Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Itzhak Perlman

Although Itzhak Perlman's playing has lost its sizzle in recent years, not helped by continuing inflammation from a shoulder injury, the Music Center at Strathmore was full Sunday afternoon for the violinist's 34th concert sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. The uneven program's high point was Schumann's "Fantasiestuecke" (Op. 73), in which the rubato had a pleasing stretch and pull. These three short movements presented the fewest technical challenges, not straying too much into the instrument's highest range, where the clarity of Perlman's left hand has faded.

Richard Strauss's Sonata in E-flat (Op. 18) had more color and nuance, especially in the poignant second movement, concluding in a bittersweet, elegiac tone. Bach's Sonata in E, BWV 1016, seemed like a throwback to a previous era, as if an entire trend of historically informed performance had never happened. The result was a somewhat polite style, without a dramatic line or significant ornamentation. Pianist Rohan De Silva played throughout with technical assurance, but his subservient role was reinforced by a careful avoidance of the Steinway's full orchestral range.

More troubling than the occasionally sour intonation, Perlman could not even be bothered to craft a coherent program. The rest of the concert was given over to lightweight encore pieces, supposedly chosen at random from a stack brought onstage by the page-turner but more or less the same selection presented in other cities. The corny jokes could not hide the fact that many of the virtuosic demands -- harmonics in Tchaikovsky's "Song Without Words" or the multiple stops in his "Humoresque" -- were beyond this beloved musician's present ability.

-- Charles T. Downey

Mark Olson

Jammin' Java felt kind of lonely on Sunday night and that was a good thing. Maybe not for the club or featured act Mark Olson, who took the stage in front of fewer than 40 patrons, but the atmosphere suited the main subject matter: "The Salvation Blues," a song cycle that ruminates on love, loss and the enigma of creative inspiration. By the time the finely rendered 90-minute set was over, it was clear that it hardly mattered to Olson how many people were in the room: His connection to the material goes deeper than simply touring to support an album.

Joining with pianist/percussionist Ingunn Ringvold and ace Italian violinist Michele Gazich to create a trio sound that stretched from back porch improv to the kind of aching country-rock he perfected as a founder of the Jayhawks, Olson went through nearly everything from "Salvation Blues." Written in the period following his estrangement (and eventual divorce) from singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, songs such as "My Carol," "Poor Michael's Boat" and "Tears From Above" contain no explicit references, but the heartache at their core doesn't need much explanation.

The trio's gently swaying interpretations of "Look Into the Night" and the galvanizing "National Express" were even better, as bittersweet as anything Olson did with the Jayhawks. It was fitting, then, that he offered country-honk takes on two Hawks classics, "Martin's Song" and "Blue." And while it was nice to hear him sing those tunes with conviction, neither topped "Salvation's" best song, "Clifton Bridge," which offered up the rejuvenation often inherent in painful endings, something Olson is clearly experiencing.

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