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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)

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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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