At the Birchmere
Those who like bluegrass, mountain or acoustic roots music have Ralph Stanley's voice imprinted in their memory bank. So when the 75-year-old scratched out "Man of Constant Sorrow" at the jampacked Birchmere Saturday night, his unearthly tenor shot through the room with a familiar force that was simultaneously jolting and reassuring. Backed by the silky-smooth Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley's 90-minute show was an entertaining primer that indicated how much music he has influenced.
That he didn't play banjo in his claw hammer style during the show mattered little; the Clinch Boys -- especially banjoist Steve Sparkman and mandolinist John Rigsby -- serve as an extension of what Stanley feels but no longer physically executes. So to have him sing and father over the band as they effortlessly spun through songs like "Little Maggie," "Angel Band," "A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy's Grave" and "Rank Stranger" was enough.
And though he had to read some lyrics from a sheet, Stanley's a cappella "O Death" -- from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- was tingling, as was "Lift Him Up, That's All," from his moving new T-Bone Burnett-produced album. His son Ralph II took several competent leads, including a moving rendition of the last song from Carter Stanley's pen, "Mary, Merry Christmas."
Sadly, chances to see Stanley perform will be fewer in the future: Ralph II announced his father's plans to halve his tour schedule next year. We hope he'll return to the Birchmere to reprise his living history of bluegrass at least one more time.
-- Patrick Foster
At Blues Alley
Apart from the pleasure of hearing alto saxophonist Frank Morgan soulfully revisit his bop roots, there were three good reasons for a crowd to pack Blues Alley on Saturday night: pianist John Hicks, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Nasar Abadey.
No one, however, seemed more delighted with the rhythm section than Morgan himself. A protege of Charlie Parker, the veteran reedman beamed every time Hicks punctuated a tune with his customary harmonic verve and nuance. Morgan has long been associated with great jazz pianists, and in Hicks he's found yet another kindred spirit, someone who consistently freshens tunes as familiar as, on this occasion, "A Night in Tunisia" and "All the Things You Are."
Betts and Abadey responded in similarly nimble fashion, adding a colorful array of vocal inflections and great bursts of energy. Among the opening-set highlights were "Footprints," warmly underpinned by Betts, and "Old Folks," wistfully introduced by Morgan and Hicks. The latter was cast as a reflective interlude -- that is, until the band signaled the sudden and harmonically jarring arrival of Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't."
The stroke that Morgan suffered in 1998 has affected his fingering and phrasing, creating a sparser sound, but he's still capable of negotiating angular bop intervals while projecting a feather-light tone. And to judge by all the folks wanting to shake his hand after the show, his crowd-pleasing charm is as potent as ever.
Alicia de Larrocha
& the Tokyo String Quartet
Three years ago, at dinner after Alicia de Larrocha's glorious solo recital of Chopin and Albeniz at a festival in the Azores, I listened to the Spanish pianist into the wee hours recounting her past and anticipating coming concerts. De Larrocha was only 77. Friday at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the nearly 80-year-old performer continued her farewell season. She is exiting with dignity exactly at the right time -- her consummate artistry intact and forever inspiring.
As the Tokyo String Quartet began the Allegro of Mozart's familiar Piano Concerto in A, K. 414, de Larrocha sat poised in regal command at the keyboard, then joined in with the sparkle of a first discovery. The piano's rippling coloratura lines rose and fell with supple grace. In the Andante, de Larrocha limned every phrase with color and weight. The finale brought an onslaught of that manic buffoonery coursing through Mozart's comic operas.
With the piano placed behind the quartet, the Mozart sounded balanced in volume, well proportioned in thematic content and lucid in texture. But from my seat 16 rows back, the modest acoustic shell proved insufficient for Schubert's Quartet, D. 87.
In June Canadian violinist Martin Beaver assumed the Tokyo's first chair, and judging by Friday's concert, he fits in superbly.
In its own way the Tokyo gave Beethoven's first "Razumovsky" Quartet a triumphant performance, on a par with that shown the other two Op. 59 quartets played by the Shanghai and Guarneri in Washington over the last six weeks. The Tokyo's cellist, Clive Greensmith, bathed the Adagio in solos of rapturous ecstasy at a level where the imparting of beauty and understanding coalesce.
-- Cecelia Porter
At the Terrace Theater
Perhaps because he's spent a lot of time recording lately, pianist Cyrus Chestnut -- always enlivening at the keyboard -- seemed even more eager than usual to entertain at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Friday night. Or perhaps he simply saw this Art Tatum Piano Panorama Series concert as a chance to provide an annotated view of his own broad musical interests -- everything from Bach and Brahms to gospel, stride, blues, country and swing.
In any case, the trio performance seemed to fly, powered in large part by Chestnut's percussive attack and spilling improvisations. His flair for marshaling robust harmonies while sustaining a brisk swing pulse quickly became evident, especially during a radiant reprise of "East of the Sun." But even more impressive was a thoroughly modern and infectiously syncopated version of the gospel refrain "Precious Lord."
With the sensitive support of bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith, he turned "Elegant Flower," an ode to his young daughter Jazzmine, into a waltzing tone poem. A revealing foray into classical music, the primary focus of "Uptown Concerto," and a rambunctious take on "You Are My Sunshine" further illustrated Chestnut's talent to amaze and amuse.
-- Mike Joyce
The Washington Korean Symphony Orchestra gave its inaugural concert Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and the debut was solid, though some of the large-scale works were perhaps too much to handle for this amateur ensemble.
The highlight was Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35, featuring soloist Richard Joo. Taking cues from the steady maestro Jooyong Ahn, Joo brought the crispness, pizazz and force sometimes missing from the orchestra. At other points, the players matched Joo's dynamic pianism with excellent solos, especially among the brass and woodwinds.
Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88, came off well with especially nice phrasing and intonation from the cellos in the opening. Textures were most clear, while tempos moved along at a decent clip. The third movement Allegretto was lovely. Some uneven string attacks characterized the opening prelude to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg," while the rustic folk sounds of Sung Hwan Choe's "Arirang" had warmth and color.
Over time, this orchestra will surely improve and become an integral part of the city's classical music life.
-- Daniel Ginsburg