NSO Pops

Conductor Marvin Hamlisch maintained an uncharacteristically low profile at Thursday night's National Symphony Pops concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. He did his usual impressive work with the baton, particularly at the beginning of the evening, with the overture to "South Pacific," Robert Russell Bennett's "Symphonic Picture" arrangement from "Porgy and Bess" and selections from "The Light in the Piazza." But for most of the evening, the spotlight was on the guest star, baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, and his potent combination of voice and personality.

Mitchell is not afraid to invite comparisons with other singers. His selections included "This Nearly Was Mine," forever associated with Ezio Pinza, and the soliloquy from "Carousel," once the exclusive property of John Raitt. Mitchell did not surpass the original performers of these songs (that would be impossible), but he made the words and music his own, with interpretations that were musically and theatrically compelling.

The same was true of music that is more generic baritone property: "Impossible Dream," "How Long Has This Been Going On" and two songs associated with different characters in "Porgy and Bess": "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" and "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York."

In all of these, he was accompanied by the National Symphony, ably conducted by Hamlisch, but in the middle of the program, with a smaller group (piano, drums, saxophone and bass), he ventured into Sinatra territory with "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and cabaret songs of similar vintage.

The evening also included the Washington Symphonic Brass, conducted by Milton Stevens, who gave rousing performances of Respighi's "Danza Guerresca" and Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing." So the night was not quite a one-man show, but it almost could have been.

There will be a repeat performance tonight.

-- Joseph McLellan

Jay Leonhart

If singing and playing upright bass at the same time were indeed impossible, as Jay Leonhart briefly lamented at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Thursday night, he'd have to jettison half his act. All the wry, witty and wonderful lyrics that make his trio performances such a rare treat would go right out the window.

Thank heavens, Leonhart is a multi-tasker. Among the delightful amusements performed Thursday was "Lenny and Me," a song inspired by a pure stroke of luck -- a transcontinental flight encounter with Leonard Bernstein. Pianist Ted Rosenthal's whimsically orchestrated the first-class-passenger scenario with allusions to "West Side Story." Afterward, Leonhart's trio, featuring guitarist Joe Cohn, saluted Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim by nimbly revisiting "Cool."

Traveling may not be high on Leonhart's list of favorite things to do, but the experience has certainly enriched his repertoire. Watching his bass undergo a "colonoscopy" at an airport security checkpoint inspired a lyric that provoked lots of laughter; a mad and ultimately maddening dash to make a Mel Torme gig at Blues Alley spawned another.

Modeled after Oscar Peterson's trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, Leonhart's group played with great finesse throughout set, often favoring a smoothly woven brand of swing. Rosenthal's arrangement of "If I Only Had a Brain" was particularly imaginative, with its fresh harmonies and halting rhythms. Also welcomed were a couple tunes by guitarist Cohn's late father, saxophonist Al Cohn. Both melodies were brightened by the trio's casual-sounding yet close-knit interplay.

-- Mike Joyce

Kemal Gekic

Croatian pianist Kemal Gekic played at the Austrian Embassy Thursday in a recital as revelatory as it was thoughtful. Though Beethoven and Chopin wrote music light-years apart in temperament, Gekic's approach highlighted their mutual tendency to carve seemingly simple themes out of a richly variegated harmonic bedrock.

In Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and 13 Chopin Etudes, Gekic underlined this quality with a patina of sheer tunefulness braced with a telling legato touch and a rare sonic resonance.

And the embassy's Boesendorfer instrument has never sounded more sonorous, with plangent depths lower on the keyboard and crystalline sparkle above. Gekic maintained a refreshingly modest bearing at the piano without the distraction of ultra-heroic gestures.

The pianist sped at a bracing clip from one Chopin etude to the next with only a micro-second between, crowning each with a final sustained pedal that sent infinitely vibrant tones throughout the embassy's spacious atrium (and warding off unwelcome applause until set's end). Gekic gave full vent to the music's knock-'em-dead bravura, tempering Herculean virtuosity with ample plastic tunefulness in the more ornamental passages. This sense of balance also held true for Gekic's version of seven Liszt pieces: three arrangements of Schubert songs, two of the mystical "Legendes" and a pair of Hungarian Rhapsodies. "Erlkoenig," based on a terrifying Schubert-Goethe song, was transported to heights of insane spookiness in Gekic's hands.

-- Cecelia Porter