Friday, September 19, 2008

Amjad Ali Khan

Several times during his Wednesday evening concert at George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium, sarod master Amjad Ali Khan filed his fingernails. This was not a matter of personal hygiene but of musical necessity. Khan presses the strings on his instrument's fretless fingerboard with his nails, which is how he achieves such a crisp, lucid sound.

Using nails rather than fingertips is just one of the complications of Khan's approach to the notoriously challenging Indo-Persian instrument. Yet his performance conveyed ease and grace, not difficulty. Widely considered to be the greatest sarodist active today, Khan showed immense versatility as well as subtlety. This concert was a rare opportunity to hear the musician perform solo (his two sons usually accompany him), but Khan's array of plucks, strums, glides and bent notes sometimes sounded too abundant to be produced by only two hands.

Although he can play a single raga for hours, the musician divided this show into five pieces, none longer than 20 minutes. He dispensed quickly with the alap, a raga's free-rhythm introduction, gesturing tabla player Samir Chatterjee to enter the musical dialogue after just a few minutes.

Khan's selections ranged from 15th-century material to an original composition, and culminated in a ragamala (a "garland of ragas'') that began with a tune by poet Rabindranath Tagore. Introducing new melodic motifs as quickly as he alternated lightning riffs and sustained notes, Khan played exuberantly, yet always with as much finesse as flash.

The concert was the first in a new series hosted by the Asia Society, GWU's Sigur Center for Asian Studies and the Embassy of India.

-- Mark Jenkins

David Byrne

Hey, is there always this much dancing at the Lyric Opera House?

On Wednesday night, the beautiful 114-year-old home of the Baltimore Opera Company hosted the second date of David Byrne's tour behind "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," the superb sci-fi/country/gospel album he and Brian Eno created via the Internet, working from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

It's not every day, or every decade, that a pair of probable geniuses like Byrne and Eno make a record together -- in fact, it had been 27 years. Each man can sometimes come off as a remote egghead, but Byrne's staging of their album (plus songs from their prior collaborations, 1978-81) was as warm and ecstatic as concerts get, Byrne fronting an ensemble -- dressed head-to-toe in white -- that included two drummers and three backup singers. Beginning with "I Zimbra," the mercilessly polyrhythmic second number, a trio of dancers appeared, offering a visceral "sighttrack" to the music more captivating than any bombastic laser show. Byrne was sometimes a prop and sometimes a graceful participant in their choreography -- one dancer leapfrogged over Byrne's head during while the latter scratched out a fiery guitar solo on "Crosseyed and Painless." The dancers weren't just eye candy, either: A routine performed on office chairs during "Life Is Long," for example, underscored the tune's observations about the balance of joy and tedium woven into even the most prosperous of lives.

Now 56, Byrne is doing the most open-hearted singing of his career, and the acoustically pristine Lyric was an ideal venue for the rich, mature timbre of his voice as well as the rubbery groove of his ace band.

The crowd warmed to the new songs, which with their major keys and soaring choruses were communicative even if unfamiliar. But predictably, it was the Talking Heads classics that pulled everyone from their seats and into full, shameless, lights-off flail. When the still-striking "Once in a Lifetime" slid into the jagged paranoia of "Life During Wartime," the building shook for reasons far happier than the urban guerrilla combat the song so chillingly evokes.

-- Chris Klimek

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