Deana Carter

Big empty rooms don't normally lessen the gap between an artist and an audience. But Deana Carter's Thursday night show inside a sparsely populated Patriot Center couldn't have gotten much more intimate if it had been performed in her bedroom.

Carter grew up in the country music business -- father Fred Carter Jr. was a Nashville session man good enough to play guitar for, among others, Bob Dylan. "The Girl You Left Me For" and "Sunny Day," like much of the material she introduced from her latest CD, the self-produced "The Story of My Life," seemed inspired by being let down by record label heads and/or other males.

She's lived in Los Angeles for a few years now, and Carter occasionally sounds more like Sheryl Crow than Tammy Wynette when she sings these days. But never when she talks. And, perhaps because she was surrounded by thousands of empty seats, Carter felt liberated enough to make between-song banter as much a part of the performance as the tunes. Carter was eager to discuss the mundane real-world downers she's endured -- "I lost a job at TCBY Yogurt," she said -- and the simple pleasures in her life. ("I get my hair highlighted on November 4 at 4 p.m., and I can't wait!") Every tale came out with a lack of pretense that can't be faked.

Because she's so lovable as a talker, Carter can get away with using her tunes to trash ex-lovers, as she did so fabulously in "Did I Shave My Legs for This?," without coming off as cold or heartless. Her first and biggest hit single, 1996's "Strawberry Wine," still stands among the best coming-of-age country tunes ever sung. Early in the song, Carter recalls of her first love that "he had a car," and on this night she sang that line as if no other male attribute ever meant so much to a girl. It's a shame there weren't more folks there to hear it.

-- Dave McKenna


It's easy to get excited about the world-class artists who visit Washington from far-flung places. The chamber ensemble Strata -- Audrey Andrist and James Stern of Maryland, and Nathan Williams of Michigan -- prove there is talent close to home that's worth getting worked up about.

Thursday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, pianist Andrist and clarinetist Williams were equal partners in the Grand Duo Concertant by Carl Maria von Weber. Andrist displayed her virtuosity as she hit every note cleanly and tastefully and flew through passages that would have flummoxed others. Williams was in complete command of his instrument, with solid technique and an operatic touch in the middle movement.

In Manuel de Falla's spicy "Suite Populaire Espagnole," violinist Stern tried hard to dramatize the Spanish melodies, and the result was effective and engaging. His pizzicato passages did not project well, but he did a fine job coaxing perfectly delicate high notes using harmonics.

The three came together for Alexander Arutiunian's "Suite" (1992). Unlike his fellow Russians, this composer's style was neither heavy nor lush. Its discernable folk tunes with a touch of gypsy flair were anchored by percussive piano playing and enhanced by the group's deft ensemble playing.

The 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth is in January, and we'll be hearing a lot of his music in the next few months. Strata's reading of Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano was romantic to the point of drippy. The thin edge to Stern's viola too often was drowned out by Andrist's muddy piano, and as an ensemble, their timbres failed to blend well. Fortunately, it was the only lowlight in an otherwise satisfying program.

-- Gail Wein

Ying String Quartet

"Musical 'Dim Sum' " was the apt title for the Ying String Quartet's Thursday evening performance at the Kennedy Center. This brilliant ensemble dished out musical morsels from contemporary Chinese American composers that, on their own, could not sustain an evening. The works may have lacked some weight, but, when put together in the quartet's hands, the music spoke of a shared, artful ability to meld traditional Chinese and Western sounds.

Two works of Chen Yi, which bookended the first half of the concert, refracted Chinese tunes through the respectively buoyant and stern sounds of Dvorak and Shostakovich. The Ying -- comprising the sibling combination of violinists Timothy and Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David Ying -- smartly developed Chen's "Shuo" ("Initiation") from low rumblings to larger swells, while her "At the Kansas City New Year Concert" had more the feel of a celebratory romp. Here, the quartet transformed a theme distilled from the subtle inflections of the Chinese phrase for "Happy New Year."

The quartet played selections from Tan Dun's "Eight Colors" with a concise, acidic edge that revealed a strong modernist influence. After initial movements that were by turns rhythmic and fierce, the third movement "Red Sona" expressively evoked the sound of a traditional Chinese oboe. The Ying brought out the melded glassy harmonics and plucked pizzicatos of Zhou Long's "Song of the Ch'in," while closing out the evening with an account, at once bracing and balanced, of Debussy's Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Pianist Yael Weiss

At her performance Thursday at the Israeli Embassy, Yael Weiss showed herself to be a pianist who delves deeply and tellingly into that cloudy area where fantasy morphs into improvisation, inventiveness being common to both.

The fantastical element came shining through most notably in three Chopin mazurkas, in which she conjured up colorful images of Polish dancers. In Schumann's "Drei Phantasiestuecke," Op. 111, Weiss's playing had a sharp immediacy, revealing the piece's savage beauty. Here, as in the Chopin mazurkas, Weiss's ultra-sensitive touch also revealed the supremely vocal dimension these pieces share, though the pianist was somewhat hampered by her Steinway's hollow tone quality.

Two brand-new improvisations by Israeli composer Noam Sivan were equally fanciful: a peripatetic takeoff on J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (no tune has ever undergone more arrangements) and a concert paraphrase of Bellini's aria "Tutto e Gioia," unleashed with the theatrical pizazz of a diva. Weiss gave Schumann's "Humoreske," Op. 20, a fiery impetuosity, lending lyrical grace to an etude and barcarolle of Chopin. The concert was an Embassy Series event.

-- Cecelia Porter

Just a few friends over: Deana Carter gave a small crowd an intimate show.