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October 31, 2008

Reminder: first NEA Opera Awards presented tonight

The NEA Opera Honors, the nation's first awards for exceptional contributions to opera, will be bestowed tonight in Washington to illustrious soprano Leontyne Price, eminent conductor James Levine, distinctive composer Carlisle Floyd and innovative administrator Richard Gaddes. The awards mark the first individual honorifc from the National Endowment for the Arts in more than 25 years.

The awards ceremony/concert at 8 p.m. at the Harmon Center is open to the public; at last check, some unclaimed tickets remain and will be released at 7:30 p.m. to the public at no charge. After the hall is filled, another 300 free tickets will be made available for people who can watch a live video feed of the event in a nearby room.

The bad news for celebrity-watchers (as if the chance to see Leontyne isn't enough) is that Sarah Jessica Parker has canceled as co-host "due to last-minute professional commitments," but the other co-host, marvelous mezzo Susan Graham, will still be there to emcee and help pass out the awards, along with brilliant tenor and general director of Washington National Opera Placido Domingo, and others. Domingo will also conduct part of the concert during the evening, which features soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:57 AM | | Comments (0)

October 30, 2008

NSO offers Wagner bash

Wagner seems to be making a come-back on area concert stages, Ivan Fischersomething I'm all for -- the man was a beast, but his music is sublime, and there hasn't been nearly enough of it performed by local orchestras (the situation is better operatically, thanks to WNO, but Baltimore Opera is over-due for a Wagner production). Marin Alsop and the BSO offered a slice of music from the Ring on its opening program of the season in September and will serve up even more of that epic on the closing program in June. Tonight through Saturday, Ivan Fischer and the NSO will deliver an all-Wagner feast, including the preludes to Meistersinger and Tristan (as well as the Liebestod from the latter), Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Gotterdammerung, and the final scene of Die Walkure. While the BSO is taking a voice-less path for its Wagner excursions, the NSO will be joined by soprano Elizabeth Connell and bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo (recently featured as John the Baptist in the Metropolitan Opera's sizzling Salome production that was simulcast to theaters around the country).

The only bad thing about the NSO's enticing program is the timing. I can't make any of the performances due to conflicting events. But if you are not similarly constrained, I'd bet the trip to the Kennedy Center would be well worth the effort. Fischer, who conducted a richly satisfying interpretation of Mahler's Third with the NSO a couple weeks ago, is likely to be just as persuasive and involving with Wagner. And I imagine the orchestra will be as fired up and virtuosic as it sounded in that Mahler symphony.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:37 PM | | Comments (0)

October 28, 2008

BSO's 'Mass' project not quite paid for

The BSO's remarkably successful production of Bernstein's Mass, performed in Baltimore, Washington and New York, had a price tag of about $500,000. That includes the transportation expenses for the orchestra and the Morgan State Choir, as well as the costs of recording the piece at the Meyerhoff (Naxos is expected to release the CD version sometime in 2009).

"Specific fundraising was undertaken for Mass," says Eileen Andrews Jackson, BSO veep for public relations and community affairs, "and we are about 75 percent of the way there." Helping with the bottom line was the strong turnout in each venue, with sold-out or nearly sold-out conditions for all six performances.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:18 PM | | Comments (0)

October 27, 2008

Some final thoughts on BSO's electrifying 'Mass'

Bernstein's Mass

The music of Leonard Bernstein's Mass is still swimming in my head, and the emotions stirred by that music are still churning through me. I think that the Baltimore Symphony's production of the work, which wrapped up yesterday afternoon at a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall after a couple of performances in New York and three in Baltimore the week before, will rank among its most brilliant efforts. And it surely has to be among Marin Alsop's finest hours. I can't imagine there is any conductor today who could have provided anything close to the experience she delivered. Her conviction in the once critically maligned Mass seemed to spread across each stage and envelop each audience. Every thing in the wildly diverse score came together under her careful guidance, creating a totality that was as cohesive as it was compelling (I attended four of the six performances).

Alsop had astute collaborators all the way, starting with Leslie Stifelman, who spearheaded the casting choices that yielded extraordinary results. As Alan Gilbert, music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic, said to me after Friday night's Carnegie Hall performance, "Marin was amazing, and the cast was amazing." Every member of the "street chorus," the ensemble of "congregants" that provides many of the musical highs in Mass, was thoroughly in character, thoroughly believeable and, almost without exception, vocally terrific.

Kevin Newbury's stage direction struck me as a little fussy and contrived the first night way back on Oct. 16, but kept growing on me with each performance. Ultimately, I think he did a tremendous job of getting to the heart of what Bernstein was exploring, all the individual struggles with faith and politics and society. I realized that I wouldn't have been so affected by the production had not Newbuey helped to make the theatrical element of Mass so persuasive and telling.

And then there was Jubilant Sykes. Despite battling throat trouble, the baritone came through, performance after performance, as the Celebrant. I just don't see how his interpretation, musically or dramatically, could be bettered.

I loved, too, the Morgan State Choir's dynamic response. And the BSO, overshadowed visually and sometimes unflatterred acoustically, proved rock-solid. There was a lot of distinguished playing going on.

My favorite performance was the one Saturday afternoon at the way-uptown United Palace Theater in New York, where hundreds of local students added their own voices and their physical exuberance to the performance, rising en masse from their seats to sing and gesture. The effect of all that youthful energy and commitment, especially in the fiercely confrontational Dona nobis pacem movement, was simply stunning. And when the kids joined in the subsequent, consoling Lauda section, it was impossible not to get misty-eyed (heck, I was a basket case at each performance).

At each presentation, when that poignant finale arrived, I was struck anew by the whole point of this astounding work. Bernstein confronted here the challenges of the human condition and touched on many a dark thought, but, ultimately, emphasized the possibility that faith and hope and love can lift up the fragile community of humankind. Thanks to Alsop and her marvelous company of singers, players and believers, Bernstein's vision was realized on four different stages in three cities, touching thousands of people in the process. That's what I'd call a really great celebration of Mass


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:39 PM | | Comments (0)

October 23, 2008

Is it just me, or are audiences getting worse?

Pardon my venting, but some recent experiences with audiences have had me wondering if we're entering an even darker age of unenlightenment. Consider some recent evidence:

EXHIBIT A: Opening night of Baltimore Opera's Aida production, Oct. 11. Midway through the first act, a man near me answers a cell phone call (I guess he'd like to be credited for at least having had it on vibrate, since there was no ring tone audible), then proceeds to get up and climb over me to exit the Lyric, speaking to his caller as he goes. He blithely reappears later on -- during the music, of course -- to reclaim his seat. It was a Saturday night, so it wasn't likely that his broker was on the phone with more news of the crash. And if was so damn important to get that call, why couldn't the opera-goer have just stayed home? I guess the sense of entitlement really doesn't have any bounds.

EXHIBIT B-1: The National Symphony's performance of Mahler's Third at the Kennedy Center, Oct. 18. During the delicate, nostalgic second movement, someone in the balcony began coughing. There was lots of other coughing, as at any concert these days, but this was different. The sound was closer to that of a hard-to-start car on a sub-freeze morning. I've never heard anything like it emited from a human being. And it went on and on and on. No sooner did it stop, and the beauty of the music could flow freely, than it returned. In the end, it did damage to each remaining movement of the symphony. Even if it would have been difficult for the cougher to get out into the lobby, surely some attempt at muffling that blood-curdling sound could have been made.

EXHIBIT B-2: Same place, same NSO Mahler concert. The final bars of this symphony are among the most uplifting that Mahler ever wrote, as the solemn music reaches an emotional peak of brilliant harmonic and emotional resolution, even rapture. Just as that resolution was approaching, and conductor Ivan Fischer was masterfully guiding the orchestra through a terrific crescendo, a guy got up right down front, climbed over the people in his row and calmly walked out, seemingly oblivious to the drama onstage and, I guess, uninterested in how the music was going to end. Then, even more amazing to me, another departure. This one was during the closing measures, when that thrilling, ultimate chord is not only reached, but given extra emphasis by a series of massive timpani strokes. In between those strokes, a woman, also right down in front, headed for the exit. Now mind you, there were maybe 30 seconds left in the performance, 30 glorious seconds. The NSO was pouring out a golden tone, the pounding timpani were providing a marvelous, visceral finality -- and this person, who had been sitting there for the rest of the work's nearly 100 minutes, just got up and left. The visual distraction was bad enough. The fact that anyone could feel satisfied without experiencing the very last notes of one of the greatest works in the symphonic repertoire is simply incomprehensible to me.

I rest my case.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:26 AM | | Comments (1)

October 22, 2008

One concert, three conductors at Peabody

Gustav Meier and Marin AlsopLast night's Peabody Symphony Orchestra concert provided a showcase for three conductors, one an eminent teacher in the profession, the others encouraging examples of the next podium generation.

Gustav Meier, whose former students include BSO music director Marin Alsop, doesn't make too many conducting appearances locally, so it was gratifying to experience this seasoned mentor and talent-tuner in action. He led the orchestra through a challenging war horse, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with a masterful sense of momentum and phrase-sculpting. His mostly economical gestures communicated easily and effectively to the ensemble, which responded with a vitality that made up for some technical roughness. There were many passages when the conservatory students, particularly the string section, operated at a very impressive level. The crucial violin solos were played with admirable tonal solidity and lyrical intensity by Jessica Tong.

At the start of the program, Vladimir Kulenovic, a Peabody grad student who already has had a good deal of experience conducting around the country, offered an eventful account of another well-worn score, Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. Kulenovic allowed for very spacious phrasing at the start, creating extra sonic poetry in the process, and he had the stormier portions of the work fired up nicely. I think the last measures could have been slower and quieter, but the overall performance was decidedly classy.

Joseph Young, the first BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow, conducted two off-beat items. In Bartok's Portrait No. 1, which featured the elegant solo violin work of Netanel Draiblate and more or less confident playing by the orchestra, Young was sensitive to the music's dreamscape coloring. He then drew a taut performance of Noir by Chinese-born composer Fang Man. Her well-crafted score, receiving its U.S. premiere in this concert, is launched by deep rumblings in the orchestra, later punctuated by jazzy flashes of brass and percussion, and finally brought to a galloping, thunderous close. It all added up last night to a concise, involving little drama in a spicy harmonic language that seemed to keep the players thoroughly involved.

PHOTO FOR BALTIMORE SUN BY EUGENE H. LOUIE (Gustav Meier, Marin Alsop conferring during conductors workshop at 2007 Cabrillo Festival)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)

October 20, 2008

Ewa Podles electrifies Shriver Hall

Ewa PodlesAmong the unforgettable moments in recent Baltimore musical life was the local debut of Polish contralto Ewa Podles at Shriver Hall Concert Series four years ago. Her return to that venue Sunday evening proved every bit as electrifying. This time, she was accompanied by one of America's most brilliant pianists, Garrick Ohlsson, making the occasion even more of an event. (Ohlsson played entirely from memory, something I have rarely seen any accompanist do. The only example I can think at the moment is the late Mstislav Rostropovich; when he played piano for his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in recital, he memorized everything, too.)

Sunday's mostly Russian program was decidedly on the heavy side, including the Songs and Dances of Death by Mussorgsky and several, typically brooding pieces by Tchaikovsky. Ohlsson devoted his solo spot in the concert to more Russian music, offering probing accounts of some darkly romantic piano pieces by Scriabin.

Polish songs by Chopin, more or less lighter in tone than the rest of the evening, opened the recital vividly. Podles delivered "The Warrior" with particular flair, pumping out rich tone and colorful phrasing as Ohlsson crisply played the galloping accompaniment at breakneck speed. The singer had great fun with her gutsy low register as she turned the raucous, folksy "Merrymaking" into a terrifically animated scene. Needless to say, Ohlsson, a supreme interpreter of Chopin's piano music, offered a winning combination of nuance and technical finesse in this sampling of the composer's songs.

Tchaikovsky's angst found compelling expression in his works for solo voice; they do not receive the attention they deserve. His best known song, familiarly translated as "None but the Lonely Heart," was phrased by Podles with palpable emotion and given extra weight by the lyrical eloquence of Ohlsson's playing. But for depth of feeling, the contralto outdid herself in "Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass?," putting particular emphasis on the recurring, descending melodic line that suggests a succession of sobs. For those inoculated against raging romanticism, this must have been a terribly uncomfortable, over-the-top moment, but I couldn't get enough of it. Garrick Ohlsson(Everything Podles sings is assured of an all-out approach, which helps explains why she wins over audiences so thoroughly. The sound of her voice isn't always beautiful in the conventional sense, but it has such a distinctive depth and innately communicative quality that it's impossible to resist.) Many of Tchaikovsky's songs conclude with long keyboard codas; Ohlsson made the most of each one.

Mussorgsky's chilling evocation of Death picking off assorted victims inspired Podles and partner to yet another height. In "Lullaby," the contralto delineated the characters -- a mother tends to a sick child as Death promises sweet dreams -- with remarkable fire. The extra punch she gave to the last, chopped-off word painted an all-too-clear picture of a little life snuffed out. And how spine-tingling her last, high and mighty note was in "Serenade." She and Ohlsson kept things wonderfully tense and spooky in "Trepak," and they produced tremendous force in "The Field Marshall" -- Podles even stomped onstage to drive home the image of Death crushing the wounded and dying.

The only disappointment of the evening was that there were no encores (I'm told she had them ready), but the ringing power of that voice and the singing quality of that pianism linger still in my ears.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:57 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Chamber Orch., Handel Choir a good mix

Markand ThakarIt's always nice to see the area's musical groups collaborating, something that doesn't happen quite as often as it could. The latest example came on Sunday afternoon with the joint season-opener by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Handel Choir of Baltimore. (Of course, what we really need around here is cooperation with scheduling, so there aren't so many worthwhile events on the same day, if not at the same time, but that's another story.) The concert, which drew a sizable crowd to Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, balanced a crystalline example of 18th century classicism with eloquent, harmonically lush choral works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To start, BCO music director Markand Thakar led a graceful account of Mozart's Symphony No. 31 ("Paris") that moved along with an effortless propulsion. The performance revealed the orchestra to be in perhaps its most refined shape yet, with the strings equally attentive to technical details and expressive nuance, the winds nicely balanced. Mozart's music will be all over the BOC programming this season; given the elegant achievement here, that abundance is going to be most welcome.

Handel Choir artistic director Melinda O'Neal took the podium for the Five Mystical Songs by Melinda O'NealVaughan Williams, a worthy nod to the 50th anniversary of the great English composer's death. O'Neal was adept at bringing out the unmistakable inner glow that animates nearlly all of his music and that flows with particular power in this score. The soloist, William Andrew Stuckey, used his ample baritone stylishly (one false entrance was quickly covered). The chorus, which sounds more confident and cohesive every time I hear it, demonstrated admirable sensitivity. The orchestra again came through in fine form.

Thakar returned to conduct Faure's sublime Requiem. It's really more of an anti-requiem, refusing to follow the fire-and-brimstone path Verdi and Berlioz essentially followed for their entries in the Requiem genre, or even the considerable drama of Mozart's. Here, the prospect of eternal comfort is the prime focus, and Faure anticipates it with music of shimmering warmth.

Thakar approached the work in straightforward fashion, letting it speak for itself, and paid particular attention to the softest, subtlest side of the score. Although the first choral note emerged a little too loudly, the singers responded thereafter with considerable appreciation for dynamic shading. The tenors didn't produce quite enough tonal body, but they matched the other sections of the group for warmth of phrasing. Stuckey handled his solos admirably. Soprano Rachel Inselman sang the Pie Jesu with an affecting warmth. For the most part, the orchestra's efforts also registered tellingly. Madeline Adkins, the recently appointed concertmaster, offered elegant solo work.

All in all, a heartening start to the season for both organizations.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (top left, Markand Thakar; above right, Melinda O'Neal)

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:50 PM | | Comments (0)

Ivan Fischer leads NSO in majestic Mahler concert

Ivan FischerWhen the gifted Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer was given the "principal guest" spot on the National Symphony Orchestra's podium in 2006, speculation naturally had him in line to succeed Leonard Slatkin as music director. Instead, Fischer was named principal conductor for two years, beginning this season. (For you gossip fiends, word on the street was that his music director chances faded when he expressed some candid views on certain weak spots within the NSO.) The top job, as you know, just went instead to Christoph Eschenbach. Personally, I'm looking forward to Eschenbach, whose distinctive artistry I've admired for years. But I could have been just as enthusiastic if Fischer had received the nod, especially after the results he achieved Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a program devoted to Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

To begin with ...

there was the quality of the orchestra's sound, which, I think, benefitted from the placement of the basses single-file against the back wall. (Fischer uses that configuration with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, too. Speaking of seating, Fischer also divides the NSO's first and second violins onstage, as Slatkin frequently did -- a time-honored seating arrangement I wish the Baltimore Symphony would experiment with.) There was an extra warmth and clarity throughout the string sections all night; the brass, with the smallest of exceptions, revealed admirable control, as well as ample tone that never turned blaring; the woodwinds were in highly colorful form; the percussion section was as sensitive to the slightest of effects as to the mightiest. The NSO rarely gets the respect it deserves. On nights like these (and some of the best nights of Slaktin's tenure, including his Mahler 6 last season), I think it is unmistakably on a world-class level. But Saturday was not just about technical skill. The performance also revealed abundant heart, thanks to Fischer's incisive, often exquistely nuanced approach to the daunting, roughly 95-minute score.

The conductor never lost sight of the overall architecture of the sprawling, multi-layered piece, never resorted to bombast or detoured into extended reverie, yet the interpretation was continually charged with both drama and poetry. I loved the almost chamber music-transparency he achieved in the gentler passages of the long first movement, as much as I delighted in the brisk buoyancy he brought to the march episodes. The coda was truly exhilarating. Craig Mulcahy's trombone playing in this opening movement had great tonal and expressive richness. The second movement found the violins at their sweetest as Fischer deftly sculpted the lilting waltz. The scherzo emerged with a mix of beauty and mystery; a small glitch aside, Steven Hendrickson's glowing offstage posthorn solo drifted into this dreamscape tellingly. Birgit Remmert's  vibrant contralto conveyed much of the depth of the Nietzsche poem in the fourth movement and made its mark on the subsequent choral movement, where the Children's Chorus of Washington and University of Maryland Concert Choir produced a lovely sound.

The soul of Mahler's Third is the finale, a kind of hymn that builds to a transcendent peak where everything about nature and humanity comes together in one profound statement of love's power. Fischer's tempo seemed just about right, slow without being heavy, never metronomic. His phrasing had an affecting intensity that carried the whole orchestra to the mountaintop, where the last chord was allowed a marvelous extension and, thankfully uninterrupted by premature applause, a turning inward, a softening in the very last seconds -- not an easy thing to achieve. A  long silence followed in the hall, the mark of a truly rapturous performance.

Fischer is in town for another couple of programs with the NSO. If Friday's Mahler performance is any indication, those are going to be two very hot weeks.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)

October 17, 2008

Contemplating Bernstein's 'Mass' the morning after

Jubilant SykesThere's so much more I wanted to say about last night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, but in the deadline rush to get a review in today's paper, I'm afraid I expressed myself poorly. Not that this morning's reflections will be any more coherent. But here goes.

Since experiencing the piece in 1971, when the ink was still drying on the score (I was fortunate to be at the first public preview), I've had a soft spot for it. The combination of music and theater in Mass left an indelible impression, partly, I suspect, because of the excitement of being among the first audience to get inside the Kennedy Center (Washingtonians had been putting up with Constitution Hall for an awfully long time), and partly because of the times. The Vietnam War still going its awful way, and I had just become vulnerable to the draft. The many references in the text that conjured up images of protest and pain could not help but leave a mark. But, ultimately, what I got caught up in was the sheer audacity of the work, the abundance of great melodic hooks and brilliant instrumental coloring. It was, in the dreadful tag of that era, a happening.

I didn't have another Mass encounter until ...

just a few years ago (the logistics involved keep it from being performed frequently), when Catholic University produced it. I was surprised how much of the music and text still got to me. By that point, of course, I knew how well most critics had dismissed Mass as a trashy, flashy, pseudo-touchy-feely, musically vapid thing. But I never bought into that reasoning. I understand what bothers some listeners, and I admit a few passages bother me. Last night, for example, the circus music that breaks out at one point in the Celebrant's pivotal mad scene struck me as a particularly tacky, pointless episode. And a couple of the rock and blues tunes have never persuaded me entirely. But, man, what great stuff Bernstein poured into this huge vehicle -- songs as good as any he wrote for Broadway (the soprano solo, "Thank You," for example), the soulful orchestral Meditations. And I don't know how anyone can resist the steadily churning anthem, "The Word of Lord," with its ever-relevant zingers: "There are local vocal yokels who we know how to collect a crowd, they can fashion a rebuttal that’s as subtle as a sword (remind you of anyone today?) and "Oh you people of power, your hour is now; you may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow" (Bernstein had Nixon in mind, but a few guys on Wall Street come to mind now).

There are many other examples of how the words still have a point, from "sex should repulse unless it leads to results" and "we’re meek once a week" to the lines that Paul Simon contributed as a gift to Bernstein for the project: "Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election." And, of course, that incredible finale, with the lyrical, enveloping "Lauda" and the exquisite hymn, "Almight Father." I also love the way Bernstein sneaks some Jewish musical styles into the piece, not just for colorful effect; in the Sanctus, the Latin text contains a Hebrew word, providing Bernstein a perfect entry point into the rich Kadosh section.

Throughout last night's performance at the Meyerhoff, conductor Marin Alsop, surely the world's most ardent champion of Mass today, ensured that the biggest emotional moments registered and the most lyrical passages had plenty of heart. I'm sure the remaining concerts will be tighter in terms of coordination and articulation, but this was still a poweful night.

I did have a few reservations about Kevin Newbury's stage direction (the production turned out to be a lot more theatrical than originally advertised by the BSO), but only regarding some seemingly strained attempts at creating dramatic action. In the end, however, Newbury achieved a remarkable fluidity and tension that counted greatly in the overall strength of the venture.

But top honors have to go to Jubilant Sykes, whose riveting performance of the Celebrant made me hear that role in a whole new light. Although he does plenty of classical singing, his voice takes on pop stylings naturally, more naturally than the more operatic Alan Titus, for example, who originated the role, and that made a world of difference. His tender falsetto and easily communicative phrasing added layer after layer of nuance to the music, and his acting likewise revealed a disarming reality.

I wish the amplification had not swallowed up some of the text and caused odd discrepencies between the miked voices and the valiant Morgan State Choir in the back of the stage, but those were minor details.

All in all, Alsop's embrace of Mass yielded a significant achievement for the BSO and all the others involved. Although it may not make believers out of everybody in the audience (I spotted a few folks heading early for the exit last night), it's bound to wear down some of the resistance. Unfortunately, from the latest box office reports, you may need a miracle to get a ticket. But, hey, you just need a little faith, right?


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (2)

October 14, 2008

De Ryke, Mengelkoch shine in Schubert recital

Ryan de RykeFor some of us, there are few musical pleasures more enriching than lieder recitals. But we don't get that many opportunities to indulge. Since many people would rather face root canals than a bunch of deadly serious songs in German, few presenters are willing to take a chance on programming such events. So Sunday afternoon's performance of Schubert's Winterreise at the graceful mansion on the grounds of Cylburn Arboreteum came as a most welcome entry on the local arts calendar, especially since it featured the ever-engaging baritone Ryan de Ryke and the admirable pianist Eva Mengelkoch. The two seemed to be totally involved in this song cycle's profound journey of body and soul, its glimpse into what it means to be alienated from love and purpose.

De Ryke used his well-controlled, evenly produced voice to telling effect throughout, offering a remarkable range of dynamic coloring that enabled the subtlest deatils of both Wilhelm Muller poetry and Schubert's perfectly matched melodies to be keenly felt. He got so deeply, sometimes chillingly into the character of the melancholy wanderer that the songs took on the vividness of a great play.

The sizable crowd that turned out also was rewarded with the finely judged, supportive playing by Mengelkoch, who clearly understands how much meaning is packed into the piano part. The chamber music series at Cylburn, founded and directed by Mengelkoch, has its next presentation in April.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:05 PM | | Comments (0)

Baroque concert swallowed up by Basilica

Baltimore BasilicaBaltimore's lovingly restored Basilica looks like a great place for a concert. Too bad it doesn't sound like one.

The reverberation, up to four seconds by my unscientific count, is just too great to allow for clarity; the music can't help but turn mushy. That's particularly problematic for baroque repertoire, with its complicated contrapuntal lines. None of this stops the indefatigable presenter Henry Wong of An die Musik Live. On Sunday night, his "Barqoue at the Basilica" series offered top-notch musicians from France (the French Embassy was a co-presenter) in an attractive program performed on period instruments.

I stayed for the first half. Although a lot of the effort was swallowed up in the acoustics, it was still possible to savor violinist Patrick Bismuth's technical elan, especially in a Corelli sonata, and the vivid playing of the ensemble called La Tempesta. I also admired harpsichordist Helene Dufour's assured, colorful, rhyhmically alive solo turn in some pieces by Antoine Forqueray.

The series continues Dec. 13 with a Christmas program by the delectable Baltimore Consort.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:03 AM | | Comments (1)

October 13, 2008

Met's simulcast 'Salome' kicks some, um, posterior

Karita Mattila Metropolitan OperaHeading out of her dressing room to take her place on stage for the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday matinee performance of Strauss' Salome, Karita Mattila had to first face a camera and fellow soprano Deborah Voigt -- part of the attempt to add extra entertainment for the thousands of viewers around the country gathered in movies houses and other venues for these remarkably popular high-def simulcasts. Mattila looked annoyed when she finally came to the door (Voigt vamped endearingly while waiting) and wasn't about to waste any time with this business. Asked how she felt about getting ready to sing the demanding role, Mattila put on the thinnest possible smile and uttered a quick response. "I just say what I always say: Let's go kick some ass." And she was off, practially jogging to the stage.

Minutes later, she really did kick up a storm in the Met's striking, updated production, designed by Santo Loquasto with a deco-meets-the-desert panache and vividly directed by Jürgen Flimm. Mattila turned in a volcanic performance that was as alive with facial and body expression as it was with vocal steel and nuance. She doesn't have the richest or warmest tone (in that regard, she reminds me a little of Birgit Nilsson), but she uses her voice brilliantly to communicate every syllable of text. And Mattila is a real actress, not an opera star pretending to act. From the way she revealed the first inklings of Salome's bizarre attraction to Jochanaan to her delectably perverse Dance of the Seven Veils (done up at the start rather like Marlene Dietrich, in a male formal suit), Mattila dominated the performance -- and the broadcast. The camera loved her.

I found Juha Uusitalo's Jochanaan a little short on galvanizing power, although he shaped the lyrical moments beautifully, and his acting was always vibrant. Kim Begley caught Herod's slimy and sympathetic sides, and sang stylishly. Ildikó Komlósi offered a telling portrait of a drunken, spiteful Herodias. Patrick Summers conducted with a steady hand. All in all, a gripping afternoon. And another ringing affirmation of the Met's revolutionary move into the movies.

This was my second visit to the Lyric for a Met/HD event (a few hours afterward I was back for a totally live encounter with Baltimore Opera's Aida). A new screen was in place, even bigger than the one used Sept. 22 for the Met's opening night simulcast, and it provided plenty of visual impact. I was still a bit disappointed in the sound, which lacked the visceral impact that you can get in the best cineplexes and made the voices seem distant. But, once again, I was struck by how nicely the Lyric's ambience helps to create an inviting, vintage movie-house feeling.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 PM | | Comments (1)

Baltimore Opera offers a stirring 'Aida'

Baltimore Opera AidaStay tuned to Thursday's paper for a fuller review of Baltimore Opera's new production of Aida. Meanwhile, I can tell you this much: It's one of the most satisfying things I've seen the company do.

Saturday's opening night at the Lyric revealed so-so acting skills, but considerable musical strengths from the cast, notably tenor Antonello Palombi as Radames. He sang with great respect for Verdi's intentions (especially when it came to high, soft notes) and with palpable connection to the words. At a time when most voices seem smaller than in the good old days, it's exciting to hear a tenor who can produce so much sound, but with so much tonal variety as well; no mindless, stand-and-bark routine for this guy. Tiziana Caruso's ample low register and more limited top range suggested she would have been even more at home in the mezzo assignment of Amneris than the title role, but the soprano made her mark effectively in several key passages of the opera. Giovanna Casolla, usually heard in soprano territory, offered vocal amplitude and intensity of expression as Amneris. Mark Rucker's artistry, a combination of tone, temperament and taste, filled out the role of Amonasro handsomely. Ashley Howard Wilkinson had many a deep, resonant phrase as Ramfis.

Conductor Andrea Licata, as usual, provided a textbook case of authentic Italian opera conducting -- passionate, yet sensible; propulsive, yet always open to possibilities for rubato. The orchestra turned in some exciting work.

Designer/director Paolo Micciche once again provided projections of digital imagery in lieu of big sets and hordes of supernumeraries. The approach is a little too predictable by this point, and maybe a little too literal for its own good, but it does keep the eye engaged, just as Alberto Spiazzi's showy costumes do.

Whatever my reservations about one element or another, the overall impact of this Aida is sizable. Remaining performances are Wednesday and Friday nights and Sunday afternoon with Palombi/Caurso; Saturday night with Efe Kislali and Virginia Todisco taking the leads.

(Photo Courtesy Of Paolo Micciche/Baltimore Opera)

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:53 AM | | Comments (2)

October 10, 2008

No nudity, please, we're skittish

Karita Mattila Salome If you're all excited about seeing Salome tomorrow, the first matinee HD simulcast of the season from the Metropolitan Opera, because you heard there's a lot of skin in the production, well, don't lose your head over it. Word is that soprano Karita Mattila's much-talked-about nude finale to the "Dance of the Seven Veils" will be discreetly filmed, avoiding the possibility that anyone in hundreds of movie theaters around the country will actually see her bare it all. But, hey, that sort of sensationalism is hardly why anyone goes to the opera, right? Besides, there's a whole mess of sensationalism just in Richard Strauss' stunning score for Salome

The good news for Baltimore-area opera fans is that there are more local venues than ever before to see this non-nudie scene, and, of course, to hear one of today's most compelling artists portray one of opera's most irresistibly evil women. If you've never experienced a Mattila performance, you're in for something very hot. She'll be joined in this cast by a fellow Finn, Juha Uusitalo, as Jochanaan and Kim Begley as Herod. Patrick Summers conducts.

Broadcast time for Salome  is 1 p.m. Saturday. Showings are available at the Lyric Opera House (110 W. Mt. Royal Ave.), Owings Mills 17 (10100 Mill Run Circle), Bel Air Cinema 14 (409 Constant Friendship Blvd, Abingdon), Snowden Square (9161 Commerce Center Dr., Columbia), and Columbia Mall 14 (10300 Little Patuxent Parkway). Click here for tickets.

(Personally, I don't know why there's been so much chatter about Mattila's willingness to take it all off. She's hardly the first soprano to do so. I still recall all too well, for example, a Salome with Maria Ewing at the San Francisco Opera back in the early '90s; her Full Monty turned out to be the only thing about her performance that stuck in the memory afterward. Too bad she couldn't have shed the wobble in her voice that night instead.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (2)

October 9, 2008

Alsop is SRO in New York with Dvorak program

Alec Baldwin Marin Alsop

BSO music director Marin Alsop is in her native New York this week to conduct several performances of Dvorak's New World Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra that premiered the work back in 1893 (I think there have been a few personnel changes since then).

A traditional program that balanced the Dvorak work with a Chopin concerto and a Bartok ballet suite was performed Tuesday night at Lincoln Center (my colleague Tony Tommasini gave Alsop high marks in today's New York Times for that concert). This program will be repeated on Saturday. The New World will also get a close-up look on Friday, when Alsop and the Philharmonic offer an "Inside the Music" presentation narrated by actor Alec Baldwin and featuring a multi-media presentation developed by Joseph Horowitz to provide context for Dvorak's most popular symphony. The event is sold out. 

AP PHOTO (Alec Baldwin and Marin Alsop at rehearsal with New York Philharmonic)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:17 AM | | Comments (0)

October 7, 2008

Political fundraiser makes waves at An die Musik

Touchy, touchy. No sooner did An die Musik announce that an Obama fundraising concert would be held in its upstairs concert room than owner Henry Wong started getting complaints. Seems that classical folks are just as keyed up about the election as everyone else.

The Oct. 11 concert of works by John Adams, Arvo Part and others is being presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, which has had a presence at An die Musik for the past few seasons. Last week, Wong sent out an e-mail announcement of the event, treating it as any other concert at his establishment. Today, he sent another message to his patrons in an effort to calm the waters. Here are excerpts:

"I have received many replies, both for and against this event ...

An die Musik deeply appreciates the support given by our customers over the 18 years we've been in business, from our Towson store to our current location at 409 North Charles St. Over four and a half years ago, we began our music series in our second floor concert hall ...

Many of these concerts featured local musicians, both classical and jazz. Their unconditional support and belief in our mission to serve our community has brought many well-attended and sold-out events. So, when a few local musicians/friends approached me about using our concert hall for their cause, I did not object to their request. I wanted to give something back to friends who have support us all these years.

I realize that this a touchy topic, and An die Musik has always remained impartial in order to focus on serving classical and jazz music to all of our community. Hence, I want to let our friends, members and subscribers to our weekly announcements know that we are happy to make our concert hall available for anyone who wishes to organize a classical or jazz fund-raising concert for Senator McCain.

Thank you for allowing me to understand your concerns and for accepting my explanation on this subject. I hope that we at An die Musik can still -- and always -- count on your support of our mission.

Very truly yours,

Henry Wong"

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:20 PM | | Comments (2)

October 6, 2008

Maazel and New York Philharmonic shine in DC

Lorin Maazel New York PhilharmonicThe party line in the New York musical press (and beyond) is that Lorin Maazel is a talented conductor in terms of technique, but too prone to adding interpretive idiosyncracies, and that he has been of little lasting value to the New York Philharmonic, other than getting it to play very well, very consistently. Maybe I'd feel like that, too, if I heard Maazel and the orchestra on a regular basis, but I doubt it. Everytime I encounter Maazel, with the New Yorkers or another ensemble, I'm taken with his distinctive approach to music-making, not just the uncanny authority he brings to a podium.

In an age when literalness is too highly valued for my taste, Maazel, who wraps up his Philharmonic tenure at the end of the season, stands out. He might bend a phrase here or rev up (or slow way down) a tempo there, but I can't think what law he violates in the process. Sometimes, the conductor doesn't seem terribly interested in adding some major personal element, but merely in helping the music to move along with its own internal force. Either way, in my experience, a Maazel performance is never dull and usually quite electric.

The latest case in point: his all-Tchaikovsky concert Saturday afternoon with the New York Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Oh, I can hear you moaning -- Tchaikovsky? Please, not that tired old romantic/neurotic again. Well, when was the last time you heard his Suite No 3 on a program? I've never understood why his four suites are so routinely ignored. This one, in particular, has abundant melodic charm and scintillant orchestration. It's like a ballet where the dancing is all in your head. Not profound music, just engaging, well-constructed music. And Maazel deftly brought out the best of the Suite, tapping into its rhythmic spark and finding lovely details of dynamic nuance. He clearly believes in this score, believes it is worthy of serious attention by a big, grownup orchestra. And although the playing wasn't entirely seamless (one tempo shift, in particular, seemed to catch some musicians off-guard), the results onstage suggested that the Philharmonic believes in the piece, too. It's fun sometimes to be able to drink in something that's just sweet and pretty, yet still classy. That's what Maazel and company provided.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky the Deep Thinker was on display, with his fate-obsessed Fourth Symphony. I expected more interpretive surprises than Maazel revealed, but I wasn't disappointed. There was a structural integrity to his approach, and keen attention to each seismic wave of emotion, as he generated a taut, rousing performance of this well-worked war horse. For the most part, the brass poured on the steam without turning brittle; the strings summoned terrific warmth; the woodwinds did some brilliant work.

All in all, the afternoon delivered the goods. Those who think Maazel is superficially brilliant and the orchestra is just a powerful, well-oiled machine that makes great, but soulless, sounds probably walked away still feeling that way. Happily, I didn't have that problem.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:55 PM | | Comments (0)

Pro Musica Rara opens season in style

Allen WhearI've only sampled the last eight of Pro Musica Rara's three decades, so I don't know what things were like in the early days. What I can say is that the ensemble, devoted to early music played on period instruments, has gotten steadily better in the past few years since cellist Allen Whear became artistic director. Yesterday afternoon's 34th season-opener was a case in point -- interesting repertoire given classy performances by accomplished musicians. (I ducked out a little early to get to the Leon Fleisher concert at Shriver Hall.)

The presentation at Towson University's Center for the Arts, an ideal space in acoustics and atmosphere for Pro Musica, focused on German baroque composers and had the considerable advantage of Nina Stern's virtuosity on the recorder. She coaxed myriad shadings from the instrument in a solo Fantasia by Telemann and blended beautifully with Whear, violinist Cynthia Roberts and harpsichordist Avi Stein in trio sonatas by Telemann and Handel. Roberts had the spotlight in one of Biber's Mystery Sonatas and made the most of it with nimble, stylish playing, with vivid support from Whear and Stein. The harpsichordist got a solo moment, too, turning in a bravura, colorful account of a Toccata by Froberger. Some solo cello music of Bach, eloquently phrased by Whear, was added to the program as a memorial to longtime patron and board member of Pro Musica, Charlotte Truesdell, who died over the summer.

Pro Musica Rara's season continues Nov. 2 with a concert featuring members of the New York Baroque Dance Company.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:04 PM | | Comments (0)

Leon Fleisher and friends deliver memorable marathon

Leon FleisherLeon Fleisher's 80th birthday -- the official date was July 23 -- continues to be celebrated around the country, as well it should be. The pianist, whose four-decade battle against neurological damage to his right hand never stopped him from developing greater and greater musical insight, deserves all the attention he can get. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Last week, Fleisher, who has been able to resume limited two-hand playing in recent years thanks to botox injections, was joined by his wife, Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher, and two of his other former students -- the stellar Yefim Bronfman and uncommonly gifted young-generation pianist Jonathan Biss -- for a program of solo pieces and duets at Carnegie Hall. Last night, they repeated the event back in Fleisher's hometown for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

To start, the birthday honoree took note of all the tensions in the world at the moment and offered up as an antidote what he described as "an anti-acrimony anthem," a transcription of Bach's lilting Sheep May Safely Graze. He played it with consummate elegance, a quality that also characterized his collaboration with Biss in Schubert's darkly lyrical F minor Fantasy. The two men produced not just a seamless technical blend, but beautifully dovetailed phrasing. A masterful performance.

Fleisher and Bronfman took a vibrant romp through three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, making up for a minor lapse or two of synchronization with lots of expressive flair. Ravel's La valse provided a colorful vehicle for Fleisher and his wife; the music's combination of nostalgia and almost demonic propulsion came across engagingly.

Jonathan BissIn her solo spot, Fleisher-Jacobson offered a fluent, but rather monochromatic and even somewhat steely, account of Mozart's A minor Rondo. Biss produced a wealth of colors on the same instrument moments later in Beethoven's Sonata No. 27. A minor slip in the finale aside, the pianist's finely polished technique left a strong impression. Even stronger was the sense of spontaneity and poetry in his phrasing. This was top-notch pianism. Same for Bronfman, who never fails to make a statement at the keyboard. He's type-cast as a champion of big war horse-type pieces, so it was enjoyable hearing him in such an intimate work as Schumann's Arabesque, which he sculpted with considerable eloquence and nuance.

The appreciative crowd that turned out for the occasion endured some amateur business at the begnning of the long evening (not to mention the breakdown-prone Hopkins parking garage that can get a concert off to a bad start before you even make it into the hall). A screening of Two Hands, the Oscar-nominated documentary about Fleisher, had to be halted because what came onto the screen was the end of the film. The director, Nathaniel Kahn, who happened to be in the audience, jumped up and yelled out, trying to get someone's attention. It took much too long for anyone to respond and correct things. The film was finally shone in its entirety, but the hall's crew had some more damage in store. After the screen was removed from the stage, the piano was rolled out and incorrectly set up, requiring yet another rescue to ensure that the lid was properly raised before Fleisher walked out to begin the concert. Not the sort of experience that does Shriver Hall proud.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Leon Fleisher, top, and Jonathan Biss)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (0)

October 3, 2008

Free tickets offered for NEA Opera Honors

Set your personal alarms for 10 a.m. Monday. That's when free tickets will be distributed to a program saluting recipients of the first NEA Opera Honors -- billed as the highest national recognition in the opera field -- on Oct. 31. The lineup includes the electrifying soprano Leontyne Price; James Levine, the exceptional music director of the Metropolitan Opera (and Boston Symphony); Carlisle Floyd, composer of Susannah and other great American operas; and Richard Gaddes, a revered administrator who guided companies in Santa Fe and Saint Louis.

Presenters of the awards include stellar tenor Placido Domingo, general director of Washington National Opera. Members of the company's young artists prorgam will perform during the event, along with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Hosts for the concert are actress Sarah Jessica Parker and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Spoken and video tributes will be part of the evening. All of the honorees are scheduled to be on hand.

The program is at 8 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington. The box office will start distributing free tickets at 10 a.m. Oct. 6 in person at 610 F Street NW or at 450 7th Street NW; or by phone, 202-547-1122 or (toll-free) 877-487-8849.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:42 PM | | Comments (0)

Condensed 'Carmen' cabaret at Theatre Project

American Opera TheatreYou can count on Timothy Nelson's American Opera Theater to deliver something interesting and, more often than not, provocative. The latest example, Le Cabaret de Carmen, is at the Theatre Project through Sunday. My colleague, Mary McCaulley has already reviewed the production for the paper. I stopped by last night to check it out, curious to see how Bizet's evergreen opera fared after Nelson one-upped Peter Brook's famously condensed 1981 version.

Using the Brook adaptation as a starting point, Nelson, who also directs the show, has created new layers of theatricality, placing the action in a cabaret house where Carmen is a drag performer. Personally, I think the concept would have been helped considerably had Nelson found a countertenor with a big mezzo-ish tone for the title role (I've known a countertenor or two who would have jumped at the chance to sing this score). I also think the concept would work better without so much reliance on a speaking part Nelson himself portrays, that of a smarmy host who owes a little too much to the Joel Gray character in Cabaret. To my ears, Nelson's fake French accent wore out its bienvenue early on last night, and I didn't find his insertions into the drama all that helpful after a while. But he certainly threw himself into the assignment.

Sophie-Louise Roland did some effective throwing as well in the Victor/Victoria-ized version of Carmen. Her dark mezzo, though limited at the top of the range, had an appealing vibrancy. Adam Caughey sang Don Jose's music with considerable passion and some welcome nuance (though not, I regret, enough to produce the soft B-flat in the Flower Song that Bizet asks for). The tenor has work to do solidifying his upper register, but he's a promisng talent. Bonnie McNaughton offered bright, lively vocalism as Micaela; I would have liked to hear more tonal variety.

The standout of the cast was Ryan de Ryke, a baritone who always seems to go the extra mile. He offered an Escamillo of deliciously appaling vanity who alternately crooned and crowed the Toreador Song as you've never heard it before. I confess that I wasn't really sure what to make of the character here. I got that Escamillo was a two-bit singer/comic who frequented the cabaret, but not how (or even if) he came between Carmen and Don Jose. Whatever. The main thing was that de Ryke sang and cavorted so colorfully that he gave the whole performance a substantial spark.

Speaking of sparks, Kel Millionie's lighting design worked minor miracles on the bare-bones stage, creating a great deal of atmosphere and often helping to illuminate things beneath the surface of the characters. JoAnn Kulesza provided the principal accompaniment at the piano neatly enough, with Jill Collier adding some cello lines. 



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:23 PM | | Comments (0)

The group calling itself Free Press Cleveland has carried through on its project to gather signatures on a petition protesting the Cleveland Plain Dealer's indefensible "reassignment" of longtime music critic Don Rosenberg last month. I was pleased to see that the names on the letter delivered to the paper's top management include a member of the Cleveland Orchestra and a noted guest conductor of that ensemble. People from 10 states signed, among them an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and a veteran TV critic. Here's the letter and the signatories (I've removed addresses and phone numbers that were contained on the original):

To: Terrance Egger, President & C.E.O., Susan Goldberg, Editor

We, the undersigned, protest the Plain Dealer's treatment of nationally respected Music Critic Donald Rosenberg. Your decision to ban him from reviewing the Cleveland Orchestra is an act of censorship and an embarrassment to the city. Since you failed to clearly report the action to your readers, we had to find out the truth from the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, etc. Rosenberg did not resign, as the Plain Dealer seemed to imply. He was demoted, for having respectfully and intelligently criticized a conductor who has met with mixed reviews around the world.

As stated by Musical, Rosenberg is "among the most respected music critics in the business." His reviews were not biased; he reported what he heard, and fostered healthy and intelligent debate. That is a critic's job. The integrity of the Plain Dealer is in question. Your action has sullied the reputations of both the PD and the Orchestra. Since Plain Dealer C.E.O. Terrance Egger is a trustee of the Orchestra, the politics behind the decision are obvious.

Restore Donald Rosenberg to his post as Music Critic, with no restrictions. Restore our faith in the Plain Dealer.

1. Guytano Parks, Lakewood OH

2. John Nelson, guest conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra

3. Thomas Klaber, trombonist, The Cleveland Orchestra

4. MaryAnn Pendergast, Case Western Reserve Univ.

5. Clarke Bustard, Richmond, VA

6. Donato Cabrera, Assistant Conductor, Metropolitan Opera

7. Damir Janigro, Professor of Molecular Medecine, Cleveland Clinic

8. Tatania Falcone, Shaker Heights OH

9. Mike Falcone, Shaker Heights OH

10. Anita Nelson, Boca Raton, FL

11. David Bianculli, TV critic, "TV Worth Watching," Cherry Hill, NJ

12. Joseph Serraglio, Lakewood, OH

13. Claudia Palencia, Shaker Heights, OH

14. Thomas Brodhead, Smyrna, TN 

15. Kim A. Conklin, Cleveland Heights OH

16. David H. Mitchell, arts patron, Avenel, NJ

17. Ivan Vernon, Cleveland State University, Dept. of Marketing

18. Kyle Werner, University of Cincinnati

19. Amy Werner, Grand Rapids, Michigan

20. Nick Tripoulas, Broadview Heights, OH

21. Timothy Ball, Ithica NY 

22. Kathryn Logan, Pittsburgh, PA 

23. Joshua Williams

24. Mark Maxon, University of South Dakota, Vermilion, SD

25. Jeannette Sorrell, Cleveland Heights, OH 

26. Hanne-Berit Hahnemann, Cleveland Heights, OH  

27. Graham Schultz, Lakewood, OH 

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:20 PM | | Comments (0)

October 2, 2008

Mobtown's saxy, froggy, birdy night

Brian Sacawa Mobtown ModernMobtown Modern, the music group that has settled nicely and enticingly into the Contemporary Museum, went all nature-y last night for its second concert of the season. Lots of pre-recorded sounds of birds, frogs, buzzing creatures, waves; many human-made musical sounds that seemed to emerge from the same basic organic matter.

Starting things off in compelling fashion was a piece written last year by John Luther Adams, an Alaska-based maverick (surely you didn't think Sarah Palin was the only one). The Light Within suggests the sonic equivalent of a mountain -- seemingly immobile, yet constantly charged with primordial energy underneath the surface. The ensemble of winds, strings, piano and percussion effectively produced the score's massed wall of harmonies and long-held tones. The other multiple-player item was Ingram Marshall's Sea Tropes, also from 2007, which had the musicians etching bits of folk-like themes (sea shanties, perhaps?) in a kind of counterpoint against the sopundtrack of a strong surf. Musically speaking, I didn't there was enough there there, but, atmospherically, it fit the evening's theme neatly.

Stephen Vitiello's recently compiled Night Chatter, a symphony of natural noises conveyed in surround-sound, was fun to hear. It's amazing how musical the world is on its own. Olivier Messiaen understood that better than anyone. The great French composer, whose centennial is being observed this year, regulalry incorporated birdsongs into his work, not in some cheesy, pictorial way, but as complex melodic and rhythmic components. Abime de oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds), a clarinet solo from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, worked surprisingly well in this context, even though it was composed more than 60 years before the oldest other piece on the program. Its sustained notes provided a connective thread from the sustained notes of the Adams piece that preceded it; the hints of bird call provided a connection to the real avian communication in Night Chatter. Jennifer Everhart played Messiaen's soulful music with admirable control and expression.

There also seemed to be hints of bird sounds -- happier in tone than Messiaen's mournful creatures -- in Alexandra Gardner's Tourmaline, a 2004 work for soprano sax and electronics. Mobtwon co-founder Brian Sacawa delivered the taut, engaging piece with his usual understated virtuosity.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:14 PM | | Comments (0)
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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