Modern Musick

For most classical music fans, Luigi Boccherini's music is best known either in extract or heavily modified form. The period-instrument ensemble Modern Musick decided that Boccherini merited another look in this, the 200th anniversary of his death; because Boccherini spent most of his working life in Madrid, the concert at St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church on Sunday fits in with the Spanish theme of this year's Washington Early Music Festival.

Boccherini's Cello Quintet in C, G. 374, followed an Allegretto of gracious gestures with a vigorous Minuetto based on Spanish dance rhythms. Modern Musick played it with great spirit, the period strings both beautifully tracing sustained melodic lines and getting pleasantly rough when the rhythms got stronger. The Cello Sonata in C, G. 6, made fearsome technical demands, and cellist and ensemble director John Moran had the right bravado to carry it off winningly.

The fourth Guitar Quintet, G. 448, though, was a real revelation, a sunny, lazy pastorale with a gentle sway, a festive Allegro maestoso with plenty of dazzling solo breaks for Moran and for a finale a barnburner of a Fandango.

Each variation on the dark, dashing fandango theme drove harder than the last in Modern Musick's performance, and the excitement became overwhelming when Moran whipped out a pair of castanets at the movement's climax.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

The Ditty Bops

They're cuter than anything at the candy counter, their Web site is a playground for the brain, and the pink-haired one occasionally plays the slide whistle.

Fortunately, the Ditty Bops' quirky-hip image never overwhelmed their masterly tunes at Iota on Sunday night. The Los Angeles-based group makes the sort of music that evokes memories of the Boswell Sisters in mature listeners (several of whom were in evidence) and reminds the rest of us, pleasantly, of the recent animated film "The Triplets of Belleville."

Guitarist Abby DeWald and guitarist/mandolinist/washboardist/whistle-ist Amanda Barrett -- she of the cotton-candy hair -- crafted captivating soprano harmonies to go with the retro arrangements, aided by John Lambdin on fiddle, guitar and lap steel (and the occasional improvised poem) and Ian Walker on upright bass.

Close listening revealed some freaky lyrics (in the languid "Short Stacks": "I am treading on cow-pile mountains") more reminiscent of an acid-laced beatnik gathering than a vaudeville stage; the straight-faced, exuberant presentation swept the "What the . . . ?" moments into one big captivating feel-good rush. The between-song patter was equally intriguing: Barrett introduced the sweetly romantic "Dreaming Away" as having been written "by my dad in the '70s when he was with my mom in the traveling circus." "Nosy Neighbor" is "sung every Halloween in Paris," Lambdin quipped

Speaking of spooky, opener Mark Charles presented an intriguing set of gloom-folkie songs, concluding with "Death Is Not the End," whose lyrics about hell-burning flesh somehow made the title less reassurance than threat. Like the Ditty Bops, Charles reveled in the unexpected: His up-tempo arrangement of John Prine's "Sam Stone" made a sort of high-lonesome eulogy out of the addiction tragedy.

-- Pamela Murray Winters