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April 30, 2009

Major pileup of worthy musical events through Sunday

Every time the Baltimore concert schedule gets over-crowded I become more convinced than ever that we need a master planning device to help organizations avoid the kind of pileup of events we're going to get Thursday through Sunday. Here are just a few of the things that ought to be worth a listen:

The BSO welcomes the ever-engaging Mario Venzago back to the podium for a program of Bruckner's Third and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (with sublime pianist Nelson Friere). Two gifted BSO musicians, violinist Madeline Adkins and violist Karin Brown, perform works by Bach, Mozart, Hindemith, Martinu, and Handel-Halvorsen at An die Musik. Opera Vivente opens its production of Britten's comic gem Albert Herring, which director John Bowen describes neatly as a cross between The Vicar or Dibley and Keeping Up Appearances (we Brit com fans get a perfect image from that).

Speaking of Britten, his Missa Brevis will be featured in a program by the Concert Choir of the College of Notre Dame. Shriver Hall wraps up its season with a recital by two eminent musicians, flutist Emmanuel Pahud and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock. The 200th anniversary of Haydn's death will be marked by two fine Baltimore ensembles, Pro Musica Rara and the Handel Choir, the latter performing the stirring Mass in Time of War. The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society presents the dynamic Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. The Bach Concert Series offers a performance of the profound B minor Mass. UMBC presents an updated staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The Canticle Singers will perform music of Poulenc, Fauré, Duruflé and Chen Yi.

And that's just some of what's out there in the next few days. I may resort to a throw of the dice to figure out where I'm going.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:21 PM | | Comments (3)

April 28, 2009

Washington National Opera to present concert version of 'Turandot' in Baltimore at the Lyric

Grand opera is coming back to Baltimore this season -- not in its absolute grandest of forms, with sets and costumes and all, and just for one night, but it's still good news.

The Lyric Opera House, where the Baltimore Opera Company made its home for decades before folding this season, will present a concert version of Washington National Opera's production of Puccini’s Turandot on June 2. This concert will come just before the end of the company's staged Turandot run at the Kennedy Center Opera House (May 16 to June 4). Dynamic Russian soprano Maria Guleghina will sing the title role in Baltimore opposite Argentine tenor Dario Volonté as Calaf. The performance will also feature the full WNO orchestra and chorus.

Since the demise of Baltimore Opera, after 51 years, there has been a lot of talk about some form of opera returning to the Lyric, and there were discussions early on between the theater and the DC company about some form of collaboration. It remains to be seen how much of a presence Washington National may develop in Baltimore; a lot will no doubt be riding on this first venture.

It also remains to be seen how many other organizations will attempt operatic presentations at the Lyric. A troupe from Eastern Europe is expected to offer up to three staged productions next season, while the recently formed Baltimore Concert Opera has been talking about expanding in the future from its current small-scale base at the Engineers Club to a larger one at the Lyric.

Meanwhile, the arrival of Washington National Opera promises to provide a welcome jolt to Baltimore's music scene during a recession-battered season.

In statements released late Tuesday, Washington Opera's general director, famed tenor Plácido Domingo thanked "the Lyric Opera House board for the gracious invitation to perform a concert version of Turandot ... [T]his concert will be a celebration of great opera in Baltimore.”

From Sandy Richmond, the Lyric's executive director: "The Lyric has a decades-long tradition of hosting opera of the highest quality, and we’re proud to continue that tradition with WNO. ”

And from WNO executive director Mark Weinstein. “Washington National Opera wants to do everything within our power to keep the tradition of world-class opera alive for our neighbors in Baltimore.”

Turandot will be performed at 7:30 p.m. June 2 at the Lyric. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 410-900-1150 or 410-547-7328, or go to

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 PM | | Comments (2)

April 27, 2009

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra to resume (almost) normal operations in 2009-2010 season

Good news, for a change. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, which suspended normal operations earlier this year due to the economic slump, has improved its financial picture sufficiently to return to a regular concert season in October.

Well, almost regular. The budget will be half of what it would be normally. Music director Markand Thakar has volunteered to work without pay. Instead of five orchestral programs, there will be three, plus one recital. But, still, this is an encouraging development for the BCO, which has a long history of quality service to the community behind it, and good news for Baltimore's recession-buffeted classical music scene.

The orchestral programs will include several of classical music's greatest hits. The season will open Oct. 18 with a concert featuring Beethoven's Fifth and music of Mendelssohn; the Handel Choir of Baltimore will participate in this program. The BCO's concertmaster, Madeline Adkins, will be featured in Vivaldi's Four Seasons in February. And the season finale, in May 2010, offers Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with soloist Xiang Gao. The recital on the lineup is by guitarist Ana Vidovic in January; the BCO is applying for grant money to turn that presentation into a concert with orchestra.

Meanwhile, you can still catch the BCO in action this season. On May 6 at Kraushaar Auditorium, the orchestra will record viola concertos by Stamitz and Hoffmeister, featuring Victoria Chiang. The session is being treated like a concert, preceded by a discussion/Q&A with Thakar, Chiang (the conductor's wife) and recording engineer Jamey Lamar. Subscribers to the abbreviated '08-'09 season can use their tickets for this event. 

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

Maryland Opera Studio's 'Eugene Onegin' provided new local benchmark for college productions

I didn't get to catch up with Maryland Opera Studio's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin until the last performance Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Center, but it was definitely a case of better-late-than-never for me.

Onegin, of course, is a story about young people in and out of love (and luck), so a student performance can offer a certain built-in verisimilitude factor. Such was the case here. But the opera still requires considerable talents from all involved to yield a satisfying performance. This venture, easily the finest college-level opera production I've encountered yet in this area, met the challenge admirably.

OK, so the orchestra was a weak link, prone to smushy entrances and iffy intonation. But those musicians really played, putting a lot of fire into Tchaikovsky's wonderful score as they responded to the exceptionally sensitive conducting of James Ross. Just the way Ross shaped the Letter Scene was worth the trip, with subtle, telling rhythmic nuance. Of course, it helped that he had in Jennifer Forni a remarkable soprano to sing that scene.

Forni, as the hopelessly lovesick Tatyana, sounded like a singer already well on her way to enjoying a successful career. Her voice revealed warmth and evenness throughout the registers, never turning harsh when pushed, and her phrasing was consistently eloquent. It was exciting to hear such a young artist so technically accomplished and so attentive to the subtler points of interpretive expression. Her acting skills were just a little less incisive than her musicality, but Forni nonetheless conveyed a good deal of Tatyana's naive, endearing character.

As the cruelly indifferent, ultimately vulnerable Onegin, Aaron Agulay ...

needed more in the way of dramatic assurance to reveal the multiple layers of the character's nature. The baritone could have used greater tonal variety and heft in places, too. Nonetheless, the basic needs of the role were ably filled and, especially in the last act, when Onegin realizes his foolish misjudgments, Agulay let loose with impressive singing.

Logan Rucker offered beautifully shaded vocalism as the romantic and rash Lenski. The tenor's voice was light, yet penetrating, and his sense of how to shape a phrase proved quite affecting. Like Forni, he seemed already well prepared for the fully professional realm. 

A rounder, meatier tone would have enriched Stephanie Sadownik's turn as Olga, but she proved an engaging presence. Although Stephen Brody did not have the tonal richness for Prince Gremin's aria, he showed distinct promise. Alexandra Christoforakis created a vivid portrayal of the maid Filipyvevna. And, in a bit of luxury casting, veteran mezzo Delores Ziegler, a Maryland Opera Studio staffer, offered an authoritative Larina. The chorus produced a mostly solid sound. Peter Burroughs sang sturdily as Triquet, but, unfortunately, was called on to treat the character in the terribly campy way so often, and so unnecessarily, adapted in stagings of Onegin.

That tired Triquet bit was about only element in Leon Major's direction that didn't measure up in his otherwise telling production, which made maximum use of Misha Kachman's minimalist set. The scene change between the ball and the duel in Act 2 was achieved in particularly imaginative fashion.

All in all, a classy validation of Maryland Opera Studio.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER, COURTESY OF CLARICE SMITH CENTER (Aaron Agulay, as Onegin; Jennifer Forni as Tatyana)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:32 PM | | Comments (3)

DVD set offers Streisand in 2006 concert, plus other gems

In case you missed Sunday's paper, I reviewed the three-disc DVD set of Streisand concerts being released on Tuesday. The big news here is the first DVD of the singer's 2006 tour, which found in near-vintage form at the age of 64. (The other first-time-on-DVD items are a 1994 concert and a behind-the-scenes feature on the making of Streisand's Broadway Album.)

Although I've often questioned the singer's taste in repertoire over the years, I've always remained an ardent admirer at heart, having never lost the thrill of first hearing her indelible voice back in the day.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:24 AM | | Comments (0)

April 26, 2009

'Dora,' Freud-based work staged by Peabody Chamber Opera at Theatre Project, could use more therapy

Peabody Chamber OperaOperas can spring from almost any source, including the analyst's couch. Dora, with music by Melissa Shiflett and libretto by Nancy Fales Garrett, takes its inspiration from one of Sigmund Freud’s early cases. It’s a troubling case at that. A teen is driven to “hysteria” by strange circumstances in her home life that involve her father, a married couple and, naturally, lots of sexual undercurrents.

Peabody Chamber Opera, taking up residence at the Theatre Project over the weekend, gave Dora a thoughtful, if ultimately unpersuasive, staging. I’m not at all sure that any production could make this material totally effective, since there are too many holes in the libretto, too many weaknesses in the score.

For all of its titillating aspects – near-nudity, suggestive pawing, the occasional sexual term, etc. – the essence of the case remains elusive. Worse, there really isn’t enough drama, either early on, when the character of Dora is supposed to be so troubled and uncommunicative, or at the end, when she breaks off therapy with Freud. The opera is oddly vague or simply uninformative about such crucial things as Dora’s change of heart and Freud’s inability to see the total picture.

The nature of the score, very tonal and inflected with waltzes and other familiar idioms, and the nature of the often rhymed text (including an odd attempt to make “means” and “Frauleins” rhyme) suggest that ...

Shiflett and Garrett were thinking along Sondheim-esque lines – specifically A Little Night Music – as they fashioned this very adult piece. But, based on the results, it appears that Shiflett doesn’t have a distinctive enough melodic invention to carry words compellingly (let alone with the sort of sophistication and ear-catching vividness of a Sondheim). The music just churns along in faceless fashion, for the most part. The few striking passages, including a children’s song that appears, laden with dual meaning, aren’t quite enough to carry the opera.

That said, the composer’s knack for instrumental coloring is highly admirable. The orchestration, neatly accented by guitar and subtle percussion, gives Dora its most consistently rewarding element. The fine Peabody musicians, carefully and sensitively led by Karin Hendrickson, brought out that quality on Friday.

Voices-in-progress were the rule among the cast members (Friday's cast performs again Sunday; an alternate group sang Thursday and Saturday). The most tonally and technically impressive singing came from Tiffany Wharton as Frau K.

Roger Brunyate directed the action fluidly, making use of just a couple props (especially a desk that got moved around perhaps a little too often), and gaining atmosphere from Douglas Nelson’s lighting design.

In the final analysis, I think Dora needs to find a more imaginative way to uncover its deepest self, and release its full potential.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER COURTESY OF PEABODY CONSERVATORY (Jessica Abel as Dora, and Curtis Bannister as Herr K)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:14 PM | | Comments (0)

April 24, 2009

Baltimore Symphony gets boost from conductor James Gaffigan, pianist Christopher O'Riley

This week's BSO program marks the end of the road for the Symphony With a Twist series, a project aimed at cultivating -- what else? -- a younger audience with eclectic rep and martini bars. (Count on the bars remaining.) The series will be replaced with the Off the Cuff format introduced this season by Marin Alsop, discussion and performance packaged in 90 minutes or less.

In a quirk of programming, Thursday night's presentation at Meyerhoff wasn't officially a Twist event, despite the program book's designation as such, so there wasn't informal chit-chat from the stage (a Twist tradition), and the audience didn't get the extended section of Radiohead arrangements by guest pianist Christopher O'Riley (left) that folks will hear tonight at Strathmore and Saturday back at Meyerhoff.

Still, the evening had twist enough for me. We even we got one invigorating dash of Radiohead as an encore from O'Riley, who first delivered a striking account of Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand. To tell the truth, I had forgotten what a brilliantly crafted score this concerto is, since it has been a long time since I heard anyone bring to it so much muscle and nuance. The piece is really a drama-rich tone poem, starting with one of those sunrise-type crescendos that Ravel could produce so prismatically, this one seeming to start in some dark cave, where light hasn't penetrated for ages. Wonderful episodes of ...

alternately energetic and lyrical activity follow, some of them charged with infectious dance rhythms (at one point, Bolero-like splashes of orchestral color erupt). Through it all, the piano weaves its own vivid story, challenging the orchestra at times, cajoling it at others.

O'Riley made the keyboard part sound natural and involving, while single-handedly mastering its technical challenges with remarkable ease. In his BSO debut, James Gaffigan (right), a conductor who has been creating a good deal of buzz, gave the pianist tight support and drew from the orchestra lots of stylish, powerful playing.

For his encores, O'Riley started with Debussy's Feux d'artifice, playing it with disarming bravura, and then offered his compelling version of the propulsive, rhythmically edgy Radiohead song "You."

The rest of the concert found Gaffigan and the BSO making vivid music together. Excerpts from Mozart's Idomeneo got a vigorous workout. Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein's On the Town emerged with plenty of snap and, in "Lonely Town," smoky beauty.

Particularly impressive results were achieved in selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Although Gaffigan could have provided more rhythmic spaciousness in a few places, his taut grip on the music paid great dividends, and the orchestra served up impressive playing that caught the sonic richness of what remains one of Prokofiev's most inventive and emotionally powerful creations.

On a purely personal note, I hope I never again have the misfortune to sit near the ladies who were occupying V 101 and 102 Thursday night. I knew I was in trouble when, just as the house lights were lowered before the start of the concert, I overheard one of them say: "So what are we hearing tonight, anyway?" As often as they flipped noisily through the program book, chatting all the while, I suspect they never did find out.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BALTIMORE SYMPHONY (Christoher O'Riley/Justin Brew, photographer; James Gaffigam/Terry McCarthy photographer)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:52 PM | | Comments (2)

April 23, 2009

Reflecting on the BSO's unappetizing summer season

Wednesday’s news of the Baltimore Symphony’s summer programming has left a simple question bouncing around in my head: Can you spell 'dumbing-down,' boys and girls?

The orchestra has steadily eroded the summer season from what was, when I got here nine years ago, a respectable blend of real music and casual ambience. For a while there, we even got chamber music prelude concerts before the orchestral programs.

I can understand how things change economically, and I know that it's much harder to drum up audiences in the hot months than the rest of the year, but does the BSO really have to stoop to Bugs Bunny and Disney tunes, and rot out Beethoven’s Ninth yet again? As Jed Clampett would say, pit-ee-ful, just pit-ee-ful.

I know that other orchestras struggle to attract audiences in the summertime, unless they spice things up with video game music, Hollywood favorites and the like, but it some of them still manage to find room for solid classical material. The National Symphony’s summer lineup at Wolf Trap, for example, balances lots of that pop culture stuff with three real classical evenings (including a concert version of La Boheme).

Surely the BSO could come up with a more appetizing mix. The best thing about this summer season is that I wouldn’t feel the least bit guilty if I ended up missing most of it.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:11 PM | | Comments (5)

Charles Theatre to hold music/art event to mark opening of 'The Soloist'

The SoloistHollywood so rarely acknowledges classical music and musicians in a serious way that The Soloist, opening Friday, can't help but be a very big deal.

This fact-based story of a homeless, mentally unstable musicians discovered by a Los Angeles Times newspaper columnist, actually includes footage shot at Disney Hall featuring a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with much-acclaimed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who has just finished his remarkable tenure as music director). That sort of class, or classical, is not likely to pop up in another movie anytime soon.

The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., has been stirring up lots of interest, inspiring orchestras around the country to hold food drives, for example. It's also leading to the creation of some fresh artistic expression. To help kick off the movie's arrival in Baltimore, the Charles Theatre will present a dual event in the lobby at 6 p.m. Friday. The Altra String Quartet, from Catholic University, will make music while the graphic/motion artist Kamil Nawratil, known as 2stimuli, will create something visual on the spot, inspired by the performance. The lobby event is free.

(Above: Paramount Pictures of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:45 PM | | Comments (1)

Baltimore organist to give recital at Notre Dame

Baltimore's many assets include a community of accomplished organists who can be heard enlivening church services and concerts throughout the environs each year.

Several of these musicians are products of the Peabody Conservatory, which has an excellent organ department. Among them is Baltimore native Michael Britt, who was for more than two decades minister of music at the Shrine of the Little Flower.

Since 2006, Britt has been director of music at St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air, and he's also a faculty member at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. When he isn't engaged in scared and concert repertoire, Britt can often be found playing live soundtracks to silent movies (in my book, a talent as praiseworthy as the mastery of baroque counterpoint).

Shortly, Britt will be in Paris, where he is scheduled to give a recital on May 3 at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. His program showcases American music, including works by Alfred Fedak, Myron Roberts, Baltimore-based Chris Lobingier and George Baker (his Tuba Tune Ragtime ought to startle the tourists a little).


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:35 PM | | Comments (2)

April 22, 2009

Critic seeks to compel deposition by elusive Welser-Most in suit against Cleveland Orchestra and newspaper

Just before the start of the 2008-2009 season, distinguished music critic Don Rosenberg found himself was demoted by his paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and barred from writing about the Cleveland Orchestra. Seems that the orchestra tired of Rosenberg’s negative assessment of that orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Most, and complained to the paper. The case caused quite a stir in the music world, especially among those of us in the critical profession.

In December, Rosenberg filed suit against his employer and the orchestra management. This week, his lawyer filed a motion seeking to compel Welser-Most’s deposition in the case. It turns out that the conductor has managed to be persistently unavailable. He has, however, offered a few hours on the morning of July 20, two weeks after the court-set deadline for depositions.

The motion asserts that Welser-Most “refuses to make any reasonable arrangement for his deposition testimony.” He “is entitled to be treated with courtesy and consideration … but he is not entitled to be treated in some extraordinary and exquisite way.” The motion compares the conductor to “royalty” and “a prima donna,” and notes that “even President Clinton had to testify in a civil case while he was President.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:18 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Symphony announces summer season of film, rock and Beethoven

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2009 Summer Nights season will continue the trend of recent years and stick to the light and lively. The only serious classical piece on the horizon is the one that keeps coming back -- Beethoven's Ninth. This year it has been assigned to veteran conductor Gunther Herbig. That concert will be July 23 at Strathmore, July 24 at Meyerhoff.

The lineup for those two venues begins with the orchestra providing a live soundtrack to the Hitchcock classic Psycho, conducted by Constatine Kitsopoulos, July 9 at Strathmore, July 10 at Meyerhoff. Steven Reineke will be on the podium for a program of music from Disney products, including The Lion King, Alladin, Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast: July 16 Strathmore, July 17 Meyerhoff.

The BSO, conducted by Brent Havens, moves to the Pier Six Pavilion on July 18 to play arrangements of songs by famed rock group Pink Floyd. Vocalist Randy Jackson and a rock band will join the orchestra for this event. And the ensemble travels to Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 11 to play live soundtracks to Bugs Bunny cartoons. 

The outdoor summer series at Oregon Ridge returns with the traditional "Star-Spangled Spectacular" July 3 and 4, conducted by Damon Gupton, and featuring the winner of the second annual "Oh, Say Can You Sing?" contest. Reineke will conduct film music of John Williams July 25 at Oregon Ridge.

One other summer event: a free performance at Meyerhoff as part of Artscape on July 18, conducted by BSO assistant principal violist Christian Colberg (he's been getting his feet wet on the podium recently, adding conducting to his already substantial talent as a photographer -- and violist, of course.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:49 AM | | Comments (1)

April 21, 2009

Maryland Opera Studio offers lively staging of Handel's 'Serse'

Maryland Opera StudioAn opera that starts with a monarch's love song to a tree might suggest something Monty Python-esque, but it makes perfect sense (well, maybe not quite perfect) in Handel's Serse, which combines comedy, romantic entanglements and melodic richness in abundance. UM's Maryland Opera Studio introduced an engaging production of Serse over the weekend at the Clarice Smith Center. Remaining performances are Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

The plot puts the historical Persian king Xerxes -- Serse in Italian -- into something of a sitcom with occasionally serious overtones. He’s betrothed to Amastre, but desires Romilda, who loves the king's brother, Arsamene, who is the unsought object of Atalanta’s affections. (If I were to boil it down for an entry in the Twitter opera plot contest, I guess I’d start with: King adores tree, but branches out.)

Director Nick Olcott gives the material a brisk, generally effective treatment and coaxes from the cast of colorfully costumed grad students a spirited ensemble effort within the appealing confines of Misha Kachman’s arborescently accented unit set.

On the vocal side, the results are always respectable -- in a few cases, much more than that.

Given the fortunate paucity of castrati today, roles originally written for those surgically altered vocalists of yore are assigned to mezzos or countertenors. In this case, one of the latter takes on the assignment of Serse -- Christopher Newcomer, who showed promise on Saturday night. When called on to project forcefully, the tone turned harsh and thin, but there was ...

enough roundness otherwise to suggest that Newcomer’s voice will develop nicely.

Onyu Park came close to stealing the whole production with her assured vocalism and winning comic touches as Atalanta. The soprano produced a warm, ripe tone with lots of nuance, and she embellished her arias brightly. She had competition in the scene-stealing department from Andrew Adelsberger, whose firm bass, clear articulation and vivid way with a phrase yielded consistent dividends as the ditsy servant Elviro.

Astrid Marshall, as Romilda, phrased stylishly, but her voice often had a constricted quality; it needed more bloom. Although Alexis Tantau, as Arsamene, made a pale impression at first, the mezzo’s singing gained in shading as the evening progressed and she delivered her aria at the close of Act 1 with considerable eloquence. Stephanie Sadownik did a lively turn as Amastre, though without quite enough tonal heft to go with it. Bass-baritone Stephen Brody offered sturdy vocal and theatrical contributions as Ariodate.

Giving the whole the production a classy boost was conductor Kenneth Slowik, whose tempos balanced propulsion and breathing room, and an excellent orchestra that reveled in the prismatic richness of Handel’s scoring.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:53 PM | | Comments (8)

Contest for condensed opera plots to return on Twitter, with grand prizes

Opera fans (or nerds, as the case may be) who are into Twittering can soon compete for cool prizes.

About a month ago, an avid Twitterer and freelance writer in Canada known as Miss Mussel in Twitter-town and Web-world (real name Marcia Adair), started a clever game playing off of the 140-character limit to Tweets: Describe an opera plot in 140 characters or less and win a prize. Actually 130 or less, since you have to include the hashtag #operaplot as part of the entry. Miss Mussell sprung for the inaugural prize money herself. The winning entry summed up La boheme thusly: Seamstress pals around with bohemians in a December-May affair. Receives muff as parting gift.

The contest is about to return, this time with some hefty support behind it. Between 9 a.m. EST April 27 and midnight EST Sunday May 3, anyone with a twitch to Twitter and a knack for operatic brevity can enter. The judge is no less than stellar soprano Danielle De Niese, who will choose three winners.

A whole bunch of opera companies in North America, the UK and Australia have joined in the fun, offering various prizes. In our area, Washington National Opera, the first company to jump in, is particularly generous, putting up a prize valued at about $1,000 that includes two tickets to Turandot (the production opens in mid-May) and two passes to the company's posh Opera Ball.

Click here for contest rules and FAQ.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:41 AM | | Comments (0)

April 20, 2009

Reflecting on the Susan Boyle phenomenon

As only the 13,885,634th person to click on the Susan Boyle video on YouTube, I can't say I was way ahead of this gigantic story, a story that even made it into the Round Table discussion portion of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday (George Will, needless to say, seemed to be the only one unaffected).

Susan BoyleLike so many others, I've been quite taken with this international Susan-anom. Ultimately, I think it's safe to say that what captured the world's attention was not just her earnest singing, but the fact that everyone in the Britain's Got Talent audience seemed to be so sure, just from taking one look at this delightfully non-glam middle-aged woman from a Scottish village, that she would bomb terribly. The don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover lesson is one we all need to be retaught from time to time, and Susan Boyle sure delivered it with a flourish. The coolest thing about the video of her big moment is the combination of an honest performance and the sight of a whole bunch of startled skeptics getting their comeuppance.

I can't help but wonder, though, if the reaction would have been anywhere near as ecstatic had that voice ...

come out of a predictably pretty young thing. My guess is that the so-called judges on the show (who died and named them arbiters of anything?) would have decided that the performance wasn't as big a deal. And some folks wouldn't have hesitated to point out the tightening on top notes and weakly supported low ones.

But this was not an ordinary audition by an ordinary, faceless contestant. This wasn't about discovering the voice of the century. What Susan Boyle has is, in some ways, more important. It's the ability to make people hear with fresh ears, see with fresh eyes. She successfully challenged every stupid misconception we carry around with us in an era that so desperately prizes youth and impossible, often manufactured beauty. (It reminds me of how wrong-headed the still-strong prejudice is against overweight opera singers.)

I only wish this wonderfully down-to-earth woman had not chosen to focus her vocalism on the dreadful song, "I Dreamed a Dream," from that musically vapid, grossly overrated Les Miserables. (I never thought I'd agree with the infernally condescending Peggy Noonan on anything, but she was right on target when, referring to that Les Mis number on This Week, she quoted the great Noel Coward line: "Strange how potent cheap music can be.")

For all the morning pseudo-news shows in the States last week, Susan Boyle gamely sang part of "I Dreamed a Dream" a cappella and, without all the screaming of the TV audience that accompanied her audition performance, it was possible to focus more on her voice and verify that she does, indeed, have a clear, pleasant timbre and a sincere, effectively direct manner of phrasing. This is a woman who obviously loves to sing.

I just hope she'll have some new material ready for her next round on the talent show. Perhaps she'll reprise "Cry Me a River," which she sang on a 1999 recording that resurfaced late last week. That solidly-sung performance is quite laid-back in style, suggesting how Jane Olivor -- remember Jane Olivor? -- might have phrased it. (Give me Streisand's wonderfully wrought version of that song any day, but I can certainly appreciate the subtler approach.) If you haven't already checked it out, an audio clip of this decade-old Susan Boyle performance is below.

Anyway, this whole wild ride for a previously unknown Scottish villager has been a great diversion in these uneasy, recessionary times. In a way, it doesn't matter how Susan Boyle fares in the next round of the TV show. She proved not only that Britain's got talent, but that people everywhere, of every age and background, have talents, too, just waiting to be tapped.

Susan Boyle is living the lines of the venerable spiritual: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna make it shine." By any standard, by any ranking, her shining light has already won her the gold.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:08 AM | | Comments (4)

April 17, 2009

Mini-review: Baltimore Symphony program includes passionate Bruch, stirring Copland

Just a quick wrap-up of Thursday's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance at the Meyerhoff:

Marin Alsop led a stirring account of Copland's Third, a work that ought to be as familiar to American audiences as all the played-to-death Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphonies. Using his own Fanfare for the Common Man as a starting and arriving point, Copland fashioned a score that   captures the essence of America, red state and blue state, in sounds and themes that ring true at nearly every turn. Alsop had the music flowing with considerable expressive power, and the BSO responded with dynamic, mostly well-disciplined playing.

The rest of the program was devoted to popular German pieces, Brahms' Haydn Variations and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. The former received a stately, pleasant account (thankfully uninterrupted by any shrieks from the folks who noticed a mouse darting across the main floor). The concerto featured concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who hit his highest peak to date as a soloist with the orchestra. Even allowing for an occasional off-center note, this was, on technical grounds alone, very classy fiddling. More importantly, Carney infused his phrasing with lots of good, old-fashioned, open-hearted lyricism. He had the music singing. He also had sensitive support from his colleagues onstage.

The whole program repeats Friday night; the Brahms and Bruch items will be played at Saturday morning's Casual Concert; the Copland gets all the attention at Saturday night's Off the Cuff presentation.

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

April 16, 2009

Stephen Costello, Baltimore Opera's Romeo in 2008, receives Richard Tucker Award

Stephen CostelloIf you caught Baltimore Opera's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette last year, you will not have forgotten the lead tenor. Stephen Costello's performance as Romeo proved notable for its combination of power and sensitivity, technical polish and refined musicality. He sounded every bit a budding star.

Costello has received the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, one of the most important honors available to American singers (it comes with a $30,000 check). He joins a distinguished list of recipients over the past three decades, among them Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Diana Soviero, Richard Leech, David Daniels, Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe and Lawrence Brownlee.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:14 PM | | Comments (0)

Orlando Opera latest victim of recession; goes under after 51 years

More depressing news: Add the Orlando Opera to the list of arts organizations felled by the recession, a list that includes our own Baltimore Opera, the Connecticut Opera and Opera Pacific.

Although the central Florida company may return in some less-than-fully-professional form, the final curtain appears to have descended on what was a valued venture for 51 years. (I attended several Orlando Opera productions back in the 1990s and found them to be thoroughly respectable.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:28 PM | | Comments (0)

Tenor in his 70s may become oldest person ever to sing demanding title role in Verdi's 'Otello'

Check out this nice little feel-good story: Jon Andrew, a hearty 77 years old, aims to sing the title role in Verdi's Otello, in June. If the British tenor gets through the performance, he'll establish a record of sorts.

Otello is a killer role, virtually Wagnerian in its technical demands, and not that many tenors of any age tackle it. Should be interesting to find out how this guy does. I imagine Verdi would be rooting Andrew on -- after all, the composer was in his 70s when he wrote this towering opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:18 AM | | Comments (0)

April 15, 2009

Lots of recession-distracting concerts ahead

Last weekend, Baltimore shut down musically, even more than usual for Passover/Easter. But the scene roars back to life this weekend, providing lots of opportunities to put your recession woes away and soak up some interesting music.

In addition to the Baltimore Symphony program featuring concertmaster Jonathan Carney (I've got more about him due to run in my Thursday column in the paper), the Peabody Symphony Orchestra with Leon Fleisher conducting, enticing chamber music concerts by Pro Musica Rara and the Cylburn Trio, and two productions from UM's Maryland Opera Studio, there will be whole lot of other things well worth a listen nearly anywhere you turn.

Farrar StrumSpeaking of opera, two talented local singers, soprano Sara Stewart and tenor Farrar Strum (he was excellent in Baltimore Opera's swan-song, Norma), will join pianist James Harp (invaluable artistic staffer at the ill-fated Baltimore Opera) on Thursday for a program called "Opera a la Carte," part of the cabaret series at Germano's.

An die Musik has at least three classical events this weekend, including another appearance by its artists-in-residence, the Monument Piano Trio, which can be counted on to deliver stylish music-making. On Sunday, violinist Igor Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard will perform works by Haydn and Ravel, as well as two British composers, Bax and Bridge.

Christopher Shih, a gastroenterologist who enjoys an extra career as a pianist, will give a recital for the Candlelight Concert Society on Saturday. Last year, Shih won the Van Cliburn Foundation's first contest for amateur pianists conducted entirely on YouTube. He has triumphed in other amateur pianist competitions, too. He'll play a hefty program of works by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy and Bartok. Here's a video of Shih at a competition in Paris he won last year, tearing through Liszt's Totentanz, which will be on Saturday's program.

And Sunday's concert crush includes a free presentation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church by several BSO players -- David Coombs (bassoon), Marica Kamper (flute), Jane Marvine (oboe), Edward Palanker (clarinet), Mary Woehr (piano) -- who will perform a colorful program of works for woodwinds alone and woodwinds with piano.

And speaking of BSO players, one of the orchestra's fine cellists, Bo Li, will play a recital on Sunday for the Music in the Great Hall series. His 20th century program includes works by Stravinsky and Poulenc.  

PHOTOS: Farrar Strum, courtesy of Germano's; BSO Chamber Players, courtesy of Catonsville Presbyterian Church Concert Series.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:17 AM | | Comments (0)

April 14, 2009

Taking note of Handel's death 250 years ago

We live in a new age of Handel, really. More of his operas are staged than at any time since he wrote them, an astonishing development, when you think about it.

A whole new crop of singers has emerged with Handel credentials, including many a countertenor. Directors and designers seemed particularly inspired by the possibilities in these gems of baroque opera (I fondly recall a New York City Opera production of Semele a few years ago where the title character was turned into Marilyn Monroe).

Many of today's most popular singers, prized for their Verdi, Puccini, Wagner or Strauss, also include this composer's works in their repertoire. Rolando Villazon just came out with his first Handel CD, for example (and it's quite engaging). Last year, Placido Domingo added a Handel role to his extensive repertoire. And Renee Fleming, of course, has long triumphed with Handel's music.

The composer would have been delighted that his operas were in style again (he saw several major shifts in public tastes during his lifetime), and he would have been especially pleased to get in on the profits (that guy did have a knack for making money). Needless to say, the lasting popularity of Handel's oratorios and instrumental music also confirms his stature today.

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of Handel's death in London -- April 14, 1759 -- enjoy this elegant feast for the ears, a 1924 recording by the incomparable tenor John McCormack of Come, My Beloved from the opera Atalanta:

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO (Handel's grave in Poet's Corner of London's Westminster Abbey)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:46 AM | | Comments (0)

April 13, 2009

New info shows Handel was a shrewd investor in an era of shaken markets

With the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah still ringing from Easter Sunday (it was the recessional at Baltimore's wonderfully neo-deco Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, where I caught a service), it's cool to discover that the composer was even shrewder than we thought. In a fascinating story from BBC News, a business writer details how he came across a 1723 ledger in the Bank of England archives that sheds fresh light on how early and wisely Handel was immersed in the business of investments while living in England, even when markets were risky and unsettled. Nice to know that the guy's counterpoint was as carefully considered as his finances, enabling him to, um, handle a fortune.
Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)

April 11, 2009

Commemorating Marian Anderson, and marking the last day of Lent

Seventy years ago, Easter Sunday 1939, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave one of the most significant concerts in American history. Having been barred by segregation policies from appearing the DAR Constitution Hall, the African-American contralto who had what Toscanini hailed as 'a voice heard once in a hundred years' sang with stunning dignity before a massive audience. The free concert was arranged by Mrs. Roosevelt. This Easter at 3 p.m., there will be a commemoration of this event, also free, at the Lincoln Memorial, featuring mezzo Denyce Graves and others.

To salute the memory of the incomparable Marian Anderson, and to note the last day of Lent, here's a performance of one of her signature sprituals, "Were You There," recorded 70 years ago. This is music of a deep and specific faith, to be sure, but it can touch people of any or no denomination. I think it's an example of the highest vocal art.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:28 AM | | Comments (4)

April 9, 2009

Washington National Opera may offer bus service to DC from Baltimore

Washington National Opera is conducting a survey to determine the extent of interest in having a bus service from the Baltimore area to the Kennedy Center for the company's productions next season. Given the schlep to DC and the $17 parking fee at the center, not to mention the loss of grand opera in Baltimore, it's easy to imagine lots of folks taking advantage of such a service. WNO is estimating the transportation fee would be between $14 and $30.
Posted by Tim Smith at 4:44 PM | | Comments (3)

National Symphony gives boost to struggling Arkansas orchestra

Here's a little good news, for a change, from the recession. During its visit to Arkansas -- the 19th state visited so far in the ambitious American Residencies project -- the National Symphony Orchestra gave a concert to help raise money for the struggling North Arkansas Symphony. Here's the result, as reported this week in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

FAYETTEVILLE - For months the insolvent North Arkansas Symphony hung its hopes on this one spring concert.

It seemed an improbable stand. The symphony was following a truncated 2008 schedule with absolutely nothing on the 2009 calendar save this performance, and this one not of its own players but the guest National Symphony Orchestra.

Well, maybe it worked.

Maestro Ivan Fischer and his orchestra of about 100 played to a full and vocal Walton Arts Center house March 30. After a regular slate that included Wagner and Weiner, Bernstein and Dvorak, the crowd yahoo-ed and clapped Fischer and his players on to two encores, Dvorak's Slavonic Dance, op.72 No. 2, and John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." At $15 to $45, ticket sales generated more than $43,000, most of which goes directly into the North Arkansas Symphony coffers. The arts center will take 10 percent for its operating expenses plus another $16,000 owed by the symphony.

At a post-concert reception for donors and musicians that featured sweets and champagne, North Arkansas Symphony board of directors chairman Karen Kapella announced the kickoff of the "Fresh Start" capital campaign for the hometown symphony.

Dick Trammel, so-called "special advocate" for the campaign, drew on the spirit of Sam Walton (an entrepreneur with legendary optimism in tough economic times) and encouraged donors by saying, "Let me tell you, we need our symphony. Let's help them come back." The kickoff was accompanied by the good news that, with the help of a state grant, the symphony recently hired a part-time executive director, Linda Wagner.

"It's such an energy boost," she said of the evening's success. "It reminds people of the magnificence of live symphony music," Wagner said.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:30 PM | | Comments (0)

April 8, 2009

DC Philharmonic cancels inaugural concerts

It always did sound too good to be true -- a new orchestra called the DC Philharmonic, set to debut with a huge program featuring Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and other works, and give two performances at Strathmore. Word just came that the concerts scheduled for Thursday and Friday will not take place. Here's the official statement from Strathmore:

The DC Philharmonic announced today that for the best interests of all involved they are postponing both of their April 9 and 10 performances. They will be looking to reschedule their inaugural concerts in the fall of 2009. All patrons who purchased this concert will have a refund for the full amount of the tickets for this concert refunded to their credit card, or receive a refund check if original payment for the ticket was via check or cash. If payment was via gift certificate, the refund will be credited back to the gift certificate.

The orchestra was the dream of 30-year-old conductor John Baltimore, who has never conducted a Mahler symphony before. He had engaged stellar mezzo Denyce Graves and soprano Harolyn Blackwell as soloists for the inaugural program, which also was to have involved the Heritage Signature Chorale. Baltimore and a couple friends raised money to launch the DC Philharmonic, but not enough to keep things going past three rehearsals. Ticket sales were poor; perhaps decent advance box office revenue would have helped the save the enterprise.

UPDATE APRIL 10: Several musicians have contacted me about this matter, making clear their concerns not just with the issue of payment, but with John Baltimore's conducting ability, as evidenced by the initial rehearsals. One of those players has posted his observations of those rehearsals. Meanwhile, John Baltimore contacted me to dispute the allegation that some checks bounced. He says that the initial checks were never actually deposited by the union, and that he subsequently provided funds, as requested, with cashier's checks. He also expressed satisfaction with the way the Mahler symphony was shaping up in rehearsal, but acknowledged that he found the Michael Torke piece more difficult to conduct than he had anticipated. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (9)

Story on local musicians affected by economic downturn

Among the many people affected by the recession are those involved in the arts. In today's paper, I offer a look at how a couple of musicians are faring now that they lost their expected gigs with the Baltimore Opera Orchestra and two other ensembles. (Freelance musicians are used to having to scramble for a living, and they often supplement musical work with part-time jobs outside the field. In that regard, they may be slightly more fortunate than, for example, full-time administrative and production staffers who lost their jobs when the opera company went bust.) 

If you're a regular concertgoer in the area, you've seen both of these players -- double bassist Laura Ruas (left) and violinist Tamara Seymour (right). Some of my story about them didn't make it into print because of space, so here's a little bit more:

The couple met while getting their degrees at the Juilliard School in New York -- Ruas is a Bronx native, Seymour a New Jerseyite ("I'm from Exit 7A," she says) -- and performed in the New World Symphony, a post-graduate training orchestra in Miami led by celebrated conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. After their New World stint, they remained in South Florida, performing regularly with a several concert and opera orchestras.

"We got tired of Florida," Ruas says. "Some friends told us to come up to Baltimore. They said we could get some gigs here. This looked like a nice town, and there was opera and a symphony here. And moving back to New York would have been too expensive."

Since settling here, they’ve seen music organizations go through good financial times and bad, just as they did in Florida, each slump affecting the work load.

The two musicians talk about possibly moving to a place with cheaper rent. They have eliminated some things from their lives to save on expenses, but they haven’t lost their sense of humor. “You have to be positive,” Seymour says. “You have to get up in the morning with a smile and remember how much you love music. All you need is love, baby — and a Lexus.”



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:39 AM | | Comments (2)

April 7, 2009

Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra deliver incendiary performance at Kennedy Center

There is only one sensible reaction to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela -- unconditional surrender.

You can waste time discussing some little technical shortcoming, or questioning some interpretive decision by the ensemble's decade-long music director, Gustavo Dudamel, but that would be missing the point. This orchestra is the world's most dynamic advertisement for the sheer joy of music-making. That joy electrified the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Monday night, when the Washington Performing Arts Society presented Dudamel and the ensemble in a program of virtuosic works.

I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a concert, and I'm not just talking about the wild and crazy encore portion. Each sonic wave was produced with such enthusiasm and commitment that you couldn't help but smile.

The sunrise portion from the Suite No. 2 of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe was positively blinding, the concluding dance terrifically powerful. Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, an imaginative piece by Evencio Castellanos, whirled by with splashes of vivid color. And Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- well, let's just say that the earth moved from the sheer force of the orchestra's fortissimos.

I confess that I wondered if these players -- the cream of the crop from the much-heralded educational project known as El sistema that has more than 250,000 Venezuelan youths involved in musical activity -- ever spend much quality time with the elegant dimensions of music by, say, Mozart or Haydn. But when you've got nearly 200 musicians raring to go onstage ...

why not let them loose on the great showpieces of the repertoire?

And Dudamel, who takes the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next season, is just the man to lead the charge. He thrives on this stuff. He had the Rite of Spring, in particular, unfolding with extraordinary tension, each jagged rhythmic turn and each percussive jolt given an extra charge -- and articulated by the ensemble with startling precision.

The players were certainly capable of restraint as well as power. Other than some overly aggressive woodwinds for the gentle, undulating start of the Ravel suite, subtle passages in each of the three big pieces on the bill generated a good deal of sensitivity. But this was never going to be a night of delicate nuance. This orchestra is a force of young nature, and that's what it seemed most anxious to reaffirm here.

Just the way the string players moved said a lot -- they put their whole bodies into the music, something you so rarely see among the members of the typical American adult orchestra. All the way to the back stands, these young people were visibly connected to the notes and to Dudamel's intentions. I can't emphasize enough how refreshing and invigorating that sight was. If professional orchestras could muster one-tenth the energy and passion that these kids demonstrated Monday, there would be standing-room-only concerts all season long.

The Bolivar bunch likes to go totally wild when they get the chance -- these are kids, after all --and that's what encore time is all about in this orchestra. The musicians, and their conductor, donned Venezuelan flag-emblazoned jackets and added frenzied choreography to blazing accounts of the Malambo from Ginastera's Estancia and the Mambo from Bernstein's West Side Story.

I suppose this sort of thing -- violinists jumping up to spin around, while their colleagues twirl cellos, wave horns or toss drumsticks in the air -- could get old after seeing it too many times, but I can't imagine it would lose its visceral, crowd-pleasing impact.

If you missed this concert, here's a taste of the action during a performance of that kinetic Estancia dance (filmed in Lucerne):


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:44 PM | | Comments (2)

Shriver Hall Concert Series offers another starry lineup for 2009-2010

MidoriThe 2009-2010 season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series matches the quality subscribers have come to expect.

Midori (left), the insightful violinist, will give a recital with pianist Robert McDonald. Speaking of pianists, the eminent Emanuel Ax will also be in recital, and the equally celebrated Yefim Bronfman will collaborate in a concert with dynamic mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena.

The venerable Juilliard String Quartet is on the roster; so are the fine Hagen and Belcea quartets. Rounding out the subscription series will be a recital by the excellent cellist Alisa Weilerstein and a performance by Piffaro, the Renaissance Band. T

The Shriver Hall Concert Series will also once again present a free, separate series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and, once again, that lineup is strong, too: pianist Christopher Taylor; the Pavel Haas Quartet; the duo of cellist Jean-Guihen Queryas and pianist Alexandre Tharaud; and the 2009 winner of the Yale Gordon Competition, cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:00 PM | | Comments (0)

Ian Bostridge delivers riveting Schubert recital in Baltimore debut for Shriver Hall Concert Series

Ian BostridgeFans of vocal music are often known to lament the present state of singing, usually along the lines of 'the voices all sound the same' or 'you should have heard so-and-so in the good old days.' Heck, I've been known to utter the same sort of comments, even if my perspective on the 'good old days' comes primarily from recordings. But the truth is that every age produces distinctive voices, including ours, and voices just don't get much more distinctive than that of Ian Bostridge.

The English tenor, who made his overdue Baltimore debut Sunday night presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, produces a basically reedy tone that has remarkable clarity and immediacy. The timbre may be thinner than that of tenors who typically excite audiences, but it is so full of subtle coloring that it grabs you instantly. And Bostridge employs this sensitive vocal instrument with uncanny musicality, enabling him to communicate a text and shape a melodic line so incisively that the effect can be transfixing. In terms of artistry, I think he can stand comparison to any great singer of the past, certainly any singer who ever ventured deep into lieder territory.

In terms of stage demeanor, he's in a rare class as well. I know some folks can't stand the way he wanders around while singing, or leans at odd angles against the piano (and sometimes turns to stare into it), or casually puts his hands in his pockets. It doesn't bother me. A lot of what he does physically reminds me of how a classy pop singer performs in an intimate setting (think Tony Bennett), and I don't see why that can't work for Schubert songs just as easily as for Cole Porter.

Bostridge brought a whole evening's worth of Schubert to Shriver. His choice of 20 from among the composer's 600 or so lieder was imaginative, with only one greatest hit (Die Forelle) and with many a connective thread holding them all together -- textual (the last line of Auf der Risenkoppe was the title of the next song in the program, for example); harmonic; atmospheric.

Fittingly, the recital opened with ...

a song rich in images of spring (Im Fruhling), and the gentle warmth of the tenor's singing, with its refined articulation and wealth of dynamic shading, was as heartening as all the pastel blossoms outside. Throughout the concert, Bostridge made great use of his ability to float soft high notes, as in Nachtviolen. Moments of forceful drama, especially if they involved his low register, were not always as impressive, but there wasn't a note that didn't register in a meaningful way.

In Totengrabers Heimweh, Bostridge reached a height of expressiveness in the concluding lines, about a gravedigger ready to embrace death himself. The tenor, gradually reducing his sound to a kind of whisper, produced a time-stopping, profoundly moving effect. (Having just come from the BSO's performance of Mahler's Ninth, with its own hints of expiration, I found Bostridge's account of that song particularly powerful.)

At every step of the way, pianist Julius Drake was as masterful at getting to the heart of Schubert's music as the singer was. Never just an accompanist, Drake show himself to be quite a poet at the keyboard. And his technical skills got as much of a workout as his expressive ones; in such perpetual motion challenges as Auf der Bruck and Im Walde he maintained exceptional control.

There were two encores of more Schubert (the audience at Carnegie Hall got three after the same program was performed the week before). I could have stayed for at least a dozen more.

For those of you who missed the recital, and those who were there and would like to relive a bit of it, here's a recording of Bostridge performing Im Fruhling.


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

More reviews on the way

Don't despair, my faithful cyber-readers. Reviews of Ian Bostridge's insightful Schubert recital at Shriver Hall on Sunday and the sensational concert by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Kennedy Center on Monday will be posted as soon as my fingers and my brain can successfully function in tandem.
Posted by Tim Smith at 10:29 AM | | Comments (0)

April 6, 2009

Salute to Andre Previn on his 80th birthday

On the occasion of Andre Previn's 80th birthday, April 6, here are two facets of this multi-faceted artist. First, an excerpt from Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, which Previn recorded in the 1970s with the London Symphony, establishing a benchmark interpretation. And then, to salute his always classy piano playing, savor one of Previn's most sensitive efforts, accompanying Doris Day in her disarming account of the Rodgers and Hart song, "Nobody's Heart."

Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2, third movement:

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2: III. Adagio - Andre Previn
"Nobody's Heart":

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:57 PM | | Comments (2)

Peter Serkin gives illuminating recital at University of Baltimore

When the University of Baltimore opened its Student Center a few years ago, the Performing Arts Theater on an upper floor proved to be a little gem of a venue. (Well, there was an annoying electronic hum for a couple seasons, but that's finally gone now.) UB president Robert Bogomolny envisioned an active space for classical music and even went up to the Steinway and Sons factory in New York to purchase a concert grand with the help of stellar pianist Yefim Bronfman, who dutifully played his way through half a dozen or so instruments before settling on one with abundant tonal impact. Not too many 200-seat theaters boast a nine-foot Steinway, I'd bet.

This season, the piano is getting its biggest workout so far with the help of a recital series focusing on noted keyboard artists, such as Peter Serkin, who performed at UB on Saturday night. (Gary Graffman wraps up the series next month.) The place wasn't packed -- I think the challenge of urban parking has kept more people from discovering the theater -- but the audience was well rewarded.

With his three-piece suit, pocket handkerchief and glasses, the graying Serkin (pictured at left) resembled a banker from a 1940s movie when he stepped onto the small stage. In some ways, his approach to music-making had some of the aloofness of a studious financial executive, too, but ...

there was plenty of fire in his playing nonetheless.

Serkin can always be counted on to think through every aspect of a composition, to ensure that the whole program makes a cohesive statement and that the audience will have much to contemplate on the way home. In this case, the unifying theme was baroque music, but only two of the four composers whose works were played actually came from the baroque era.

By placing Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques between one of John Bull's ingenious fantasies on the first six notes of a scale and a transcription of J.S. Bach's C minor Lute Suite, BWV 997, Serkin revealed their similar concerns with clarity of line and texture. The baroque popped up in the second half of the program, at least briefly. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel dispenses with the Handel tune very quickly, plunging into full 19th century romanticism without another thought about baroque idioms until after all the 25 variations, when a giant fugue provides a finale.

Really driving home the baroque theme was the unusual tuning of the piano. At Serkin's request, the technique of mean-tone temperament, according to principals advocated by Rameau in the mid-1700s, was used. I won't try to explain it (because I'd screw it up), but suffice it to say that it gave the instrument a subtly different quality.

In all of the music, Serkin has much to communicate. The soft, mysterious phrasing in the third of Debussy's Epigraphes was especially effective. In the Bach suite, the pianist achieved a wonderful singing line for the theme of the Fugue and molded highly poetic phrases in the Sarabande.

Serkin played the Brahms score from memory (he used scores for the rest), and he gave it a virtuosic reading, with lots of power and transparency, even at great speed; the Hungarian-flavored variations, in particular, had a real snap. Although there were moments when the pianist's analytical side dominated, with more concentration on details than spontaneous expression, this was pianism of a very high caliber.

Hearing a concert grand at full force in such an intimate setting is a lot of fun, but it seemed as if the hall swallowed up some of the sound. I would have loved to hear a more reverberant afterglow from the piano. That was a minor disappointment, though, in a recital of uncommon intellectual and musical content.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)

Alsop, BSO reach eloquent heights in Mahler's Ninth Symphony

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is a journey of the human heart, through episodes of intense satisfaction and intense pain, with stops for humor, irony and even a little sarcasm along the way. In the closing minutes, the composer takes us to the very edge of earthly existence and, with an understandable hesitancy, peers into the unknown. Slowly, that tentativeness, with its unsettling melodic fragments and moments of total silence, gives way to an inner calm that allows the roughly 90-minute work to close in a gentle harmonic resolution of unspeakable beauty.

Satisfying performances of Mahler’s Ninth leave you rapt and even quite drained by those final sounds, as if you’ve been let in on the deepest emotions and secrets of another person’s life, only to realize that they’re yours, too.

In what I’d readily call her finest achievement to date at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop led her forces in a powerful, involving account of this enormously challenging score Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff.

The conductor sometimes seems to keep just enough distance from a piece of music to leave her own feelings in check. Not this time. From the start, she got far inside the notes, and there was something richly involving about the music-making throughout. It was gratifying to experience Alsop and the BSO on such a ...

taut wavelength; that rapport said a lot about everyone onstage, how far they’ve traveled together in a few short years.

The bittersweet quality of the first movement, the mix of resignation and angst, reflection and anger, emerged tellingly under Alsop’s guidance. Although I would have welcomed a little more nuance in the second movement, and a wilder rush in the coda of the third, the conductor’s deftly detailed approach to both of those portions of the symphony nonetheless spoke tellingly. The closing Adagio, a long, aching hymn of farewell, was allowed plenty of breathing room, but never lost its internal tension. And Alsop ensured that the autumnal, lit-from-within glow of Mahler’s orchestral coloring came though beautifully.

Although there were a few minor rough spots in the execution (primarily articulation slips in the finale), the overall discipline and commitment of the playing proved impressive throughout. There was great warmth from the strings, considerable strength and subtlety from the brass and woodwinds. Solo efforts were not of uniform polish, but all were expressively shaped. Those by concertmaster Jonathan Carney generated particular eloquence.

It was a great idea to open the program with a short work of Bernstein’s, the Opening Prayer for voice and orchestra, written a few years before the conductor/composer’s death in 1990. The piece offers a kind of condensed summation of Bernstein’s musical idioms, as if a few notes extracted from his symphonies and Broadway and film scores underwent a fusion process. The result is quite striking.

After the orchestra lays out darkly lyrical melodic ideas, a voice intones an ancient Hebrew text (“May the Lord bless you and keep you ... and give you peace”). That haunting prayer took on a deeper meaning in this context, providing a sort of mini-requiem to lead into Mahler’s symphony – and providing a reminder of the Bernstein/Mahler theme underlining the BSO’s programming this season. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, positioned in a box above the orchestra, sang the solo lines with an exquisite, velvety tone.

I only wish this magical prelude had not been followed by applause and a pause, while Alsop went back offstage for a few moments. How much more effective it would have been if, after Cooke’s last, serene, long-held high note, a brief silence had given way to the pensive opening of Mahler’s Ninth.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:16 AM | | Comments (6)

April 3, 2009

In-depth story examines Don Rosenberg, Cleveland Orchestra, Plain Dealer case

Here's a fresh reminder about the Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic whose demotion reverberated around the world. As you recall, Don Rosenberg was removed from covering the storied Cleveland Orchestra after one criticism too many of music director Franz Welser-Most. He subsequently filed suit against his paper and the orchestra's management. That suit continues slowly to work its way through the system. Meanwhile, a compelling Cleveland Magazine article provides an in-depth look at the whole unfortunate business. Note the comment posted at the end of the article. 
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:36 PM | | Comments (1)

April 2, 2009

Rufus Wainwright opera headed to UK, Canada

As you have probably heard, Rufus Wainwright, the singer-songwriter with the distinctively moody voice, has written his first opera. It was originally commissioned by the Met, no less. But that intriguing association fell apart early on, ostensibly because the composer insisted on writing the work in French, and the Met wanted it to be in English. The two-acter, titled Prima Donna, will be premiered instead at the Manchester International Festival in England in July. A Toronto performance is set for next year.

The opera tells the tale of Regine Saint Laurent (you've got to love the name), a revered soprano who returns to the stage after a six-year absence.

Last week, members of the press were invited to what was called "a sneak peak" of Prima Donna in New York, consisting of material recorded at the first rehearsal. Astonishingly enough, I was not on the invitation list (even after I went to the grand effort of covering his Carnegie Hall tribute to Judy Garland a few years ago), so I can't provide any first-hand info about that little preview. But I've had a report from a friend of a friend who had friends who heard some of the opera way back before the Met decided to pass on it. That's good enough, isn't it, for today's cyber-standards?

For what it's worth, here's that anonymous report:

I know two people who were in the room for the Met's first read-through of Mr. Wainwright's opera. It was so embarrassingly bad that everyone just looked at their feet. Both parties (the Met & Wainwright) were lucky enough to be able to blame the Met's backout on an issue as neutral as language. Face-saving all around.

Ouch. Of course, initial impressions could be very deceiving. It's going to be very interesting to see how this thing turns out.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:20 PM | | Comments (1)

Baltimore musicians on CD

Caught up with some Baltimore-centric recordings and reviewed them for my Thursday column in the print edition (yes, we still have a print edition), but you can, of course, find the story here, too.

I especially recommend the Naxos release devoted to the music of Jonathan Leshnoff. If you missed the local performances a couple years ago of his Violin Concerto, this new CD provides a great opportunity to hear a deeply affecting work that goes well beyond the parameters of a showpiece concerto; this is music that really means something.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:44 AM | | Comments (0)

April 1, 2009

Andras Schiff in live Webcast of Beethoven sonatas Wednesday night

Andras Schiff, the exceptional Hungarian pianist, wraps up a two-year, chronological survey of the 32 Beethoven sonatas with a live NPR Webcast on Wednesday night from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Schiff will play the last three sonatas (Op. 109-111) in this recital, which is scheduled to begin at 11 p.m. EST. This link should take you to the right spot on the NPR site.

To get you in the mood, here's an excerpt from a masterclass where Schiff discussed the late Beethoven piano sonatas:



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:10 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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