Looper at The Black Cat

There is already a group called Modest Mouse, but if there weren't, that name would fit Looper perfectly. Its show at the Black Cat Thursday was meek, but charming and fuzzy, too. Looper's leader is Stuart David, who also plays bass in Belle and Sebastian, and judging by the cheer that went up for "A Space Boy Dream" (from B&S's last record), most in the crowd could be counted among the Scottish folk-rockers' intensely adoring fans.

Looper, which also features David's wife, Karn, and guitarist Ronnie Black, sidesteps folk-rock to lounge on a bed of trip-hop drum loops and keyboards. Thursday the band appeared around two movie screens, one showing Karn's fuzzy, soft-focus films (each thematically linked to a song), the other featuring still photographs. This visual-audio blend was particularly effective on juvenilia-inspired songs "The Treehouse," "Quiet and Small" and "Up a Tree Again."

David played bass while working the lyrics in his Scottish brogue. Such tunes as "Ballad of Ray Suzuki" suggested what a meeting of "Sesame Street" and DJ Shadow might sound like, while others, including "Impossible Things #2," were old-fashioned recitations. Aided by a keyboardist and Karn's percussion, the hour-long set oscillated amiably between those two extremes.

Summoned for an encore, David explained that the band "hadn't any more films," so they employed a tiny slide wheel they'd bought while touring the Air and Space Museum. Like the rest of the show, it succeeded in achieving its modest goals.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins At Tawes Theatre

Astunning moment in the current music season came with the "homecoming" recital Thursday by baritone Gordon Hawkins at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre. Besides gathering a raft of competition wins, Maryland alumnus Hawkins has appeared as a soloist with major symphonies and opera companies such as the Metropolitan, Covent Garden and Teatro Massimo in Italy.

Though Hawkins's program was an all-American one, one could easily understand his success as Donner and Gunther in Wagner's "Ring" and Amonasro in Verdi's "Aida." With his first song, Cal Stewart Kellogg's "Major Sullivan Ballou's Letter to His Wife" (from the PBS documentary "The Civil War"), Hawkins displayed that elegiac bronze resonance and gripping character portrayal that distinguish his voice. As he took on Margaret Bonds's "Three Dream Portraits" and Daniel Gregory Mason's "The Russians," his multidimensional sound endlessly rolled out with titanic reserves of power unleashed only at the precise instant of an emotional peak. Along the way, Hawkins yielded to impassioned lyricism here or magically hushed intimacy there, all of this at times transformed into a wondrous falsetto or infinitely sustained pianissimo.

After intermission were songs by Samuel Barber, Charles Naginski, Celius Dougherty, and Aaron Copland--all of these works, plus an encore ("Oh Lord, What a Beautiful City"), capturing the reflective or joyful side of the American folk-inspired art song.

Colette Valentine's piano accompaniment was as transcendentally infused with poetic-musical meaning as Hawkins's voice.

Soprano Carmen Balthrop At the Anderson Competition

On Sunday the Marian Anderson Vocal Arts Competition added a festival component, and the first in a week's worth of evening recitalists in Tawes Theatre was soprano Carmen Balthrop, the competition's jury chair and a University of Maryland faculty member. What an excellent lesson in programming she delivered! Her repertoire flattered her voice and had enough variety to surprise and entertain.

She opened with a group of French melodies, showing both the bright and caramelly qualities of her voice, then moved to folkish Chinese songs--although this listener half expected the set to close with Aaron Copland's similarly earthy and boisterous "Ching-a-Ring Chaw."

Some of the luster might have worn off Balthrop's voice, but her control remains agile, precise, and she still knows exactly where to place emphasis for thrilling effect. In four of Ernani Braga's husky, moody Portuguese songs, she took us from a colorful, pop-style projection in "Capim di Pranta"--as if she were a chanteuse in a nightclub--down to the smoky, mellow contralto range for "O'Kinimba." Here, the enthusiastic student singers listening were learning not just how to sing but how to be a singer, how to carry the audience along phrase by phrase.

Balthrop had infectious fun with two sultry Latin American tunes, while her accompanist, Jose Caceres, switched from piano to guitar. Camille Delaney joined in on flute. In the closing set--American songs by William Bolcom, Robert Pearson Thomas, Lee Hoiby and George Gershwin--she let cabaret charm win over the audience.