Performing Arts: Alison Brown, CityDance Ensemble, Cathedra Chamber Choir

Monday, March 15, 2010; C09


Alison Brown at Kennedy Center KC Jazz Club

As career moves go, Alison Brown's decision to move from investment banking to banjo picking appears downright prescient these days. "I think we may see more of that," quipped the Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Saturday night.

Brown's seasoned quartet doesn't exactly qualify as a jazz ensemble, but then it doesn't exactly qualify as anything genre-specific. Its charm derives in large part from a delightfully colorful repertoire that manages to sound both rooted and fluid, traditional and contemporary. Not surprisingly, bluegrass inspired some of Brown's finest banjo picking, a sound illuminated by sparkling finger-roll patterns and the occasional chromatic flourish.

When she switched to acoustic guitar, she saluted Doc Watson with a self-penned homage titled "Deep Gap," one that evoked his flat-picking virtuosity with the requisite down-home ease. Even so, the focus more often than not was on the ensemble sound, with pianist John R. Burr and drummer Larry Atamanuik playing prominent roles. When the band was firing on all cylinders, the music often took on a contemporary jazz flavor or, in the case of "The Wonderful Sea Voyage of Holy St. Brendan," vibrant cinematic qualities.

A family affair, the band featured bassist Garry West, Brown's husband and a steady source of rhythmic propulsion, and, in a cameo performance, 7-year-old daughter Hannah West, who sang "You're a Grand Old Flag" with winning poise and pipes. The early show ended with a seat-of-your pants romp inspired by Scots-Irish fiddle tunes and some lighthearted detours.

-- Mike Joyce


CityDance Ensemble at Lansburgh Theatre

Last weekend in New York City, the Paul Taylor Dance Company closed out its annual three-week season. The revered choreographer turns 80 this year, and even as audiences were awed by his two newest works, many had to be wondering: What does the future holds for his vast repertory?

On Saturday in Washington, CityDance Ensemble offered a reassuring answer, at least for two of Taylor's 130 works. At the Lansburgh Theatre, this plucky local troupe became the first company other than Taylor's own to perform the apocalyptic thriller "Last Look," from 1985, and "Images," a 1977 suite set to music by Debussy.

CityDance should be lauded for programming such challenging works; what's problematic is shoehorning mirth and melancholy into the same act. This program had dancers awkwardly segue from "+1/-1," a lengthy new piece about losing a partner, to "Entangled," a pithy duet featuring live music by a local beatboxer. Thankfully, an intermission separated these works from Taylor's end-of-the-world classic.

"Last Look," a noirish rendering of nuclear fallout, opens with nine bodies in a pile at stage right. The dancers rise, shaking off convulsions. On a stage full of mirrors, they pair up to dance as if their very survival depended on a pas de deux. One by one, the dancers collapse, and at the end just Christopher K. Morgan is left to dance frantically with his own image.

CityDance excels in darker, character-driven works like "Last Look." "Images" is decidedly brighter, and while this suite of mythological abstractions was well executed, the dancers need to lighten up. The jumps could have been higher and more carefree; the arms more pliant. It took several movements before the women cracked a smile. Alice Belle Wylie was alluring as the Oracle, and in "Totem Horses," the diminutive dynamo Jason Garcia Ignacio played gleeful chariot driver to four scampering fillies.

Is it the end of Taylor's oeuvre as we know it? Not when companies as bold as CityDance remember to take the reins.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel


Cathedra Chamber Choir in Bach's 'St. Mark's Passion'

Life and property were not Dresden's only losses in 1945. The firebombings incinerated the only choral score of J.S. Bach's "St. Mark Passion" as well. Its performance then becomes a tall order, undertaken Friday evening in Malcolm Bruno's U.S. premiere reconstruction and sung by the newly formed Cathedra Chamber Choir, the Washington National Cathedral's concert ensemble under the direction of Michael McCarthy.

Accompanied by an orchestra of period instruments pitched a semitone low, the eight voices of Cathedra (six men and two women) carried amply owing to crisp German diction and limited vibrato. Soloists drawn from the group performed with uniform authority and unembellished conveyance of text appropriate to a Passion account.

Reconstructing this work is a forensic puzzle. Yet assisted by the surviving libretto and Bach's extant "Trauer Ode," which shares similar metric scansion and instrumentation, musicologists have made educated guesses -- the latest, and perhaps most honest, of which is Bruno's. Rather than fabricating spurious recitatives to be sung by the Evangelist, Bruno uses an actor, Stan Cahill, who spoke the narrative in vernacular English while working the entire performance area, altar included. His reading was palpable and factual-sounding, all the better given Bach's evangelical bent.

This was not the grandiose Bach of Sir Thomas Beecham, or Stokowski for that matter. Using only 21 musicians, McCarthy's reading was intimate if not familial, authentic in intent, and -- let's be real -- affordable. Others will follow suit. The rules have changed.

Friday's performance was the third of a four-concert Lenten Series, with the final program scheduled Friday.

-- Alfred Thigpen

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