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February 28, 2009

Baltimore Symphony's passionate program with Oundjian, Mueller-Schott

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moved into deeply personal territory last night, playing a program that might be considered the musical equivalent of a bare-all TV chat show, a few tears included.

Inside Elgar's Enigma Variations are affectionate portraits of his wife and friends (possibly including a mistress), as well as himself; within those portraits other revelations and secrets lurk. Dvorak's Cello Concerto goes well beyond the expected virtuoso showpiece to present something so intimate and affecting that it seems as if the composer's on an analyst's couch, letting everything out. And the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's stunning opera Peter Grimes takes us deep into the title character's troubled world, with its mystery and fear.

Guiding the way through all this heady and soulful stuff at the Meyerhoff was Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony. He got to the heart of the matter with admirable results, carefully drawing out the subtle coloring of the Dawn and Moonlight movements Britten pieces and letting the Storm really rip. That was some of the most visceral BSO playing of the season. Earlier, the ensemble encountered an occasional smudge, but it was evident that this was going to be a night of strongly communicative feeling onstage.

Things were really cooking in the Elgar, which Oundjian lavished expressive nuance on, yielding one freshly affecting passage after another. It was a remarkably persuasive interpretation, one that didn't go overboard emotionally (not that I would necessarily mind if he had -- I'm one of a handful of people who thrills, rather than vomits, to the excesses Bernstein allowed in his infamous BBC Symphony recording of the piece). But Oundjian didn't err on the side of cool British reserve, either. The performance was alive and engrossing from the get-go. And the orchestra, again with just the smallest of exceptions, played mightily.

What I especially liked was the way the music-making clearly revealed that there is a whole world of intent beneath the surface of the brilliantly crafted score. (If you want to explore more of that world, Oundjian leads an "Off the Cuff" program tonight at the Meyerhoff that will include a more detailed analysis of the Enigma Variations in advance of a complete performance.)

The Dvorak concerto introduced Daniel Mueller-Schott, a young cellist who revealed considerable technical fluency and a flair for poetic phrasing, achieving magical results in the Adagio. The soloist's gorgeous playing here was matched by admirable sensitivity from the BSO. Mueller-Schott seemed a bit underpowered in the finale, but still full of lyrical force, and when he reached the cello's haunting interlude of reflection just before the emphatic close of the concerto, he again achieved a truly touching quality. The conductor's attentive and incisive contributions proved no less noteworthy.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:16 AM | | Comments (0)

February 27, 2009

Soulful Symphony latest to be hit by recession

The Soulful Symphony has canceled its next program, scheduled for April 3 at Strathmore and April 4 at the Meyerhoff, due to the economic slump. The season finale in May, a tribute to Motown, will proceed as scheduled.

In a statement just released, Soulful Symphony founder and artistic director said: "It's unfortunate that the current economic downturn has affected us in this way. We are anticipating an exciting evening as we close the season with The Sounds of Motown. Our patrons are resilient and we will do everything possible to keep alive the wonderful performances they have come to love."

Adds Baltimore Symphony Orchestra vice president and general manager, Kendra Whitlock Ingram: “We felt it best to focus all of our efforts on The Sounds of Motown, which, given current sales, is projected to sell out.” (Soulful Symphony is affiliated with the BSO.)

The orchestra is offering refunds or ticket exchanges. Call 410-783-8000.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:23 PM | | Comments (0)

London Philharmonic, Jurowski, Fleisher deliver superb music-making at Strathmore

Vladimir JurowskiFor a brief moment, I felt a little guilty about missing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance last night at the Meyerhoff in order to catch the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore. But I quickly spotted some BSO staffers playing hooky, too, so those qualms evaporated in a flash. Besides, the BSO's program will be repeated; the LPO's visit to the region (another valuable presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society) was confined to this single appearance.

It has been quite a while since I heard the esteemed ensemble, and I had yet to experience its buzz-producing principal conductor, Moscow-born Vladimir Jurowski. Both left me deeply impressed.

Let's start with the sound of the LPO -- lush, but never thick, and exceptionally refined. I was quite taken with how smoothly and tightly entrances were made, each section cohesively articulating and adding equally to the big aural picture. The strings had a silken tone (the basses -- lined single-file along one side wall, a practice the BSO might want to explore -- sounded unusually rich and dark); the woodwinds glowed; the brass had power that never coarsened. It was fun just soaking up all the orchestral color emanating from the stage, but there was much more than that to savor.

Jurowski, tall and thin with a long mane of black hair (he probably could have gotten a supporting role in Twilight), goes against the podium norm, conducting with an economy of means and few leaps or swirls. His precise gestures obviously communicate with clarity and feeling to his LPO players.

Jurowski's firm command served him well throughout the demanding program, starting with the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 (the only movement fully completed before the composer's death). Although I would have liked even more whomp when the music reached the amazing passage of screaming dissonance toward the end, everything else registered in a thoroughly convincing and involving fashion as the conductor drew out one telling detail after another. The final moments, when Mahler seems to let go of all earthly cares, were molded with particularly sensitivity.

After an awfully long seating change, a reduced complement of players took their places for ...

Leon FleisherMozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 -- and unusual places at that, with all of the wind instruments grouped on one side of the piano. That turned out to be a terrific idea, visually and sonically, underlining the exquisite role those instruments play in this work. The soloist was Leon Fleisher, whose every performance is treasurable for the wealth of musical depth it reveals. A few little bumps aside, his playing was as technically poised as it was expressively potent. He achieved a transfixing beauty of phrase in the bittersweet slow movement. Jurowski partnered the pianist effortlessly, drawing gorgeous work from the orchestra.

The evening closed with an imaginative pairing of Ligeti's Atmospheres and Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, linked together with no break. This nod to the works' use in 2001 wasn't some cheap marketing idea. You didn't even need to have any memory of that iconic film (personally, I always thought it was way over-praised -- perhaps because I never could make heads or tails of it). The diffuse clusters of sound in the time-stopping Ligeti score conjured up a kind of ancient, unfathomable cosmic space that slowly dissolved into nothing more than the breaths of brass players blowing note-lessly through the instruments, before the first rumbles of the Strauss piece signaled the approaching sun. Cool.

The LPO responded firmly to Jurowski's sure, nuanced direction, producing Ligeti's painstakingly crafted tone clusters deftly and digging into Zarathustra with a vivid spirit.

Quite a night.


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

February 25, 2009

Triple-header at Met Opera reveals company's strengths

Finally got a chance to report on the Metropolitan Opera portion of my New York weekend (I know you've all been positively breathless with anticipation). The big news in town, of course, was the reopening of Alice Tully Hall after a nifty makeover, but there was a lot happening at the Met to write home about, too.

First up on Friday night was a production of Verdi's Il Trovatore that managed to minimize the holes in the notoriously overwrought plot, thanks largely to an appropriately dark, Goya-inspired staging designed by Charles Edwards that moved with cinematic fluency under David McVicar's fresh direction. (One test of a director in this work comes in the second scene, when Leonora mistakes di Luna for her boyfriend Manrico in the dark. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard audiences giggle at this, but McVicar’s solution avoided that pitfall entirely; Leonora’s mistake looked perfectly plausible. Maybe a small detail, but worth a lot to me.) The most noteworthy thing, in these days of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Verdi singers, was that the cast managed to ...

generate a great deal of expressive heat, with admirable sensitivity and dramatic understanding from conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

Sondra Radvanovsky was a riveting Leonora. Take all the points away that you like for her sometimes edgy tone, but you still would have to give her high marks for the intensity and theater-filling power of her singing, the uncommon attention to words and phrasing (even while sprawled on the floor for part of her Act 1 aria). The soprano has remarkable presence, and she used that quality to command the stage and deeply humanize the character. You can't ask for much more than that.

Marcelo Alvarez was getting over bronchitis on Friday, but the tenor still sang the role of Manrico with considerable elan and stylish detail. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as di Luna, pushed his velvety baritone to the limit, and the effort sometimes showed, but he turned in about as warm an account of Il balen as you're likely to hear today. And Dolora Zajick, despite some thinning in the upper reaches, fleshed out Azucena's music with authoritative flourish. Yeah, I know, singers today can't measure up to the glorious days of yore, but I'd say the present measures up pretty darn well on nights like this.

Saturday afternoon was filled with Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, that deliciously old-fashioned, over-the-top romantic opera so beloved of prima donnas. I don't really think of Marina Guleghina as true diva material, but she’s a vivid singer and actress, and she clearly relished the title role. I missed the lovely, floating high notes and truly tender phrases associated with interpreters of  times past, but the soprano's dynamic characterization proved consistently effective.

As Adriana’s beloved Maurizio, Placido Domingo was returning to the role that served as his unexpected Met debut 40 years ago, subbing for an indisposed colleague. (A few updated adjustments aside, this was even the same physical production he was in back then.) The nattering opera bloggers have their knickers in a twist over the fact that Domingo had his music transposed down for this production, arguing that he’s past it and just satisfying his ego now. Oh, please. The man has paid his dues, can still get up there high enough for genuine tenordom, and can still produce a vibrant, exciting tone in the process. He’s still a very decent actor, too. Why not let him have the fun of returning to this opera? On opening night earlier in the month, Domingo was said to be recovering from a cold. On Saturday, he sounded hale as he created quite a persuasive Maurizio.

As the Princess, Adriana’s vengeful rival for Maurizio’s affections, Olga Borodina poured out big, compelling vocalism. A supporting full of astute singing actors enhanced the production. Marco Armiliato conducted with a lyrical sweep.

It’s easy to denigrate Adriana Lecouvreur as a silly confection, the operatic equivalent of a Death by Chocolate dessert (Death by Milk Chocolate, at that), but the melodies are really quite beguiling, the orchestration deftly crafted, the whole thing remarkably assured. A guilty pleasure.

On Saturday night came Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, in the stunning Robert Carsen production with sets and costumes by Michael Levine – a brilliant study in minimalism, where plain walls and a few pieces of furniture become far more expressive than the most ornate Zeffirelli scenery. Jiri Belohlavek conducted superbly, always allowing the music to breathe.

Karita Mattila revealed all the charm and vulnerability of Tatiana, singing in a pure tone that cut to the heart of each line. Thomas Hampson sounded pressed at times as Onegin, but his performance was rich in nuance and insight. It was actually possible to sympathize with the seemingly heartless character, which says plenty about Hampson’s abilities. Lensky was winningly sung and acted by Piotr Beczala. And Baltimore’s own James Morris offered a refreshing, thoroughly ingratiating portrayal of Prince Gremin, singing his aria with considerable eloquence. The rest of the cast was on the same intense wavelength as the principals. Here, as in the other two performances I heard in that 27-hour span, the Met’s justly celebrated orchestra did exemplary work.

At a time when the company has sold a million tickets to its simulcasts at cineplexes around the country and beyond, it was good to be back in the house itself, experiencing opera the old-fashioned, in-the-flesh way, and getting so many aural and visual rewards out of it.

PHOTOS FROM METROPOLITAN OPERA AND AP: Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez in 'Il Trovatore'; Placido Domingo in 1968 and 2009 as Maurizio in 'Adriana Lecouvreur' at the Met; Thomas Hampson in 'Eugene Onegin'

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)

Peabody Symphony's respectable account of the Mahler Ninth

Even Gustav Mahler, who famously predicted his time would come, might be surprised that student orchestras would take up his symphonies without a second thought. In his day, the composer often faced dubious, even rebellious musicians -- not to mention audiences and critics.

Mahler's valedictory Ninth Symphony, which suggests a frantic grasping onto the present life with one hand and a calm reaching out to the next life with the other, may not seem as likely a candidate for young players as, say, his more straightforward First. But Hajime Teri Murai, the dedicated director of orchestral activities at the Peabody Conservatory, doesn't consider anything off-limits, especially Mahler, who is represented annually in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra's programming.

Last night, the Ninth was addressed (before what should have been a larger audience), and the results proved quite respectable, especially after the halfway point. Earlier on, the woodwinds and brass encountered rough patches, and the strings were not entirely focused, but the musicians gradually settled more securely into the groove, technically and expressively. My guess is that a second performance would be really smokin', but one-night stands are the rule at Peabody (musically speaking, I hasten to add). ...

Most impressive was the way the ensemble tore into the third movement, articulating with considerable cohesiveness, tonal brightness and, in the mad dash of the coda, fearless speed. The ensuing finale, too, included a lot of impressive work, notably from the strings, which summoned a dark, vibrant sound. Of the various solo contributions during the performance, those by concertmaster Netanel Draiblate proved particularly confident and eloquent.

Ultimately, I wasn't terribly moved by Murai's approach to the score. He got all the main points across, to be sure, and many of the subtler ones; he shaped each movement thoughtfully, if rather heavy-handedly at times. What I missed was a sense of depth, of peering into the uncertain world beneath the score. The interpretation could have used a little more breadth in the profound outer movements, more nuance in the mercurial inner ones.

Still, enough the Ninth's soulful power certainly emerged, and it felt good to experience such big music and such big ideas in Peabody's relatively intimate Friedberg Hall.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (1)

February 23, 2009

Your weekly anxiety medicine

So, OK, the stock market just sank another 250 points, and the week is young. Who knows where, or if, this downward spiral will end?

I'm still reeling from my last 401K report, which made me realize that I'll have to work until the age of 91 in order to afford retirement -- if I could even manage to keep a job that long (and please don't remind me of all the glum predicitions about the future of newspapers).

Let's face it, we're all on this bumpy road together, and we all need a bailout of some kind, if only emotionally. Since music is always good for any ailment, especially flagging spirits, I think it's a perfect time to sit back and wallow in the sublime Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. It should be able to soothe any troubled soul.

I figured we could use an extra dose of this potent anxiety-queller, so I looked for a really long interpretation (Herbert von Karajan is the conductor), rather than one of those now-fashionably brisk accounts. Enjoy.


MAHLER / Adagietto - 4º movimiento de la sinfonía nº 5 - Karajan
Posted by Tim Smith at 4:38 PM | | Comments (2)

Mahler's valedictory Ninth Symphony to be performed at Peabody

This turns out to be the season of Mahler's Ninth around here.

Hajime Teri Murai, the Peabody Conservatory's music director of orchestras, challenges the students with a Mahler symphony just about every year, and challenges don't get much tougher than No. 9 — or more rewarding (technically, mentally, emotionally). Murai last conducted the Ninth at the school in 2001; he returns to the autumnal score this week with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. Judging by Murai's affinity for the composer, and the caliber of the students I've heard in the Peabody Symphony this year, it ought to be an effective performance. The concert is at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are a bargain: $5 to $15.

Unexpectedly, audiences will have a rare opportunity to delve into the profound issues of Mahler's Ninth twice in two months. Marin Alsop was to have led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the composer's Sixth, but the extra musicians it required caused second thoughts in these tough times, and the Ninth was substituted. Performances will be in early April.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:06 PM | | Comments (0)

Makeover of New York's Alice Tully Hall yields impressive results

Alice Tully HallNon-New Yorkers can, I trust, be forgiven if they tend to think of the monolithic Lincoln Center in New York as containing only three components, the ones neatly flanking the often-photographed fountain in the plaza: the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall (home of the New York Philharmonic) and what was originally named the New York State Theater and now called the David H. Koch Theater (the currently-in-renovation home of New York City Opera and New York City Ballet). The rest of the center complex, including the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the sensational revival of South Pacific has long been running, is hardly less significant, of course. There is perhaps more artistic activity per square yard of the full Lincoln Center than anywhere else.

But one component in this lively space, Alice Tully Hall (home to the Chamber Music Society and New York Film Festival), has been thought of by some folks as a poor relation, partly owing to the rather unbecoming look of the building itself and the dry, widely panned acoustics inside. I don't think aspersions will be cast any longer. Tully Hall, which officially reopened last night after a $159 million makeover that took nearly two years, is now basking in fresh limelight. ...

Alice Tully HallI did not attend enough performances in the old Tully to make any authoritative comparisons, but I sure do remember how unbecoming the space was, inside and out. I couldn't agree more with New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who had this to say over the weekend:

Sunday’s opening of a remade Alice Tully Hall, the first phase of an overhaul of Lincoln Center scheduled for completion in 2010, is a revelation. Designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the womblike performance space, its surfaces flush with new life, makes it hard to remember the dreariness of the 1969 original. The freshness springs from the architects’ willingness to break with worn-out urban design strategies. They aren’t scornful of the building’s history; nor do they treat it with undue reverence. With the precision of surgeons, they cut out ugly tumors and open up clogged arteries. In doing so, they suggest a way forward for a city in which preservation is all too often a form of embalmment. 

The imaginative, glass-walled lobby areas seem to brings the building out to the flow of Broadway outside, and bring that world inside. It's all very cool and chic, without looking pretentious. As for the interior performance space of the 1,100-seat theater, that struck me as quite welcoming, too. The walls, covered with a thin veneer of lit-by-LED-from-within moabi wood, offer visual appeal. (The first applause heard last night was for the hall itself, when, after the house lights dimmed, the elegant effect of those walls registered on the crowd.) A colleague reminded me of some odd dividers used in the seating area previously; all is smoothly and sensibly arranged now.  

Alice Tully HallAnd the sound? Clear and, for the most part, quite warm, during last night's mixed program, designed to offer a sampling of styles and sizes of musical expression, from the 15th century to now, from solo piano to orchestra. The concert kicked off Tully Hall's action- and variety-packed Opening Nights Festival, which runs through March 8 and is charging only $25 for tickets (some events are free).

The first sounds on Sunday came from the eminent early music specialist Jordi Savall, with soprano Montserrat Figueras and Hesperion XXI, performing timeless Sephardic music that filled the space with gentle coloring. Leon Fleisher delivered Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with remarkable expressive weight. (He was the only artist on the bill who got an extra bow, even though it meant getting in the way of stagehands. Fleisher apparently broke what a no-curtain-call rule meant to keep the concert moving quickly -- a reception was to follow, and a full concert by Savall and his ensemble after that.)

Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel from 1999 for cello and marimba, an arresting work that floats and shimmers and sighs and dances -- Maya Beiser was the fine cellist, Tomoya Aomori the effortless marimbist. Beethoven entered the program at the last minute. An injury by cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet caused that illustrious group to bow out. Instead of the Bartok piece planned, the Brentano String Quartet saved the day with Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, delivered in brilliant, propulsive fashion.

Members of the Chamber Music Society delivered a low-key, rather charming account of Stravinsky's Octet for Winds. And several Society players also joined the Juilliard Orchestra for Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, conducted by David Robertson with a remarkable ear for textual clarity, tonal coloring and rhythmic elan.

It all added up to an eventful opening night that signaled a new life for the suddenly chic Alice Tully Hall.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Exterior and lobby shots from AP; performance shot of Brentano Quartet at opening concert courtesy of Lincoln Center (Richard Termine, photographer)

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:30 PM | | Comments (0)

February 20, 2009

Concert Artists of Baltimore postpones Verdi Requiem

The economy has claimed another victim, but this one only for the short term. The performance of Verdi's towering Requiem that was to have been the season finale for the Concert Artists of Baltimore on April 18 has been postponed until next season (date to be determined). Although the concert was underwritten by sponsors, "our concern was whether we could fill seats," board president Barry Williams says. "Hopefully, the economy will be much better next season."

Concert Artists, an organization with a professional chamber orchestra and chorus, performs most of its programs at the 600-seat Gordon Center in Owings Mills. The Requiem, which can usually be counted on to spark box office traffic, was slated for the 2,500-seat Lyric Opera House, home of the now-in-bankruptcy Baltimore Opera. Over the years, Concert Artists has presented events at the likewise full-sized Meyerhoff Symphony Hall down the street from the Lyric, with string public response. "We at least tripled and sometimes quadrupled attendance whenever we came downtown," says artistic director and conductor Edward Polochick. "And two months out we would have sold more than 700 tickets for a Meyerhoff concert. For the Requiem, we're below 100 in single ticket sales two months out." (Concert Artists subscribers already have their tickets.) Adds Polochick: "We would be wasting the performance." 

Like other arts groups, Concert Artists has been doing the belt-tightening thing this season since the economic downturn. Last month's Gordon Center program, for example, was changed to eliminate the planned choral numbers, saving more than $13,000 in personnel costs and music rentals.

Like many arts groups, this one doesn't have endowment funds to help get through lean times. But, while the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra had to suspend operations, Concert Artists has held on. "We are projecting another balanced budget," Williams says. A Mendelssohn program next month, with orchestra and chorus, at the Gordon Center will proceed as scheduled.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:02 PM | | Comments (1)

Placido Domingo receives $1 million Nilsson Prize

The world learned some months ago that the late, sensational Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson had left a tidy sum of money to award a prize for exceptional musical talent -- $1 million, making it the richest classical music honor, to be bestowed every few years to a singer, conductor or opera production.

Speculation started at once about who would be the first recipient, chosen by Nilsson herself before her death in 2005 and named in an envelope that was to remain sealed until now. Odds favored eminent tenor Placido Domingo, and that's who just received it. (An international jury will decide future winners.)

Here's Domingo's reaction, provided by his publicist:

New York, N.Y., February 20, 2009, - I was just informed by Dr. Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, that Birgit Nilsson has chosen me to be the first winner of her prize for musical excellence.

How do I express how deeply honored I am, how personally touched I feel, and how very much this prize means to me? Over the years I have been privileged to receive some wonderful tributes from world leaders and respected professional organizations for which I am most grateful, and I can say without hesitation, that this commendation from Birgit is one of my highest achievements.

To be honored by such an esteemed colleague means everything to me - because Birgit was, in addition to being a musical legend with a God- given singing voice, she was a total professional – Birgit Nilsson had complete discipline and stamina, as well as a razor sharp wit. Birgit personified musical excellence and that’s why she was a role model for me even before we sang together.

I remember singing at one of my most important and challenging engagements, my Italian debut at the Arena di Verona (my first Calaf in “Turandot” ) The vibrancy and magnitude of Birgit’s voice in those performances made her seem a sort of thunderbolt—the further I was positioned from her, the more monumental her voice sounded to me. And again, when Birgit and I sang 3 performances of “Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera - there were moments when I was so overwhelmed with admiration for her vocal abilities and power that I almost forgot to continue singing.

The unique power of her voice was made even more extraordinary when contrasted with her piano singing – the most pure and beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. One of my all-time cherished arias is ‘In questa reggia’ sung by Birgit - but the recording cannot compare to the sound I heard when singing with her. I very much regret that our repertoires did not coincide more often. The three works we have performed together are “Turandot” and “Tosca” and a recording of Weber’s “Oberon.”

My greatest regret was that Birgit and I never performed together in “Die Walküre” or “Tristan und Isolde.” I remember telling her this many years ago, to which she replied “Well then, you better hurry up.”

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (0)

Temirkanov cancels again

As used to be said of certain unreliable opera stars years ago, conductor Yuri Temirkanov is apparently available for a limited number of cancellations each season.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director emeritus has canceled his scheduled appearances here March 26-29 -- "indisposed" is the reason I hear -- as he did in 2006 and several times before that when he was still music director. From what I gather, he's also bailing on concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra in March and April. (It's not the first time he canceled on Boston.) Last month, he dropped commitments with an orchestra in London.

In Baltimore, Temirkanov will be replaced, as he was in 2006, by Yan Pascal Tortelier.

(I'm heading to New York today for a weekend of opera and the opening concert at Lincoln Center's freshly and mightily renovated Alice Tully Hall, where the performers will include Baltimore's own living legend, pianist Leon Fleisher. I'll add more details on Temirkanov as I get them along the way.)  

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:20 AM | | Comments (0)

Alsop, BSO effective in mix of Ives, Mozart, Saint-Saens

This seems a particular apt week to confront The Unanswered Question, the brief, provocative work written about 100 years ago by the great American maverick composer Charles Ives. Although he was referring to a search for the meaning of existence, his music can just as easily trigger other deeply vexing queries. Take your pick: Will the stimulus package really stimulate? Will the mortgage rescue plan really save the housing market? Will the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ever really be released on DVD? All unanswered, all unsettling.

The extraordinary originality of the Ives score – it sounds more daring than a ton of other music written over the last century – was effectively reaffirmed last night at the opening of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program at the Music Center at Strathmore. Conductor Marin Alsop used the opportunity to apply a certain theatricality, starting with low lighting. The strings were offstage and barely audible as they intoned the slowly shifting chords that suggest the unflappable, eternal elements of the universe. The angular trumpet notes that represent humankind's inquisitive impulse were played, also unseen, through various doors of the hall – questions in surround-sound. The four flutes, whose dissonant and increasingly unsettled interjections suggest futile attempts to provide “answers,” were the only instruments onstage. Except for one rough trumpet line, the performance proceeded smoothly and tellingly.

The Ives piece did not provide a natural lead-in to the Mozart symphony -- No. 29 – that followed, but no matter. Ives invariably stands alone. So does Mozart, whose symphony Alsop had unfolding at a graceful, elegant pace. This was some of the most relaxed conducting I’ve experienced from her, and it seemed to inspire the orchestra. The strings may not have always been at their tightest, but they produced a lovely, soft-grained tone as they inflected phrases with a great deal of nuance. The winds, too, exuded a poetic quality.

Saint-Saens’s evergreen Organ Symphony, which occupied the second half of the evening, likewise found Alsop in persuasive and engaging form. She took time to relish the lyrical warmth along the way, especially in the second movement, which exuded quite a vibrant glow, and ensured that the rich palette of instrumental coloring registered effectively. There was drama and sweep in the famous organ-fortified finale, but the performance, as a whole, was more about refinement and proportion. Once past some off-kilter spots early on, the BSO made an impressive showing. James Harp was the assured organist. Too bad he didn’t have a true pipe organ at his disposal, a feature sadly lacking at Strathmore, not to mention Meyerhoff Hall, where the program is repeated tonight and tomorrow.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:48 AM | | Comments (2)

February 18, 2009

Phish guitarist Anastasio to team with Baltimore Symphony

Trey AnastasioTrey Anastasio, the versatile guitarist of the rock band Phish, will be featured in a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance that includes the East Coast premiere of Time Turns Elastic, which he co-wrote with Don Hart and which was first performed last September in Nashville.

The concert, scheduled for May 21 at the Meyerhoff, will be conducted by BSO music director Marin Alsop. In addition to Time Turns Elastic, a work scored for vocals, electric guitar and orchestra, the program will feature other pieces by Anastasio and arrangements of songs from the Phish repertoire.

A "real-time pre-sale" of tickets, through Anastasio's fan community Web site, begins at 5 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 19) and ends at noon Feb. 27. BSO subscribers get their chance at a pre-sale through ticketmaster at 10 a.m. (EST) Feb. 26, ending at 10 p.m. (EST) Feb. 27.

The regular ticket sales through the BSO's box office commence at noon (EST) Feb. 28.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:14 PM | | Comments (2)

New Baltimore company to perform opera in concert

Like a lot of other people in this town, Brendan Cooke was affected personally by Baltimore Opera's decision to file for bankruptcy in December. He had sung with the company for nearly a decade, in more than 20 supporting roles and as a member of the chorus in the bass section, and he was counting on more work this spring. Cooke isn't giving up on opera, however. He's now running his own company: Baltimore Concert Opera.

"Some friends were talking about how we were going to have some free time this spring," he says, "and the idea of forming our own opera company started almost as a joke." But the idea quickly led in a serious direction, resulting in a project that will offer Mozart's Don Giovanni on March 25 in the elegant ballroom of the Engineer's Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion), which seats about 250. There will be no staging, just singers with music stands, and not too many of the recitatives ("it would be dreadfully boring without any acting," Cooke says). And no orchestra; to keep things financially manageable, there will be only piano accompaniment.

"Our feeling is that it is better to hear opera with no costumes, orchestra or acting than not to hear it at all," says Cooke, who will not be performing in this inaugural performance. The cast includes local and imported singers, conducted by Anthony Barrese. "Our goal is to break even, and we're well on the way to doing that," Cooke says. Not bad, considering that the company hasn't even issued a formal press release yet (members of the Engineer's Club received notices about the event yesterday). If all goes well, another opera-in-concert will be presented this spring. Beyond that, Cooke envisions a four-opera season, maybe two performances each. That will all depend on money, of course.

"It's been a neat ride so far," Cooke says. "And a neat project at a time when some of us are feeling beaten down." He is quick to point out that Baltimore Concert Opera was not formed by disgruntled folks attempting to "thumb our noses at Baltimore Opera. That couldn't be further from the truth. This is a way of providing something for people to do while Baltimore Opera is restructuring," he says.

Staged operas in Baltimore, on a smaller scale than the public enjoyed at the Lyric, remain available, thanks to Opera Vivente and Peabody Opera Theatre. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (2)

It can get rough out there for music teachers

Here's a sobering little bulletin from Italy, where an unsuspecting music teacher discovered the perils of trying to get a violin student to try a little harder. (Thanks to for alerting me to this.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)

February 17, 2009

A musical antidote to the latest stock market plunge

In case, like me, you glanced at today's Wall Street slide and felt yourself sliding a little, too, this luscious account of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise should provide at least a momentary lift. Feel free to return to it whenever another glum manifestation of the Great Recession arrives.

Vocalise (Rachmaninov) - Renee Fleming
Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 PM | | Comments (1)

February 16, 2009

Monument Piano Trio in fine form at An die Musik

Monument Piano TrioOne of the musical pleasures in Baltimore over the past five years or so has been the appearance and steady growth of the Monument Piano Trio. I thought early on that this group had the potential to enjoy a career well beyond the city. I still do, especially after Sunday night's concert at An die Musik, where the trio has artists-in-residence standing.

Violinist Igor Yuzefovich (assistant concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski (the BSO's assistant principal cellist), and pianist Michael Sheppard enjoy an obvious musical rapport. The lovely, refined phrasing they produced in the delicate slow movement of Beethoven's G major Trio (Op. 1, No., 2) was one example of how sensitively the players listen to and respond to each other. In the more rambunctious portions of that work, Sheppard encountered an occasionally cloudy measure, but he and his colleagues offered plenty of impressive playing. Same for the rest of the program, which ventured into much rarer territory.

Max Bruch is today known primarily for a handful of pieces for violin (or cello) and orchestra. His C minor Piano Trio doesn't enjoy much attention at all, but the Monument group made a strong case for it, tapping deeply into the music's lyrical groove. Rodion Shchedrin's Three Funny Pieces from 1997 actually can justify the "funny" tag, particularly the one called Let's Play an Opera by Rossini, which boils down Rossini's trademark devices into a manic few minutes, and the music hall kick of the Humoresque. The performers brought out the often quirky coloring of Shchedrin's writing with aplomb.

Sheppard has been writing a transcription for piano trio of Brahms' Symphony No. 2. The world may not need such a transcription, and there may be more than enough repertoire written expressly for piano trio to keep any ensemble busy for a long, long time. But I'm partial to transcriptions (I can't help myself from seeking out solo piano arrangements of things like Elgar, Bruckner and Mahler symphonies), so I'd hardly question Sheppard's decision to reduce Brahms to violin, cello and piano. Next season, the complete transcription will be performed; on Sunday, the second movement was unveiled as a teaser.

Some of the original material doesn't translate ideally (the darkest harmonies can't help but sound thin when paired down from orchestral strength), but Sheppard has skillfully and faithfully honored Brahms. And the performance had considerable warmth and character, just as you would expect from the Monument Piano Trio.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MONUMENT PIANO TRIO (from left: Igor Yuzefovich, Dariusz Skoraczewski, Michael Sheppard)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (0)

Savion Glover floors 'em with Baltimore Symphony

The BSO's Symphony With a Tap, I mean Twist, program over the weekend featured the return of Savion Glover, whose feet kicked up a storm to the orchestra's accompanying performances of big, splashy pieces. I caught Saturday night's presentation at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, which attracted the kind of crowd many orchestras would kill for these days -- plentiful, enthusiastic, racially and generationally diverse.

Savion GloverGlover has probably done more for tap dancing than anyone since Eleanor Powell, transforming the genre into a kinetic, complex art form for a new era. He held the crowd in the soles of his feet as he interpreted the propulsive rhythms of John Adams' Lollapalooza, Michael Daugherty's Desi (the score suggests a hyper, Tropicana Club-based episode of I Love Lucy), a Danzon by Arturo Marquez (Glover got some of his coolest effects here just by sliding the edge of his foot against the stage platform), and more.

Through it all, Marin Alsop had the BSO churning along brightly. On the first half of the concert, devoted to the orchestra alone, she led a dynamic account of the Robert Russell Bennett symphonic synthesis of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which generated lots of stylish playing from the ensemble.

There was also room for Mirage: A Fantasy of the Desert by A. Jack Thomas, the extraordinary African-American composer. conductor and educator who played a substantial role in Baltimore's musical life, starting in the early 1920s. The BSO premiered this neglected 1940s score in 2000 (Alsop credited the premiere to Darin Atwater and the Soulful Symphony in remarks from the stage on Saturday, but that seems to have been a case of misspeaking). Mirage is deftly written in an easy-going harmonic style, supported by a clear-cut structure and prismatic orchestration. It's as much fun to hear as I remember it being nine years ago, and it was sturdily performed.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:16 PM | | Comments (1)

Promising soprano lifts Virginia Opera's 'Tosca'

Virginia Opera ToscaYou just never know where or when you're going to have an ear-opening experience. I got a welcome jolt Friday night the moment Mary Elizabeth Williams strode onstage in the Virginia Opera production of Puccini's Tosca at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.

There was something in the vibrancy and warmth of the sound, something in the vitality of the phrasing, that immediately hit home. The company is hailing Williams as "a major discovery," and you won't get an argument from me. Sure, one performance is not enough to build an air-tight case for any singer's worth or potential, but I'd be surprised if we don't start hearing more about this unusually promising soprano.

Tosca is no easy role, not with the weight of historic, idolized interpreters breathing down any would-be diva's neck. With few exceptions, Williams seemed already at home -- vocally, physically, temperamentally -- in the assignment. When she reached Vissi d'arte, the moment every Tosca and every audience is waiting anxiously for, she got to the heart of the aria in remarkably vivid style. She even had a very individualistic interpretive touch in store, greatly prolonging a silence between the last two phrases, to electric effect.

The singer's middle and low registers emerged with particular lushness and power on Friday; the timbre sometimes reminded me of a young Leontyne Price. Some high notes turned brittle or lost their center, but there still was a lot of finely formed tone at the upper end, enough to suggest that Williams will continue to develop richly.

She was not surrounded by the healthiest of colleagues. The tenor, Michael Hayes, got through Cavardossi's first aria in reasonably solid, if blustery, form, then quickly deteriorated in the love duet. Pleading a cold, he mimed Act 2 and 3, while Kevin Perry (who had started in Act 1 as Spoletta) gamely sang the role from the orchestra pit. Meanwhile, the baritone, Stephen Kechulius, sounded as if he were going to bow out any moment, too. The initial force and flair of his singing gave way to a much more uneven sound, often scratchy and weak. His portrayal of the loathsome Scarpia had a good old-fashioned flourish, however, and that saw him through.

Virginia Opera ToscaJason Budd hammed things up mightily as the Sacristan and sang with a lot of color. The rest of the cast did more or less proficient work, as did the orchestra and chorus. Company artistic director Peter Mark conducted the score with considerable sensitivity, allowing the most tender passages plenty of room to breathe. Director Marc Astafan kept the action flowing smoothly, for the most part, within a nicely traditional setting.

In the end, the night belonged to Mary Elizabeth Williams. Despite leaping off a parapet to her doom as Tosca in the last minutes of the opera, this soprano seems much more likely to heading in an upward direction.

Incidentally, the trek to George Mason University from Baltimore is not fun (I've approached from both sides of the Beltway now, and still, somehow, it's the endless ride from whatever exit to Fairfax that I recall). But I've seen/heard Virginia Opera do some very respectable work over the past several years, and, especially with Baltimore Opera out of commission, it offers an alternative for those in our area needing more frequent operatic fixes. The final production this season is The Barber of Seville, presented April 3 and 5 at GMU. Next season: La Boheme, Daughter of the Regiment, Don Giovanni, Porgy and Bess.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF VIRGINIA OPERA (Anne M. Peterson, photographer)   

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)

February 13, 2009

Arts fundung survives stimulus bill passed by House

Much to my surprise, and delight, this bulletin arrived from American for the Arts:

Just moments ago, the U.S. House of Representatives approved their final version of the Economic Recovery bill by a vote of 246-183. We can now confirm that the package DOES include $50 million in direct support for arts jobs through National Endowment for the Arts grants. We are also happy to report that the exclusionary Coburn Amendment language banning certain arts groups from receiving any other economic recovery funds has also been successfully removed. Tonight the Senate is scheduled to have their final vote, and President Obama plans to sign the bill on Monday - President's Day.

Assuming the Senate, as expected, gives approval, call this a great Valentine for the struggling and invaluable arts communities of this country.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:49 PM | | Comments (0)

Yet another angle on that inaugural quartet

You may be sick of hearing about the John Williams work premiered at the Obama inauguration ceremony, but, thanks to a post on Alex Ross' blog, I was alerted to a video he was alerted to by Kyle Gann's blog. So here it is on mine -- an ear-popping hypothetical rendering of what the actual performance might have sounded like on Jan. 20 (I laughed, I cried):

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:38 AM | | Comments (0)

February 12, 2009

John Williams work for Obama is now on iTunes

Air and Simple Gifts, the score that John Williams wrote for the inauguration ceremony and that a stellar quartet gave the essentially simulated premiere of just before Barack Obama was sworn in, is now available from Sony Masterworks exclusively through iTunes. It's bound to be a brisk seller -- I certainly heard from a lot of folks right after the ceremony asking how to get a copy of it.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero recorded the music a couple days before the inauguration as an emergency backup in case of frigid weather. As it turned out, it was too cold for string instruments to function well, so the quartet more or less pretended to play the piece, while that recording was beamed to the throngs at the Capitol and those tuning on radio or TV.

Taking as inspiration the fact that Obama was known to enjoy the music of Aaron Copland, Williams effectively placed the indelible Shaker tune, "Simple Gifts," into the middle of the new piece, conjuring up memories of that hymn's use in Copland's Appalachian Spring. Not everyone was impressed with Williams' work. Some objected to the Copland borrowing, others to the fact that the music lacked an air of pomp and ceremony. But I think the composer, limited to writing something that could only last a few minutes, came up with a sensible solution, one that managed to evocate a whole world of American music in the brief time span. And, with its reflective opening and close, Air and Simple Gifts struck an appropriate note for what are, after all, very sobering times. 

It was hard on Jan. 20 to hear the Shaker melody without also thinking of the words that go with it: " 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be." Pretty good advice for Washington, I'd say, any day of the year.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (0)

February 11, 2009

Arts are losing out in stimulus plan

It's depressing, if hardly surprising, that the anti-arts crowd on Capitol Hill has once again managed to gain the upper hand. An amendment to deny funds from the stimulus bill for any "wasteful" things like arts centers passed by an astounding 73-24 vote in the Senate the other day, and I can't imagine the House/Senate conference committee will agree to keep the $50 million for the NEA that the House version of the package included. Not when you've got a Georgia congressman suggesting that people losing jobs in the arts sector aren't actually the equivalent of "real people" losing jobs in other fields.

Seems to me the arts community is going to need a lot of big, pushy lobbyists in D.C. if the attitudes there are ever going to change.

For some thoughtful comments on the current situation, check out a column on arts-bashing from the Center for American Progress and another from Arts Journal.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:17 PM | | Comments (3)

'The Soloist' film inspires food drive by orchestras

More than 170 orchestras have signed up to participate in a national food drive, inspired by the spring release of The Soloist, a film based on a true story about a musical prodigy with mental illness discovered in 2005 living on the streets of L.A.

"Orchestras Feeding America," set for March 27 and 28, is a collaborative project by the League of American Orchestras; Feeding America, described as "the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity"; and Participant Media, an L.A. entertainment company devoted to social change.  Participating ensembles in our state include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra and Chespeake Youth Symphony Orchestra.

The Soloist, set for nationwide release April 24, recounts the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (portrayed by Jamie Foxx), a former Juilliard scholarship student reduced to living on the streets. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) happens upon Ayers playing on a violin with only two strings. The men slowly develop trust and friendship, which is challenged by the realization of Ayers' schizophrenia. Judging by the film's trailer, the on-screen message will underline what some of us have always known about classical music -- that, in the words of Orchestra League president/CEO Jesse Rosen, it "has the power to sustain spirits and change lives, even under the most difficult circumstances."

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:35 AM | | Comments (0)

February 10, 2009

Ageless Barbara Cook lights up Kennedy Center

Barbara Cook"The good things hold up," Barbara Cook said last night on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. She was referring to vintage songs, the kind that seasoned this program for the Washington Performing Arts Society, but I'd bet everyone in the house was thinking about her when she made the remark. At 81, Cook doesn't just hold up well. She lifts us up in the process.

Many a singer would pay dearly to learn how to preserve the vocal quality that Cook has maintained over a career that is inching toward the six-decade mark. Other than a bit of thinning in the upper register, her tone remains remarkably pure and dead-on, her phrasing effortlessly communicative and free of affectation. She puts a song across by letting the music and lyrics go first, an approach that seems to have been lost on a whole generation of wailing, flailing would-be vocal idols.

For me, Cook is most sublime in ballads, and they were generously represented here. Among the highlights: Weill's "Lost in the Stars," paired with Sondheim's "No More," a study in subtly employed expressive power; a fervent account of another Sondheim item from Into the Woods, "No One is Alone"; and, most exquisite of all, another apt pairing, "I'm Through with Love" and "Smile," the latter shaped so touchingly that it might as well have been renamed "Tears." (The past few times I've heard Cook in concert, it was her tender account of "This Nearly Was Mine" that got to me. Last night, she did a beautiful job with it, as expected, but it didn't sound quite as affectingly personal. This time, she seemed to reserve her deepest emotional touch for "Smile.")

There was an intriguing link made between "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (in a wonderfully dark arrangement) and a selection from Sondheim's Passion about a disturbed woman who actually does write herself a letter. Up-tempo numbers, including "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and such novelties as "Sooner or Later" from Disney's Song of the South, received spirited attenmion. And it was interesting to hear Cook charge into "Lover Come Back to Me" at more or less the same breathless clip used by the young Streisand, but without, of course, the latter's stinging cynicism. (If there's anything Cook can't do well, it's probably stinging cynicism.)  

Throughout the evening, pianist Lee Musiker, bassist Peter Donovan and drummer James Saporito provided Cook with versatile, sensitive support.

As usual, she offered an unamplified encore, and, as usual, it made me wish I could hear Cook perform an entire concert without a mike. Her voice floated easily and warmly in the hall when, with just the gentle accompaniment of Musiker, she eloquently sculpted the lines of "We'll Be Together Again." The silvery sound of her voice, and the wistful taste of that song, followed me into the parking lot and lingered all the way home to Baltimore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:03 PM | | Comments (0)

February 9, 2009

Radu Lupu offers stunning recital at Shriver Hall

Until Sunday night, it had been more than three decades since pianist Radu Lupu performed for Shriver Hall Concert Series. There's no telling if, or when, he might be back, but those who experienced this Beethoven/Schubert recital will be able to live off the memories for a long, long time.

The greatest keyboard artists command attention from the first notes they play, not just in terms of accuracy and confidence, but in the color, the shading, the communicative quality of the touch. That's how it was Sunday with the opening measure of Beethoven's Sonata No. 9 in E major -- Lupu's articulation was so refined and intimate that you couldn't help but be drawn in, and that was just the beginning of what would be a totally absorbing evening.

Lupu, 63, has spent a lot of time with the keyboard canon of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and other giants, has analyzed each note and harmonic turn from every possible angle. But all of that care and consideration doesn't turn his playing into the equivalent of professorial lectures. He makes everything sound spontaneous and freshly spun, as if he were composing, not just interpreting, the music. That's how it was with the E major Sonata, which flowed beguilingly, not to mention the Sonata No. 10 in G major (Lupu gave remarkable attention to every dynamic shift in the second movement's wry little tune).

The Pathetique Sonata rounded out the Beethoven half of the program. Here, Lupu's flair for the dramatic paid off handsomely, summoning massive sonorities in the outer movements' most heated passages. The pianist also achieved extraordinary warmth in the Adagio; I don't think I've heard anyone make this music sound so poignant.

Schubert's profound B-flat Sonata filled the second half. Lupu, once again, delivered an insightful performance, one bathed in the dappled light of a late afternoon. The technical mastery alone would have made the playing significant. The interpretive depth --  nowhere more compelling than in his hushed, unhurried approach to the bittersweet second movement -- gave it the stuff of greatness. The pianist also turned to Schubert for an encore, spinning out the G-flat Impromptu with affecting eloquence.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:22 PM | | Comments (1)

David Hardy, Lambert Orkis and dual-angle Beethoven

David Hardy and Lambert OrkisThe Baltimore area is fortunate in having any number of worthy musical events that are recession-proof, by virtue of bearing no admission charge. Sunday afternoon's free presentation by the Catonsville Presbyterian Concert Series would certainly have been worth paying a good sum for, given the caliber of the players and the way they turned an all-Beethoven program into something as instructive as it was compelling.

David Hardy, who happens to have been born in Catonsville, has been principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra for about 15 years. He has collaborated in chamber music with the NSO's principal keyboardist, Lambert Orkis, for about 25 years. All of that familiarity gives their music-making a breathing-as-one synergy.

The two men are in the midst of recording all the Beethoven cello/piano literature in dual fashion -- on period instruments and modern instruments -- and they provided a sample of both on Sunday. On the first half of the concert, with a gut-string cello and replica of a 1788 fortepiano, the duo offered an eventful account of the Variations on a Theme from Judas Maccabeus and the F major Sonata (Op. 5, No. 1). The instrumental coloring from both instruments -- a subtler palette than today's versions -- brought out fresh details in both scores. The lively finale of the sonata found both players digging into the notes to particularly sparkling effect.

For the second half's modern-sound performance, Hardy and Orkis maintained their expressive power and, as in the earlier portion, ensured that all of Beethoven's little dynamic surprises emerged with an extra kick (the resonant acoustics of Catonsville Presbyterian Church helped, too). The players hardly stinted on lyricism, providing some lovely dialogues in the Variations on a Theme from The Magic Flute and a great deal of poetic richness in the Adagio portion of the C major Sonata (Op. 102, No. 1).

I had to head for Shriver Hall for Radu Lupu's amazing recital before the duo played the last item on the program, but I didn't feel at all short-changed. Hardy's burnished tone and finely detailed phrasing left quite an impression (as it does whenever he has solo moments in NSO performances). And Orkis reaffirmed what has long been known -- he's one of the most solid, elegant players in the business.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:24 PM | | Comments (0)

Vivid night of American music at Peabody

Hajime Teri MuraiMost American composers speak through their music with the same directness and honesty that Americans are famed for employing verbally on a daily basis. An invigorating dose of this openness was provided in the Peabody Concert Orchestra's program Friday night at the conservatory.

From the opening volts of Christopher Rouse's Iscariot to the heated lyricism of Leonard Bernstein's On the Waterfront suite, the performance proved consistently involving, aided by the firm, clear guidance of conductor Hajime Teri Murai and a remarkably strong effort of the student musicians.

Another plus: the evening's featured faculty artist, clarinetist Anthony McGill, a principal player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He delivered Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto with a model combination of technical aplomb and refined musicality. He sculpted the long, dreamy lines of the Anthony McGillfirst movement in an exquisitely shaded tone; the jazzy finale had plenty of spark. (McGill, of course, earned unusual attention on Jan. 20 as one of the four instrumentalists appearing, and appearing to perform, a new John Williams work composed for the inauguration ceremony. On that frigid occasion, he and his colleagues relied on a recording they made of the piece, generating some not always flattering chatter afterward.) Murai was an attentive partner in the concerto, drawing mostly sensitive, tight playing from the ensemble.

The orchestra did not disguise its student status all the time, but there was a great deal of accomplished playing in the full-force works, especially Iscariot, Rouse's reflection on the subject of Judas. This isn't a literal tone poem, but the dark tonality and fierce percussive attacks easily conjure up the issue of betrayal, while the prospect of forgiveness is suggested by gentle, chorale-like passages in the strings. This is deep, compelling material, and it was delivered with considerable power.

Samuel Barber's Music for a Scene from Shelley, a taut, eventful, slightly overwrought item that must have inspired Bernard Herrmann, enjoyed an intense reading. Bernstein's film score to On the Waterfront is one of his most impressive works, and the suite he fashioned from it presents quite a gripping emotional journey that Murai artfully molded. There was a lot of impressive playing here by the orchestra (the horn soloist was particularly fine), playing that reflected well on Peabody's role in the honing of young talent.


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

February 6, 2009

John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP in marathon performance

Diane LucheseI stopped by during the 10th hour of Diane Luchese's extraordinary marathon performance yesterday of John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP in the rather harshly lit Kaplan Concert Hall at Towson University's Center for the Arts. With five more hours to go, the organist showed no signs of fatigue.

There were a dozen listeners when I arrived, and four by the time I left. A glance at the guest book in the lobby revealed that a sizable number of folks had stopped by earlier, leaving a variety of remarks, from "Eek" and "Too slow for me" to "Very cool" and "Awesome." A few people sampled the performance more than once during the day. I hope Luchese still had some company by the time of the 11:41 p.m. finale. (Written rests in the score provided her with break time; she could also have some refreshments while still at the organ, during passages that required only her feet to be employed on the pedals, or when notes could be produced by the use of lead weights placed on the keys.) Listeners were invited to roam about the hall, sampling the sound from different angles, or consult a copy of the score on a music stand. They were also provided visual distraction in the form of a slide show that included photos and quotations of Cage.

The composer may never have imagined a 15-hour realization of this score, let alone the one going on in Germany that is scheduled to last for another 630 years. All the composer asked is that the performer play the piece as slowly as possible. Luchese, a TU faculty member, came up with her own formula for determining the duration, having first decided that the whole thing should fit into the single span of "a waking day." Judging from what I heard, I'd say her decision was right on target.

Sustained low notes on the organ's pedals created a visceral, fundamental rumble that suggested the drone of some cosmic machinery. Dissonant chords appeared and disappeared unpredictably above that pulsating foundation -- chance encounters with sonority. Almost each change in notes or tone colors seemed positively cataclysmic in this glacial context.

Cage, one of the most endearing radicals in all of music history, argued that any sound or collection of sounds could constitute music, and that music didn't have to have any clear-cut meaning. Organ2/ASLSP is a striking example of that philosophy. Cage would surely have loved how Luchese honored it in this daunting performance.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:06 PM | | Comments (1)

February 5, 2009

Brisk start for Kennedy Center's Arts in Crisis project

Michael KaiserAs of this afternoon, more than 100 requests for help have come in since Tuesday's announcement of Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative. That project, spearheaded by Michael Kaiser, Kennedy Center president and reigning guru of arts management (especially when it comes to crisis), aims to provide "emergency planning assistance" as the recession gnaws at non-profits.

The program offers "free and confidential counsel in fundraising, building more effective boards of trustees, budgeting, marketing, and other areas pertinent to maintaining a vital performing arts organization during a troubled economy." In addition to direct help from senior staffers, the initiative is coordinating a mentoring program with arts management mentors from around the country who are volunteering their services.

There have been 50 requests for mentors so far, along with 110 requests for the services of Kennedy Center staff, press office chief John Dow told me today. "Michael has read every single one," Dow says, "and he's sorting them to which staff member is most likely to provide assistance."

Kaiser's expertise in this field -- he is credited with rescuing such famed institutions as the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and London's Royal Opera House from perilous financial situations -- should prove invaluable as this initiative proceeds. Although his familiar don't-cut-the-art-while-cutting-costs philosophy may seem impossible to follow now,  it's more essential than ever. 

One thing that might help things is the relatively paltry $50 million targeted for the NEA in some versions of the massive bailout bill painfully taking shape on the Hill. But, naturally, some myopic congressmen have assailed that possibility, apparently unable to notice the positive and multi-faceted economic impact the arts can make in every community in every state. Eliminating support for the arts in the stimulus package is a sure way to guarantee that the Kennedy Center initiative will not run out of needy clients.    


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:40 PM | | Comments (0)

Recital to benefit Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

Madeline AdkinsThe Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, one of the many organizations locally and nationally crippled by the Great Recession, suspended the rest of its concerts this season. But the music hasn't stopped yet.

On Feb. 22, when the BCO was to have performed an interesting mix of Mozart, Villa-Lobos, Vaughan Williams and Randall Thompson, there will be a recital featuring the ensemble's concertmaster, Madeline Adkins. The violinist, who was appointed to the BCO post last year and who is also the BSO's associate concertmaster, had been scheduled to play Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending on that program. Instead, she volunteered to play a benefit for the orchestra, and she found notable help from her sister, Elisabeth Adkins, the National Symphony's associate concertmaster, and Elisabeth's husband, prize-winning pianist Edward Newman.

The Adkins sisters play mean fiddles, so count on an afternoon of very stylish music-making. The colorful program includes the well-known Violin Sonata by Franck, along with less familiar works for two violins by great film composer Miklos Rozsa and Moritz Moszkowski. Folks holding tickets to the originally scheduled BCO concert on the 22nd can use them for this event. Otherwise, tickets are $25. All students are admitted free. The BCO is also scheduling a substitute event for what would have been the orchestra's season finale in May.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:47 PM | | Comments (0)

February 2, 2009

Pro Musica Rara scores touchdown

"SuperBach Sunday," the annual presentation by Pro Musica Rara, provided more than pre-Super Bowl distraction. The organization's artistic director, cellist Allen Whear, put together a dynamic assortment of baroque fare and a stylish assemblage of musicians to perform it at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

Ann MOnoyios sopranoBach was represented by the brief, colorful Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 75, leaving the rest of the concert divided between Handel and Purcell. A suite from the latter's The Fairy Queen was a high point, both for Purcell's subtle genius and the deft work of the ensemble and soprano Ann Monoyios. She shaped "O let me weep" with a pure tone and unforced expressiveness,  articulating the sighing phrases with particular beauty. The instrumentalists meshed admirably in the dance movements, handling such things as the decrescendo at the end of the Monkey's Dance with real charm. Sara Nichols produced gentle pastel tones on the transverse flute; John Thiessen negotiated the trumpet lines, always tricky on a period instrument, quite gracefully.

There was similarly fine music-making throughout the afternoon. Excerpts from Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, for example, were performed with a poetic touch, inspiring some eloquent phrasing by Monoyios, Nichols and Whear. The soprano's ornamentation of the same composer's "Let the bright Seraphim" from Samson was another plus; Thiessen had the trumpet part in that aria doing a kind of singing, too. Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 3, received a vivid account; the fugal finale emerged with quite an effective bite.

For the record, the other performers on Sunday were violinists Cynthia Roberts, Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic; violist Sharon Pineo Myer; and harpsichordist Amy Rosser.

The concert provided yet another reminder of how nicely Pro Music Rara has developed in the past several years with Whear at the helm. But, as a fundraising plea at intermission drove home, the organization could use more support as it heads for its 35th anniversary next season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:00 PM | | Comments (0)

Concert Artists of Baltimore in dancing mood

Thematic programs can get a little forced or cute (count on marketing departments to exploit the slightest cutesy angle), but they can also make good sense and lead in some interesting directions. Consider Saturday's night's offering by the Concert Artists of Baltimore at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills.

Edward Polochick conductorAlthough there must have been two or three million programs around the world given the hook "Invitation to the Dance" by now, this one managed to avoid the most obvious choices. Conductor Edward Polochick paired two orchestral items filled with infectious folk tunes and rhythms: Dvorak's Czech Suite and Kodaly's Dances of Galanta. A pair of piano/orchestra works also fulfilled the dance theme: Chopin's Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise and Liszt's Totentanz ("Dance of Death"). These choices, in turn, yielded a sub-theme -- Eastern European composers, with two Hungarians, a Czech and a Pole. It all added up to an entertaining concert that found the ensemble operating on all cylinders.

At chamber orchestra size, the group can't fill out all of the tonal colors in the Dvorak and Kodaly pieces, but the musicians nonetheless produced a great deal of warmth and nuance as Polochick molded both scores in characterful style. The woodwinds made an impressive showing; clarinetist David Drosinos, in particular, did shining work in the Dances of Galanta.

The Chopin and Liszt items featured pianist Mark Markham, a very successful alum and former faculty member of Peabody. He had the Andante spianato spinning beautifully and gave the Polonaise an effective drive, enhanced by a big, rich tone for the music's most energetic moments. Totentanz is a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little, but Markham knew how to get the most out of it, producing abundant power for Liszt's noisiest, flashiest variations on the ancient Dies Irae chant and sensitively using a wide palette of tone coloring whenever the bluster subsided. Polochick and his players partnered the pianist smoothly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:24 AM | | Comments (0)

De Ryke, Schlosberg in fine recital of English song

My weekend started Friday night at An die Musik, where baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Daniel Schlosberg focused on the rich repertoire of English art songs. Both artists have done notable work in this area in the past, and did so again here with a well-thought-out program.

Ryan de Ryke baritoneHighlights included pieces by two composers who met their untimely deaths in the Great War -- relatively obscure W. Denis Browne and the better known George Butterworth, represented by selections from A Shropshire Lad. The latter inspired a good deal of sensitive singing from de Ryke (right), who caught the deceptively unconcerned air of "The lads in their hundreds" with particular finesse. The singer also did elegant work in Gerald Finzi's Shakespeare-based Let Us Garlands Bring, bringing considerable poetic warmth to "Come away, come away death."

It was enlightening to hear in one program some early Vaughan Williams, The House of Life from 1903, with its whiff of Edwardian stiffness, and the looser, even saucy Histoires naturelles written in 1906 by Ravel, who, a few years later, would be tutoring the British composer.

Throughout the evening, de Ryke got deeply into each song (sometimes with a bit more physicality than necessary) and communicated the texts with admirable clarity and nuance. A few technical matters could be questioned -- low notes were not always firm; soft, high passages could have used more sweetness -- but this was nonetheless rewarding vocalism, matched phrase for phrase by Schlosberg's eloquent touch at the keyboard (his accompaniment in the Ravel songs was especially refined and colorful). Two encores capped the stylish recital: Schubert's An Sylvia and the folk song "The Salley Gardens," in the classy Britten arrangement.      


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:02 AM | | 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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