endearments for the entirety of the Texas singer-songwriter's set.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that some people showed up expecting a train wreck. Johnston remains something of an indie-rock hero despite or perhaps because of his struggles with bipolar disorder, not to mention questionable guitar skills and a voice that would land him in a bad-audition montage on "American Idol," all of which derailed his career as quickly as it caught fire on the Austin scene in the '80s. But his true talent, songwriting, carried him to cult status anyway, with his melodic, simple but aching tunes covered by musicians from Bright Eyes to Beck and earning Johnston comparisons to Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan.

Though he was lucid for the 55-minute set, Johnston sometimes shook violently, made frequent mistakes and rarely looked away from his music stand. But his illness and imperfection lent already-beautiful songs such as "Life in Vain" and "True Love Will Find You in the End" a greater poignancy than a slick delivery could muster; his cover of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" felt like autobiography. All in all, he gave a compelling performance that lifted his touring beyond mere circus act.

After soldiering through a few tunes with an acoustic guitar on his own, Johnston brought out a guitarist and, after a short break, a full band that included opener Benjy Ferree. The fleshed-out versions of Johnston's compositions only highlighted his genius, even if he closed his set by wishing the crowd a merry Christmas.

-- Tricia Olszewski

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