Allen Toussaint, Terence Simien and the Mallet Playboys
District Curators billed Saturday night's concert at the Ellington Theater as "A Southern Night in the Big Easy," and the performances by Allen Toussaint and Terence Simien and the Mallet Playboys couldn't have been more complementary or enjoyable. Well, true, some dancing room would have been nice.
Toussaint, the headliner, chose to open the show with a solo retrospective of his 30-year career as a New Orleans songwriter and producer. Though he's an expressive singer and a fine pianist, Toussaint would probably be the first to admit that he's not always the best interpreter of his own songs; he was clearly blessed by (and remains extremely grateful for) his association with singers like Lee Dorsey.
That's not to say that Toussaint doesn't bring something quite special to his own songs. Perhaps more than anything else, what distinguished his performances of tunes made famous by everyone from Al Hirt to Glen Campbell was their remarkable freshness and vitality. Most moving of all was his tribute to Professor Longhair, which combined original lyrics and a prayerful melody with intermittent reminders of Longhair's rambunctious piano and the profound influence it had on Toussaint.
Simien followed with an exhilarating set of zydeco music, a breathless contrast to Toussaint's elegant demeanor. There's something almost sadistic about presenting this band in a setting where there's no dance floor. Before long the aisles filled with people who couldn't resist the band's rub board rhythms and the old-timey melodies that spilled from Simien's accordion.
David Allen Wehr
Pianist David Allen Wehr played a satisfying recital Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. His technique is disciplined, and he often manages to capture elusive poetic moods.
With Schumann's charming "Waldscenen," Op. 82, Wehr demonstrated particular sensitivity to inner voices in the opening "Entrance," and he offered the lovely "Bird-Prophet" with special grace and delicate pedaling. Haydn's Sonata in C (Hob. XVI: 48) may have shown Wehr at his best, with beautifully wrought runs and dynamic shading. The closing movement was polished with a handsome, buoyant tone.
Portions of works by Liszt -- selections from "Anne'es de Pe`lerinage" and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 -- and Samuel Barber's striking Sonata, Op. 26, sometimes sounded tough-edged and inflexible. Still, Wehr conveyed the chromatic texture of the Barber first movement with authority and the brilliant closing fugue with convincing strength.
You think it's easy being the world's greatest violinist? Watch Itzhak Perlman breezing merrily through an evening's work, and you could certainly get that impression. Perlman makes the trickiest fingerings, the fleetest passage work, the most brilliant rhythms, harmonics, double-stops and left-hand pizzicati look like child's play.
Perlman has the kind of supreme technique that does not need to call attention to itself, that impresses through understatement; the kind that can be put on automatic pilot, so to speak, while its owner concentrates on making music. It is, of course, the result of years of hard work, but he spares his audience any evidence of that.
He showed his brand of grace under pressure, by no means for the first time, Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The evening opened with a delicate little sonata by Pergolesi, all limpid melody and toe-tapping rhythms, played with incredible agility and accuracy but with a disarming and deceptive air of ease.
Mozart came next, graceful and charming but with no sacrifice of substance, in the Adagio in E, K. 261, and the Rondo in C, K. 373. In this music, Perlman's beautifully rounded tone and cantabile phrasing made his violin sound almost like a wordless human voice.
Dialogue with pianist Samuel Sanders -- not an accompanist but an equal partner -- was a keynote in the Sonata in E-flat of Richard Strauss. Then, after intermission, a central motif was a survey of ethnic flavors: Yankee barn dance music, hymn tunes and practical jokes in the Second Sonata of Charles Ives; Russian dance rhythms in the "Mazurka Oberek" of Glazunov; and Central European schmaltz in Smetana's "From My Fatherland."
The imagination with which this program was put together was as impressive as the musicianship with which it was performed -- and that is very impressive indeed.
Emerson String Quartet/ Menahem Pressler
Two kinds of musical imagery were featured in an outstanding concert by the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Menahem Pressler at the Library of Congress Friday night.
The music itself provided the images in Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 1 ("A Revival Service"). From the passion of the opening fugue (based on a hymn tune) to the thunderous march of the postlude, the quartet is a musical portrait of New England social and religious life. Ives' robust and sturdy harmonies were well served by the quartet's strong, rich interpretation, led by violinist Eugene Drucker.
Ned Rorem's "Night Music" for violin and piano, a set of eight short pieces, is equally American. But here the images are more elusive. Evocative titles such as "Answers," "Mosquitoes and Earthworms" and "Black and Silver" are not pictures, but rather settings for the sounds, acting almost as instructions on how to understand the music itself. Drucker and Pressler were magnificent, playing Rorem's difficult and very moving work with great subtlety and depth of feeling.
After intermission, Pressler joined the full quartet (with Philip Setzer as first violin) in a vigorous and exciting performance of Dvorak's great A Major Quintet, Op. 81.
Smithsonian Chamber Players
The baroque style according to Bach, Rameau and Telemann was the primary order of business Friday night at the Hall of Musical Instruments. A five-strong contingent from the Smithsonian Chamber Players highlighted Telemann in performances attentive to detail, though occasionally stiff.
They managed a balanced ensemble sound despite the group's preponderance of low-pitch instruments. Cello and viola da gamba, whose six strings approximate the cello's range, tread lightly, interacting discreetly with violin, flute and harpsichord. At its best, this quintet shifted gears with ease, as in Telemann's "Sixie`me Quatuor," the program's feature piece.
Harpsichordist James Weaver and flutist Christopher Krueger exposed contrapuntal writing at its serious and more lighthearted extremes in two solo outings. Weaver brought grace and gravity to Bach's Concerto in D Minor, while Krueger missed none of the wit in three Telemann fantasies. The music flowed from his ivory flute in tones toot sweet.