The Shanghai Quartet
When the Shanghai Quartet came to the area Saturday afternoon, it bypassed its usual Washington venues and landed at Springfield's Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, where it gave a free, world-class performance as part of the Concerts From Kirkwood series.
What is most striking about this New Jersey-based quartet is not the way it whizzes through virtuosic passages without a hair out of place but how it runs a fine-tooth comb through minuscule details in each work it plays.
Such fastidious attention yielded an elegantly stylish performance of Haydn's String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1. Violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras played as one with precise musicality and keen expression. They punctuated sections with such captivating pauses that one dared not breathe until the music resumed. With balanced amounts of wit and drama, the quartet allowed Haydn's compositional genius to emerge.
Fred Cohen's String Quartet No. 1, composed in 2001, is a five-movement work full of jarring, rhythmic moments that seemingly depict the explosive formation and demise of a star. But in between the turbulent sections lie two lyrical hymns that, in this quartet's hands, were lovingly fragile and epiphanic. Throughout the second hymn, the instrumentalists produced a shimmery tone that would sound familiar to anyone who has made a wineglass hum. Worldly wisdom and tonal warmth underscored Dvorak's String Quartet, Op. 96, "American." The rugged and bucolic melodies evoked a sweet nostalgia that the quartet embraced to the end.
-- Grace Jean
Unlike many of her peers, 24-year-old vocalist Lizz Wright makes performing jazz and neo-soul tunes appear effortless. No anguished grimaces, no sweeping gestures, not a trace of strain or affectation. She has a terrific voice -- a warm and unusually resonant contralto -- and the wisdom to allow its natural beauty to shine.
Wright spent most of her opening set at Blues Alley on Saturday night doing what she always does: accentuating the positive. The daughter of a Georgia preacher and raised on gospel music, Wright is still drawn to songs that concern faith, healing and community.
Working with a trio that smoothly blended pop, jazz and world beat sounds, she performed several tunes that appear on her debut CD, "Salt," beginning with a bright rendition of the Flora Purim hit "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly." Other songs Wright chose have become faded and nearly threadbare over the years -- "Nature Boy" and "Afro Blue," for example. But because Wright views them in a spiritual light, as modern-day parables, her interpretations never sounded hackneyed or rote. Besides, when she let her gospel roots show with a sustained tone or a soulful grace note, that alone was sufficient reward.
Pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Carlos Henderson and drummer Rodney Green helped keep things interesting. The arrangements were colorfully textured and often dotted with Cowherd's fluid improvisations. What's more, the trio sometimes fashioned choral-like backdrops that suited Wright's church-groomed voice to a T.
-- Mike Joyce
And Alexei Podkorytov
Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan captured his audience in the very first moments of his WPAS-sponsored recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday. Announcing a tribute to the hundreds of Russian schoolchildren killed in the recent standoff, the 18-year-old proceeded to play an arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" with a flawless, liquid line and ravishing tone. Partnering Simonyan, the young pianist Alexei Podkorytov proved a model of elegance and quiet command.
And so it went throughout the recital -- the violinist lavishing sweet, juicy sound on lyric passages, and the pianist responding with solid structural support and sensitive phrasing. Both artists clearly think in coherent musical paragraphs, and their performances demonstrated a single-mindedness of purpose. Simonyan responded with trenchant attack and dark, resinous coloring to the purple writing in Grieg's big-hearted, if episodic, Violin Sonata No. 2. With generous pedaling lending his tone an opulent gloss, Podkorytov gave free rein to the rhapsody in Franck's great Violin Sonata.
The "Meditation" from Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher" was luscious in the duo's rendering, and the quirky, rarely heard "Scherzo," from the same work, put them through their paces to dazzling effect. An Astor Piazzolla encore showed a sly, teasing way with dance rhythms to be part of their expressive arsenal as well.
-- Joe Banno
While Heart may be best remembered for a few smash singles in the '80s, the six-piece band led by the Wilson sisters has lost no stamina over the decades. On Friday night at DAR Constitution Hall, the group propelled one song into the next with a driving energy that never faded.
For the entire 90-minute set, Nancy Wilson jumped, strutted and danced behind her guitar like a rock-and-roll ballerina. Her performance captivated the audience, which bounced and clapped along to every song and fell into some serious rock show stereotypes, from the air guitar played in front of the stage during "Kick It Out" to the single Zippo lighter waving in the balcony during the haunting "Alone."
Ann Wilson's extraordinary vocal range has not diminished a bit, as when she tackled such old hits as "Magic Man." Her superb control was Heart's most obvious strength, as she stretched and massaged the final chorus of "Crazy on You" and flawlessly alternated between a powerful howl and a husky whisper in "Make Me." But most of all, she inspired comparisons to Robert Plant as Heart ended the night with the one-two punch of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" and "Misty Mountain Hop."
Those were not the only well-executed covers of the night. After a half-hour of solid originals like the catchy "Stupid," opening act and powerhouse guitarist Anne McCue topped off her set with an entrancing 10-minute version of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun." Though McCue was long forgotten after Heart's phenomenal set, she was the perfect complement to the Wilson sisters on a night of tireless female-fronted rock.
-- Catherine P. Lewis