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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)


Nerve, imagination and talent -- you said it. I was enthralled with the performance.

Thanks for the comment. Next season is bound to be just as cool. TIM

A great performance. A great series. Where else are you going to hear this stuff (other than recordings)? Many thanks to the organizers and performers. Babbitt, Stockhausen, Varese... Wow! What a series.


Tim Smith, I have just discovered your blog and do enjoy your writing, especially about new music. I want to encourage you to check out the contemporary music being nurtured at the University of Maryland/Baltimore County which of course is in the Sun's bailiwick -- right in Catonsville. Our small 160-student department is regularly producing contemporary programming and our faculty are active composers, performers and music technologists. Please include us in your Baltimore Area Resources. And note that two just-graduates from our Certificate Program in Contemporary American Music are performing May 14 at An Die Musik in a program of Japanese and American new music for clarinet and percussion. And our New Music Ensemble performs the night before with a program featuring mid-20th century composers Britten and Shostakovich among others. We'd be delighted if you'd check out these concerts. Thanks--
Anna Rubin, faculty composer
check out the dept at

Thanks for writing. I know that it has been a while, but I've actually reviewed quite a few new music events at UMBC over the years. I think it's great that the department is so alive with contemporary music. The problem of being a one-man operation is scheduling (and stamina), but I'll do my best to get out there again.TIM

great post

just wanted to add to anna's comment that yet another umbc-related concert is coming up - the UMBC Composers Concert at An Die Musik on Wednesday, May 27th. for anyone interested in [new] new music [of any kind], this is definitely worth checking out.


Thanks for the info.TIM

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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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