Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Leon Fleisher

When pianist Leon Fleisher hit a low after a neurological condition took away the use of his right hand, he found his way out of the darkness through conducting and teaching. That path from despair to joy was amply on display Sunday afternoon at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall, the setting for Fleisher's 80th-birthday celebration. Fleisher and some of his most gifted proteges played, individually and together, music close to his heart.

Nathaniel Kahn's touching documentary on the estimable pianist, "Two Hands," was screened. The film traces the now well-known story of Fleisher's condition and the Botox injections that restored full use of his afflicted hand. Fleisher's thoughtful rendition of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" serves as the film's soundtrack, and the pianist opened the playing portion with a pulsing, warm account. There, in those five minutes of walking rhythms and singing melodies, were the nuggets of his artistry: elegant restraint and a sheer beauty of tone.

Yefim Bronfman's account of Schumann's Arabesque, Op. 18, unfurled with similarly graceful filigree. Fleisher and Jonathan Biss, together at the keyboard, plumbed the profound mysteries of Schubert's Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940, filled with intertwining voices, now calling from the distance, now close and exclamatory. Bronfman and Fleisher brought as much verve and color to selections of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances as drama and power to the Schubert.

The pianist's wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, his onetime student, infused sweep and detail to Mozart's Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, leading into Biss's impressive interpretation of Beethoven's Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90. The Fleishers traced the arc in Ravel's "La Valse" from the low-rumbling passages to piercing last chord, like a dream of a lost era that arises out of the ether and, just as quickly, shatters.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

The Rumble Strips

Charles Waller, frontman of the Rumble Strips, doesn't appear to know about the latest weapons in pop music's armory. He took the Black Cat's Backstage on Sunday night with nothing more than a battered, undersize acoustic guitar, accompanied by four guys who seemed equally ignorant of today's digital devices. Yet the lack of firepower didn't hamper the band, which made an exuberant virtue of its old-fashioned approach.

The Strips are another of the recent British groups who have unearthed gold from the tailings of pre-Beatles pop. To the brisk strumming and folklike melodies of skiffle, the quartet adds horn accents derived from ska and R&B. Waller can shift from boy-next-door tenor to soulman shout, and his cohorts' harmonies sometimes draw on doo-wop. Add small-town ennui and traditional English pessimism and the result is "Time," a blithe stomper that begins with this observation: "There's nothing left for us/We're rotting in this place."

There was no detectable rot in the Rumble Strips on Sunday, when the band played most of its debut album, "Girls and Weather," for a small but enthusiastic crowd. The versatile musicians (including a supplementary bassist-percussionist) bulked up the modest sound when needed, adding trumpet and saxophone blasts to such jumpy, joyous tunes as "Clouds" and "Alarm Clock." The latter, a tale of war between man and bell, depicted the humble clock as a big-time bully, demanding, "You gotta get a job." Actually, Waller has one, and it's working out quite well.

-- Mark Jenkins

National Philharmonic

It was surprising to see Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony squeezed into the post-intermission slot -- behind Andreas Makris's "Strathmore" Overture and Henryk Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2 -- at the National Philharmonic's concert Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore.

But this was no monumental Ninth. Conductor Piotr Gajewski made the historically informed choice to observe the composer's fast metronome markings, pursuing them so doggedly that the performance flew by in an efficient, nearly featureless blur. The performance lacked the elasticity of phrasing, emboldened wind and brass lines and whip-crack accents that breathe life into the best authenticist readings of the piece. If his fleet treatment of the slow movement worked -- really making it sound like an urgently sung aria for orchestra -- parts of the Scherzo and Finale were almost comically rushed off their feet.

Gajewski was, however, able to draw committed and polished playing from the orchestra, a robust response from the National Philharmonic Chorale (the sopranos clarion and undaunted by Beethoven's punishing writing) and full-throated singing from his soloists (Linda Mabbs, Patricia Miller, John Aler and Kevin Deas).

Earlier in the evening, violinist Mariusz Patyra dazzled in the Wieniawski with sweet, often luscious tone, superb technique and a boldly projected sound. And the overture (commissioned for the philharmonic's 2005 debut in this hall) fascinated with its satirical treatment of oversize symphonic rhetoric. More music by Makris might have proved a wiser choice after intermission.

-- Joe Banno

Musica Aperta

The Sunday concerts at the National Gallery of Art are one of the city's treasures, a regular dose of well-performed music that requires no ticket or reservation fee. For the opening of the museum's fall season Sunday night, Musica Aperta premiered "Mystics," a thought-provoking theater piece accompanied in part by atmospheric piano music by Arvo Pärt and Federico Mompou.

Fermí Reixach and Scott Morgan portrayed a prisoner and his cruel guard. The only dialogue was drawn from the mystical poetry of Saint John of the Cross, as the two men enacted a stunning reversal of their respective roles. By the end, the saint baptized the guard in the central fountain of the West Garden Court, a gesture recalling his own torture in the opening scenes. Movements from the string quartets of Henryk Górecki provided violent rhythms, with some tuning infelicities made more prominent by amplification. The most beautiful musical moment came from soprano Rosa Lamoreaux's golden-voiced angel, who comforted both prisoner and guard with a radiant performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "Lúa Descolorida."

Two examples of early music, less anachronistic for the time of John of the Cross's imprisonment, were compromised by the addition of Muzak-style soprano saxophone, modeled on Jan Garbarek's "Officium" album. With the National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble physically separated from the saxophone and other instruments during the concluding selection by Cristóbal de Morales, the singers' pitch settled into its own intonation world. It was much more pleasing to hear the group sing unadulterated Renaissance polyphony from the dome of the West Building in the minutes before the concert began.

-- Charles T. Downey

Kennedy Center Chamber Players

Recipe for an exemplary Kennedy Center Chamber Players concert: Take two upbeat works written by famed symphonists experimenting with sonority and balance before writing their first symphonies. Add one mature, darker piece. Season impeccably. Warmly serves several hundred.

That was Sunday afternoon's musical feast at the Terrace Theater. Pianist Lambert Orkis, violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and cellist David Hardy brought lovely ensemble work to Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 1. The 17-year-old composer was less harmonically daring here than he would later become, and sunnier and sweeter -- he wrote the work for an inamorata. The players neatly contrasted the drawn-out themes with the more intense ones, with Hardy's cello especially songful.

For Beethoven's early Serenade for String Trio, Bar-Josef and Hardy were joined by violist Daniel Foster, whose elegant playing matched theirs. This is not great Beethoven, but the players made it great fun, from the opening and closing march (a bow to the days when performers would walk in, play, then walk out) to the Falstaffian cello outbursts in the Scherzo, the drone bass in the jaunty Allegretto alla Polacca, and the final variations -- which are strongly redolent of Mozart.

So much for the appetizers. The main course was more Shostakovich -- his Piano Quintet, for which violinist Natasha Bogachek joined the group. This is a big work with substantial contrasts. For instance, the lovely fade-out of the Adagio is followed by a rough-hewn, parodistic and rather crude Scherzo. The quintet was played both well and thoughtfully, its tension-releasing finale having just enough burlesque about it to serve as a piquant dessert.

-- Mark J. Estren

Time for Three

According to conventional wisdom, classical musicians just cannot get funky. Ask the average string ensemble to improvise on a blues riff, and the results are likely to be comically stilted -- an embarrassment to everyone concerned.

But as the genre-busting trio Time for Three proved Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, it doesn't have to be that way. Trained to within an inch of their lives at the Curtis Institute of Music, the trio -- Zachary DePue and Nicolas Kendall on violins, with Ranaan Meyer on double bass -- have turned their sights on everything from jazz to Gypsy melodies, and the results are spectacular. Combining the polished virtuosity of the classical world with the raw energy of a bluegrass fiddle festival, they brought the house down with the blistering pyrotechnics of "Wyoming 307" and "Forget About It" (two jazzy pieces by bassist Meyer) and the haunting, hymnlike "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. There was nothing stilted about any of it; this was high-octane playing from first note to last.

The concert was, in fact, a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Kennedy Center's laudable Conservatory Project, and 14 players from music schools across the country followed the trio onstage for Aaron Copland's classic "Appalachian Spring." The gifted 21-year-old conductor Teddy Abrams led the group in a luminous, detailed performance; it was clear he knew exactly what he was going for, and he turned in a precise and always engaging reading. But the most fun came when Time for Three joined the conservatory players, closing the evening with a performance of Meyer's freewheeling "American Suite" that brought the audience to its feet.

-- Stephen Brookes

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