Maura O'Connell's voice was nearly naked at the Birchmere Friday night, backed only by acoustic guitars and a bit of percussion and penny whistle. Yet this most unconventional chanteuse and her remarkable voice held the audience rapt.
O'Connell is a pure singer (she doesn't compose) who strives to find material that she emotionally and melodically connects with. Having been born and raised in Ireland and now living in Nashville, where she hung out with the New Grass Revival, makes her interpretations singular. Her keen sense of history made Friday's show something of a lecture, too; everyone in the full room seemed to listen attentively.
From the opening "To Be the One," she reacted to the flow of the song like a soul shouter, responding to the varying degrees of intensity that guitarists Dave Francis and Bat McGrath expressed. O'Connell touched her Irish roots (she came to prominence singing with De Danann) in "West Coast of Clare," went Nashville with Nanci Griffith's "Trouble in the Fields" and tugged heartstrings with "Maggie" and "The Train From Sligo." "Teddy Boy" was the unstoppable combination of sad and Irish.
Commanding throughout, only a strangely upbeat version of Richard Thompson's "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" seemed forced. Even then, technique got her through. In fact, if she had walked onto that stage with a phone book as material, it's doubtful any of her devoted fans would have budged.
Grey, Turre & Marsalis
A convivial spirit prevailed Friday night at Blues Alley when the Georgetown club hosted a trombone summit featuring three generations of jazz artists: Al Grey, Steve Turre and Delfeayo Marsalis.
Not surprisingly, swing and blues served as the evening's musical common denominators, inspiring a series of relaxed yet soulful performances of original tunes and jazz standards. Using a variety of mutes and plungers, the three hornmen not only proved wonderfully adept at shading and coloring the tunes, but the solos and ensemble passages were often dotted with growls, moans and other vocal inflections that made the music all the more distinctive and expressive.
Grey, the legendary jazz elder and former Count Basie band member, still swings with frictionless ease. Yet one of his finest moments came when he quietly reprised "Mood Indigo" with the sensitive support of the young and very promising local pianist Janelle Gill.
Turre countered with one of his own blues compositions, a piece that quickly revealed the brassmen's extroverted personalities, while Marsalis briefly demonstrated the impressive strides he has made as an interpreter of romantic ballads.
In addition to Gill, the trombonists were ably accompanied by bassist Russell Sledge and drummer Martin Butler. Butler was also responsible for the syncopated rhythmic thrust behind "Echoes of New Orleans," a tune that ultimately found the entire sextet festively strutting its stuff.
Cantate Chamber Singers
The Cantate Chamber Singers, one of the area's finest choral ensembles, marked the anniversary of Benjamin Britten's birth Saturday with a concert devoted almost entirely to the late composer's music.
The event, given at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, was heightened by the premiere of Thomas Beveridge's "Prelude to 'Endymion,' " a setting of a poem by John Keats for chorus and string orchestra.
Commissioned by Cantate, Beveridge's piece extends Keats's ultimate certainty of beauty's permanence to the musical sphere through total cohesiveness. The writing perfectly suits the dimensions of the human voice, and continuity flows from waves of redolent melodic sequences and changing densities of texture and pitch that underline specific poetic innuendoes. Graceful Mahlerisms slip in through the coalescence of certain pitches and harmonies. Conductor Gisele Becker led a lucid and telling performance.
Earlier in the program, during Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" and Missa Brevis in D, the singers fell short. Perhaps placing them in the choir loft was intended to convey the resonance of a boys' choir in English Gothic spaces, but it didn't. The chorus, especially the vocal soloists, sounded pale against an overriding organ, though Gary Davison gave an imaginative account of Frank Bridge's rambling Adagio in E for organ, and he conducted a spirited Elgarian "Simple Symphony."
When it moved closer to the audience, the Cantate obtained more immediacy and precision in several Britten songs.