Juilliard String Quartet
What's a listener to think these days about the Juilliard String Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at the Library of Congress?
Haydn's "Emperor" Quartet, the opening work for the Juilliard's concert Thursday evening (a program repeated last night), held extremes. There were lovely solo passages, especially in the slow movement, from second violinist Ronald Copes, cellist Joel Krosnick and violist Samuel Rhodes. But these came amid the Juilliard's characteristic scratchy, out-of-breath sound, sloppy coordination and graceless phrasing. Where the Haydn was merely ragged (matters not helped when first violinist Joel Smirnoff broke a string in the Menuetto), the closing colossus, Beethoven's A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, suffered from architectural collapse. The players would reach for the big gesture without sufficient supporting weight, and they played full-out for an occasionally intense, sometimes brutal but never poetic reading. Yet, as off-putting as their playing sounded, no one could complain about a program that included Webern's Six Bagatelles, Op. 9--tiny apparitions that flickered in and out in less than three minutes total--and Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet. And there lies the conflict that tugs at the listener: In concert after concert, the Juilliard creates attractive programs, mixing rare and exciting repertoire--usually delivered with enthusiasm and precision--with heavyweight and familiar works that are carelessly played. The payoffs are limited, and frustration ensues.
David Grisman Quintet
The David Grisman Quintet's audience is as diverse as its musical repertoire. That's saying something.
Fans of various ages sporting ponytails of various lengths filled the Birchmere Wednesday night to hear Grisman, a New Jersey-born mandolin wizard and the father of "Dawg" music, a free-form style that to the unversed comes off as a hybrid of '70s jazz fusion and traditional bluegrass. The older portion of the audience was drawn by the 54-year-old Grisman's collaborations with Doc Watson and other pillars of bluegrass; the younger enthusiasts, many sporting tie-dye and Birkenstocks and openly flaunting their taping devices, clearly were turned on to Grisman through his connections to Jerry Garcia, the deceased Grateful Dead guitarist who nicknamed his friend and picking partner "Dawg." And with a two-hour, two-set show, Grisman satisfied everybody's desires.
During his own solo turns on mandolin, Grisman stuck close to the hills of Appalachia with blazing single-note runs and restrained strumming (as on the mournful "Mill Valley Waltz," from a 1994 project with Tony Rice). But he gave members of his supporting cast all the freedom they needed to quench the kids' jam-band jones. "Dawg Cha Cha" featured Enrique Coria's smooth, New Age-y classical guitar, while "Sativa" (Grisman's tribute to another type of grass) found multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven flailing away on fiddle, chimes, and a variety of percussion instruments, including, believe it or not, his own noggin. Grisman sent young and old home in a high-lonesome mood with an encore set of archetypal American music, which included "Old and in the Way," a song he recorded with Garcia in the early '70s.
John Mercer's 'Garden'
When "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--The Concert" was staged at the Kennedy Center three years ago, the cast included author John Berendt, who wrote the mega-selling book on which the production is based, and jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli. Neither was present when the show resurfaced for a single performance at the Warner Theatre Thursday night.
Yet the real star of the evening, the music of Johnny Mercer, was very much present, punctuating, complementing and sometimes amusingly underscoring readings from Berendt's real-life account of sex, gossip, murder and mystery in Savannah, Ga. Indeed, a first-rate jazz ensemble, featuring cornetist Warren Vache, guitarist Mundell Lowe and saxophonist Jesse Davis, wove Mercer's music into the fabric of the show so neatly that it helped compensate for those moments when the readings proved a bit tiresome.
Of course, there were other diversions, too, not the least being the Lady Chablis, the real-life character who, after a flamboyant twist of gender, now views herself as "a very tan uptown white woman with an attitude."
Actress Claiborne Cary, a terrific mimic and not a bad singer, drew more than her share of laughs as well, while Mark McVey, Cynthia Scott and the indomitable Margaret Whiting thumbed their way through the great Mercer songbook, pausing to reprise "Midnight Sun," I Wanna Be Around," "Charade," "One for My Baby," "Moon River" and other pop classics. Directed and hosted by Jack Wrangler, the show ultimately proved charming, witty and supremely musical despite its occasionally sluggish pace.