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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lykke Li

From Abba to the Cardigans, Robyn and others, Sweden has established a reputation for producing sweetly tuneful melodic pop performers. The latest, though not as polished, is 22-year-old Lykke Li, who was at the Black Cat on Sunday night with a three-piece band.

Li co-wrote the music on her debut, "Youth Novels," with Bjorn Yttling, and the disc reflects some of the catchiness that his Swedish group, Peter Bjorn and John, delivered on the Internet fave "Young Folks." But thanks to Yttling's minimalistic production, Li's little-girl-sounding vocals and a mix of drum programming with strings, the album's take on Northern European bounciness is a bit more art-school.

At the Black Cat, Li immediately demonstrated that she would not simply stand at the mike and coo her twee tales. Banging a drumstick against a tambourine and the drummer's cymbal, she jumped around during opener "Dance, Dance, Dance." The band's well-sung backing vocals ironically demonstrated the drawback to Li's approach: Her singing was deeper and more forceful than on disc, but an occasionally strained quality and her slurred Scandinavian-accented English did not always aid her clever arrangements.

Yet it was hard not to be enchanted by much of the performance. She added intricate hand-clap patterns to "Hanging High," and on the upbeat "Breaking It Up," she enthusiastically chanted her vocals through a megaphone. Li exuberantly closed with a cover of A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It," cleverly having the audience hum the song's Lou Reed sample, and then raggedly but joyously leading the rap portion herself.

-- Steve Kiviat

Festival Strings Lucerne

The Festival Strings Lucerne, formed a half-century ago, made a rare visit to Washington on Sunday evening at the National Gallery. With an average age that appears to be in the late 20s, each of the group's 16 players is a fresh virtuoso, and they make an unusually melodious and warm sound for such a small ensemble. Conductor Achim Fiedler has drilled his charges to a high degree of polish and responsiveness, as was evident from the opening notes of the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 9.

The high quality of the playing made much else about the concert irritating. The group had only three violists, but both the Mendelssohn and the Brahms Op. 111 (an arrangement of a string quintet) called for two separate viola parts. The odd number created a noticeable imbalance in the Mendelssohn, but then it turned out one of the violinists could switch instruments, and did so in the Brahms. Why only then?

The group's superb concertmaster, Daniel Dodds, dominated the first half, playing not only the Sarasate "Carmen Fantasy" but adding the seven-minute Ysaye "Ballade" for an encore; is this what a tightknit collective should be about? Why were two of the four pieces on the program arrangements? There are literally thousands of high-quality original works for string orchestra, from all musical eras. The group did bring a new work, "stellen" by Dieter Ammann -- a collection of sound effects apparently designed to induce formication -- but even here, the garment didn't fit, as two of the 16 players had to sit out.

-- Robert Battey


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