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November 30, 2008

Octogenarian pianist proves value of experience

Menahem PresslerThe issue of change vs. experience has been having quite a political workout lately. I thought of that issue in musical terms last night as Menahem Pressler gave a recital for Candlelight Concerts at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. (This was my first dose of music in several days. I took some time off for Thanksgiving, which explains the paucity of blog entries -- sorry for that drought, my valued cyber-public.)

At 85, this exceptional keyboard artist and pedagogue is clearly a voice of experience, and that's what came through most strongly as Pressler delved into weighty sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and highly coloristic pieces by Debussy. Other players, especially less seasoned ones, might be more inclined to change things, trying out different tempos or phrasing in an effort to put a firm, personal stamp on the music. Pressler stayed the course, letting the composers speak clearly and straightforwardly, an approach that held substantial rewards.

Technically, the pianist was not always impeccable. The faster, more furious passages of Beethoven's Op. 110 and Schubert's profound B-flat Major Sonata, D. 960, contained various smudges and occasional awkwardness. But the lyrical side of those works emerged beautifully and meaningfully. The second movement of the Schubert score, in particular, was shaped with an exquisite touch. Pressler, best known for his 53 years as founding pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, also offered some wonderful tone coloring along the way, especially in the delicate, upper-register reaches in the finale of that Schubert sonata, as well as in the subtly evocative Pagodes and Soiree dans Grenade from Debussy's Estampes. And the Chopin Nocturne that Pressler offered as an encore was sculpted with a magical warmth and poetic sensitivity. Such elegant, deeply authoritative playing reaffirmed the pianist's rare and invaluable artistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:04 PM | | Comments (0)

November 25, 2008

Organist honors Olivier Messiaen centennial in style

After hearing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff I raced off to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to catch part of Jonathan Moyer's admirable cycle of Messiaen's complete organ works. For this final installment, Moyer added a prelude concert featuring the Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, led by director Melinda O'Neal. I Jonathan Moyerslipped into a pew in time to hear the choristers deliver a very sensitive performance of Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, a work of lyrical beauty that follows a natural flow of subtly developing harmonic progressions ever heavenward.

Moyer then performed the complete Livre du Saint Sacrement, Messiaen's last will and testament for organ, an 18-part reflection on core beliefs of Catholicism. Each movement is inspired by lines from scripture or the saints, and those lines were elegantly recited by revered soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson before each piece was played.

I wish I could have held on to the very end, but I ducked out at intermission. Still, what I heard was deeply enriching, from the shattering cosmos in sound unleashed by Moyer in the Adoro te to the brilliant tone poem of La manne et le Pain de Vie, with its multi-directional force of sounds creating intensely vivid images, spiced, of course, Messiaen's trademark bird call motifs. The relative simplicity of Institution de l'Eucharistie, a tapestry of major chords and bird song, was as impressively realized by the organist as was the tragic weight of Les tenebres, with its chilling evocation of darkness spreading over the earth (the cathedral's formidable Schantz organ provided tremendous sonic depth here).   

Livre du Saint Sacrement illustrates just how Messiaen's rock-solid faith allowed him to explore distant regions of tonality, diffuse concepts of form, without ever losing his way. Moyer's own obvious belief in the composer's vision yielded consistently riveting, incisive music-making.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)

November 23, 2008

Alsop, BSO hit new peak together

Yesterday afternoon's collaboration between Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra joins my list of favorite concerts in the music director's young tenure. You can read a longer review in my column in Thursday's paper, but here's a brief report on what I found so memorable.

Christopher RouseChristopher Rouse's Concerto for Orchestra, dedicated to Alsop and premiered at her Cabrillo Festival in California last August, is a big, impressive work, full of compelling thematic ideas. The most striking of them starts in the basses with what appears to be a quotation from the last measures of the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. That angular theme expands into a full-throated lament from the English horn and works its way through the orchestra in vivid ways. The score contains a startling variety of tone coloring from each section of the orchestra, including a  passage of stark contrast involving violins and basses, and several barrages of brass chords that dart out and fade just as suddenly to unnerving effect. Although there are moments of reflection and near-lyricism in the piece, the overwhelming impression is of energy and force, often with the wallop of heavy metal. Alsop had the massive work well under control and drew a brilliant performance from the BSO.      

The concert also offered an impressive account of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. Alsop, who sometimes seems to hold back on emotion, let it loose here and the results were quite gripping. There was a good deal of spaciousness for the first movement, plenty of buoyancy for the second (but always with an underlying sense of stress to keep the tension going). The third movement march had terrific drive, plus a veryt effective downshift in tempo for the last big statement of the main theme. Alsop brought plenty of poetic intensity to the finale, although the coda was just little hurried for my taste. And the final fadeout from the basses was not as poignant as the one the Warsaw Philharmonic playewrs managed Friday night at Strathmore (their dimunendo seemed to go on for days, conveying the music's sense of mortality with extra depth). The BSO excelled throughout the Tchaikovsky score, with great waves of rich tone from the strings, plenty of bite from the brass and warmth from the woodwinds.  

Alsop, who was very active as a violinist during the early years of her career, picked up a fiddle at the start of the concert and joined a contingent of string players from the orchestra to deliver a brisk, spirited performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:53 PM | | Comments (0)

Bocelli far from heavenly in Rossini Mass


Bocelli et al

I'm not sure why Washington National Opera decided to spice its fall season with two concert performances of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle (the rather impish title translates Little Solemn Mass), and I'm even less sure why anyone thought that crossover sensation Andrea Bocelli would be up to singing the tenor solos in it. But, hey, I love the work, with its several toe-tapping choral passages and big opera-style arias, so I wasn't about to miss it. And I enjoyed hearing the orchestrated version of the score for a change, although I think Rossini's original concept -- just two pianos and a harmonium -- is still the best. 

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, WNO general director Placido Domingo conducted the company's chorus and orchestra and three of the singers who starred in the just completed productions of Lucrezia Borgia and Carmen. Bocelli was the odd man out, in more ways than one. Although he has sung a few operas unamplified over the years, the tenor is clearly more at home in front of a microphone warbling emotional Italian pop songs. Here, unaided by electronics, he produced an undernourished, often under-pitch tone. Top notes were strained, phrases monochromatic. Bocelli's most loyal fans presumably didn't mind any of the weaknesses, but, frankly, I found most of his singing embarassing. I assume his presence helped sell tickets -- the place was packed -- so I guess that's a plus.  

The other soloists were quite satisfying. Soprano Sabina Cvilak made an even richer impression than she had as Micaela in Carmen, offering great warmth and expressive nuance. Rich-voiced mezzo Kate Aldrich was as vivid a presence as she had been in Lucrezia. And bass Alexander Vinogradov sang with considerable elegance and tonal depth, leaving more of a mark (at least on me) than he had as Escamillo in that Carmen. The chorus did mostly respectable, often dynamic work. Same for the orchestra. Domingo clearly relished the score's abundant tunefulness and dramatic flashes, choosing effective tempos and phrasing with sensitivity, but his tendency to be vague about downbeats caused a few unsettled entrances.

PHOTO BY KARIN COOPER FOR WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA (from left: Kate Aldrich, Sabina Cvilak, Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, Alexander Vinogradov)   

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:14 PM | | Comments (2)

Impressive orchestra, conductor, pianist; lousy piano

The Warsaw Philharmonic breezed through the region over the weekend, stopping by North Bethesda for a concert presented by the Music Center at Strathmore Friday night and reaching impressive peaks in a mostly-Tchaikovsky program.

Before turning to the Russian composer, the orchestra’s general and artistic director conductor, Antoni Wit, led the dynamic string section in a diverting piece of contemporary Polish music, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, from 1986. Propelled by infectious minimalist motor rhythms, with an extra kick of folk dance idioms, the score creates all sorts of effective colors and nuances as it builds toward its vigorous close — capped by an earthy "hey" shouted by all the players (I wasn’t entirely convinced by that bit).

Valentina LisitsaTwo of Tchaikovsky’s most pervasive works filled the rest of the evening. The Piano Concerto No. 1 provided a terrific vehicle for Russian-born Valentina Lisitsa. Since the first time I heard her years ago, I was struck by her almost nonchalant virtuosity. Octaves faster than the speed of light? No problem. Thunderous tone you can hear in the next county? Piece of cake. But Lisitsa is not just a technical powerhouse. She can be a marvelous phrase-sculptor, too.

Her talents are tailor-made to the Tchaikovsky concerto. If only the same could be said of the piano provided for this occasion. A Bosendorfer grand can sound like the Rolls-Royce of keyboard instruments; this one suggested more of a Yugo. It was baffling that such a clunker was allowed onstage.

Still, Lisitsa proved undaunted. The velocity and vitality of her playing in the work’s most bravura passages was often astonishing. Folks who take a dim view of pianistic speed would have been appalled; those who fret over an occasional dropped note would have tut-tutted, too. But I loved the way she tore into the music, finding fresh ways of articulating as she went. And the lyrical side of the concert was hardly slighted; beautiful things happened in the songful portions of the middle movement.

Wit’s smooth partnering assured a tight, committed response from the Philharmonic, which, aside from a few uneven entrances and iffy horn notes, also shone in the Pathetique Symphony. The conductor’s knowing way with this familiar score yielded a passionate, but always under-control, performance. The opening movement had a deeply expressive weight, and tremendous drive after the explosive midway point. The march galloped along mightily. The most affecting moment came right at the end — a long, poignant diminuendo from the basses. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that done so well, so communicatively in a live performance.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:07 PM | | Comments (0)

November 21, 2008

Messiaen immersion this weekend

If you're a Messiaen fan, this is a great weekend in Baltimore. If you haven't yet explored the composer's mystical, sensual, prismatic and totally incomparable music, this is the perfect opportunity to dive in.

Jonathan Moyers's months-long cycle of performing the complete Messiaen organ music, to honoe the composer's centennial, was alreadly scheduled to wrap up on Sunday with a recital, but the organist has managed to add on to that, creating a mini-Messiaen festival.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, he'll give a lecture about the composer at Second Presbyterian Church (4200 Saint Paul St.), leading into an 8 p.m. concert there that includes vocal works and the profound Quartet for the End of Time. (Tickets are $10 and $20.)

On Sunday, the action moves to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen (5200 N. Charles St.), where Diane Luchese will talk about Messiaen's daunting organ work from the 1980s, Livre du Saint Sacrement, at 4 p.m. The Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir will give a prelude concert of Messiaen works at 5:15, and Moyer will then play the complete, 18-movement Livre du Saint Sacrement at 5:30 (free admission).

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 PM | | Comments (0)

Peabody stages Janacek's opera of animals, humans

Peabody Opera TheatreBefore fantasy films made it commonplace to find human and animal characters mingling freely, there was a curious, endearing opera from 1924 by Janacek. Best known in English as The Cunning Little Vixen, the work is getting a rare local staging by Peabody Opera Theatre under a more literal translation of the original Czech title: The Adventures of Sharp-Ears the Vixen. (Doesn't have quite the same ring to me.)

The plot revolves around the aging Forester, who catches a charming vixen, Sharp-Ears, and tries to domesticate the animal. That doesn't go too well. The vixen makes quick work of some chickens, escapes back into the forest, kicks a badger out of his home, falls in love with a fox, and gets shot by a poultry dealer. In the end, the Forester finds a kind of moral in everything, a reassuring realization that there is a renewing cycle to nature (and humankind), that what we lose comes back somehow. He even sees (or imagines) another vixen, just as beguiling as the one before. Janacek does not try to make too much out of any of this, doesn't hit us over the head with symbols and philosophy. The opera merely invites us into a realm that is at once surprising and familiar, and lets us draw our own conclusions.

The opening performance last night in Peabody's Friedberg Hall held various rewards and disappointments. On the plus side, ...

the extraordinary inventiveness of the score emerged -- the vividly colored orchestration, the way that the slightest shift in a melody or chord or rhythm enables Janacek's to create a different mood and emotion. (No composer sounds like Janacek, and his musical language is compelling reason enough to explore his operas.) Hajime Teri Murai conducted with a strong appreciation for all of that evocative power, lavishing particular care on orchestral passages (the darkly beautiful start of Act 3 was especially effective), and he drew from the students in the pit a lot of vibrant, if sometimes untidy, playing.

The large cast got into the spirit of things, but didn't seem entirely cohesive and comfortable. (Last night's cast sings again Saturday night; a second set takes over tonight and Sunday afternoon.) Most of the voices sounded a little small, particularly when the orchestra asserted itself, and just about everbody onstage could have paid more attention to articulation -- they might as well have been singing in Czech, for all the clarity of their English. (There are surtitles.)

In the title role, Jessica Thompson proved to be a dynamic actress, very into the whole foxy thing. I would have welcomed more tonal warmth and more distinctive personality in her phrasing. As the Forester, Nathan Wyatt lost ground in the upper register, but his singing was sensitive and natural. Lindsay Thompson, as the Fox, delivered the most impressive vocalism, bright and pure of tone, with dynamic phrasing. She and Jessica Thompson delivered the Vixen/Fox love scene, one of the score's most enchanting moments, with considerable flair. Benjamin Moore, as the vixen-slaying Harasta, projected firmly and put an expressive spin on his words.  Misha Kachman's set uses as a starting point a felled tree truck and delivers visual charm from there. Kristina Lucka's costumes feature the expected, Old Country designs for the humans, a punk and puckish approach for most of the animal characters. Director Roger Brunyate moves things along neatly enough, if with limited humor and depth.

PHOTO: Jessica Thompson as the Vixen (Photo by Will Kirk for Peabody Conservatory)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:45 PM | | Comments (5)

November 20, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel, living up to the 'Twilight'-level hype

Gustavo DudamelIt has been ages since a conductor fired up publicity machines and expectations the way Gustavo Dudamel has. In the classical music world, he's the equivalent of Twilight's Robert Pattinson, and he seems destined to generate a similar amount of fuss wherever he goes.

The Venezuelan conductor, all of 27, is the most famous product yet of el sistema, a massive music education project in his home country that involves several hundred thousand kids. The best of the lot form the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Dudamel has been music director of that brilliant, combustible ensemble for a decade. Next season, he starts his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ordinarily, someone who has so much buzz surrounding him would also be generating heaps of skepticism, but the curly-haired Dudamel ...

has a disarming knack for knocking doubters right on their behinds. He's the real deal, a truly compelling talent, as he demonstrated Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, leading the Israel Philharmonic. He's a very athletic presence on the podium, leaping several feet as if wearing jet-propelled shoes, using his arms with remarkable fluidity to propel and subdue. Naturally, he recalls to mind Leonard Bernstein, and, just like Bernstein, all of Dudamel's motions seem to spring naturally and inevitably from someone excited about every note.

On paper, the concert looked like it would be awfully routine  -- a pair or fours, Symphony No. 4 by Mendelssohn and Symphony No. 4 by Brahms -- but, in Dudamel's hands, it came up aces. The orchestra responded effortlessly to the conductor's every request, from the subtlest of dynamic nuances to the most vigorous of outbursts. It felt as if Dudamel had everyone onstage totally hooked into his sensitive ideas about each work. 

The Mendelssohn symphony, popularly known as the "Italian," emerged with plenty of the requisite sunshine, but also a lot more sinew and aggressive vigor than some interpreters bring to it. There was terrific intensity to the Brahms performance as well. The thickest chords were produced with startling weight, but never sounded too heavy; lyrical passages truly sang. And, all the while, Dudamel kept bringing out little details in the scoring that made the ingenuity of Brahms seem somehow fresher and more vibrant than ever. That said more about the conductor's ability than anything else.

A couple of woodwind or brass sounds were a little rough, but the ensemble was in great shape throughout both symphonies, demonstrating abundant technical polish to match all the thoroughly alive phrasing. In an age when so many orchestras from around the world sound fundamentally alike, it was good to be reminded of this one's distinctive timbre and personality.

I loved Dudamel's choice of a first encore -- the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, which deserves far more attention outside the opera house. This is a wonderfully atnospheric tone poem, and Dudamel made the most of it. He coaxed poignant phrasing from the Philharmonic's first-chair players in the opening measures for solo strings and shaped the deep emotional surges from the full orchestra later on with a masterful sense of shape and shading. Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 was then served up stylishly to close the evening in high spirits.

Dudamel seems destined to keep the music world shaken and stirred for a long time to come.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)

November 19, 2008

Close encounter with the Poulenc Trio

Poulenc TrioHard as I try, I still can't take in all of the musical activity in the region. One ensemble, in particular, has eluded me for a few years now. Seems like every time the Poulenc Trio scheduled a concert, it was up against something else that, for one reason or another, took precedence.

I finally caught up with this oboe/bassoon/piano ensemble Sunday night in the intimate upstairs salon at An die Musik, arriving a wee bit late, when they were about a dozen measures into a work by the ensemble's namesake, Francis Poulenc. His writing for these three instruments is as brilliant as it gets; heck, everything by Poulenc is brilliant, in my book.

The players -- oboist Vladimir Lande, bassoonist Bryan Young, pianist Irina Kaplan Lande -- were particularly impressive in the bittersweet Andante movement. Some portions of the boisterous outer movements did not sound tightly meshed, but things were clicking together smoothly in the Trio by Jean Francaix, a score that shares the energy and wry wit of the Poulenc piece, if not the distinctive streak of dark lyricism. There were warmly molded phrases from Young and Vladimir Lande in the second movement (harder to achieve, given how cold the temperature in the concert room) and lots of panache from all three musicians in the finale. Here and there, I wished the pianist could have produced greater dynamic nuance, but she was always on the same basic wavelength as her colleagues.

The program also offered a charming, lightweight work by early 19th century oboist and composer Henri Brod and some fun, tango-flavored items by Astor Piazzolla (in one of them, ably joined by violinist Anton Lande).

All in all, an entertaining evening with an ensemble that offers equal doses of polish and personality.

Photo courtesy of Poulenc Trio

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:59 PM | | Comments (0)

2009 Musical America Awards include Alsop, Rouse

The annual Musical America Awards, considered one of the top honors in the classical music biz, will include two artists with strong Baltimore connections. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has been named Conductor of the Year. And Christopher Rouse, born and based in Baltimore, has been named Composer of the Year. (Coincidentally, Alsop will conduct the East Coast premiere of Rouse's Concerto for Orchestra at this weekend's BSO concerts.)

The primo Musical America Award is Artist of the Year; that goes to cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Also honored: Stephanie Blythe as Vocalist of the Year, Pacifica Quartet as Ensemble of the Year. The 2009 awards will be given out at New York's Lincoln Center next month.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:56 AM | | Comments (0)

November 18, 2008

Cool concept, hot concert by Harmonious Blacksmith

Harmonious BlacksmithOne of the indelible anecdotes about Bach's youth involves his eldest brother who took him in after their parents died. The story goes that the brother, a rather severe type, wouldn't let his musically inquisitive sibling have unbridled access to a valued music book containing works by various composers. So Bach supposedly snuck down to get the book in the middle of the night, carried it to his room and copied out the pieces by the light of the silvery moon. Who cares if it never happened or if it is a wee bit exaggerated? It sure fits with what we know of the composer's curiosity -- throughout his life, he was interested in what other composers were doing and often transcribed their work.

On Sunday afternoon, before a sizable audience in the fitting elegance of the ballroom of the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion (Engineers Club), the engaging ensemble known as Harmonious Blacksmith gave a concert inspired by the tale of Bach's moonlit activity, featuring the kinds of things he may have diligently copied, along with some of his own compositons. It all added up to an appealingly diverse program sensitively delivered on period instruments.

Highlights included Joseph Gascho's elegant solo harpsichord playing of music by Buxtehude and Reinken, and Justin Godoy's mellow tone and nimble articulation on the recorder in several item, inclouding a deftly shaded Bach sonata. There were fine contributions, too, during the afternoon by violinist Christine Hauptly Annin and cellist Nika Zlataric. Harmonious Blacksmith will be back at the mansion in May for a program of English baroque. Gascho will explore pre-1750 keyboard music in a concert in March at An die Musik.

Photo of Justin Godoy, left, and Joseph Gascho, courtesy of Harmonious Blacksmith


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:02 PM | | Comments (0)

November 16, 2008

Vocal power and style fuel Baltimore Opera's 'Norma'


The future of the Baltimore Opera Company may be cloudy, but the present sure sounds great. The production of Bellini's Norma that opened last night is one of the most musically satisfying ventures I've heard from the company yet. It's not so much a case of each of the principals being ideal, as it is of each one bringing to this melodically high-calorie score a fundamental appreciation for the bel canto style (Bellini really put the bel in bel canto with this work). A couple of the soloists also manage to summon a striking amount of vocal fire power to go with all of that sensitivity to the opera's musical curves.

Hasmik Papian will not erase memories of Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballe in the title role of the Druid priestess, but her performance last night ....

had a good deal to recommend it. The soprano's tone proved basically warm and attractive, if lacking in distinctive shading, and her phrasing was often vivid, particularly in the chilling start of Act 2, when Norma comes close to murdering her own children out of despair for losing the love of their father. The famous entrance aria, Casta Diva, sounded a little cautious, but it was capped by an eloquent cadenza. Only when Papian smudged the articulation of coloratura flurries, or weakened on high notes, or missed some opportunities to bring out subtleties of the text did I wish they could've casta 'nother diva. But this is a notoriously tough role, and Papian got the job done with dignity and taste.

The role of Norma's conflicted friend, Adalgisa, who has the same tragic taste in Roman lovers, has been taken here by Ruth Ann Swenson, a seasoned and much-admired soprano. The part is normally sung by mezzos today, but the distinction between the voice types was not so clear-cut in Bellini's day, and the blend of two sopranos works beautifully. Swenson was in marvelous voice last night. She was such an instantly galvanizing presence that the audience applauded her opening recitative (Adalgisa doesn't get a full-fledged aria in this opera). The tone was creamy, the intonation spot-on, the phrasing full of import. The soprano ensured that every word registered meaningfully. One melting example came in Act 1 at the line Un altro cielo mirar creditti, un altro cielo in lui (I seemed to find another heaven in him); Swenson phrased it in a truly ethereal manner. Likewise, she sculpted her phrases eloquently throughout the great Mira, a Norma duet. It was impossible to take one's ears off of Swenson. A very classy performance.

Frank Porretta also commanded attention as Pollione, the Roman with the bad habit of leading religious Druid women astray. The tenor produced a huge sound that easily filled the voice-friendly acoustic of the Lyric. Nuance didn’t come as easily to him as volume, but no matter. The weight of the vocalism, and the incisive thrust of Porretta's phrasing, hit the spot. Hao Jiang Tian sang with grave beauty as Norma's father, Oroveso. Nicole Biondo, as Clotilde, sounded effortful, but she had her emotional effectiveness. Farrar Strum delivered his few lines as Flavio in a warm, clear, dynamic tenor. Chorus and orchestra rose to their challenges with mostly potent results. Christian Badea's conducting was wonderfully spacious (some might just call it slow, but Bellini's poetic melodies can take it), but he offered plenty of rhythmic force in the opera's few agitated passages. I only wish he had allowed for tempo variations in the animated Si, fino all'ore close of the Act 2 Norma/Adalgisa duet; there's an old tradition of stretching things here, and I'm convinced it pays off handsomely.

As for the visual side of things, the mostly black and white look of the scenic design by Roberto Oswald and costumes by Anibal Lapiz got the job done, sometimes quite tellingly. But Oswald also served as director, and, just as with his Nabucco for Baltimore a couple years ago, came up very short. Once again, he had choristers parade on the stage and, having found the right 'x' on the floor, assume the oratorio position and hold it until required to parade back off the stage. It's an insult to call this sort of by-the-number crowd placement 'stage direction.' This might have been good enough in 1831, when Norma was premiered at La Scala, but it looks pathetic today. Oswald was marginally better in his approach to the principal characters, but they, too, could have used more imaginative guidance. That said, most of the singing is so alive and compelling that the whole production gets a lift.

Photo courtesy Baltimore Opera Company; Michael DeFilippi photographer.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:19 PM | | Comments (4)

November 14, 2008

Baltimore Opera says rumors of demise are unfounded

The opera world's continually fueled rumor mill has been ringing with death knells for the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera Company, but the tolling appears to be premature.

Today, BOC officials denied any plans for shutting down, while admitting that this fall's cash-flow has been worse than in previous years and that a "re-positioning project" is underway that will target areas for cost-cutting; launch new fundraising campaigns; and bring in a consultant to "evaluate the company's finaces and make objective, unilateral decisions about management practices and spending patterns."

In addition to the production of Norma, which opens tomorrow, the 08-09 season is still scheduled to continue in the spring with Barber of Seville and Porgy and Bess. The new acting general director, James Handakas, said today that an option being considered is to use a cheaper set for Barber than had been planned. Four operas remain on the schedule for 09-10, and, at this point, four performances of each are expected, as usual.

Handakas said that the company's accumulated debt is a "relatively manageable" $715,000, not millions, as the rumors have it. And there is an endowment valued at about $2 million. "Our issue is cash flow," Handahas said. It's a crisis the company has faced every fall for several years, he said, "a cycle that needs to be broken." One board member has guaranteed performers' salaries for Norma. Generating cash to meet expenses for the spring season will now be the primary focus. "December has always been a huge month for us for fundraising," Handakas said, "but we don't know how the economic downturn is going to affect us."

Whether any of this will be enough to stop all the cyber-chatter remains to be seen. Whether Baltimore Opera will weather this latest storm remains to be heard. The good news is that the company appears committed to making the fight.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:20 PM | | Comments (0)

November 13, 2008

Musical sky seems to be falling

The bad news just keeps coming. It's never easy to raise money for music and the other arts, but it gets really, really tough when the whole econony is tanking.

Michael HarrisonThis month, Opera Pacific, a much-respected company in the rich Orange County of Southern California, closed up after more than two decades. The company had never been on the surest financial footing, but, this season the outlook turned so bleak that the only option appeared to be turning out the lights. Other companies have had to scale back, including Washington National Opera, which last week announced that it would postpone its planned Ring Cycle for November 2009. It was just too expensive. Also last week, the Baltimore Opera Company revealed it had lost $200,000 on its Aida production in October (when a surefire work like Aida doesn't pack 'em in, you know there's trouble), and longtime general director Michael Harrison had moved into the role of artistic director. He'll be replaced by someone whose main job has been to raise funds for the company from individual donors.

Up north, the New York City Opera is facing uncertainty. Staffers have been furloughed; there's no real season, while the company's home base at Lincoln Center is being renovated; and Gerard Mortier, the splashy new general director hired to lift City Opera into a whole new level of fame and fortune, quit before he even really started -- the board couldn't come up with the budget he wanted for his first season next fall. (Not surprisingly, City Opera is turning to the Turnaround King, Michael Kaiser, for help. Kaiser, current president of the Kennedy Center, has an enviable track record of helping flailing arts organizations regain firm ground.)

The crisis hasn't just affected opera, of course. Last week, for example, the Pasadena Symphony canceled half of its remaining season due to money woes. We've all seen this sort of thing before, during other lean times, but the current global meltdown may well leave a deeper mark on the music world than anyone can now imagine. Scary.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)

November 10, 2008

Weekend update: Handel Choir, Wash. Concert Opera

Melinda O'NealJust a quick entry to mention the vocal pleasures of the weekend, starting Saturday night with the Handel Choir of Baltimore. Melinda O'Neal has steadily and rapidly honed this formerly uneven ensemble into quite a potent chorus. The Handel and Bach program at First English Lutheran found the singers maintaining solid intonation, clarity of articulation and sensitivity to the shape of phrases. There was a telling sign early on of how much O'Neal has done for the group -- the firm, colorful way individual voices started off the contrapuntal flurry of the Alleluia in Handel's Coronation Anthem, "The King shall rejoice." That was the kind of detail that would not have been so beautifully realized in the pre-O'Neal days that I experienced. Two Bach cantatas received dynamic performances from the choristers, who were backed stylishly by a period instrument orchestra (occasional rough patches caused minimal damage). Three fine soloists did a good deal of elegant work: Jay White (countertenor), Robert Petillo (tenor) and Phillip Collister (bass). It was a thoughtfully constructed, entertaining program delivered with an informed sense of historic style.

On Sunday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, Washington Concert Opera explored one of the many Donizetti works that are largely ignored today, Maria Padilla. The experience seemed all the more worthwhile given Washington National Opera's current production of another neglected gem, Lucrezia Borgia. There are amazing things in Maria Padilla, including a soprano/mezzo duet that can stand comparison with the one in Bellini's Norma and some exceptional instrumental coloring. The story is no better or worse than hundreds of other operas -- a Spanish king secretly marries a woman who gets a little annoyed to find out late that he's about to marry a French princess. For almost all of its length, the music provides abundant interest, enough to bring the drama alive even without sets or costumes. At least it did so here, with an enthusiastic cast and the fiery conducting of Antony Walker (I wish he had slowed down once in a while, but his driving approach was hard to resist). The cast included Leah Partridge in the title role; Jennifer Rivera as Maria's sister, Ines (a standout performance); Mark S. Doss as Don Pedro; Justin Lavender as Maria's father, Don Ruiz. Chorus and orchestra got through more on enthusiasm than finesse or tonal fullness. All in all, a memorable night with an unjustly forgotten opera.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:18 PM | | Comments (2)

November 6, 2008

BCO offers techno novelty, new Leshnoff concerto

If there were a Most Novel Program of the Season Award, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra would probably win it hands down for the one it offered last night at Goucher College. (There were also performances over the weekend at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore and, marking the BCO's New York-area debut, at Bargemusic in Brooklyn.)

Paul Henry Smith Markand ThakarTo begin with, there was a demonstration of Paul Henry Smith's Fauxharmonic, a computerized orchestra he can conduct, more or less, with a Wii remote. But that wasn't the most unusual aspect of the evening. There were two, count 'em, two brand new pieces on the bill, along with three far off-the-beaten-path repertoire items. This is the sort of programming that BCO music director Markand Thakar specializes in, and I thought this particular assortment was inspired. I mean, when's the last time you found an orchestra giving its audience a pair of premieres on the first half of a concert and ending with a bunch of adagios and fugues? Not exactly a box office magnet (attendance last night was much less than the season opener a few weeks before), but a worthy and engrossing mix.

At the center of the program was the Trombone Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff, the BCO's composer in residence. A full-orchestra version of the score is due next year, and it will be interesting to hear what new colors Leshnoff creates in the process of expanding the material. This version, for trombone and string ensemble, creates a fascinating juxtaposition of timbre and temperament as the composer explores ideas in a style that embraces tonality, but doesn't just take an easy, neo-romantic course. Something at once sophisticated and personal is always happening in the tightly constructed concerto, pulling the listener in.

Jonathan LeshnoffThe work's opening is like that of some Mahler symphonies -- expectant string tremolos prepare the way for an arresting thematic statement. Here, the trombone becomes a busy narrator, telling an eventful tale that passes through many moods and colors. An almost folksy middle movement, filled with darting ideas for the soloist, is framed by two darkly lyrical movements. The finale is particularly effective, with a long passage that rises melodically, harmonically and dynamically -- an emotional crescendo that gradually subsides into a kind of twilight world, the strings shimmering in a soft, high register as the trombone gradually lets go of its poetic enegry. Chris Dudley, principal trombone of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the assured, vivid soloist. Thakar drew sensitive playing from the strings. I think the closing measures could have benefitted from a little more spaciousness, but the performance was nonetheless highly persuasive throughout.

I also found much to enjoy in Boston-based composer Matthew Quayle's Gridley Paige Road, named for a rual stretch in New York state where he spent his childhood. This new work is a tender adagio that unfolds with considerable expressive warmth (echoes of Barber's famous Adagio for Strings appear a couple of times). In terms of aural satisfaction, there was no contest: The BCO's live version of the Quayle score easily outshone Smith's computerized version, although the latter was certainly interesting to hear and closer to a natural sound than any electronically-generated strings I've yet encountered.

The rest of the concert held rewards, especially a tender account of Bruckner's Adagio from the F major Quintet, arranged for string orchestra. Some iffy intonation cropped up in Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, but there was a lot of elegant phrasing. And, although the orchestra encountered some rocky patches in Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, the music's perennially jolting originality came through strongly.

PHOTOS: Top right, Markand Thakar and Paul Henry Smith (courtesy BCO/Steve Sortino); above left, Jonathan Leshnoff (Baltimore Sun/Chiaki Kawajiri)

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:40 PM | | Comments (0)

What Obama's win may mean for classical music

Barack ObamaAs a jOurnalist, I wOuldn't dare reveal a persOnal preference in the just-cOncluded presidential race, but nOw that it's Over, I'd like to turn pOlitical for a mOment.

The ever-chattering pundits keep missing the most important post-election question of them all: What does Barack Obama's election mean for classical music?

I'm not expecting an answer anytime soon, but I was intrigued to receive the other day from a friend a copy of a statement issued very early in the campaign -- May 2007 -- by the Obama National Arts Policy Committee. Maybe it's old news to a lot of you, but it was news to me that such a committee was ever formed, let alone that it included dozens of arts professionals from around the country. The committee's platform calls for all the right things: expanded partnerships between schools and arts organizations; an "artists corps" that would work with students in low-income areas; increased funding for the NEA; cultural diplomacy and easier visa access for foreign artists; etc. An emotional letter from celebrated author Michael Chabon accompanies the statement, advocating the "untrammeled flow of creativity" and support for "America's artists ... the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation ..."

Of course, all of the strong sentiments and the glittery list of names on the committee's "Artists for Obama" page (from Jane Alexander, Carol Burnett and Barbara Cook to John Corigliano, Philip Glass and Michael Tilson Thomas), can't guarantee that marvelous things will happen quickly after Jan. 20. But it's worth noting that on Feb. 9, then-candidate Obama said: "I want our students learning art and music and science and poetry ... and all the things that make an education worthwhile." If we're lucky, the president-elect will act on that belief soon after assuming office.

Personally, I'm hoping for something else, too: a larger presence of classical music at the White House and more frequent attendance at classical music events elsewhere by the president. I seem to recall TV broadcasts of classical concerts at the White House long ago; it would be great to see something like that return. It would be encouraging if the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center's opera house and concert hall were occupied more often by a president.

One of the only trickle-down theories I have some faith in is this -- if the most powerful person in the country embraces (heck, just feigns an appreciation for) classical music, it would be noticed, maybe emulated and even considered cool. And the country's future gets brighter every time a kid discovers Mozart or Puccini or Gershwin. If we're lucky, music and the other arts will get a fresh lift from the Obama administration.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (Barack Obama speaking at the Rochester Opera House in New Hampshire in January)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (1)

November 4, 2008

BCO gets vote of confidence from NY Times

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra isn't the only local ensemble to have made a splash in New York this fall (the BSO earned glowing notices for its production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass in The Times and other outlets the week before). Today's New York Times carries a decidedly favorable review and a couple of pictures of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's appearance there over the weekend -- technically they were in Brooklyn, home of Bargemusic, the remarkable chamber music venue on the river.

My colleague, Steve Smith (no relation, except for the excellent taste), writes that BCO "produced a rich, finely blended sound" in the new Trombone Concerto by Baltimore-based composer Jonathan Leshnoff "and in solid accounts" of adagios by Mozart and Bruckner. The program, which will be performed tomorrow night at Goucher College, also included a new work by Matthew Qualye performed once by the Fauxharmonic (the electronic "orchestra" developed by Paul Henry Smith and once by the BCO.

To my ears, the BCO has been improving steadily over the past few years since music director Markand Thakar arrived and since the recent appointment of concertmaster Madeline Adkins. I thought the playing in the season-opener a couple weeks ago sounded particularly impressive. So it was nice to read a validation of that progress from Steve, who also had good things to say about Leshnoff, a compose I greatly admire (never mind that I wasn't entirely persuaded by his Requiem for the Fallen last season; this guy is a genuinely gifted composer). I look forward to hearing tomorrow what Steve described as Leshnoff's "handsomely wrought, lyrical Trombone Concerto."

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)

November 3, 2008

Guest review of Bernadette Peters in Chimes benefit


There really is nothing like a dame – especially if the dame in question is Bernadette Peters.

The effervescent Tony Award-winning singer and actress took over the stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall over the weekend and helped to raise $435,000 for Chimes, a nonprofit organization that provides services for disabled children and adults. Peters put a decidedly idiosyncratic spin on standards from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim to such Americana as "Shenandoah." In her slinky champagne-colored gown and with her trademark head of brass-colored curls, she looked -- and, more importantly, sounded -- decades younger than her 60 years.

She was at her most effective delivering songs not usually tackled by women. For instance, Peters turned "There Is Nuthin Like a Dame" -- sung in South Pacific by romance-deprived sailors on shore leave -- into an exultant anthem of self-affirmation. And the musical highlight of the evening was her exquisite rendition of "Johanna," the love ballad from Sweeney Todd.

After the show, Peters greeted admirers backstage and said: "I have to make a song my own. That’s how I keep it interesting. And, sometimes, I learn things about the song when I'm singing it, which is really great."

Unfortunately, the band, which was a compilation of some musicians that the singer brought with her (including former Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien on the drums) and the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra, was at times so loud it drowned out the star. The imbalance was at its most unforgivable when Peters launched into some of Sondheim-s most lyrically-complex songs: "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and "Being Alive," both from Company. Peters is enough of a pro so that she could usually make herself heard over the band. Still, it shouldn’t have been a contest.

-- Mary Carole McCauley



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:40 PM | | Comments (0)

November 2, 2008

Renee Fleming, vibrant cast bow in WNO 'Lucrezia'

Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia may never enjoy as comfortable a spot in the repertoire as his Lucia di Lammermoor or L'elisir d'amore, but Washington National Opera's new production makes an awfully strong case for this darkly tragic work.

Renee Fleming in Lucrezia BorgiaSaturday's opening night at the Kennedy Center drew a big, vociferous crowd, thanks largely to the presence of Renee Fleming in the title role. She did not disappoint. The luminous soprano was surrounded by a dynamic cast that included veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi, mezzo Kate Aldrich and tenor Vittorio Grigolo. That WNO general director Placido Domingo was conducting added to the sense of occasion. 

Fleming sang with considerable eloquence of phrase and beauty of tone as she revealed the troubled character of one of history's most notorious women. Lucrezia may be a cold-blooded poisoner when provoked, but the opera posits that she's also a deeply caring mother, and that womanly side is what Fleming brought out to telling effect. There were some cloudy spots in the technique, a few tentative sounds or undefined articulation during coloratura flights. But most of vocalism was warm and involving, and, when she exploited her smoky low register, boldly dramatic. (Strange that Callas never embraced this role; Fleming made plain how much meat there is in it.) 

As Gennaro, the young man who discovers all too tragically that he's a son of the infamous Borgia, the lean and lithe Grigolo turned in a remarkably animated performance. Although his singing could have used subtler tonal coloring, it had an exciting immediacy. It's impossible to miss the tenor's blossoming "star quality." As Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband, Raimondi offered a forceful characterization. His voice sounded past its prime, but exuded authoritative stylistic flair. Aldrich used her smooth, mellow mezzo imaginatively as Maffio Orsini and provided finely detailed acting. Domingo seemed quite assured on the podium, drawing mostly secure playing from the orchestra and molding the score sensitively.

John Pascoe's production -- he designed the sets and costumes and served as director -- certainly has a Vittorio Grigolo in Lucrezia Borgiadistinctive look. In a note distributed to the press, Pascoe's costumes are said to have a "historical basis with some contemporary graphic elements" and to suggest an "aggressively masculine" image. That would, perhaps, account for Fleming's dominatrix outfit in the final scene, which proved more distracting than theatrically insightful. And Gennaro's nearly disco-worthy costume seemed to have been inspired by one of the more flamboyant numbers sported by Mr. Humphries on the old Brit-com Are You Being Served? There are a few other quibble-y bits, including Genarro's starkly spiked blond coif, which Lucrezia suddenly emulates in the finale. But, for the most part, the visual elements work well within the shadowy world Pascoe has created, a world of towering 16th century Italian walls that frame the well-paced action. The contrast between the physical surroundings and all those fanciful costumes somehow worked (maybe because it was so close to Halloween).

The most striking of Pascoe's directorial flourishes has to do with Gennaro and Maffio. Their more-than-buddies relationship takes on a dimension people in Donizetti's time presumably would never have suspected, let alone dared to explore in an opera house, but which Pascoe has found abundant justification for in the libretto. (The fact that Maffio is a "trouser role" -- opera has a long tradition of women portraying men -- may confuse some unsuspecting folks in the audience.) Lucrezia Borgia is a rare Italian opera without an emphasis on a conventional male-female love story. There's no love between Lucrezia and her husband, and Genarro's initially mistaken belief that Lucrezia is just a passionate female admirer obviously gets straightened out in a hurry. Pascoe has cleverly spotted a male-male romantic subplot and draws it out to provide an extra dimension to the doomed characters and give the whole opera a littel unexpected spice.

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER FOR WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA (Top left, Renee Fleming; lower left, Vittorio Grigolo)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 PM | | Comments (0)

Leontyne Price electrifies NEA Opera Awards event

NEA Opera Honors"You've stopped hearts in this room," mezzo Susan Graham said to the beyond-legendary soprano Leontyne Price Friday night, and that wasn't an exaggeration.

Price, the last of the four winners of the inaugural NEA Opera Honors to step up to the stage for the presentation at the Harmon Center in Washington, didn't just give a gracious and affecting speech. The 81-year-old, Mississippi-born singer, whose lustrous voice and incredibly communicative styling made her a favorite of the opera and concert worlds for decades, closed her remarks by saying, "I can't express to you my gratitude in any other way except the way I know." Price then proceeded to sing "America the Beautiful," a cappella and with an astounding amount of her vintage, thrilling tone, capped by a high note that went on and on, right through the roar from an audience of musical and political dignitaries and just plain fans. It was, indeed, a heart-stopping, breath-taking moment.

The soprano, resplendent in a glittering black/silver gown and turban, looked a little frail as she first walked to the stage on the arm of her brother, Brigadier General (Ret.) George Price, to be presented with the award. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke of being "a proud American" who was "truly overwhelmed" to receive a "great honor from my country." She mentioned "Mamma and Daddy up there" and how proud they would have been. And then she sang, thrillingly, and seemed to get younger and stronger as she did. Her obvious delight in the applause that followed and the wonderful series of bows -- no one takes a bow as magnificently as Leontyne Price -- only added fuel to the ovation. The phrase "American treasure" doesn't do justice to the artistry, eloquence and dignity of this great woman.

One recipient of the NEA Opera Honors, the first federal award for lifetime achievement in opera, was a no-show -- conductor James Levine, who pleaded under-the-weather-ness after leading rehearsals that day at the Metropolitan Opera. The other two were in attendance: Richard Gaddes, founder of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and pivotal administrator of the Santa Fe Opera; and Carlisle Floyd, the quintessential American opera composer, whose Susannah and Of Mice and Men will endure as long as opera itself. Both delivered finely-honed acceptance speeches. Each honoree was the subject of a brief, telling video tribute.

Placido Domingo, eminent tenor and general director of Washington National Opera, was on hand to offer words of praise and do some of the conducting during the scheduled music-making on the program (WNO's orchestra and several of its young artists participated quite effectively). A highlight was Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka, vividly sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, who is alternating with Renee Fleming in WNO's production of Lucrezia Borgia, which opened Saturday. Graham, alas, didn't sing, but she proved an amiable and charming host throughout the evening.

The audience included Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who appeared at the start of the evening "to call into session" the ceremony to honor "four of the brightest lights in the world of opera." Also in the hall were such vocal notables as soprano Kathleen Battle and baritone Sherrill Milnes.

When all was said, sung and done, it was the sight and sound of Leontyne Price that will linger long in the memory.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA: National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, Washington National Opera General Director Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Richard Gaddes and Carlisle Floyd

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:08 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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