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May 29, 2009

Stefania Dovhan, alum of Baltimore School for the Arts, enjoys triumph at Spoleto Festival USA

From Howard Kissel, writing for, comes this rave about soprano Stefania Dovhan, a product of the Baltimore School for the Arts and University of Maryland and winner of the Rosa Ponselle Young Classical Singers Competition (2000). She has the title role in Charpentier's neglected gem, Louise:

The Spoleto revival, which runs through June 6, is blessed with Stefania Dovhan, a soprano who clearly understands both the musical and dramatic potential of the title role. Dovhan, making her U.S. debut with these performances, is a remarkable discovery. She has a voice rich in every register and a sure sense of theater. She conveyed all the lushness and suaveness of the hit tune (“Depuis le Jour”) as if she had been singing it all her life.

And from Tim Page, guest critic for the local Charleston paper, another rave:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (2)

One more report on Dresden Music Festival and Jan Vogler's vision for the enterprise

Finally got enough sleep (nothing like sitting on a runway for 90 minutes or so before the final, shortest leg of a 13-hour three-part journey home to wipe you out), so I feel reasonably cogent enough to make some final thoughts about attending a portion of the 2009 Dresden Music Festival.

In short, I can’t wait to go back. There was something about the combination of the place itself and the inviting mood of the festival that impressed me greatly. I don’t have the advantage of being able to compare all the hot-spot arts festivals around the world, so some may consider my views suspect, but I think Dresden has what it takes to register on the cultural map in a much bigger way than it has. Although it may not hit quite the picturesque peak (and, happily, not the snob quotient) that is part of the Salzburg Festival, it sure has the requisite charm and ease of mobility, providing patrons diverse venues all within an easy walk.

And this year’s lineup in the German city certainly can hold up to the competition in many ways, given visits by the likes of the Vienna Philharmonic with Gergiev, the Concertgebouw with Dudamel, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Rene Pape. Starry names that any international festival would be happy to offer. Dresden has its own considerable musical assets, of course, and this year’s lineup makes ...

good use of them -- the Dresden Philharmonic with Masur and Anne-Sophie Mutter; the Staatskapelle Dresden performing Haydn’s Creation with a solo roster that includes Ian Bostridge. (Dresden's opera house isn't fully integrated into the festival, but there's talk of doing that in the future.) And then there are the American artists participating, given that the festival’s overall theme this summer is the New World: Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, Bobby McFerrinn, Mark O’Connor.

The festival’s creative, buoyant director, cellist Jan Vogler, has exactly what you need for such a venture – a vision. He wants it to be up there with the festivals in Lucerne and Edinburgh (I’ll have to figure out a way to get to those places someday so I can deepen my comparative analysis). And Vogler sees the festival as a way to reflect his own belief that musicians should “try to influence society, to create a little bit of the future, and not just be products shipped around the globe.”

Speaking to a group of visiting critics in a free-ranging discussion that also included American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (a chamber concert featuring his music is part of the festival), Vogler addressed the issue of what Dresden itself provides as a base for such a musical enterprise. “Our biggest catastrophe was that was Dresden was destroyed in the war,” he said. “But the message of the city is that wounds of war can heal and people can live in peace.” The greatest symbol of the healing, the recently rebuilt Frauenkirche, on the spot where rubble had remained since the 1945 bombing, was the site of the Vienna Philharmonic concert so compellingly conducted by Gergiev earlier this week. “He wanted to play in that symbolic place,” Vogler said. Gergiev will be back for next year’s Dresden Festival, which will have a Russian theme, and I’m already calculating the prospects of getting over there for that one.

My last day in Dresden included that session with the critics – Americans, Canadians, French and Italian – held at Volkswagon’s Glaserne Manufaktur (Transparent Factory), where the up-market Phaeton cars are assembled. That architecturally stunning, super-eco-friendly complex makes a Dresden visit doubly worthwhile.

Then it was off to check out two houses in the outlying areas, houses of interest to us music types – one where Weber lived (he used to walk two and a half hours into the city for his work at the opera house), the other where Wagner composed Lohengrin. Later, back in town, it was off to another festival event, a rare performance of Antonio Lotti’s Teofane, an opera that had its premiere in Dresden in 1719. This was only a concert version, delivered in an enclosed courtyard of the Residenzschloss. A staging would no doubt have helped distract attention from the fact that Lotti wasn’t a terribly inventive composer. He relied on so many familiar formulas, both melodic and harmonic, that the ear eventually grew a bit weary. But a very snappy, virtuosic orchestra – the Dresdner Kapellsolisten – and a mostly successful cast gave it a good shot, led by Helmut Branny.

In the end, all too brief an encounter with an inviting city and an invigorating festival.

If I had been able to stay longer, I would have particularly looked forward to hearing Vogler perform Carter’s Cello Concerto next week; he's an ardent champion of the complex score. He told me that Marin Alsop came to hear his recent performance of it in Munich. It would be very cool if she programmed it for the Baltimore Symphony and brought him here. “Baltimore has a very good orchestra,” said the mostly New York-based cellist, “and I love when I can just take a train to play a concert.”  

PHOTOS BY YOUR HUMBLE BLOGGER (Frauenkirche, top, and Weber house)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:42 AM | | Comments (1)

May 28, 2009

More from Dresden Music Festival to come

Heading home early Thursday from Dresden. Wednesday night’s performance of an obscure baroque opera left me too tired to post, after a long day that also included visits to the Wagner and Weber houses outside the city, so I’ll fill you in with more details when I get back to the States.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 AM | | Comments (1)

May 27, 2009

Dresden Music Festival hits peak with Vienna Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev

The Vienna Philharmonic returned to Dresden after an absence of 15 or so years Tuesday night, which was reason enough for a crowd to pack the highest rafters -- and I'm talking Alpine height here -- at the Frauenkirche.

This is the Church of Our Lady, erected on a kind of ground zero, at the site where the original 1743 church, considered the most important Protestant house of worship in Germany, collapsed after the fire-bombing of Dresden in Feb. 1945. The rubble remained for decades, a reminder of war's terrible cost, but a recreation of the Frauenkirche now stands proudly and nobly, built with donations from around the world. It's a moving testimony to ...

the city's rebirth, a place that makes quite a statement visually and emotionally. The sheer scope of the place is awesome, inside and out, with a particularly imposing burst of sculpture above the altar, as ornate and eventful as any to be found in a baroque Catholic church.

The richly reverberant acoustics -- at least four seconds, by my unscientific measure -- might be a trap for some, but Valery Gergiev, the brilliant and unpredictable Russian conductor, knew exactly how to make that acoustical property work for the Vienna ensemble. The result was a luxurious sonic bath that still managed to reveal many inner details of orchestration in Sibelius' brooding First Symphony and the complete Firebird of Stravinsky.

I heard things in this concert that I have rarely heard before in live performance, from the rapt, darkly beautiful clarinet solo at the start of the Sibelius to the wealth of subtle nuances and, finally, the visceral release of power in the Stravinsky score.

It's rare that critics are of one mind, but the superlatives were flowing freely from the gang of 11 (seven Americans, two Canadians and two Frenchmen) that has gathered here for a several days of festival-going and discussion. The consensus was that Gergiev and his Viennese musicians made the whole trip worthwhile, from the sheer technical brilliance on display to the emotional commitment behind it.

You don't hear performances like this every day. And having such an experience -- complete on this occasion with lightning flashes from a stormy sky adding some extra drama through the windows just below the huge domed ceiling -- makes you remember why you love music in the first place.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:55 AM | | Comments (1)

May 26, 2009

More from Dresden festival: organ recital in great church; plus the city prepares for Obama's visit

Dresden’s Catholic cathedral is as grandly beautiful as you would expect for an Italian-German baroque edifice from 1755, with many a carved cherub cavorting about, espcially above the grand pulpit.

Up in the ornate organ loft is a restored Gottfried Silbermann organ, also from 1755. It was given a long workout Monday night in a recital by American organist Gail Archer, who balanced works by Bach, Buxtehude and Mendelssohn with items by American composers Samuel Barber, Vincent Persichetti and David Noon – in keeping with the Dresden Music Festival’s New World theme.

The performance didn’t ...

do much for me, I confess; the playing seemed earthbound, sometimes technically cloudy. I enjoyed the endless reverberation, though, and I was impressed that the church was full for the event – organ recitals don’t necessarily pack ‘em in back in the States.

But, then, Dresden is a very musical city, and its festival draws in even more music lovers. Festival director Jan Vogler told a group of us visiting critics that during the regular season you can often see crowds pouring out of the city’s centrally located opera house, concert hall and other venues from sold out performances, all on the same night.

And for a city of about 500,000, it says a lot that that there are three newspapers, each with its own music critic on staff. Pretty humbling.

Dresden is abuzz with next week’s Obama visit. The advance security and logistics teams have been seen checking things out and today’s Sachsische Zeitung paper devotes a full page to a story and photo spread on the suite (5,500 Euros a night) at the Hotel Kempinski where the presidential party will be staying. Great-looking digs. (The paper's online photo gallery of places the president will visit provides a quick overview of this richly beautiful city - just click on the bar at top to see each of the seven pictures.) 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:48 AM | | Comments (1)

Another report from Dresden Music Festival

Greetings again from Germany.

When the Dresden Music Festival opened in 1978, the city’s inhabitants were officially East Germans, the government officially communist, and foreign journalists attending festival events were likely to be tailed by not-so-secret secret policemen. Everything, of course, is different now. As if to drive home that point, Jan Vogler, the dynamic, (East) Berlin-born cellist who is now the festival’s director, chose an overriding theme for 2009 -- Neue Welt (New World). It’s the first time that American music has been prominently featured at the festival. The roster includes the likes of ...

vocalist Bobby McFerrin, violinist/composer Mark O’Connor  and the Emerson String Quartet. Composers represented in the programming range from Stephen Foster to Elliott Carter. (If President Obama wants to attend a concert the night he’s scheduled to stay in Dresden next week, he could stop by the stunning  Frauenkirche and catch Carter’s thorny Cello Concerto performed by Vogler – if any Leader of the Free World ever chose to hear something by Carter, the music would never get over the shock). But the American theme is not exclusive, so traditionalists can find plenty to savor as well. The programs strike a sensible, appealing balance.

With several heavy-duty music festivals in Europe, the one in Dresden has not always caught a lot of attention beyond Germany. From the little I’ve experienced so far, I’d say that this annual event is likely to pop up on more and more radar screens. For one thing, Dresden is beguiling, especially the historic central city that continues to be lovingly restored and refreshed. It’s not that the legacy of the 1945 bombing has disappeared, but the sense of vitality and warmth here is palpable, the charm quotient high. It’s a perfect spot for a festival, given that the performance venues are all so accessible, an easy walk from many hotels.

Government support provides hefty support for the enterprise, covering a good portion of the 2.5 million Euros budget, but Vogler, who has dual U.S. citizenship and spends much of his time with his family in New York, has adapted American-style fundraising and sponsorships to the festival, significantly increasing private support. Ticket sales are strong, with lots of capacity crowds. Tourist-related businesses have to be enjoying the current and potential power of the festival to draw visitors.

Next year, Vogler plans a Russian theme, featuring the repertoire and musicians from that country, which used to be an ominous Big Brother around here. Times, attitudes, possibilities have all changed. It’s the music that remains the same great unifier.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:38 AM | | Comments (0)

May 25, 2009

Dresden Festival offers soothing Schubert, Schumann from Bavarian Radio Orchestra/Chorus

The weekend's lineup at the Dresden Music Festival, which opeend May 20 and runs through June 7, included a concert by the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam with hot-shot conductor Gustavo Dudamel and stellar pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, as well as a recital by pianist Gabriela Montero (of improvise-on-themes-from-the-audience fame -- she did one of those recitals in Baltimore this season). I missed those and other events, since they happened before I got here, but I just thought I'd mention them anyway. Gives you an idea of the variety at the festival.

Sunday night was to have been notable for an appearance by the always interesting conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. He was indisposed, however, and the podium was turned over to ...

young British conductor Daniel Harding. It still turned out to be a pleasant concert, held in the cavernous Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross), which boasts a boys choir with roots going back 700 years (there's something humbling about such statistics in an age when anything that has lasted even seven years is passe).

Anyway, Harding led the forces through a rapt performance of Schumann's deeply poetic Nachtlied and a nicely shaped, often glowing account of Schubert's Mass No. 6 in E-flat. I was delighted to hear the latter again just for the extraordinary musical ideas in it, especiallly the dramatic Sanctus that seems to point directly to Bruckner.

The Bavarian chorus made a superb sound, so warm and smoothly blended. Five excellent soloists contributed to the Mass,among them soprano Christiane Oelze and tenors Werner Gura and Markus Schafer, whose exquisite phrasing in the Et homo factus est passage was worth the trip. Throughout the evening, Harding was mindful of the substantial reverberation in the church, keeping tempos restrained so that lines didn't get swallowed up. Since I'm weird enough to love very slow music-making, I didn't mind at all.

Off to a confab with fellow critics and, later, more music.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

May 24, 2009

Blogging from Germany and the Dresden Music Festival

Just flew into Dresden and, boy, are my arms tired. Wait a minute. Wrong audience. Let me rephrase that.

Got to Germany Sunday morning after one of those typically draining trans-Atlantic flights in steerage class, then reached Dresden that afternoon feeling beat. But, after 16 hours or so of travel time from Baltimore, I had a rush of energy from seeing this seemingly spotless city drenched in a bright sunshine that even gave the cobblestoned plazas an extra sparkle.

I'm here on my first visit to this historic spot to attend ...

the Dresden Music Festival, which started more than three decades ago (when the city was still part of East Germany) and which regularly features leading musicians.

I'm also here as part of a group of North American and European music critics who will be spending the next few days discussing the future of our profession -- maybe not the cheeriest of subjects, but it's bound to offer interesting perspectives on how we will or will not surivive in the era of shrinking newspapers, proliferating blogs and Twittering.

The festival's overriding theme this year is the New World, reflected in the presence of several American artists and repertoire on the schedule. I imagined, as I strolled about in my jet-lagged state, that this theme must have spread to the local dining establishments, since one of the first places I spotted on a quiet side street was Santa Fe Tex-Mex Restaurant. I snapped a picture so I could show Elizabeth Large, the Sun's restaurant critic and superstar blogger, a bit of Dresden's trendiness. Sorry the pic is so lousy; it was taken with my phone. I'm not much for snapping away, but I couldn't resist this remidner of Americana on my first day in a city that is showcasing American music this year (and that is planning to welcome President Obama sometime next week.)

There was another unexpected dash of New Worldiness when three fellow music journalists and I took a table on the second floor balcony of a charming (what else?) cafe a stone's throw from the stunning Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), destroyed in the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, but painstakingly restored to its early 18th century beauty. Within two minutes of taking our seats, we heard "The Sounds of Silence," sung by a Latin-accented guy playing the guitar on the cobblestones below. If only we had had real silence instead. Bob Dylan classics followed.

After dinner, time for our first big concert. And what did I hear as part of this New World-themed Dresden Music Festival? Works by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. More on that after I get some sleep.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:19 PM | | Comments (1)

May 22, 2009

More bad news on the opera front; DC's Summer Opera Theatre cancels sole '09 production

This just in: Summer Opera Theatre, a three-decade fixture in Washington's scene, has canceled it's solo production, The Merry Widow. My colleague, Anne Midgette, reports that the money just wasn't there for even one production; the company usually offers two.

As someone who has enjoyed several of the presentations -- a provocative Otello, a rare staging of Die tote Stadt, a sizzling Il trovatore, for example -- I hate to see this setback. (Summer Opera Theatre has enjoyed close ties to Baltimore musicians and institutions, especially Peabody.) The glimmer of good news is that the company is determined to build up its resources and return soon.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:15 PM | | Comments (0)

Mellow rock from Trey Anastasio gets smooth partnering from Marin Alsop and Baltimore Symphony

Trey Anastasio and Marin AlsopTrey Anastasio proved to be quite the mellow fellow Thursday night when he collaborated with the Baltimore Symphony in a program of his music. My review is in Friday's paper.

Ably partnered by conductor Marin Alsop, he made a good case for his ambitious 30-minute piece Time Turns Elastic. In that work and a selection of Phish songs, he offered some suave improv on the guitar and somewhat less steady vocals.

It all added up to something a little less, I suspect, than either Anastasio fans or the orchestra expected. ...

Rather than a pointedly rock kind of night, this was a subtle, intimate occasion, overall, an opportunity to focus in on Anastasio's slow-to-burn guitar viruosity and distinctive songwriting style.

Those songs may or may not have derived great benefit from their orchestral trappings, but I found myself generally liking the directness and sincerity of the arrangements, the easy-going nature of the music-making.

The coolest thing, though, was seeing such a non-symphony crowd in the place. Some of them surely didn't know from the BSO. I heard that one audience member asked an orchestra staffer how long Meyerhoff Symphony Hall had been there.

At first, the Phish folk sounded ready for a rock concert -- lots of whoops and hollers and shouted requests, as you would expect. Gradually, when the nature of the evening became clearer, it seemed as if the audience pretty much switched gears as smoothly as the BSO players were doing onstage, taking in the music in a different way.

These classical/non-classical unions don't necessarily change either world, but it's interesting to see the two sides share the same space, if only for the occasional night.

Baltimore Sun photo of Trey Anastasio and Marin Alsop: Gene Sweeney Jr.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:06 AM | | Comments (1)

May 21, 2009

Baltimore School for the Arts alumna Stefania Dovhan makes Spoleto Festival debut in rarely staged opera

Stefania DovhanIn the local-girl-makes-good department, note the case of Stefania Dovhan, a Ukraine-born soprano who received some of her early training at the Baltimore School for the Arts and the University of Maryland and who won the 2000 Rosa Ponselle Competition. Dovhan makes her debut at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston on Friday. Not just any old debut, either, but in the title role of Charpentier's Louise, an opera all too rarely staged on these shores.

I remember Dovhan's recital at UM in 2001, which easily revealed her potential. She went on to more study in Europe; she has been based in Germany for the past few years. (Audio/video links are on her Web site.)

She ought to be a natural, physically and vocally, to portray Louise. This opera from 1900 is primarily known for the radiant soprano aria Depuis le jour, a test for any lyric voice, but the whole work, a story of unconventional young love vs. conservative parents amid the rich tapestry of Paris, has quite a lot to recommend it. There will be be four performances of Louise between Friday and June 6.

Incidentally, among the many unfortunate effects of the demise of the Baltimore Opera is that ...


local audiences will not get a chance to hear Dovhan next season. She was to have made her homecoming as Pamina in the company's production of The Magic Flute. Perhaps another operatic organization will provide her an outlet in Baltimore before too long. 

Back to Spoleto for a moment. The Festival remains the country's most enticing and consistently rewarding arts festival, and the 2009 lineup offers numerous enticements. This year marks the final appearance of Charles Wadsworth as host of the popular daily chamber music series. He has decided to retire, at the age of 80, after an amazing 50 years with the festival. The place will never be quite the same without him. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:42 AM | | Comments (0)

The merciless Madoff has taken toll on music, too

Depressing reading this morning from Dan Wakin of the Times. It's a report on how the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which has awarded valuable scholarships to musicians for decades, saw its $14 million endowment disappear in the Madoff Ponzi operation.

The foundation is having to cut back severely on those scholarships, which, in years past, went to promising students with such names as Itzhak Perlman, Yefim Bronfman and Daniel Barenboim. It would be, well, criminal, if ... 

budding and needy talents find their artistic paths blocked by the foundation's cutbacks, all because of Madoff.

I don't think we're close to understanding the full story of this massive and merciless scheme, which has taken such a toll on so many individuals and on so many worthy philanthropic organizations. Last week's Frontline report just scratched the surface.

At least we know that music, and all the other great impulses that spring from our better selves, will always outlast the creeps and crooks of the world. 

To get the thought of that smug Madoff out of our minds, at least for a moment, here's Barenboim, a beneficiary of the America-Israel Foundation in her early days, playing the sublime Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations.  



Posted by Tim Smith at 7:42 AM | | Comments (0)

May 20, 2009

Twitter-fueled opera plot contest leads to unsual winner

A few weeks ago, the Twittering classes responded enthusiastically to a contest calling for opera plots boiled down to within the 140-character limit allowed by those who Tweet.

Opera companies jumped in with prizes, none more generous than that from Washington National Opera, which offered tickets to a performance of Turandot and the company's high-society annual ball. On opening night of the Turandot production last weekend, I heard about the unusual result of the contest. Turns out the winner lives on the other side of the country, and he wanted to donate the prize. This he did in a most endearing fashion, locating a D.C. public school music teacher and arranging for her not only to enjoy the night at the opera, but, for the ball, to do so in a gown created for her by WNO's costume department. Very cool.

My colleague, Anne Midgette, fills in the details here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:00 PM | | Comments (0)

Contemporary music ensemble SONAR teams with church for concert/food drive

SONAR, a two-year-old ensemble made up of students and alumni of Peabody, is devoted not only to new music, but also community service. The group, in collaboration with Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, will give a concert and food drive to benefit the church's Carpenter's Kitchen and food pantry.

The event will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday (May 20th) in the George Peabody Library. Audience members are asked to donate a non-perishable food item. The program, called "Pop Culture(s)," offers works by Michael Daugherty, Hamza El Din, Paul Lansky, Silvestre Revueltas, Bright Sheng and Michael Torke, as well as a premiere by SONAR's composer-in-residence, Roger Zare.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)

Statement from Peabody Institute director on the death of Nicholas Maw

From Peabody Institute director Jeffrey Sharkey on Nicholas Maw, who died Tuesday. Mr. Maw  had been a member of the conservatory faculty for a decade, 1999-2008:

"Nicholas built Peabody's composition department into one of the world's most prominent while continuing to compose major works, including his opera Sophie's Choice. He was a perfect gentleman and a mighty composer and pedagogue."

Here are two photos taken at the premiere of Sophie's Choice at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Dec. 7, 2002 (several staff members, friends and alumni of Peabody and Johns Hopkins University attended that performance). The first picture shows the composer's curtain call; the second shows him with his partner, artist Maija Hay, at the cast party. PHOTOS BY ROB MOORE COURTESY OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, COVENT GARDEN/PEABODY INSTITUTE

Nicholas Maw

Nicholas Maw

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:45 AM | | Comments (0)

May 19, 2009

Nicholas Maw, great British-born composer of 'Sophie's Choice' and valued Peabody faculty member, dies at 73

Nicholas MawJust heard the sad news that Nicholas Maw has died at 73.

The BBC reports that the British-born composer and valued faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory died of heart failure in Washington, D.C., where he had long made his home.

Mr. Maw's extensive list of compositions includes the enormous orchestral work Odyssey in 1987; the score, which runs continuously for more than an hour and a half, is a pinnacle of post-modernism, with a strong grounding in tonality and extraordinary freedom of expression. His ambitous opera, Sophie's Choice, did not satisfy all the critics, especially in England, where it was premiered at the Royal opera House in 2002, but it proved to be a powerful piece of music theater capable of deeply affecting the public and performers alike. (Marin Alsop conducted the US premiere of Sophie's Choice in the Washington National Opera's production in 2006.)

Mr. Maw was a brilliant thinker with a charming personality, a creative artist of remarkable integrity, insight and, I believe, courage.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:54 PM | | Comments (1)

Another Tim weighs in on Baltimore's operatic future

This just in from Tim Nelson, whose American Opera Theater helps to spice up Baltimore's music season. He has been teaching in Canada, and just now caught up with an article I wrote a couple weeks ago about the city's operatic future (I didn't write the headline, by the way). Here's his response:


In his piece entitled "Small Opera Companies Try to Fill Gap," Tim Smith makes the true and important point that Baltimoreans should not forget the role of grand opera in the city’s cultural life. We all hope that from the ashes of the Baltimore Opera Company some more healthy and effective opera company will emerge. Perhaps the premise of his title is ...

flawed, however. What we at American Opera Theater, and what John Bowen with Opera Vivente, produce is not, will never be, and most importantly does not aspire to be “grand opera”. We provide something unique in offering new pieces to the repertoire, and in producing works that could never be produced well by a grand opera company at the Lyric Theater (Handel, Monteverdi, and many of the Britten operas). We also create productions that in many ways are more interesting and have more to say to the human soul. Smith is right in inviting the Washington National Opera to perform in Baltimore until some home-grown operatic entity can form. I for one hope to see WNO at the Lyric soon!

What concerns me about Smith’s piece is the sentence “My concern is that Baltimore could end up witnessing more locally generated good intentions than genuine high-caliber opera.” It begs the question “what is high-caliber opera?”. Is grand necessarily good? Not always, and in the United States right now, not usually. Opera sits at the pinnacle of all the arts because it is gesamtkunst – total art – and encompasses all of the arts. Opera is about so much more than singing, orchestral playing, and large sets. Opera is an apex because it has within itself the potential to be deeply relevant to the contemporary cultural dialogue. It has been a long time since performances of the Baltimore Opera had anything interesting to say on a dramatic level, since they added anything to the music that one could not have received, perhaps even better, from a concert performance.

We who create smaller scale, but more interesting, opera no doubt need to have a commitment to engaging ever higher quality singers, increasing our investment in production value, and establishing a uniformly high quality of instrumental playing. But, whatever company can “fill the gap” left by the Baltimore Opera Company, they too must have a commitment to creating productions that meet great singing with great dramaturgy, that speak to contemporary audiences, moving audiences to understand the important role of opera and to sustain both their local grand and alternative opera companies. Whatever the case, Baltimoreans should be proud to have so much operatic activity in their city, and I hope they will explore all its many manifestations.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)

May 18, 2009

Reissue of Bernstein's 1960s Mahler cycle sounds great, includes invaluable reminiscences

I've been bemoaning the lack of time and funds that kept me from spending 12 days in New York to hear the complete symphonies of Mahler performed at Carnegie Hall by the Staatskapelle Berlin. That cycle, which featured Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim alternating at the podium, wrapped up on Sunday. Although the performances drew a mix of so-so and glowing reviews, the opportunity to experience all of that Mahler in less than two weeks had to be terrific.

I did find a consolation prize of sorts, thanks to Sony Classical's well-timed re-release of the storied recordings from the 1960s of the nine Mahler symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein, mostly with the New York Philharmonic. It's always good to be reminded of Bernstein's rare flair for getting to the heart of this composer, and this boxed set, arriving only eight years since the last Sony Bernstein/Mahler reissue, comes in freshly updated sound. It's not that Bernstein's interpretations necessarily displace everyone else's, but that he is never less than persausive and involving. He went on to re-record the symphonies, and in some cases, surpassed his own previous standard for insight. But his first Mahler cycle will always hold a place of honor in his discography.

Even though I retain a deep fondness for the way that ...

some other conductors have delved into these symphonies -- Mengelberg with No. 4, and Barbirolli with No. 6, to name a couple of my all-time favorite discs -- the Bernstein '60s recordings could easily pass the desert-island test if you could only bring one complete set along.

Making the new package from Sony all the more worthy is the inclusion of a recording that hasn't had as much circulation over the decades as the Bernstein-led performances -- interviews with musicians who played in the New York Philharmonic (then called the Philharmonic Society of New York) for the short period when Mahler himself was conductor, 1909-11. These reminiscences are supplemented by those of musicians who worked with him in Vienna, including illustrious film composer Max Steiner, and some endearing remarks by Mahler's daughter Anna. If you've never heard this archive, you've got to get this set for that reason alone.  

It is riveting to hear first-hand from players who, more than 50 years after Mahler's death, talk so precisely about his "disorderly” hair and peculiar walk. When one of the men says there was "something saintly about Mahler -- this you felt," or when another recalls a 1908 performance at Carnegie Hall of Schumann's Spring Symphony where the outburst in the first movement was achieved so masterfully that he "never heard such a sound like that in my life," it communicates in a way that scholarly biographies can't quite match. And it's just too cool to hear a musician talk about Mahler trying to whistle to demontrate how he wanted "the boids" to sound in Beethoven's Pastoral. When you think about guys with Brooklyn accents playing in Mahler's Philharmonic, the conductor/composer's brief American period seems closer, more real somehow.    

The stories about Mahler's cruel streak, especially picking on an elderly bassist (“You should be playing in the back room of a saloon,” the conductor told him), are as fascinating as the anecdote about Mahler inviting the entire orchestra to have a post-concert snack with him after they finally gave him the "volcanic" sound he wanted in Beethoven's Fifth. It's also revealing to hear the musicians make comparisons between Mahler and Toscanini that aren't as flattering as you might expect to the Italian. And one of the best moments is when a player sings the portamento that Mahler wanted in his own Fourth Symphony, a portamento that most conductors shy away from today (Mengelberg's 1936, portamento-rich recording is decisvely vindicated by these remarks -- not that I ever doubted it).

Didn't mean to go on an on about all of this. But hearing these personal connections to Mahler on the same CD set that preserves, in state-of-the-art remastering, Bernstein's personal approach to Mahler's music makes the set a double treasure.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:54 PM | | Comments (1)

Another perspective on the Baltimore Opera's demise

Thought you might find this blog posting interesting. It's about the Baltimore Opera and its demise from someone with a longstanding personal link to the company.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:36 PM | | Comments (1)

Elmar Oliveira gives spirited recital for Community Concerts at Second

It has been quite a while since I've seen Elmar Oliveira in performance -- longer than I realized. The last time, he had hair.

Elmar OliveiraOliveira, the first and still only American violinist to earn a gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition (in 1978), was in town Sunday to give a recital for Community Concerts at Second. This was the organization's annual benefit to help support its otherwise free series of events at Second Presbyterian Church. The value of those many free concerts each season cannot be overstated. 

In a sonata-dominated program with pianist Robert Koenig (equally bald, by the way -- not that there's anything wrong with that), Oliveira demonstrated that his technique remains basically secure, his musicality refined. He hit a peak in Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1, a work that packs in a remarkable amount of drama and poetry. The violinist made much of the eerie, whispery flurries that suggest icy winds over a doomed landscape in the outer movements, and dug powerfully into the volatile scherzo. This is deep music, provocative music. Oliveira and Koenig made it ...

speak vividly.

A pair of A major sonatas by Mozart and Schubert passed by pleasantly, if without a great deal of charm and nuance. Those qualities were in abundance from both players, though, for the closing group of short pieces. The F.A.E. Scherzo by Brahms had lots of dash and fire. Two charming Heifetz transcriptions rounded things off, Rachmaninoff's Daisies and Ponce's Estrellita, both delivered quite stylishly, recalling a very different era from our own. Oliveira's tone had a delectable sweetness, his use of portamento was natural and elegant. A wonderful tribute to the Heifetz, still the gold standard of the violin world.

In case you never heard Heifetz play Daisies, I've appended a video filmed late in his career:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:29 AM | | Comments (1)

Washington National Opera offers vivid 'Turandot' in now-classic Andrei Serban staging

Washington National Opera TurandotSo many over-the-top elements come together in Puccini’s lush swan song, Turandot, that it can be easy to forget that this operatic fairy tale has something genuine to say about the nature of love and sacrifice. Andrei Serban’s now-classic 25-year-old staging of the work succeeds better than any I’ve seen at conveying that message. Designed for and often revived at London’s Royal Opera House (although first seen at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics), the production keeps the kitsch-ier elements of Turandot from interfering with its personal side.

I was taken with it when I first saw it a few years ago in London, and I found it just as effective and affecting Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, where it was unveiled as the season-closing presentation by Washington National Opera. (A concert version of the piece – no sets or costumes -- will be given at Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House June 2.)

Serban repeatedly ...

toys with an audience’s expectations for this opera. For one thing, his concept underplays the more typical extravaganza associated with this work. There’s no really grand entrance for Turandot, the imperious Chinese princess who forces suitors to solve three riddles before getting to first base, on pain of decapitation. Here, brought more down to earth, as it were, she can’t maintain too much distance between herself and a mysterious stranger, who, unconcerned about his own head, decides to try his luck at gaining her heart.

The director frames the action as a kind of opera-within-an-opera. Placed in the balconies of a set that suggests an old theater, masked, dark-clothed choristers gaze down on the vividly costumed characters acting out the drama, along with several balletic figures artfully woven into the action by choreographer Kate Flatt.

Even without Franco Zeffirelli-style dazzle, Serban’s vision for the opera, realized by set/costume designer Sally Jacobs and evocatively lit by F. Mitchell Dana, still offers plenty to engage the eye -- huge sculptural heads of Turandot’s victims, trailing long red streamers; a charming scroll depicting the Chinese countryside, gently unfurled as the court ministers wax nostalgic over the peaceful life denied them as they toil in service to the cruel Turandot; the soft light of paper lanterns in the mist at the start of the last act.

The director’s most unconventional touch is a deliberate intrusion into the supposed happily-ever-after finale. As the transformed Turandot and the riddle-busting prince Calaf sing of love’s conquering power, with chorus and orchestra awash in a glorious blaze of consonance, the last victim of her cruelty suddenly, disconcertingly enters the picture. It’s the slave girl Liu, who, only a short while earlier, had sacrificed her life rather than betray Calaf. Her corpse is pulled across the stage on a funeral carriage by the prince's blind and now guide-less father, Timur.

Heavy-handed, to be sure, but it sure is a distinctive way to drive home the tragic underpinning of this exotic once-upon-a-timer.

Washington National Opera TurandotHelping to make the loss of Liu all the more telling on Saturday was the gorgeous singing of Sabina Cvilak in that role. Whatever she lacked in depth of acting, the soprano more than made up for in tonal radiance. Her floated pianissimo notes were alone worth the price of admission.

Puccini always felt extra sympathy for the female characters who expired in his operas, and he created some of his most exquisite music for Liu. Cvilak unleashed that beauty in phrase after melting phrase. No wonder it was her solo bow during the curtain calls that brought the audience to its feet.

It’s not unusual for a glowing Liu to dominate a performance of Turandot, since she's easily the most sympathetic protagonist. But the title role presents its own opportunities for a singer who can manage to convey the ice-box personality of the princess, while generating nuclear-plant lung power and revealing a hint of vulnerability. Maria Guleghina is very much up to that challenge.

The soprano summoned great waves of volume on Saturday — her first notes, even at less than full-throttle, seemed to shake the house — but she offered considerable tonal nuance as well. This was not the stand-and-scream type of Turandot all too frequently encountered. There was always something musical in Guleghina’s delivery, and enough warmth to offset the steel.

She didn’t always look comfortable executing the stylized body language that is part of the production, but she got across all the fear and loathing that consumes the princess. The way Guleghina pulled back her hand as Calaf tried to kiss it after his success with the riddles, for example, said a lot. In the last scene, the soprano also was able to bring out Turandot's softer side persuasively.

The weak link among the three central figures of the opera was Darío Volonté as Calaf. He got the job done, but the beefy tenor did not produce a meaty enough tone. Although top notes rang out decently, the rest sounded constricted and colorless. Not much of an actor, either, alas.

As Timur, the bass Morris Robinson was the only other singer who could compete with Guleghina’s ability to set off a Richter scale. His tone had a lot of richness, too, as did his phrasing. Among the court ministers, Nathan Herfindahl (Ping), was especially compelling for his burnished vocalism, but his colleagues — Norman Shankle (Pang), Yingxi Zhang (Pong) — certainly made admirable contributions as well.

Robert Baker sounded appropriately slender-voiced and sensitive as the old Emperor, whose descent from the sky is achieved quite elegantly in this staging. Oleksandr Pushniak could have used more tonal heft as the Mandarin. The chorus did mostly exemplary work, as did the orchestra.

Here and there, a more individualistic touch would have been welcome from conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, but she led an assured account of the score, saw to it that climactic moments had considerable sonic impact, and kept pit and stage generally in sync. (Placido Domingo will conduct the Baltimore concert and the final staged performance in Washington .)


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:00 AM | | Comments (2)

May 15, 2009

Placido Domingo will conduct concert version of Washington National Opera's 'Turandot' in Baltimore

When Washington National Opera brings a concert version of Puccini's Turandot to Baltimore on June 2, the company will bring its general director along. Placido Domingo, the celebrated tenor who runs WNO (and the Los Angeles Opera), will conduct this unstaged performance of Turandot at the Lyric Opera House. The cast includes Maria Guleghina in the title role, with Dario Volonte as Calaf and Sabina Cvilak as Liu. (Giovanni Reggioli had originally be announced as conductor.)

For tickets, call 410-547-7328 or 202-397-7328; also available through TicketMaster.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:52 PM | | Comments (1)

Next dose of anti-recession musical medication

Seems like a good time to take another dose of music for whatever ails you -- the big, bleak picture of the global economy, deeply personal ramifications thereof, or just the pressures of everyday stuff (especially on a glum Friday here in B'more).

So, sit back, close your eyes (there's no real video anyway, just some still photos) and drink in this glorious, still-unmatched 1960s performance of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, performed by soprano Anna Moffo and conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The only possible side-effect of this medication is that you may not want to come back to reality after taking it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (1)

May 14, 2009

Peabody Institute library successful on bid for Baltimorer Opera's archival tapes

Robert Follet, librarian at the Peabody Institute, was successful in his bid for the video and DVD recordings of Baltimore Opera Company productions at Thursday's chattels auction. His $1,000 bid (made possible by a private donor) also yielded the stage manager's music scores of the taped operas. This assures that the archival footage of the opera company's past will be properly and professionally preserved.
Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (2)

Britten operas featured in inaugural Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate

Castleton FestivalEminent conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, could spend all their free time relaxing in total privacy on their 550-acre Castleton Farms in the rolling hills of Virginia's Rappahannock County.

Instead, the couple likes to open up the place to young musicians in the summer, giving them an opportunity to study and perform.

Out of this mentoring program, which has been going on for more than a decade, a three-week festival will emerge in July. (The photo at the right shows Maazel rehearsing in the Theatre House on the estate in 2006.) 

The first Castleton Festival will feature stagings of three Benjamin Britten operas -- The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring -- and one from the early 18th century that he arranged, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

There will also be ...

orchestral concerts, recitals and conducting master classes.

I still recall vividly my visit to the farm in 2006 (the photo below shows Dietlinde Turban-Maazel on the grounds of the farm). At that time, Maazel was preparing Britten's The Turn of the Screw in the intimate, state-of-the-art, 130-seat Theatre House on the grounds (the strong production subsequently was presented at the Kennedy Center). An air-conditioned, 250-seat tent will be erected during the festival for some events.

Castleton FestivalMaazel, one of the most technically impressive and musically engaging conductors in the business, will lead the opening nights of each opera; participants in the conducting program will lead the others. William Kerley will be the stage director for all the operas.

The symphonic concerts will include lots of classical favorites, from Beethoven's Seventh to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

As you can see from the photos, the estate is an exceptionally inviting place, and, judging from what I heard three years ago, the quality of the musical training that goes on there is first-class.

The festival should be well worth the trek (Castleton Farms is about 60 miles southwest of DC), especially for Britten fans, or folks who want to get to know the composer's remarkable operas better. 

For tickets, call 540-937-4969 or (toll-free) 866-974-0767, or click here.


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

Opus Nine to make Baltimore debut on Saturday

You've got to admire an ensemble that is "dedicated to approaching the most challenging and exciting concert repertoire with new ideas, dramatic modern contrasts, and passionate exuberance." Not to mention one that is "masterfully trained, prodigious, and ethnically diverse." And whose members are all "under the age of thirty and fresh from the heat of the top academies in America." And which says that you should "expect the unexpected, expect more from a thrilling NEW ERA in classical performance!"

Welcome to Opus Nine, which ...

makes its Baltimore debut on Saturday at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church. A Philadelphia debut will be on Friday, New York on Sunday. Players come from Peabody, Juilliard, San Francisco Conservatory, et al.  

With a core of 16 -- strings, winds, piano and vocalists -- Opus Nine offers a good example of how music students and recent conservatory grads are making their own way, creating their own opportunities in a world where jobs are not exactly plentiful. (Remind me to find out why a 16-member group is called Opus Nine.)

The attractive Baltimore program offers a flute quartet by Mozart, Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock, songs by Ravel and H.T. Burleigh, Mendelssohn's Octet, and more.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (4)

Liquidation of Baltimore Opera assets begins Thursday

I've got a story today on the three auctions that will be held to liquidate the remnants of the Baltimore Opera Company, from pedestrian office furniture to grand sets of Aida. Thursday's sell-off, starting at 10 a.m., will be at the company's old offices at the Lyric Opera House. On May 21, sets, props and costumes at a downtown warehouse go to the highest bidder; the next week, the warehouse itself is on the block.

A pitiful end to a company that should not have been allowed to fail.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)

May 13, 2009

Next NEA chairman to be theater producer Rocco Landesman

Word is that the White House has nominated dynamic theater producer Rocco Landesman as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, succeeding Dana Gioia. Landesman has generated several hits on Broadway, including The Producers, and the concept of premium seats for Broadway shows ($480 worth of premium, at that).
Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (0)

Michael Tilson Thomas on 'Keeping Score' and more

Michael Tilson ThomasAt 64, Michael Tilson Thomas, who gave the keynote address at the PBS Showcase conference in Baltimore on Tuesday, is one of the youngest-minded conductors in the business. He has a keenly developed sense of what’s cool, what’s awesome and what’s next.

The New York-born music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was the obvious choice to lead the last month’s Carnegie Hall debut concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble formed of musicians from around the world who uploaded their audition videos. MTT, naturally, has his own YouTube channel (check out his clever 4:30 history of music video).

He has long been open to the idea of applying technological advances to music, evidenced by such things as cyber master classes in conducting given at his second home, the New World Symphony in Miami, using Internet 2 to connect with students around the country. The New World is building a state-of-the-art, Frank Gehry-designed building where live Webcasts and other high-tech activities will be the norm.

MTT and the San Francisco Symphony have been just as tech-savvy. The orchestra just became the first of its size to create a social network online, for example. And the conductor has, with the San Franciscans, generated the most substantial cultural/educational programming for TV since his friend Leonard Bernstein led the celebrated Young People’s Concerts decades ago.

MTT’s PBS series, Keeping Score, which had its first series in 2006 and was seen in more than 5 million households, is aimed at general audiences. Next season, the second series will air with three one-hour shows that look deeply into the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich, and the Holidays Symphony by Ives. A superb musician and natural story-teller, MTT is perfect for role of TV aural guide, and the top-notch San Francisco ensemble makes an ideal partner in the process of exploring great repertoire.

While in Baltimore for the PBS gathering, I caught up with MTT at his hotel, where he talked about...

the new Keeping Score shows, the future of music and more. Here are some excerpts:

Michael Tilson ThomasOn Keeping Score: It’s a three-part process — the broadcast shows, then the DVD versions, then the Web site, which backs up the shows in ever more ingenious ways, I think. The first shows continue to have a life. They have been subtitled in languages I don’t even know. The new shows are much more film-like, Citizen Kane-like, in a way, asking questions at the beginning and seeing if it is possible to work your way through the mystery. They offer fewer conclusions. They present possibilities, things that may or may not be so. I am trying to move away from vocabulary, to make them less lecture-y. 

On the YouTube Symphony: Normally, I get an idea, then an idea of the people with whom I’d like to do it. In this case, I was asked to do something where no one knew who it would be done with. But it was very satisfying because of the number of people worldwide who became aware of the program. I suspect there are far more people worldwide who care about classic music, but they are not aware of one another.

On the YouTube generation: According to a study I saw of people under 20, the first place they look for information, their primary source, is YouTube or other video sources, rather than a print source — paper or online. They are looking for someone to tell them something. To my way of thinking, that’s slightly frightening. I cannot imagine my morning without having my cup of coffee and reading a newspaper, even as I complain about what I’m reading or how thin the paper is.

On generational differences: The great orchestras always prided themselves on presenting totally excellent, cool professionalism. The manner of presenting themselves to the world was solid, subtle, energetic — but not demonstrative in terms of what the audience was seeing. Look at the [Simon] Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra or other orchestras with mostly young players, and they’re doing a very different thing onstage. They are way more performers.

On enhanced musical appreciation: There are book clubs. Why not symphony clubs? I think the major performing organizations will have to look at the expansion of their roles in educating people, in leading the process, in creating new partnerships. And more musicians, from the beginning of their training, will need to know how to do this. Maybe musicians will reach some different balance point in the future, where they decide how much time they spend rehearsing, giving concerts, being online and having a teaching role. When an audience goes to see a play by Shakespeare, what percentage can follow it line by line? Not many. They can hear the famous lines. A good deal they pick up form the production, the way it is done. Maybe we’re going to see some kind of change in the musical fashion of performing. We’re in a bells and whistles age. We’re in a world of video, and some musicians treat it the way some silent movie stars treated talkies — it’s just a fad. It is important that musicians get inside of this, rather than have it forced on them.

On making music: For me, it has always been about when the music stops. What’s left when you’re in the silence again? What do you remember? How have you changed?



Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)

May 11, 2009

Weigh in on Baltimore's operatic future

Each time I write about some aspect of Baltimore's operatic future, as I did in Sunday's paper, I can count on spirited responses. So I thought it might be useful to post an entry here by inviting your comments on how, when, even why the void left by the collapses Baltimore Opera Company should be filled.

In Sunday's article, I outlined the existing companies in town and discussed a newly formed enterprise, Baltimore Opera Theater, set to debut next season, as well as Washington National Opera's planned concert-form presentation next month. As I've written before, I'm primarily interested in seeing full-sized, quality opera in this city again. Toward that end, I confess a certain yearning for instant gratification, such as might be provided by an existing, major opera company. 

All of this, of course, is open to discussion and debate. Use the comment function here to aim your wisdom or wrath at me (or each other).

I'll start the commentary by posting -- with permission -- this email I received Sunday from Jenny Kelly, whose husband, Giorgio Lalov, recently announced the launch of Baltimore Opera Theater. The couple have long been involved in touring productions of opera and ballet; their Teatro Lirico d'Europa has toured the U.S. for a decade.

Plans for their new Baltimore company call for productions at the Hippodrome and opera in concert form at the Meyerhoff. I suggested in my commentary that a little skepticism would not be unwarranted, given the economic climate and some of the goals Lalov has revealed. I also wondered if the couple can play well with others, given their propensity toward saying some rather, well, dramatic things about folks who have not been viewed as supportive of their plans and assurances. Here's the response (ellipses and punctuation are in the original):

Dear Tim,
Great article.  Let me please defend my words however... When I use words like slander and assassination...I don't do so to be dramatic. I don't care a tinker's do about being dramatic! At my age in life I am not a part of this intrigue business! I just want to see my son happy and business to go well and easy! I am being very honest and totally correct by the legal standard of the word slander. Please look up the definition of slander and you will see!
There are people on the board of the Lyric who are deliberately trying to POISON the pool of potential opera benefactors here in Baltimore AGAINST US  because they wish to control opera here in town and do what THEY PLEASE to do!

We are no strangers to slander! When I booked the first US tour of Teatro in the USA ... after our 10 year history of huge successes in Europe, with over 200 performances there a year ... I was able to use the hundreds of reviews we had generated and the list of CDs that we had on sale in Europe on the Italian Harmony Music label to lend credibility to what I was doing...along with a few photos that were fuzzy at best. Despite that... Columbia Artists Mgmt. was in the habit of owning the world here as far as opera tours. It enraged them that anyone would attempt to enter the market. As a result, they sent faxes and e mails all over the USA to all the venues that present opera saying that we would NEVER ARRIVE to even set foot here much less do a tour! And what happened? We came, we did that FIRST winter 2000 tour...We got RAVE reviews from the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe to name a few of the MAJOR newspapers that loved our work...and the theaters that worked with us were very happy with our service and our behavior...  and now, CAMI, after years of presenting NYC Opera on tour and London City Opera, Stanislavksy Opera and the Helikon Opera as well as a Bulgarian company called Opera Verdi,  CAMI has NO MORE opera tours in the USA. They are gone and we are the only opera touring company that exists now...and we have 80
performances a year...and EVERYONE IS PAID ON TIME AND IN FULL and there are no bills left behind unpaid!

When I tried to book my first ballet tour in the US... again slander and faxes and e mails all over from CAMI... but then we brought the ballet here and they were GREAT! BETTER than CAMI's ballet OF COURSE.

Why are you trying to rally people around a company that costs TOO MUCH in THIS economy when you have HONEST people who want to start a new company in a sensible way? Stop with the GRAND OPERA. Why not OPERA that honors the composer and not the ego and narcissism of some men (some good old boys) that want to present it?
Jenny Kelly, Director
World Classical Performing Performing Arts Society, Inc.
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:55 AM | | Comments (7)

Gary Graffman delivers eventful left-hand recital at University of Baltimore

It is a curious thing that two exceptionally powerful American pianists born in the same year --1928 -- should have developed cripling ailments in their right hands within a 14-year span. Leon Fleisher, hampered by neurological damage in 1965, has managed in recent years to resume some ambidextrous playing thanks to Botox injections. Gary Graffman, who injured his right hand in 1979, remains confined to music for the left hand alone, but that hasn't really restricted his musical life.

Like Fleisher, Graffman has championed the small, but substantive, left-hand repertoire from the past and has also added to it with works written expressly for him. He brought a sampling of old and contemporary music to UB's Student Center Saturday night, wrapping up the inaugural Great Pianists Series there before an audience that included Fleisher. 

Graffman delivered the eventful program with commitment and, for the most part, technical clarity and expressive force. Too much force sometimes, for my tastes. Graffman seemed to prefer playing at mezzo-forte and louder, overlooking opportunities to create subtler tonal shades. Nonetheless, there was much to enjoy, including dynamic accounts of Reinecke's Sonata and Reger's Four Special Studies. More impresive still were the pianist's expressive performances of richly textured pieces by Kirchner and Corigliano that exploited the remarkable range of possibilities available to merely five fingers of the left hand.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (1)

May 10, 2009

A musical tribute on Mother's Day

For my mother and your mother, for those still happily with us and for those who have gone on, here are two versions of Dvorak's "Songs My Mother Taught Me":

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:05 AM | | Comments (0)

May 9, 2009

National Symphony plunges into CrossCurrents with Oliver Knussen

The Kennedy Center has been awash in CrossCurrents, a remarkable week of contemporary music created by composer Oliver Knussen and pianist Joseph Kalichstein. The festival wraps up Sunday.

I wish I could have gotten down there for a lot more of it. My only opportunity to get caught up in the riptide came Friday night, when I heard Knussen conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in the kind of program that would be unthinkable and unsellable in Baltimore: Four works, the oldest one from 1993, the others from the 21st century. Not that it it a fire at the NSO box office; judging by the modest turnout Friday, you wouldn’t have trouble getting tickets for the final presentation Saturday night – and it’s well worth checking out.

This is, for starters, a good chance to hear music by composers who don’t tend to pop up on the Baltimore Symphony’s radar – two Americans, Gunther Schuller and Augusta Read Thomas; two from the UK, Julian Anderson and Knussen. The latter was represented here by his 2002 Violin Concerto, a taut, concise work that effortlessly fuses lyricism and spice. It’s at once a virtuosic and anti-virtuosic concerto, more about intercommunication of soloists and orchestra than audience dazzle, more about intimacy and complexity of musical discourse than grand statement. Leila Josefowicz was the brilliant soloist, playing from memory (that was impressive in itself) and articulating the often intricate, high-lying melodic lines with ...

great finesse. Her obvious commitment to the material was matched by finely detailed playing in the orchestra.

Anderson’s Imagin’d Corners from 2002 (the title comes from a John Donne verse) was a terrific opener. Here, the principal action is in the horns, called upon to use natural overtones, sounds we think of as unnatural – the microtonal notes between “normal” notes. The effect wasn’t jarring, but tingling, especially when the finely executed horn bursts were balanced by a brilliant array of percussive colors in the orchestra. A final horn yelp ended this cool piece with a refreshing jolt.

Thomas’ Helios Chorus I (2006), an exercise in gradual crescendo that involves lots of intricate activity in each section of the ensemble, utilizes a freely dissonant language with a disarming naturalness.

Schuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993) is the composer’s response to the death of his wife. The emotional force at work is unmistakable, especially in passages of aggressive percussion and biting brass. The middle of the imaginatively structured score’s five, unbroken movements, is quite affecting, with the woodwinds introducing a gentle rocking theme that creates a bittersweet calm. It’s not entirely a dark piece; there are moments of great brightness and rhythmic jauntiness as well. The NSO gave a solid account of the work.

Throughout the concert, Knussen provided straightforward guidance. As his amusing remarks to the audience made clear, he’s quite the character, but his conducting tended to be more about efficiency than personality. I wouldn't have minded more kick and push at times.

In addition to the repeat of this program on Saturday, Knussen will lead members of the NSO Sunday night in a chamber music program that offers works by Anderson, Thomas, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Sean Shepherd and, of course, Knussen.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:08 AM | | Comments (0)

May 8, 2009

Michael Kaiser to receive 2009 George Peabody Medal

Michael KaiserMichael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, an international arts management/rescue guru and a compelling advocate for preserving artistic quality even in the face of adversity, has been awarded the 2009 George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America, presented by the Peabody Institute.

Kaiser joins a starry roster of recipients that, since 1980, has included Leonard Bernstein, Quincy Jones and Eubie Blake. Kaiser is described in the citation as "an impresario for the 21st century, the heir of Schikaneder, Diaghilev, Hurok, and Kirstein.” The medal will be presented during the graduation ceremony at the Peabody Institute on May 21. 

Although that ceremony is private, Kaiser will make a public appearance at 3 p.m. May 21 at the BMA, interviewed by Tom Hall to address the topic “Culture in Crisis and the Impact on the Baltimore Region’s Art Community.” Free tickets can be reserved by May 18 at missiontix.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:52 PM | | Comments (0)

Handel Choir announces 75th anniversary season

Given the losses and near-losses experienced in the local arts scene during the Great Recession so far, it's heartening to see that the Handel Choir of Baltimore has survived its own financial struggles this season and is gearing up to mark its 75th anniversary.

The ensemble, which has gained remarkable musical ground with artistic director and conductor Melinda O'Neal, will, of course, include Handel's Messiah during the anniversary season, an annual tradition since 1935. There will be another nod to the choir's namesake -- a staged presentation of his last oratorio, Jephtha, in a co-production with Tim Nelson's American Opera Theater. Messiah and Jephtha will feature period instrument orchestras.

Handel plays a subtle role in the rest of the season. O'Neal has chosen repertoire that reflects the composer's influence on choral music over the ages. The season will open in a collaboration with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's own season-opener (the BCO is another survivor of a very dicey financial situation this year). The chorus will perform two pieces by Mendelssohn. That composer's Elijah was performed in Baltimore by a group that subsequently formed the Handel Choir -- providing a neat little resonance for the 75th anniversary starter.

The popularity of Handel's oratorios in England led to a major choral tradition in that country, which spread to America. That Handelian connection will be acknowledged in a program of British and American music, including the Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams and works by Ives, Thompson, Britten and Tavener. 

Here's a little teaser for the Handel Choir's 2009-2010 season, the Benedictus from that exquisite Mass by Vaughan Williams:



Posted by Tim Smith at 7:39 AM | | Comments (1)

May 7, 2009

Mobtown Modern delivers one more jolt for the season

The ambitious program Mobtown Modern tackled Wednesday night at the Contemporary Museum reaffirmed what its hearty band of fans already know -- these guys have nerve, imagination and talent.

Focusing on composers known for going way out on a limb, the ensemble opened with a mostly tight account of Octandre, a pithy, kinetic, thorny piece by Varese for winds, brass and bass, led by Mobtown co-founder Brian Sacawa. I think it would have been fun to repeat it, since such music just doesn't come around often here, and the program wasn't long anyway. The other group piece was a Zappa medley (Zappastrata), newly arranged with considerable flair by Vince Norman, who has given the brass particularly colorful riffs. The playing was hot.

Sacawa and Mobtown's other guiding light, Erik Spangler, offered their imaginative, infectiously pulsating arrangement of the Leo movement from Stockhausen's Tierkreis (Zodiac). Lucier's Music for Solo Performer, a groundbreaking work that derives its music from the transmission of brain waves to percussion instruments, still seems way out there after more than 40 years. Sam Burt sat still at a chair, his head wired to a computer/speakers set-up, as his private thought patterns triggered subtle vibrations on drums, a metal sheet and other objects. Cool. (I've posted below a video of another, slightly noisier performance of the piece.)

The main highlight for me, though, was a seductive account of jazz great Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet arrangement of "God Bless the Child" (I assume this was primarily a transcription of all or part of an actual Dolphy performance). The familiar tune was played straight at the start, smoothly backed by electric bassist Matthew Everhart, before clarinetist Jennifer Everhart launched on her own into the body of the work with an exceptionally mellow tone, admirable technical elan and deeply expressive phrasing that made each melodic extension and elaboration speak.

In its creative, cheeky Mobtown Modern has made its mark in short order on the local new music scene. I'm looking forward to next season already.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:35 AM | | Comments (4)

Annapolis Symphony announces colorful programming for 09-10 season

Since Jose-Luis Novo's arrival as music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, the ensemble has boasted some very imaginative, sophisticated programming. The lineup for the 2009-2010 season reiterates that point.

Consider, for example, the selections planned for a March presentation. It's got a title, of course -- orchestras these days just love marketing programs under cute titles. This one is called "Spring Awakening," naturally enough, but the title actually fits, and not just because it contains the unsurprising Spring Symphony by Schumann. The program will open with the endearing Blumine (Flower Piece) movement that Mahler ultimately took out of his Symphony No. 1. Also in the mix: Voices of Spring, one of the great waltzes by Johann Strauss, whose music is criminally ignored by most orchestras, except for the occasional pops outing. And there's also room for the lyrical Violin Concerto by Korngold, which represents the sensual side of spring as well as anything (the soloist will be Elissa Lee Koljonen). Nothing earth-shattering perhaps on its own, but a very attractive combination.

Throughout the season, thoughtfully chosen repertoire is the rule. A February offering, for example, takes its cue from a war horse, Ravel's Bolero, and spices things up by balancing it with other "Sexy Sounds" (like I said, they just can't resist gimmicky titles) that are less commonly programmed, including Franck's Psyche et Eros, Richard Strauss' Dance of the Seven Veils, Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin and Piazzolla's Tangazo

Even a program with Beethoven's evergreen Seventh Symphony gets some fresh company in the form of pieces by Milhaud and Shostakovich. The season-opener features Haydn's Drum Roll Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fourth, but with Weber's Clarinet Concerto the less standard item in between (the soloist is Anthony McGill). 

Rounding out the season will be a program that includes a Mozart symphony, Elgar's Enigma Variations and a work by the infrequently encountered 20th century composer Andre Caplet. 

All in all, a sign of how seriously Novo approaches the job, and how much the orchestra and its audiences stand to gain.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)

May 6, 2009

Mobtown Modern in crazy mood for season finale

Just a reminder that Mobtown Modern, the coolest thing to happen to Baltimore's musical life in years, wraps up its 08-09 season Wednesday night at the Contemporary Museum.

The theme of this program is "Out to Lunch," referring to composers whose sanity was questioned by some listeners when confronted for the first time with their work. It's also the name of a noted 1964 LP featuring jazz great Eric Dolphy, whose bass clarinet version of "God Bless the Child" will be on the concert.

The Mobtown bunch will also tackle Octandre by Varèse for winds, brass and bass; an arrangement of a score by Stockhausen that will combine sax, toy piano, turntables and more; a blast of Zappa; and a piece by Lucier for "enormously amplified brain waves and percussion."

I'd say be there or be square, but that would date me terribly, so I'd better just say it sounds awesome.

To get you in the mood, here's Eric Dolphy performing his take on "God Bless the Child" in 1961:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)

May 5, 2009

Brilliant baroque concert with Pahud, Pinnock, Manson at Shriver Hall

The Shriver Hall Concert Series wrapped up its subscription series Sunday night with a splash of brilliant baroque featuring the Berlin Philharmonic's principal flutist, Swiss-born Emmanuel Pahud; eminent English harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock; and the excellent Scottish cellist Jonathan Manson.

The primary focus was on flute sonatas by Bach, showcasing Pahud's extraordinary tonal gleam and subtlety of phrasing; his ability to produce a perfect pianissimo was in itself worth catching the concert. Pinnock backed the flutist with a mix of technical elan and expressive finesse (he also recovered neatly from two crises in the Sonata No. 2 -- a sticking note on the keyboard and a wind gust that played havoc with his music score).

Pahud also had a field day with Telemann's vibrant D major Fantasie for unaccompanied flute. On his own, Pinnock offered an eventful account of Purcell's Suite No. 4, getting a lot of colors from the harpsichord and, in the concluding Gigue, articulating the rushing counterpoint with terrific clarity and infectious enthusiasm. Manson, playing on a fine baroque cello, added beautifully detailed lines to some of the flute sonatas and also got the solo spotlight for Bach's G major Cello Suite, which he performed with as much virtuosity as refined sensitivity.

Although this was the end of the main Shriver Hall presentations for the season, there's one more event in the Discovery Series that the organizations presents at the neighboring BMA -- a recital by the remarkable young British clarinetist Julian Bliss at 3 p.m. Saturday. It's free, but reservations are recommended.

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

Mario Venzago leads Baltimore Symphony to peak with Bruckner; Nelson Freire delivers superb Beethoven

A very impressive ride the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been having this season.

The playing, even with the occasional technical slip, seems to have hit a new level of consistency, while the expressive intensity and sense of total commitment has begun to rival that from the pinnacles of the brief Temirkanov era. The recent performance of Mahler's Ninth led by music director Marin Alsop is a case in point; last weekend's account of Bruckner's Third with Mario Venzago, returning to the BSO podium after a too-long absence, is another (I caught Sunday afternoon's performance at the Meyerhoff).

That this particular program also brought back superb keyboard artist Nelson Freire made the occasion all the more memorable. Freire moved with unassuming authority through Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, articulating with great clarity and abundant force as required, but it was his sublime nuances of tone and tempo that tinted the familiar music with a fresh beauty. Venzago and the orchestra backed the soloist attentively.

The audience recalled Freire to the stage enthusiastically enough to earn an encore, the bittersweet gem known as ...

the Melody by Gluck, a transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from the opera Orfeo (I believe Freire played the Sgambati transcription). This used to be a favorite of venerable pianists from long ago, and Freire is just the kind of musician who can tap into the Old World style of singing phrases and subtle coloring that can make the piece so transfixing. (In case you missed it, or want to relive it, I've appended a YouTube video of Freire playing it, also as an encore after a concerto, two years ago. Bad sound quality, but a decent souvenir just the same.)

It was deeply satisfying to hear the BSO turn to Bruckner again; his symphonies could be played here often enough for me (you already suspected I was a little weird -- now you know for sure). Venzago chose the 1890 revision of the score, a major change from Bruckner's 1874 original. Bruckner fans debate the worthiness of each edition of a symphony; I was just happy to have his music in any form.

Venzago revealed a mastery of the Third's architecture, giving each building block, each striking spire, each quiet alcove its due. The charming side of the Third, with its lilting landler and polka references, particularly inspired the conductor, who could not resist dancing along at those moments.

The orchestra responded with terrific flair. There was great warmth from the strings, lots of color and suppleness in the woodwinds, considerable strength and brilliance from the brass, rock solid underlining from timpanist Dennis Kain. In short, a gripping performance.

By the way, I'm still even crazier about Mahler, and I would certainly love for the BSO to tackle all nine Mahler symphonies in a short span, the way the Staatskapelle Berlin is doing at Carnegie Hall, starting Wednesday and going through May 17, with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim sharing the conducting. I think this would be a fab project for the BSO to tackle in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death. That said, I'd be just as excited if the orchestra were to go completely nutty and have a Bruckner festival that gave us all that composer's symphonies -- maybe even more than one of the versions for the most heavily revised works. If such a dream were realized, I'd want Venzago to participate. He seems to get not just the technical side of Bruckner, but the heart and soul.

Now, here's that clip of Freire:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (3)

May 4, 2009

Phish fans can Twitter their way to free tickets to Baltimore Symphony concert with Trey Anastasio

One of the new entries in Twitter-dom is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is using the device for the first time to hold a contest. Through a series of tweets, the BSO will offer clues to the secret location of the last pair of tickets for the May 21 concert with Trey Anastasio at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

That concert includes the East Coast premiere of Anastasio’s Time Turns Elastic, along with orchestrated Phish favorites. The winner of the contest also will receive dinner for two before the concert.

The contest runs until 5 p.m. Tuesday (May 5). Twitterers can sign up to follow

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:52 PM | | Comments (1)

Washington National Opera delivers compellng 'Siegfried' despite major obstacle

Super-powerful ring? Check.

Magic helmet? Check.

Unbreakable sword? Check.

Awesome dragon? Check.

Healthy tenor? Uh-oh.

Washington National Opera had everything going for it as it prepared to unveil its new production of Siegfried, Part 3 of Wagner's massive tetralogy of German mythology, The Ring of the Nibelung, Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. But the scheduled singer in the title role, one of the most punishing in the repertoire, came down with bronchitis. A strong Siegfried is always tough to find; to dig up one on short notice requires nearly miraculous luck. That's exactly what the company enjoyed, locating American tenor Scott Mac Allister in Germany and getting him here late in the game with Valkyrie-like speed.

That still wasn't fast enough, though, to allow MacAllister time to learn all the blocking, so, in the best show-must-go-on tradition, the replacement sang on the side of the stage while the original tenor, Par Lindskog, acted the part and mouthed the words. It turned out to be a lot more satisfying than anyone had a right to expect.

Vocally, MacAllister sailed through the assignment with only the occasional, relatively minor sign of strain. This was a remarkably sensitive performance, with lots of tonal shading and downright exquisite phrasing in places, rather than the relentless barking that so often takes the place of Wagnerian singing these days. And Lindskog revealed such a flair for ...

the physical demands of the role that the drama emerged remarkably well under the circumstances. Assuming he recovers from his throat ailment before the end of the run, it would be fascinating to hear what he does vocally to complement such an assured and involving characterization.

Siegfried, of course, is the physically imposing, if mentally dim, hero destined to redeem the world, in the wake of the havoc wrought by various folks who covet a mighty ring that promises unlimited power. In WNO's so-called American Ring Cycle, a re-imagining of the German mythology through a prism of our experience, Siegfried becomes an archetype of the fearless, muscled American who doesn't hesitate to challenge old ways and ideas, who will take on any obstacle in the search for what he believes to be his destiny.

The concept developed for this Ring by director Francesca Zambello has already produced an intriguing, mostly convincing Das Rheingold and a striking Die Walkure. Siegfried proved on Saturday to be as theatrically compelling as it was musically satisfying. Her approach to the fourth and final part, Gotterdammerung, which was to have been unveiled next season, along with a presentation of all four operas, has been postponed due to financial constraints; it's likely to pack quite a punch when it finally takes the stage. (It will be offered in concert form next season.)

Zambello can always be counted on to bring provocative ideas to a project. Even when you disagree with a choice, you can't help but admire the vision involved. For me, almost everything about her Siegfried clicked; the plot has been freshly, provocatively energized.

Michael Yeargan's sets complement Zambello's vision at every turn, right from the opening sight of a crumbling trailer in a kind of rural wasteland, where, instead of trees, ugly power lines reach up toward a stormy sky. Even more blighted is the spot where the giant Fafner guards his treasure, transformed into an urban nightmare version of a dragon -- a motorized earth-mover-type thing with huge claws (Siegfried "slays" the machine by severing what looks like it's oil line). Very cool.

There's a globally warmed, post-apocalyptic air about the sets, conjuring up the image of a world nearly done in by all of humankind's mistakes, a world dying for a heroic jolt of selflessness. If the final scene is a bit of a let down -- it looks like the pilot light went out on the magic fire that is supposed to surround the sleeping Brunnhilde -- the cumulative visual impact of the staging remains considerable. Catherine Zuber's character-revealing costumes and Mark McCullough's insightful lighting design complete the picture.

Obviously, all of this would mean little if the musical end of things fell short. On Saturday, MacAllister's noble effort was not the only vocal plus. Irene Theorin, as Brunnhilde, went awry on the most forceful high notes, but there was a good amount of glint in the soprano's voice. Andreas Conrad sang the role of the wicked ring-coveting Mime with a panache that matched his dead-on characterization. Alan Held did not produce the depth of sound ideal for Wotan (a.k.a. the Wanderer, after a round of cosmic lay-offs), but, as usual with this hard-working bass-baritone, he sang with an expressive impact. Gordon Hawkins poured out the tonal gold as Alberich. Although Gidon Saks was a few watts short on power as Fafner, his phrasing hit home forcefully. Nancy Maultsby's vibrato got a bit in the way, but she sang Erda's music urgently. Bright-voiced Micaela Oeste showed promise as the Woodbird.

Throughout the long evening (Siegfried packs in more than fours hours of music), the performance enjoyed superb guidance from conductor Michael Guttler, who managed to make the opera fly by, without ever seeming rushed. He emphasized the structural integrity of the score, built masterfully to emotional peaks, lavished subtlety on the most reflective passages. And he drew from the orchestra impressively committed, deeply sonorous playing that easily compensated for any frayed edges.

There are four performances left. Tickets are said to be scarce, but gaining admission would be well worth the effort.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (1)

Opera Vivente offers appealing production of Britten's 'Albert Herring'

Opera Vivente Albert HerringOpera Vivente is closing its season this week with a nimble, engaging production of Benjamin Britten's comic gem, Albert Herring, one of the strongest productions I've seen from the company.

For those who know Britten only by his high-drama masterpieces, such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, the lighthearted, yet pointed, Albert Herring is well worth knowing. The plot is deceptively simple: In the spring of 1900, efforts by the upstanding social rulers of an English town to find a May Queen are stymied by the less-than-pure state of the female candidates. Attention turns to a meek, mother-dominated shopkeeper, who reluctantly accepts the honor of being named the first May King. But things go awry when Albert's buddies decide he needs to spread his wings a bit.

Eric Crozier's witty, satirical libretto is matched with some of Britten's cleverest music, where practically every melodic fragment, harmonic shift and instrumental color has something significant to say.

The opening night performance Friday in the hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church did have a serious flaw ...

-- mushy articulation by most of the singers, preventing the colorful dialog from fully registering. But that liability proved tolerable in light of so many virtues, starting with the remarkably thorough staging by Eric Gibson, artistic director of Light Opera Oklahoma (Herring is a rare production not guided by Opera Vivente general director John Bowen). Gibson has ensured that every character registers multi-dimensionally, and that the whole ensemble interacts deftly. There's a lot of visual detail, a lot of charm at work, all aided by Mary Bova's stylish costumes and the economical, yet nicely evocative, set by Thom Bumblauskas.

Led with a secure grasp by JoAnn Kulesza, the orchestra coped quite decently on Friday with the considerable challenges of the score; the winds and brass were especially telling in the Act 2 Interlude. The weight of the orchestral sound no doubt sometimes cut into the ability of the cast to project words (every Vivente outing loses something acoustically from the absence of a pit), but I still think this was mostly just another example of the bad habit many American singers have of failing to enunciate their own language cleanly. 

Adam Caughey, in the title role, was one of the more successful in the articulation department. The tenor's voice proved fairly strong and he put a good deal of nuance in his phrasing; his assured acting caught Albert's endearingly naive quality. Christopher Herbert, as Albert's buddy Sid, took top marks for clarity of text. The baritone also produced a consistently warm sound, phrased colorfully and used his natural theatrical skills to great advantage.

Jennifer Root bellowed powerfully in a knowing portrayal of the pretentious Lady Billows, but a tonal harshness took a toll. Jessica Renfro (Nancy), Leah Inger (Miss Wordsworth), Dina Martire (Florence Pike), Will Heim (Vicar), James Bailey (Mayor), Jennifer Blades (Mrs. Herring) and Jeffrey Tarr (Police Superintendent) sang dynamically, if not always with tonal smoothness, and were fully into their characters. The roles of the three children were filled spiritedly by Austin Nikirk, Veronica Page and Collin Power.

Remaining performances are Thursday and Saturday.

Next season, Opera Vivente plans productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Rossini's Cinderella, as well as Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, which the company tackled a few seasons ago using substantially reduced orchestration.  


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

Baltimore Symphony principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn heading to Cincinnati Symphony

The Cincinnati Symphony has named Ilya Finkelshteyn as its next principal cellist, starting with the 2009-2010 season.

Since 2002, he has been principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony, appointed by then-music director Yuri Temirkanov. Finkelshteyn had previously been a member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

In a statement released by the Cincinnati Symphony, Finkelshteyn said he is "very excited to be joining" the orchestra. “It has a distinguished list of principal cellists and it is an honor to uphold this illustrious tradition," he said. Referring to a guest appearance with that ensemble in March, he added: "From the first moments of playing with Maestro Paavo Järvi and the members of CSO, it was apparent to me that Cincinnati is a place where artistry flourishes. I am looking forward to a long and fruitful collaboration." 

That March program included Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. "The heart of this concerto is its songful slow movement, with its beautiful cello solo," wrote Cincinnati Enquirer critic Janelle Gelfand. "Guest cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, principal cello of the Baltimore Symphony, unveiled a radiant tone and the intimate collaboration with pianist and orchestra glowed."

The cellist's technical skill and superb musicality have made him one of the BSO's finest assets, and he has also been a frequent performer of chamber music in the Baltimore area. He has performed as soloist with several orchestras, including the BSO.

Finkelshteyn will be a tough act to follow.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:17 AM | | Comments (2)

Stay tuned for reviews of action-packed weekend in Baltimore, D.C.

Detailed reviews from the weekend coming soon to this site:

1) Dynamic production of Britten's sly Albert Herring from Opera Vivente Friday night; one of the most cohesive and satisfying stagings I've seen from the company yet (mushy diction excepted).

2) Theatrically compelling, musically satisfying production of Wagner's Siegfried from Washington National Opera Saturday night, a milestone for the company and further affirmation of the power behind the 'American' Ring concept. So what if the bronchitis-stricken tenor in the title role could only mouth the words as he cavorted about the stage?

3) The BSO hit another of its peaks this season Sunday afternoon with an enriching performance of Bruckner's Third Symphony, led incisively by Mario Venzago. Nelson Freire's authoritative account of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, not to mention the sublime Gluck/Sgambati encore, added to the occasion.

4) Flutist Emmanuel Pahud, harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock and cellist Jonathan Manson brought refined musicality and lots of good, old-fashioned virtuosity to a mostly-Bach program Sunday evening at Shriver Hall. 

5) The Chamber Music by Candlelight series at Second Pres Sunday night included the premiere of an attractive Walt Whitman-inspired work by BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl and a sensitive account of Schumann's Piano Quartet (too bad about the screaming kid in the audience).

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:26 AM | | Comments (0)

May 2, 2009

Baltimore couple promise new grand opera company next season

Just in case you missed it, check out my Saturday story about the ambitious Baltimore couple planning to start a new grand opera company here next season. I suspect that lots of stories will be generated by these two colorful people -- and probably others in the area with similar aspiriations -- as the months go by. Stay tuned.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:39 PM | | Comments (3)

May 1, 2009

Another musical antidote for the recession, plus swine flu, infrastructure collapse, whatever

Another week is drawing to a close, having produced many a worry. The Great Recession continued to gnaw away (including very close to home, journalistically speaking). The Great Infrastructure Danger hit Baltimore hard in the form of massive water main breaks. And then there's the Swine flu panic. What's next? Locusts?

As always, music can provide some relief for whatever ails us. I sought this week's antidote in the works of one of my all-time faves, Francis Poulenc. The middle movement of his captivating Concerto for Two Pianos seems to strike just the right chords, combining nostalgia and bittersweetness with a taste of exquisite beauty to keep the spirits going. It doesn't last long, so feel free to hit the re-play button as often as needed. This particular performance features the composer as one of the pianists; the other is Jacques FĂ©vrier. George Pretre conducts.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 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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