American Chamber Players

Experiencing a chamber music concert at the Kreeger Museum in Washington is as intimate and cozy as hearing friends play in a living room -- a living room whose walls are lined with paintings by Picasso, Degas and Van Gogh. On Friday night, the American Chamber Players' selections and performances lived up to the art that surrounded them.

A fine rendition of Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet capped the program. The ensemble was completely engrossed in musicmaking and carried the audience along. The timbre of Alberto Parrini's cello and Miles Hoffman's viola were so well matched that it was difficult to discern between them as they dovetailed. Also impressive were Max Bruch's pieces for violin, viola and piano composed in 1908. Hoffman and violinist Joanna Maurer exploited the singing qualities of their instruments, and Jean-Louis Haguenauer's piano sounded particularly fluid in Bruch's graceful melodies.

Maurer and Janet Sung's well-matched tone and intonation worked well with Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins. In their hands, the communication of the duet became a riveting human conversation.

Although Arthur Foote was considered the "Dean of American Composers" in the early 20th century, his music is rarely heard today, and undeservedly so. His "A Night Piece for Flute and String Quartet," written in 1918, was bucolic and lushly romantic.

The "London" Trio for Flute, Violin and Cello by Haydn that opened the program is quintessential chamber music: light, bright and pleasant. Only Sara Stern's consistently too-loud flute marred the performance. The sound, though lovely, overshadowed the rest of the trio, particularly Sung's exquisite tone.

The Kreeger Museum June Chamber Festival concludes tonight with another program by the American Chamber Players.

-- Gail Wein

Joyce Cooling

Guitarist Joyce Cooling quickly sized up the Father's Day crowd at the Alexandria Red Cross Waterfront Festival on Sunday. Shortly after joining her smooth-jazz quartet onstage, she dedicated a tune to all the dads who were enjoying the spectacular weather in the company of their kids.

But what really won the crowd over was Cooling's knack for turning bright melodies, piercing blues licks and syncopated funk beats into a summery pop-jazz soundtrack. Tunes drawn from her new CD, "This Girl's Got to Play," dotted the performance, and all of them, including the title track, "Green Impala" and "Natural Fact," achieved their aim: to keep a contemporary-jazz audience happy and humming.

Though Cooling plays a solid-body guitar and emphasizes single-note lines rather than sophisticated harmonies, it was impossible to listen to the concert without thinking of George Benson's impact on a new generation of smooth-jazz pickers. Certainly a few of Benson's breezy instrumentals wouldn't seem out of place in Cooling's repertoire, and while she's not in Benson's league when it comes to singing, she used her voice effectively (and sparingly) throughout the show.

The tunes that Cooling has composed recently with keyboardist Jay Wagner generated enough rhythmic interaction to prevent monotonous backbeats from surfacing, and provided enough solo space to keep the focus shifting. In addition to Wagner, who juxtaposed old-school organ and electric keyboard grooves with smooth-jazz textures, the band received a muscular assist from bassist Jamie Brewer and drummer Billy Johnson.

-- Mike Joyce

!!!

Twenty-five years after the Contortions pushed James Brown-style vamps to the brink of chaos, !!! reiterates that band's essential question: How anarchic can an indie-rock band be and still qualify as funk?

Actually, !!! (suggested pronunciation: "chk chk chk'') isn't as disorganized as the Contortions' original lineup. At the Black Cat on Sunday night, the New York septet's scratchy guitars, popping bass and polyrhythmic percussion chattered together assuredly. But the vocals barely furthered the music's momentum, the occasional trumpet and sax bleats sounded immaterial and the musicians' frequent switching of instruments has little effect on the overall sound. The recorded versions of "Dear Can" and "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard (A True Story)" boast keyboard hooks and political lyrics, but in concert such songs functioned purely as grooves. Still, as such they worked quite well, driving several hundred people to shake it in resistance to whatever it is that !!! opposes.

The evening's opening act was White Magic, a New York trio fronted by Mira Billotte, a member of the currently inactive D.C. band Quix*o*tic. Billotte played piano or guitar and sang such minor-key tunes as "One-Note," accompanied by a guitarist and drummer who loudly followed her every move. The effect was to overpower material that sounds more appealing on the trio's new CD, "Through the Sun Door."

-- Mark Jenkins

Opera Bel Canto

Had 19th-century composer Gaetano Donizetti alighted at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church on Sunday evening, he might have been pleased with Opera Bel Canto's presentation of "La Favorita." Not only had the company faithfully restored his tragic opera's libretto and music, but it also gave the work a heartfelt concert performance.

When Donizetti's French opera debuted in Italy 160 years ago, censors altered the libretto because it portrayed a Roman Catholic seminarian's illicit affair with a Spanish king's mistress. The amended Italian version survived in opera houses until it came under the scrutiny of Micaele Sparacino, Opera Bel Canto founder and director, who recently dusted off Donizetti's original Italian score and reconciled the libretto with the original French version. His resulting refurbishment reinstates three previously omitted musical numbers.

Under Sparacino, the soloists and Bel Canto chorus maintained solid pitch throughout the 180-minute "Favorita" despite the many intonation problems in the six-piece orchestra. Nothing could be done about the organ's pitch or the surprisingly untuned piano, but the string quartet's temperamental tuning improved slowly as the evening progressed.

In the title role as mistress Leonora, Marje Palmieri animated the performance with her dynamically expressive soprano, dramatic musicality and energetic coloratura. As King Alfonso, Valentin Vasiliu was Palmieri's baritone counterpart, with a dark, melted caramel tone. Tenor Antonio Giuliano played Leonora's lover, Fernando, with a fluid, clarion voice. He shed his militaristic poise in Act 4 to sing a poignant duet with Palmieri -- one of the evening's best moments.

-- Grace Jean

Sam Phillips, Eszter Balint

Two female singer-songwriters delighted the crowd at a packed Iota on Sunday night, their husky voices recounting tales of love (more often failed than fairy tale). Up first was Eszter Balint, who first received attention 20 years ago for her lead role in Jim Jarmusch's film "Stranger Than Paradise." Balint's nervousness between songs was apparent -- she played pre-recorded messages asking fans to visit her Web site -- but she slipped into a comfortable groove while performing, especially when playing violin (which she plucked like a guitar on one tune). She crammed lyrics into a near-rap spoken-word delivery, making her song "Good Luck" sound like a Luscious Jackson outtake. Her coarse alto complemented her accompanist's banjo, transforming the full-band arrangements from her recordings into a solid duo performance.

Sam Phillips logged 19 delicate love songs in just over an hour's time; many of them ended with an awkward pause as the audience tried to determine whether the song had really finished. Phillips took her torch-song schtick to its extreme, even introducing her band mates as "the men who break my heart every night" and reciting a love letter to fellow love-song-writer Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields.

Despite the lovelorn emotions, her quirky delivery and clever lyrics were more likely to make the audience laugh in sympathy than reach for a hankie. Although her songs all felt similar, Phillips mixed up the arrangement of instruments from song to song without losing momentum. She played many with a full band (drums, violin and keyboards behind her guitar), but she also sang with each of those instruments alone, a cappella, and even with a recorded track on a Dictaphone that she periodically shook to distort its tone. It was that kind of playful invention that gave each songwriter's tales of heartbreak a fresh feel.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

The American Chamber Players performed Friday at the Kreeger Museum.