Beaux Arts Trio
Since its founding 50 years ago, the Beaux Arts Trio has become the gold standard for trios throughout the world. Founding pianist Menahem Pressler, still presiding lion-like at 81, continues to embody consummate musicianship. And with the recent addition of the frighteningly gifted, 30-year-old Daniel Hope on violin, and with Antonio Meneses manning the cello with courtly aplomb, the group may be in its most potent incarnation yet.
All this musical firepower descended on the National Gallery on Sunday night in one of the more electrifying concerts in the District this year.
Beaux Arts came flying out of the gate with Martinu's Trio No. 1, a rambunctious work from 1930 whose pungent harmonies and rapidly shifting contrasts, punched up with traces of hot jazz, practically burst out of their skin with aliveness.
The trio moved onto more familiar terrain with Beethoven's Trio in E-flat, Op. 70, No. 2, turning in a riveting, brilliantly nuanced account that made real sense out of the composer's inner turmoil. The program's final piece, Schubert's Trio in E-flat, Op. 100, can be perilous: With its broad lyric sweeps and soul-tearing climaxes, it's a written invitation to start chewing the scenery; you can hear the heaving bosoms from the get-go. But Beaux Arts gave a passionate, controlled explosion of genuine human feeling -- clear-eyed, convincing and, above all, profoundly moving.
-- Stephen Brookes
Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra
Most genres of music evolve organically, but Chinese traditional orchestras are a recent invention, created by a government directive in 1949. Sunday night, the Kennedy Center Festival of China brought the unusual sounds of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra stateside.
Striking in both its similarities to and differences from Western orchestras, this ensemble is like a symphony orchestra in terms of form and forces, but comprises traditional Chinese string, wind and percussion instruments. Some, like the erhu, a bowed violin-size string instrument, go back over a thousand years. Others are 20th-century relatives of ancient instruments, developed especially for this type of orchestra.
Inspired by travelogue drawings, composer Zhao Jiping's "Silk Road Fantasia Suite" featured virtuoso suona (Chinese oboe) player Guo Yazhi. The subtle beginning bordered on impressionism and, bolstered by Yan Huichang's mellifluous and coherent direction of the 88-member group, the music was cinematic. The suona's melancholy timbre was soulful in Guo's hands, with his sensuous vibrato enhancing its expressiveness. The central section of the suite was like an opera recitative, with Guo accompanied by an entrancing zheng (zither). Both orchestra and soloist showed off their extraordinary technique in the final dance.
The spatial effects of Tan Dun's 1995 "Fire Ritual" had heads swiveling to see the instrumentalists placed strategically around the hall. Tan's unusual orchestration techniques included musicians humming and exhaling syllables, blowing into just the reed of the suona to produce a wailing scream, and using the sheet music as percussion by fanning the pages on the stands. Gaohu (violin) soloist Wong On-yuen jammed with zeal, and the emphatic smash of timpani ended the half-hour odyssey.
The orchestra capped off the program with encores of popular Chinese tunes and an unlikely arrangement of Glenn Miller's "American Patrol."
-- Gail Wein
Pianist David Benoit's performance at Blues Alley on Sunday night was dotted with engaging tunes, beginning with one that seemed a bit premature: "Christmas Is Coming," drawn from the late pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack recording of "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
No matter. Benoit, who later performed his hit version of "Linus and Lucy," always spreads good cheer when he peruses Guaraldi's delightful songbook, even when his performances are out of sync with the calendar. Benoit's compositions can evoke New Age meditations or stir up smooth-jazz froth, and his allusions to Guaraldi and other keyboard influences often introduce refreshing interludes.
Certainly that was the case when Benoit's trio, featuring bassist David Hughes and drummer Jamey Tate, performed a colorful medley of tunes that celebrated Bill Evans's sublime lyricism (via "Letter to Evan"), Dave Brubeck's odd meter innovations ("Blue Rondo a la Turk") and Herbie Hancock's soul jazz grooves ("Watermelon Man"). The more Benoit saluted his role models, on piano and synthesizer, the better.
Of course he didn't disappoint those who came to hear him play his own music, though the results were mixed. "Every Step of the Way," a tune Benoit wrote with the Rippingtons' Russ Freeman, was among the routine pop-jazz excursions. But the trio's arrangement of Benoit's recently recorded orchestral work "9/11" was elegiac and absorbing.
Hughes and Tate neatly accompanied Benoit throughout the opening set, and Hughes was in particularly good form on electric six-string bass, heightening the funk-tinted moods with slap-thumb accents and slippery runs.
-- Mike Joyce