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January 30, 2009

Petrenko, Hough, Baltimore Symphony: incendiary

Vasily Petreno conductorIt’s a wonder the fire alarms didn’t go off at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday night. The incendiary match-up of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Vasily Petrenko (right) and piano soloist Stephen Hough produced one of the most memorable concerts of the season. Things should be just as gripping when the hefty, inflammable program is repeated on Saturday.

Petrenko, born and trained in St. Petersburg, where his mentors included Yuri Temirkanov, gives every sign of being the next great Russian conductor. In 2005, at the age of 29, he assumed the podium of England’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been winning considerable acclaim for his work there and elsewhere. For his BSO debut, Petrenko chose to make a big statement, packing in one of the longest and most elusive of Shostakovich’s symphonies, No. 8; Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Piano Concerto No. 1; and a rarity (on these shores) by Anatoly Lyadov, the tone poem Kikimora. From the start on Thursday, Petrenko revealed remarkable control of the material and, more importantly, an ability to communicate something beyond cues, tempos and dynamics.

In 1943, Shostakovich composed his Eighth Symphony in the relative safety of the countryside northeast of Moscow. Unlike his Seventh, which captured the attention of the world with what its chilling depiction of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the defiance of besieged Leningrad, the Eighth presented a disorienting landscape and few signposts. Here, the composer ...

digs deep into the subject of evil and loss. No stirring patriotic chords, just honest, raw emotions. There is brutality in this music, and long stretches of propulsive machine-like pounding. There is aching slowness and shadow, too. But just before the gloomy fourth movement gives way to the fifth, Shostakovich subtly, gently, movingly shifts the tonality to that most comforting and familiar of harmonies, C major. From then on, although violent outbursts will break out, the music ultimately holds out a sliver of hope to hang onto, even as uncertain bass notes question the resolve of the hushed closing chord.

Petrenko deftly shaped this hour-plus, eventful journey of the spirit. The expansive first movement had terrific tension, which he heightened by unleashing the BSO’s substantial power during the waves of percussion crescendos and shrieking brass (Shostakovich's use of this threatening effect seems to have been inspired by a similar one in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2). Petrenko drove the second and third movements hard, maybe too fast for their own good, but the effect had a startling intensity.

Stephen Hough pianistSpeaking of fast and intense, Tchaikovsky’s overly flogged warhorse headed out of the gate with a refreshing vigor and absence of sentimentality. Hough (left), the widely admired British pianist, tore into the concerto in a way that may well have horrified some listeners. I think he even managed to outdo speed demon Martha Argerich when it came to octave whirlwinds.

Well, I’ve always been of the (probably unsound) mind that nothing can be played too fast — or too slow. But what typically happens when pianists want to rip up this work is that they go for both extremes in one sitting, constantly pulling the tempo every which way to apply an interpretive stamp. Hough would never stoop to that sort of thing. What he did was simply take the concerto out of its mushy romantic nest and treat it like a great work that combines bravura with un-sticky lyricism. The proportions were always sensible, and that made all the difference.

Hough left some notes in the dust, but the electricity he produced as he charged ahead had an almost giddy effect — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one smiling in the hall. For the most part, Petrenko and the orchestra got tightly into the soloist’s brisk groove. This kind of music-making — unpredictable, risky, fearless — is as rare as it is exciting. It’s what keeps us coming back to concert halls, even to such familiar repertoire as the Tchaikovsky concerto.

The chance to savor unfamiliar repertoire is another enticement, of course, and that came in Lyadov’s 1909 Kikimora, an evocation of a Russian fairy tale about an evil spirit. It’s a colorful little work, with traces of Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Petrenko had it flowing with lots of character.

Although there was plenty of fine playing from the orchestra (Jane Marvine’s English horn solos in the Lyadov and Shostakovich works were particularly sensitive), Thursday wasn’t necessarily the ensemble’s best night, technically speaking. There were occasional lapses of articulation, some loss of string tone (in the Tchaikovsky concerto), fuzzy patches in the woodwinds and brass. But this was one of those occasions when the feeling was so right, the commitment so strong that the details mattered less than the big, involving picture.

If we're lucky, BSO management will sign up Petrenko -- and Hough -- for return engagements before they leave town.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (1)

Add Connecticut Opera to recession victims

The news just gets bleaker out there. In our area, we've seen the Baltimore Opera file for Chapter 11 and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra suspend its season. Similar situations are being faced by many arts organizations around the country. Last night, in Hartford, the board of the Connecticut Opera decided to cancel the remaining productions of the season, La boheme and Daughter of the Regiment. When two such popular works are not enough to gurantee ticket sales and patron support, you know things are terribly wrong. Here's some of the statement released by the board:

"Next month will mark the 67th Anniversary of the first performance by Connecticut Opera. Unfortunately, its passing will not be met with great celebration as we must regrettably inform you that Connecticut Opera is the latest victim of the current economic crisis facing our nation ... The decision to cancel the rest of the season is not one that was easily made.

The reality of our situation is that ticket sales for Connecticut Opera in a normal season cover less than 40 percent of the cost of producing the high-quality opera you have grown to expect from us over the past 67 years. This year, however, we are facing enormous economic challenges including a slow down in ticket sales and increased difficulty in raising charitable gifts and sponsorships. This combination has made it financially impossible for us to complete the season ..."

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:26 PM | | Comments (0)

Mobtown Modern goes vocal, with a vengeance

As a rule, I'm open to the wildest sorts of musical expression, which is why I always look forward to stopping by the Contemporary Museum for concerts by Mobtown Modern, Baltimore's edgiest enterprise. That doesn't mean I'm always persuaded by everything I hear. Wednesday night's program of voice-centered works didn't give me much to shout about (the performers did plenty of that).

Ken Ueno's Zansetsu would have been a lot more persuasive had not so many of the sounds emanating from the composer/performer's voice box been uncomfortably similar to those made by people about to regurgitate. And his idea of a grand finale, putting a microphone into his mouth to capture the explosions of Pop Rocks, seemed more bored-frat-boy stunt than artistic statement. Manto III by Giacinto Scelsi, which involved the drone of a viola and bloodless, wordless singing by the violist (Wendy Richman), owed its modest effectiveness primarily to the accompanying videography of Guy Werner. Missy Mazzoli's Shy Girl Shouting Music had an intriguing concept -- a vocalise performed over a kindling accompaniment of electric guitar, piano and bass. The music, though, never rose above the lukewarm, and Julieanne Klein's soprano sounded too tentative for the mix of melodic notes, wailing and what-not. (This corrects earlier misidentification of the soloist.02/01.)

More interesting was Tim Feeney's account of Les Corps a Corps, a bit of performance art by Georges Aperghis. Feeney produced a remarkable stream of vocal sound bites that suggested a primitive, or perhaps alien, language (something like "tum dooey" cropped up often) while he pounded a drum. Periodically, he stooped suddenly to look over his right shoulder. Eventually, decipherable words were spewed along with the intriguing verbal scat (including references to a "bleeding arm"). In its determinedly avant-garde way, it made for a taut bit of theater.

The most satisfying item came at the start of the evening -- Lipstick, by Jacob Ter Veldhuis. Here, flutist Katayoon Hodjati vividly negotiated minimalist-flavored virtuosic lines to a vivid track of taped voice-fragments and bold graphics.

In the end, I wish the program could have included more substance and quality, something along the line of what composer/performer Meredith Monk, a pioneer in extended vocal techniques, has done to such compelling effect. Still, you've got to hand it to Mobtown Modern for consistently taking chances and stretching Baltimore's music scene.

Next up, on March 3, the complete Sequenzas by the late Luciano Berio. That sounds very promising.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:03 PM | | Comments (1)

January 28, 2009

Cleveland critic amends suit against Plain Dealer

Don Rosenberg, the veteran music critic who generated international attention when he filed suit against his employer (the Plain Dealer) and Cleveland Orchestra management back in the fall, has dropped all but one charge (age discrimination) against the newspaper. He was removed from covering the orchestra at the start of the current season. 

As reported by the AP, the changes to the suit were made so that the case would remain in state court, where Rosenberg's lawyer sees better chances for success, rather than move to federal court (some of the legal issues involving the newspaper would have necessitated that move). The suit continues to charge the orchestra's administration with pressuring the paper to remove Rosenberg because of his not-always-flattering assessment of music director Franz Welser-Most. Another Plain Dealer staffer has been covering the orchestra since Rosenberg was reassigned. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:24 PM | | Comments (0)

Peabody violinist showcased in Brahms concerto

Netanel Draiblate violinistLast night, Peabody Conservatory's relatively intimate Griswold Hall provided a showcase for violinist Netanel Draiblate, who tackled the noble Violin Concerto by Brahms with an orchestra of fellow students. Draiblate has generated a good deal of local attention while at Peabody, and he already has management, a key step in establishing a career.

It was fun hearing the Brahms played in such a compact space with a full orchestra -- imagine cranking up your home sound system to neighbors-calling-the-police levels, and you'll have an idea what the aural experience was like. It may not have been the best condition for the violinist to work in -- he seemed to be pushing his tone at times to be heard over the lively student orchestra -- but it was certainly easy to appreciate Draiblate's talent for passionate musical communication. There was an intensity in his phrasing from the start, a sense of digging into the most soulful elements of Brahms. His handling of the hefty virtuoso side of the score, especially in the cadenza, was not always effortless or spot-on, and the violinist occasionally strayed rhythmically. But this was, on balance, an admirable statement of talent and potential.

The same could be said for conductor Vladimir Kulenovic, who is completing his graduate studies at Peabody. He revealed more than a grasp of the notes, effectively shaping the orchestral side of the concerto. He also led a bold account of Beethoven's Egmont Overture to start the evening. The ensemble, put together for the occasion, encountered some rough patches, but got the job done with a lot of spirit and character.

PHOTO courtesy of

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:50 PM | | Comments (1)

January 27, 2009

Amy Briggs brilliant in tough American piano music

In the space of about two hours last night, pianist Amy Briggs dove into the daunting field of modern American music -- at one point, nose-first (literally) -- and demonstrated the diverse richness of that repertoire in brilliant fashion.

Her concert, a presentation of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, included a couple of premieres. Traces, by Augusta Read Thomas, is a series of stylistic fusions, suggesting what would happen if you crossed Scarlatti with Art Tatum, or Bach with BeBop. Briggs made a strong cases for these imaginative, often thorny keyboard etudes, especially the austere beauty of Reverie (a supposed mesh of Schumann and George Crumb) and the intense, vibrant complexity of Impromptu (Stravinksy and Chopin meet Thelonius Monk). This was the first public performance anywhere of the complete Traces, composed in 2006.

Like the Thomas work, David Rakowski's Piano Etudes pose any number of technical challenges, while attempting to provide a certain entertainment quotient. Briggs chose seven of the composer's nearly 90, sometimes cheekily-named Etudes, a sampling from the years 1997-2005. Absofunkinlutely conjures up boogie-woogie on acid; Palm de Terre (receiving its official U.S. premiere -- an "informal performance" is on YouTube) surrounds a gentle melody with misty harmonic clusters; Cell Division derives its glittery sonic coloring from the generic sound of a mobile phone being turned on; Chord Shark (an official world premiere, with an informal YouTube version) is like a thunderously dissonant variation on Chopin's C minor Prelude. Briggs delivered these and the remainder with abundant bravura, but her most distinctive feat came in a piece with a silly name, Schnozzage, that doesn't apparently aim for silliness. It calls on the pianist to articulate the melodic line with her nose, while her hands fill in subtle textures at either end of the keyboard. (Until last night, I was under the illusion that Peter Schickele had composed the only nasal keyboard piece -- and that one is intended for a laugh.) Rakowski was on hand to enjoy the dynamic performances of his music.

David Smooke's Requests was also performed in the presence of the composer. This work from 2003, written for Briggs, exploits her technical elan and gets additional color from having her tap on the instrument. A lot of kinetic action is packed into this short and sweet score. Other highlights of hefty program included two more 2003 items: Nico Muhly's Quiet Music, with its tapestry of thick, yet ever-lyrical, chords; and Bruce Stark's elegant, shimmering Waltz. I also admired Briggs' straightforward way with Philip Glass's Modern Love Waltz, but the Waltz No. 1 by the late rocker Elliott Smith, in Christopher O'Riley's lush arrangement, needed more tonal warmth to unleash the bittersweetness of the haunting tune.

This turns out to be quite the week for contemporary sounds. Tomorrow night at the Contemporary Museum, the provocative Mobtown Modern group presents a program of vocal works by Jacob ter Veldhuis, Ken Ueno, Missy Mazzoli and others who "have taken the vocal cords to their outer reaches and beyond." Should be fun.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:17 AM | | Comments (1)

January 26, 2009

Stellar clarinetist, embattled orchestra shine in concert

Richard StoltzmanThe future of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, a fixture on the local scene for more than 25 years, remains uncertain. After being hit hard by a drop in ticket sales and contributed income, the organization has suspended operations for the remainder of this season, in the hope that fundraising will be successful enough to re-launch in the fall. The unfortunate cloud over the BCO lifted for a couple of bright hours on Sunday afternoon at Kraushaar Auditorium, where the ensemble delivered its swan-song-for-now.

A near-capacity crowd, the largest BCO audience I've seen in quite a while, was on hand, and rewarded the musicians with a standing ovation before they played a note, to thank them for donating their services to save the concert. The conductor and soloist also donated theirs.

That guest artist, eminent clarinet virtuoso Richard Stoltzman, gave a sublime, time-stopping account of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, reaffirming the technical mastery and refined musicality that made him a star in the mid-1970s. Stoltzman's silken tone spun Mozart's exquisite melodies with seemingly effortless grace, especially in the Adagio, which also benefited from the clarinetist's stylish ornamentation of the five-note descending theme that ranks among the most poignant of all Mozart inspirations. BCO music director Markand Thakar (he has donated back his salary all season) dovetailed the orchestral side of the concerto with considerable sensitivity, and the ensemble did some downright glowing work.

Markand ThakarAs if Soltzman's remarkable gesture of performing free for the BCO weren't enough, he added a substantial encore, Poulenc's saucy, compact Sonata for Two Clarinets, with Eyal Bor, director of education for the Beth El Congregation and an accomplished player. (The BCO originally was to have performed the program at Beth El, as well as Kraushaar.)

The afternoon also featured the orchestra on its own in Bartok's Romanian Dances, which Thakar shaped with admirable nuance and the ensemble articulated in dynamic fashion. The initial novelty of Robert Frank's 2005 Figaronacht Overture, a collage of familiar Mozart snippets put through an occasionally piquant prism, wore off as the music bubbled rather pointlessly along.

At the end of the concert, Thakar drew out the drama, not just the charm, of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, and the ensemble delivered a mostly tight performance. (Before the financial crunch, Charles Ives's Symphony No. 3 was to have opened the program, but the cost of score rental proved prohibitive. If the BCO does revive, I hope the Ives work will get another chance, too. As I've said many a time, we don't get nearly enough Ives around here.)

All in all, the afternoon underlined the significance and quality of this orchestra. If we're lucky, it will survive to play another day.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:02 AM | | Comments (0)

January 24, 2009

Taped inaugural performance doesn't deserve scorn

A few more thoughts on the leftover musical story from Jan. 20.

So, OK, the massive sea of chilled witnesses to the inauguration and the untold millions watching on TV heard a taped performance of John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts, the interlude between the swearing-in of Joe Biden and Barack Obama. People understandably thought they were getting the real thing, especially since violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero did such a fab job pretending to perform the new work. Some folks, also understandably, feel they were had, that this was duplicitous, hardly the kind of transparency they can believe in. Well, get over it.

What were the musicians to do? In sub-freezing temperatures, none of them could have functioned at their best, and the string instruments, in particular, could not have stayed remotely in tune. Once that reality sunk in, inauguration organizers had few options. Cancel the musical portion of the program? That would have left an awkward hole in the program. Have everyone sit there and listen to a four-minute tape? Equally awkward. I think the best choice would have been to do just as they did -- let the musicians play in sync to the recording -- but then, after the whole ceremony was over, inform all the TV networks and news agencies of what had been done to save the event. That disclosure would have stopped all the nonsense flying around about Milli Vanilli and worse.

This was no deliberate, pre-meditated scam. It was surely all about the moment, the appearances, preserving the original intent of the ceremony. What seems to be missed in some of the thoughtless chatter is that the four excellent artists still had to endure the cold, just as if they had been playing full-out, and that they managed such a persuasive effort to let the music make its intended effect. (I have a feeling that those who didn't think much of what Williams wrote are braying the loudest about this would-be scandal.)

To me, what happened on the West Front of the Capitol doesn't come close to fraud. It was an honest attempt to deal with a difficult issue, leading to an unfortunate after-effect caused by a lack of foresight -- those bright folks behind the scenes should have known that this thing could not go undetected. (I was hardly alone in suspecting a recording from the first notes; I just didn't see it as such an important issue that I should raise a hue and cry over it.)

You don't hear anyone complaining that Aretha Franklin sang to a pre-recorded track. I really can't see any reason to complain that those four instrumentalists perched above the presidential contingent gamely did as they were asked to do. They fulfilled their commitment to Williams, the inaugural committee and the masses.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (3)

January 23, 2009

Kalmar leads BSO in colorful, engaging program Kalmar is back on the Baltimore Symphony podium this week as guest conductor, once again assuring an engaging peformance. This time, the music director of the Oregon Symphony chose a rather off-beat mix that had a colorful connective thread. To open, Haydn's Military Symphony, followed by two pieces from the Czech repertoire, Martinu's Oboe Concerto and the complete Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, by Dvorak.

There could never be enough Haydn; the BSO, like most orchestras these days, gives the "father of the symphony" short shrift. And when was the last time you heard all eight of those Dvorak dances at a single sitting in a concert hall? A couple of them are usually reserved for the occasional encores, the rest pretty much ignored.

It was not only enjoyable to find a Haydn symphony and all those Slavonic heel-kickers, but also to savor what they had in common -- the triangle, cymbals and bass drum, used so daringly by Haydn, so naturally and frequently by Dvorak. It's a very clever link that, frankly, escaped me when I first glanced at the program book. It all hit home during last night's performance at Strathmore. At the first sound of the percussion in a Dvorak dance, the resonance from the earlier Haydn work jumped out delectably.

Kalmar fashioned an admirably polished, character-rich account of that Haydn symphony, with buoyant tempos and delectable subtleties of phrasing. The orchestra responded in dynamic, highly sensitive form, with the strings sounding particularly lithe. Martinu's taut, rather subtle concerto enjoyed the admirable solo work of the BSO's principal oboist, Katherine Needleman, who offered her familiar technical agility and vibrant phrase-molding. Kalmar was an attentive partner and, a minor slip in synchronization aside, the ensemble maintained a cohesive presence.

The Slavonic Dances exerted all of their charm and animation thanks to Kalmar's vivid touch, which produced equal portions of lyricism and snap. The melodic line in No. 1 had trouble coming through, but after that, the balance between winds, strings and percussion was carefully controlled, enabling the distinctive colors of each to emerge tellingly. This was a great ensemble night, but some notable efforts stood out, especially the sparking playing of trumpeters Andrew Balio and Rene Hernandez. The program repeats tonight and, minus the concerto, tomorrow morning at Meyheroff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (2)

Schumann songs brought to life by William Sharp

The warm sound and insightful phrasing of baritone William Sharp got right to the heart of Schumann's song cycle Liederkreis Wendesday night at Peabody. It was a remarkable example of the vocal art.

Sharp, a member of the conservatory's faculty, has enjoyed a distinguished, wide-ranging career, and all of that experience shone through in this exquisitely nuanced performance, with the sensitive support of the Peabody Trio's pianist, Seth Knopp. A couple of notes here and there may have lacked firmness, but the baritone produced considerable tonal beauty and achieved a conversational intimacy, allowing the nuances of melody and text to register deeply.

Unfortunately, I had fidgety, chatty students to the right of me, figdety, chatty adults to the front of me (not for me to reason why), so part of the experience was not all it could have been. Still, the quality of the music-making conquered all.

After the Liederkeis, one of Schumann's finest chamber works was performed by the Peabody Trio (Knopp, violinist Violaine Melancon, cellist Natasha Brofsky) and violist Maria Lambros. The Piano Quartet, Op. 47, doesn't get the attention of the composer's Piano Quintet, but it should, if only because it contains what I believe to be one of the most exquisite melodies Schumann -- or anyone -- ever wrote, the theme that launches the third movement. The players on Wednesday gave an earnest, but not poetic enough, account of that movement. And the rest of the score didn't exactly soar, either. The performance seemed a little unfinished around the edges. (Beethoven was to be addressed by the Peabody Trio on the program, but I slipped away at intermission.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:53 PM | | Comments (0)

Told you so; synced recording at Inauguration

Excuse the I-told-you-so obnoxiousness, but, as reported today by the intrepid Dan Wakin in the Times, the starry ensemble of violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriella Montero essentially mimed the premiere of John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts to a recording of the piece during the Obama inaugural ceremony -- just as I suggested in my post about the event. Let's face it, there's no way those guys could have been warm enough and their instruments in tune enough to sound that good. It's not a big deal, of course. The use of the pre-recorded performance allowed the music to be heard effectively at the ceremony, and, judging by the reactions I've received, the work hit the spot for a lot of people. Kudos to the four players who managed to sync so well in such frigid conditions.  
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:08 AM | | Comments (1)

January 20, 2009

Inaugural premiere resonates with Copland

Just before the new president was sworn in today, four very cold musicians -- violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gabriela Montero -- offered the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts, composed for the occasion by John Williams. I can't vouch for how it sounded to the folks on the inaugural platform, or what kind of effect it had on the massive throngs stretching all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, or what sort of effect it made -- it couldn't have been easy for four little instruments to make a major statement under those circumstances. To tell the truth, I wondered for a bit if there was some play-syncing going on; the quartet recorded the music over the weekend as a backup, and the sound didn't seem entirely natural to me at the start. Still, on TV, the new work proved to be a reflective interlude ripe with resonances.

The "air" at the start of the roughly four-minute piece strikes a sober note, as if to recall the many challenges facing the country. The soft, slow, rather bittersweet theme, begun by the violin and soon picked up cello and piano, gives way to another, very familiar melody from the clarinet -- the gently uplifting Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," which was used so indelibly by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring. Williams quotes that passage almost verbatim, and goes on to put the hymn tune through a very Coplandesque treatment before bringing the mood back down to earth with the opening material.

Although Williams chose to use the Copland material because President Obama counts that composer among his classical favorites, there's another significant point here. In 1953, a pre-inaugural concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall, a concert attended by then president-elect Eisenhower, was to have included a performance of one of Copland's most popular works, A Lincoln Portrait. But a Republican congressman (from Illinois, by the way) objected, suggesting that Copland was too liberal and maybe even Communist-friendly, so the piece was pulled from the concert. Inserting the touch of Copland into the Obama inauguration, Williams told Variety last week, offers "a completed circle of events that is nice to think about." 


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:25 PM | | Comments (22)

January 19, 2009

Ingrid Fliter makes Baltimore debut

Ingrid FliterIn an age when piano competitions are generally devalued (the bad rap is that only bland players can win, by alienating the fewest judges), the Gilmore Artist Award has easily become a big deal. Sort of like the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius award" bestowed after an anonymous search process, the Gilmore honor, given every four years, involves no competition. Candidates have no idea they are under consideration; unknown judges travel around to listen to the talent in action. Leif Ove Andsnes (1998) and Piotr Anderszewski (2002) are representative of the honoree quality. The most recent winner, Ingrid Fliter (2006), has earned her share of plaudits as well.

The Argentinian-born Fliter gave her first Baltimore recital last night for the Shriver Hall Concert Series before an audience that reacted with much enthusiasm. I wasn't totally blown away by the experience. No question the pianist has considerable gifts. Even allowing for some momentary digital or memory lapses, her technique proved first-rate, and her phrasing was always thoughtful, often compelling. Still, I had the feeling that we weren't hearing the best she has to offer (everyone can have an off night, of course).

Her opening forray into Bach territory, his Italian Concerto, was neat and crisp in the outer movements, quite poetic in the middle one, yet the performance lacked the extra dash of personality that can make this music sing.

A group of Chopin pieces, a mazurka and six waltzes, was curiously chosen in terms of key signature: two C-sharp minor items in a row, then three A-flat major items in a row, a single A minor one and yet another A-flat major. This isn't exactly a crime, but I do think a wider harmonic range would have been worth exploring. That said, the pianist revealed an admirable sense of rhythmic nuance, allowing Chopin's exquisite melodies an effective elasticity. But the tonal coloring Fliter produced proved limited, not as vivid as on some of her recorded Chopin.

The second half of the program was devoted to one of Schumann's masterworks, the Symphonic Etudes. Here, Fliter summoned considerable virtuosity and more in the way of shading; this was impressive pianism by any measure. Her greatest achievement, though, was the way she chose to organize the music. Pianists have a certain latitude, since there's the matter of some five posthumous variations that are traditionally incorporated into the original score. A relatively common approach is to bunch them together somewhere in the middle. Everyone, as far as I know, closes with the original, bravura finale. Fliter, instead, placed the posthumous pieces in a distinct fashion, Variation I by itself, III and IV together later on and, most imaginatively, II and V after the world-be finale. Since Variation II and V are moody, unshowy reflections on the theme that launches the Symphonic Etudes, Fliter created a dramatic finishing touch that gave the half-hour piece an extra layer of depth.

I stayed for one encore, a Schubert Impromptu, that needed only a more delicate, sparkling touch in the right-hand flurries to generate its full measure of charm.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:41 AM | | Comments (1)

January 18, 2009

Pre-inaugural concert by Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road group

A good portion of the liberal establishment gave itself a musical party last night in Washington to celebrate the Obama/Biden inauguration. The event, presented by The New Republic, featured a performance by celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at the Harman Center and attracted various movers and shakers, including senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman (no, the latter was not booed when recognized from the stage) and various media types, including Margaret Warner of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and Charles Krauthammer (yes, even conseravtives got in -- then again, he's a major music lover who recently founded a concert series in DC).

Before the performance, there were remarks from New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz and three prominent political figures: two from the incoming administration, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (he's got a future in stand-up if his new gig doesn't work out) and National Economic Council director Larry Summers; and someone who will have a lot to do with both of them up on the Hill, congressman Barney Frank (he quipped that all four speakers responded when told that "the arrogant Jewish guy" should come to the stage).

As for the concert, a tight 90-minutes or so, it showed off the Silk Road Ensemble's trademarks -- technical panache and a seamless, totally persuasive blending of musical idioms from various cultures. Heard in this context, that fusion seemed the perfect artistic metaphor for the bringing together of disparate elements that Obama made a cornerstone of his campaign message. (Yo-Yo Ma will be one of the four musicians who will premiere John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts during the inaugural ceremony.)

Highlights included Lou Harrison's dynamic, atmospheric Concerto for Pipa and Strings, with brillaint soloist Wu Man; the darkly beautiful Prayer by Ernest Bloch; and virtuosic, prismatic arrangements of traditional Romanian gypsy songs. It was also wonderful to hear "Ashokan Farewell" again, the haunting tune by Jay Ungar that was used so effectively as the theme music for the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War. The concert-launching arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," complete with bagpipe, was a winner, too -- a remarkably colorful, respectful, engaging treatment that found fresh expressiveness in a melody that will be heard often, and resonate deeply, in the days ahead.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:40 PM | | Comments (0)

January 16, 2009

BSO provides antidote to the cold

Call it the sleeper concert of the season, so far.

Stephane DeneveOn paper, this week's Baltimore Symphony program looked a little, well, dull. Not that I wasn't intrigued to hear a performance led by French conductor Stephane Deneve, who has been generating a good deal of buzz for several years now (and whose head of wildly explosive hair rivals James Levine's -- it's grown considerably since the photo at left was taken). Or that I wasn't interested in experiencing French pianist Frank Braley. This is the BSO debut for both musicians. 

But the two all-orchestral pieces on the bill, Ravel's La Valse and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, have hardly been long absent on BSO concerts. Both were specialities of former music director Yuri Temirkanov; the latter was conducted as recently as June 2006 by current music director Marin Alsop. As for the third item on the bill, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, it's not exactly a barnburner.

So there I was last night, tired and chilled, at Meyerhoff Hall, expecting to be mildly diverted. So much for making assumptions.

From the first rapt, barely audible, barely moving notes of the Ravel score, Deneve had my attention. The conductor went on to push, pull, tweak, finesse and almost pummel the work to create a deliciously eventful interpretation. I wasn't convinced by all of the little tempo fluctuations and phrase-bending along the way, but the music had a hot freshness as it progressed from that misty opening to the dizzying whirl of the coda. The BSO hung on more or less tightly through it all; the rough patches in articulation should be smoothed over by tonight's repeat performance.

Frank BraleyWhen the dancing mood resumed after intermission, Deneve gave Rachmaninoff's brilliant score an equally compelling treatment that combined effective proportions of tautness and elasticity. The conductor paid keen attention to the bittersweetness that seems so much a part of this piece, and he deftly drew out the dramatic coloring of the instrumentation. Again, there were a few unsettled spots in the playing, but the orchestra poured on the tonal and expressive warmth. Gary Louie molded the melancholy sax solo in the first movement to eloquent effect. 

In between the orchestral showpieces, Franck's compact, modest non-concerto held its own firmly. There is a lot of gold in this work, and the longhaired, zero-body-fat, chicly attired Braley (right -- not as he appeared last night) knew how to extract the keyboard portion of it, using crystalline articulation and phrasing of considerable refinement and imagination. The conductor saw to it that the orchestral also fulfilled its role with personality.

All in all, a great evening for Franck, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and a memorable local debut by two exceptional Frenchmen. The program will be performed tonight at the Meyerhoff, tomorrow night at Strathmore -- well worth braving the arctic chill.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:08 AM | | Comments (1)

January 14, 2009

BSO lays off staffers

The recession — or is it the Great Depression II? — continues to take its toll on the local arts scene.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra laid off five of its 67 administrative employees and changed one full-time position to part-time today in an effort to reduce expenditures. Those moves, along with a decision not to fill select staff positions, will save the BSO about $500,000.

“We can see that the economic downturn is going to be a lot more prolonged than we had expected,” president/CEO Paul Meecham said. “Rather than wait until it is too late to make these expenditure reductions, we wanted to make this decision now.”

The BSO has seen a decline in single ticket sales and government grants this season. Meecham said that smaller gifts to the orchestra, those below $500, are down on average about 30 percent from last year. (Major gifts, those $10,000 and up, are holding steady.) And since Sept. 1, the orchestra’s endowment has dropped 23 percent in value to about $47 million. “We’re trying to do everything we can to cut costs and raise money,” Meecham said, “without cutting quality onstage.”

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:29 PM | | Comments (4)

Nearly 100,000 cyber-signers endorse Arts post

Last week, I posted something about the online petition urging the Obama Adminsitration to add a Secretary of the Arts post to the cabinet. At that time, more than 10,000 peoplke had signed. Today, the number is nearly 100,000. (No, I'm not making any connection between my posting and this increase.) Imagine the impact if all those signatures arrived in a massive pile via individual snail-mails.

This sure looks like something that can't be totally ignored by the new powers-that-be, and it will be interesting to see what kind of response they make to this extraordinary show up support for the arts in this country.

If you haven't yet joined the movement, it's not too late to sign.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:16 PM | | Comments (0)

January 13, 2009

Peabody jazz studies director salutes Obama

For a cool bit of of jazz improv, inspired by the president-elect, check out this performance of a new work created by Gary Thomas, sax player and director of jazz studies at the Peabody Conservatory, and performed with bassist and George Washington University professor Herman Burney. It was atmospherically filmed by Jay Corey at the foot of Peabody's grand staircase.
Posted by Tim Smith at 6:35 PM | | Comments (0)

More buzz about arts gaining place in White House

Maybe its just a mix of wild optimism and gossip, but it's encouraging to hear more talk about the possibility of an arts czar, if not a cabinet-level culture post, in the new administration. Thanks to, I learned this morning that the online mag Artnet recently reported some encouraging buzz about the prospect of the arts achieving a more prominent place on the agenda in that big house on Pennsylvania Ave.
Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (0)

January 12, 2009

Washington National Opera unveils 2009-10 season

Although dyed-in-the-Rhine types will still feel terribly disappointed that Washington National Opera had to shelve a complete production of Wagner’s Ring next season due to fiscal constraints, there are considerable attractions on the company’s 2009-2010 lineup. (That Ring has not been canceled outright, company officials hasten to reiterate, but merely postponed.)

The season, which WNO general director Placido Domingo describes as “a perfect balance” (some might call it a perfectly conservative balance), offers six staged productions, rather than the current seven, along with a Wagner opera in concert form and a concert of operatic excerpts.

First up in September is Rossini’s evergreen, The Barber of Seville. Making his company debut as Almaviva in this production will be the brilliant-toned tenor Lawrence Brownlee. The title role will be shared by Simone Alberghini and Marco Caria. Verdi’s sublime comedy Falstaff arrives in October. The title role has yet to be announced, but the cast includes Gordon Hawkins (Ford) and Nancy Maultsby (Dame Quickly).

Ariadne auf Naxos, the ingenious Richard Strauss opera, will be staged in late October/early November with a promising roster that includes Iréne Theorin (Ariadne), Kristine Jepson (Composer), Pär Lindskog and Ian Storey (alternating in the role of Bacchus).

Company music director Heinz Fricke, who will conduct Ariadne, will also be on the podium when WNO presents a concert version of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung in place of the originally slated staged production that would have rounded off the company’s ambitious Ring. Two performances in November will feature Theorin (Brünnhilde), Hawkins (Alberich), Storey (Siegfried) and Alan Held (Gunther).

WNO’s spring season opens in March 2010 with Gershwin’s iconic Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens and Lester Lynch will alternate as Porgy, Morenike Fadayomi (right) and Indira Mahajan as Bess. (Coincidentally, Porgy and Bess and The Barber of Seville are the two works that the Baltimore Opera won't be staging this spring, having filed for Chapter 11, so Baltimore opera lovers can catch both of them in DC next season.)

In April/May 2010, Mozart’s enduring comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, will offer such singers as Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Almaviva) and Krassimira Stoyanova (Countess).

The company will introduce Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet into its repertoire in May/June 2010, featuring Carlos Alvarez in the title role, Samuel Ramey as Claudius and Diana Damrau as Ophelia. Domingo will conduct this infrequently encountered opera. He’ll also conduct a concert in October with Abdrazakov and celebrated mezzo Olga Borodina (the two singers are husband and wife).

All performances are at the Kennedy Center. Season subscriptions for ’09-’10 are $300 to $2,100. Single tickets will go on sale this summer. 

An addition to WNO’s current season has also been announced: Domingo will sing a program called “From My Latin Soul,” featuring tangos, excerpts from zarzuelas and more. This concert, with the WNO Orchestra, will be on May 1 (2009) at DAR Constitution Hall.

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Washington National Opera. 'Falstaff,' top (R. Millard photographer for L.A. Opera); 'Porgy and Bess,' center (Karin Cooper, photographer); 'Hamlet,' above (Lyric Opera of Kansas City photo)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (0)

January 11, 2009

Alsop, Baltimore Symphony in fate-filled program

Marin AlsopIn the quirkiest quirk of the BSO's scheduling so far this season, a big, imaginative program conducted by Marin Alsop (right) was performed exactly once over the weekend. If you missed it Friday at the Meyerhoff, you were out of luck, although one item from that evening, Brahms' Symphony No. 1, was carried over to Saturday's "Off the Cuff" presentation.

The lineup on Friday delivered a fate-filled theme: Tchaikovsky's rarely heard tone poem Hamlet, a portrait of Shakespeare's noble, doomed hero; Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World, a tribute to Martin Luther King's inspiring philosophy, and an unsettling reminder of his tragic death; and that Brahms symphony, with its references to the "fate" motive from Beethoven's Fifth. The Brahms score, of course, moves from darkness to light by the end, affirming the possibilities for our better angels to triumph.

It was great to find the Tchaikovsky piece on the bill, and it reminded me of his other under-played tone poems that I wish we could get around here: Fatum, The Tempest, Voyevoda. Alsop led a taut, often gripping account of the score. I only wish she had brought more weight to the solemn coda and, especially, had held onto the final chord much longer. There was a lot of admirable work from the ensemble, including some sit-up-and-take-notice playing from guest oboist Shea Scruggs, who was doing principal duties as part of his audition for the assistant oboe chair.   

Schwantner's eventful score, bristling with percussive flurries, ominous brass chords and Copland-esque warmth and directness, proved ...

as potent as it had Wednesday during the BSO's annual MLK concert. Kweisi Mfume was again the narrator, even more assured and vibrant in his delivery this time. Alsop again fashioned a telling, propulsive performance that had the orchestra sounding in top form.

The conductor's approach to Brahms varies in effectiveness from piece to piece. On Friday, her account of the First Symphony was just shy of being thoroughly convincing (same for her recording of it with the London Philharmonic, to my ears). There were many terrific things, to be sure, among them the bold thrust at the start of the first movement; the lovely lyrical molding of the two inner movements; and the wonderful pianissimo pizzicato she coaxed from the strings during the portentous opening of the finale. But the famous tune of that finale, the moment every Brahms lover is waiting for, passed by blandly, taken at such a slow pace and so limited in dynamic shading that the glorious melody sounded curiously drained of life and poetry. Still, Alsop made up for that deflation with plenty of  drama and incisiveness as the symphony headed toward its optimistic conclusion.

On Saturday night, I stopped by to hear Alsop discuss the Brahms symphony before a good-sized, age-diverse audience that dared ignore the Ravens game (the conductor sported purple cuffs underneath her trademark black suit for the occasion). The vociferous cheers that erupted at her first appearance reaffirmed just how strongly Alsop connects with many BSO fans -- such enthusiasm, needless to say, is not enjoyed by every conductor everywhere.

Phil MundsThis was the second in her new "Off the Cuff" series, a concept that includes a spoken introduction (truly and coolly off the cuff in Alsop's case) and then a complete performance of a big work, with everything wrapped up in a neat package of about 75 minutes. I don't think it would have been too stuffy if Alsop had spent a little time on describing the structure of the symphony (never miss an opportunity to toss in good ol' sonata form, I say), but her remarks were entertaining and as pithy as ever. A nice touch was having the BSO's first-chair string players offer a sample of the chamber work that introduced a 12-year-old Alsop to Brahms.

Along the way, her comments were punctuated by apt excerpts from the First Symphony and music by Brahms' contemporaries, smoothly delivered by the orchestra. There also was a neat surprise -- principal horn Phil Munds (left) lifted a mile-long alp horn and played the tune Brahms apparently heard on a such an instrument during a visit to the mountains and, to haunting effect, incorporated into the finale of his symphony. 



Posted by Tim Smith at 6:23 PM | | Comments (0)

January 8, 2009

MLK concert gets lift from Marin, Mfume, Moore

Speeches and music-making are typically mixed at concerts honoring Martin Luther King. That combination worked out particularly well last night, when the BSO and Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture presented the 23rd MLK Tribute at the Meyerhoff.

This month's inauguration in Washington was referenced often in remarks by various participants, but King remained the center of attention, especially in the major work on the program. His words are integrated into New Morning for the World, a 1982 score by Joseph Schwantner, one of the most effective pieces for narrator and orchestra since Copland's Lincoln Portrait.

The choice of texts is astute, containing some of King's most incisive and poetic thoughts about equality and justice, and the composer's music manages to anticipate, underline and reflect on those texts with equal power. Schwantner largely avoids the obvious and melodramatic; the sober coda reminds the listener of the magnitude of King's loss, the hopes that remain unfulfilled.

Marin Alsop, conducting her first MLK concert here, fashioned a strong, cohesive performance from the combined forces of the BSO and the Soulful Symphony. She drew lush sounds from the strings in the lyrical passages and finely articulated work from the prominent percussion section. She had a terrific ally in narrator Kweisi Mfume (above right), who recited King's words vividly, without ever straining for effect.

Alsop turned over the podium to ...

Joseph YoungJoseph Young, the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow and recent recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Foundation Career Grant, for a performance of Global Warming, a 1991 score by Michael Abels. It's not so much an environmentalist piece as a can't-we-all-get-along exercise. Abels introduces more or less Celtic-flavored idioms, followed by more or less Middle Eastern ones, then puts them together. It's easy on the ears, if a little light on musical depth. Young (right) had the music flowing smoothly. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn brought plenty of flair to the solo flurries at the start of the work, which suggest a kind of blue-grassy take on Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

The Baltimore City College Choir offered spirited, expressive singing in several selections on the program, especially Mark Butler's a cappella "Signs of the Judgement," led by director Linda Hall. Whatever technical unevenness the ensemble encountered during the evening was easily overlooked in light of the dynamic styling, which vibrantly propelled the concluding performance of Richard Smallwood's surefire "Total Praise," conducted by Alsop.

Two non-musical items on the program left a potent mark. Delores Moore, spendidly attired for the occasion (her opening line was, "Do you like my dress?"), held the hall in her hands as she told her winning entry in the Stoop Storytelling Series, a childhood memory of meeting Dr. King. Moore proved to be a natural, disarming word-spinner.

Elijah CummingsAnd Congressman Elijah Cummings (left) delivered a short, stirring address that concluded with the lyrics to a Garth Brooks song, "We Shall Be Free," that fit the occasion perfectly:

When the last child cries for a crust of bread/When the last man dies for just words that he said/When there's shelter over the poorest head/We shall be free/When the last thing we notice is the color of skin/And the first thing we look for is the beauty within ... Then we shall be free ...

My own favorite lines (I conress I had never heard of the song) were these: When we're free to love anyone we choose/When this world's big enough for all different views/When we all can worship from our own kind of pew/Then we shall be free.

That had me wondering how many people are truly ready to embrace such a vision, especially the "love anyone we choose" part, which seems to me like the ultimate extension of King's philosophy. Given recent events around the country, I fear we still have a long, long way to go.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)

January 7, 2009

Petition for arts Cabinet post is gaining steam

Qincy JonesOne of the best ways to promote and preserve the cultural health of this country would be to give the arts Cabinet-level status. After Quincy Jones (left) was quoted in a recent interview saying that he would lobby for the creation of a Secretary of the Arts position when he next chats with the new president, a petition quickly emerged and is making its way across the cyberscape. It has attracted more than 10,000 signatures already, including the likes of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and composer John Corigliano.

It's easy to imagine a cabinet post that oversees the NEA and other exisiting cultural organizations in the government and that uses the office to push for a renassiance of arts education in schools and the shoring up of cultural institutions across the country. Other countries, including the UK, have secretaries of culture or the equivalent. There are strong reasons for the US to have one, too. William Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina outlined those reasons in a recent New York Times op-ed.  

You never know how petitions will fare in attracting attention and generating results, but the one inpired by Quincy Jones looks well worth signing and passing along. At least there's some change in the air right now, so the timing is certainly right.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:56 PM | | Comments (5)

January 5, 2009

Arts groups offer deals for furloughed state employees

Generosity continues to flow from local arts groups. A couple weeks ago, ticket-holders left without any tickets to hold when the Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy were offered a choice of free seats to a variety of music and theater events in Baltimore and Washington during the remainder of the season. Today, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy group that has been active for more than 25 years, announced that several organizations have joined an effort to support the 67,000 state employees who are facing furloughs as part of a budget-balancing move. The employees will be able to obtain various deals, including free or discounted tickets, from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, CenterStage, Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum and others. The list of organizations participating in "The Arts Step Up" program is expected to grow.
Posted by Tim Smith at 4:46 PM | | Comments (3)

Met's 'Thais' with Fleming simulcast at the Lyric

Renee Fleming in ThaisThe Baltimore Opera has gone dark for the remainder of the season (and perhaps beyond), but the company's longtime home remains operatically active.

This week, the Lyric Opera House presents a re-broadcast of Massenet's Thais performed on the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera last month with luminous soprano Renee Fleming in the title role. The hi-def simulcast will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric. Tickets are $25.

(Maryland movie theaters participating in The Met: Live in HD series will also offer the Thais re-broadcast on Wednesday.)

As for whether the Lyric will continue to offer the hi-def Met simulcasts originally scheduled for the rest of the season (and presented with Baltimore Opera), that remains to be seen and heard.

AP PHOTO: Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in Massenet's 'Thais' at the Metropolitan Opera 


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:05 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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