Alison Krauss appeared to have a great wad of chewing tobacco in her left cheek when she came to the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Wednesday, which, she admitted, wouldn't be out of character for a typical bluegrass queen. But little about Krauss is typical. As it turned out, the puffiness came from a root canal earlier in the week, and though it altered her appearance a bit, not even oral surgery could cause Krauss to sing or play a sour note.
The dental procedure probably had something to do with the enchantingly loopy humor Krauss displayed throughout her wonderful two-hour set. She giggled like a schoolgirl as she tracked the path of dust falling from the rafters, contemplated the flesh on her upper arm while she fiddled and even fell into a laughing fit in the middle of "Ghost in This House," a thoroughly depressing breakup song from her new CD, "Forget About It."
Fans also had trouble staying somber while watching Krauss perform that cut and her crossover fare, like the Foundations' "Baby, Now That I've Found You" and the Don Schlitz/Paul Overstreet ballad "When You Say Nothing at All." The contrast between her speaking voice, which is rather gruff and heavily Midwestern, and her singing voice, which seems to come from Appalachia by way of the heavens, is a bit freakish. Her fiddle playing would have seemed just as otherworldly were it not for the presence of Jerry Douglas, the dobro wizard now touring with Krauss's band, Union Station. During the spirited instrumentals "Windy City Rag" and "High and Seek," Douglas's fingers kept pace with Krauss's bow, note for note.
The celebrated 1610 "Vespro della beata vergine" of the prolific and innovative 16th-17th-century composer Claudio Monteverdi was given a splendid performance Tuesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
Featured singers were soprano Ellen Hargis and mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead, both specialists in early music, whose duet "Pulchra es, amica mea" was especially noteworthy for the articulation of words and the perfect blending of their voices with those of the other singers: countertenor Roger Isaacs; tenors Jeffrey Fahnestock, William Hite, Robert Petillo and Patrick Toomey; baritones Brian Ming Chu and Steven Combs; and basses Francois Loup and Curtis Streetman.
The orchestral ensemble consisted of period instruments including cornet, theorbo (chitarrone), bass violins, recorders and a dolcian, as well as violins, violas, trombones and organ. The instrumentalists were all experienced baroque or Renaissance musicians from groups such as King's Noyse of Boston, Piffaro and Chicago Baroque Ensemble. Thomas W. Hetrick conducted.
Certain parts of the Vespers are strikingly reminiscent of Monteverdi's 1607 opera "Orfeo," widely considered the first great opera. While sounding coordinated overall, the sections of this work vary widely in musical style.
The difficulties of mounting a production of this work are enormous. In view of the rarity of such a concert, however, and the Basilica's magnificance, this was a joyous occasion for connoisseurs of early music.
Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim's playing hardly invokes that of Art Tatum. Nevertheless, Thursday at the Kennedy Center he was featured in its "Art Tatum Piano Panorama," a solo piano jazz performance series. Whereas Tatum's solos were distinguished by otherworldly virtuosity and daredevil velocity, Ibrahim's are more meditative with dramatic use of space and repetitive melodic figures.
Ibrahim performed a lengthy untitled suite that betrayed two of his most significant influences, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. His recital was full of passages that evoked the infectious rhythms of South African township jive as well as the mournful hymns associated with that country's human rights struggle. But he also inserted fragmented lines from Monk's various compositions and a sumptuous reading of Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."
Overall, Ibrahim's performance had moments of unbridled beauty--but also some dangerously boring points that threatened its emotional poignancy. The piece was also saddled with laborious musical ideas that seemed to repeat themselves too often without any great inventive variation. If it had been performed with a full orchestra or a little more pithiness, perhaps the suite would not have been such a tiring listening experience.