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December 31, 2008

Online voters push for arts in Obama administration

Here's a message I received from a music educator and self-desrcibed desktop activist named Timothy Kjer about an initiative that sounds very worthy to me:


I wanted to see if I could get your quick help. I'm not sure if you've heard, but there's a movement of citizens inspired by the presidential campaign who are now submitting ideas for how they think the Obama Administration should change America. It's called "Ideas for Change in America." I've submitted an idea and wanted to see if you could quickly vote for it. The title is: Save the Arts Coalition.

The top 10 ideas are going to be presented to the Obama Administration on Inauguration Day and will be supported by a national lobbying campaign run by, MySpace, and more than a dozen leading nonprofits after the Inauguration. So each idea has a real chance at becoming policy. Right now this idea is currently in 703rd Place in Economy and needs 1025 more votes to make it into the second round.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (2)

December 30, 2008

Why not lottery money for the arts?

As 2008 grinds to a halt, leaving an awful wake of bad economic news, and with 2009 looking just as bleak, the cultural world is feeling more vulnerable than ever. Yesterday (I know I'm late, but I'm still on vacation), Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser wrote a typically well-argued op-ed piece in the Washington Post calling for some sort of bailout for the arts. I'd love to see that happen, but I certainly won't hold my breath.

It would probably take an organized action by hundreds of arts organizations and thousands of arts patrons to get the attention of the politicians. Such an action might help more people to realize what this country will be losing, how much long-term damage to our internal worth this country will suffer if opera and ballet companies, orchestras and theater troupes get squeezed out by the economy.

Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder about all that money gathered in so many states every week by lotteries, supposedly in support of education. Personally, I have my doubts about how much of that money actually gets to schools and makes a real difference in their quality, but I know that even modest amounts of cash can do wonders for an arts group. So why not, during these unusually tough times, set aside a decent percentage, say 25 percent, of lottery-generated money to the arts? After all, those groups invariably have educational/outreach programs, which are in jeapardy when budgets shrink, so this kind of funding would still help fulfill the supposed educational mission of lotteries. In the U.K., lottery revenue has helped to build theaters and underwrite orchestras, operas, museums and more. I think it's time to explore the possibilities here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:37 AM | | Comments (3)

December 24, 2008

Holiday escape, and the indelible sounds of Streisand

Dear cyber readers: I've managed to escape for a few days, so please forgive any dearth of postings before the new year. Meanwhile, have a great holiday.

And if you're looking for musical ways to enjoy the holiday spirit, after all the Messiah performances and Leroy Anderson goodies, don't forget to relax with the best holiday album of them all (IMO), Barbra Streisand's A Christmas Album from about 1966. Her "Silent Night" remains without peer for sheer beauty and expressive depth, and her poignant "I Wonder as I Wander" leaves an indelible mark as well. Then there's her de-construction of "Jingle Bells" -- still a hoot after all these years. Christmas is never complete unless I get to bathe in the sound of this vintage Streisand collection.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:45 AM | | Comments (2)

December 22, 2008

Bach film wraps up shooting

Last Friday, Mike Lawrence, the Baltimore filmmaker putting together an unusual documentary with a wide assortment of musicians and non-musicians talking about the lasting power of Bach, finished the last of the scheduled shoots. He and his crew headed to New York City to interview Philip Glass, the composer most closely associated with minimalism. "Philip talked about the great one better than anyone in the film," Lawrence told me in an email over the weekend.

That reminded me of way back when Glass and fellow minimalists were first stirring up the musical world a few decades ago, and how some listeners seemed to think that the genre had no relationship to the sanctified past, no legitimate roots in the classical tradition. But the first time I heard the Opening of Glass' piano score Glassworks, I remember thinking of the famous C major Prelude that opens Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I -- a piece with minimal melodic activity, just a sequence of chords propelled by a reiterative rhythmic pattern.

It seemed crazy to me the way the anti-minimalist crowd would complain that there was nothing remotely meaningful going on in music of this style. They just weren't really listening. One of the reasons I love this stuff is that it does have a connection to the past, all the while charting its own distinctive path. (See below for a comparison of Bach's C major Prelude and the Opening of Glassworks.) Anyway, it will be interesting to hear what Glass has to say about Bach in the DVD, which should be on the market next summer.

Bach's C major Prelude from Book I of Well-Tempered Clavier:


Opening of Glassworks by Philip Glass:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:10 PM | | Comments (0)

December 19, 2008

Former Cleveland PD critic weighs in on controversy

Bob Finn, the retired chief critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes a cogent case for what is so wrong with the treatment of his sucessor, Don Rosenberg. As he puts it, both the newspaper and the Cleveland Orchestra "have disgraced themselves in this matter." Thanks to the Realneo site for posting Finn's remarks. 
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:46 PM | | Comments (1)

December 18, 2008

Obama inaugural ceremony could use fine-tuning

Arteha FranklinAs much as I'm looking forward to Inaguration Day, the news about the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol isn't exactly thrilling for some of us music lovers.

I won't get into the controversial selection of evangelist preacher Rick Warren (although I find that personally disheartening on several levels), but the musical portion looks, at least on paper, like a big let down. I have great R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Aretha Franklin, and I'm one of the few opera fans who actually loved the way she tore up Puccuni's Nessun dorma years ago, but I'm not crazy about losing this slot on the program more traditionally filled by a classical-trained singer. (I know, I know, the election was all about change.) A few weeks ago, I heard the majestic Leontyne Price sing the heck out of "America the Beautiful" at 81 years of age, and I'd bet that she would gladly deliver it for the Inauguration. What a richly layered statement that would make. Of course, I haven't seen any word yet on what Aretha will perform, so maybe I'll be persuaded in the end.

Likewise, maybe the supposedly classical portion of the event will be convincing, but I doubt it. Here's the lineup: violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill (he's a Peabody faculty member as well as principal clarinetist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and pianist Gabriela Montero (she gave an improvised recital in Baltimore a couple weeks ago). The problem for me is that this ensemble will play a new work composed by John (Star Wars and every other blockbuster film) Williams. Excuse me, but he's not this country's finest composer, just one of the most famous. He's certainly not a front-rank classical composer. Yes, I know his music was played during the victory night outdoor celebration in Chicago, so he obviously resonates with the Obama team, but (to borrow a phrase being tossed out by top members of the current administration these days), so what?

I wouldn't expect the Obama folks to commission Elliott Carter or someone like that, but it would be great to have someone else writing something else. That said, I'm still curious how any piece of chamber music, however amplified, is going to work at and for an occasion like this. Strange. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:21 PM | | Comments (0)

December 16, 2008

Musical America Awards reveal Baltimore connection

Marin Alsop Yo-Yo MaLast night's penthouse reception at Lincoln Center for the reicipients of the 2009 Musical America Awards was principally about talent. But I decided it was principally about Baltimore (hey, in this media market, you know it's gotta be local-local-local all the time).

Here goes: Musician of the Year is cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has often performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, including this seaosn's opening gala led by music director and now Conductor of the Year Marin Alsop, who has frequently championed the works of this year's Composer of the Year, Baltimore-born and -based Christopher Rouse, Christopher Rousewhose style represents quite an expresssive contrast to that of centenarian Elliott Carter, whose works are a specialty of this year's Ensemble of the Year, the Pacifica Quartet, which played Carter's Fifth String Quartet in a program presented last April by Candlelight Concerts in Columbia (close enough to Baltimore), an organization not unlike Baltimore's Shriver Hall Concert Series, which presented this year's Vocalist of the Year, mezzo-sropano Stephanie Blythe, a couple seasons ago.

Call it Six Degrees of Baltimore.

Stephanie BlytheAnyway, about 200 people in the classical music biz hobbed with every nob worth hobbing with at the reception for a while.

Then Sedgwick Clark, who edits the annual Musical America Directory (a resource bible in the industry), introduced each honoree in jovial, affectionate fashion. The winners responded in kind.

Yo-Yo Ma, who jokingly wondered how Baltimore managed to get two awards this year, referrred in his remarks to the "village" that makes up the music world, the way musicians (and publicists, who were well represented at the event) support each other. Pacifica Quartet

Alsop, who had very hearty hugs for the cellist and Rouse earlier in the evening, mentioned one of her major themes, taking chances, and making music count more than ever as the world gets less certain. Her parents were there to see her latest honor. (BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham and board chairman Michael Bronfein also attended.)

Although Alsop is famed for great one-liners, she didn't deliver one last night. That came instead from Simin Ganatra, first violinist in the Pacifica Quartet, which is in residence at the University of Illinois.

“Being from Illinois," Ganatra said, "our first instinct was to sell this award to the highest bidder.”

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF AND FILE PHOTOS (from top: Marin Alsop and Yo-Yo Ma at BSO's 2008 gala; Christoper Rouse; Stepahnie Blythe; Pacifica Quartet)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:27 PM | | Comments (0)

December 15, 2008

BSO's holiday show almost Scrooge-proof

BSO Holiday SpectacularYou've got to have a fairly advanced case of humbugitis to resist the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Holiday Spectacular. Even after questioning one element or another, I ended up feeling  good about this year's version. For one thing, Sandi Patty is back as host and vocal soloist, and she's just as welcoming as she was two years ago. She knows how to put seasonal music across without ever slipping into cloying territory, and her voice has an appealing freshness. This year, she shares the stage with the African Children's Choir, a remarkably cohesive and spirited ensemble of orphans (if they don't tug at your heartstrings, you may want to check your pulse).

I caught the opening performance Friday at the Meyerhoff. Jack Everly, the BSO's principal pops conductor and primary architect of the holiday show, exuded his usual calm authority on the podium and drew smooth playing from the orchestra. Most of the repertoire choices proved agreeable, and the performances were full of life. On the purely orchestral side, Barlow Bradford's arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" was a particular treat, not just colorful, but what you might even call hip. Patty had fun with "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and turned in a charming "Getting to Know You" with the sweet-voiced children, who offered several highlights of their own along the way.

On the down side, I'm just not sold on the " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" number, which is a traditional part of the program. The music is bland; the props and choreographic elements could use some extra flash (a colleague at the paper who was there Friday wondered why the puppet-handlers just walk around in street clothes); and the amount of time eaten up by the whole thing doesn't have a corresponding amount of diversion.

But the biggest drawback came in the second half of the show, when pacing turned strangely sluggish, with two slow items back to back. There should be a rousing finish to equal the now famous tapping Santas who bring down the house before intermission (the dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts kicked up a storm). Tapping angels? No, I guess not. But there's got to be something.

More problematic was what happened after Patty and company delivered the official finale, "O Holy Night." She stopped the applause to deliver thanks to the sponsors. Talk about deflation. Even the encore sparked by the African Children's Chorus couldn't get the spirits back up to speed after that. The thank-you's could surely be delivered at a different point in the production, leaving room for some sort of show-biz splash to send the crowd out properly.

Still, the basic soundness and appeal of the Holiday Spectacular remains. It's a feel-good effort that seems doubly welcome these days. And the festive transformation of the hall, from the lobby to the proscenium, is achieved with great flair.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:47 PM | | Comments (0)

Chamber Orchestra says concert will go on

Haven't had too much good news lately among local arts groups, so it's niceRichard Stoltzman to report something upbeat. Just a few weeks ago, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra revealed that tight finances forced the postponement of a recording session planned in January and threatened to necessitate the cancelation of two concerts that month. Now comes word that only one of those performances, meaning that there will be no interruption in the BCO's 2008-2009 season (the canceled event was not part of the main subscription series).

The program, conducted by Markand Thakar, will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 25 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium and will feature Mozart's sublime Clarinet Concerto with eminent clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. Beethoven's Eighth and the brilliant Symphony No. 3 by Charles Ives are also on the bill. Tickets to the canceled concert, Jan. 24 at Beth El Congregation, will be honored at Goucher.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:14 AM | | Comments (0)

December 11, 2008

Demoted Cleveland critic sues paper, orch. leaders

Don Rosenberg, the longtime music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer who was removed from covering the Cleveland Orchestra at the start of the season, filed suit today in the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, against the paper and its editor, Susan Goldberg; as well as Gary Hanson, executive director of the orchestra, and Richard Bogomolny, chairman of the Musical Arts Assocation, which operates and manages the orchestra.

When I reached Don on the phone, he said: "I was just not going to let it ride. I had to make a statement about a lot of issues." Those issues include defamation; interference with press freedom; and age discrimination (Don, who's in his mid 50s, was replaced by now 32-year-old writer Zachary Lewis).

The suit charges that the editor and orchestra officials conspired "maliciously, intentionally, willfully, unlawfully ... retalitorily ..." to remove the critic from his duties. In fascinating detail, the suit lays out a scenario that begins with an article by Don that appeared in the Plain Dealer in August 2004 reporting on an interview Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most had given to a Swiss magazine. In that interview, the conductor was quoted making some cutting remarks about Cleveland's provinicialism, its audience of "blue hair ladies," and the "rich widows" needed to fund the arts. Welser-Most also was quoted as favoring a system of charging money to get an audience with him (it sounds rather like something that Illinois Gov. Blagojevich might have thought up) -- more than $5,000 before the donor would get a handshake, but, for $10 million, "of course, you go to dinner."

"I was just being a dutiful reporter," Don said today. But once those comments hit the Cleveland paper, orchestra officials reacted angrily; the suit alleges that the p.r. director told Don he would suffer "consequences." The suit goes on to describe efforts over the next few years to "besmirch Plaintiff's reputation as a music critic"; various meetings held between orchestra administrators and the paper's editor to discuss critical coverage of Welser-Most; the supression of an article Don wrote and another he planned to write that would have contained negative assessments of Welser-Most's tenure at the orchestra; and, finally, in September, the demotion to arts and entertainment reporter.

The suit seeks damages "well in excess of $25,000" for compensatory damages and the same for punitive damages. "It's going to be a long process," Don said. "There are no guarantees. I'm learning a lot about law, let me tell you."

The "Plaintiff's Notice of Depositions" starts with Welser-Most; his deposition is tentatively set for March 18. That should be very interesting.

Included in the suit as Exhibit A is the letter of support for Don sent to the Plain Dealer editor signed by many critics from around the country and released through the Music Critics Association of North America. The editor never responded to that letter.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:06 PM | | Comments (17)

December 10, 2008

Week from hell: bankruptcies, cutbacks, uncertainties

Baltimore OperaThe long-rumored news that was finally confirmed earlier this week about the Baltimore Opera Company filing for bankruptcy came, oddly enough, just as the Baltimore Sun's parent Tribune Company filed for the same kind of protection from creditors. Then, yesterday, word arrived of financial trouble for the 74-year-old Handel Choir of Baltimore. That group isn't in as dire a position as the opera, but it's worrisome just the same. And it's got to be heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents, since the money shortage means that the Handel Children's Choir, an offshoot of the Handel Choir, will cease operations after a concert this weekend. And then there's the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, which recently canceled recording sessions scheduled for January (the concerts slated that month are still officially on the calendar).

That's just the local picture. Consider these recent examples of the Economy That Wouldn't Stop Spiraling: the Virginia Symphony is cutting salaries for music director JoAnn Falletta and administrative employees by 20 percent and canceling three of five spring concerts; Miami City Ballet will switch to taped music (shudder) for much of the remainder of the season because it can't afford an orchestra now. The string of bad news is enough to make the most determined optimist to get the shakes.

Back to the Baltimore Opera crisis. It's feels rather odd writing about a bankrupt company while working for another bankrupt company, but here goes: The opera mess casts a very dark shadow on this city. Like everyone else, I've heard about financial problems in the organization for years and wondered why they weren't more aggressively addressed. And like everyone else, I've wondered about some of the company's decisions, especially when it came to artists and scenery imported from Europe at no small expense. I've wondered about many of the repertoire choices and many of the singers engaged, not to mention some of the stage and scenic directors. But, ultimately, I've always believed that the company has made a useful, often valiant effort to serve the operatic art form. I certainly think that the many decades behind the company have left a solid enough legancy to be worth preserving and expanding.

Seems to me a mostly new team will have to be in place, on the staff and on the board, if Baltimore Opera is to climb out of this hole and establish credibility. A fresh, strong and reasonable vision for the company will have to be outlined. And the community will have to accept, as never before, its vital role in supporting what will always be a costly artr form. I know there are other operatic choices out there -- I've already heard from boosters of Opera Vivente, Peabody Opera Theatre and others -- but if we don't have a full-sized organization producing full-sized opera on a regular basis, we'll be missing an awful lot. This city would be a lesser place without Baltimore Opera. It's that simple.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:07 PM | | Comments (3)

Temirkanov turns 70

Yuri Temirkanov, music director emeritus of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, turns 70 today, an occasion that will be celebrated in a big way in his hometown. On Friday, there will be a star-packed concert in his honor featuring the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (which Temirkanov has led for 20 years) and St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra. Three conductors will take turns on the podium, among them the eminent Mariss Jansons. The guest soloist roster reads like a who's-who of great Russian-born talent, including pianists Evgeny Kissin and Elisso Virssaladze; violinists Gidon Kremer and Vadim Repin; violist Yuri Bashmet; cellist Natalia Gutman; and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Members of the BSO signed a birthday card that was sent to Temirkanov and Maryland Governor Martin O' Malley issued a state proclamation praising the conductor's "extraordinary achievements" and "lasting contribution" to the orchestra's "artistic quality" and "international recognition."

Temirkanov's distinctive gifts place him in a special class of conductor. He can generate powerful musical electricity from an orchestra, and, in the repertoire he holds most dear, he can achieve an intensely spiritual experience that is impossible to forget. It's no wonder he's being feted in a big way this week by so many great musicians.

Temirkanov is due back as a guest on the BSO podium in early spring for a Brahms-Prokofiev program. Meanwhile, to get into the party mood for his 70th birthday, here he is conducting the Festive Overture by Shostakovich with his brilliant St. Petersburg Philharmonic in their historic, elegant concert hall:

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:04 PM | | Comments (0)

Add Handel Choir to list of struggling ensembles

The Handel Choir of Baltimore, with a remarkable 74-year history behind it, is being hit by the same financial struggles that have plagued other arts organizations in the area. There is no talk of canceling concerts or going bankrupt (like Baltimore Opera), but the choir is cutting back on paid staff, and artistic director Melinda O'Neal has taken a reduction in salary. And, after one last performance on Sunday, the organization's subsidiary group, the Handel Children's Choir (founded in 2000), will be shut down. There's not enough money for the necessary staff to run it. "If the parent organization doesn't thrive, we can't sponsor anything," O'Neal told me today. 

The Handel Choir's situation is a now familar one: A drop in ticket sales and contributed income this year, reflecting the overall economic decline. On the plus side: No debt. "We're not trying to crawl out of hole," board vice president Leslie Greenwald said this afternoon. "We've always been very careful about our cash-flow, adn we're managing it. But we had to make painful decisions. We're certainly looking forward to the spring concerts." An anonymous patron has made a $25,000 challenge grant to help with fundraising. O'Neal told me, "The choir and the board are realistic, but also optimistic. I don't think the Handel Choir will go under. We've been through tough times before."

As for the Children's Choir, word of the disbanding caught the kids and their parents by surprise. There is talk among those parents about trying to keep the ensemble going on their own. And O'Neal said, "I will do anything I can to keep those children singing." 

The Children's Choir performs what may be its swan song at 4 p.m. Sunday at First English Lutheran Church, 3807 North Charles St. Tickets are $10; free for children 12 and under. As for the Handel Choir, its performance of Handel's Messiah is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, 200 Ware Ave. Towson. Tickets are $25 to $44.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:03 PM | | Comments (0)

December 8, 2008

Birgit Nilsson's amazing swan song

Birgit NilssonBirgit Nilsson, the stunningly powerful Swedish soprano who died two years ago at 87, has belted one more brilliant note from beyond the grave -- to the tune of $1 million. That sum will be awarded every two or three years for outstanding achievement by a singer, conductor or opera production.

The board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which the singer established a few years before her death, will appoint a jury to choose the Nilsson Prize recipients, except in the case of the first one. Nilsson herself chose the inaugural honoree, whose name is said to be contained in a sealed envelope that will be opened early in 2009.

The classical music business has a few big awards, but theBirgit Nilsson Nilsson Prize outdoes them all, just like the artist herself. Nilsson possessed one of the most compelling voices of the 20th century, capable of sailing effortlessly over the largest Wagner and Strauss orchestrations. Once you heard it live, it was seared into your memory forever. The soprano was a penetrating interpreter not only of the big German repertoire, but Verdi and Puccini as well. And she could have as much fun with "I Could Have Danced All Night" as anyone. Her great sense of humor and  infectirous laugh were as treasured as her musical intensity. Extraordinary generosity obviously was one of her traits as well.   

The Nilsson Prize will quickly become one of the most coveted distinctions in the field. The jury will consider singers of opera, oratorio or art song; conductors of opera or concert music; and "a specific production by an opera company, as long as this production is outstandingly cast and conducted and, most importantly, staged in the spirit of the composer." (I love that last qualification, which will probably eliminate from contention about 90 percent of operas staged in Europe and a quite a few on these shores. Apparently Nilsson took a very dim view of what passes now for directorial "concepts.")

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Nilsson in 2000; and at La Scala in a Verdi's 'Macbeth' in 1964)

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)

December 5, 2008

Guest review: Premiere of 'Trumpet of the Swan'

My colleague, Mary Carole McCauley, checked out a new production in Washington last night. Here's her report:

The production of The Trumpet of the Swan currently running at the Kennedy Center sets the gold standard for children’s productions. So, why is it running for just three days?

This world premiere boasts an all-star cast, including Oscar winner Kathy Bates, character film actor Fred Willard, and Richard Thomas, best-known as the former John Boy Walton. It brags a 35-piece live orchestra, and a script by Tony Award-winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother). It represents a five-year investment by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which began working on this project in 2004.

The Trumpet of the Swan, which is based on E.B. White’s classic children’s tale, tells the story of a mute young bird named Louie who finds his voice through music. The story is told in the form of a concert reading. The actors sit on chairs in front of the orchestra, and their words alternate with musical passages. Louie’s trumpet solos are performed by an up-and-coming Juilliard student named Christopher Michael Venditti.

The result is utterly enchanting, a so-called "novel symphony" that easily holds its own alongside such classic compositions for children as Peter and the Wolf. It’s all the more frustrating, then, that, by the time you are likely to read this, it will be gone. Just five public performances of The Trumpet of the Swan were scheduled, and the last will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Kennedy Center officials say that, though they hope that another troupe will produce this show in the future, there are no current plans to put it on tour, or to bring it back for a longer run. Partly, that’s because a 35-piece orchestra requires a venue at least as large as the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theatre, and that space is in great demand. Frost/Nixon, starring Stacey Keach, just left, and next weekend, the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe will take over the space for its annual gig. 

It’s true that as many audience members – roughly 5,500 -- will see the show in just five performances in the Eisenhower as would see it over three weeks in the Kennedy Center’s much smaller Family Theater, where kids’ shows usually are held. Nor are abbreviated runs rare in the world of classical music, where such stars as Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell generally appear for just three performances. Still, it seems like a shame. More kids deserve to savor Norman’s wryly funny script, and Jason Robert Brown’s melodic, evocative score.

The Kennedy Center gets major kudos for their vision and foresight in undertaking a project this ambitious. Too often, kids’ theater is given short shrift. Productions for children often have shoddy production values and employ second-rate actors, under the assumption that kids don’t buy their own tickets, and can’t tell the difference. I’ve never understood that thinking, given that theaters (and orchestras, too) are desperate to "grow" a younger audience. You can’t feed a child Mcdonald’s all his life and expect him to grow up with a taste for caviar. So, it’s wonderful that Kennedy Centers chose to fly in the face of this trend. They deserve to have a medal hung around their necks, just like Louie. But, for ending the run after just a tiny fraction of the child population in Baltimore, Washington and northern Virginia has had a chance to see it, these same officials deserve a well-aimed thrust in the seats of their pants from Louie’s pointed bill.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:18 PM | | Comments (1)

December 4, 2008

Matthew Odell to perform at Messiaen celebration

Locally, the commemoration of Olivier Messiaen's centennial has been marked most substantially so far by organist Jonathan Moyer, whose survey of the complete organ works finished up Nov. 23 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. This weekend, thanks to the ever-busy An die Musik, the celebration continues with Matthew Odell, who will give a complete performance of Messiaen's massive piano work Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus (Twenty Views of the Child Jesus).

This 1945 score, which lasts about two hours, is a stunning example of the composer's creative imagination, with a brilliant richness and breadth of harmonic and melodic activity, not to mention pianistic color. And, of course, like so many of Messiaen's works, the music reflects his intense personal faith.

Odell will perform Vingt regards at 3 p.m. Sunday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $8 to $15. There will be a post-concert wine reception. For a sample of this extraordinary music, see the video clip below of pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:20 PM | | Comments (0)

Needing a little Christmas

The other day, I felt just like the folks in Auntie Mame, one of my favorite movies. You know the scene: Reeling from the Crash of '29, Mame decided to lift her spirits and those of her nephew, housekeeper and butler by celebrating Christmas a few weeks early. Reeling from the Crash of '08 (and, especially, its assorted repercussions for arts and journalism), I thought I could use a little Christmas myself ahead of time, so off I went to the warm and beautiful Basilica of the Assumption Tuesday night to hear the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

Janice ChandlerThis was, remarkably, the 25th annual "Christmas with Choral Arts" concert, and the 13th filmed for broadcast by ABC 2 (air dates are Dec. 24 at 11:35 p.m. and Dec. 25 at 9 a.m.). The ensemble's longtime director, Tom Hall, put together a brisk-paced mix of familiar and not-so-familiar repertoire, intermingled with various poetic and scriptural texts vividly recited by ABC 2's Mary Beth Marsden and Terry Owens.

For me, the best part of the concert was guest artist Janice Chandler-Eteme, whose radiant soprano voice gave the whole event an angelic lift. Her account of There is a Balm in Gilead was transifixingly beautiful and truly comforting. The rich, unusually moody arrangement by Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, played with considerable sensitivity by the orchestra, added to the effectiveness of the performance, which Hall shaped eloquently. Chandler-Eteme's singing of the poignant Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vespers was another highpoint. In an aria from Bach's Cantata 51, the soprano likewise soared, and was smoothly partnered by trumpeter Langston Fitzgerald.

The chorus sounded in healthy shape all evening, producing a smooth tone and dynamic phrasing in the lushly romantic Pater Noster by Peteris Vasks. The singers even managed to make a couple of John Rutter's cloyingly cute carols palatable. Other than some uneven violin sounds in the overture to Tchaikovsky's Nutcraker, the orchestra held up its part of things firmly.

Personally, I could have done without all the readings and the audience sing-along stuff (just because I was seeking some holiday cheer didn't mean that I could entirtely stifle the Scrooge side of me), but the concert proved ultimately persausive and decidedly good for the spirits.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:32 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.
View the Artsmash blog

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