X-Ecutioners and Northern State

In a genre crammed with copycats, a legit pair of hip-hop aberrations played the 9:30 club Saturday. Labelmates X-Ecutioners and Northern State are both trios hailing from the Big Apple, but they're unlike any act signed to a major label. The X-Ecutioners are the sole hip-hop DJ troupe inked to a big-time record conglomerate, and Northern State is one of the only white female rap groups ever to land a major-label deal (both reside at Columbia Records).

First up was Northern State, a threesome of MCs spouting retro rhymes and corny choruses recalling the Beastie Boys after multiple estrogen injections. Their debut Columbia-label CD isn't due until August, but they've amassed loads of buzz and impressive collaborators for the full-length disc, including Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs. Bolstered by a live band, the brainy ladies pranced about and clearly were having a blast, twirling around with some decidedly hokey but hilarious dance moves. "Northern State put the cart before the horse," rapped DJ Sprout on "Dying in Stereo." "We be who we are and show no remorse."

The X-Ecutioners followed and slammed the stage with six turntables and some of the most fantastically intricate and rhythmic scratching you'll ever come across. Utilizing vinyl only (many turntablists prefer the convenience of CDs), Total Eclipse spun "Walk This Way" and ferociously dissected Joe Perry's signature guitars to create a feverish new beat all his own. "We use the turntable as a musical instrument," X-Ecutioner Rob Swift announced from atop the decks. "This is our band."

-- Craig Smith

Tony Rice Unit

Guitar virtuoso Tony Rice joked about all the pickers who'd turned out to see his quartet at the Birchmere on Saturday night, and the possibility that someone might record and bootleg the performance. "Five minutes from now it will end up on a computer in Russia -- with all the mistakes!" he predicted.

The "mistakes," it turned out, were little wrinkles in a concert that showcased Rice's extraordinary flat-pick technique. He covered a lot of territory, paying homage to his late role model Clarence White with a freshly arranged version of "I Am a Pilgrim," fashioning a haunting rendition of "Shenandoah" with the help of fiddler Rickie Simpkins, and imaginatively embellishing "Summertime."

Always a reluctant vocalist, Rice recruited former Seldom Scene member John Starling to add his soulful voice to a couple of vintage ballads, beginning with "Dark Holler." It's no small feat to move from old-timey tunes and bluegrass to New Grass and dashing jazz chromaticism, especially when the task is accomplished with such remarkable precision and fluidity, but Rice made it seem as natural as breathing.

He wasn't always in the spotlight, though. His younger brother Wyatt, who wields a flat pick with similar assurance, never sounded better than when exploring the tricky contours of "Crazy Creek." In addition to his brief stints on fiddle, Simpkins played mandolin, alternating chopping rhythms with sparkling solos that dovetailed with Rice's improvisations before introducing new melodic tacks and tangents. Rounding out the Unit and nimbly underscoring its affection for jazz was upright bassist Bryn Bright.

-- Mike Joyce

NSO, Choral Arts Society

Guest conductor Jose Serebrier wasted no time leading the National Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Society of Washington at Wolf Trap on Friday evening. As soon as he planted his feet on the Filene Center's podium, he commenced an enthusiastic, exuberant performance featuring Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" from "Prince Igor."

Throughout the evening, both groups sounded vibrant -- the chorus enunciating with crisp articulation, the NSO playing with measured attacks. They swelled fortes majestically and sustained pianissimos with an iridescent glow.

Allowing only the slightest pauses between Borodin's four sections, Serebrier urged on the languid dances and inspired an especially vehement third dance, with the orchestra and 200 voices in full thrall. As if suddenly aware of his haste, Serebrier took the devilish fourth dance at a surprisingly stately tempo, emphasizing the choral parts.

Intermission tamed Serebrier's impetuosity in time for Beethoven. The NSO's subdued statements and delineated dynamics lingered and yet propelled the symphony toward the familiar "Ode to Joy" finale. And it was jubilant indeed. From the melody's sneaky introduction in the low strings to its glorious reprises in the ringing voices of the chorus and the quartet of soloists (soprano Barbara Quintiliani, mezzo Stacey Rishoi, tenor Israel Lozano, bass Morris Robinson), the fourth movement unfolded like a sunrise.

Robinson, whose tone had an energetic sheen, was the standout.

The musicians' dramatic crescendos and resounding rhythms made for quite a finale, and the sprint to the end brought the crowd to its feet.

-- Grace Jean

NSO, Erin Mahoney

Most productions of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" do not begin with a 10-year-old boy waking up and dragging himself to the breakfast table. But for his rendition of the ballet, presented by the National Symphony Orchestra under Emil de Cou at Wolf Trap's Filene Center on Saturday, director Douglas Fitch extracted about 20 minutes of the ballet's music to serve as an element of the boy's narration of his dream. As young Peter Rubinstein told the tale and the NSO played, lighting effects designed by Clifton Taylor illuminated the dream's events on a huge scrim behind the orchestra, with a single dancer (the Washington Ballet's Erin Mahoney) casting a graceful shadow.

That might sound like a couple too many elements for a tidy aesthetic experience, but everything fit together seamlessly to serve the story, which featured swans and dancing along with enough ominous surrealism to keep things interesting for all ages. Rubinstein's wide-eyed wonder drew one into the story, the lighting looked great against the dark-blue sky, and Fitch's musical selections effectively propelled the dream to its conclusion.

De Cou and the NSO played their role with style and enthusiasm, qualities that carried over to the rest of the all-Tchaikovsky program.

Both an arrangement of the Andante Cantabile from the String Quartet No. 1 and the two anguish-free movements of the "Pathetique" Symphony made for nice light summer fare, while the NSO strings sizzled during two relatively unfamiliar excerpts from the opera "Mazeppa." De Cou pushed the tempos early in the "1812" Overture to whip up some excitement, but the cannon effects (a Wolf Trap tradition) that boomed out at the climaxes stole the show.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

The Fixx

Way back in the days of aerodynamic hairdos and sexy, shallow synth-pop -- ah, sweet, silly '80s -- the Fixx was nothing more than a discount Duran Duran, who were by far the prettiest, catchiest new wavers in all the lad-filled land. But since then, a certain reverence has been bestowed upon even the smallest few-hit wonders who guided MTV through its infancy, and thus Falls Church's cozy State Theatre was packed Friday with giddy grown-ups eager to help the Fixx reel through the years.

Led by glam-dandy crooner Cy Curnin -- who, if you squinted or kept drinking, looked just as dreamy as DD's Simon LeBon -- the five-man, London-based band celebrated its 25th year together with an 80-minute set that followed the usual rules for a moderately successful oldies act: a whole lot of ho-hum new tunes capped by the well-hooked faves that keep gas in the tour bus.

The crowd politely clapped for the recent synth-woozy cuts "Touch" and "No Hollywood Ending" -- which sounded about as up-to-date as A Flock of Seagulls. Then, after about an hour, fans finally got the chance to pogo like their former teenage selves when guitarist Jamie West-Oram took center stage and hammered out the frisky opening riff of "One Thing Leads to Another," the Fixx's best and biggest hit and a fine pop-rock legacy.

Curnin's still-strong Bono-meets-Bowie wail came alive on the singalong numbers, which also included the party-in-the-apocalypse keeper "Red Skies" and the vaguely political "Are We Ourselves?" For the show closer, the Fixx swooned out "Saved by Zero," typical of the chilly new-wave love songs that once topped the charts. The slow, gauzy tune certainly isn't as catchy as Duran Duran's similar-sounding "Save a Prayer," but on this throwback night, it was good enough.

-- Sean Daly

'The White Cliffs'

To perform a one-person opera in the Olympian dimensions of Washington National Cathedral is to invite a Spartan challenge. Soprano Laura Mann dared to take it on Friday with "The White Cliffs," part of its summer music festival. With flutist Maria Luisa de la Cerda and pianist Susan Ricci filling the "orchestral" role, Mann was the soloist in the hour-long monodrama by local composer Natalia Raigorodsky.

The libretto was excerpted from a nostalgic 1940 poem by Alice Duer Miller voicing the anxiety-laced recollections of Susan Donne, an American widow whose British husband died fighting in World War I and whose only son enlisted for the Second World War. As such, it seems most appealing as insight into the shared feelings of women who experienced the era of those conflicts and who questioned the meaningfulness of waging war and notions of national identity.

Mann's dramatic flair surfaced in skillfully conveying the icy realism of Susan's fear-inspired reminiscences about wartime and family relationships, frequently offered in comical one-person "dialogues."

But Mann couldn't overcome the cathedral's stadium-size space, her voice's timbre weak and the text largely inaudible. And while both instrumentalists excelled as accompanists, Raigorodsky's music never veered from its diluted Menotti-ish sonorities, stillborn tonality and failure to change course to reflect the poet's vacillating moods.

-- Cecelia Porter

The X-Ecutioners (from left, Total Eclipse, Rock Raida and Rob Swift) played the 9:30 club on Saturday along with Northern State.