Cheap Trills

Why complain about the hassles of living near or visiting Washington? If you're in the area, taking full advantage of the DC's many free events is a better approach. Here are one Metro area resident's favorite free (or relatively inexpensive) concert series.

Einstein's Violin: The National Academy of Sciences Concert Series

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on January 18, 2009

Among the most passionate music lovers I’ve known have been mathematicians and scientists, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that the National Academy of Sciences hosts one of the most outstanding free concert series in Washington. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November several years ago, we decided to check it out.

I’d never been in the Academy of Sciences before, though I’d long admired the famous statue of Albert Einstein out front. Unlike other dreary government research labs and offices, however, the interior of the National Academy of Sciences is an elegant art deco "temple to science," especially the Great Hall, with dark green marble columns and a vaulted tiled ceiling. In the center of the hall, directly below the apex of the dome, a Foucault pendulum rests on an elaborate bronze medallion representing the solar system.

The auditorium is an interesting contrast to the opulence of the foyer and Great Hall. Here, the science of acoustics reigns supreme. The 670-seat auditorium is enclosed in a shell of diamond-shaped panels of different sizes, set with recessed lightings. The engineer responsible also designed the acoustics at the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall in New York. When the woman making the opening remarks first began speaking, I assumed she was wearing a concealed microphone, but when the president of the Academy, Bruce Alberts, rose from the audience to make a few remarks, I realized that any sound coming from the stage was easily and clearly carried to the back of the hall.

Yet another contrast was awaiting as the Grammy-winning Eroica Trio strode onstage, three gorgeous, willowy young women wearing stunning black and red evening gowns. Seating themselves quickly, they launched into the first piece, a fairly obscure Sonata by Loeillot. This was followed by Beethoven’s "Archduke" trio, and, after an intermission during which we viewed an intriguing photo exhibit on display in the Academy's exhibit space upstairs, Brahms’ trio in B major.

The ensemble played with an almost mesmeric intensity, their effortlessly fluid sound ranging from a whisper in the quiet passages to a full-blooded roar in the crescendos. Playing with an "all or nothing" spirit, they genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, particularly during the final piece by Brahms, which was an unexpected program change. As cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio explained, the final piece originally planned, by a minor Russian composer, had suffered in contrast to the Beethoven, so they decided to conclude with the even more magisterial Brahms. The handling of the subtle syncopations of the Brahms piece seemed effortless. At the close of the concert, an enraptured audience thundered approval.

As the Eroica Trio maintains a grueling touring schedule, the exuberance and spontaneity of their performance was remarkable. Go see them, by all means, if they ever perform in your area.

Since attending this first concert, we’ve returned for at least one, and usually several, concerts each year. The most recent concert we attended was on November 9th, 2008, to hear pianist Diane Walsh perform a program of Schubert, Ravel, and Beethoven. We brought along a friend who has lived in Washington her entire life but had never heard of concerts at the National Academy of Sciences. Needless to say, she was delighted to find such an accessible and inexpensive way to enjoy the arts on a Sunday afternoon.

When someone mentions music in Washington, usually a venue such as the Kennedy Center or Constitution Hall springs to mind, but those who live in the area know that some of the best musical events fly under the radar, so to speak, at local churches, community centers, museums, and embassies. Tapping into these opportunities means that you needn’t spend a fortune or face large crowds to hear top-notch musical performances.

Insider Tip: Before a concert at the National Academy of Sciences, you might like to pay a visit to the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's just across the street.

All the World's a (Millennium) Stage

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on February 9, 2009

What if someone told you that there were FREE world-class performances offered virtually every night of the year in DC?

Well, it's true -- just come to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center at six o'clock on any given evening. For over twelve years, the Kennedy Center has lined up an incredible array of performers, ranging from youth orchestra members to stars of international stature. One night there might be ballet; another a chamber music ensemble; and yet another it might be reggae or blues or some type of music you've never even heard of. Often various cultural ministries sponsor top-notch performers from their countries, not to mention groups or performers in town for the many different festivals held throughout the year, such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Cherry Blossom Festival.

The performances, which are generally held on a stage at one end of the Grand Foyer, run from 6 pm to 7 pm and are done as one continuous set. If you have tickets for an evening event at the Kennedy Center, you might want to consider coming early if there's something on of interest. Most of the times I've gone to the Millennium Stage, however, it has been just to see a particular performer or group.

Take, for example, one of the most memorable concerts I've ever seen, by Portuguese fadista Mariza. This was back about seven years ago, before she became a big sensation here in the U.S. as well as in Portugal. Mariza is a riveting chanteuse, and seeing her in the relatively intimate Millennium Stage setting was an incredible opportunity, not to mention that the audience was filled with enthusiastic fado fans from Portugal and other European countries. This sort of appreciative international audience is one of the things that I enjoy most about Washington, where word quickly goes out to ex-pat communities anytime there are performers from "back home" (wherever that might be).

I try to keep an eye on who's coming to the Millennium Stage, which isn't hard as they have a monthly e-mail listing of all upcoming performances, but on occasion something slips by that I later kick myself for missing. Such was the case when I was wowed by Argentinian chamamé accordionist Chango Spasiuk at a festival in San Antonio in 2007, only to find that he'd been at the Millennium Stage just the week before. (I'm overcompensating, perhaps, by going to hear him again at Carnegie Hall next month.)

This very evening was another memorable outing, to hear Hungarian singer Beáta Palya, a rising star with a grounding in an impressive variety of vocal traditions. I arrived early, knowing that the Hungarian community would be out in full force for this special concert -- she'd just performed a little over a week ago Carnegie Hall, but here in DC it was a more intimate affair, with local luminaries such as the Hungarian Ambassador and the Minister of Culture on hand. Palya's set was a bravura performance, encompassing everything from Transylvanian folk melodies to an offbeat fusion of throat singing (by her accompanist) and a rhythmic, almost percussive form of Roma ('gypsy') singing that involves inventive improvisations done at dizzying speed.

Another memorable performance was by the Silk Road Dance Company, a group that performs dances from the Arab and Middle Eastern world. (Actually, I've been to see them twice, but I'll just describe the most recent event.) While many people have a stereotyped image of nothing but belly dancing emanating from this part of the world, this troupe does a wonderful job of showing the diversity and refinement -- but also playfulness -- of dance traditions from places such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. At this performance, I was lucky to find a spot right under the stage (sitting on the floor, in fact, as the hall was packed), and got a few good photos I've uploaded to this site.

If there's one downside to these concerts, it's that getting to and parking at the Kennedy Center can be a bit problematic. We were aghast a few weeks ago to find that the fee for the Kennedy Center garage had gone up to $17 regardless of whether you stayed for just the hour-long performance or the entire evening. There's parking at the nearby Watergate complex, but it's also on the steep site.

Meantime, parking on the surrounding streets can be hard to find unless you come early on the weekends. The nearest Metro station is Foggy Bottom/GWU, but it's about a 10-15 minute walk to the Kennedy Center, and it's not a very straightforward route, or at least I've gotten turned around on several occasions. There is a shuttle that runs back and forth between the Metro station and the Kennedy Center, but it tends to fill quickly, especially at the end of the performance.

Looking for alternatives, for this evening's performance I took the #80 Metro bus from H St. in Chinatown for just a dollar and was deposited directly in front of the hall (see the WMATA website for details of this route). This is a nice choice if you're coming from and returning to an area closer to the Mall, H Street, or Union Station.

One last thing -- virtually every performance at the Millennium Stage has been videotaped for posterity and can be streamed from the Kennedy Center's website. You can view any of the thousands of events that have been offered ever since the Millennium Stage program began back in 1997.

Gershwin's Piano: Concerts from the Library of Congress

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on January 20, 2009

The Library of Congress’ concert series runs from roughly mid September through late May, which is characteristic of many of Washington’s free concert series. (There are many free summer concerts, of course, but they tend to be held on or near the Mall to accommodate summer visitors.) Be forewarned that going to a concert at the Library of Congress might take a little more advance planning, for the tickets, while technically free, are made available via Ticketron about six weeks before the date of the performance. A small handling fee is charged, and there is a limit of two tickets per order. The main challenge, though, is that tickets are snapped up fast.

A look at some of the performers on the schedule from past seasons makes it clear why this happens: Dave Brubeck, Suzanne Vega, Odetta, the Seeger Family, the Julliard String Quartet, Allen Toussaint, Roseanne Cash, Pinetop Perkins… the list goes on and on. (I should add that it’s possible to come the day of the performance at around 6:30 and queue for a limited number of returned tickets made available. I have done this sucessfully, but of course it’s much nicer to simply show up at 8 pm for the concert after a leisurely dinner.)

The majority of concerts feature chamber music, but there are folk, jazz, country, gospel, and bluegrass concerts, among others, as well as an impressive array of music from around the world: everything from African drum music to Basque melodies. And if that weren’t enough, many of the concerts are preceded by lectures by noted musicians and commentators. Some of this year’s performances, for example, are prefaced by lectures on "Music and the Brain," a theme being explored in depth this season. Finally, at least several concerts each year feature débuts of works commissioned by the Library or other arts foundations.

I can’t recall when I first attended one of these concerts, but it’s been some time back, perhaps one of the near-yearly performances by the Beaux Arts Trio. One year I came with a folkie friend to see Hesperus, a group which usually performs medieval and renaissance music but which on that occasion showcased American folk, Latin American, and Celtic music, along with a lively group of cloggers. (A surprising number of concerts feature dancers to accompany the music.)

On another occasion, my husband and I were swept away by a program entitled, "The Music of Fés," featuring, of course, Moroccan music from the city of that name. That turned out to be a delightful cultural blend of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The surprise there was a women’s gospel group from North Carolina paired with the Women’s Hadra Ensemble from southern Morocco. Eclectic? Yes, by darn near anyone’s standards. There are surprises at just about every performance, and I’ve always been impressed by the intelligent and inventive programming.

The most recent concert we attended last November was a good example of this, featuring famed Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyén with the ensemble she often collaborates with, Muzsikás, as well as an award-winning classical string quartet, the Takács Quartet. I’d been a fan of Sebestyén ever since hearing some of her music (not a live performance, regrettably) while in Hungary. She’s best known as the voice featured in the film "The English Patient," the voice in question being a very distinct, somewhat edgy and mournful Eastern European-style one. The program that evening featured a great deal of Roma music, which is one of my current obsessions. Needless to say, it was right up my alley.

But the main focus of the evening was the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who drew inspiration for many of his compositions from traditional folk melodies. I’d never fully appreciated how Bartók drew from this wellspring of folk heritage until this performance, despite having gone to the Ethnographic Museum in Hungary a few years ago and seeing an exhibit on Bartók’s travels with Zoltán Kodály into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. This, essentially, was the beginning of what is known today as ethnomusicology.

For the Library of Congress performance, one of the members of Muzsikás would introduce a melody that Bartók had recorded on wax cylinders back around the turn of the last century, the scratchy recording of peasant performers eerily vibrant still as it resonated in the auditorium. Then Muzsikás would play the same melody on instruments similar to those used by folk musicians of Bartók’s time. Finally, the Takács Quartet would do the reveal: what Bartók did with that simple theme. It was breath-taking – from simple musical idea to full-blown classical development. To conclude this logical progression, a set of traditional tunes, sometimes sung or danced to by Sebestyén, were interspersed with movements of a Bartók string quartet.

There were only two blemishes to the evening: the couple two rows ahead who thought they should bring their young (perhaps six- and eight-year-old) children along for the evening, and the temporary closure of the Ira and George Gershwin room just across from the library’s concert hall. Needless to say, the children were not able to sit still for two hours of Bartók, no matter how rousingly performed. The smaller of the two, a little boy, spent most of his time kicking the back of the chair in front of him. Neither parent saw fit to correct him. (Now, if that had been MY chair, you’d better believe someone would have.)

Not being able to browse through the Gershwin Room at intermission was a disappointment, but, then, I’d seen it several times before. It’s a wonderful place, with George’s piano in the center of the room, surrounded by displays of Gershwin memorabilia in glass cases: original scores for "Porgy and Bess," for example, or Ira’s lyrics for "I Got Rhythm."

Insider Tip: Any visitor who has not paid a daytime visit to the main sections of the Library of Congress (closed in the evening) would be wise to do so. Spend the afternoon off the tourist radar in one of DC’s most evocative buildings, surrounded by amazing bibliographic treasures, then follow that feast with another -- dinner somewhere on Capitol Hill. (I like the Cuban food at the Banana Café over by the Eastern Market, which isn't that far away.) Then take in an evening concert back at the Library of Congress. That’s the quintessential Washington, DC cultural experience, in my book.

Voices from the East: Freer & Sackler Galleries Concerts

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on January 25, 2009

The Smithsonian Metro stop escalator deposits visitors to the Mall practically on the doorstep of the Freer Gallery, yet many hurry right on by en route to other Smithsonian museums, behemoths such as the Natural History or Air & Space Museum. It’s a shame, really, as the smaller museums clustered around the Enid A. Haupt Garden and the Castle are arguably some of the most interesting (and certainly less crowded) museums on the Mall.

I’ve long been a fan of the Freer & Sackler – the two galleries are usually mentioned jointly as they have connecting subterranean galleries as well as both primarily focusing on Asian and Middle Eastern art. The Freer has a moderate-sized auditorium that hosts concerts, lectures, and several film series, while the Sackler has a smaller pavilion space that is occasionally used for public events. In most cases, these concerts are free, although it’s advisable to reserve tickets online through Ticketron for a small handling fee. Some tickets are made available on the day of the performance as well, though it’s necessary to queue for them about an hour before the program.

Usually concerts and lectures center on a special exhibit at one of the galleries, as was the case recently for the opening of the "Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur" exhibit. For this opening, the Freer & Sackler really rolled out the red carpet, with an entire weekend of special events centering on the north Indian region of Rajasthan. My husband and I made a day of it by going to a morning dance performance held on the steps of the Freer, followed by touring the exhibit, then having a special Indian lunch offered at the museum by caterers, rounded off by two afternoon concerts, one in the Meyer Auditorium at the Freer and the second in the Pavilion at the Sackler.

Attending this opening felt like the closest thing to immersion that one could experience short of traveling to Rajasthan itself. With music, dance, food, storytelling, yoga demonstrations, and lectures on offer, it was quite a spectrum of events. There was even ‘Festival of Lights" program, for the opening took place about ten days before Diwali. (This was a family event, directed primarily at children.)

The Smithsonian, of course, does a marvelous job of bringing guest artists from around the world for its events and festivals, and this opening was no exception. Dancers from the Kalapriya dance company of Chicago were joined by musicians from the Rupayan ensemble of Jodhpur, an ensemble of eight master musicians. The musicians were particularly interesting, as they are members of special castes of Muslim musicians who have served the Hindu Rajput courts for centuries. I’ve long been an admirer of Muslim musical traditions, whether it be Turkish court music or Egyptian percussion, so it was a real treat to hear such a dynamic and authentic group perform.

The performance featured typical music played at weddings and special ceremonies in northern India, all on traditional instruments such as the folk fiddle (sarangi) and double flute, with particular emphasis on invocations and songs of praise of the diety Ganesh. Especially impressive was the vocalist, a tall man with majestic bearing and a mesmerizing stage presence. After he beckoned to the audience during the last number, dozens of people answered the call and came dancing down the aisles. It was a wonderful performance.

Upcoming concerts are announced on the events webpage. This spring (2009), there is bound to be plenty of Turkish and Iranian music, as a big exhibit of art from Turkey and Iran is going to be on loan from the Moscow Kremlin

The Most Atmospheric Concert Setting in DC: The Phillips Collection

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Idler on February 16, 2009

Enter the Music Room of the Phillips Collection, and you know you've just come someplace special. Housed in the beautiful dark-paneled former library of the museum's founder, Duncan Phillips, the Music Room is very clearly a space for intimate social gatherings rather than an impersonal public performance space.

There's an idiosyncratic charm to the mix of paintings hung on the walls - everything from a stunning El Greco to moody impressionist street scenes. At the far end of the room, a grand piano is framed by two large, ornate pillars in the front of the room, while the length of chamber leading up to the pillars is absolutely jam-packed with folding chairs, set extremely close together.

And no wonder. The Phillips Collection's renowned Sunday concert series is often an S.R.O. affair, and so the museum has obligingly fit as many seats as it possibly could (around 130-150, by my count) into the space. This is one of the longest-running of Washington's free concert series, now in its 78th year. From October to May, the current season offers 32 outstanding Sunday performances.

Anyone who appreciates modern art should by all means come to the Phillips on the strength of the collection alone. The promotional brochure claims the Phillips is "America's first museum of modern art," and while I'm in no position to assess that claim, there's no denying that Duncan Phillips and his wife, who first opened one room of their house as a memorial gallery back in 1921, had singular taste and vision.

Their long career as collectors/public benefactors is best illustrated by the magnificent works the much-expanded museum houses today -- everything from Matisse to Rothko. The most famous painting in the place is undoubtedly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), a work that glows with life and vitality when seen "in the flesh" the way no reproduction can. Certainly, come to see the Collection itself...

...but then stay for the concert. Every Sunday, the $12 price of admission will also include the afternoon concert, generally held at 4 pm. I'd recommend coming at least a half hour before the concert begins, however, to get a decent seat in the admittedly cramped Music Room -- the sole drawback to this concert series is the limited space. However, if you're willing to sit in less than absolute comfort, you'll be richly rewarded, for the Sunday Concerts are famed for bringing up-and-coming talent to perform.

The phenomenal Glenn Gould played his first American concert in this room, for example. Concertgoers heard a young Jessye Norman sing here, not to mention a hitherto-unheard-of Julliard student named Emmanuel Ax. In short, the Phillips, true to its tradition of finding talent on the rise, is the place to hear someone before they've become SOMEONE (in marquee lights).

I'd gone to several concerts some years back but hadn't gone to any since the Phillips had undergone a renovation several years ago. On our most recent visit, then, we had the pleasure of not only seeing the changes that had taken place in the collection but also finding that the Music Room was still the remarkable place we'd remembered.

The performers that afternoon were an Israeli piano duo, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg who performed pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. This year (2009) marks the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth, and so his music is prominently featured in just about every concert series in town. The Silver Garburg Duo is a duo in the truest sense -- they perform at the same piano, which is a difficult feat technically, requiring unparalleled musical unity.

The acoustics in the Music Room are ideal for this sort of music, as even very soft passages are crystalline and distinct, such as segments of several of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words," while the roaring cascades of arpeggios in the finale of the Schumann piece filled the room with magnificent sound.

After the concert is the perfect time to wander through the rooms of the Phillips Collection, as the crowd generally disperses quickly. We enjoyed viewing pieces we hadn't seen (a Marc Franz, for example) and, as repeat visitors, seeing the old favorites (muscular, vibrant Van Goghs and whimsical Paul Klees). The museum is open until 6, which gave us approximately an hour more to linger in this superb collection.

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