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March 31, 2009

Some more recession medicine, with double-duty dose

Looks like another up-and-down week in store for the economy, so I thought this musical interlude would fit perfectly, since it shifts from light to dark to light, from certainty to uncertainty -- all the while being absolutely perfect in form and content, because it's by Haydn. It's the Adagio from his Symphony No. 92, which also allows us to salute the composer's birthday today (March 31, 1732), as well as acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death (May 31, 1809).

That makes this one potent dose of an Adagio, especially since Leonard Bernstein is conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in this recording. So sit back and relax, and let the Great Recession recede, if only for eight minutes.

Haydn Symphony No.92 (2) Adagio, Leonard Bernstein - Bernstein/WPO

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (1)

March 30, 2009

Baltimore Choral Arts Society celebrates nature and tonality in works by Haydn and Tina Davidson

The stated theme of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's program Sunday evening was nature, in all of its force and beauty. An underlying theme came through, too -- the lasting power of traditional tonality.

In terms of harmonic language, there isn't really a huge difference between the music of Haydn from around 1800 that was performed on the second half of the concert and the music of Tina Davidson from 2003 that was performed on the first. It all added up to quite a feast of comfortable consonance. This is not a complaint, mind you. There is no law requiring contemporary composers to write in an atonal style, and, when it comes to beautifully crafted works that speak freshly through fundamentally familiar idioms, Davidson is as persuasive as they come.

The Hymn of the Universe, which received its East Coast premiere in this concert at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, is instantly appealing. The texts come from the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist whose musings on the nature and communality of humanity continue to attract admiration more than 50 years after his death. Steeped in religious imagery, yet universal in concept, the poetic words are in themselves quite affecting. Two examples: "In the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted a desire, irresistible, which makes us cry out: Lord, make us one"; "Raise me up until, at long last, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe".

Davidson subtly sets all the material to music that flows with a lyrical gracefulness. The choral writing is clean, clear and immediately communicative. The accompaniment of English horn, string orchestra (originally string quartet) and marimba surrounds the vocal lines with a distinctively subtle patina. Much of the harmonic and rhythmic motion is achieved by gently alternating chords a short distance apart, in a manner that has a hint of minimalism about it. In the closing passages, the choral writing reaches a radiant height, here enhanced by a gradual reduction of lighting in the theater so that the last sounds resonated in a suggestion of cosmic darkness.

Davidson was on hand to enjoy the hearty ovation that followed a polished performance conducted with obvious commitment by Tom Hall. The choristers were attentive to matters of blend and tonal nuance and sang with considerable expressiveness. The orchestra, too, came through beautifully. Jane Marvine was the elegant English horn soloist, Christopher Williams the refined percussionist.

The Haydn portion of the evening included stylish accounts of the sun and storm movements from The Creation and The Seasons, as well as a complete performance of a rarely encountered piece called The Storm. There was something rather disjointed about the arrangement of the items (intermittent commentary from Hall didn't help the sense of flow), but any opportunity to savor Haydn's genius is welcome. Although soloists from within the choir were not uniformly effective, the chorus as a whole again responded impressively. And when Hall drove his forces along in the most dramatic, propulsive passages, the results were truly stirring.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 PM | | Comments (0)

Gergiev, Volodin, London Symphony in brilliant Kennedy Center concert for WPAS

Saturday afternoon's performance by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center easily qualifies as a finalist for a best-of-season ranking. I wouldn't be surprised if this presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society turns out to top my list when all is said and heard for 2008-2009 in the region. It was, quite simply, a very hot concert.

The LSO, of course, has long been in the upper echelon of ensembles, and that's certainly how it sounded on this occasion, with sumptuous strings, sturdy winds and brass, impeccable percussion. And the orchestra seemed totally in sync with its principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, who was at his own incisive best. The event also boasted a remarkably compelling piano soloist, Alexei Volodin, featured in Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, placed between two Prokofiev symphonies on the program.

At first, I wished the whole afternoon could have been devoted to Prokofiev, a composer Gergiev has deep affinity for; he and the LSO just gave some all-Prokofiev programs in New York to much praise. But those thoughts faded the moment the Beethoven work started, when Volodin phrased the famous opening solo with such freshness and depth that you couldn't help but be drawn into the music. The pianist's playing throughout was notable for its ...

Volodinrich musicality, prismatic tone and effortless technical fluency, and Gergiev had the orchestra operating with similarly impressive sensitivity, color and power. The combination of all that interpretive energy onstage unleashed the concerto's volatile mix of poetry and drama with unusual effectiveness.

The audience, clearly taken with Volodin's exceptional work, was rewarded with an encore of Rachmaninoff's G-sharp minor Prelude (Op. 32, No. 12), delivered with exquisite warmth and nuance.

Serving as the concert's bookends were Prokofiev's best loved symphony, No. 1 (nicknamed the "Classical"), and one of his least-known in the West, No. 6. Gergiev's tempos in the first three movements of the First Symphony were unhurried (Yuri Temirkanov, an early mentor of Gergiev's, holds back here as well), and that extra breathing room allowed the darker, edgier elements behind this otherwise ebullient music to register more strongly. The beautifully detailed interpretation, which found the LSO articulating with superb clarity and tonal sheen, was marred only by some oddly loud air system noise in the hall that abated only after the performance of the First ended.

The Sixth Symphony was the crowning portion of the afternoon -- a riveting, even disturbing experience. In this score, Prokofiev seems to have tapped into his deepest self, the way Shostakovich did so often. This is deeply personal material, a diary of painful thoughts and conflicted emotions. The music was written in 1947, when the wounds of the war were far from healed; those wounds seem to haunt the notes. No wonder the symphony was attacked by the Soviet culture goons not long after the premiere -- all that gloom and angst couldn't possibly fit in with the artistic needs and ideals of the state.

The first two of the three long movements offer some of the composer's most complex and challenging ideas; the third is deceptively simpler and cheerier at first, only to be overtaken by the lingering shadows of the earlier material at the end. Time and again, the ear is startled, as much by the force of percussive outbursts (including the ominous, clock-like sound that Prokofiev used so vividly in other works) as by the surges of lyricism.

This is music in continual conflict, seeking for an ever-elusive resolution, and Gergiev caught all of that tension masterfully, summoning from the LSO not just a brilliant technical effort, but a level of expressive intensity that never let up.

There was more Prokofiev as an encore, "The Montagues and the Capulets" from the composer's ballet score, Romeo and Juliet. There were odd laughs from the audience after the initial assault of dissonance -- perhaps people, done in by the Sixth Symphony, assumed Gergiev would lighten the mood and mistook this for some sort of joke. But the conductor didn't seem caught off guard by the reaction, and plunged ahead to generate from his ever-responsive players a terrific sonic impact.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:43 PM | | Comments (0)

Weekend reviews will be posted soon

Stay tuned for reviews of Saturday's sensational London Symphony/Gergiev/Volodin concert at the Kennedy Center for Washington Performing Arts Society, and Sunday's imaginative nature-theme program from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society at Goucher College.
Posted by Tim Smith at 11:16 AM | | Comments (0)

March 27, 2009

Tortelier makes welcome return to BSO podium; Repin is slow-to-burn violin soloist

This was supposed to be the week that Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director emeritus Yuri Temirkanov returned to conduct, something many of us had been anticipating eagerly. For reasons unexplained, he canceled some weeks ago, at the same time canceling appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony. Given his track record of unreliability (these were hardly his first cancellations over the past five years or so), it's not likely that Temirkanov will stand in front of any American orchestra again, not even our BSO, which found its musical soul during his tenure here. Very strange and sad. (He may be back on these shores with his ever-touring St. Petersburg Philharmonic, of course.)

Temirkanov's place is being taken for this week's concerts by Yan Pascal Tortelier, one of the BSO's frequent and best guest conductors. He kept Temirkanov's original program of Prokofiev's Fifth and the Brahms Violin Concerto, the latter with the original soloist, Vadim Repin.

On Thursday night at Strathmore, the finest results came in that Prokofiev work. No, Tortelier did not summon the level of intensity and power that Temirkanov could unleash in this score (just about all Russian fare, needless to say). Tortelier tended to make the music sound a little too neat and polite, even in the sardonic Scherzo. I wanted an earthier growl and a grittier edge at times -- a more visceral impact overall.

That said, Tortelier's grip on the symphony was admirably firm, and he offered a good deal of rhythmic snap in the work's most aggressive passages, considerable sensitivity in the darker, reflective moments. The orchestra responded strongly, with particularly warm and cohesive sounds from the strings and colorful flourishes from the brass.

The performance of the Brahms Concerto was surprising. For one thing, the inevitably unflappable Repin seemed almost too detached for his own good, keeping a certain distance from the heart of the richly lyrical music. He wasn't entirely at his technical best, either, although an off night from Repin is still mighty impressive. The sweetness in his tone was often exquisite, as was the poetic shading he achieved in the dreamiest portions of the first movement and throughout the second. And it was fascinating to hear the Jascha Heifetz cadenza in the opening movement, rather than the one by Joseph Joachim traditionally played; Repin made a telling case for it.

The remarkably slow tempo in that first movement was, presumably, the violinist's preference. I wouldn't have minded at all (you know my motto: nothing can be played too fast or too slow), except that there was so little energy underneath the surface that the expansiveness threatened the concerto's structural integrity.

Tortelier coaxed some lovely playing from the orchestra. Still, the synergy between soloist and ensemble could have been tighter in places. My guess is that the concerts over the weekend will find everyone more smoothly settled onto the same wavelength.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:39 PM | | Comments (2)

BSO staffer Stephen Jacobsohn to run Shriver Hall Concert Series

Stephen JacobsohnA quick game of musical chairs will see Stephen Jacobsohn, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's much-admired manager of artistic administration, head uptown to the Shriver Hall Concert Series, succeeding David Baldwin as executive director. The series, in its 44th year, is Baltimore's primary importer of recitalists and chamber ensembles, providing a starry lineup on a par with the best presenting organizations in the country.

"We're very excited about Stephen," said Jephta Drachman, president of the Shriver Hall series, said Friday. "He's smart and hard-working, a real gentleman. And he really loves music."

"I'm thrilled for him," BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham said. "It's a great opportunity for him and I know he'll be very successful." Jacobsohn's hiring "reflects well on him and on us, too," Meecham added. "My philosophy is hire good people, but don't expect them to stay forever."

For his part, Jacobsohn said he is "sorry to leave the BSO, but excited to be involved with this incredible organization. There are challenges, of course, but the people there are so dedicated," he said. 

Before joining the BSO four years ago, Jacobsohn worked for a New York-based artists management firm. He's also a cellist (his graduate degree is from the Manhattan School of Music), and, while working in the BSO administration, he did occasional sub work for the orchestra, as well as for other ensembles in the region.

Jacobson starts at Shriver Hall on May 15.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)

March 26, 2009

Maryland Symphony Orchestra faces tough decisions

The chorus of musical organizations facing tough times in the weakened economy added a new voice Thursday, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown.

This ensemble is a classic example of a regional orchestra, serving a broad community with remarkable quality, yet with modest resources (annual budget is about $1.3 million, compared to the Baltimore Symphony's $25 million or so). Here are key points from statements released by the MSO Thursday:

'The Maryland Symphony Orchestra is certainly not immune to the problems many of our counterparts are facing in this depressed economy,' says MSO Executive Director Andrew Kipe. 'These are very challenging times for the MSO. We are facing the largest deficit in our 27 year history. The board, staff and musicians are fully committed to working together and embracing the changes that will have to occur immediately and over the course of the next few years if the MSO is to continue to offer the same caliber of concerts and educational programs that have made the MSO so successful in the past.'

Ticket sales for the current season are down 8% from last year. The Orchestra’s largest single source of income is a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council that has been cut by 12.5% this fiscal year. Corporate underwriting is running below budget by nearly $73,000. The annual operating budget for the 2008-2009 Season is just under $1.3 million. Income from ticket sales generally covers about 29% of expenses. The remaining 71% comes from grants, corporate underwriting, individual donations and a draw from the MSO’s Endowment Fund ...

The single largest expense for the Orchestra is musician salaries and compensation. It is possible to cut expenses by performing different repertoire which uses fewer musicians and thereby lowering costs. However, the board of directors, in consultation with MSO management and Music Director Elizabeth Schulze chose to continue the current season as planned. 'We feel it is important to honor the contractual obligations we’ve made to our musicians and guest artists,' says Schulze. 'And, no less important is the commitment we’ve made to our subscribers and donors who have, in good faith, purchased season tickets or provided funds for specific concerts or educational programs.'

Some cost cutting issues have already been addressed and put into place. The MSO has restructured health benefits for full time staff with the employees incurring more of the costs. In addition, there have been some adjustments made to staff salaries. The Orchestra is currently in the midst of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with its musicians ...

Of particular concern is the MSO’s ability to continue to present the Annual Salute to Independence concert at the Antietam National Battlefield. Few people realize that the MSO solicits all the sponsorship needed to cover the entire cost of producing that event, including the fireworks. The direct costs alone average about $100,000 with an additional $87,000 need in in-kind donations from community partners such as the National Park Service. Securing the funds necessary to pay for this event becomes more difficult each year. The MSO simply is not in a position to continue the concert if sponsorships and government support do not cover the costs ...

In order to continue our current level of concerts and educational programs during this recession, the MSO has taken a hard look at all of our expenses. We have restructured health benefits for administrative staff with the employees paying a larger percentage of the costs and have made some reductions in staff salaries ...


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:28 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Concert Opera debuts with 'Don Giovanni' and an overflow crowd

Brendan CookeBaltimore Concert Opera, founded by baritone Brendan Cooke (left) in the wake of the Baltimore Opera Company's collapse, made its debut Wednesday night at the Engineer's Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion) before an overflow, appreciative crowd, establishing a foothold in the local cultural landscape. For its inaugural presentation, the ensemble chose Mozart's venerable Don Giovanni and assembled a lively, if uneven, cast to sing it to piano accompaniment.

Opera without sets, costumes and orchestra is obviously no substitute for full-sized productions, the sort that graced the Lyric for decades, but there's a lot of potential in the concert format, especially when an orchestra is used. I've known some performances in this format to deliver even more chills and thrills than the fully staged variety. And the new organization is already dreaming about expanding to include full orchestra and chorus, which could put it on par with the fine Washington Concert Opera. (The Baltimore group will want to study the financial challenges faced over the years by that D.C. one.) 

Before the second act on Thursday, Steven White, a conductor whose eloquent work was an asset to several recent productions by the Baltimore Opera, gave a pitch to the audience, especially "those who invested emotionally and perhaps financially" in that now-in-liquidation company, asking people ...

to consider supporting the new kid on the operatic block. He outlined a scenario that would see Baltimore Concert Opera build quickly to a "world-class" level. He suggested that one un-staged performance with orchestra and chorus at the Lyric could be produced for about $150,000, and a season that offered two Lyric presentations and some small-scale performances at the Engineers Club for "under half a million dollars." White signaled his willingness to be involved in such an enterprise, and his presence would certainly be good for Baltimore Concert Opera's cred.

Michael MayesAll of this, of course, is pure conjecture, but the new organization clearly wanted folks to think about the future on Thursday, even as they were experiencing the present. In addition to White's remarks, company founder Brendan Cooke also brought up the subject of what next, during his own address to the audience. 

Meanwhile, there's the matter of Don Giovanni to evaluate. On the vocal front, the strengths heavily favored the male side of things. In the title role, baritone Michael Mayes (right) proved impressive, with a mellow, evenly produced timbre and colorful phrasing. He sang the Serenade, in particular, with admirable nuance. Jason Hardy, as Leporello, was another plus. Except for a tightening at the upper end of his range, the bass sang with a solid, warm tone and put a very engaging spin on his lines.

As Don Ottavio, Steven Sanders made up for a limited tonal palette with consistently stylish, technically poised singing, nowhere more so than in his vibrant delivery of Il mio tesoro. Troy Clark's light baritone didn't fill out Masetto's music fully, but he got into the spirit of things delightfully. Although Thom King came up short in terms of the vocal weight needed to make the Commendatore truly imposing, he sang in his usual, thoughtful manner. The men, especially Mayes, Hardy and Clark, seemed to be straining at the leash, eager to do some real acting, rather than just stand and sing behind the row of music stands neatly lined up on the small stage of the ballroom. They managed to get in some dynamic theatrical flourishes along the way.

Francesca Mondanaro, as Donna Anna, was an interesting case. The soprano revealed a fruity low register capable of considerable power, and she also spun some lovely, soft high notes. Any pressure in the upper register, though, yielded harsh, poorly centered results. The voice clearly has lots of potential, but, judging by Thursday's results, could use some fine-tuning. Kyle Engler, too, sounded in need of vocal maintenance, given the brittle sound and drooping pitch that hindered her effectiveness as Donna Elvira. Erika Juengst offered the most technically cohesive singing among the women of the cast, and she brought out the charm of Zerlina nicely.

Anthony Barrese efficiently conducted the score, which was trimmed of most recitatives. (Cooke delivered brief, sometimes witty narratives to fill in plot details that would have been conveyed by those recitatives.) At the piano, Daniel Lau played ably, but didn't summon the virtuosic flair that might make one forget about the absence of an orchestra.

Next up for Baltimore Concert Opera is an evening of separate acts from three Puccini pieces  April 29 at the Engineers Club. (I hope the intermissions on that occasion won't drag on the way the one Thursday night did. That might have been one reason why several audience members slipped away before Act 2.)

As for the long-range picture, it's too soon, of course, to know how the new company will develop, but it's off to an encouraging start. I like the idea White described for couple of Baltimore Concert Opera presentations with orchestra at the Lyric, but I can also envision a scenario where they alternate with a couple of fully-staged productions brought here by, say, Washington National Opera. This way, the local musicians who gave so much to the defunct Baltimore Opera would still have an outlet, while the public would get the best of two worlds. I wish something like this could happen by next season, because what I fear the most is that even one year without opera at the Lyric will make it all the harder to get the momentum going for something truly grand to blossom here again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:50 PM | | Comments (4)

March 25, 2009

WBJC personality and former Baltimore Opera chorister Dyana Neal to give concert at An die Musik

Dyana NealDyana Neal's speaking voice is well-known to classical music fans in the region -- she's the midday host at WBJC-FM. Her singing voice will be the focus Thursday night at An die Musik, where Neal will perform a mix of arias, Broadway tunes and classics of the American Songbook.

Like many others, Neal lost a valued performance outlet when the Baltimore Opera Company slipped into bankruptcy -- she had been a chorus member since 2002. For the An die Musik event, "I am planning to dedicate I'll See You Again' to the Baltimore Opera Chorus because I hope very much to work with my BOC colleagues again in the future," Neal says in an e-mail message. "Let's hope better times are ahead for opera in Baltimore."

She will be accompanied by pianist Diane Kinsley during the Thursday recital, and joined for a couple of numbers by her husband, baritone and architect Jim Knost. The program includes arias from Il trovatore and Carmen, along with such standards as "Skylark," "Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend," "Losing my Mind," and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" (that song could also be dedicated to the casualties of Baltimore Opera's collapse).

Incidentally, I learned from Neal's bio that she has done some film work, including an appearance in my favorite John Waters film, Pecker. I'll have to dig that DVD out again soon and keep an eye out for her.  



Posted by Tim Smith at 4:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Classical Guitar Society showcases young talent at An die Musik



The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society puts the emphasis on young talent in a concert Sunday afternoon at An die Musik.

San Francisco-born Max Zukerman, a multiple prize-winning graduate student of the eminent Manuel Barrueco at Peabody, will give a recital that features the premiere of work commissioned by the society from barely 20-year-old composer Matthew Cmiel called I Wasted Time/Now Doth Time Waste Me. Zukerman's program also offers works by Bach, Takemitsu, Rodrigo and Tarrega.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:02 PM | | Comments (0)

Good news from Handel Choir and Children's Choir

Back in December, things looked grim at the Handel Choir of Baltimore. Staff cuts and other cost-reduction measures were made; there was some doubt about getting through all of the planned spring season. And the Children's Choir that had been founded and operated by the Handel Choir faced dissolution. Now, things are looking up.

Melinda O'Neal, who has steadily improved the Handel Choir as artistic director over the past five years, reports that there has been "an unprecedented outpouring of support from loyal audience members, singers, board members and [patrons] old and new." So the May 3 concert (featuring Haydn's powerful Mass in Time of War) will proceed as planned, and the organization should be able to approach its 75th anniversary next season in good shape.

When the Handel Choir decided it could no longer afford to keep the Children's Choir under its wing (the news came just before the kids were to sing a holiday concert, prompting some tears), it seemed like curtains for the young group. But the parents rallied and found a way to keep the choir going. They formed the Baltimore Children’s Choir Inc. and raised the money to retain the choir director and accompanist, as well as to continue providing scholarships for some of the choristers. All the administrative work is now being done by volunteers. In addition to performing around the area on its own, the new Children's Choir will continue to collaborate with the Handel Choir, including the latter's May program, as originally scheduled.

Auditions for the Children's Choir (ages 8-18) are being held Monday afternoons at First English Lutheran Church, 39th and Charles streets. For more information, call 410-753-2958.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (0)

Great Recession tightens grip on arts groups, locally and nationally

The effects of the Great Recession continue to hit arts groups just about everywhere.

Here, the Baltimore Symphony imposed two-week furloughs on all administrative staff (60 full-time employees), including the president/CEO. The unpaid weeks must be taken by the end of the fiscal year, Aug. 31. "We are looking at every other possibility" to save money, says Eileen Andrews Jackson, BSO VP for marketing and communications. Whether that will mean reopening the musicians' contract remains to be seen. The BSO already went through a round of staff reductions and various cost-cutting measures earlier this year.

It would be easy to start developing an inferiority complex in Baltimore, given all the harsh news on the cultural front --- Baltimore Opera gone; Senator Theatre shuttered; Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in a suspended-operations state; a Verdi Requiem postponed by Concert Artists of Baltimore until next season due to slow ticket sales; reductions, furloughs and a canceled exhibition at the Walters Art Museum; theater groups hanging by a thread; etc. But, if it's any consolation, we're hardly alone.

Today brings news that the Orlando Opera, with more than 50 years behind it, is facing the possibility of canceling next season if $500,000 isn't raised quickly. There's also a report that the Cleveland Orchestra, facing a big deficit, has started salary cuts. Music director Franz Welser-Most is giving up 20 percent of his salary, the executive director 15 percent, the rest of senior management 10 percent. Other tough measures are being taken as well.

The distressing reality is that the economy is sure to harm more arts organizations before things start to turn around.  That said, stay tuned for a little bright news on the Baltimore music scene that I'll post shortly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:50 PM | | Comments (0)

March 23, 2009

One scenario for bringing grand opera back to Baltimore

The pathetic end of the Baltimore Opera Company leaves an awful lot of questions, especially about administrative management and board oversight. Right now, though, the biggest question is whether Baltimore will ever see the rise of another full-scale company -- a sustainable, full-size company, that is.

It's great that we have Opera Vivente, Peabody Opera Theatre and, set to debut on Wednesday, Baltimore Concert Opera. But these are complements to, not substitutes for, grand opera, the type served up for nearly 60 years by the BOC. Say what you will about the consistency of the BOC productions, this was a substantial, valuable company. And when everything clicked, it delivered a product that many a much larger, richer community would be proud of, as the November staging of Norma, the unanticipated swan song, drove home.

To get something like that back at the Lyric on a regular basis from a Baltimore-based grand opera company would require an act of philanthropy as of yet unknown in Baltimore -- a massive infusion of cash that would provide operating money and an endowment fund. I'd say $10 million, to be safe. Any takers? How about $5 million? Pretty silent out there, isn't it?

But let's say you could get high-quality, grand-sized opera every season here for much less money. You would still need ...

a board of directors, and you'd certainly need some folks skilled in fundraising, but you could get the job done for a fraction of the cost of the BOC. The only trouble would be that it wouldn't be a Baltimore company at all. Instead, a company from elsewhere would come in to perform some or all of the works already being readied for its own hometown.

This is precisely the arrangement that has gone on for many decades way down South, where Florida Grand Opera, based in Miami, presents its work about 35 miles to the north in Fort Lauderdale, where a local guild acts as presenter and raises the money. (Lauderdale didn't have its own opera company when the relationship began, so there wasn't an issue of carpetbagging or local pride. Those issues did eventually rise, however, and there was a Fort Lauderdale Opera for a few seasons.)

The geographic similarity with Washington and Baltimore is obvious. In the weeks before the BOC board called it quits and opted for liquidation, there were some contacts with Washington National Opera exploring the idea of a collaboration, possibly starting with a fundraiser for Baltimore Opera. That's moot now, but the idea of WNO establishing a presence in our fair city deserves serious consideration.

Once upon a time, Baltimore welcomed the touring Metropolitan Opera regularly, even while the BOC was very much active, so the concept of an outside company paying a visit shouldn't seem so foreign. And WNO would arrive with plenty of credibility and security behind it, allowing wary Baltimore opera fans, burned by the mid-season collapse of the BOC, to risk buying tickets.

A lot of technical issues would have to be confronted, given the severe limitations of the Lyric stage and, more problematic, the backstage area, compared to the Kennedy Center Opera House. But, again drawing on the Florida experience, this sort of thing can be planned for -- many Miami productions used to arrive in the original, much smaller Fort Lauderdale venue with substantially cut down sets, and the public didn't complain (now, both of those cities have comparable arts centers). And renovations at the Lyric remain a possibility, so it may well be that most WNO ventures could fit comfortably into the theater at some point.

The main thing is that Baltimore and Washington, as cities, already have a certain closeness -- hey, we've got a parkway and an airport in common, just for starters. Baltimore opera fans have been known to check out the action in D.C., and vice versa. So there's a certain logic to turning to Washington for our grand opera fix now. And no other company in this region, however respectable, could provide the necessary potency for that fix, not the Virginia Opera or Opera New Jersey (the latter is making overtures even as I blog).

Any plan for an outside company to build a seasonal presence in Baltimore would require vision, leadership and money, elements that seem to have dried up at the BOC, so I'm not suggesting this would be easy for anyone. But I think people here could get excited about the prospect of having WNO at the Lyric. Certainly anyone who caught the production of Peter Grimes Saturday night will recognize the quality of this company (several hundred BOC ticket-holders will be seeing performances of Grimes, thanks to free vouchers from WNO). And I suspect the Washington company would relish the possibilities of such an arrangement.

Even though there would be risks, and even though the current economy tends to dampen risk-taking, the rewards could be considerable.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:51 PM | | Comments (4)

March 22, 2009

Washington National Opera’s staging of Peter Grimes freshly relevant in the age of A.I.G.

WNO Peter GrimesMany an uncomfortable lesson about human nature lies within Benjamin Britten’s 1945 operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes, a tale of small-mindedness, conclusion-jumping and rapid swells of populist outrage in a seaside village. Those multi-layered messages seemed even more relevant than usual at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, the opening night for Washington National Opera’s striking production, coming as it did after such an emotional week in our own world.

Consider the end of Act 2, when the villagers are so aroused by suspicions “sweeping furious thro’ the land” that they march off to confront the outsider Grimes, singing about how they “shall strike and strike to kill.” They don’t have all the details about this strange fisherman and his supposed crimes, and they certainly haven’t considered the ramifications of mob justice. But they’re not about to stop and think now.

It was hard to watch that scene on Saturday without being reminded of the righteous indignation over A.I.G. bonuses “sweeping furious” through Congress, the pundit-ocracy and the masses, not to mention the smattering of deadly threats. Any number of other recent outbreaks of knee-jerk, cable-TV-flamed behaviour in our society came to mind as well.

The impulse to judge quickly and harshly is one of the biggest issues in Peter Grimes, a brilliant fusion of music and theater that holds up an unflattering mirror to all of us. In it can be seen the ugly power of gossip, a power as destructive as the sea that periodically threatens the opera’s villagers; the cruel price of hypocrisy; the misuse of religious zeal; the dangerous policy of insisting that everything is black or white.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect about this work – outside of Britten’s stunning, endlessly imaginative, penetrating music – is ...

WNO Peter Grimesthat it can’t be viewed from only one side. It doesn’t support cut-and-dried conclusions. We are forced to think long and deeply about nearly every person in the cast, nearly every event that transpires.

The character of Grimes is unsettling. He’s creepy, violent, maybe even sadistic. Two boy apprentices die while working for him, and he cannot really escape blame in either case. Yet, something fundamentally decent, or at least hopeful and even poetic, in Grimes nonetheless draws the love of Ellen, the local schoolmarm, and the sympathy of Balstrode, an old sea captain  -- the only two townsfolk who resist the scornful majority. That Grimes must lose his own life before we can learn his whole story or see far enough into his heart is what gives the opera its affecting tragedy.

In the Washington staging (the production if from Santa Fe Opera), director Paul Curran taps into that tragedy with brilliant results, aided every step of the way by Robert Innes Hopkin’s sets and costumes and the wonderfully atmospheric lighting of Rick Fisher.

The opera, inspired by George Crabbe’s 1810 narrative poem "The Borough" (Montagu Slater fashioned the vivid libretto), has been set here in the 1940s, playing up the contemporary feeling of the issues involved. The few colorless buildings that flank the stage create a suitably one-sided, claustrophobic atmosphere. At one point, those edifices close in on Ellen when she tries to defy the prevailing wind of public opinion, underlining her isolation. In another telling bit of theatricality, the village structures are shaken off their very foundations by angry shouts of the Grimes-hating crowd. It all adds up to a gripping night at the opera.

WNO Peter GrimesOn Saturday, the cast proved uniformly impressive. Christopher Ventris conveyed the complexity and contradictions of Grimes with great insight. He’s a true singing actor. He made the most of the challenging, unaccompanied monologue in Act 3, when the hunted, haunted Grimes unleashes a stream of conscious and subconscious thoughts. The sight of Ventris, sitting on his knees rocking back and forth, as if still out on the impenetrable waves, lingered in the memory. The tenor encountered a few troubled top notes along the way, and he did not produce a particularly rich gradation of tone coloring, but his voice had an appealing directness and his every phrase produced communicative results.

As Ellen, Patricia Racette used her warm, clear, flexible soprano and astute acting skills to capture the character’s mix of certitude and qualms. Her exquisitely shaded performance yielded touching results. Alan Held, as Balstrode, sang vibrantly, and his acting was finely detailed.

Fleshing out the supporting roles with a good deal of colorful vocal and theatrical flourish were: Keith Phares (Ned Keene), Myrna Paris (Mrs. Sedley), Robert Baker (Rev. Adams), David Cangelosi (Boles), Ann McMahon Quintero (Auntie), Daniel Okulitch (Swallow) and John Marcus Bindel (Hobson). Two of the company’s young artists, Micaela Oeste and Emily Albrink, revealed sparkling soprano voices as the Nieces. Alexander Lange, in the voiceless role of Grimes’ latest, doomed apprentice, did a persuasive job.

The choral part in Peter Grimes is essential to the musical and dramatic foundation, and the Washington choristers, prepared by Steven Gathman, rose potently to the occasion. The orchestra produced the score’s prismatic tapestry handsomely. Conductor Ilan Volkov missed some opportunities for subtlety, and he could have allowed more breathing room for the most stirring passages of the music. But this was, nonetheless, a strongly committed effort that complemented the intensity onstage and helped to honor the beauty and grit of a profound, timeless opera.

Performances continue through April 4. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 PM | | Comments (0)

March 20, 2009

Baltimore Concert Opera sells out debut event, announces its next performance

Maybe there isn't enough money and/or interest to keep the Baltimore Opera Company afloat (an appalling situation, either way), but this community certainly has devoted fans of the operatic genre -- more than enough to sell out next week's debut by Baltimore Concert Opera.

The organization, founded by bass-baritone and Baltimore Opera veteran Brendan Cooke, will perform a concert version of Don Giovanni March 25 in the ballroom of the Engineers Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion) on Mount Vernon Place. It sold out quickly and there's a waiting list of folks hoping to squeeze somehow into that performance.

The company, which uses local and imported talent and offers piano accompaniment for these un-staged presentations, will offer "A Flight of Puccini" April 29 at the club: Act 1 of La boheme, Act 2 of Tosca, and Act 3 of Madama Butterfly. The vocal roster includes Rachel Cobb, Trevor Scheuneman and Tim Mix. James Harp, longtime artistic administrator of the now-bankrupt Baltimore Opera, will be at the keyboard. Tickets are $25 and $45.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:27 PM | | Comments (0)

Baritone comes clean: Wobbly pose in Opera Vivente's 'Poppea' was his idea

My review of Opera Vivente's recent production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea contained a slap at the sight of baritone Ryan de Ryke assuming a silly, wobbly, FTD-florist sort of pose when he appeared as the god Mercury, an action that generated titters at an inappropriate moment in the drama. I blamed the director for the idea, since directors typically decide how cast members come and go onstage. Well, de Ryke has set the record straight in an emailed message:

Friend that he is to singers, director John Bowen clearly told me to keep both feet on the ground (literally and figuratively) in rehearsal, but on opening night, I thought I could manage what turned out to be a most unfortunate tableau-tremblant. The same pose with both feet on the ground and a reasonable sense of balance, surprisingly enough, produced no chortles at all from future audiences!

My apologies to John Bowen.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:14 PM | | Comments (2)

Baltimore cantor saves the day for Montreal Symphony

Thom King, a Baltimore baritone who has given fine performances with Opera Vivente, the Handel Choir and Young Victorian Theatre Company, among others, will rescue the Montreal Symphony's performances of Bloch's Sacred Service later this month.

King, you may recall, did solo honors in the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's presentation of that noble, infrequently programmed 20th-century work three years ago at Beth El Congregation, where he's the cantor.

Dwayne Croft, who appears regularly with the Metropolitan Opera and other major companies, was originally scheduled to sing with the Montreal Symphony, conducted by Kent Nagano, March 30 and 31. When Croft canceled, the orchestra turned to King. Sherrill Milnes, the celebrated baritone now retired from the opera stage, will serve as speaker.

"As you can imagine," King emailed me, "I’m pretty jazzed about it."

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:37 PM | | Comments (0)

Alsop, Baltimore Symphony continue their Dvorak cycle; Czech pianist makes BSO debut

Eastern Europe dominates this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- pieces by Czech and Polish composers, and a Czech soloist. The results are energizing.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 and Scherzo capriccioso are being recorded at the Meyerhoff for future release as part of a cycle of that composer's works the BSO and music director Marin Alsop have been making for the Naxos label. The engineers have a couple more performances (Friday and Sunday) to choose from in editing the final product -- a good thing considering how many horn flubs popped up Thursday night -- but there still was a lot of hearty music-making that might well make the cut.

If the microphones had been left on during Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1, which separated the Dvorak items, they would have captured an appealing performance of that piece, too. (The mikes, alas, would also have picked up ...


Lukas Vondracekone of the most obnoxious cases of musicus-interruptus-by-cell-phone I've endured yet. The offending device -- located right across the aisle for moi, to make it even more personally punishing -- erupted during the final, hushed measures of the concerto's delicate slow movement.)

Alsop seems to have even more affinity for Dvorak than she does for Brahms, whose symphonies she conducts frequently and has recorded for Naxos with the London Philharmonic. Her approach to Dvorak's Seventh was particularly persuasive. She had this darkly beautiful music flowing with a passionate sweep, giving the outer movements a lot of punch and thrust (not that there couldn't have been even a little bit more), and, in particular, bringing out the Adagio's wistful poetry with admirable warmth. The orchestra responded intensely. The strings summoned a rich tone; the woodwinds had lots of color and nuance; roughness from the horn section gave way to downright majestic playing in that Adagio.

The Scherzo capriccioso sounded less rehearsed, and Alsop didn't do quite as much with the score as she did in the symphony. Still, there certainly were sparkling details, and the way the conductor had the coda dashing along suggested that more spark will emerge throughout the whole performance when the program is repeated throughout the weekend (Saturday's concert will be at Strathmore).

The Chopin concerto introduced the BSO audience to pianist Lukas Vondracek, all of 21, from the Czech Republic. He proved a most welcome visitor, approaching the well-worn piece with a mix of sinew and sensitivity. Occasionally, he articulated a melodic line with his right hand more forcefully than necessary, giving it a metallic edge, but everything Vondracek did sounded carefully, reasonably considered, not to mention technically polished.

Above all, there was a spontaneous quality to his pianism that gave delicate filigree passages an air of improvisation, for example, and put an extra kick into the folk rhythms of the finale. His shaping of the Romanze was especially refined and communicative; I loved the way he lovingly, introspectively approached the solo passage of gently rocking harmonic modulation just before the last portion of the movement.

Alsop was an attentive colleague on the podium, drawing beautifully shaded playing from the BSO.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:31 PM | | Comments (4)

March 19, 2009

Great orchestras, singers, pianists and more in Washington Performing Arts Society's 2009-10 season

Riccardo MutiThe Washington Performing Arts Society, the region's largest importer of classical talent, has announced its 2009-2010 season. The programming is generally as conservative as usual for WPAS, but the array of talent is -- also as usual for WPAS -- impressive and enticing.

On the orchestra front: the New York Philharmonic in a program of Liszt, Elgar and Prokofiev conducted by the extraordinary Riccardo Muti; the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing symphonies by Tchaikovsky and Bernstein with new music director Gustavo Dudamel; and the Royal Concertgebouw with Mariss Jansons conducting works by Sibelius and Rachmaninoff. The San Francisco Symphony (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Charles Dutoit conducting) are also slated.

Kiri Te KanawaVocal artists include soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, mezzo Denyce Graves, and a joint concert by tenor Ramon Vargas and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Several notable pianists will give recitals, including Radu Lupu, Maurizio Pollini, Mitsuko Uchida, Leif Ove Andsnes (a multimedia version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), Vladimir Feltsman, Angela Hewitt and Yuja Wang. Violinists Joshua Bell and Julia Fisher; cellists Alisa Weilerstein and Zuill Bailey; the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, with pianist/conductor Philippe Entremont; and the Takacs Quartet will make appearances as well.

There are also jazz and world music series.

WPAS venues include the Kennedy Center, Music Center at Strathmore and Washington's Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Riccardo Muti, Kiri Te Kanawa)

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:27 PM | | Comments (0)

Dame Edna's 'first last tour' provides welcome relief from reality

Dame EdnaPlease excuse the delay in posting, cherished cyber-possums, but I just had to escape, however briefly, from the daily dose of fresh hell. So I hopped down to Fort Lauderdale to savor an evening with Dame Edna, who, as her bio modestly puts it, "is probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today. Housewife, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children's book illustrator, megastar, celebrity spin doctor and icon." Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a pushover for a performer so talented, generous and wise (from the bio: "Her hobbies are caring, sharing and downsizing"), and, suitably refreshed and uplifted, I can now resume normal business.

When I noticed that Dame Edna's current show, billed as "My First Last Tour: A meditation on gender and post-election trauma," isn't scheduled for any performances near our fair city, I just had to make the trek to South Florida. Besides, I couldn't forgive myself if I missed it and it turned out to be Edna's last last tour. So I suggest you do get on down there, too (or get to the few other lucky spots on the tour), especially if you've O.D.'d on bad news lately, like the appalling loss of the Baltimore Opera, to pick a particularly painful example. Dame Edna is damn good therapy. 

To be sure, longtime fans of the incomparable Dame (this was my sixth opportunity to bask, live, in her divine Edna-ess during the past decade), will be very familiar with some of her material, but, the other night at the "tucked-away" Parker Playhouse, I found myself laughing as much at the old lines as the new ones. The trip would have been worth it if only to pick up her fabulous description of once-high-flying folks being pummelled hard by the Great Recession: Nouveau pauvre.  

And this show contains something the Dame's previous ones did not (SPOILER ALERT!!!) -- a glimpse of the man who created "the universally adored" creature with the mauve hair and spectacular "face furniture" (eyeglasses to the rest of us), Barry Humphries. The way Humphries makes his appearance in this show is quite endearing.

To give you a taste of the Dame Edna experience, here's a clip from a 2005 appearance in Montreal:



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:35 PM | | Comments (2)

March 18, 2009

Wake for the Baltimore Opera Company

Check out this video of yesterday's wake for the Baltimore Opera Company.

Posted by Sarah Kickler Kelber at 11:47 AM | | Comments (0)

March 17, 2009

Baltimore Symphony announces 2009-2010 season of stars and circuses

Jessye NormanStar power, cultural diversity and the circus — a brief summation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-2010 season, announced today.

The presence of several big-name guests on the lineup may well get the most attention as subscribers digest the material. “I think we’ve done well,” says music director Marin Alsop. “The trick was to figure out how to maintain reasonable ticket prices and bump up the level of artists we feature.” Those artists include such longtime luminaries as sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle (in separate concerts), and violinist Itzhak Perlman (he’ll conduct as well as play).

The roster also offers pianists Andre Watts, Garrick Ohlsson, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (for two weeks, covering Liszt and Gershwin works), Simone Dinnerstein (her BSO debut), and Lang Lang. The latter will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during the annual season-launching gala concert in September. “I’m so happy Lang Lang’s coming,” Alsop says, “since he made his debut with the BSO. We’ve worked together a few times.”

Violinists Gil Shaham, Leila Josefowicz and James Ehnes are scheduled. Conductors on the list include Robert Spano, Jiri Belohlavek, Louis Langrée and Nicholas McGegan.

Norman will be heard in Laura Karpman’s Ask Your Mama, a multimedia work with texts by Langston Hughes that was premiered earlier this week at Carnegie Hall. A Philadelphia-based hip-hop group, The Roots, will also participate. Battle, joined by the Morgan State University Choir, will sing spirituals and hymns in a program that celebrates the Underground Railroad.

Also notable for ’09-’10 will be the world premiere of Starburst by remarkable Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff; the U.S. premiere of Incantations by eminent Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara; and the first East Coast performance of Ansel Adams: America composed by Jazz great Dave Brubeck and his son Chris Brubeck — all three works are BSO co-commissions. Other contemporary works being performed next season: John Adams’ Violin Concerto and Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3.

There will be plenty of standard repertoire, including ...

Lang LangBeethoven’s Fifth, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Brahms’ Third, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Alsop will continue her cycle of Mahler symphonies, conducting his Fourth on a program with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Brahms’ German Requiem, with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is scheduled on a program with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano Janice Chandler-Etemé). A much rarer work of Barber’s, a 10-minute opera called A Hand of Bridge, also will be heard, sharing a program with a Gershwin rarity, Blue Monday, a jazzy little opera that offers a foretaste of Porgy and Bess. The singers for these concert-version operas will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program of Washington National Opera.

Running through the season will be a theme of cultural heritage. “Part of my interest in art is how it offers a little window to another era, another culture, another political-social climate,” Alsop says. “It’s a time machine in a way.” In one program, for example, a folk ensemble will play traditional Hungarian and gypsy melodies as a lead-in to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, to point up the influences on the latter. 

Once Alsop started thinking about ethnicities and roots, she found herself going in an unexpected direction. “The Bartok concert led me to the idea of featuring world music,” she says, “and this led me to folk tales and traditions, and, for some unknown reason, to the circus. I don’t know where that came from. But the circus is a shared tradition with many cultures.”

The circus concept will generate four weeks of programming next spring, including a “BSO Under the Big Top” SuperPops presentation conducted by Jack Everly and featuring quick-change artists and other entertainers; a Cirque de la Symphonie event with choreographed performances of music by Copland, Poulenc and Satie; and a performance of John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, a piece for multiple wind ensembles and percussion that will involve the BSO and U.S. Army Band. “The circus idea gives us an opportunity to have a mini-festival within the season,” Alsop says.

The Symphony With a Twist series has been dropped next season, but the recently introduced Off the Cuff series of early evening, roughly hour-long programs will return. “People seem to respond so positively to these,” Alsop says. “Five or six hundred people have been staying for the after-concert talks, which is really great.”

Ticket prices will not rise for next season, at either Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Music Center at Strathmore. And 70 percent of Meyerhoff will be set aside for the $25 subscription seats that have been a popular feature since the ’07-’08 season. BSO subscribers will receive a free online subscription to the Naxos Music Library, which has more than 400,000 tracks from Naxos CDs. (Alsop and the BSO record for the label.)

For more information, call 410-783-8000 or go to

In other news from the orchestra, the second BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship has been awarded to 15-year-old Venezuelan Ilyich Rivas, who will start his two-year training program in September, when Mei-Ann Chen will also join the BSO as assistant conductor and League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow.

There had been talk a while back of the BSO going on an overseas tour next season. That won’t happen. “We have to be fiscally responsible,” Alsop says. “But people [in Europe] are really eager to hear the BSO again. We’re looking more at 2011-12 for possible touring.”

Does that mean Alsop has extended her contract, which expires next season? “We're working on that,” she says. “We like to roll out the news month by month. I think by April we’ll have something to report on the contract.”

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Jessye Norman, Lang Lang)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (4)

March 16, 2009

Annapolis Opera offers passionate 'Cav/Pag'

That double dose of high passion among the lower orders -- Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (a perennially popular pairing known as Cav/Pag, for short) -- presented Annapolis Opera with quite a challenge over the weekend. At $125,000, this was the most expensive production in the company's 36-year history. I haven't seen much of that history, but I'd say that, on balance, this venture represented a respectable, often quite effective effort for a small community organization.

I caught Friday's performance at the Maryland Hall, with lots of gloomy thoughts in my head from the news of Baltimore Opera's pathetic demise. That probably wasn't the best day to catch a performance that couldn't help but be on a much smaller scale than what, most of the time, the Baltimore company could deliver. But, in many ways, I found it a fascinating, encouraging experience.

The look of the staging, especially for Cavalleria, was, well, economical, with simple sets and lighting that had two basic gradations: on and off. The orchestra had to sit on the floor in front of the stage because there's no pit in this converted high-school auditorium. The chorus, which has a lot to do in both operas, never quite mustered the vocal cohesion or acting ease to get past an amateur level. Nonetheless, the beauty and power of these two well-worn works came through with surprising strength, thanks largely to principal singers of considerable calibre, singers with personality and possibility. With their professionalism guiding the way, and with company artistic director and conductor Ronald J. Gretz making a valiant effort to light the verismo fire in the two scores, the evening moved right along.

The Cav cast had two standouts: soprano Alison Meuth, whose portrayal of the jilted Santuzza offered tonal richness and emotional weight; and tenor Richard Novak, who, as the faithless Turiddu, used his beefy voice with a great deal of character, milking the most ardent and explosive phrases effectively and scaling back nicely for the more lyrical moments. A little more firmness at the upper end would be welcome, but the voice is quite impressive as it is. Daniel Lickteig's baritone also registered vividly in the role of Alfio, as did his acting. Colorful work came from Michelle Rice (Lola) and Patrizia Conte (Mamma Lucia).

The Pag cast was sparked by Jonathan Burton's persasuively acted Canio, backed by a generally effective combination of vocal steel and sensitivity. Veronica Mitina could have used more vitality and tonal color as Nedda, but, at her best, she sent the melodic lines soaring nicely, especially in the duet with Jesse Blumberg (Silvio), whose warm baritone served him well. Thomas Beard needed a bit more tonal heft for Tonio's Prologue, but he scored dramatic points throughout the opera. As Beppe, Joseph Haughton sang tellingly.

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra did not have a sterling night, although the musicians delivered the goods for each opera's most explosive passages. The playing might well have been more consistent had Gretz been in firmer control of the music. Still, he and his forces got the spirit of both turbulent operas across.

Director Braxton Peters steered a straightfoward course. He couldn't get much past oratorio-style blocking for the choristers, but he had the principals engaged strongly with each other. Pagliacci, by the way, was set here circa 1940s, giving the production a more interesting look than the traditional Cav staging.


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

March 14, 2009

Anne Wiggins Brown, Baltimore native and Gershwin's first Bess, dies at 96

Just got word that Anne Wiggins Brown, who created the role of Bess in Gershwin's groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess in 1935, died Friday in Norway at the age of 96. As a student at Juilliard, the Baltimore-born soprano sent a letter to Gershwin requesting an audtion and was hired on the spot. She went to enjoy a successful career, especially in Europe.

Here are some reminiscences of Miss Brown that I received via email from her friend and former student, Kitti Homme:

She was a fantastic human being - incredibly intelligent, talented (also a great pianist!), humble, kind -- and a loyal friend. I consider myself very lucky to have known her all these years. And I feel really good about having visited her as recently as in January this year ... Two years ago, at the age of 94, she sat down at the grand piano and played Chopin, Beethoven and Gershwin for us -- for at least half an hour. She kept saying: "I can't play!" But it sounded fabulous to our ears. She was a perfectionist until the end ... She made a huge contribution to American opera. Fresh out of New York's Juilliard School of Music, at the age of 22, when there was hardly any future for African Americans in opera or classical music, she starred as Bess in George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess ... Gershwin was blown away by her when she came to his flat to audition ... After hearing Anne sing works by Brahms, Schubert, and Massenet, Gershwin asked her to sing ...

a spiritual. After hearing her sing "City Called Heaven," Gershwin knew he had found the perfect Bess. From that time until the opera was finished, Anne visited the composer every week, going through the music, singing all the parts -- singing duets with Gershwin or trios with other members of the cast.

Anne and George Gershwin remained close friends until he died an untimely death only two years later. She has a big post card collection and letters he wrote her from his trips and from California ... Gershwin also changed the name of the opera from "Porgy" to "Porgy and Bess" to give her character more prominence ...

Anne went on to touring solo all over Europe, then settling in Norway after she fell in love with a Norwegian Olympic skier, and teaching voice to hundreds of talented singers and actors. She was always active and busy with music and culture, directing operas in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. She loved the Norwegian winters, but also Italy, where she had a summer home ...

In 1998, she participated in the Library of Congress commemoration of George Gershwins' 100th birthday. That year, she also received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America by Peabody Institute ...

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:20 PM | | Comments (2)

One more musical salute to the Baltimore Opera

Thanks to Ross for suggesting an ideal way to commemorate the Baltimore Opera: Va, pensiero, from Nabucco.It's a particularly beautiful performance (note the way the chorus fades to a lingering hum at the close). In this context, the thoughts we send 'on golden wings' are of a valued, "ill-fated" company "so lovely and lost."

Coro: Introduzione - "Va pensiero, sullali dorate" - Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin [Orchestra]

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

March 13, 2009

A musical farewell to Baltimore Opera

This won't make anyone feel better about the depressing word of Baltimore Opera's demise, but the final duet from Verdi's Aida seems like just the thing to hear right now -- to remind us of the company's past (Aida was the first work staged by the company in 1950) and to remind us that the beauty and majesty of opera will endure.The artists in this recording are Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. I figured this was an occasion that called for a lot of vocal star power.)

And thanks to Brendan Cooke, a valiant and valued member of the Baltimore Opera, for suggesting that I post some music in response to the news.

Aida (highlights): Qual gemito!...Morir, sì pura e bella!...O terra, addio - Birgit Nilsson/Franco Corelli/Grace Bumbry/Mario Sereni/Coro del Teatro dellOpera, Roma/Orchestra del Teatro dellOpera, Roma/Zubin Mehta

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:22 PM | | Comments (0)

Reflecting on the demise of Baltimore Opera

The news that came late yesterday afternoon wasn't exactly unexpected. Ever since the Baltimore Opera Company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, everyone has known that the next shoe could drop with the thud of Chapter 7 liquidation at any time. Still, when it fell, it seemed somehow impossible.

After 59 years (more if you count the precursor organization), the city's grand opera company is dead, waiting only for its assets to be auctioned off so that creditors can be paid something of what they are owed. It's a pitiful end for a worthy institution.

I know that the blame game, which has been going on since the Chapter 11 filing, will be even more intense now that the finality of Chapter 7 has arrived. I think it's fair to question the wisdom of a board that allowed the financial health to be so precarious for so long (the situation that led to this mess didn't begin with the stock market crash). I think it's fair to question some of former general director Michael Harrison's choices when it came to productions, certainly in terms of expense. But the bottom line is the same here as it is in Costa Mesa, where Opera Pacifica folded last fall, and in Hartford, where Connecticut Opera shut its doors last month: The community, for whatever reasons, proved unable to support the company at the level needed to sustain quality and growth.

Those who complain the loudest about ticket prices are usually the last to grasp the fact that ticket sales cover maybe a third of the costs of putting opera onstage. It's all about contributions -- private, foundation, corporate, government. Without a solid, reliable combination of funding sources, no company can last. It's that simple. The folks at Baltimore Opera certainly understood that, which is why, during other bad times, the number of productions and/or performances was reduced to save money. It's not like this company ignored every warning or opted for extravagance at every turn, but no one ever managed to get way out ahead in terms of fundraising. It was always hand-to-mouth, week-to-week. And, like so many nonprofits, the company never built up endowment funds to help secure long-range stability. The $1.2 million debt that led to Chapter 11 was not by itself overwhelming, but if no cash is coming in to keep the lights on, that debt suddenly looks 10 times as large.

There was talk of a fundraising gala/concert this spring, and talk of some sort of performance in the fall, but that would have done little. There was talk of starting an escrow account for contributions and waiting until the amount reached the level needed to return to full operations. Those chances didn't look so good, either, not now, not in this recession. And not in a community where the generosity is at one level, the aspirations at another.

It's depressing to pass by the Lyric now and think about a theater that opened with the voice of Nellie Melba and witnessed decades of opera performances featuring notable artists in a respectably wide range of repertoire. Other entertainment will go on there, of course, maybe even some more opera one day. But it won't be the same. With the dissolution of the Baltimore Opera, that theater, and this city, will now be much poorer. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (5)

March 12, 2009

Peabody Opera offers multi-soprano 'Traviata'

Peabody OperaWell, that was different.

Ordinarily, there has to be a really mean flu bug going around an opera company before you would end up with three different sopranos singing portions of the title role in Verdi's La Traviata on a single night. But Peabody Opera Theatre has taken this unusual path intentionally.

In a program note, director Garnett Bruce writes that the triple casting allows "more students the opportunities to study and perform this role" and protects "young voices from exhaustion at the naissance of their careers " A cynical reading of that may lead one to conclude that the school just doesn't have any sopranos at the moment who can get all the way through the opera unscathed. Judging by last night's cast (which sings again on Friday), I'd say that at least one of the three sounded more than ready for the whole role, and the other two not far behind. I wonder how yet another three sopranos will fare tonight and Saturday -- yes, another three; Peabody typically double casts its operas, but this sextuple arrangement is really wild. (Surely six different Violettas for a single production has to be some sort of record.)

Bruce certainly took the let's-give-everybody-a-chance approach and ran with it, designing a concept to justify the plethora of sopranos. Each Violetta appears in each act -- one as the 'live' character caught up in the drama, two as ghostly, been-there-suffered-that observers. That sure made more sense, of course, than just changing the lead after each intermission and hoping no one noticed. I wasn't totally persuaded by it all, but ...

there were times when the sight of the already departed Violettas reacting to the tragic chain of events registered quite effectively. In the last act, the expiring Violetta seemed well aware of the others, in an "I see dead people" sort of way, and that certainly hit home. I especially liked when the Act 1 party-girl Violetta cavorted during the brief Mardi Gras passage of that last act, momentarily forgetting about the tubercular Violetta facing her doom.

In the end, the idea worked well enough theatrically, and I imagine some folks will walk away thinking about how each Violetta's characteristics contribute to an archetype of the fallen woman with a heart of gold, and how each man in her life "sees something different" in her (as Bruce writes). Or maybe not.

Vocally speaking, Eun Hye Ju, who sang Act 3, was the standout last night, her voice sizable and warm, with a good deal of coloration. Not everything worked technically, but the soprano's intense singing suggested considerable promise. Jennifer Holbrook tackled Act 1 with a bright, if rather tight, tone and telling phrases. She sang part of Ah fors'e lui lying on the floor, still producing plenty of sound. Beth Stewart started Act 2 tentatively, but the voice soon opened up to reveal a tonal sheen that carried the soprano's expressive phrasing.

The evening's sole Alfredo, William Davenport, sounded very much like a significant tenor-to-be. His voice is not large, but has a certain sweetness that can surely be refined, and he should be able to strengthen the top register in due time. He already knows how to shape a Verdi melody quite elegantly. Eun Seo Koo was a work-in-progress. The baritone did not have the high notes or the nuance to fill out Germont's music, and his phrasing was monochromatic. The rest of the cast proved spirited, if technically uneven. (By the way, the supporting roles and chorus were attired in contemporary formal wear, the three principals in 19th century costumes -- another element of Bruce's concept ripe for intermission discussions.)

Hajime Teri Murai conducted with a remarkable flair for the rhythmic elasticity that was once more commonly encountered in Verdi performances. Other than wiry violins, the orchestra turned in a poised, sensitive performance. I was intrigued by the occasional portamento from the strings last night -- something else you don't usually hear today. I'm not sure if Murai actually encouraged it or it happened because a few players lost their discipline, but, either way, I liked it. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE (Cory Weaver, photographer): Beth Stewart, kneeling, Jennifer Holbrook and Eun Seo Koo


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

March 10, 2009

Brentano Quartet, Serkin in bold program at Shriver Hall

Brentano String Quartet

As we get farther away from the atonal revolution of the early 20th century, it's harder to find composers who are totally dedicated to that cause. Those who have managed to stay true to the complexities of the 12-tone system devised by Schoenberg, avoiding any trace of neo-this or neo-that in their work, seem all the braver now. One such stalwart is Charles Wuorinen, whose thorny, brilliant Second Piano Quintet was performed during the Brentano String Quartet's remarkably bold program presented Sunday night by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

There was even a bracing work by Schoenberg on the bill, too. In such company, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge sounded more way-out-there than ever. For that matter, Haydn's D minor Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3 (nicknamed "Fifths"), the tamest work on the concert, also came across as doubly bold, unconventional, forward-looking.

Wuorinen wrote his quintet for the Brentano players -- an ensemble exceptionally well-matched in tone, technique and temperament -- and the excellent pianist Peter Serkin. They gave the premiere last summer and collaborated on the work again here. The skittish first movement of the Second Piano Quintet is a study in musical pointillism, each note deftly dropped onto the aural canvas. The viola's dark song in the second movement weaves through the dissonant landscape compellingly. A scherzo of remarkable energy gives way to tremolos and night sounds that characterize the spacious finale, which, in turn, is surprised by ...

Peter Serkina return of the aggressive scherzo and a coda that compresses all the tension from the five instruments into an eerily calm resolution. The score received a performance of startling technical poise and expressive drama. The string players dug deeply, confidently into the material; Serkin articulated the dots and dashes of the keyboard part with his usual clarity.

Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon, composed at the height of World War II, is a fascinating piece for reciter and piano quintet. Here, the composer's 12-tone technique reveals subtle shifts to allow hints of more traditional tonality, so that the final burst of E-flat -- a reference to Beethoven's Eroica -- seems a perfectly natural destination.

Interested in making a statement about the horror of Hitler, Schoenberg found an ideal vehicle in Byron's poetic tirade against the French emperor ("To think that God's fair world hath been/The footstool of a thing so mean"), and his intense music underscores each line tellingly, without resorting to anything blatantly descriptive. The Brentano members and Serkin once again offered superb playing, as Thomas Meglioranza recited the poetry with great flair.

The performance of the Haydn quartet at the start of the evening was beautifully detailed and full of spontaneity; the music danced. I heard the Brentano ensemble play the heck out of Beethoven's wild fugal exercise in New York a couple weeks ago. Sunday's performance proved to be just as taut and engrossing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:34 PM | | Comments (1)

Imaginative vocal recital presented by Music in the Great Hall

Music in the Great Hall, a concert series in its 35th season, occasionally ventures into an area that remains problematic with the general public -- art songs. Strange as it is for me to fathom, some folks will volunteer for unneeded root canals rather than submit to an entire program of Schubert lieder. But I'm always delighted to see organizations plunge ahead anyway with such things, as the Shriver Hall Concert Series will do next month when distinctive British tenor Ian Bostridge sings, yes, an entire program of Schubert lieder.

But back to the Great Hall -- actually, Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, where the series presents its activities. On Sunday afternoon, soprano Lorriana Markovic-Prakash and pianist Adam Mahonske (artistic director of the series) teamed up for an imaginative mix of songs that covered several styles and moods. For angst and heartache, there was a sampling of Tchaikovsky (left), including the much-loved "None by the Lonely Heart." For wit and quirkiness, there was Poulenc's song cycle Fiancailles pour Rire. Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs provided doses of the mystical and the earthy. And John Carter's Cantata -- seriously dressed-up arrangements of familiar spirituals -- rounded things out in uplifting fashion.

Markovic-Prakash, like Mahonske, teaches at Morgan State University. She is an engaging, intelligent artist. Her intonation ...

was not as consistent as her expressiveness, however, and a tendency to land just shy of the pitch in the upper register caused some damage. But all the music was delivered with conviction, color and style. The way the soprano built to the emotional peak in Tchaikovsky's "So Soon Forgotten," with its tale of an ended affair, was gripping. And how beautifully she molded that composer's endearing gem, " 'Twas in the Early Spring" -- which seemed all the more perfect on such a prematurely springlike day. Many deft touches characterized the singer's performance of the Poulenc and Barber songs, and Markovic-Prakash proved to be just as compelling an interpreter of the great spirituals woven together in the Carter work.

Throughout the recital, Mahonske played superbly. He relished Poulenc's every piquant harmonic shift and produced many a subtle tonal coloration. He took full advantage of the substantial keyboard codas in the Tchaikovsky songs -- the way he articulated each rolling chord at the end of the searing "Why?" spoke volumes. The firm, expressive playing continued through the concert.

As was the case with an art song program last season, projections of the non-English texts were provided on a screen, the way they routinely are in opera performances. It's a worthy idea that other concert organizations should try when presenting vocal recitals -- anything that helps audiences connect more directly with the music is worth pursuing. And this way, you don't hear all the paper rustling as people turn the pages of printed translations.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO (Courtesy of National Symphony Orchestra)

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:29 PM | | Comments (1)

Mendelssohn gets hearty birthday nod from Concert Artists of Baltimore

Edward PolochickBig musical anniversaries provide instant excuses for celebratory programming. My not-necessarily-thorough glance around the music world has not detected a massive wave of partying for the 200th birthday of Felix Mendelssohn (Feb. 3). The occasional nod, to be sure, but maybe not quite as much fuss as he deserves. So it was nice to find the Concert Artists of Baltimore devoting Saturday's concert at the Gordon Center entirely to Mendelssohn.

Artistic director Edward Polochick is a champion of the composer's Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang); he led a memorable performance in 2003 with his ensemble. Returning to the work this year, the conductor seemed somehow even more energized by this sweeping music, composed for the 400th anniversary of the printing press. The three orchestra-only movements were tauty shaped, but with lots of expresssive urgency. The long choral finale flowed along in dynamic fashion. The choristers produced a smoothly blended sound and articulated cleanly, even during a terrific dash through Die Nacht ist vergangen.

With one exception, the soloists, all drawn form the ensemble, measured up handsomely. Hyuk Chae, a tenor, offered particularly vivid singing in Stricke des Todes. Another tenor, Peter Lee, and soprano Sarah Berger phrased their solos in the penultimate movement quite elegantly. There were sweet, bright sounds as well from sopranos Julia Ju Young Kim and YooJin Jeong in the fifth movement. The orchestra ...  

turned in cohesive, colorful playing.

One serious problem with the performance: No lights in the hall for the audience to follow along with the texts printed in the program. How many times do I have to preach this sermon? Don't perform wordy music without a) providing the texts and b) bringing the house up lights to a reasonable level (or using projections). I don't ask this for myself, of course. Naturally, I know by heart every literary component of every musical piece in every language ever written. I just feel sorry for the poor folks around me who are ever so less enlightened (so to speak).

The first half of the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn's Concerto for Two Pianos, a sparkling item from the composer's teenage years. The soloists, Shaun Tirrell and Brian Ganz, tore into the music with crowd-pleasing results. Alas, I didn't feel quite so enthusiastic.

Not all of Mendelssohn's music may have that elfin quality he was so famous for, but everything he wrote is elegant, and the one thing I didn't hear from these pianists was elegance. The whole performance sounded too pushy, as if the only object were to play as loud and fast as possible. Even in the slow movement, the volume never really dropped below mezzo-forte. And the mad dash in the coda of the finale was so exaggerated that Mendelssohn's music slipped away beneath all the showmanship. In the Gordon Center, with its great acoustics, subtleties would have registered so nicely, and would have revealed so much more character in the concerto. That said, the technically accomplished soloists stayed remarkably in sync and maintained admirable clarity (except in that supersonic stretch at the very end), and Polochick assured that the orchestra stayed right with them all the way through.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:03 AM | | Comments (0)

March 9, 2009

Your weekly anti-Recession musical medication

As we settle into another week of the long, deep recession, here's some more great music and music-making to help ease the pain and anxiety. This particular case simultaneously honors the 2009 bicentennial of Mendelssohn's birth. I think the Adagio from his Symphony No. 3 (the Scottish) is one of his most deeply poetic inspirations. I also think anything conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos is deeply poetic, too. So here's an ideal combination, Mendelssohn and Mitropoulos, with the Minneapolis Symphony (very old recording, very out-of-date sound -- get over it):

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 In A Minor, Op. 56, "Scottish" - III. Adagio - Dimitri MITROPOULOS; Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:01 PM | | Comments (1)

Opera Vivente tackles timeless 'Coronation of Poppea'

Opera Vivente PoppeaMonteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea offers a glimpse into the origin of the operatic species. Although not the first extant opera, this ca. 1650 work, more than any other early example, contains within both the music and the libretto nearly all the seeds of the art form's eventual development. It’s the ultimate prequel.

Every time I see a production, I’m struck anew by the way Poppea seems to anticipate so many things. When Nero and Poppea entwine vocally in the exquisite closing duet, for example, a couple centuries’ worth of Italian opera seem to unfold. It’s not just an Italian thing, though. When Nero’s teacher Seneca is visited by Mercury, who informs the old man that his death is near, I invariably get a flash-forward to Brunnhilde’s appearance before Siegmund to convey similar news in Die Walkure. Time and again, the plot of Poppea, with its judicious mix of drama and humor, shows the way toward a massive amount of opera repertoire that will follow. Not that any of this is necessary to appreciate the power and beauty of Poppea on its own. This is a pinnacle of early baroque style, an arresting fusion of music and drama.

Stagings don’t come around every day, certainly not in Baltimore, so Opera Vivente’s production is most welcome. On Friday night in the hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the company has managed to build a comfortable home for more than a decade, many things went wonderfully well, starting with ...

Opera Vivente Poppeathe period instrument ensemble, Harmonious Blacksmith. Sensitively conducted by Joseph Gascho – fluid tempos, nuanced phrasing – the musicians, arranged on opposite sides of the floor, maintained remarkable smoothness and warmth, providing a firm foundation for Monteverdi’s ever-elegant, ever-telling vocal lines.

As in most baroque operas, Poppea poses the castrato question -- deciding what kind of voices to assign to the roles in the opera originally sung by castrati (they’re hard to find these days). Director John Bowen engaged a male soprano as Nero. The appearance of male sopranos in baroque operas, as opposed to countertenors, seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve heard one or two convincing cases, voices that achieved more tonal body than the typical use of falsetto. David Korn, as Nero, was most persuasive mid-range, when the sound was firm and vibrant. He tended to turn strident and effortful at the top, but he maintained a stylish delivery throughout. Although there were times when more confident acting would have been helpful, Korn’s boyish looks played up the spoiled, immature side of Nero.

(In a surprising, provocative touch, Bowen's direction revealed the cruel side of the emperor, too, the side that would help make him infamous. This Nero coldly slays his pal Lucano, moments after sharing a kiss in one of the opera’s most sensual scenes. I’ve seen other directors play up the homoerotic idea here – the libretto makes it almost irresistible – but the sadistic violence was something new. I must admit I rather liked it.)

Ah Hong had quite a triumph as the subtly conniving Poppea. The soprano’s tonal gleam filled the hall beautifully, and her phrasing was always richly detailed. Her acting, too, proved appealing. As Ottone (the other former castrato role), Monica Reinagel used her burnished contralto to consistently eloquent effect. Katherine Drago, as Nero’s out-of-favor wife Ottavia, and Lisa Dodson, as the Ottone-smitten Drusilla, did effective work. As Seneca, Jed Springfield sounded a bit worn around the edges and not always on pitch, but he shaped phrases with a gravity that caught the nobility of Seneca.

Karim Sulayman camped it up mightily as the nurse Arnalta (drag roles were a niche thing in baroque opera); his singing didn’t always measure up, but he sure delivered the comic relief. Ryan de Ryke sang with his usual expressive depth as Mercury, but why did Bowen have him strike silly FTD Florist poses during the serious death-announcement scene? In the other supporting roles, things ranged from the passable to the inexcusably amateurish, the latter prevalent enough to bring the whole production down several notches.

Thom Bumblauskas designed a simple set that enabled the action to move along neatly. The costumes, designer by Jennifer Tardiff, could have used a bit more style, at least for Nero and the other upper-crusties.

Remaining performances are Thursday and Saturday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:24 PM | | Comments (1)

Weekend performance report on the way soon

As soon as I can, I'll be offering separate reports on a very active weekend of music in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, here's a teaser of the reviews:

Opera Vivente's production of The Coronation of Poppea -- some really fine singing, a jolt of really un-fine singing, wonderful orchestral playing, mostly effective staging.

Concert Artists of Baltimore -- a welcome celebration of the Mendelssohn bicentennial, lots of vibrant music-making, not so much elegance where it could have done the most good.

Music in the Great Hall -- a very imaginative program of art songs, mostly polished singing, exceptionally stylish piano accompaniment.

Shriver Hall Concert Series -- a bold choice of repertoire delivered by a superlative string quartet and top-notch guest artists.

Stay tuned, treasured blog-ites, for the juicy details.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:13 AM | | Comments (0)

March 6, 2009

Jun Markl leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in pairing of Mozart, Stravinsky

Jun Markl, the German-born conductor who leads the Orchestre National de Lyon, is back on the Baltimore Symphony podium for an interesting program that pairs a pinnacle of the classical style with a gem of the neoclassical.

The audience draw is Mozart's Requiem, of course. I'm not sure how much the audiences will thrill to Stravinsky's Apollo on the first half -- last night at the Meyerhoff, the piece was, let's say, politely received -- but it was great to see this under-programmed ballet score for string orchestra get the spotlight. I wish the performance had been crisper and tighter, with more defined rhythmic details and more confident attacks.

Still, many of the beauties in the piece emerged with character and charm, especially the Pas de deux, which Markl shaped sensitively and which inspired silken-toned phrasing from the ensemble. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney articulated his solos in dynamic fashion. Expressive work by Chang Woo Lee, the BSO's associate principal cellist, also registered nicely.

Markl took a sober, clear-cut approach to the Requiem, setting sensible tempos and shaping phrases artfully. What I missed here and there was a touch of individuality and, in the Lacrimosa, a deeper, more involving emotion.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society responded to the conductor with vibrant singing. The choristers articulated contrapuntal passages with admirable clarity (Quom olim Abrahae was a prime example) and, aside from a little pitch slippage, maintained a sturdy, cohesive sound. The women's voices floated quite sweetly in the Voca me line, one of most inspired passages in the Requiem, a moment as sublime, in its own way, as anything from Mozart's operas.

The ripe and communicative singing of mezzo Susan Platts made the strongest impression among the soloists. The others -- soprano Christine Brandes, tenor Roger Honeywell, bass-baritone Timothy Jones -- produced less in the way of tonal solidity, but phrased ardently.

The orchestra, oddly enough, sounded small-boned and even diffuse (I don't think it helped to have the trumpets stuck over in a corner away from the rest), and some details in the scoring disappeared when the chorus was at full-throttle. Nonetheless, there was refinement and character in the playing that did register fully. An organist was onstage, but she was more seen than heard.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:37 PM | | Comments (0)

March 5, 2009

Mobtown, Evolution series give Baltimore needed jolt

In the space of 24 hours, two organizations offered Baltimore a hearty jolt of contemporary music, putting the spotlight on the late Luciano Berio and the very-much-with-us Christopher Theofanidis, two composers whose work has not enjoyed nearly enough attention in this city. (The Baltimore Symphony, for example, has offered exactly one Berio work, in 1986, and one piece by Theofanidis, in 2006.) Their music could not be much more dissimilar, but there is remarkable quality, not to mention challenge and variety, in each man's approach to the sonic art.

Leave it to Mobtown Modern to tackle Berio, and do so by presenting a dozen of the 14 pieces for solo instruments that bear the common title Sequenza. My guess is that you wouldn't encounter such a marathon too often anywhere, so it was doubly cool to find this happening in Baltimore, where Mobtown Modern has settled nicely into the Contemporary Museum over the past couple of seasons. For the "Sequenzathon" on Tuesday, the action shifted from the somewhat confining upstairs room where the ensemble usually presents its concerts to the museum's gallery space on the main floor, where the high ceilings added welcome acoustical resonance.

Brian Sacawa, saxophonist and co-mover-and-shaker for Mobtown (with composer Erik Spangler), assembled a fearless group of soloists for the challenge. Everyone I heard -- I caught eight of the dozen -- demonstrated more than the necessary technical acumen to negotiate the scores; each performer also ...

sounded thoroughly connected to the music and conveyed a contagious sense of spontaneity and discovery. In the Sequenzas, Berio's extraordinary ability to exploit an instrument's possibilities results in a wild range of sounds, but with a certain logic and expressive intent underneath the atonal complexities. What I liked about Tuesday's concert was the way the soloists brought out that communicative power.

In order of appearance:

Sequenza I for flute, delivered with great flair by Marcia Kamper; II for harp, which Jacqueline Pollauf articulated colorfully; III, a tour de force for female voice that soprano Julieanne Klein took full advantage of, creating a bit of mini-theater in the process; V for trombone, featuring the suitably hyper playing of Daniel Blacksburg; VI for viola, with Wendy Richman making something at once dramatic and poetic out of the aggressive tremolo-like motif of the piece; VIIa for oboe, given a sturdy account by Emily Madsen; VIII for violin, which includes a recurring, almost elfin perpetual-motion idea that Gabriela Diaz made particularly telling in a performance of remarkable composure; and IXb for alto sax, a study in technical adversity that Sacawa met superbly, while bringing out all the drama of some abstract tone poem, complete with wails and sighs.

A remarkable concert. And Mobtown Modern isn't through for the season: music of Varese, Stockhausen, Zappa and others will wrap things up in May.

Last night, the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, founded and directed with great commitment by Judah Adashi and based at An die Musik, saluted Theofanidis, who recently left the Peabody faculty for Yale's. The program provided a fascinating sample of the composer's solo and small ensemble pieces, all of them reflecting the Theofanidis trademarks of refined craftsmanship, structural clarity and neo-tonal, unapologetic accessibility.

Pianist Kenneth Osowski gave a taut, vivid performance of All Dreams Begin with the Horizon from 2006; the strikingly lyrical third movement was played with particular sensitivity. The tightly woven Kaoru for two flutes, a 1994 work, found Rachel Choe and Kristin Bacchiocchi Stewart articulating the most angular and propulsive of lines in deftly synchronized fashion.

The unaccompanied violin work Flow, My Tears, written in 1997 as an elegy for Jacob Druckman (one of Theofanidis' teachers), is quite striking. The darkly romantic style is certainly resonant of the past, but the has its own clear, telling voice. The poetic mileage the composer gets out of a deceptively straightforward descending scale speaks volumes for his originality and communicative power. Violaine Melancon played the score with evident affection, vibrant tone and often exquisite phrasing.

In the second movement of Visions and Miracles, a 1997 piece for strings, Theofanidis does some lovely things with an ascending scale. I found that gently pulsating movement the most interesting of the three, but the whole work is easily engaging (in remarks to last night's audience, the composer said that writing a work with "three happy movements" was "almost embarrassing"). The Brunell String Quartet, featuring Peabody grad students, gave a spirited, if sometimes rough-edged, performance.


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

March 3, 2009

DC Philharmonic to debut at Strathmore in April

Recession? What recession? With so many arts groups facing financial woes and cutting back on product, it seems a little strange to hear about a new orchestra being launched. But, on Wednesday, a press conference is planned at Strathmore to announce the DC Philharmonic Orchestra, which will be based there. (

To be conducted by John Baltimore, the new ensemble will bow April 9 and 10 with what has to be just about the most challenging program an untried orchestra could tackle -- Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, preceded by Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Michael Torke's Bright Blue Music. Most orchestras would not put anything on a program with that long, daunting Mahler symphony (perhaps only the finale will be performed).

The starry soloists scheduled are soprano Harolyn Blackwell and mezzo Denyce Graves. The Heritage Signature Chorale will also participate. As for the orchestral personnel, a press release describes them thusly: "extremely versatile, gifted, and virtuosic professional musicians, who believe in and are committed to creating music, rich in soul and organic energy; music that is expressive, alive and buoyant, that reaches the very depths of the human element."


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:10 PM | | Comments (2)

Kennedy Center's 2009-2010 season has Russian accent

The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday a typically wide-ranging lineup for the 2009-2010 season, including the start of a two-year festival of Russian arts; the first concert by National Symphony Orchestra music director-designate Christoph Eschenbach since the announcement his appointment last year; a showcase of works in a variety of genres by people with disabilities; a festival of Terrance McNally plays with operatic themes; and a production of the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett and by directed by Liv Ullman.

For music fans, the big news of the "Focus on Russia" fest is the visit by the Mariinsky Opera (also still popularly known as the Kirov Opera) and a production of Prokofiev's gargantuan War and Peace, conducted by Valery Gergiev (right).

There will be concert versions of Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov as well, not to mention performances by the Mariinsky Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet.

The NSO will contribute to the Russian theme with such guest artists as pianist Evgeny Kissin, violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Mischa Maisky.

Speaking of the NSO, Eschenbach (left) will conduct Verdi's Requiem. Other artists who will be on the orchestra's podium next season include NSO principal conductor Ivan Fischer, former NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, Lorin Maazel (his program includes a work for narrator and orchestra he has composed), composer/conductor John Adams, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Andrew Litton.

Soloists of note on the NSO roster: tenor Ben Heppner, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Joshua Bell, pianists Nelson Freire, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Lang Lang. The orchestra's programming covers a fairly broad sampling of repertoire, from Bach's B minor Mass to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Bartok's The Wooden Prince.

In addition to the Russian companies, the Kennedy Center's dance offerings include appearances by American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Danced Theater and Suzanne Farrell Ballet. There will be a gospel music series and the return of Barbara Cook Spotlight, a series featuring Broadway performers. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (1)

March 2, 2009

A new week, a new need for anxiety-calming music

In case you thought it couldn't get any worse, don't look at today's closing stock market report. This global meltdown is obviously going to take a bigger toll on all of us than we could ever have imagined, but, remember, there's always great music to transport us out of the ghastly now and into an ethereal state where, at least momentarily, all is calm and secure. To help you take this little mental journey, here's an ideal vehicle, Mozart's Ave verum corpus, one of the most perfectly beautiful three and a half minutes or so in all of music:

Ave verum corpus K618 - Swedish Radio Choir/Stockholm Chamber Choir/Berliner Philharmoniker/Riccardo Muti

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:44 PM | | Comments (0)

New theory for solving the mystery of Elgar's 'Enigma Variations'

If you still can't get the marvelous sounds of Elgar's Enigma Variations out of your head after the brilliant performance conducted by Peter Oundjian with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last week, you'll want to check out the latest theory on solving the enigma itself.

You recall that Elgar said there was an unheard theme lying behind the theme that launches the work, but he never revealed it. Many a novel theory has been advanced over the past century. Oundjian and others look to the ancient Dies Irae chant as the solution to the mystery. Robert Wayne Padgett, a California-based violin teacher, has been busy studying this puzzle. Just last month, he was sure -- twice -- that he had solved it.

Early in February he offered the hymn tune "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Then, a little more than a week ago, he announced on his blog that the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream is the definitive answer. His site includes some intriguing material backing up that theory. My guess is more theories will continue to emerge in the years ahead (maybe even more from Padgett himself), but it's fun considering this latest answer to Elgar's mischievous scheme.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:20 AM | | Comments (4)

Another sign of the tight times: Met Opera uses Chagall paintings as collateral

You do what you gotta do in tough times. The Metropolitan Opera, facing its own pressures in the economic downturn, has already scaled back some plans for next season. The rest of this season may not be bringing in the cash once anticipated. ("Sold out" ads for the company are not as frequent as they seemed to be last year. I was surprised to see some empty seats for a matinee of Adriana Lecouvreur with Placido Domingo in the cast when I was there a couple of weekends ago.)

Now comes news that the huge, glorious Chagall paintings that grace the lobby of the opera house have been put up for collateral as part of a loan taken out to make up for cash-flow shortages.

(Thanks to for alerting me to the story.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 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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