American quilting has accumulated its own folklore. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is currently featuring this branch of Americana as viewed through art exhibitions, films and symposiums. On Thursday night Philomela, a 14-member women's vocal ensemble, contributed to the project with a zesty performance of the musical drama "Quilters," written in 1977 by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek and directed Thursday by Kathy Kessler Price.
The two-act production surges through songs and dramatic sketches highlighting the rites of passage and hardships quilters experienced on the frontier, which, as one character quips, "is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here."
Damashek's music and lyrics blend 19th-century American folk songs and hymns cast in the mode of Alice Parker's arrangements, abundantly in vogue now. Cleverly choreographed and set against depictions of various types of quilting, the women recount stories of frontier life from childhood traumas and the trials of courting to giving birth and growing old.
Artfully accompanied by pianist Mary Ann Christian and guitarist Susan Numrich, the singing was energetic and given a lively tempo. Both choruses and solos were sung with confidence, dramatic flair and frequent touches of whimsy and wit.
In the past few years, Panamanian-bred Danilo Perez has become one of today's most celebrated jazz pianists. An astounding virtuoso, even in his most perplexed improvisational moments, he seldom lets flashy dexterity replace lucid musicality. Thursday at the Kennedy Center, the affable pianist delivered a rousing solo performance that lived up to the hype.
During the first half of the evening, Perez's absorbing recital transported the audience to Latin America. The journey was realized through sumptuous readings of songs from Cuba, Argentina and Panama. He began with Rene Touzet's luxurious danzon "Alterada," which radiantly illustrates the enormous influence of European classical music on Latin music. Perez's writhing passages mesmerized mostly because of their blinding fluidity, but also because of their passionate lyricism. A subtle tango rhythm enlivened Perez's sterling reading of Ariel Ramirez's "Al Fonsina y el Mar," while a hypnotic bolero figure anchored Carlos Franzetti's "Serenata."
Perez later jumped to North America with a lively retrospective of Thelonious Monk's music. He began his heartfelt tribute with his composition "PanaMonk," a dazzling showcase of pianistic skills that slyly quotes Monk's "Epistrophy." Perez's knuckle-busting rhythms, long flurries of single notes and zooming velocity contrast heavily with Monk's more sparse playing.
He was, however, ingenious at illuminating the brilliant corners of Monk's music in terms of harmonic dissonance and playful rhythms with his splendid performance of "Evidence" and "Four in One" played simultaneously. His encore reading of Monk's "Bright Mississippi," which fused an infectious rumba rhythm, placed Perez among the leading Monk interpreters.
Jimmie's Chicken Shack
The members of Jimmie's Chicken Shack affectionately refer to their music as "mutt rock," because they strive to integrate disparate strains into a cohesive whole. Thursday at the Nation, the Annapolis natives displayed flashes of a diverse palette, but the volume of their guitars and pseudo hip-hop backbeat placed them firmly in the unexciting camp of modern rock.
Warming up for a lengthy tour with kindred spirits 311, the quartet eased their musical shortcomings with a natural, unassuming stage presence. Frontman Jimi HaHa (James Davies) kept the crowd involved and the momentum at least partially rolling with his self-deprecating banter. With blond dreadlocks whirling, he leaned into the vocals of songs that occasionally recalled the chunky rock of Everclear. Guitarist Double D (Dave Dowling) was dominant in the sound mix and managed to contribute distinctive figures on the churning intro to "Face It" and "Dropping Anchor," which echoed an obvious influence, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
The Shack, purportedly named for a New York City restaurant Charlie Parker frequented, did offer some promising bits during the 90-minute show. Their current single "Trash" features a disarmingly catchy hook, and if the band can expand on its obvious penchant for pop hooks, it may save itself from sinking into modern rock's faceless mass.
Altenberg Trio Vienna
The performance by the Altenberg Trio Vienna at the Austrian Embassy on Wednesday marked one of those occasions one never forgets. The entire concert, part of a major U.S. tour, was a supreme example of the highest artistry. But it was Schoenberg's "Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night)" that will linger longest in memory. The players (pianist Claus-Christian Schuster, violinist Amiram Ganz, cellist Martin Hornstein) revealed every dimension of this sublime score. This is not to slight the stunning readings of Beethoven's two Op. 70 trios opening and closing the evening.
The Schoenberg was an arrangement of the original string sextet (1899) made by pianist Edward Steuermann in the 1930s and authorized by the composer.
The music was given its full measure as by degrees the Altenberg intensified emotion and sonority to a near-breaking point. But then Schoenberg eludes expectations by magically transmuting all the preceding dissonant tension into luminous harmonies and textures.
For the Beethoven, the ensemble offered its own resplendent version of the fabled "Viennese sound"--suavely sweet, yet vigorous rather than sloshy. Somehow the trio adapted this sonority to the composer's playful skirmishes between commanding solemnity and melodious grace.
They devoted all aspects of their keen musicianship in the service of a cohesive whole inspired by imagination and driven by pathos.
Everything that followed Toshi Reagon's opening set at the Barns of Wolf Trap Wednesday night seemed anticlimactic. This was not merely because the singer-songwriter was performing for a hometown crowd, or even because her mother, the glorious singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, contributed stirring harmonies to a few selections. Under just about any circumstances, Toshi Reagon would appear capable of stealing the show.
Collaborating with electric guitarist Adam Widoff and playing percussive acoustic guitar, Reagon invested songs of perseverance and pride, love and yearning, with such a compelling voice that she immediately forged a powerful connection with the audience. Many of her songs, including tunes from her impressive new album, "The Righteous Ones," carry an inspirational message. Yet what is most inspiring about her music is the way she delivers lyrics--in a voice full of passion and hope, often against the backdrop of her rhythm guitar. While Widoff's broad vocabulary of guitar riffs neatly embellished the sparse arrangements, there was nothing muted about Reagon's whole-heart-and-soul vocals.
Though less moving, the closing set by bluesman Corey Harris was refreshing in its own way. He opened with a few traditional tunes played on a steel resonator guitar, the kind blues musicians favored before the advent of electric guitars. The combination of metal finger picks, steel strings and open tuning created a bright, syncopated setting for the songs, delivered in a booming baritone. After introducing his four-piece band, Harris adapted some of the same picking techniques to both electric and lap steel guitars. His fondness for African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, as well as his obvious affection for Delta and Chicago blues, kept the show from settling into one groove for very long.