Frankly, I don't care whether I ever hear "Death and Transfiguration" again; it is a prime candidate for the title of most unpleasant piece in the standard repertoire. But if it has to be performed, it should be done as Hugh Wolff is doing it this week with the National Symphony.
Wolff's interpretation is very carefully considered, beautifully balanced and proportioned. Never for a moment does this performance give the slightest hint that orchestra and audience alike are simply marking time until Itzhak Perlman can come on with the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Usually, concertos are played in the middle of an orchestral program--a flash of virtuoso display to excite the audience before the orchestra settles down to the serious business of a Big Symphony after intermission. This is a convenient arrangement from all points of view. It lets the orchestra feel it has had the last word, even if the soloist grabbed the spotlight earlier in the evening. It allows the soloist to get a late meal and a good night's sleep while the concert continues--or even to beat a quick retreat if it is a one-night stand. And it sends the audience home with a feeling that it has participated in something substantial.
Wolff and Perlman are breaking that rule in the National Symphony Orchestra's program this week. And their audacity works, because the Brahms Violin Concerto is as serious and symphonic a piece of music as anyone could ask, and a hard (almost impossible) act to follow. That was certainly true in last night's performance, which approached perfection.
Little need be said of Perlman except that he was in top form last night--i.e., the greatest violinist alive. A couple of wrong notes and a few seconds where he was outbalanced by the orchestra had no bearing on the total impact of the performance, which was overwhelming. Wolff gave a model, not only of Brahms style, but of collaboration between soloist and orchestra.
The conducting virtues lavishly displayed in the Brahms were more delicately present in Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," which opened the evening. The textures were transparent, with particularly fine playing from the winds, and the pace was constantly alert to the spirit of dance that underlies this music. Wolff demonstrated again what is already well-established: That he is one of the city's major musical assets.
Bravura displays have become so common in all areas of popular music that one can't help but find a performance by Ahmad Jamal refreshing. At Blues Alley last night, the adjectives that have always applied to Jamal's style--crisp, controlled, intelligent--sprang to mind as the pianist led his quartet through a colorful and eclectic set.
Phil Woods' "Goodbye, Mr. Evans" became a warm tribute from one pianist to another, with Jamal's right hand suggesting Bill Evans' melodic inventiveness and his left hand helping build the rumbling cascade Jamal has always favored. A similarly sharp contrast marked Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" while "Sophisticated Lady" whispered in the softest tones.
Jamal's quartet provided emphatic support, especially when the mood turned Latin. Drummer Peyton Crossley, bassist Sabu Adeyola and percussionist Seldon Newton each had his individual moments, but as a unit--anticipating, sometimes prompting, Jamal's crashing chords and sudden shifts of emphasis--they were particularly impressive.
If Jamal's set didn't represent jazz at its most impassioned, it was nevertheless a beautifully crafted performance--a listening pleasure not to be taken lightly these days. The Ahmad Jamal Quartet appears through Sunday.
Under normal circumstances, Robert Hunter would be laughed off most of Washington's open stages. His flat voice is mediocre. His guitar playing is just passable; his stage presence could be summed up as dullish Tom Paxton. Hunter's repertoire emphasizes Grateful Dead songs and that is the excuse: He Writes the Lyrics to (many of) the Dead's Songs. And that apparently is enough to fill Desperado's with fans who are game enough for this Hunter.
Since the Dead itself has never featured strong singers, expecting its lyricist to come through is perhaps expecting too much. Hunter doesn't even meet those expectations. His performance could be precious only to dedicated Deadheads willing to excuse such professional gaffes as: circling the established vocal key like a mouse sniffing cheese in a trap and the frequent breakdown of traditionally smooth relationships between melody and rhythm. On the plus side: enthusiasm, a willingness to play the harmonica, enthusiasm, occasional lyric wit and, uh, enthusiasm. Hunter's welcome to keep writing, but he should leave the singing to his Greyhound friends. He returns to Desperado's tonight; one shouldn't expect him to be any better.