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‘Intimate’ jazzed up Sondheim concert is dazzling

Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap, complementary husband-and-wife pianists, star in “Jazz & Sondheim Side by Side.”

Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap, complementary husband-and-wife pianists, star in “Jazz & Sondheim Side by Side.”

The cavernous, mostly filled 1,984-seat Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley somehow magically exuded the atmosphere of a lush but intimate supper club.

Transformed by the breadth and width of Stephen Sondheim’s music and sophisticated lyrics.

And arrangements by lyrical pianist Renee Rosnes.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that an incredibly talented thrush, Ann Hampton Callaway, was vocalizing — or that Rosnes’ husband, Bill Charlap, was playing a complementary jazz funk keyboard with fingers flying so fast they felt like I imagine SMART trains will as they speed toward Larkspur from Sonoma.

I loved hearing the plaintive “Send In the Clowns,” my favorite Sondheim tune, and the wistfulness of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” another melodic fave (even when not rendered acerbically by a wasted Elaine Stritch), but I also adored unfamiliar songs: “Uptown, Downtown” from “Follies,” for instance, a comic gift that sardonically references “hyphenated Harriet, the nouveau from New Rochelle,” my suburban hometown, and an instrumental version of “Another Hundred People,” also from “Company,” whose lyrics, my musician wife insists, “are virtually impossible for a human being to sing.”

The show, “Jazz & Sondheim Side by Side,” ran slightly over 70 minutes, but every moment became a dazzling gem, as elegant as an opening night at the San Francisco Opera.

Without pomp, pretension or black ties.

Although everyone on stage was attired in a dark suit or dress.

Callaway’s enunciation was crystalline, whether a song called for a whisper or a booming voice.

Whether she was performing “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeny Todd” in a melancholic duo with Rosnes or the rambunctious closer, “Everybody Says Don’t” (from Sondheim’s flop that closed after nine performances, “Anyone Can Whistle”) with jet speed and dense, compressed lyrics that were oh, so Sondheim.

Astonishing periodically were sax, alto sax and flute riffs by Steve Wilson, ranging from dinner jazz softness to John Coltrane-like meanderings.

Yes, I’d had some unjustified pre-concert trepidation about Sondheim being translated into elevator music or saccharine pap by the string section led by Scott Dunn, associate conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl Orchestra: four violinists, two violists and two cellists that backed the others.

But my fears were quickly allayed by the first offering, a pyrotechnic Charlap solo, “Comedy Tonight” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and the second, “Night Waltz” (from “A Little Night Music,” where “Clowns” also originated), whose total-instrument arrangement was more celestial than jazzy but satisfying nevertheless.

Rosnes’ steadiness, skillful right hand (especially in the upper register) and inventive chord changes contrasted vividly with her husband’s playing (which featured highly imaginative, percussive pounding and flamboyant arpeggios).

The audience — whose predominantly white hair made the hall look like snow had fallen on a wheat field — responded with vociferous applause to the concert as a whole and to the individual musicians, each of whom, in my estimation, was unquestionably a 10.

But the crowd also muttered universal disappointment.

Because there was no encore.

A mini-festival of Cal Performances music,“Ojai at Berkeley,” is coming up at Zellerbach Hall from June 15 to17. Info: or (510) 642-9988.

Contact Woody Weingarten at or

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