Master Chorale

Chamber Singers

The Master Chorale Chamber Singers have many different styles at their command, as their program Sunday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church so well demonstrated. Beginning with a set of medieval and Renaissance works, the chorus then expanded its program into music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Soprano Susan Vaules Lin opened the concert with an unaccompanied melody by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), unloosed with molten agility through its wide compass. (We can't say, as conductor Donald McCullough remarked, that Hildegard was a "rare" example of a medieval female composer. Few names of any composers from that time are known.)

A "Kyrie" of Josquin des Prez's Mass and a motet of Tomas Luis de Victoria showed how supple and clear singers must be for Renaissance choral music. Compared with other chamber groups heard recently--New York's Pomerium, the Chamber Choir of Berlin's Music Academy and a few local ensembles--the singers fell short of the degree of fine-tuning, balance, support and precision that the extended lines and luminescent textures of Renaissance music need.

Mendelssohn's German Psalm setting was mired in American R's and E's. But the vocal tonal color of motets by Maurice Durufle matched the rich chordal tapestries inspired by French organ sound, and baritone Steven Combs lent a burnished vibrancy to Ralph Vaughan Williams's visionary "Five Mystical Songs."

--Cecelia Porter

Zina Gendel and

Dionne Laufman

Ernest Bloch's "Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life" is one of the 20th century's notable--and unduly neglected--short compositions for violin and piano. Inspired by the life and work of the legendary mystic who formed the Hasidic sect of Judaism, this music uses the haunting melodic modes that have expressed Hasidic ecstasy, suffering, mystic visions and aspirations for centuries--a type of music known to most Americans in adapted form from klezmer performances and "Fiddler on the Roof." It challenges the violinist to emulate a human voice in prayer, and it uses musical styles dating back to antiquity and rich in Middle Eastern atmosphere. It also demands special abilities in technique and expressiveness, which were met superbly by violinist Zina Gendel and pianist Dionne Laufman Sunday at Temple Emanuel in Kensington.

The program opened the fourth season of concerts at the synagogue with performances of Bloch, Mozart and Dvorak by the Washington Conservatory Chamber Artists, including violinist Kathy Judd (director of the conservatory), violist Susan Crawford and cellist Lori Barnet, all of whom played in an idiomatic performance (with momentary lapses of ensemble) of Dvorak's Quintet in A, Op. 81, for piano and strings. In the opening number, Mozart's Trio in B-flat, the piano lid was raised too high, resulting in an unbalanced tone for the opening measures. Barnet recovered quickly and had impressive presence for most of the performance. Judd's tone was somewhat veiled much of the time, but she made a solid contribution and the problem did not recur in the rest of the program.

--Joseph McLellan

311 at Nation

311 writes songs with titles like "Applied Science" and "Hydroponic," and the California-via-Nebraska quintet played those and a passel of others at a packed and sweaty Nation Saturday night, extolling its vision of a crossbred musical utopia.

To the basic rap-metal hybrid that has proved golden for Korn and Limp Bizkit, 311 added a healthy pinch of ska and dub, mainly through the intertwining vocals of singers Nick Hexum and Doug "SA" Martinez. They sang "full range of emotion/ full range of styles" during "Come Original," and though clearly seeking that goal, they truly broke free from their signature sound (best heard in their radio hit "Down") on only a few occasions.

"Nix Hex," through Tim Mahoney's jazzy chording, busted the mold, as did the Santana-influenced "Life's Not a Race," driven by bassist Aaron "P-Nut" Wills.

The crowd sprang to life from the opening "Omaha Stylee," and the band matched its pogoing energy bounce for bounce, though possibly inspired by more than just performing: The musicians happily indulged pleas for "Who's Got the Herb?" and "Homebrew," indicating they endeavor to emulate reggae stars in more than just music.

Touring behind "Soundsystem," their sixth album, they showed no particular deference to it, drawing 90 minutes judiciously from all career phases, though the differences among them are minuscule.

Despite the band's good intentions, boundless energy and loud guitars, 311's show was hardly the genre-uniting spectacle it seemed to think it was. Competent modern rock was more like it.

--Patrick Foster

Ben Harper

Sunday night at American University's Bender Arena, Ben Harper and his trio, the Innocent Criminals, shaped their sound around the emotional longing and spiritual lament that are cornerstones of the blues, but transcended the form's dogmatic tendencies.

From his customary sitting position, Harper coaxed smears, whispers and wails from a dizzying array of acoustic, electric and slide guitars, which he played traditionally as well as flat across his lap. His command of the strings evoked Jimi Hendrix (he pounded "Manic Depression" near the close of the set), while a five-song solo encore recalled the lonely spirit of early Neil Young.

Harper's easy manner assured that the two-hour show never flagged. Drawing from his accomplished new "Burn to Shine" collection, he nailed the title track, "The Woman in You" and "Forgiven," darted around drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leach during "Please Bleed," and was joined by opener and "human beatbox" Rahzel for "Steal My Kisses." Even better were selections from his back catalogue. Harper and bassist Juan Nelson weaved "Oppression" around Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" and rendered "Burn One Down" as a defiant sing-along.

Loose enough to permit new insights, tight enough to forbid indulgence, Harper managed to be both familiar and new, no easy trick. He also proved that live performance is his ideal setting, and that he is and isn't a very good bluesman.

--Patrick Foster