Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sweet Honey in the Rock's performance Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre touched people of all ages, but the audience was mostly children, and their innocent voices and restless shuffling prior to the show were only a prelude to the fun soon to be had. The six African American women that make up Sweet Honey varied their material from Caribbean beats to South African songs of freedom, all of which were educational and let the audience interact.
Organized by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Sweet Honey's annual tribute to benefit local children's charities emphasizes, through music, the building of self-confidence. With songs like "So Glad I'm Here" and "I Am Young, I Am Positive," the group instilled motivation and self-love with lyrics understandable to children and adults.
Teaching the words of a simple song with a happy smile and encouraging the audience to sing along, dance in the aisles and clap the beat created a playtime ambiance that brought out the child in everyone. There was also a serious undertone to the performance. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was honored when five children were called to the stage and asked to tell the rest of the audience how they practice the civil rights leader's teachings of human equality and acceptance of all people.
Founded 27 years ago by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock has proven itself to be timeless in the teaching of universal ideas through music and simple fun. There is much to be learned from the group, and the simplicity, selflessness and pureness of that learning are priceless.
Bob Dylan has lamented that all folk singers ever sing anymore were their own songs, bypassing traditional, generation-to-generation tunes. Dylan also admitted that it might be his own fault, since young folkies are emulating his own turn from old standards to original work. The folk tradition isn't dead, though, as Bruce U. "Utah" Phillips demonstrated in a rare performance at the Barns of Wolf Trap Saturday night.
Phillips sang some of his own songs, and shared some recollections of his 40 years as a member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) and of bumming and railroading in the Great Northwest.
Buoyed by his recent work with Ani DiFranco (which has exposed him to a new generation) but limited by congestive heart disease to one show a month, Phillips relished the opportunity to infuse "a good yarn" into the music. Songs like "Railroading on the Great Divide" and "Pie in the Sky" consumed 20 minutes or more as he stopped them to spin stories. Nevada Jane, Slow Motion Shorty, T-Bone Slim, Hood River Blackie and Dawdlin' Bill came alive, as did the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill.
"These are your songs," Phillips admonished as he taught the crowd the verses of tunes like "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!"
Past his seventies now, Phillips resembled a wild, hippie Santa Claus. He closed with "All Used Up," proclaiming, as he did all evening, that he was far from it.
Maryland Symphony Orchestra
In a program note, conductor Elizabeth Schulze described the featured piece in this past weekend's Maryland Symphony Orchestra concert as one with "big shoulders."
It was a fine description of Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 and typical of Schulze, who in her first season as the orchestra's music director has established clear and relaxed lines of communication with both the musicians and the audience. Saturday night at the Maryland Theatre, she chatted easily and informatively with the audience while the seating onstage was being rearranged between Samuel Barber's bright, witty overture to "The School for Scandal" and Frank Martin's brilliantly accessible Concerto for Seven Winds, Percussion and Strings.
Her ability to communicate is even more evident in her conducting. Her gestures exude a grace and fluency that translate immediately and smoothly into the orchestra's phrasing, accents and dynamics, and she generates a power appropriate for the big, colorful, post-Dvorakian climaxes of Hanson's symphony.
She also has a talent for program-building that was shown in her years as an associate conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra and was also evident in this program. The Barber and Hanson works were chosen by the players for this concert, which she titled "Orchestra's Choice," but her choices of the Martin piece and Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 2 complement the others, giving a quite inclusive and well-balanced sampler of the varied styles available in audience-friendly, conservative orchestral music of the 20th century--what the average concertgoer might describe as "modern but not too modern."
The two works chosen by Schulze gave solo opportunities to seven wind players and four string players, as well as spotlighting the percussion section. No wonder the orchestra played as though it was enjoying itself, and the audience clearly shared the enjoyment.
CAPTION: Sweet Honey in the Rock's concert Saturday to benefit local children's charities was designed to instill motivation and self-love among young listeners.