Performing Arts: Kelli O'Hara lights up the Kennedy Center

By Nelson Pressley
Monday, October 18, 2010

Here's what you don't expect to hear from a woman who spent most of the last two triumphant years playing Nellie Forbush on Broadway: her leading man's signature tune (especially when that man, the Brazilian baritone Paolo Szot, took home the Tony Award for his efforts).

Yet there was Kelli O'Hara at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Friday night singing "This Nearly Was Mine," pushing that "South Pacific" anthem to its operatic extremes. Oklahoman O'Hara is classically trained and has a pretty big soprano when she chooses to open it all the way up, which she did impressively but selectively during her deeply considered 75-minute set.

O'Hara, accompanied on piano by her music director, Dan Lipton, made no bones about wanting to stretch beyond her ingénue identity, and she put on a classy show. She looked fit and elegant in a shimmering cocktail dress but offered almost nothing in the way of theatrics; her music doesn't sizzle or swing, and O'Hara barely moved. Instead, she offered sober, occasionally witty readings of mainly serious songs.

Control and maturity were the watchwords for "Something Wonderful" from "The King and I," sung at a measured tempo and with warm wisdom. Soft and dreamy characterized her 2007 solo CD (arranged by and featuring her "Pajama Game" co-star Harry Connick Jr.) and O'Hara demonstrated impeccable finesse on that album's pillowy "All the Way" and during her gossamer opener, "He Loves Me."

The latter is from "She Loves Me," of course -- another gender reversal, and a nifty reference to Barbara Cook, the original star of that show and nominal host of this Spotlight Series at the Kennedy Center. But O'Hara also delivered numbers from her own Broadway successes, making easy, radiant work of "Wonderful Guy" (from "South Pacific") and suggesting a black-and-white world turning to full color during her rendition of "The Beauty Is" (from "The Light in the Piazza").

It was all pretty luminous, though O'Hara -- whose patter between songs was very polite -- can be funny when she wants to be. But, if only it were more often; a bright Stephen Sondheim knockoff called "You're Always Here" and Lipton's own comic "Opera/Country" (composed for O'Hara, and exactly the culture clash you'd expect) were as far as this Broadway darling felt like letting her hair down.

That was just fine with the sellout crowd, which was content to hear O'Hara practically channel such heavyweight musical standards as "Somewhere" and "I Could Have Danced All Night." She's ideal for this repertoire, sparkling and singing with intelligent phrasing and rich emotion. It's good that O'Hara wants to expand her horizons, but she's also smart to keep putting her stamp on such golden material.

Brooklyn Rider

Musical imagination may be ineffable, but you recognize it when you hear it, and Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that has been associated with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, has it in spades. The program they played at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Saturday included the Dvorak F Major Quartet (the "American") and Debussy's G Minor Quartet, standard concert fare, but what they did with these two was anything but standard.

Their baseline dynamic is pianissimo. A slight swell of line leaning toward piano sounds enormous and carries with it the promise of energy while preserving all the transparency that soft playing makes possible. Every string pluck had a measured weight and every release a discernable direction, but their gift was that none of this came out sounding premeditated, just part of their musical vocabulary. It was their phrasing, however, irresistible momentum and repose so organically related, that gave these two works such new faces. It's probably wise to be wary of performers who aim to put a personal stamp on the music they play, but in this case it was a cause for rejoicing.

The other two pieces on the program were John Cage's early "In a Landscape" (originally for piano), a contemplative and romantically atmospheric rumination, and a delightful new work by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen called "Sheriff's Lied, Sheriff's Freude" ("Sheriff" is violist Nicholas Cords's nickname). It is a musical panorama at its most delightful. Evolving from mellifluous romanticism, it becomes more rhythmically adventurous and dance-like, breaks briefly into echoes of the Dvorak Quartet and then morphs through bluegrass, blues and jazz into a cheerful country hoedown. It's a piece that could be a poster for this ensemble that devotes so much of its energies to examining the seams where musical styles and cultures meet.

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