Susana Baca's four-piece band includes two percussionists who play elementary folk instruments derived from boxes, gourds, clay pots and donkey jaws, yet the Peruvian singer's concert Friday at Baird Auditorium was not exactly rustic. Baca wore a long white gown but no shoes, an outfit that suggested her Afro-Peruvian style: elegant and urban, yet fundamentally earthy.
Baca's ballads resembled Brazilian sambas, although their strolling rhythms sometimes took a slightly different gait. Despite the wealth of percussion, the music was generally cool and sauntering, even when the rhythms turned more exuberant after intermission. The guitar was rooted in Spanish flamenco and the call-and-response refrains derived from Africa, but the melodies of such songs as "Luna Llena" had an Andean air that's not heard in music from the continent's Atlantic or Caribbean coasts.
The concert was an excellent introduction to Baca's music, and to an entire genre that was little known to the rest of the world before the 1995 Luaka Bop compilation album, "The Soul of Black Peru." Since Baca didn't sing or speak in English, however, a program that translated the lyrics would have enriched the experience.
Doc Severinsen & NSO Pops
Doc Severinsen brought his trumpet and charm to the Kennedy Center over the weekend to headline two performances of the NSO Pops. In his 25 years of fronting the "Tonight Show" band, Severinsen learned how to entertain folks whose favorite Bach is either Barbara or Catherine. A fit 72, he now serves as the principal pops conductor for symphonies in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Phoenix, but uses the same shtick that worked on television. It still works.
Early in Friday's program of mostly Italian compositions, Severinsen brought out an accordion-guitar-mandolin trio to accompany him and the house orchestra for a medley of what he called "traditional Italian wedding songs." He then introduced his favorite aria ("Recondita armonia," from Puccini's "Tosca") as if the classical music hard-cores in the house, and maybe some of the musicians, wouldn't approve: "That may define me as a lightweight when it comes to opera," he said, "but I don't care." He played the aria's vocal melody on his trumpet, and for hitting all the notes the fat lady normally sings, Severinsen received the first of many raucous ovations. Severinsen presented an original titled "Notte a Roma." The piece, anchored by disco-style keyboards, would have made a suitable soundtrack had "The Love Boat" ever docked on the Amalfi Coast.
Severinsen eventually tendered familiar fare such as "That's Amore," the theme from "The Godfather," "Funiculi, Funicula," "Volare" and, as a show-ender, "O sole mio." On the last number, tenor Joseph Wolverton came onstage not only to lead the singing, but to play straight man, a la Ed McMahon, for several Severinsen sight gags. Sure, Severinsen's always been a ham. But on this night, he was prosciutto.
Currently the most respected rock band hailing from the Maritime Provinces, Sloan gave a show Saturday night at the Black Cat that would make any citizen of our northern neighbor proud. It had the sizable audience excited from the moment the band began its set and did not let the feel-good buzz die off until well after the last encore.
Touring in support of its second full-length U.S. release, "Between the Bridges," Sloan demonstrated a tightness of technique that most bands strive for but fail to fully realize. Backed by standard distorted guitar with an occasional driving organ, the band's vocal harmonies, in which each member participated, were Liverpudlian derivations with a little kick. Notable was the swapping of instruments among three of the four band members, altering ever so slightly the vitality of each individual tune, while at the same time projecting a likable kinship among the members. Particularly strong songs included "Take Good Care of the Poor Boy" and "She Says What She Means," although it would be easier to find a hockey puck at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy than to uncover an inconsistency in Sloan's performance Saturday night.
Sloan was preceded by fellow Canadians the Deadly Snakes, a six-piece band that played a strong set driven as much by a bluesy big-band sound as it was by traditional rock with a flourish of punk.
--Pete L. Zanko
Annapolis Opera: 'Tosca'
Puccini's "Tosca" had its premiere in January 1900, and has thrilled--or at worst merely pleased--audiences for 100 years. The Annapolis Opera's season opener Friday night at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts explained once again the work's appeal: Its combination of glorious music, passionate love, beauty, terror, devotion and impossible choices could not fail to grip the listener.
This "Tosca" was strongly cast with three principals whose careers bear watching. Soprano Allison Charney, for whom no note is too high, was convincing vocally whether or not she has a dramatic soprano voice, and fitted the role visually.
As Cavaradossi, large-voiced tenor Peter Riberi sang at full volume and let pass most opportunities for modulation in Act 1. For Act 3 he softened appropriately but seemed to be making an effort at it. Nevertheless, his dramatic, ringing tones would be a pleasure to hear in almost any setting.
Another big voice, that of bass baritone Sun Yu, seems perfect for the role of Scarpia. He obviously enjoys the part and uses his imposing height to good advantage in dominating Act 2. Moments of vocal difficulty just before Tosca's aria "Vissi d'arte" (which was nicely handled by Charney) were camouflaged and the break helped him recover for the end of the act.
Detractions from the performance included a slowish tempo that Riberi and Sun Yu, in particular, did not always choose to follow. More troubling was the near lack of vocal nuance from the male leads.
Baritone Christopher Flint sang a fine Sacristan; and the role of Angelotti was taken very capably by bass James Shumate. Tenor Gary Leard sang Spoletta, Scarpia's lieutenant.
Jorge Enrique Baez
Paraguayan pianist Jorge Enrique Baez made an impressive American debut Friday night at Bello Auditorium, presented by the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). He recently won the City of Asuncion Music Competition and the IDB Cultural Center Prize.
Baez's recital could be a model for ascending young musicians from around the world. He is a talented pianist who gave a small, insider's musical tour of his homeland; he treated his country's composers well, without personal affectation.
The Paraguayan composers Baez featured, mostly contemporaries, wrote musical sketches of life there. Baez played them in a charmingly simple way, clear in his intent and clearly understandable. In "Three Little Preludes" by Luis Carisimo, there were mischievous puppets, a quiet, introspective shepherd's flute and a swaying gypsy dance.
Baez's best playing came during sections with romantic melody, heartfelt, as in Juan Gonzales' "Ballad," Daniel Luzko's Pieces for Piano and Liszt's "Vallee d'Obermann"; his phrases arched beautifully. High-velocity fingers raced almost flawlessly in J.S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903. Later, Baez waved his country's musical flag with the unofficial national anthem, Agustin Barrios's waltzing "Paraguayan Dance."
When Noah Greenberg created the New York Pro Musica in 1952, he pioneered the performance of medieval and Renaissance music in this century. Early music, he noted, "must not be quaint." One of many such ensembles sustaining Greenberg's legacy, the 12-member Pomerium, led by Alexander Blachly, appeared Saturday at Dumbarton Methodist Church in a program of early 16th-century sacred motets written for the Sistine Chapel during Michelangelo's era.
It takes consummate singers like these to navigate artfully through the contrapuntal currents determining the shape and texture of works by Josquin, de Silva, Festa, Carpentras, Mouton and Willaert. Without instrumental support, the Pomerium surmounts the technical challenges of this music with total control, impeccable intonation and perfect balance. They convey the drama of key words and the interactions between ever-changing voice groups. They complete phrase endings with tight finesse and slide into prominent cadences with driving intensity. Through all this, they produce a lustrous sonority, full-bodied yet never harsh or dry, and consistent tone quality (despite the mixture of three sopranos against male countertenors, tenors and basses). The Pomerium, in short, re-created the beauties of a repertoire that kept the papal chapel out front in the competition among Renaissance courts to outdo each other--in the magnificence and monumental dimensions of their music, painting and architecture.