Theater Chamber Players

Four quartets in different shapes and sizes filled the Theater Chamber Players program Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center. The first, a premiere, set flute, clarinet, violin and cello together for Laura Elise Schwendinger's "Magic Carpet Music." Evocative titles like this can be more a hindrance than a listening aid, especially if expectations are not met. In a program note, the Chicago-based composer mentions a "musical journey of the imagination." She calls the movements "Arabesque," "Air" and, since our rug flies to the land of the tango for the third movement, "Buenos Aires."

Despite this, its 14 minutes didn't seem so much a journey as a series of self-contained episodes. Shimmering harmonics, thwacks from the cello, an occasional restless tune and plenty of lovely sonorities were attractive but didn't add up to much substance.

In contrast was Mario Davidovsky's Quartetto No. 2 (1996), an uncluttered, tightly constructed work that allows each instrument to speak its native language. An oboe (played by Mark Hill with a plangent tone) sings and meditates in long, lonesome phrases. These lie comfortably atop a bed of strings (violin, viola, cello) that play mostly in one voice, from agitated and spiky to dense and luxurious.

Members of the Left Bank Quartet, divided for the other works in the program, came together for Bartok's String Quartet No. 3 (1927). The notes were in place, the atmosphere suitably folksy and sturdy, but there was little color or rhythmic gusto in their style. Yet they gave a very credible reading of a technically demanding piece, and the listener was thankful.

Finishing the concert was Brahms's C Minor Piano Quartet led by Leon Fleisher, the composer's foremost interpreter in this century. In the 1960s Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, and his recovery has been slow and uneven. He makes up for impaired digital agility with a robust tone and durable, insightful interpretations. Still, his concept-driven playing couldn't compensate for the pallid string tone of his colleagues, and the work, like the evening as a whole, never quite reached its potential.

--Pierre Ruhe

Amy Grant

Amy Grant's Christmas show Friday at MCI Center was a downer, mainly because the host didn't seem to be in a caroling mood. These are tumultuous times for the gal whose red leather pants and glorious smile sparked the Christian music boom in the late '80s. The dissolution of her 16-year marriage and recent revelations of a fling with secular superstar Vince Gill have given the tabloids plenty to write about, and some religious broadcasters have in turn judged her unworthy of their playlists.

So when Grant appeared onstage to sing her opening number, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," nobody in the packed house seemed to believe she meant it.

Much about the evening was worth celebrating. The staging was elegant, with featured performers and the backing Nashville Symphony Orchestra bathed in blue light, and snowflakes fell in the background. The sound of every oboe and piano note was, all the way to the upper deck, distinct. Grant looked ravishing, in a graceful green ball gown, and her monologues about childhood holiday memories were touching without being too sappy.

But the joyful noise that the crowd came for was in short supply. Grant's fellow Christian rocker Michael W. Smith tried to add some life to the show, taking a break from his piano noodling during "Gloria" to swap places with symphony conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn and leading the crowd in a sing-along of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and other carols.

That didn't do much to lift Grant's mood. While the orchestra played "Gabriel's Oboe," an instrumental from her new CD, "A Christmas to Remember," she requested that the audience pause to reflect on dead relatives, and after mentioning a charity she advocates she almost apologized and urged that nobody else should feel so obliged.

"At this point in my life," Grant said, "the last thing I want is somebody telling me what to do."

Very understandable.

--Dave McKenna

Pianist Esther Budiardjo

Indonesian pianist Esther Budiardjo made quite a splash at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday, as she did in Boston, New York and College Park, where she placed first in the 1996 William Kapell International Piano Competition. Although Budiardjo has previously performed at the Phillips Collection and at the National Academy of Sciences, this was her Kennedy Center debut. Her concert was part of the Patrick Hayes and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes Piano Series, which is dedicated to boosting the careers of up-and-coming pianists.

What made her playing absorbing was her crisp and scintillating technique combined with a Promethean fire. It is true that at times a fussiness arose in her playing, but this quickly subsided as thundering octaves, riveting finger passage work and a momentous sweep emerged. In some ways her approach to the instrument (not to mention her musical temperament) recalls Bella Davidovich, in that she plays with a hyper-clarity--but one that doesn't overwhelm her intensely dramatic disposition and mature musicianship.

These qualities were best displayed in Liszt's "Six Grand Etudes After Paganini," as she tossed off these studies as child's play; yet this was done with a sense of required theater. In the Etude in E-flat, for example, her formidable technique enabled her to highlight coquettish sections that alternated with moments of power and possession.

Budiardjo also gave an affecting rendition of Polish emigre Alexandre Tansman's impressionistic "Novelettes," which she painted with a variety of hues and colors. References to Balinese gamelan music and the use of Javanese pentatonicism abound in these miniatures, as is typical of many works composed in the turn-of-the-century France in which Tansman lived.

Budiardjo's interpretation of Haydn's Sonata in E-flat fell short on playful qualities, as she instead chose to highlight the work's majesty. In this way, she brought out the expansive structure, full textures and rich harmonies. The only problem was that this predilection for drama got the best of a composition that also contains innocent and impish moments.

--Robert F. Waters

Saxman Frank Foster

Tenor saxophonist and former Count Basie band member Frank Foster brought a 10-piece band to John Addison Concert Hall in Fort Washington Saturday for an evening of swing, dance and holiday cheer.

The concert opened with the always animated pianist Danny Mixon in a trio setting, unfurling a fanciful arrangement of "All the Things You Are" that was replete with melodic embellishments, whimsical allusions and hammered block chords. Even when Mixon gravitated toward the blues during the concert, which was often the case, his right hand radiated a joyful energy.

Mixon was also chiefly responsible for the seasonal themes that kept popping up during the ensemble arrangements. Foster contributed a few original tunes, including the fulgent "Setting the Pace," which sounded as if it were powered by a much larger band. Other pieces, drawn from the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley and Lee Morgan, capitalized on the band's collective power as well as the gifts of such seasoned soloists as saxophonists Bruce Williams and Bill Saxton and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater.

Vocalist Dennis Rowland then arrived onstage feigning a cold, but any trace of it vanished the moment he began singing in a debonair baritone. After admitting that he's partial to seasonal themes, Rowland revitalized "The Christmas Song" with winning ease and charm. He can turn on the soul power, too, as his rousing interpretation of "When It All Comes Down" proved.

The ensemble then repaired to a makeshift ballroom in the venue for a swing dance.

--Mike Joyce