Pascal Roge & Vanessa Benelli
At Dumbarton Church
As duo pianists, Pascal Roge and Vanessa Benelli make a striking pair. Roge is an established concert player in his early fifties; Benelli is 15. Both were child prodigies. Roge heard Benelli play in 1999 and was astonished: "She is the most natural musical talent I have encountered in my entire life as a musician and teacher."
Their concert Saturday night in Georgetown for the Dumbarton Concert Series was designed primarily to widen Benelli's musical horizons -- but certainly ours as well. The program included masterpieces languishing in the relatively obscure two-piano repertoire, most particularly Robert Schumann's Six Pieces in canon for pedal piano, Op. 56. These are miracles of lyricism blooming from the granite of austere counterpoint. The performance sang naturally and freely but retained the complex structure that reveals Schumann's debt to Bach.
Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17, has an array of deeply satisfying Big Tunes (melodic fragments that take on febrile power as they emerge from wild tangles of filigree) and murderously difficult technical problems -- jackhammer repeated notes, leaping chords, huge orchestral sonorities, twisted rhythmic schemes. Similarly, the two-piano version of Ravel's "La Valse" is not for the fainthearted, and Poulenc's elegant Sonata for Two Pianos requires souffle-like buoyancy.
Benelli actually seemed to have the upper hand (so to speak) in the Rachmaninoff, as Roge was occasionally late in returning to the fray because of page-turning problems. In musical and technical authority the two pianists seemed evenly matched -- she is clearly a major talent -- though it will take a solo recital to answer that question squarely.
-- Ronald Broun Ensemble Wien-Berlin
At U-Md. Even in the midst of their most flamboyant technical acrobatics and playfulness, the musicians of the woodwind quintet Ensemble Wien-Berlin were engaged in serious musicmaking. Certainly their program Saturday at the Gildenhorn Recital Hall of the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center offered hard-to-resist opportunities for pure display -- the aptly named "Grand Potpourri on Themes From Rossini's Barber of Seville," by 19th-century flutist Giulio Briccialdi, had the five tootling all over the landscape. In addition, the second theme in the return of the fugue in the arrangement of the Mozart F Minor Allegro-Andante, K. 608, could have sounded like a relay race, and the presto Finale of the Beethoven Op. 4 (also an arrangement) might have been smashing purely for its velocity and agility. But all of these were also immensely satisfying musically, played in a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, with an ear for balance and shape and with considerable restraint.
This is a group of seasoned musicians, members of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic (bassoonist Milan Turkovic is with the Concentus Musicus Vienna). They've been playing together for 20 years, and they've internalized a common understanding of the music they perform. This was most evident in the clear pictures projected in the five inventive and quite different movements of the Hindemith "Kleine Kammermusik," Op 24, No. 2. In the same way that a fine lieder singer creates an immediate context in the short span of a single song, the ensemble moved from jauntiness to highly stylized dance to quiet reflection and back to wry humor, all without any sense of self-consciousness.
The Gildenhorn Recital Hall is a wonderful venue for chamber music; its intimacy and excellent acoustics gave a comfortable presence to the considerable subtleties of the performance.
-- Joan Reinthaler
Drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts
At Blues Alley When drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts led his quintet at Blues Alley on Saturday night, he seldom unleashed the polyrhythmic force that has marked many of his collaborations with Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Instead, Watts emphasized the quirky themes, whimsical air and romantic musings that distinguish his two solo albums, "Citizen Tain" and "Bar Talk."
"JC Is the Man," a bartender homage drawn from the latter CD, was the first in a series of Watts-penned tunes that reminded listeners why musicians are often described as "playing" together.
Based on a simple riff and boisterously customized for the occasion, the tune featured pianist David Budway, guitarist Paul Bollenback and tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland humorously weaving in and out of phase with each other against a backdrop of vamps and shuffles sustained by Watts and bassist James Genus. "Muphkin Man," from 1999's "Citizen Tain," then contrasted Thelonious Monk's tart harmonic schemes with Watts's affection for thumping honky-tonk beats.
The mood was shaded by two tunes: "Stevie in Rio," a Brazilian-tinged reverie inspired by Stevie Wonder, which briefly found Budway using a synthesizer to simulate the sound of Wonder's chromatic harmonica; and "Pools of Amber," a trio arrangement that quietly recalled Watts's collaborations with the late pianist Kenny Kirkland.
The drummer did get a chance to flex his muscles, however. "Vodville" provided a rhythmically animated portrait of someone stumbling home after a night of imbibing, while "The Impaler" brashly suggested the twin influences of saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones.
-- Mike Joyce