The Grieg Trio
The Grieg Trio (Vebjorn Anvik, piano; Solve Sigerland, violin; Ellen Margrete Flesjo, cello) appeared at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Tuesday night in a program that on the page seemed uninteresting--an unnamed Grieg piece not published until 1978, the late Schubert Notturno, D. 897 (an isolated slow movement the composer probably intended for the B-flat Trio, but rejected), Frank Martin's Trio on Irish Folksongs (one cringes) and, finally and too late, Ravel's Trio in A Minor.
The most pleasant surprise was the rich, romantic, airy sonority these three young Norwegians generated. Each has a soloist's command. Their collective sound at full throttle is imposing, and their integration remained always an easy collective of spontaneous musicianship. The Grieg Andante con Moto, a Brahms-inflected Nordic mood piece that has its moments but not much development, needs precisely the yearning authority it received. Martin's Irish concoction turned out to be a fascinating exercise in dressing up immediately recognizable olde sod ditties as Bulgarian folk tunes, modal and dissonant and loaded with paprika. Although it sounds in the description like a trick, mere arranger's hokum, the composition aims to scatter familiar music into unfamiliar guise and disposition, and succeeds brilliantly. The Trio lit into it at full cry, but played straight, never shooting for meretricious effects or irony.
The Schubert Notturno--unfamiliar terrain for this listener--may be great music but didn't sound it. There's something missing at the heart of this work, but the assessment is of course subjective, and in any event the performance was flowing, relaxed and tender, and the difficult stream of arpeggios in the piano part against almost static figurations in the strings was memorably gorgeous. The Ravel Trio, a curious piece conservative in form and highly coloristic, looks turbulently into Ravel's emerging neoclassic modernism in other ways (it was written in 1914, finished after war was declared). The Grieg Trio gave it large-scale intensity and power without slighting any of the wealth of detail from which it takes its distinction.
Baritone Nathan Gunn
I cannot really believe that the song cycle "Voices of WWII" by American composer Gene Scheer (born 1958) is better than Robert Schumann's "Eichendorff Liederkreis," Op. 39. But classic or not, Scheer had a stronger impact than Schumann in baritone Nathan Gunn's song recital for the Vocal Arts Society on Tuesday evening at La Maison Francaise.
Scheer's five songs, based on the reminiscences of World War II veterans, are tragic, touching, mildly amusing and sometimes horrifying. They include memories of a soldier in the pivotal landing on Omaha Beach stumbling over the body of a friend; a sailor whose life (with those of his comrades) was spared by a German submarine captain who let them row away in lifeboats before sinking their ship; an American having tea in a London home when the German bombers come over and the children are tucked under a specially reinforced kitchen table.
Gunn, who sang the world premiere of this cycle earlier this year, has been deeply affected by the songs, and his intense emotional identification is shared with the audience. In the Schumann, one notes that he has a voice as rich and smooth as whipped cream, that he controls it expertly, that he pays due attention to the articulation, emotion and meaning of the German text; but he is still very young and there are nuances in the music that come only with years of experience.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to American songs in a variety of styles: a sentimental song by Charles Ives about his daughters; a song by Ned Rorem that captures the magic of an early morning in Paris when one is young and in love; three bright, nostalgic, cute and humorously menacing songs by William Bolcom; and a folk song and popular song beautifully contrasted: "Shenandoah" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" sung in precisely the right style.
Gunn is already well launched on an international operatic career and is working his way toward mastery of German lieder. But he was born to sing American songs, and the Scheer cycle was born to be sung by him. Pianist Julie Gunn was an expert and sensitive partner.
Saxophonist Bobby Watson
For those who have listened to alto saxophonist Bobby Watson's irresistible new album, "Quiet as It's Kept," and were expecting the same amount of urgency, his Monday night performance with pianist Billy Taylor's trio at the Kennedy Center was probably anticlimactic. But in exchange for scorching, extended improvisational romps, the former Jazz Messenger musical director made a toned-down, congenial but enthralling guest on Taylor's award-winning National Public Radio program, "Jazz at the Kennedy Center."
Taylor's radio program is designed to give a glimpse of the musician's artistry beyond the standard nightly gig by way of informative interviews, demonstrations of instrumental techniques and questions from the audience. With Taylor's pristine trio, Watson aptly mapped out his career from his Kansas upbringing to his trailblazing years with Art Blakey to becoming a leader of his own ensembles. Playing a composition to illustrate almost each career signpost, he whipped through early bebop classics such as Tadd Dameron's "Hot House" and Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" with nonchalant ease, and was mesmerizing on a splendid duet reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."
While Watson's playing was comparatively color-by-numbers, his canned heat began to explode on the Jazz Messengers staple "Moanin.' " Watson's spirited alto has always contained an R&B edge, and on "Moanin' " his fiery reading combined Charlie Parker's dexterity with King Curtis's soulful swagger. The song also afforded some of the funkiest solos from Taylor, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper. Their jovial reading of Sonny Rollins's gem "St. Thomas" also captured Watson in a more typical adventurous mode as his prancing improvisation enlivened the contagious melody. The end result was a formal but inspired educational evening befitting Taylor's esteemed program.
Guitarist Paco de Lucia
There are a significant number of people around here who would kill for a chance to hear guitarist Paco de Lucia in person, and the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was full of them on Monday. De Lucia has taken flamenco, that essentially crossover mix of Sephardic cantillation, Muslim chant and Gypsy despair, added to it elements of jazz and his own artistic imagination (and a good-size dollop of theater) and stripped it of the posturing that frequently leaves flamenco a caricature of itself. What he offered his admirers was an evening of uncommon virtuosity, compelling rhythmic energy and exuberance and, for this genre, an unusually varied program largely of his own compositions.
His associates are stars in their own right, a band of guitarists, drummers, a flutist, a singer and a wonderful dancer who were allowed to move in and out of the musical foreground throughout the evening and who added far more than background support to the music. From time to time they were one big percussion ensemble, clapping, stamping, thumping on guitar bodies, drumming and finger-snapping. From time to time they all seemed to be wailing, the flute and electric guitar taking their lead from the singer. One instrument, often de Lucia's guitar, might start a piece as a solo and the rest would sort of sneak in, the ornamentation becoming more and more elaborate and the passion more and more intense.
What was surprising and disheartening about all this was that de Lucia apparently condones performing with the sort of in-your-face amplification that erases any sense of space from the performance, gives everything a hard loudspeaker edge and defaults responsibility for balance to someone somewhere pushing switches. Who needs this? Not Paco de Lucia or his audience.