Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown has always thought the term "bluesman" doesn't sufficiently describe his skills--and for good reason. At the Barns of Wolf Trap Friday night, the 75-year-old Louisiana native took great delight in blurring the lines that traditionally separate blues, jazz, Cajun, country, Caribbean and other musical genres. What's more, he accomplished the task with plenty of humor and rare instrumental finesse.
Playing a variety of electric guitars along with violin and viola, Brown cut a wide swath through American roots music with the help of his quartet, Gate's Express. Despite the compact size of the band--Brown has been recording with large horn sections in recent years--the tributes to Duke Ellington and Count Basie came off without a hitch, vibrant and swinging. The former included cleverly arranged reprises of "Take the 'A' Train" and "C Jam Blues," while the latter consisted of similarly engaging versions of "Front Burner" and "One O'Clock Jump."
Despite traces of a lingering cold, Brown was in good vocal shape, especially when he soulfully unearthed the R&B gem "What Am I Living For." Yet most of the show focused on his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist with eclectic tastes. Playing fiddle and viola with long, vigorous strokes, he virtually sawed his way though Cajun country before testing the audience's knowledge of vintage western and Caribbean tunes with an entertaining series of finger-style guitar arrangements. And when it came time for his organ-and-sax-driven quartet to turn up the heat, Brown responded with some of his finest guitar work, fluid and fiery by turns.
-- Mike Joyce
Pity KenYatta Rogers. Or, if you prefer, envy KenYatta Rogers; either way, he deserves it. As the only male performer (except pianist-music director Carlos Rodriguez) in "Mozart's Women," now playing in the Mount Vernon College chapel, he is the primary object of attention for five women portraying Mozart characters.
In a series of arias and ensembles, ingeniously strung together from seven Mozart operas, they lust for him, comfort him, scold him, manipulate him, regret their relationship, defy him, plot against him, idealize him, rage at his absence, send him a misleading billet-doux, languish and call down curses. As if it weren't enough of a problem having the only speaking role in a tumult of song, the poor fellow can hardly understand what is happening to him.
The script by Paul Lavrakas casts Rogers as "The Scholar," a tweedy, cerebral type ensconced in a book-lined study and engaged in a monologue about Mozart, his personality, his art, his father, his wife, his sister and particularly his views on women. In the middle of his meditation, he is visited by an apparition--Laura Lewis as Illia from "Idomeneo," rising from a multitude of sorrows to seek new happiness.
In quick succession, she is followed by others: Detra Battle as the larger-than-life Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni"; Alma de Lon as Fiordiligi and Grace Gori as Dorabella in the duet "Ah, guarda, sorella" from "Cosi Fan Tutte"; and Rebecca Ocampo as Blondchen in "Abduction From the Seraglio." That's the whole troupe, but they take many roles: the noble Pamina, the wrath-driven Queen of the Night and the "Three Ladies" from "The Magic Flute," the mischievous maid Despina in "Cosi," and others.
This deconstruction takes the best material from a half-dozen top operas and stitches it loosely together with a new plot and prefabricated great music. The quality of the singing matches that of the material.
There will be repeat performances Thursday and Feb. 5. A companion piece, "Mozart's Men," will be performed Friday and Saturday and Feb. 4.
-- Joseph McLellan
American Chamber Players
Pianist Edward Newman was the hardest-working member of the American Chamber Players Saturday night in the Dumbarton Concert Series. This was appropriate, since the program was titled "From a Paris Salon: A Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Piano." In spite of its ambitious subtitle, the program did not attempt to document the whole history of the piano--which would be impossible in less than a week-long festival--but confined itself to the romantic era, from one of its earliest figures, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), to one of its latest, Maurice Durufle (1902-86). Together with Weber's Trio in G Minor for flute, cello and piano and Durufle's youthful Prelude, Recitative and Variations, Op. 3, for flute, viola and piano, the program included Chopin's Ballade No. 3 in A-flat and Faure's Quartet No. 2 in G Minor for piano and strings, a program up to the usual high standards of variety and quality in this series.
Newman, the only performer heard in all four works, demonstrated again what local audiences have long known: that he is one of the Washington area's finest chamber musicians. In the three pieces for multiple instruments, he collaborated smoothly with flutist Sara Stern, violinist Min-Young Kim, violist Miles Hoffman and cellist Michael Mermagen, always considerate and maintaining excellent balances. He engaged in pointed and expressive dialogues in a variety of styles and contexts, and subtly took the background when the focus of the dialogue was among his partners.
Curiously, the only problems during his busy evening came in his one solo performance, the Chopin, which began rather tentatively and took a minute to establish the proper fluent and well-accented narrative style. After its rough opening, however, the little story in music had a happy ending.
-- Joseph McLellan
Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt proved himself a good judge of his own material Saturday at the Black Cat. The New York quartet's latest release, the three-CD "69 Love Songs," contains more than a few clinkers, but the band didn't perform any of them in a set drawn largely from the album.
A part-time rock critic who publicly disdains rock, Merritt fronts a band that features cello and piano but no drums, and he takes some of his compositional cues from Cole Porter and Noel Coward. Yet he sings in a deep, doleful croak that would horrify most show-tune buffs and flaunts his knowledge of rock minutiae. On Saturday, in one of his rare bits of banter, he taunted the capacity crowd with its supposed ignorance of a deservedly obscure Boston hard-core-punk sampler.
Merritt was wittier when he sang such anti-romantic love songs as "I Don't Want to Get Over You," "Papa Was a Rodeo" and "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" The last was one of several tunes that benefited greatly from the vocals of keyboardist Claudia Gonson, who also sang the local favorite "Washington, D.C." It got the second biggest ovation of the evening, but the audience really proved its devotion by saving its loudest cheers for Merritt's froggy struggle to hit a high note at the end of "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side."
-- Mark Jenkins
Colorado String Quartet
The Colorado String Quartet's intense performance of two glories of the repertoire Friday night at the Corcoran Gallery--Haydn's Quartet, Op. 20, No. 3, and Bartok's Quartet No. 2, Op. 17--was followed after intermission by a probing, elegantly lyrical traversal of Tchaikovsky's melodically prolix Quartet No. 3. The Tchaikovsky is laced with more anguish than the music itself comfortably supports: The tunes lack distinction and too often meander self-consciously through the gaps in their loose structural design. But the Colorado Quartet sang them flowingly. Passages that can sound perfumed instead had a natural fragrance and nobility of utterance, and the music's fitful, neurasthenic heat seemed emotionally enkindled. Balance was accomplished not by machined imitation but rather by subtlety of inflection and voicing. These are musicians (Julie Rosenfeld, Deborah Redding, violins; Hugo Bollschweiler, viola; Diane Chaplin, cello) who listen as intently as they play.
The Haydn and Bartok are constructed from motifs--scraps of sound--that vector through these works with miraculous invention. Both evoke immense sensual pleasure. One can understand the musical arguments intuitively on first hearing, though their expressive urgency rests on complex structural footings. Haydn's contrapuntal mastery and darting wit (the piece ends, for instance, in mid-phrase, as though the composer had slammed a door on it) and Bartok's boiling energy--the furious glissandi, burred chords, biting pizzicati and fractionated rhythms--were delivered with an authoritative blend of forward motion and microscopic clarification of detail.
-- Ronald Broun