National Chamber Ensemble: ‘Mother’s Day Concert: American Classics’ at Spectrum Theatre at Artisphere

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The National Chamber Ensemble finished its 2013-2014 season (the biggest season in its history) in grand style with a concert that included classical favorites, a DC premiere, great jazz standards, a Chinese jazz suite, and a group of amazingly talented and fun musicians. It was just exceptional!

The featured guest artist for the evening was the talented and versatile pianist and composer Burnett Thompson, who opened the concert with his quick wit and a lively solo piano performance of Bamboula, composed by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. A perfect intro to the varied program that would follow, the piece combined the pleasing sounds of European classical music with the underpinnings of African rhythms.

Burnett Thompson, Michael Bowie bass, Sharel Cassity sax, and Lenny Robinson drums. Photo Bob Jansen.

Burnett Thompson, Michael Bowie bass, Sharel Cassity sax, and Lenny Robinson drums. Photo Bob Jansen.

Because of the interplay between musicians and audiences that is a part of every National Chamber Ensemble concert, audiences do come to know the NCE musicians quite well. As such, they were particularly appreciative of a touching visual slideshow depicting the many musical artists who comprise the National Chamber Ensemble and their mothers that appeared behind NCE Artistic Director and violinist Leo Sushansky and Burnett Thompson as they continued the program with a performance of “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

Leo Sushansky is a very giving and supportive musician who frequently reaches out to young and emerging musicians to provide them with opportunities to perform in a professional setting. In this concert, he invited his student Sean Ganous to join him in a performance of the violin duet “Little Milton on the Beach.” The lovely three movement work was composed by the late Andreas Makris, a friend of Sushansky and a former Composer in Residence and violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra. Ganous, who has been studying with Sushansky for the past three years, played beautifully and was well received by an approving audience.

Photos courtesy of Bob Jansen.

Photos courtesy of Bob Jansen.

A highpoint in the first half of the program came when Sushansky and Thompson, backed by the trio of Sharel Cassity (alto sax), Michael Bowie (bass), and Lenny Robinson (drums) joined forces for a performance of George Gershwin’s “Bess You is My Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” that was arranged by Thompson. Reminding me a bit of an ongoing argument and song made famous by Donny and Marie Osmond (“I’m a Little Bit Country, You’re a Little Bit Rock and Roll”), Sushansky explained that he normally performs the operatic version of this music, but that Thompson had volunteered to create a jazz arrangement for this special performance … after which Thompson, more familiar and comfortable with the improvisational nature of jazz, walked towards the piano while commenting to laughs that he did say that but that he had not yet gotten around to writing anything down. The performance was wonderful, with Sushansky leaning towards the classical and Thompson and the trio providing the jazz. At the most wonderful moments, it was really fun watching the great bassist Michael Bowie looking with approval at Sushansky and clearly enjoying the goings on.

The first half of the program concluded with the DC premiere of Dick Hyman’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Hyman is a wonderful jazz pianist and prolific composer, known for writing the scores to many of Woody Allen’s most famous films, as well as his work with Mitch Miller and his long career as a composer and arranger. Both his jazz talents and cinematic composing skills were put to use in this work. Thompson and Sushansky performed beautifully on this piece with outstanding play back and forth between their instruments and the rolling rippling melodies, beautiful intervals and changing rhythms of Hyman’s most pleasing music. Coincidentally, Sushansky noted that his mother, the violinist and conductor Rimma Sushanskaya, also performed this work ten years ago at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York.

The night turned all jazz in the second half of the program, and what a night it was. Burnett Thompson, along with Sharel Cassity, Michael Bowie and Lenny Robinson turned the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre into a jazz club that would be the envy of any venue in New York, Paris, Brazil, or even China, starting off with Wayne Shorter’s “Wild Flower” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet). To put it mildly, they were a force. Cassity is a straight forward player with a huge sound, beautiful tone, and very big talent that will only get bigger. Michael Bowie is a great bassist who has recorded and performed throughout the world with many great jazz legends. He has personality to boot, and is just a pleasure to watch and hear. Robinson was wonderful throughout the night, and it was particularly enjoyable hearing him play with such nuance and talent without amplification overpowering and covering his fellow musicians.

A relaxed Sushansky joined the group for Stéphane Grapelli’s arrangement of the Duke Ellington tune “Sophisticated Lady” and then “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Sushansky shone in these pieces, and the jazz artists onstage clearly enjoyed both his talent and the time playing with him on these pieces. Grapelli never wrote all of the notes that were actually played in his arrangements, but he did write most of them, and when musicians have the high level talent to play his music well, the resulting music is a joy to hear.

The evening ended with Burnett Thompson’s Sweet Shanghai Nights Suite, and sweet it was. Thompson, who speaks fluent Mandarin, has performed, taught, and toured in China more than a dozen times. Over the past few years he composed and arranged the music comprising the suite (Awakening, The Paramount, Unfaithful, Constellation, In a Far Away Place, and Expo Red), which included vocal as well as instrumental performance and music that ranged from what was almost a Broadway jazz feel, to a rocking boogie, to a big band 1930s ballad, to the wail of hauntingly sad and mournful jazz, and then what I would describe as rocking Honky Tonk. Sharel Cassity was outstanding throughout this work, and Bowie was simply fascinating to watch and hear, as was Robinson. Sweet Shanghai Nights is a very broad and interesting piece. It was a treat to hear it played by Thompson and his super talent friends, and the piece was a huge hit with the entire audience. This performance screamed for a live recording. I, for one, would listen frequently.

Sharel Cassity, Lee Sushansky, Sean Ganous, and Burnett Thompson. Photo by Bob Jansen.

Sharel Cassity, Lee Sushansky, Sean Ganous, and Burnett Thompson. Photo by Bob Jansen.

I love this spunky and talented organization. There is a reason that National Chamber Ensemble just finished its biggest season ever, and that audiences keep coming back. Their affordable concerts are always fun and interesting, and the group presents a constantly changing program that includes every genre of music imaginable. The constants are that the music will be fabulous, the musicians will be wonderfully talented, and the atmosphere will always be intimate and welcoming to all.

National Chamber Ensemble is one of the musical gems of the entire Metro area. Check out their 2014-2015 season here, and get your tickets soon. Bring your friends and family. Trust me, you’ll have more fun than should be legal on a Saturday night in Arlington. See you in October!
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National Chamber Ensemble’s American Classics concert was performed at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre in Arlington, Virginia on Saturday, May 10, 2014.

NCE’s first concert, Night at the Opera, will take place on Saturday, October 25, 2014 at 7:30 pm.

Tickets for this concert, as well as the entire 2014-2015 five concert season will go on sale soon. If you would like to receive the NCE newsletter or be notified of  these upcoming concerts, events, and ticket availability, please feel free to join the NCE mailing list.

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