Chamber ensemble IBIS refines Dar Williams's folk sound

Dar Williams.
Dar Williams. (Traci Goudie)

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By Stephen Brookes
Monday, January 31, 2011; 9:53 PM

Dar Williams is a guitar-strumming pop-folk singer, known for her coffeehouse style and intensely personal songs. The IBIS Chamber Music Society is a sophisticated, highly polished classical ensemble. Doomed to live on separate planets, or can the two find musical happiness together?

That was the question Sunday night at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, when Williams and IBIS teamed up for an experiment in crossover. They met through family connections (Williams is the sister-in-law of IBIS founder Susan Robinson) and soon began to explore the idea of collaborating. Joseph Scheer, the group's violinist, arranged a number of Williams's songs for the six-member ensemble, and the family project was launched.

Did it work? It was clear at Sunday's performance that this was a labor of love, with affection and mutual respect on all sides.

IBIS opened with "Summerland," a luminous piece by the African American composer William Grant Still, before Williams came out with her guitar for "Calling the Moon." Williams is an engaging performer with one of those running-through-the-meadow voices, and she sang about a dozen of her more poignant songs - including "Blue Light of the Flame," "You're Aging Well" and her dark cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" - backed by the note-perfect IBIS ensemble playing Scheer's elegant, sophisticated arrangements.

And there's the rub. The power of Williams's songs comes from their intimacy; this is a confessional songwriter, above all else, who draws you in with her natural voice and open, warts-and-all honesty. Wryly funny and completely unaffected, Williams's strength is her directness. So, while Scheer's transcriptions were thoughtful and genuinely beautiful, the fit never seemed completely right - as if Williams were draped in jewels and a ball gown, trying desperately to keep it real.

Brookes is a freelance writer.


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