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June 30, 2009

Baltimore Opera Theatre to debut with 'Barber,' 'Rigoletto' at Hippodrome

Baltimore Opera Theatre, recently formed by seasoned impresarios Giorgio Lalov and his wife, Jenny Kelly, will present its debut season at the Hippodrome -- full staged performances of Rossini's The Barber of Seville (Nov. 22) and Verdi's Rigoletto (March 11). Casting details have not been announced, but there is news about the orchestra and chorus.

From a press release: "It is the goal of Baltimore Opera Theatre to engage only local musicians and chorus. For the first season, however, as the young company is developing a local orchestra and chorus, as well as funding, the company will engage the Sofia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus augmented by local musicians and chorus. Baltimore Opera Theatre also plans to present touring ballet and other major international dance ensembles." (Lalov founded the touring opera company Teatro Lirico d'Europa, which uses predominantly European artists.)

A locally based conductor, J. Ernest Green, will lead the Barber performance; Lalov will be ...

the stage director for that production. Jan Jozef Wnek will conduct Rigoletto.

The Hippodrome's dry acoustics, which Teatro Lirico discovered a few years ago when that company offered a performance of Don Giovanni there, will be handled with modest amplification. "No bodies will have mics," Kelly writes in an email. "No one's voice will be manipulated in any way."  

Tickets for the Opera Theatre of Baltimore presentations will be prived from $25 to $75; they are expected to go on on sale later in July. Also from the press release: "Other performances may be added to the season if additional dates become available at the Hippodrome Theatre. It is the goal of the Baltimore Opera Theatre to grow into a larger season as the company progresses."

Lalov and Kelly have deciced not to offer opera in concert form at the Meyerhoff during the inaugural season of Opera Theatre of Baltimore, as originally contemplated.    


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:34 PM | | Comments (8)

Summer Chamber Music in Roland Park to open with Mozart, Ravel

Music is inevitably a little less plentiful around here once the hot months arrive, but you can always find something to hear.

A fresh batch of off-season fare for 2009 arrives via the free Summer Chamber Music in Roland Park, which starts at 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, June 30) at Roland Park Presbyterian, 4801 Roland Ave. The program lists the exquisite Clarinet Quintet by Mozart and Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and strings. A piece for flute and harp by contemporary composer Bernard Andres is also scheduled.

Performers include fine local talent: harpist Julia Martin, flutist David Lavorgna, clarinetist David Drosinos, violinists Melina Gajger and Tamara Seymour, violist Jackie Capecci, and cellist Kirsten Walsh.

The series will ...

continue on subsequent Tuesday evenings. The Lyric Brass Quintet play Bach and more on July 7. Music by Schubert, including his Octet and some lieder, will be the focus on July 14; soprano Fatima Petersen will be featured. The series wraps up July 21 with the enticing pairing of the Piano Quintet by Vaughan Williams and the original chamber version of Copland's Appalachian Spring.  
Posted by Tim Smith at 3:15 PM | | Comments (0)

Remembering Judy Garland

I couldn't let the month end without acknowledging one of the historic anniversaries being observed -- the 40th year since Judy Garland died (June 22, 1969).

I think of her as the Maria Callas of pop music, as nakedly emotional and, eventually, as technically flawed, yet totally irresistible right to the end.

In her later years, Garland's ability to dig beneath the surface of a song was astonishing, nowhere more so than ...

in the melancholy ballad "A Cottage for Sale."

If you've never seen this clip from the singer's CBS TV series, get your hanky ready. It doesn't get better or truer than this. Just the way Garland takes that short, sudden breath  before the word "for" in her last phrase speaks as compelling as every note that she sings. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 AM | | Comments (3)

June 29, 2009

Lorin Maazel's tenure at helm of NY Philharmonic ends with Mahler's mighty 8th Symphony

Lorin MaazelPlease excuse the delay in blogging, cherished readers. I snuck off to Argentina for a couple days, having heard there were great hiking trails down there. But I flew back via New York in time to  catch a significant event Saturday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

There, before a packed, vociferously enthusiastic crowd, Lorin Maazel wrapped up his seven year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in appropriately grand fashion, leading Mahler's gargantuan Symphony No. 8.

Although discouraging words in the press about Maazel's tenure were not exactly rare over the years, the orchestra seems to have relished the association with one of the world's most brilliant technicians of the baton. Even Maazel's critics usually will grant that he commands a podium as few conductors can. It's his interpretive approach that bothers some folks. The most common complaints are ...

micromanagement and emotional detachment. While I certainly haven't heard a zillion Maazel performances, I've heard a decent share, and I've got to say I've always come away impressed. This Mahler 8 was no exception.

Nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand because roughly that many performers took part in the 1910 premiere, this score requires an enormous skill set from any conductor. Just holding chorus, soloists and orchestra together takes more than a little ability; making sense of it all, delivering a statement that resonates far beyond the merely sonic, requires great incisiveness.

I'll readily grant that Maazel did not deliver, say, the kind of expressive roller-coaster that someone like Bernstein (not that there was ever anyone like Bernstein) could, especially in Part I, the uplifting setting of the ancient text Veni, creator spiritus. Maazel never let that music really rip with the sort of punch that can create a sense of surprise and total spontaneity, but his control of the massive sonic palette was awfully effective just the same.

Where he really showed his stuff was in Part II, Mahler's extraordinary treatment of the final scene of Goethe's Faust. Maazel made the long orchestral introduction terrifically suspenseful and truly absorbing, each pizzicato note from the low strings taking on enormous poetic weight, and the burst of tremolos from the violins creating a really gripping effect. There was just as much to savor once the voices entered the picture again, for the conductor was attentive to the sculpting of each curve and leap of phrase.

Throughout the evening, Maazel drew splendid playing from the Philharmonic, as compelling in the quietest moments as the most thunderous. (What a finely tuned ensemble he passes on to his successor, Alan Gilbert.) The evening also benefitted greatly from the superbly disciplined and richly responsive work of the New York Choral Artists, Dessoff Symphonic Choir and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

The eight soloists were not uniformly equipped for the considerable challenge, but each of them inhabited the music so thoroughly that any strain in the highest reaches could be overlooked. A Mahler 8 that can boast the gleaming voice of soprano Christine Brewer and eloquent phrasing of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is doing very well indeed. Highly satisfying, too, were sopranos Nancy Gustafson and Jeanine De Bique and mezzo Mary Phillips. 

All in all, a memorable experience, guided wiith calm authority and infused with a certain sense of nobility.

The stunning volume that Maazel unleashed in the coda to the nearly 90-minute performance was met with nearly as loud a roar from the crowd, which reserved its heartiest cheers for the conductor's solo bows. The Philharmonic players applauded vigorously as well. I suspect they're going to miss him.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (3)

June 26, 2009

National Symphony Orchestra, led by Andreas Delfs, offers soaring Strauss songs with Karita Mattila

Karita MattilaThe originally scheduled season-ending National Symphony program this week was to have included the orchestra's first performances of Strauss' Three Hymns and Rautavaara's Manhattan Trilogy, along with a more standard item by Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra. When Finnish-born conductor Mikko Franck had to cancel and German-born Andreas Delfs took the gig, only Zarauthstra remained on the lineup.

Losing those rarities is a pity, to be sure, but the revised program is eminently appealing nonetheless. For one thing, the substitution for Three Hymns is the same composer's Four Last Songs, and I'll never complain about hearing them; they're right up near the top of my absolute favorite pieces of music. And, happily, the soloist hasn't changed -- the striking Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who's plenty of a draw on her own. Taking the Rautavaara slot is ...

The Walk to Paradise Garden from the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius, repertoire that hardly comes around every day on local concert stages. Like I said, all very appealing.

So, for the most part, was the music-making Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. (There will be repeats Friday and Saturday.)

Mattila's account of Strauss' swan songs was particularly impressive for the weight and solidity of her tone. Others may produce subtler shades in these pieces, but Mattila filled the concert hall with a gleaming sound the rode easily above the lush orchestration. And excellent breath control allowed her to sculpt long phrases with ease.

Andreas DelfsInterpretively, if a little more nuance would have been welcome, the soprano communicated the twilight-filtered texts quite powerfully just the same. Delfs handled his side of things persuasively; his spacious treatment of the orchestral close to Im Abendrot, that sublime, closing-of-the-eyes passage, gave particular pleasure. The NSO, fresh from its visit to China and Korea, encountered a rough patch or two, but produced a fundamentally rich sound and phrased with admirable expressive warmth. 

There was much to savor in Zarathustra as well. Delfs had the score unfolding vividly. The strings summoned a good deal of sheen and vibrancy; the woodwinds and brass did some very potent work. This was quite a hot performance that should get even tighter in the subsequent concerts.

It was delightful to hear the Delius score, which has its own nearly Straussian lyricism, with some Debussy-like refinement of palette. The composer deserves much more attention, and this gentle, unhurried performance offered a keen reminder of what we're missing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)

June 25, 2009

English composer Peter Maxwell Davies to write opera about Parliament scandal

Leave it to Peter Maxwell Davies, great British composer, to find operatic inspiration in the financial scandal rocking Parliament -- all those MPs filing bogus expense claims, including the famous moat-cleaning one. Davies is putting his outrage about the mess into a comic opera, because "these people are a public disgrace and deserve to be publicly disgraced on stage. The bankers are also in for a rough ride in the work, too." Can't wait.

Now, what American composer will step up with a comic opera about Gov. Sanford?

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:25 PM | | Comments (1)

Rewarding encounters with film scores by George Antheil and Garth Neustadter

Summertime means that orchestras turn all pops-y, with inevitable concerts featuring movie score hits. Of course, 9 times out of 10, that means John Williams. I was reminded of this a moment ago when a press release arrived for the BSO's July 25 all-Williams program at Oregon Ridge. Not that I have anything against Williams, mind you. Or, for that matter, Bernard Herrmann, whose Psycho music the orchestra will play in sync with the film July 9. An all-Herrmann concert would be fine with me any time, especially if it included excerpts from the nearly Wagnerian Vertigo score.

But, lately, I've been thinking about a couple of other film composers, one I had forgotten about, the other new to me. Thanks to TCM, the only cable station that we couldn't live without at our house (we keep a little TV set in the kitchen that has a broken off switch tuned to TCM 24 hours a day -- if we get broken into it, we want the burglars to know we have great taste), I've made two cool discoveries this week. Both of the films we DVRd from TCM have yet to be issued on DVD. One of these is ...

a deliciously dark, the-1950s-weren't-so-great-after-all goody called The Sniper, directed by a just-off-the-black-list Edward Dmytryk. Deranged man shoots innocent women in San Francisco 'cause, well, he's got issues.

The coolest thing for me is the film score by American bad-boy composer George Antheil. This is the guy who shocked the hell out of the musical establishment in the 1920s with such works as Ballet mecanique, which incorporated airplane propellers, eight pianos and heaps of percussion. At some point, Antheil made it to Hollywood, where money was to be made. Interesting friends, too. He teamed up with bombshell Hedy Lamarr to develop a torpedo/radar thing that got patented during WWII. Antheil, who died in 1959, didn't do a lot of musical shocking in his final years, but, judging by The Sniper, he turned out some very decent movie music.

You know a pro is at work in the scene when the sniper's second victim is about to meet her unexpected end while going about mundane business after returning to her apartment. Instead of a lot of spooky music putting the tension into overdrive, just a single chord is quietly sustained, on and on, until the glass-shattering rifle shot. The rest of the score may not be that inspired, but it's effective all the way through. So for that matter is the film. Yeah, the plot is creepy (it has an enlightened-for-its-time ending, though), and I took some grief from my partner Robert for making him sit through it. But it's a taut little souvenir of its time. Great location shooting in San Francisco, too.

Robert needed a change of cinematic pace after that one, and found it, again thanks to TCM, in The White Sister, a silent epic from 1923 with Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman, about a young woman who becomes a nun when she thinks her lover has been killed. I haven't had a chance to see all of it yet, but Robert (doubtless one of the world's most passionate silent movie buffs) insisted that I see a chunk of it last night and I'm glad he did. It proved compelling visually, dramatically and musically. The freshly composed score is by Garth Neustadter, a Lawrence University student who was one of the winners of TCM's 2007 Young Film Composers Competition. The guy's a natural, as his soaring love theme for The White Sister makes plain (there's a brief video clip of the composer playing it).

Silent films -- the cinematic equivalent of grand opera in many ways -- require so much music, and it can't be easy to avoid a kind of musical doodling in between big scenes. Judging by what I've heard of this effort, Neustadter clearly knows how to keep the score interesting and telling. There have to be dozens of silent films in need of new musical care. I hope he gets a chance to enhance a whole bunch of them.

Which brings me back to orchestral concerts. One of the best events the BSO has done in recent years was showing Chaplin's City Lights with live orchestral soundtrack conducted lovingly by Marin Alsop. That early 2008 presentation should have been followed up with another such attraction by now. The fusion of an artful silent film with a live, rich orchestral score is a fabulous form of entertainment -- perfect summer fare, by the way.

And after we get another silent movie treat, how about a George Antheil celebration? There ought to be some cool propellers around here somewhere.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:37 AM | | Comments (1)

June 24, 2009

Wagner's great-granddaughter says she'll bare family secrets about Hitler and Bayreuth Festival

Things have sure been interesting at the Bayreuth Festival since Wagner's great-granddaughter Katherina, a controversial stage director, took over as co-director less than a year ago.

She may shake things up more than anyone expected if she carries through on the promises reported by the Guardian the other day. She wants to unlock all the secrets about the close ties that bind the history of her family and the festival with Hitler and the Nazi regime. Stay tuned.

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

A salute to Terry Riley, godfather of minimalism, on his 74th birthday

It’s time for another birthday salute, this one to Terry Riley, godfather of minimalism. He turns 74 today (June 24).

For years, I was pathetically unaware of his importance in shaping a musical genre that I find irresistible. By the time I became cognizant of minimalism in the early 1980s, the big names were Glass, Reich and Adams. I would read references to Riley in liner or program notes, but, being sadly uneducated at the time (I was practically still in swaddling clothes, after all), I didn’t bother to investigate. Besides, I never came across performances of Riley’s music back then, so I probably assumed that his stylistic descendants were all that really mattered. As the Countess de Lave in The Women might say, with a deep sigh: La naïveté! la naïveté! 

Anyway, I eventually came to see the error of my ways. A couple years ago ...

I even got to experience a New York concert by Riley. Looking like a mystic in his skull cap and long white beard, he made enthralling, disarmingly contented music.

Were it not for Riley’s bold broadside in 1964, the ever-potent composition In C, we might never have witnessed the explosion of minimalism that, in various guises, is still with us. I’ve never lost my initial attraction to minimalists, even while retaining great appreciation for thorny, atonal works by many brilliant maximalists, not to mention pieces in any number of other styles. I guess I just love the refreshing change of pace and pulse and purpose that minimalism provides.

And I now feel what I should have felt all those years ago in my dark ages – deep gratitude for the man who ignited the minimalist revolution.

To celebrate Riley’s 74th birthday, here are excertps from a few distinctive interpretations of that iconic piece, In C.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)

June 23, 2009

Artist places pianos all over London, inviting spontaneous music-making

Luke Jerram has put a whole new spin on the phrase "performance art." The artist has placed 30 "street pianos" all over London in public spaces -- street corners, markets, train stations, squares and parks. Each has its own distinctive decoration, a song book and ...

Luke Jerraman invitation: "Play Me -- I'm Yours."

Jerram, who has introduced the art work in a Sydney and Sao Paulo, likens the project to "a creative blank canvas" that gets filled in by passersby. In a BBC interview, the artist elaborates: "Questioning the ownership and rules of public space, Play Me I'm Yours is a provocation, inviting the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment."

At the end of the display, July 13, the instruments will be"donated to local schools and community groups."

The concept is intriguing, at the very least, and the minds reels at the thought of how it might be applied to the streets of, say, Baltimore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (4)

Music in the Great Hall announces 2009-10 season and new artistic director

Music in the Great Hall, the chamber series held at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, will open its 36th season with a new artistic director. Lura Johnson, a fine pianist and teacher, succeeds another fine pianist and teacher, Adam Mahonske, who, five years ago, succeeded the founder of the series, yet another fine pianist and teacher, Virginia Reinecke.

"I'm really delighted to be asked to come on board," says Johnson, who studied at Peabody with Leon Fleisher and performs regularly throughout the Baltimore/DC area. "I have lots of ideas for bringing in more people to experience really well-performed chamber music."

"She's incredible," Reinecke says of the new artistic director. The organization "is really going to take off now."   

Mahonske programmed the 2009-2010 season before stepping down recently (Johnson's programming imprint will be felt the next year). The series opens with ...

the colorful baroque ensemble Harmonious Blacksmith performing works by Handel.

Pianist Clipper Erickson will focus on American music in his recital. Another recitalist, Hans Kristian Goldstein, a cellist who won the Yale Gordon/Peabody Concerto Competition, will play works by Bach, Brahms, Ligeti and others.

The excellent mezzo Delores Ziegler will offer lieder by Robert and Clara Schumann, as well as Brahms. And Qing Li, the BSO's principal second violin, will be accompanied by Mahonske in a season-closing recital that features Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:14 AM | | Comments (0)

June 22, 2009

Just found another Web treasure: Schoenberg conducting Schoenberg and Mahler

Arnold Schoenberg CenterMusic lovers could spend every waking hour exploring the Web for aural treasure and never run out of discoveries. I feel I've barely scratched the surface, especially of material that is beyond even what YouTube has to offer, which is pretty staggering by itself.

Thanks to a friend in Florida, I just learned about a fabulous audio archive available for free listening, courtesy of the Arnold Schoenberg Center (left) in Vienna. If, like me, you didn't know about this site (please cut me some slack if you're way ahead of me), don't miss all the historic clips from the 1920s-'50s, a few of them with Schoenberg conducting. The items that really jumped out at me when I clicked into this trove for the first time are ...

from a concert recorded live in 1934 in Los Angeles, featuring the Cadillac Symphony. Schoenberg conducts the Lied der Waldtaube from his epic Gurrelieder with the great mezzo Rose Bampton as soloist -- a gripping souvenir.

But an even shinier gem from this concert, at least for me, is the clip of Schoenberg leading the orchestra in the second movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 2. Astonishing. Never mind the surface noise or the brief gap in the tape; those are minor distractions. What you have here is an entry point into a long-lost world of sensitivity to rhythmic nuance, a place where music is a living, breathing organism unconfined by bar lines or metronomes. This is exquisite phrase-molding from a composer who knew and deeply admired Mahler. Talk about an authenticity movement.

Anyway, there are several other fascinating items on this site, which I've only begun to explore. I heartily recommend that you dig in, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 AM | | Comments (1)

June 21, 2009

A vocal salute to Father's Day

For your listening/viewing pleasure on Father's Day, here are a couple passages from opera that are all about fatherly love and how it gets tested. (And here's a shout-out to my own fantastic father, Ken Smith, in Northern Virginia. Thanks for everything, including that joke you remembered yesterday and cracked up telling.) 

One of the most moving musical expressions of fatherly love pours forth in Wotan's Farewell from the finale of Wagner's Die Walkure, when the angry god must punish his disobedient daughter, but clearly cannot banish her from his heart. Since I'm in Baltimore, I just have to choose a performance by ...

Baltimore native James Morris, a wonderfully sensitive Wotan.

After the Wagner, there's the melting O mio babbino caro from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, sung by a daughter turning on the sweetest of the sweet-talk to persuade her father to grant her desire. What father could resist this plea to 'daddy dear'? As for choosing among the many video options, I couldn't resist a particulaly lush, very slow performance by the indelible Montserrat Caballe.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:20 AM | | Comments (1)

June 20, 2009

Violinist David Garrett, latest crossover sensation, focus of special airing on MPT

Count on a new crossover sensation every year or so, and count on American audiences being introduced to same during pledge drives on PBS. David Garrett is the latest example.

The German-born fiddler was mentored by the extraordinary violinist Ida Haendel in his early years and earned some money modeling while studying at Juilliard (his rugged, dress-down looks continue to play a part in his popularity). His "Live from Berlin" concert is getting air play in the States this season, including at MPT, which will air it at ...

noon and 8 p.m. today (Saturday the 20th); also 10:30 p.m. today and noon Sunday (the 21st) on MPT2.

Garrett likes to mix classical, or at least light classical, with rock and pop covers in his concerts. Although I can't say I've been overwhelmed by what I've heard so far, it's easy to understand how Garrett would gain a following.

To give you a little taste of the live show, here's the promo for it, plus a more revealing performance in a traditional concet hall setting, without the light show and orchestral support. I have to say I like the fact that a young violinist in our day will even think about playing something as deliciously old-fashioned as Zigeunerweisen, so I give Garrett high marks just for programming it. I also think he's got the chops and a good deal of the style for it, too.



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:39 AM | | Comments (0)

June 19, 2009

Sing along with Mozart at Cathedral Choral Society's performance of his Requiem

Ordinarily, one of the worst things that can happen at a classical concert is when someone in the audience starts singing or humming along to the music. But that's the desired outcome on Sunday, when the excellent Cathedral Choral Society performs Mozart's Requiem in the exquisite vastness of Washington National Cathedral.

The audience is invited to chime in for all the choral passages as J. Reilly Lewis conducts the stirring, noble score that Mozart did not live to complete. The solos will be sung by soprano Laura Lewis, mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, tenor Robert Petillo and bass James Shaffran. The $10 admission fee includes rental of a score for this sing-along-with-Mozart event, which starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:58 AM | | Comments (1)

June 18, 2009

River Concert Series in St. Mary's City to open with salute to Maryland's 375th birthday

River Concert SeriesSummertime means outdoor music, which will be served in considerable quantity and variety at the free River Concert Series, presented by St. Mary's College of Maryland.

The 11th annual riparian festival opens June 19-20 with a salute to the state's 375th birthday. On Friday, the Chesapeake Orchestra -- made up of professionals from around the region -- will perform Dvorak's New World Symphony, conducted by music director Jeffrey Silberschlag. The program also includes works from the early 1600s, the time when St. Mary's City was founded; these will feature several trumpeters, among them BSO principal trumpet Andrew Balio and veteran British musician John Wallace. And Scottish soprano Marie Claire Breen will sing music from the era of Maryland's founding.

There's still more on Friday: O'Malley's March, the Celtic rock band fronted by the state's governor, Martin O'Malley; and the premiere of Terrae Mariae: A Creation Story, a work for narrators and orchestra by Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis that incorporates texts by early Maryland settlers.

The new piece, as well as the music from the 1600s, will be performed again on Saturday's program, which also features ...

Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist in Barber's lush Violin Concerto and arrangements of popular American songs. The concert closes with Handel's Royal Fireworks Music and, of course, actual fireworks over the St. Mary's River.

The series continues June 26 with Silberschlag conducting the Chesapeake Orchestra in Beethoven's Fourth and Copland's Third, with a flute concerto by Haydn in between (Giuseppe Nova, soloist). Fireworks return on July 3, when Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture will be featured. Tchaikovsky's Fifth is the big work on July 17; principal players from the Maryland Youth Symphony will be showcased in concertos.

Two hefty classics are on tap July 24: Ein Heldenleben by Strauss and Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms (with Maurizio Moretti). American music is the focus of the finale July 31: Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (with Brian Ganz), and two clarinet-centered pieces that don't come around every day -- Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and Artie Shaw's Clarinet Concerto (with clarinetist Giampiero Sobrino).

All concerts are at 7 p.m. and admission is free. Bring your blankets and picnics.

As you can see, the River Concert Series, which you might think of as Southern Maryland's version of Wolf Trap, offers a remarkable lineup of honest-to-goodness classical music, especially compared to what the Baltimore Symphony has in store this summer (don't get me started).

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (2)

June 17, 2009

A birthday salute to Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky, one of the greatest -- many would say the greatest -- composer of the 20th century, was born 127 years ago, June 17, 1882.

To mark the occasion, here are two musical salutes (thanks again, YouTube). First up, video of Stravinsky conducting the conclusion of his Firebird at the age of 82, filmed in London in 1965. It's a sensational performance, if you ask me. Note the wonderfully clipped chords in the coda, just to mention one distinctive element. After that ... 

an audio-only clip of the Kyrie from his Mass.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (5)

Italian teen trio picks up mantle of the Three Tenors

While hardly rivaling the YouTube view totals for Paul Potts, the operatic surprise of Britain's Got Talent a few years ago (54 million), or Susan Boyle, this year's phenomenon from that show (68 million), three disarming teens from Italy have been generating a bit of a buzz over the past few weeks for their version of O sole mio on a popular TV show -- 1.7 million YouTube views and counting. (That show, Ti lascio una canzone, promotes the preservation of classic Italian popular music.)

The trio delivers essentially the same version of the beloved Neapolitan song made famous by the storied Three Tenors, and, assuming you're susceptible to that sort of thing, the performance has much the same appeal.

At 14 and 15, these guys aren't ready for operatic singing, and they may not have any interests in that direction. But they certainly reveal potential, especially Gianluca Ginoble (the one in the middle), at least for the pop and crossover market.

Anyway, the performance does provide a certain lift, especially with more than enough gloom and uncertainty out there in the world. (Oh yeah, and for fanciers of cleavage ...

the TV host who introduces the trio will provide, um, extra distraction.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (7)

June 16, 2009

Concert opera organization to see if Baltimore's Got Talent, via public auditions

Baltimore Concert Opera is taking a page from American Idol, Britain's Got Talent and all that sort of thing to hold open auditions for singers before a live audience that will have its opinions taken into account.

The organization, directed by baritone Brendan Cooke, debuted this season at the Engineers Club, where operas are presented in concert form with piano accompaniment; the 2009-10 season will open with Gounod's Faust. The auditions will also be held at the club.

Singers interested in strutting their operatic stuff should be prepared to ...

perform two arias (an accompanist will be provided). Audiences members might want to practice cheering, screaming and jumping out of their seats -- although I assume they will hold such behavior until after each performance, unlike the TV mobs driven insane by any note more than an octave above middle C or any wailing melisma that exceeds 10 seconds.

There's a $10 fee for auditioners and spectators to defray expenses of the auditions, which are scheduled at 7 p.m. July 13 and 14.  Singers are asked to submit an application in advance.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:33 AM | | Comments (4)

A birthday tribute to the late tenor Jerry Hadley

June 16 would have been Jerry Hadley's 57th birthday. The gifted American tenor died two summers ago, apparently from a self-inflicted gun shot. Here's a reminder of the artistry he brought to the music world at his best, an eloquently phrased account of Un'aura amorosa from a 1996 performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:45 AM | | Comments (1)

June 15, 2009

Nation's Report Card on the Arts for 2008 released

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released on Monday the Nation's Report Card on the Arts for 2008, the first such report since 1997.

Not surprisingly, the results reveal room for improvement in arts education. The League of American Orchestras reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the results of the report card "remind us that the arts are a core academic subject and part of a complete education for all students. The arts are also important to American students gaining the 21st century skills they will need to succeed in higher education and the global marketplace ... This Arts Report Card should challenge all of us to make K-12 arts programs more available to America's children and youth ... We can and should do better for America's students."

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:17 PM | | Comments (2)

Report suggests that young audiences for classical music are booming in France

You may want to have your Morton's salt box handy, but the ever-provocative Norman Lebrecht recently wrote a column on his ArtsJournal blog that cites a survey revealing the average age of concert- opera-goers in France to be 32. That would make audiences over there way younger than on this side of the Atlantic, where the prospect of bringing huge numbers of under-40s to symphony, opera and the like on a regular basis is only the stuff of dreams. Tres interessant.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:43 PM | | Comments (5)

A couple of video blasts from Bronfman

Every time I hear Yefim Bronfman I find myself deeply impressed all over again.

His impassioned performance of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 over the weekend with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has remained firmly in my ears. It was easily one of the best accounts I've heard live of that war horse, which, of course, is what I've thought whenever I have heard Bronfman play it live.

Although others tap into the score's softer, gentler side more effectively (I have particularly fond memories of Bruno Leonardo Gelber producing equal amounts of radiant lyricism and muscle power in performances of the work I heard during the 1990s in Florida), I love the way Bronfman gets such ...

viscerally exciting results in this concerto without ever slipping into empty show-off stuff.

Since encountering his talent the other day, I've been looking around YouTube for Bronfman goodies (that damn YouTube is addictive). So, especially for the benefit of those who missed Bronfman's Baltimore and Bethesda appearances with the BSO, here's a sweeping account of the finale of the Rachmaninoff Third, recorded at a concert in Japan the pianist gave with Gergiev and the Vienna Phil a few years ago.

The second clip contains his encores that night -- exquisitely nuanced Scarlatti and a superb delivery of Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude (note the dynamic variation he achieves in that piece, where many a player sticks merely to pounding). The encore clip includes a whole lot of applause, so you'll want to do some fast-forwarding to get to the music.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:21 AM | | Comments (3)

June 12, 2009

Marin Alsop and Baltimore Symphony end season with sonic fest

Marin AlsopWith a coming-full-circle flourish, the Baltimore Symphony offers quite the grand finale to its 2008-2009 season this week.

Way back in the fall, music director Marin Alsop started things off with the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, those traumatic/cleansing moments at the end of the composer’s massive Ring Cycle. This week’s program ends with a good 50 minutes or so of excerpts from the four Ring operas, culminating, of course, with that cathartic Immolation Scene. Nice symmetry.

All the splendid Wagner sounds would be more than enough to put the grand into this finale, but there’s more. The first half of the program has a lot of big-statement music in it, too ...

-- Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with a fearless, powerhouse soloist, Yefim Bronfman. Talk about sensory overload. To get all that sweeping, swooning, storming Wagner and Rachmaninoff in one night could be too much for some sensitive hearts to stand. But I couldn’t get enough of this romantic fest Thursday night at Strathmore. I might even go back for more when the program is repeated at the Meyerhoff.

Yefim BronfmanAny occasion to hear Bronfman is valuable. He’s one of the most persuasive virtuosos around these days, a pianist whose disarming technical ease allows him to play as fast or as loud as he wants, but whose innate tastefulness prevents a descent into mere showoff indulgence.

That said, there was no question Thursday what side of the Rachmaninoff Third he wanted to emphasize – speed and volume. Like a horse getting antsy at the starting gate, Bronfman couldn’t wait to charge into the torrents of notes. Sometimes, especially in the last movement, his velocity seemed to startle Alsop and the orchestra, but they weren’t about to be left in the dust.

The pianist maintained remarkable clarity as he went, even in the explosive first movement cadenza, and he always managed to keep things musical, even when he was at his most thunderous. No, his playing wasn’t the last word on lyricism, and a few passages, like the very end of the first movement, where the music takes an unexpectedly inward turn, could have used a softer, more mysterious touch. But this was a sensational performance of the daunting concerto, spontaneous and passionate, totally involving.

Once past some cloudy wind playing at the start, the orchestra, too, did impressive work. The strings, in particular, put a good deal of heat into their phrasing. Things got hot, too, when Alsop and the BSO turned to Wagner.

The orchestra couldn’t program enough Wagner to satisfy me, so devoting half a program to Ring highlights represented a major step in the right direction. Of course, condensing 16 hours of opera into 50 minutes or so of orchestra-only excerpts is the musical equivalent of Twittering. But Alsop’s choice of what to include in this abbreviated package provided an effective narrative – a seamless, eventful tone poem.

During the performance, some passages came and went without enough impact; the Ride of the Valkyries, for example, seemed rather earthbound. Others, like the anvil-punctuated descent into Alberich’s kingdom, registered with plenty of force (putting the percussionists, stereophonically, in balconies was a nice touch). Alsop occasionally seemed to be focused more intently on details of rhythm and articulation, rather than the big, architectural picture. Still, she built to many an expressive peak, unleashed many a colorful episode with terrific flair. Wotan’s Farewell and the closing moments of the redemptive Immolation Scene proved especially effective and affecting, with the orchestra responding richly to the conductor’s ardent phrasing.

The expanded brass section, including Wagner tubas, held quite steady; Phil Munds delivered Siegfried’s horn calls with panache; the strings were, by and large, at their best in terms of cohesiveness and tone.

All things considered, a remarkably satisfying way to bring the curtain down on what turned out to be quite a successful second season in the Alsop/BSO partnership.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (1)

June 11, 2009

ASCAP, League of American Orchestras honor Marin Alsop and other "adventurous" programmers

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and League of American Orchestras will recognize orchestras for their adventurous programming and "exceptional commitment to contemporary composers" during Thursday's session at the League's annual conference.

Taking top honors -- the John S Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music -- is Marin Alsop's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California.

Among others honored for programming of contemporary music are ...

the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, and Brooklyn Philharmonic.

In the collegiate orchestra category,the Peabody Symphony and Concert Orchestras took second place.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:02 PM | | Comments (0)

Tallulah Bankhead's classical (and Baltimore) connections

Having attended (and reviewed) the funny play about Tallulah Bankhead, Looped, in DC the other day, I've been having Tallulah moments ever since, reliving some of the choice lines in that show, re-reading stuff in books, checking out audio and video mementos of the indelible actress.

I was particularly delighted to come across a story from the 1950s about the late Baltimore-born, Peabody-trained composer and cellist Alan Shulman dedicating a work of his, A Laurentian Overture, to Tallulah. Guido Cantelli conducted the NY Philharmonic premiere.

Turns out Shulman and the star had met on ...

her radio program The Big Show. "Alan is a brilliant cellist," she told a newspaper interviewer. "I'm simply devoted to him. He's a darling. We talk music all the time." (Can't you just hear that delicious voice uttering those words?)

Tallulah was asked if she ever studied music. "But of course, darling. I took piano and violin when I was at school I even played pieces for commencement. Things like Sinding's Rustle of Spring. And there was a Chopin nocturne -- how does it go? Dah, dah, da da DAAAH da. [Extra points to the first person who can decipher that clue and identify the piece.] I never kept it up, of course. But I love music."

She went on to name her favorite composer -- Wagner. "Most musicians tell me that Mozart is the greatest. I adore him, too. But me, I'm an emotional gal, and Wagner's music sweeps me away. But really, darling, I don't know anything about music at all."

As it turns out, the Baltimore Symphony is playing orchestral excertps from Wagner's Ring this week with conductor Marin Alsop. As a confirmed Wagnerite myself, I've been looking forward to reveling in all that "emotional" stuff. Now, I'll be thinking of Tallulah while doing so. If you catch me smiling during the Ride of the Valkyries, you'll know why.

I couldn't find a clip of Tallulah singing along with Wagner or anything like that, but I can't resist sharing this little scene from her terrific guest apeparance on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, when Tallulah and Lucy were at war due to some unintended accidents:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (2)

June 10, 2009

Basses loaded at An die Musik

A two-night double-bass festival featuring a young French soloist will be held at An die Musik. Although the instrument provides the foundation of most orchestral concerts, the bass doesn't get to step out front too often, so this presentation is self-recommending.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, award-winning bassist Yann Dubost will give a concert with pianist Vincent Sangare Balse; the program lists pieces by Carter, Ginastera and Piazzolla. Dubost then goes all solo at 8 p.m. Thursday, playing works by Berio, Henze and others.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:25 AM | | Comments (0)

'Spring Awakening' awakes in Baltimore

In my other capacity, I caught the national touring production of Spring Awakening that arrived Tuesday night in Baltimore.

I think a little too much has been made of the music in some circles. The songs are only remarkable for their lack of melodic distinction, but everyone in the case approaches the material as if it were by Sondheim, and that helps sell the whole show. Anyway, I've got a few more things to say in my review, in case you're interested.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:19 AM | | Comments (2)

June 9, 2009

Md. composer on Salisbury U. faculty gets premiere at Scotland's St. Magnus Festival

Robert BakerRobert Baker, a Canadian-born composer on the Salisbury University Music Department faculty, is one of eight people chosen from the U.S., the U.K. and Germany to participate in the Composers' Course at the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney, the archipelago in northern Scotland.

The highly regarded festival was founded in 1977 by Peter Maxwell Davies, the eminent British composer who has long been based in the Orkney islands area.

Baker and the other composers in the course will each produce a work of about six minutes that will be premiered on the last day of the festival, June 24, by a string ensemble called Psappha.

Baker, who recently started on the composition, is set to arrive ...

in Orkney on June 13 and finish the score during the festival, after getting feedback from the players. He'll also be working on the piece with Davies.

Samples of Baker's music can be found on his Web site. Judging by those excerpts, his style is decisively contemporary in its sophisticated use of dissonance and its exploitation on sonic effects. 

I can't recall ever coming across Baker's music in the Baltimore area. Since he lives just over on the Eastern Shore, perhaps his Scottish exposure this summer will help bring him extra attention in Maryland, too.   



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:21 AM | | Comments (2)

June 8, 2009

Two pianists, one blind, tie for gold medal at Cliburn Competition

In terms of profile, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition still looms large, even if winners don't necessarily go on to create top-drawer careers. The 2009 competition, which ended Sunday, was swept by Asian pianists, two of them tying for gold medal: Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20 (Japan), and Haochen Zhang, 19 (China). They were the youngest of the 29 contestants this year, and Nobuyuki Tsujii is the first blind competitor ever to advance beyond the preliminaries in the Cliburn's 47-year history. Yeol Eum Son, 23 (South Korea), took the silver medal.

As usual, not everyone is persuaded by the jury's decision. You can already find comments suggesting that Nobuyuki Tsujii ...

would not have advanced were it not for his disability (he has been blind since birth).

Based on the performances I've caught on, which has excellent videos of all the winners, I'd say that Haochen Zhang is the standout. But both young men clearly have something to offer.

Feel free to weigh in after checking out some of those clips, or the YouTube excerpts I've posted here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 PM | | Comments (0)

My list of favorite Mahler symphony recordings, prompted by those of Alex Ross and Opera Chic

I noticed with interest the other day a list of favorite Mahler recordings that Alex Ross posted on his indispensable blog, which quickly sparked a list by the anonymous author of the delicious Opera Chic blog. I find both of their summaries persuasive, but, naturally, I figured three can play at this game.

Not really a game, of course. This is terribly serious business, choosing the best recordings of Mahler symphonies. Those of us stricken with Mahlerian fever get very passionate about the performances that move us.

My first encounter with Mahler was the use of his music on the soundtrack of the Visconti film Death in Venice. I will never forget the sensation of being in a darkened theater and ...

hearing the Adagietto from the Symphony No. 5 start to unfold as the movie began. The way the slowly unfolding theme was matched to the gradual appearance of gentle waves on the screen -- well, I get verklempt just thinking about it all over again.

The movie itself had a massive enough impact on me (that's a whole 'nother story entirely), while its soundtrack not only introduced me to Mahler, but really triggered what became my life-long association with classical music. I liked that sort of stuff before then, but didn't necessarily love it, and certainly never guessed that it would become so important to me. Mahler was my primary entry point into the whole genre. Ah, but I digress.

After my Mahler baptism, I started collecting all the symphonies as I could afford them, and then, of course, adding multiple interpretations of each over the years. Oddly enough, I never got particularly enthusiastic about the conductor whose performances were featured on that Death in Venice soundtrack, Rafael Kubelik. Other interpreters ended up affecting me much more.

Here, then, my Mahler list. In some instances, I couldn't settle on just one.

Symphony No. 1: James Judd, Florida Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi). Not the most famous recording, but a stand-out just the same. It would be worthy of honors just for Judd's individualistic, extraordinarily beautiful phrasing in the second movement alone.

Symphony No. 2: Leonard Bernstein, NY Philharmonic (DG); Leopold Stokowski, BBC Symphony (BBC Legends); John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). All three conductors were great personalities, and that's what they bring to these performances. (If you haven't already guessed, I love lots of distinctive touches of interpretation in Mahler -- and just about everything else.)

Symphony No. 3: Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical). The symphony's heights are scaled with truly poetic power. 

Symphony No. 4: The only possible choice in my book is the enchanting 1939 recording by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw (Philips). He learned the symphony directly from Mahler and poured into it delectable amounts of rhythmic flexibility and abundant portamento (exactly the sort of elements you can hear discussed in interviews with NY Philharmonic veterans who played the work with Mahler himself conducting).

Symphony No. 5: Barbirolli, Philharmonia (EMI); Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic (DG). Towering personalities matched to towering music.

Symphony No. 6: Barbirolli, New Philharmonia (EMI); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (Testament). On the EMI recording, the conductor's controversially slow tempo for the march in the first movement is awesome in its emotional weight. He's just a little faster with the Berliners. In both cases, he gets to the soul of this score in an unusually powerful way.

Symphony No. 7: Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (the orchestra's own label). Dynamic and involving. His earlier recording with the London Symphony (BMG) has much to recommend it as well.

Symphony No. 8: Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony (Decca); Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vienna Philharmonic (Orfeo). In each case, a sizzling performance. For me, Mitropoulos is a superb  Mahlerist, given much too little appreciation these days. Any of his Mahler recordings is worth hearing.  

Symphony No. 9: Bernstein, Berlin Philharmonic (DG); Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI). Both conductors tap memorably into the profundity of the Ninth.  

Das Lied von der Erde: Fritz Wunderlich, Christa Ludwig, Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia (EMI). Sublime singing from both soloists keeps this release at the top of a field crowded with memorable performances.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:37 AM | | Comments (8)

June 7, 2009

Piano-playing cat inspires chamber music piece

You've seen the videos, no doubt, of the cat in Philadelphia that plays a mean piano. Now, there's a chamber music piece that uses the feline soloist. Cool.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:05 PM | | Comments (2)

June 5, 2009

Hilary Hahn gives brilliant performance of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony

Hilary HahnThe first standing ovation came before a note was played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at the Meyerhoff. It was triggered by the arrival onstage of music director Marin Alsop, moments after BSO board chairman Michael Bronfein announced that she had just signed a five-year extension of her contract that will keep her at the artistic helm until 2015. All the cheers reaffirmed how strongly the conductor has connected with the public; the concert reaffirmed how strongly she has connected with the orchestra.

Before starting the program, Alsop praised the musicians “for their wonderful artistry and commitment” and said that their recent pledge of $1 million in concessions to help balance the BSO budget was one of the things that “made me want to be a part of this community.” (She recently bought a condo in the Mount Vernon area.)

It was quite the feel-good evening. The music wasn’t bad, either. The big news of the program was the East Coast premiere of ...

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, written for Baltimore’s own classical music star, Hilary Hahn. It’s a killer of a concerto in its technical demands, and it asks a lot of listeners, too. (Before the performance started, Alsop asked Higdon to stand – “It’s always good to know if you’re sitting next to the composer,” the conductor said. Good quip.)

Marin AlsopHahn wanted Higdon to write a “major” work. In terms of length, she certainly got it. Cast in three sizable movements, the concerto makes a grand statement, packed with thematic material and expansive development, all of it delivered with extraordinary prismatic colors. The opening of the score is stunning – plaintive musing from the violin against delicate wisps of percussion. It’s quite the ear-grabber, a wonderful way to begin what amounts to a long journey through moods and events, through light and shade.

The first movement contains other subtle passages, where the violin enters into a kind of conversation with individual instruments in the orchestra; the effect is compelling. There are less interesting moments, too. Higdon sometimes takes more time than seems necessary to arrive at a destination point, as in the finale, an extensive perpetual-motion exercise for the fiddler. The trouble with perpetual motion is that, if carried on too long, it becomes more about the motion than the music. That’s what happens here. I also think that the middle movement could use a little pruning so that its wonderful lyricism doesn’t become diluted.

That said, the concerto still achieves an impressive effect, overall. Higdon’s style, fundamentally tonal, yet imaginatively spiced, communicates with a refreshing directness and lack of pretension. The violin part encompasses an enormous range, technically and expressively (you can hear how the composer had Hahn’s remarkable virtuosity in mind at every turn), and the orchestra becomes every bit as important in this dialogue. The second movement is the heart of the work, bathed in almost Vaughan Williams-like sonorities, with richly textured chords supporting a slowly soaring melodic line. A rush of drama erupts near the end, but the calm returns, unfazed, somehow even more radiant.

Hahn, playing the daunting piece by memory, delivered a performance brimming with bravura, but her keen musicality ultimately took center stage. Alsop provided rock-solid support and had the orchestra responding brilliantly.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in a tidy, steady performance that could have benefited from a bit more personality. Dvorak’s rather neglected Symphony No. 5 provided an engaging close to the evening. Alsop, who has demonstrated quite an affinity for the composer’s music, made a convincing case for the work, right from the sunny rustling of woodwinds at the start. She let the lyrical tunes breathe, while never losing rhythmic tension, a knack that proved especially helpful in the sprawling finale. Some expressive peaks could have scaled with more impact, certain phrases imbued with more feeling, but the clarity and character in Alsop’s interpretation proved telling.

The orchestra responded warmly and demonstrated a discipline that has increasingly characterized its association with a music director who will be building on that rapport for at least six more years.

Performances continue Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (1)

Renee Fleming to give recital Dec. 17 at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House

Renee Fleming, the stellar soprano who made her Lyric Opera House debut a few years ago in a benefit concert for the Baltimore Opera Company, will returnfor a solo recital with piano, presented by the Lyric on Dec. 17. Ticket details have not yet been announced.

The December recital is just one more example of how the Lyric's management is determined to keep some sort of operatic activity going on in the venue since the demise of its longtime tenant, Baltimore Opera, earlier this season.  

An ad placed by the Lyric in the program for its presentation of Washington National Opera in a concert performance of Turandot on Tuesday, lists Fleming's pianist for the recital as ...

Gerald Moore. That sure gave me pause. It can't, of course, be the Gerald Moore, the legendary accompanist who died in 1987. I haven't had a chance to investigate further. Maybe someone else can enlighten me about Fleming's collaborator, who is also her pianist for several other recitals in December, according to the calendar on her Web site. What a name for any accompanist to live up to. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:24 AM | | Comments (2)

June 4, 2009

Marin Alsop signs new contract that will take her through 2015 as music director of Baltimore Symphony

Marin Alsop, the dynamic music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will remain in that post at least until 2015. She signed a new, five-year contract that will begin when her initial three-year contract ends in September 2010. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Alsop said the BSO's "progress over the past two seasons is the epitome of collaboration ... I cannot imagine leading a more exciting and progressive orchestra."
Posted by Tim Smith at 2:35 PM | | Comments (1)

Monument Piano Trio to close season with diverse 20th century program

The Monument Piano Trio, joined by flutist Maria Kamper, will dig into the rich diversity of 20th century repertoire for its 2008-09 season-closer at An die Musik.

The ambitious program includes one of George Crumb's most intriguing pieces, Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), for electric flute, electric Cello and amplified piano. Works by Arvo Part, Morton Feldman, Kaija Saariaho and Jacques Ibert (the most conservative figure in this eclectic company) will also be performed.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (0)

June 3, 2009

Pianist Stephen Hough suggests $2,000 fine for cell phones going off at concerts; let's double that in Baltimore

Tuesday night at the Lyric, in the final act of Puccini's Turandot, while soprano Sabina Cvilak, as Liu, was in the midst of her final, ravishing scene, a cell phone went off in the hand bag of a woman sitting behind me (why are they always sitting right behind me?) and she proceeded to fumble noisily for it, muttering as she did so. As the incident marred an otherwise rewarding performance, I was reminded of a suggestion posted the other day by Stephen Hough, the fabulous British pianist and engaging blogger:

I don't mind the odd rasp of a cough, or rustle of a programme; but a jingle from the depths of someone's pocket or pocket-book is about as annoying as anything can be. Perhaps an instant fine of $2,000 would be the incentive needed for people simply to check and make sure the wretched things are switched off.

Personally, I'd say ...

Hough is not asking enough. We might as well go for double that, at very least. The situation is simply out of control in Baltimore, and, I'd wager, the rest of the country.

Not long after that rude ring finally stopped behind me at Turandot, another went off elsewhere in the theater. What part of "Please turn off all cell phones and pagers" don't people understand?

Last week, I attended four concerts over the course of four nights in four different venues in Dresden and heard exactly zero cell phones. On these shores, I'm more likely to encounter four cell phones at a single performance. It's downright criminal. I say, bring on the Hough Fines.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (4)

Placido Domingo conducts Washington National Opera in concert version of 'Turandot' at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House

It was great to hear operatic voices filling the Lyric Opera House again Tuesday night. Such sounds have been sadly missing for months now in the theater that opened with the iconic voice of Nellie Melba more than a century ago. The folding of the Baltimore Opera Company earlier this year left a void that was vividly filled, if only for one night, by Washington National Opera, presented by the Lyric in a concert version of Puccini’s Turandot that drew a good-sized crowd.

WNO general director Placido Domingo, the tireless tenor superstar, led the performance – his first turn at conducting Turandot, as it happens. A few passages could have been a little smoother, but Domingo brought admirable passion and sensitivity to the proceedings. Although he had not conducted the score before Tuesday (his first and only rehearsal came that afternoon), his long experience appearing in the opera onstage as Calaf obviously served him well. It didn’t hurt that his company has been performing Turandot for a couple weeks now at the Kennedy Center (with another conductor). Still, there was an effective air of spontaneity about Tuesday’s effort, not to mention a sense of occasion.

Even without the advantage of the sets and costumes that WNO audiences have been enjoying in Washington, this Turandot hit home. In the title role, Maria Guleghina had even more impact than I remember from her opening night in D.C. Her formidable voice was given such a boost by the Lyric’s welcoming acoustics that I wouldn’t be surprised if ...

folks in Cockeysville picked up some of her high notes. She didn’t make a particularly pretty sound – not many sopranos do in this assignment – but she got to the heart of the music and communicated it with terrific vitality.

For consistent beauty of tone, the performance had the advantage of Sabina Cvilak, whose portrayal of Liu was characterized by melting lyricism. As she did in Washington, she spun some remarkable pianissimo high notes and sculpted phrases with poetic power.

Dario Volonte disappointed again as Calaf. The hardworking tenor sounded stretched to the edge of his abilities and rarely bothered with dynamic nuance. All the same, he came close enough to the mark when it counted most – his Nessun dorma was applauded, which didn’t happen on opening night at the Kennedy Center.

Morris Robinson, as Timur, used his sumptuous bass to telling effect. Nathan Herfindahl (Ping), Norman Shankle (Pang) and Yingxi Zhang (Pong) brought abundant personality to their vocalism. The chorus and orchestra did impressive work.

Reminders of the Baltimore Opera were impossible to miss during the evening. For one thing, Domingo sang for that company more than 40 years ago on the Lyric stage, as he recalled in remarks to the audience after the truncated curtain calls. (To much applause, he said he would like to come back and sing with a new Baltimore Opera.) In the WNO chorus were singers. among them Robert Cantrell and Brendan Cooke, who performed with the Baltimore company. And out in the house could be spotted former patrons and staffers of the now liquidated organization.

Judging by the audience's enthusiastic response to this performance, it may be that many people would be happy to welcome the Washingtonians back, whether for more concert opera or, after the renovations of Lyric’s stage, for full productions. There certainly was no mistaking the sound of quality on Tuesday. I hope we won’t have to wait too long before we hear something on that level again, whether imported or homegrown, in this treasured venue.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:45 AM | | Comments (10)

June 2, 2009

Ray Chen, student of the great Aaron Rosand, takes first prize at Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition

Ray Chen, a 20-year-old Australian, won the Queen Elisabeth Competition, one of the violin world's highest honors, in Belgium over the weekend.

Competition victories don't necessarily translate into big careers, but, judging by the filmed highlights of Chen's performances (I've included some here), I'd say he's got a good shot at making a mark. His playing reveals considerable finesse, personality, elegance. And he certainly has a solid musical pedigree, if you will, for he's a student of Aaron Rosand at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Some of us consider Rosand to be ... 

one of the greatest (and most underrated) violinists of the past 50 years, so the news that one of his students triumphed at this major contest is most welcome. In a way, it validates Rosand's artistry at the same time that it confirms Chen's.

Here's a stylistically diverse sampling of Chen's competition-winning performances in Brussels:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:42 AM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Symphony hires Jeff Counts as vice president of artistic planning

The Baltimore Symphony has appointed Jeff Counts as v.p. of artistic planning.

A former senior-level staffer of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, as well as the Florida Orchestra in the Tampa Bay area, Counts succeeds Jeremy Rothman, who left the BSO last summer to join the Philadelphia Orchestra management.

Counts will be involved in programming and other artistic matters, working with music director Marin Alsop, president/CEO Paul Meecham and the musicians. Counts, who has a B.A. in music education, is also a horn player who has performed as a freelancer in several orchestras.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:47 AM | | Comments (0)

June 1, 2009

Washington Concert Opera uncovers Mercadante's neglected 'Il giuramento'

Washington Concert Opera closed its season Sunday at Lisner Auditorium with quite a rarity, Saverio Mercadante’s Il giuramento from 1837.

Krisztina SzaboPerforming theatrical works without their theatricality has obvious drawbacks, but, whether the piece in question is well-known or obscure, there’s something to be said for moving the music to center stage. It can be quite rewarding to focus strongly on all the vocal and instrumental elements, allowing the imagination to fill in the scenic ones. When an opera has as messy a plot as Il giuramento, the concert format may even be the preferable way to go.

The story (more or less the same one that inspired Ponchielli’s La gioconda about 40 years later) revolves around Elaisa, who falls for Viscardo, who loves Bianca, who is unhappily married to Manfredo. There's a big party, a call to arms, a lot of misunderstanding, and a death-simulating poison along the way. It all ends with ...

an unnecessary tragedy and, I guess, some tough lessons learned by all.

James ValentiIl giuramento is widely considered Mercadante's masterpiece, a work that sums up the composer's talent and his role as a kind of bridge between the Rossini-Donizetti-Bellini school of Italian opera and the mighty Verdi. (Mercadante was terribly jealous of Verdi and even did a little plotting against him.)

The score of Il giuramento abounds in tunefulness and vivid orchestration. Not everything lingers long in the ear, but the craftsmanship is never in doubt. At its best — the enchanting, Bellini-worthy soprano/mezzo duet in Act 2, for example — the music really soars.

Washington Concert Opera artistic director Antony Walker might have taken a little more time with that music here and there (he seems to prefer to keep everything on a tight rhythmic leash), but his intensity certainly paid off.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral (Elaisa) offered gleaming tone and ardent phrasing. Krisztina Szabo (Bianca) used her light mezzo with stylistic flair. The two women blended exquisitely in that duet, Oh! Qual nome pronunziaste. Donnie Ray Albert’s rich baritone and communicative power filled out Manfredo’s music handsomely. James Valenti (Viscardo) encountered some strain in the upper reaches and didn't summon a particularly wide range of tonal colors, but he delivered considerable passion and eloquence. The chorus and orchestra came through firmly, for the most part.

I was a little disappointed to see that next season’s WCO lineup is devoted to standard fare — Gounod’s Faust and Rossini’s La Cenerentola — rather than more discoveries like Il giuramento. The music-making, though, is bound to be as dynamic as ever. And, of course, the best news about next season is that there will be one. WCO, like many arts groups, has endured its share of financial pressures, but seems to have pulled through, and that's great for opera fans in the region.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:02 PM | | Comments (1)

Cliburn Competition finalists in home stretch; live Webcasts of their rehearsals and concerts this week

Cliburn Competition logoThe 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition -- still one of the leading keyboard contests in the world -- heads into the home stretch this week, with each of the finalists playing a solo recital and two concertos. The winners will be announced on June 7.

For the first time, the concerto rehearsals and performances by the six finalists will be streamed live on the Web, allowing piano fans from around the globe to experience the musical action in Fort Worth. (You have to download Microsoft Silverlight first.) Earlier rounds were streamed, too, and are now archived on the site. I've checked out some of these archives and ...

I've been impressed with the video and audio quality. Getting a chance to watch the rehearsals ought to be quite informative. There are also various interactive elements to "Cliburn TV," including voting by viewers. The first rehearsal of finals week begins at 11 a.m. EST Monday.

The finalists are neatly divided gender-wise. Three women: Yeol Eum Son, 23 (South Korea); Mariangela Vacatello, 27 (Italy); Di Wu, 24 (China). Three men: Evgeni Bozhanov, 25 (Bulgaria); Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20 (Japan); Haochen Zhang, 19 (China).


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (0)

Handel Choir director Melinda O'Neal makes case for Parkway Theater renovation

Earlier this month, word came that the city of Baltimore is seeking a developer to restore the Parkway, a 1,100-seat theater on North Avenue built in 1915. Melinda O'Neal, artistic director and conductor of the Handel Choir of Baltimore sees the Parkway as a potential boon to local arts groups, provided that the renovation aims for a more practical eating capacity. Here's her guest blog posting on the subject:

In the several years I've been a Baltimore resident, it has become clear to me that the city lacks an adequate, mid-size live concert venue. Renovating the Parkway Theatre as a 450-to-750-seat venue suitable for film, dance, opera and live orchestral and choral-orchestral performance would be a significant step forward. Independent, civic performance organizations such as Handel Choir of Baltimore would be first in line in a flash - and I know others are very interested. My view: Build it, and we will come.

Of academic concert venues such as Falvey Hall at Maryland Institute College of Art (520 seats), Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College (975 seats), Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall (700 seats) and Towson University's Kaplan Hall (520 seats), there are various significant drawbacks, such as lack of acoustical hells, inadequate dressing rooms and backstage areas, or too-small stage areas. Often, they may be ...

unavailable to outside organizations (understandably, since they exist primarily for students). Note that two of these four venues are in the county.

Of the independent halls in the city, the Hippodrome (2,280 seats), the Meyerhoff (2,443) and the Lyric (2,564) are all are out of range due to cost and audience capacity. Gordon Center, the only independent, mid-size concert venue in the area (550 seats), is excellent in layout and acoustical design. But it is in Owings Mills, at least a 25-minute drive from the city.

Small and mid-size Baltimore performing organizations, desiring the relative intimacy of a mid-size hall but requiring enough seats to operate within a viable financial model, most often perform in churches, although they are nonsectarian, civic organizations. Handel Choir is profoundly grateful for the hospitality of the many churches that graciously host our concerts, but we recognize this is not always a comfortable fit.That said, acoustics in many of Baltimore's fine churches for live, non-reinforced sound performance are excellent.

Renovation of Parkway Theatre, with its central location in a district clearly on the upswing, would be a substantially positive step forward for a city vibrant with musical arts of many styles and constituencies.

Yes, build it. Provide reasonable parking access and good acoustics. Arts organizations, audiences, businesses and residents will come.

Melinda O'Neal

Artistic director and conductor of the Handel Choir of Baltimore


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:46 AM | | Comments (4)
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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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