Music of the Holocaust

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was the luckiest composer on Tuesday night's program at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. He immigrated to America when Hitler's pressure got too strong, and he died of natural causes. The other two composers on the program, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), died in concentration camps. The program, titled "An Evening of Music from Composers of the Holocaust," was a graphic demonstration of what the art of music lost because of Nazi brutality and artists' premature deaths.

Performers included the Hawthorne String Quartet and many guest artists: soprano Amy Burton, pianist John Musto and 17 players (mostly brass and woodwinds) from the National Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble. The performances were first-class throughout.

Zemlinsky, whose creative life ended before he immigrated, was represented by a polished, evocative, sensuous and beautifully orchestrated song, "Maiblumen bluhten uberall," for soprano and string sextet. Burton sang it with a fine sensitivity to its melodic grace and its poignant theme of love and death. She was equally effective (with Musto's accompaniment) in Ullmann's Six Songs for Soprano and Piano, music that rose sometimes to ecstatic heights of mysticism. His String Quartet No. 3, which neatly balances technical brilliance and youthful nostalgia, was played with awareness of the need to balance these qualities.

Balance was at the heart of the challenge in Schulhoff's Concerto. How do you keep four strings audible and effective if they are surrounded by more than a dozen wind players? Conductor James Conlon managed the trick and made the work's resources of jazz, pop and folk music sound compatible.

-- Joseph McLellan

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash had barely stopped her stride onstage Tuesday night at the Rams Head before she broke into "I Still Miss Someone."

It was clear who was being missed: Johnny Cash, the song's composer and Rosanne Cash's father, gone for only eight months. But his daughter's low-key set, with husband John Leventhal, also celebrated June Carter Cash, dead for barely a year. Rosanne Cash offered an anecdote about her stepmother's stint as a replacement banjo player for a touring band -- despite June's not knowing how to play the instrument: "Honey, when I got out there, I knew how to play the banjo."

It was that sort of spontaneity -- and perhaps a lack of rehearsal for this first show on a duo tour -- that led Cash and Leventhal to take numerous audience requests, including a lively rendition of "Tennessee Flat Top Box," a song about a guitar-playin' boy that allowed Leventhal some fancy rockabilly licks. Leventhal's equipment was plagued by a slight buzz all night, but he soldiered on -- sometimes, as on a by-request "Dance With the Tiger," even when he didn't know the tune.

Cash radiated relaxation and professionalism throughout the nearly two-hour set, turning her able alto to songs from the recent "Rules of Travel," new compositions such as the loss-laden "Like a Wave" ("My memory is filling with smoke"), and vigorous covers of her dad's "I Got Stripes" and the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic "Who'll Stop the Rain." Scrambling for encores, she quipped, "I love hanging off a cliff by my fingernails."

Johnny and June would have admired her courage and composure.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Patty Griffin

It's not always easy to tell exactly what Patty Griffin is singing about. For example, "Mother of God," a tune in the Austin-based artist's Tuesday set at the Birchmere, doesn't seem to be about any mother of any god, while "Mary," a Griffin number with the line "You're covered in wilderness, you're covered in stains," apparently is.

But Griffin sang those songs, and scads of cryptic couplets, in a voice pure enough to remove any doubt that at least she knows what she means. And a voice strong enough to make quibbling about her lyrics seem like a trivial pursuit. Truth be told, she could recite last week's standings in the American League East and captivate a room.

Not that Griffin, backed for most of the evening by a Cajun-tinged quartet, was exclusively obtuse. Both "Making Pies" and "Chief," two songs from her 2002 CD "1000 Kisses," told heartbreaking tales about war casualties whose wounds are strictly emotional. "Blue Sky" evoked being in and out of love, and "Florida" mulled only the latter. She sat at the piano to deliver a tear-jerking version of one of Tom Waits's more optimistic ballads, "I'm Going to Take It With Me." Were it not for music business realities, Griffin's version of "Top of the World," the smash single she wrote for the Dixie Chicks, would also have flooded the country airwaves.

Griffin said she wrote "The Kite Song" after attending a kite festival in her home town right around the time U.S. bombs started dropping in Iraq. During the introduction, she giggled at the unabashed idealism behind the tune, which she hoped would get listeners to ponder a world where everybody flew kites and nobody went to war. Once she started singing, nobody was laughing.

-- Dave McKenna


A record label news release for "Your Blues," the newest Destroyer album, likens it to, among other things, the sound of "out of work Shakespearean actors (hanging out at the bar)." And since the Destroyer incarnation that mastermind Daniel Bejar brought to Iota on Tuesday night consisted of himself backed by fellow Canadian visionaries Frog Eyes, the show did have a touch of Globe Theatre-style theatrics to it. But instead of the cinematic punch and swirling strings that crop up on "Your Blues," those songs were recast by the echo-drenched guitar of Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer, whose playing and singing drove Bejar to reach surprising raw-nerve peaks.

With his own acoustic guitar and vocals as guideposts, Bejar -- who also is part of indie-pop wunderkinds the New Pornographers -- wrapped himself in the full Frog Eyes sheen, turning such songs as "New Ways of Living" into harsh, loudly declaimed moral portraits. And as tracks from "Your Blues" rolled by, it became clear that if the record cast the distinctive voice of Bejar as a gentle, lute-strumming poet, Tuesday night's set found him transformed into the madman shouting in the middle of the street. "Don't Become the Thing You Hated," "The Music Lovers" and "Notorious Lightning" all crashed and crested, Mercer's background shouts whipping them into a frenzy.

Though it might not have been the intimate, spiraling journey that his records are, Bejar revealed an equally moving sound, one more in line with his project's moniker.

-- Patrick Foster