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PERFORMING ARTS

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Elbow

Guy Garvey couldn't get over the venue his band, Elbow, played on Sunday.

"This is the most beautiful gig we've ever done, I think," the English singer-songwriter said as he surveyed the seated crowd and attractive decor in the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Then the lapsed Catholic with the soulful voice broke into "Grounds for Divorce" from Elbow's great new CD, "The Seldom Seen Kid."

In fact, the synagogue and its lovely acoustics played an accompanying role throughout the night. Elbow, which specializes in epic rock balladry with expansive arrangements -- vaguely reminiscent of Radiohead during "OK Computer" -- used the room like an extra band mate during its 13-song set. The seven musicians were able to let their big songs, such as "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver," wash over the space like water rushing to fill a welcoming valley.

Having a solid sense of the room after its eighth song, "The Stops" (another massive ballad), Garvey announced, "It seems to me now that synagogues were built for rock."

He encouraged the audience to take advantage of the venue's acoustics and raise their collective voice to sing a refrain from "Newborn." But as the audience hesitantly sang during the pre-song teach-in, Garvey joked, "Almost there. That was more Catholic." He then broke into a mumbling approximation of a Christian hymn.

The audience felt more confident singing during "On a Day Like This" later in the set, but ultimately it did just fine during "Newborn," whose soul-stirring crescendos felt like a multi-denominational religious experience -- as did Elbow's whole performance.

-- Christopher Porter

Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein

Sunday night's concert at the National Gallery of Art was a completist's dream. Cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Simone Dinnerstein performed all five of Beethoven's cello sonatas, including all of the repeats. Members of the audience tried to force an early intermission after the first hour, and many more left early. But those who remained for the final note, 2 1/2 hours later, did not complain.

Bailey and Dinnerstein recorded the first three sonatas in 2006, and this performance had all the hallmarks of a comfortable collaboration. Ensemble was taut even while rhythms were stretched and tempos were pushed to the edge, although both musicians tended to overemphasize the music's aggressive qualities, sometimes leaving little room to differentiate shape or color. Dinnerstein's figuration was clean and furious, but at points Bailey's tone was reduced to a near-pitchless rasp.

The sequential program, in order of composition, showed the arch of Beethoven's development. The two early sonatas of Op. 5 were angst-filled studies in contrast, centering the program on the more genial third sonata (Op. 69). The players took a gentler approach in the introspective first movement and executed the cycle's only scherzo with gusto and relentless, dance-like verve. The later sonatas of Op. 102 were appropriately enigmatic in style, with the growling complaint of Bailey's cello rudely cutting off the piano's attempts to reintroduce the main theme throughout the rondo movement of No. 4. If the performers' stamina wavered slightly in the demanding pages of No. 5's fugal last movement, it did not diminish the evening's extraordinary achievement.

-- Charles T. Downey

Dimmu Borgir

Somehow, you don't expect a metal musician who looks like a corpse to follow his guttural bellows about Satan with such concert tropes as "This is dedicated to all the beautiful girls out there!" But at the 9:30 club Sunday, Dimmu Borgir lead vocalist Shagrath courted his audience like a Top-40 hitmaker, asking the headbangers in attendance if they were having a good time and frequently expressing gratitude -- "Thank you for supporting black metal!" -- for their enthusiasm.

When spoken in a pitch that sounds scorched by hellfire, such comments were at best hilarious and at worst proved what detractors of the Norwegian sextet have been saying all along: They're just too mainstream to be taken seriously.

Indeed, overall the performance suggested a band that's merely playing at its genre. Not that the expected elements of a show featuring antichrist superstars weren't there. Popular tracks including "The Serpentine Offering" and "The Chosen Legacy" were accompanied by furious (if triggered) double bass, High Mass flourishes from dramatic keyboards to bassist Vortex's operatic backing vocals, and a screen that added appropriately menacing visuals such as blood-covered faces and pentagrams. With sometimes not even a beat between songs, the 75-minute set occasionally became a mid-tempo slog, but there were still plenty of moments that inspired major neck abuse.

Yet with every melodic chorus or cry of "Washington, D.C.!" Dimmu lost a little edge, coming across more as costumed Metallica than underground extremists. Even if that shout-out to the ladies was titled "A Succubus in Rapture."

-- Tricia Olszewski

New Dominion Chorale & Orchestra

Taking on a work as monumental and near impossible to perform as Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor is a supreme challenge. Thomas Beveridge, artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale and Orchestra, faced that assignment on Sunday at Virginia's Schlesinger Concert Hall. He controlled his vocal and instrumental forces with a sure hand even through Bach's intricate counterpoint, enabling Bach's music to go its inexorable and glorious way.

This piece can be effectively done even with one chorister per part -- closer to the style in Bach's day. But overall Beveridge (also a notable composer) made it work even with a chorus of well over 200 singers. Entrances were firm and tempos paced to underline the emotional impact of the Latin text; some Mass sections, such as the Gloria, were impelled with the vigor of dance. And the chorus paid unfailing attention to Beveridge's every gesture.

But there were some drawbacks. This volunteer chorus's balance and ensemble were inconsistent, with sopranos (occasionally under pitch) and altos too numerous against the tenors and basses. Playing on the stage in front of the chorus and overpopulated with string players, the orchestra -- especially the lower strings and timpani -- was often too prominent. And string articulation -- critical in baroque music -- sounded hazy at times.

The vocal soloists were splendid in their taxing roles, even in Bach's strung-out melodic lines that give no time to breathe. Both mezzo Barbara Hollinshead and tenor Robert Petillo have compelling voices, singing Sunday with intently focused clarity and soaring over the orchestra. Hollinshead's "Agnus Dei" offered a vibrant sensitivity to die for. Unfortunately, soprano Laura Lewis (in her middle and lower range) and bass James Shaffran couldn't always compete with the instruments.

-- Cecelia Porter

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