Mandolinist David Grisman opened the Smithsonian's 11th American Country Music Series at Baird Auditorium last night, introduced by Harold Closter as "perhaps the only person on the planet who could easily and comfortably perform in any of the Smithsonian's series--chamber . . . jazz . . . international music." Grisman soon proved himself worthy of those words.
His quartet first displayed its collective virtuosity on some familiar numbers, including "Dawg Funk," Tony Rice's "51 Swing" and "Cedar Hill," one of the first tunes Grisman wrote for mandolin. With awesome speed and unerring precision, Grisman deftly created dancing melodies that were often further embellished by guitarist Mike Marshall and fiddler Darol Anger. Marshall favored light, crisp rhythms and solos that were invariably sharp and lively. Anger's astringent tone helped to bridge country and jazz idioms while bassist Ron Wasserman added yet another texture to the music with his often exquisite accompaniments.
Among the highlights were nods to Bill Monroe, Stephane Grappelli, Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington. Come to think of it, one of Ellington's pet phrases best sums up Grisman's music: Beyond category.
The entire cello section of the Handel Festival Orchestra was involved in a recital Saturday evening at the Corcoran Gallery in which there were never more than three musicians on the stage--one of them a pianist. Evelyn Elsing, the orchestra's principal cellist, her teacher Oliver Edel, and the rest of the cello section opened the program with a Handel sonata (Op. 2 No. 8 in G minor, arranged by Heinz Boyer) that was a constant stream of contrapuntal melody and a classic demonstration of dialogue among equals.
The rest of the program was Elsing's show--the first in a series of four solo recitals this season, in which the orchestra and the Washington Performing Arts Society are cooperating to display the caliber of the orchestra's members. Elsing showed that that caliber is very high.
In the varied styles of Boccherini, Brahms and Britten, she explored the resources of her instrument with a deeply satisfying sureness of touch, subtle gradations of tone and phrasing, brilliant agility and sense of form. Except for a few moments of small imprecision in the left hand, her interpretation was superb.
The high point of the program was Britten's kaleidoscopic Sonata in C, Op. 65, a masterpiece presented with its full impact. Boccherini's two-movement Sonata in A offered beautiful, long-spanned melody to display the cellist's tone and legato line, and fast, dancing melody to show her dexterity. The Second Cello Sonata of Brahms was performed with particular verve in its frequent moments of impassioned drama, but also impressive in the playful passages of its last movement, where the coordination of cello and piano was particularly fine. Pianist Colette Valentine played expertly throughout but in the stormier moments of the Brahms seemed to be cultivating a smaller scale of dynamics and expression than the cellist.