Amusician's departure from a major label can be perilous. That was apparent Wednesday night at the Birchmere, as Michael Penn (who released his latest album, "Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947," independently) performed to a moderate-size crowd that seemed detached from his performance, aside from a few shouted song requests.
But that distance didn't seem to faze Penn, whose 90-minute set exuded confidence and personality. Between songs, he chatted about subjects as varied as the Web site MySpace.com (where Penn promotes his music), his obsession with the year 1947 (manifested in the current album), and the Angels Flight railway in Los Angeles (the subject of his song "Bunker Hill"). That conversational tone bled into his songs as well: The catchy but despair-filled "Walter Reed," the upbeat, bouncy "On Automatic" and the desolate "Figment" all carried an air of emotional honesty.
Rather than performing with a full band, Penn opted for a single accompanist, Peter Adams, whose piano and keyboard (and accordion on "Long Way Down") augmented Penn's guitar-strumming without overpowering it. The simplicity of those live arrangements further underscored Penn's new do-it-yourself strategy.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Hermine Haselboeck has a powerful, rich and finely modulated mezzo voice. But even more, she is a superb lieder singer, as she made clear Tuesday at the Austrian Embassy. Her superb song recital was part of the ongoing concert series "Austrians in Exile," highlighting the music of composers who fled their Nazi homeland for the United States, some continuing to compose in the classical style, many turning to writing pathbreaking Hollywood film music.
The embassy's current exhibit centers on the seminal 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg -- his music, letters, paintings and the greats drawn to him -- visually recalling what Austria lost and America gained. Haselboeck and her supple, attentive pianist, Florian Henschel, devoted their recital to the songs of Schoenberg's close colleague Alexander Zemlinsky, who resettled in New York.
As she sang her way through four sets of his works, she enlisted every possible vocal inflection, coloristic shade and detail of phrasing to capture the precise emotional meaning of a wide-ranging assortment of musical settings. Her sensitive approach also underscored the often agonizing beauty of music that stretched traditional tonality to its outermost expressive reaches without making the leap into Schoenberg's atonal expressionist camp.
-- Cecelia Porter