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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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