“Dreaming of the Phoenix” at the Sackler Gallery

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • August 19, 2013

It’s been a good summer for anyone even remotely interested in Chinese music, with nearly a dozen performances of both traditional and contemporary works at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. The miniseries, built around the theme of the mythological phoenix, ended this weekend with four performances of the rarely heard musical poetry theater known as kunqu, and its high point may have come on Sunday with “Dreaming of the Phoenix” — a work by the young composer Du Yun that bridged thousand-year-old traditions and modern sensibilities with deft, perceptive grace.

Kunqu is the oldest surviving form of Chinese opera, and “Dreaming” — the first part of a longer work called “Moonlight Meditation” — opened with a spare and almost ancient sense of ritual, the six white-clad musicians entering the stage one by one to a haunting melody on a bamboo flute.

Composer Du YunIn fact, the entire piece felt steeped in ritual, as if to evoke a long-vanished world. Du Yun’s delicate and ethereal score — for singer, flutes, percussion, pipa, zither and MacBook Pro — was unmistakably rooted in traditional Chinese music, and its lyrics were drawn from poetry hundreds, or even thousands, of years old. But this wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. As it evoked woodland spirits, soaring phoenixes, distant battlegrounds and delicate images of nature, the work seemed to come alive with the shimmering mystery of a half-remembered dream — a reverie of the past, in a thoroughly modern mind.

Much of the work’s impact came from its superb, virtuosic performance. Singer Qian Yi — who also wrote the story line — danced and sang with quiet eloquence at the center of the ensemble, while the composer herself manned the MacBook’s more contemporary sonics. Chen Tao turned in impeccable playing on both transverse and end-blown wooden flutes, but perhaps the finest playing came from Zhou Yi, whose solo on the pipa provided the most breathtaking moments of the afternoon.

Posted on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 10:21AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Chicago lawyer’s second act: Playing piano on the concert stage

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • August 14, 2013

Okay, so . . . maybe you didn’t turn out to be the next Vladimir Horowitz.

Sure, you loved the piano and you practiced like a demon all through college. You could churn out a mean Beethoven sonata and you even gave a recital or three. But you never quite made it to Carnegie Hall, and in your 20s you had to admit you just weren’t headed for the glamorous life of a globe-trotting pianist, dazzling audiences from Paris to New York. So, like most of us, you heaved a sigh, got a grown-up job, and packed up those dreams forever.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Mark Damisch.

A settled, successful Chicago lawyer and family man, Damisch hadn’t even touched a keyboard in nearly 20 years when he decided, at the ripe age of 43, that it might be kind of cool to shake out his fingers, squeeze into a tuxedo, and set out on the international piano circuit — just like that, and completely on his own.

Crazy? Maybe. It’s hard to find a more brutally competitive profession than classical music, and making it as a soloist takes not just brilliance, endless work and hard-driving professionalism, but also a very thick skin. There’s barely enough room for the geniuses, let alone middle-aged do-it-yourselfers. But since the summer Damisch decided to elbow his way onto that elite stage, he’s given close to a thousand recitals around the world, won admiring reviews, and raised over a million dollars for charity.

Oh — and he’s done all this in his spare time. He has a law firm to run, after all.

“I’m a little like Forrest Gump,” says Damisch, now 57, who will be in town Monday night to launch his latest tour with a concert at the Russian Cultural Centre. “I’m not too smart — but I keep showing up.”

Damisch’s “just do it” approach to music should perhaps not be a surprise. This is a guy, after all, who announced at his first piano lesson— at age 7 — that he wanted to learn Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. He studied piano through high school and college (though he never majored in music), and by his late teens was building a career as a performer.

“Like everybody else, I started at the bottom,” he says. “I played at senior centers, churches, pretty much any place that would take me.” By his early 20s he was on his first world tour, and seemed committed to a life in music. But terrible bouts of stage fright — as well as the harsh realities of the classical world — made him reconsider.

“Music is a very unforgiving profession,” he says. “You get to the top of your game, you have an off night, the next thing you know you’ve got a bad review and your career is in tatters.”

So at 25 he did the sensible thing. He quit the piano, got a law degree from Northwestern, became a public prosecutor, started a family, was elected mayor of the Village of Northbrook, and eventually opened his own law firm.

But when 2000 rolled around, he decided to try “something cool” to mark the new millennium. So he set up a dozen concerts for himself — and discovered, he says, his “niche.” He organized another international tour the next year, and the next, and now plays 70 to 80 concerts a year. Accompanied on voice and piano by his daughters Katherine, 23, and Alexandra, 18, he’s been around the planet about 16 times, playing everywhere from Hanoi to Hiroshima to St. Petersburg — where they’ll be performing an ambitious program of Prokofiev, Copland and Grieg next month.

But what’s perhaps most remarkable is that virtually all Damisch’s concerts have been for charity. He and his daughters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight human trafficking, help blind children in Africa, support breast cancer research, grant end-of-life wishes, aid victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and even get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. After their recital here Monday, they’ll be flying to Scandinavia and Russia for a month-long tour of concerts benefiting, among others, the homeless in Copenhagen and orphans in St. Petersburg.

And when he’s not playing for a cause, Damisch says, he mounts free concerts to “reach across the divide” that separates cultures.

“I grew up during the Vietnam War,” he says, “and had a lot of negative feelings about that country. But when I went there to play, the concert was completely sold out, jammed with young people. And at the end of the program we sang ‘All You Need Is Love’ with the audience, and everybody there knew the words and sang along. The feeling in the hall was electrifying. That’s a long way from the Vietnam War.”

But before you dust off that old piano, quit your job, and reinvent yourself as a freelance cultural ambassador, be aware that the DIY concert life “isn’t all roses and balloons,” Damisch cautions.

“I set all the concerts up myself,” he says. “I’m my own agent. I decide where I want to go, pick the dates out, and start scouring the venues in a particular location. Then I ask the venue if they’d be willing to donate it, particularly if it’s for a charity event, and then I’ll either find the charity myself or I’ll find a promoter.”

And he pays all his own expenses as well, from hotels to airfare; any proceeds from the concerts go to the charities. And between practicing, studying, and arranging the complex logistics of each tour, it’s essentially a second full-time job.

“The law practice is there to pay the bills,” he says. “But I have to be at the piano pretty much every night.”

Posted on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 05:38PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Guzheng music at the Sackler Gallery 

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • July 30, 2013

Recitals of music for the guzheng — the ancient 21-stringed Chinese zither — are not exactly staples of the Washington concert scene. So it was a rare treat when Bing Xia and Rujia Teng, two virtuosos of this extraordinary instrument, arrived at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery this past weekend for a series of performances of music inspired by the mythical phoenix.

Bing XiaThe phoenix — a bird that famously burned to death and was reborn from its own ashes — has been a powerful symbol in Chinese art for centuries, and the program mixed ancient folk songs and traditional music with very contemporary works, all of the music impressionistic and often highly programmatic. “The Phoenix Soars,” for example, evoked a bird in effortless flight, while the colorful “A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes” resonated with pitch-perfect bird calls. Perhaps the most beautiful work on the program — a modern piece by Huan Liu titled “Phoenixes Flying Together” — created a sense of floating weightlessly over a vast landscape, the gentle rise and fall of the melodic lines like the slow beating of wings.

The almost orchestral range of sonic color that the two players drew from their instruments — bent notes, harplike swirls, percussive effects and so on — was little short of breathtaking, and both delivered precise, deeply felt performances, despite the distractions of playing in an open art gallery rather than a quiet concert hall. Bing Xia, the director of the Washington Guzheng Society, displayed her virtuosity in “The Phoenix Pursues His Mate,” managing its intricate finger-work with ease. Her gifted student Rujia Teng, though still only 17, proved to be an accomplished young virtuoso in her own right, turning in a poetic and absolutely riveting account of “Nirvana of the Phoenixes,” a modern work by Deyuan Zheng.


Posted on Saturday, August 10, 2013 at 12:13PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Vocal Colors at the Phillips Collection

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • July 26, 2013

By midsummer, the classical music scene in Washington is usually deep in the doldrums, nodding along sleepily until the superstars return to Strathmore and the Kennedy Center in the fall. But it’s a great time to catch young, up-and-coming performers — particularly those in the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s annual summer residency program, four of whom were showcased Thursday evening in a very personal, deftly sung and relentlessly charming concert at the Phillips Collection.

The evening — titled “Vocal Colors” — ranged from show tunes to serious lieder, and paired music chosen by the singers themselves with artwork from the Phillips. Soprano Andrea Carroll and mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani (both of whom starred in Wolf Trap’s production of Rossini’s “The Journey to Reims” last month) got things off to a strong start with the “Barcarolle” duo from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” showing off rich and supple voices as well as a subtle sense of drama.

Those qualities marked both women’s singing all evening. Carroll — a native of Bethesda — has a warm, confident voice that brought out the delicately shaded hues of Debussy’s “C’est l’extase,” as well as the more physical punchiness of “Troubled Woman” by Ricky Ian Gordon. She brought power and insight to both works.

Lahyani’s gorgeous mezzo voice was delicately balanced between anguish and nostalgia in Rachmaninoff’s “Do Not Sing for Me,” and her account of “Forgiveness” by the Israeli composer Oded Lerer — a beautiful piece in moody colors — was as lyrical as it was sensuous, delivered with quiet and convincing passion.

The men didn’t fare quite as well. Benjamin Bliss has a wonderfully clear and light, but not particularly rich, tenor voice and kept things entertaining with an arrangement of the Appalachian folk tune “The Old Woman’s Courtship” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” on which he accompanied himself on the guitar. Baritone Steven LaBrie pulled out the stops for Agustin Lara’s heart-on-sleeve “Humo en los ojos,” but it came out so over-emoted that it might have worked better if he’d left a few stops in. He has a fine voice, though, and his lower-key reading of Howard Wells’s “Everyone Sang” was genuinely moving.

The real climax of the evening was Stephen Sondheim’s “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” (from “Follies”), which brought all four singers together for an upbeat close to the concert — music perfect for lifting the summer doldrums. Josephine Riggs provided fine accompaniment on the piano, as she did all evening.

Posted on Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 10:29AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Mendelssohn Piano Trio at the National Gallery of Art

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • July 1, 2013

Take some sweeping passion and a bit of soaring ecstasy, add a dash of heart-rending despair, season with heaving breasts and sighing melodies, then mix it all together with impeccable elegance and taste — that’s Romantic-era music at its best, and the National Gallery of Art was awash in the stuff Sunday night, when the fine young Mendelssohn Piano Trio presented a program so lush, substantial and richly flavored you wanted to eat it with a knife and fork.

Given the ensemble’s name, you’d expect Mendelssohn himself to be front and center on the program, and his Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 made a strong opening to the evening. The work, from 1845, is quintessential Mendelssohn — roiling with emotion, but always firmly in control of itself — and that’s exactly how the Mendelssohn players approached it. They’re a wonderfully diverse group: The hard-charging Taiwanese pianist Ya-Ting Chang brought muscle to the music, while violinist Peter Sirotin — a native of Ukraine — displayed a precise and slightly cool professionalism, and English cellist Fiona Thompson anchored the music with quiet assurance. That made for an engaging performance, technically immaculate and often very eloquent, with a finely calibrated sense of dramatic flow. You never sensed that they were really tearing open a vein — there was little of the white-hot intensity and wild passion that make Romantic-era music burst fully to life — but it was a warm and deeply felt performance nonetheless, and beautifully played.

It was a fine idea to pair the inward-looking Mendelssohn piece with Tchaikovsky’s more epic — even symphonic — Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, which took up the second half of the evening. Tchaikovsky apparently hated the sound of these three instruments together (he called it “torture”), but you’d never know it from this 1882 work, which opens with a brooding “Pezzo elegiaco” and closes with a spectacular set of variations, all written in memory of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein. The trio gave it a thoughtful reading, rich in psychological insight, that drew together the threads of nostalgia, celebration, tenderness and regret that weave through the music, like a tapestry of delicate and already-fading memories.


Posted on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 04:26PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Carpe Diem Quartet at the National Gallery of Art

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • June 24, 2013

It’s not hard to design a crowd-pleasing string quartet recital. You open with Haydn, toss in a little Mendelssohn or Brahms (maybe Debussy, if you’re daring), build up to one of the heftier Beethoven quartets and call it a day. It’s far more difficult to find fresh, pathbreaking new works that show how vibrant the quartet form still is — and that leave audiences on their feet and shouting for more.

Jonathan LeshnoffBut that’s exactly what the aptly named Carpe Diem String Quartet did on Sunday night, in an adventurous and often breathtaking recital of modern music at the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court. Eclectic almost to a fault, the group ranged from jazz to Turkish dances to some of the hardest-hitting music of the 20th century, and built to a spectacular climax with the premiere of a quartet by composer Jonathan Leshnoff that was nothing less than exalting — a major addition to the string quartet repertoire.

The program opened and closed with some likable arrangements of the jazz standards “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” but far more exciting was a suite of five new dances by Erberk Eryilmaz. “Miniatures Set No. 4” is a swirling, dervish-like explosion of a work, full of Turkish folk rhythms and bluesy bent notes and sudden yelps and shouts from the players. The excitement continued with Bela Bartok’s equally volatile Fifth String Quartet from 1934, whose landscapes of slashing chords and windswept wildness were brought off with white-hot intensity.

Korine FujiwaraThe quartet’s violist, Korine Fujiwara, is a composer as well, and her 2010 work “Hands” proved an enjoyable and smile-filled work, awash in soaring melodies, snapping fingers and inventive ideas. But it was Leshnoff’s String Quartet No. 4 that was the real event of the evening. From a base of modest musical motives (inspired, in part, by a recorder recital at his daughter’s school), the quartet built with seamless logic into a vast, thoroughly beautiful and extraordinarily moving work, its juggernaut-like power balanced with a luminous, almost hymn-like sense of spirituality and grace. It is a masterpiece any way you look at it, and the Carpe Diem players — for whom the work was written — played it with the absolute commitment it deserved.


Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at 07:49PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Newspeak at the Atlas Performing Arts Center

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • June 23, 2013

In the tiny but essential niche of punk-classical music, Newspeak pretty much rules. Driving rhythms, sophisticated compositions by cutting-edge composers, virtuosic playing on electrified instruments — there’s little not to like about the New York-based ensemble, and after canceling a show here last fall because of Hurricane Sandy, Newspeak arrived at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday night for a set steeped in rock, politics and a kind of nostalgia for the revolutionary violence of the 1960s.

Frederick RzewskiThe evening, billed as an exploration of “imprisonment and release,” made for an often hard-punching close to the Atlas’s New Music series. Things lurched into gear as the ensemble tackled composer Corey Dargel’s “Last Words From Texas,” a song cycle built on the final statements of eight criminals as they were led to their executions. That’s a compelling idea — what goes through the human mind in those intense, final moments? But the disappointing answer, it turns out, is: not much.

Dargel’s subjects are all just Hallmark-card vapid, showing little insight or intelligence or even honesty about themselves. One refers to his crime as “the mishap of the deceased,” another blandly thanks his wife “for being there,” another struggles with a joke that makes no sense. Dargel drapes the banalities in sophisticated music, as if to show some redeeming humanity in these destructive lives, but it came across as sentimentalizing rather than revealing. Lipstick, if you’ll excuse the creepy cliche, on a pig.

Speaking of which: Next up was Randall Woolf’s “Blind Pig,” a tangled fairy tale about the 1967 Detroit riots, followed by “Sweet Light Crude” by David T. Little and “The Way of the Mob” by Ruby Fulton. Of the three, “Crude” — a mock love song to oil — was the most subtle and engaging, though Fulton’s use of Google Maps directions to tell the story of the Baltimore Bank Riots of 1835 had a dry, deadpan charm.

But the real climax of the evening was Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” inspired by the Attica prison riots of 1971. It's spare music built from a single riff, and slowly gathered in power as the text — a self-admiring screed from the 1960s bomber Sam Melville, who was killed at Attica — is chanted over and over and over again. Yes, there’s a hectoring quality to it, and yes, the thing reeks of self-righteousness and the musty revolutionary politics of 50 years ago. But Newspeak’s gutsy soprano Mellissa Hughes, leading the ensemble with fire and purpose, ratcheted the work to a wild, intoxicating pitch, with fine playing all night from the entire group — particularly the dangerously gifted Courtney Orlando, who sat in at the last minute for violinist Caleb Burhans.


Posted on Monday, June 24, 2013 at 07:48PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint