Tuesday, November 4, 2008


If the newer, more acerbic pieces fared better than the older ones at Midori's recital on Sunday, that was in part because of the venue: The Music Center at Strathmore's clear but slightly brittle sound is not conducive to chamber-music warmth. Furthermore, the concert, which opened the Washington Performing Arts Society's Celebrity Series, offered such disparate works that it did not always show the violin and piano to best sonic advantage.

In the first movement of Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 1, Midori played with such strength that she seemed to be attacking her 1734 Guarnerius del Gesu violin. She was much more relaxed in the second movement, and speedy and accurate -- if rather soulless -- in the finale.

In Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 10, Midori often was overmatched by the big piano sound of Robert McDonald, her always attentive, rarely flamboyant accompanist. The best movement was the last: It is easy to lose one's way in these variations, with their abrupt tempo and mood changes, but here Midori and McDonald worked comfortably in tandem.

Still, the concert's second half was better. It opened with John Cage's Six Melodies, an atonal minimalist work that, like many by Cage, forces audience members to help make the music through their response to hearing it. Midori played the athematic miniatures with poise and muted elegance.

Georges Enesco's fervent Violin Sonata No. 3 was even better. The eerie second movement, with violin harmonics set against a one-note piano ostinato, was especially effective. And in the Gypsy-inflected finale, Midori finally burst loose, tossing off phrases with aplomb and showing that she can be one of the best fiddlers around.

-- Mark J. Estren

Opera Lafayette

Opera Lafayette got an early start on the 2009 Handel and Haydn anniversary year Sunday night by presenting the Four Nations Ensemble in a program of music by the two composers at La Maison Fran├žaise. The best parts of the concert featured the statuesque, vividly expressive Stephanie Houtzeel as vocal soloist. (The Juilliard-trained mezzo-soprano is a spellbinding presence in the title role of Lully's "Armide" in Opera Lafayette's 2007 concert performance, released on CD by Naxos just last week.)

The program focused on the despair of women abandoned by faithless lovers. One of Handel's adaptations of the story of Armida, the Muslim sorceress who loves and is deserted by a Christian crusader, was the high point. In Handel's cantata "Armida Abbandonata," Houtzeel displayed breathtaking agility and precision without the melismatic excesses of "Ah! crudele" ever sounding labored or over-delineated. She deployed the edge of her searing top register at appropriate moments but savored a lighter, more plaintive side of the same high notes at others.

The Four Nations Ensemble provided a sensitive and mostly accurate period-instrument envelope for Houtzeel's voice, notably in the keyboard accompaniment of Haydn's cantata "Arianna a Naxos," played by Andrew Appel on an exquisite fortepiano by Thomas and Barbara Wolf. Johann Peter Salomon's quintet arrangement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 was the best of the instrumental offerings, especially the jolly bonhomie of the third movement. Without the timpani part, the fourth movement lacked the kettledrum stroke from which this symphony derives its German nickname, but the equally surprising fortissimo chord in the second movement was still effective.

-- Charles T. Downey

Jonatha Brooke

If there's some kind of fantasy lottery for folk singers, first prize would have to be the chance to co-write a song with Woody Guthrie. That's what happened to the gifted singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, who was invited this year to go through the archives of the iconic American folk singer (who died in 1967) and write songs based on his never-before-seen lyrics.

Brooke took the opportunity and ran with it, as she showed in a revelatory set at the Birchmere on Sunday night. Though she treated fans to some of her older gems ("Better After All," "Red Dress," "Ten Cent Wings"), the real focus was on the Guthrie-based songs from her new album "The Works" -- and it's some of her best work yet. Guthrie, it turns out, left some of his most intimate ideas behind on scraps of paper, and Brooke has turned them into smoldering love songs ("All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me"), explosive mixes of anger and regret ("My Sweet and Bitter Bowl") and even what she calls "totally a chick song," the tender "My Flowers Grow Green."

Brooke's singing isn't for everybody -- her range is limited, and her adenoidal twang grates after a while -- but her writing skills are acute, and there's a sly, seditious edge to her music that can be addictive. Guthrie's long-lost lyrics could hardly have found a better interpreter.

Opening for Brooke was the hyper-verbal Glen Phillips, formerly (and still occasionally) with Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips is recovering from an accident to his left arm that's hampered his guitar-playing, but an hour-long set of funny, biting material proved that his brain is still furiously intact. Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins -- there to do the heavy lifting, guitar-wise -- was an added bonus.

-- Stephen Brookes

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