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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)

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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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