Violinist Frank Huang played a ridiculously difficult program Wednesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre, as the Washington Performing Arts Society reminded us in program notes and a pre-concert speech. So let it be said: Huang has tremendous chops indeed, playing the nearly unplayable with uncanny assurance.
But chops alone do not a satisfying recital make, and in the end it was the interpretive skills of Huang and pianist Carol Wong that lingered after the violinist had fired off his final pyrotechnics.
In fact, Huang's performances of violin showpieces were a bit uneven. He played Tartini's Sonata in G Minor, with its famous "Devil's Trill" finale, incredibly cleanly but without much demonic edge. The big dramatic gestures of Saint-Saens's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso were sometimes brusquely phrased. The over-the-top technical demands of Paganini's "La Campanella," however, inspired a performance full of fun from Huang and Wong, with delicious articulation of its bell-ringing effects.
Huang and Wong really excelled in Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata and Ravel's Violin Sonata -- more substantive music, though still plenty difficult. (Perhaps not coincidentally, unlike the showpieces, these sonatas involved Wong as a real partner in the musicmaking.) The Prokofiev sonata seems almost determinedly elusive with its uneven rhythms and cold lyricism, but Huang and Wong made it vivid with their keen attention to its subtle shifts in mood and with effects like Huang's muted violin lofting quicksilver runs over sedate piano chords. The Ravel, meanwhile, sparkled from beginning to end, with the Frenchified blues of the slow movement both rugged and eloquent and the perpetual-motion finale breezily charming.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone
In a world where the mediocre and unsubtle often fill stadiums and charmless corporate "arts centers," it's a joy to see a musician fairly busting out of his venue.
"Don't be afraid! Come closer!" urged Chris Mills at the tiny Black Cat Backstage on Wednesday to the couple dozen people scattered through the room. Then he and his band, the New Miserable Bastards, rattled the listeners' limbs into dancing -- not merely with deafening power chords but also with enthralling power-pop.
The ax-wielding Mills, drummer Jay Dodds and bassist Steve Poulton could have time-traveled from the era of Stiff Records. "Escape From New York" bopped along like some lost collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Ramones. Between the brash strums and drum rolls were lyrics with meaning. Often it was hard to distinguish more than references to drunkenness and violence -- echoed in the occasional diminished chord or tattoo on a snare -- but the arrogantly titled "Chris Mills Is Living the Dream" revealed itself as a meditation on fame: After dreaming about being "Richard Pryor running on fire down the Sunset Strip," he questioned what it was like "to be burned by something you love so much."
After a new song with the mesmerizing lines "Tell my eyes I will miss them / Tell my hands I forgive them. . . . My heart is coming with me," Mills called out, "Can everyone hear?" Oh, yes indeed, and they might well have heard -- and enjoyed -- out on 14th Street as well.
-- Pamela Murray Winters