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July 31, 2009

Add Pope Benedict to roster of contemporary composers

Who knew? Pope Benedict XVI is a contemporary classical composer. Eight of his works will be included on an album that will also feature his singing of chants and litanies.

I knew about the pontiff's love of Mozart and his occasional piano playing, but not his interest in composing. I haven't come across any details on his music, but the scores are likely to be heard in the best possible light -- performed by no less than the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded in London's fabled Abbey Road Studios (the pope will not be on hand for the session). 

The vocal part of the album, which has a Nov. 30 release date (just in time for Christmas shopping), will find His Holiness singing and speaking in Latin, Italian, Portuguese, French and German, backed by a Roman choral ensemble and recorded in St Peter's Basilica.

Proceeds from the recording will be used for music education for underprivileged children around the world, according the Pontiff's label, Geffin/UK Universal. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:26 PM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore Symphony continues to feel recession's grip

The news of more pay cuts and furloughs at the Baltimore Symphony, and a looming deficit after a couple of hard-won in-the-black years, provides another depressing reminder of how destructive this recession is for the arts. You can read more about the situation in my article in Friday's paper.

One thing that bears much repeating: This struggle at the BSO could not have been so calmly and carefully dealt with a few years ago under previous management. There's a level of cooperation and trust between orchestra and administration that hasn't been seen in that organization for quite a while. Morale can't be great over there now, especially among the musicians, but there's every indication that the BSO is holding together, artistically and institutionally. And that bodes well for the orchestra's future.   

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and reactions here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:33 AM | | Comments (1)

July 30, 2009

Mario Venzago out as music director of Indianapolis Symphony

Mario Venzago, remembered fondly in our town for his dynamic performances with the Baltimore Symphony over the years, is departing, rather suddenly, from his post as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Not sure what the back-story is, but here's the release, hot off the e-mail:

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announced today that it will not be renewing its contract with Music Director Mario Venzago. The contract ends on Aug. 31, 2009. The search for a new Music Director will begin immediately and Venzago’s concerts in the Lilly Classical Series for the 2009-2010 season will be filled by other conductors.

Since joining the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2002, Mario Venzago has expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and broadened the range of styles to include large romantic works and contemporary pieces. In his seven seasons, he has received critical acclaim for his interpretations of Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven symphonies; collaborations with local performance groups such as the Indianapolis Opera and Indianapolis Symphonic Choir; and presentations of world premiere commissions such as composer Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto in February of this year.

“Mario has brought tremendous artistic success to the ISO during the past seven years,” said Simon Crookall, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. “His partnership with the orchestra and his enthusiasm on the podium has delighted and entertained audiences. We are thankful to Mario for giving us many great memories, especially this season’s extraordinary production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the Indianapolis Opera.”

Maestro Venzago has been invited to return to Indianapolis to conduct a final concert in the 2009-2010 season. When details are confirmed, an announcement will be made.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:08 PM | | Comments (8)
 reveals most searched items; Alsop beats Pavarotti

This isn't quite up there with Baltimore being named best vacation destination or something like that, but it's kind of cool nonetheless to learn that Baltimore Symphony music director is more popular than Pavarotti and nearly as popular as iconic conductor Herbert von Karajan -- at least among folks searching the online vaults of, an impressive download site recently founded by Pierre R. Schwob for classical music fans.

The company has released lists of the most searched artists, composers, works, etc., over the past month, revealing a few surprises in addition to Alsop's strong showing. I wouldn't pretend this really tells us anything about the classical music public. It's just fun to see what this unscientific sampling of  cyber-consumers is searching for while considering downloads of classical music to computers and assorted hand-held electronic devices.

Here's the ranking of five most-searched artists:


1. Herbert von Karajan

2. Marin Alsop

3. Valdmir Ashkenazy

4. Michael Tilson Thomas

5. Luciano Pavarotti

I'm surprised to see Ashkenazy do so well, given how relatively low the pianist/conductor's profile has been for years.

The list of Most Searched Composers won't startle anyone.

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

2. Johann Sebastian Bach

3. Ludwig van Beethoven

4. Frédéric François Chopin

5. George Frideric Handel

The first three positions conform to the traditional holy trinity of classical music, and exactly in the proper order, I'd say. I might have figured Vivaldi would edge out Handel and maybe Brahms do better than Chopin. 

Top Most Popular Time Periods:

1. Baroque

2. Classical

3. Romantic

4. Medieval

5. Contemporary

Again, no big surprise there, but this next list gave me pause.

Top Most Popular Genres:

1. Symphony

2. Concerto

3. Sonata

4. Chamber Music

5. Solo Vocal Music

Odd that opera didn't make the cut. You can attract a crowd for opera a lot easier than you can for a solo voice recital, so I would assume that would hold for download buyers, too.

Top Most Popular Instruments:

1. Piano

2. Violin

3. Organ

4. Flute

5. Cello

Organ music at number 3? Who knew?

The "Top Most Searched Works" contains some of the usual suspects:

1. Handel's Messiah, Hallelujah Chorus

2. Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor, Op.27, No.2 ('Moonlight')

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K.467 ('Elvira Madigan')

4. Frédéric François Chopin - Nocturnes [sic] in E-flat, Op.9

5. Johann Sebastian Bach - Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV1041

As for the Chopin, I assume this refers to Op. 9, No. 2, not all three of the Op. 9 Nocturnes (only one is in E-flat, of course). I wonder if people are downloading all of the 'Moonlight' or just the first movement everybody knows.

Finally, the Most Searched Operas.

1. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro

2. Mozart's Don Giovanni

3. Verdi's La Traviata

4. Wagner's Die Walküre

5. Verdi's Aida

This is quite a surprise to me -- no Puccini in the top 5. Wow. And Walkure over, say, Tristan? Interesting. I wonder what a list after six months or a year would look like.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:28 AM | | Comments (2)

July 29, 2009

Baltimore Symphony's CD of Bernstein's 'Mass' to be released on composer's birthday

If I had to pick one event last season as the greatest, I wouldn't hesitate to name the BSO's semi-staged production of Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, the sensational, if much-maligned, work by Leonard Bernstein.

Performances in Baltimore, New York and DC reconfirmed the affection I've always had for this intensely personal creation, and revealed conductor Marin Alsop's obvious affection for it as well. She pulled together a remarkable achievement and, luckily, Naxos recorded it for release this summer. That release, appropriately, will be on ...

Aug. 25, which would have been Bernstein's 91st birthday. iTunes will have a 'pre-release' Aug. 11.

The recording was made Oct. 21-22 at the Meyerhoff, a few days after the Baltimore concerts and a few days before the BSO headed to New York for repeats at Carnegie Hall and (most memorably) the United Palace Theater way uptown, where hundreds of public school kids joined in the music-making. (That performance would have made a fab DVD.) 

Bernstein's daughter Jamie, who was at both of those New York performances, has heard an advance copy of CD and gives it high marks. “It takes a village to put on Mass — and Marin Alsop has organized her musical village with magnificent results. This is a rich, sensitive performance of my father's most personal work: explosive, touching and truly cathartic.”

Just how I remember it. Looking forward to reliving it all on disc. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (3)

July 28, 2009

Pro Musica Rara's 35th season will open with salute to Edgar Allan Poe

Pro Musica Rara, like any number of other cultural organizations, has had its share of touch and go years, but this early music ensemble has manged to hang on, even gaining impressive artistic ground over the past several years. The 2009-2010 season marks the Baltimore group's 35th, a milestone that will be celebrated with imaginative programming and appealing artists at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

The most unusual presentation will open the season on Oct. 11 -- a celebration of the Edgar Allan Poe bicentennial. This concert combines a reading of his chilling tale "The Cask of Amontillado" with some appropriately spooky music, including Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata and Marais' Tableau de l'operation de la Talle (a musical depiction of the composer undergoing an un-anesthetized gall bladder operation in the 1700s -- talk about scary). Featured performers: violinist Cynthia Roberts, cellist and Pro Music artistic director Allen Whear, harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, narrator Jonathan Palevsky.

French baroque will be the focus in November in a concert showcasing ...

Kenneth Slowik on viola da gamba.

The annual SuperBach Sunday in January will welcome the excellent Philadelphia-based ensemble Tempesta di Mare in a collaborative program that offers a couple of Brandenburg Concertos and music of Vivaldi.

Bach is back in the limelight in March for a 325th birthday salute with Roberts and Whear.

The season will close in April with music of Haydn, Mozart and Mozart's nemesis, Salieri, played by Whear, violinists Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Sharon Pineo Myer, and fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:06 PM | | Comments (0)

Music we've been missing (Part 3): the Latin connection

This week's music-we've-been-missing installment continues in an instrumental vein and looks at an area every North American orchestra ought to be exploring a lot more often -- Latin American repertoire.

The Baltimore Symphony, to pick the most obvious local example, needs to spread its wings much wider to embrace music from other parts of the hemisphere, digging into the sonic riches from Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil and more. This should be an easy stretch, technically and stylistically, and it sure would liven things up a great deal.

Where to start beefing up Latin music programming? An obvious candidate would be Heitor Villa-Lobos. Some items from his Bachianas brasileiras series turn up around here every now and then, but several more need attention. Then there is his Choro series, not to mention his symphonies and concertos. Alberto Ginastera deserves more recognition. A lesser known figure well worth checking out is Evencio Castellanos, whose Santa Cruz de Pacairigua is a strikingly colorful creation. But I think I'd begin a Latin exploration with ...

Carlos Chavez. His concertos would be cool, if you could find any soloists who know them. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with the Sinfonia india (Symphony No. 2), a great introduction to this much overlooked, but highly significant, composer. Here's a taste, with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Gustavo Dudamel:



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:31 AM | | Comments (7)

July 27, 2009

Singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne and band to perform with Baltimore Symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has collaborated with the likes of Trey Anastasio, Ben Folds and Elvis Costello, will perform with smoky-voiced singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne and his band Oct. 15 at Strathmore, Oct. 16 at the Meyerhoff. These will be LaMontagne's only concerts with orchestra on his fall tour.

LaMontagne has had several strong-selling, critically admired recordings since his career took off about five years ago; he has a particular knack for writing moody ballads.

Tickets go on sale to the general public on ...

Aug. 8, but there are several pre-sales as well (fan club, BSO subscribers, etc.)

Here's a taste of LaMontagne's work, a haunting song called "Lessons Learned":


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:17 PM | | Comments (0)

Wolf Trap Opera's dynamic blast from past: Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses'

If you harbor any doubts about the ability of early opera to engage your senses the way the works of, say, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini do, you could get an easy attitude adjustment from a trip to the Barns at Wolf Trap. There, Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses is receiving a dynamic production from the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The final performance is Tuesday night.

Visually hip (but not overbearingly so), the staging, directed with abundant imagination and momentum by James Marvel, provides an engaging vehicle for a cast that treats the opera as if it were written last week, not in 1640. Yes, there was the occasional "white" tone favored by early music specialists, during Friday night's opening performance, but there was a lot of vibrant, sometimes downright Verdian singing, too, a lot of personality-filled phrasing from the young, energetic ensemble. No one held back. No one settled for history lesson primness. This was hot music-making, aided every step of the way by conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who maintained a telling pulse even as he allowed for exquisite, unhurried molding of the most lyrical passages.  

In the title role of the Trojan War hero trying to return home, tenor Dominic Armstrong left a sizable mark. His phrasing invariably burned with import, so that every word communicated, and his solid tone rang out handsomely. Penelope, the stoic wife who has been waiting two decades for the return of Ulysses, provides the emotional and musical core of the opera. Monteverdi gave the character some of his most compelling melodic lines, and mezzo Jamie Barton made the most of them, singing with a lush, burnished tone and expressively nuanced detail. Like Armstrong, she sounded very much like a singer with a future. There was obvious potential, too, from tenor Diego Torre in the comic relief role of the gluttonous Iro. His portrayal was as lively as his vocalism, which revealed quite an impressive glint to go with the impassioned phrasing during Iro's suicidal aria near the opera's end. As Ulysses' son, Telemaco, Chad Sloan did not ...

summon quite enough tonal weight for loud, high-lying passages, but the rest of the baritone's singing had a tender, subtle beauty. Another baritone, Daniel Billings, as Jove, served notice of a robust voice with considerable presence. Nicholas Masters, as Neptune, revealed a somewhat dry, limited bass, but sang with style and certainly looked cool (Andrea Huelse's costumes provide a fun mix of antiquity and downtown clubbing throughout the production). Jamie Van Eyck (Melanto) and David Portillo (Pisandro) sang brightly and jumped into the theatrical side of things with relish. Ava Pine sounded a little pale as Minerva, but proved expressive. Same for Paul Appleby's Eumete. Carlos Monzon (Antinoo) and Matthew Hanscom (turned out as an overly foppish Anfinomo -- one of director Marvel's less marvelous ideas) hammed things up mightily for the attempted wooing of Penelope. The orchestra of period instruments filled in the colors of the score with terrific finesse (Wedow devised a little extra coloring in places). 

Eric Allgeier's sleek set design was complemented by S. Katy Tucker's video projections, which introduced often striking imagery without ever getting gimmicky. The total package of engaging musicality and theatricality underlined how much power remains in this absorbing work from the dawn of opera.



Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 AM | | Comments (0)

July 26, 2009

Michael Steinberg, eminent music critic, dead at 80

Michael SteinbergMichael Steinberg, one of the most astute writers about classical music during the past 50 years, died Sunday (July 26) from cancer at the age of 80.

For anyone in my profession, Mr. Steinberg was a major inspiration, if not intimidation -- his knowldege was so vast, his writing so incisive and involving that he set the bar very high. As music critic of the Boston Globe, he exerted considerable influence on the cultural life of the city. Later, as program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony and other orchestras, he enlightened many a concert-goer. His books on symphony and concerto repertoire are among the most astute reference guides you can find.

On a personal note, I recall fondly meeting him and his wife, Jorja Fleezanis, then associate concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, for the first time in Fort Lauderdale, when I was working there in my early critic years. He happened to be visiting the area and picked up the local paper. He read something of mine he liked and called to invite me to lunch. It was an extraordinary compliment, and a most generous gesture that I'll always appreciate.

UPDATE 7/27: My colleague at the LA Times wrote this beautiful appreciation.

And here's the official release on Mr. Steinberg's death from Kathryn King Media:

Michael Steinberg, among the pre-eminent music critics of our time, died on Sunday, 26 July 2009 at the age of 80. Despite the onset of cancer more than three years ago, he continued to live a full and vigorous life. He was revered by professional colleagues – the musicians, conductors, fellow writers, composers, educators, and orchestra executives with whom he collaborated over the course of a six-decade career – and loved by hundreds of thousands of audience members whose ideas and feelings about music were shaped by the unerringly lucid and insightful commentary he provided in program notes and pre-concert talks. A teacher of music history and criticism, a chamber music coach, a narrator, he was also the premier writer of program notes for audiences of orchestral, choral and chamber music, his works appearing not only in symphonic program books, but also on recordings, most notably those of John Adams’ operas Nixon in China (1988) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1992).

Steinberg was born on October 4, 1928 in Breslau in the last years of Weimar Germany and spent his adolescence in England, his mother having campaigned successfully to get him to safety via the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that saved nearly 10,000 children in the months leading up to World War II. By the end of the war, Michael, his mother, and a brother 15 years his elder, Franz, had emigrated to St.Louis, Missouri. Steinberg studied at Princeton with Strunk, Babbitt, and Cone, graduating in 1949 with a degree in musicology. On a Fulbright scholarship, he spent two years in Italy, where he met his first wife Jane Bonacker (they divorced in 1977). Upon his return from Italy to the U.S., he was drafted and spent two years in the Army stationed in Germany in the 1950s. He served as head of the music history department at the Manhattan School of Music (1954-55; 1957-64), and taught at Smith College, Hunter College, Brandeis University, and the New England Conservatory. During these years, he was appointed music critic at the Boston Globe; his tenure in that position is the stuff of legend among serious writers about music.

Steinberg’s first staff position at a major orchestra was Director of Publications for the Boston Symphony (1976-79). In 1979 he joined the San Francisco Symphony as Publications Director and Artistic Adviser (1979-1989), which combined the tasks of writing program notes and designing the season’s repertoire, in close consultation with then music directors Edo de Waart, followed by Herbert Blomstedt. In 1983 he married Jorja Fleezanis, the Associate Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony; when she was named Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1989, they moved to Minneapolis. He became program annotator to the New York Philharmonic in 1995, while continuing to serve as pre-concert lecturer in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. He took the post of Artistic Adviser with the Minnesota Orchestra, while maintaining the positions of program annotator for both the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

Even after announcing his formal retirement in 1999, Steinberg kept working. He wrote for the San Francisco Symphony. For the West Coast chamber music festival Music at Menlo, he introduced programs, coached ensembles, and led several evenings of their “Encounter Series.” He also coached students at the International Festival-Institute at Round Top, Texas. Each summer, public poetry readings were highlights of both the Menlo and Round Top festivals, where Steinberg not only gave his own memorable readings but also selected poems and lovingly coached both students and faculty in their readings. He believed poetry to be a vital component of music-making, and that performing musicians could arrive at a better understanding of musical phrasing and impulses by reading poetry aloud. In Jorja Fleezanis’ words, he believed that “rhythm, the gait, and the expression required to read poetry well are intimately linked to what is required to play music well.”

A frequent narrator, he gave the first performance of Aaron Jay Kernis’ La Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futerismo (The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine) in 1991, and was often heard as the narrator in Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Survivor from Warsaw, and Ode to Napoleon, as well as Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait.

Larry Rothe, Publications Editor of the San Francisco Symphony and co-author of Steinberg’s last book, For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press, 2006) noted:

“In the last years Michael defined what it means to battle an illness. He continued to hang tough, determined not to let anything keep him from doing what he had always done, which was to put listeners in touch with the music. In his writing and in his talks, Michael knocked down walls with intelligence, wit, and a broad sense of culture. He was a great storyteller. He expected much from his readers and offered much. You get a taste of all this in his books: The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks, three compilations of his program notes. Another book, For the Love of Music, gathers his reflections on an array of musical subjects.

“In the way he lived, Michael mirrored music at its best. He was affirmative and honest and uncompromising, elegant and ornery. He spoke in beautifully paced full sentences and paragraphs. He wrote with the eloquence and generosity and fierceness he believed the music demanded. He knew that what happens between music and listener is a kind of love, and that music, as he said, ‘like any worthwhile partner in love, is demanding, sometimes exasperatingly, exhaustingly demanding… [but] that its capacity to give is as near to infinite as anything in this world, and that what it offers us is always and inescapably in exact proportion to what we ourselves give.’

“Writers have many reasons to write, but all writers share one goal: to remind readers what it means to be human. Not every writer gets there. Michael did.”

Michael Steinberg is survived by his wife, Jorja Fleezanis; his sons Sebastian and Adam, both from his first marriage; his granddaughters Ayla and Rae; his grandson Julian; his first wife Jane Steinberg; his nephew Tom Steinberg; and his nephew Andy (and Val) Steinberg. Concerts to celebrate Michael Steinberg’s life will be presented in San Francisco and Minneapolis at times to be announced.

The family will be receiving friends at home in Minneapolis on Tuesday, 28 July 2009 from 4pm-8pm.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to The Michael Steinberg & Jorja Fleezanis Fund to Spur Curiosity and Growth through the Performing Arts and the Written Word / attn. Shelli Chase / CHASE FINANCIAL / 7900 Xerxes Avenue South / Suite 910 / Minneapolis, MN 55431.


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

July 24, 2009

Baltimore Symphony closes summer season with Beethoven's Ninth

After delving into a lot of movie and rock music lately, the Baltimore Symphony returned to traditional ground this week for another workout with Beethoven's Ninth.

It has become almost an annual rite for the BSO to cap its summer season with this box office favorite. I wish the orchestra could find a way out of the rut, or at least come up with a fresh reason to perform the piece so often – a new context, perhaps, by programming it with something unusual; or maybe put a period performance specialist on the podium who could shake things up a bit (a super-romantic, wildly idiosyncratic interpreter would be just as fine with me, but would probably require channeling from beyond the grave).

This year, the BSO's Ninth is in the hands of ...

Gunther Herbigthe solid, safe veteran conductor Gunther Herbig. He brought authority and calm assurance to Thursday’s performance at Strathmore. He offered particularly effective phrase-molding in the Adagio, taking more time and care with the movement than a lot of others do today, and he did some powerful things in the finale, as much to heighten tension as to underline the poetry. I only wish Herbig had produced more expressive impact in the first two movements.

For that matter, I wish the BSO had been in better form. My guess is that tonight’s repeat at Meyerhoff will find the ensemble much tighter. On Thursday, the strings, particularly the violins, sounded thin and often undisciplined; the brass and winds needed more definition and color in places. 

It was another story entirely for those whose voices were raised in song. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society achieved exceptional warmth and vitality; the words of the "Ode to Joy" really seemed to mean something to the choristers (it was a nice touch having them put their music books down to sing the most emphatic verse from memory). The solo quartet likewise did a lot to enhance the experience. Baritone Stephen Powell phrased his opening lines with rich tone and welcome nuance. There was stylish, vibrant work, too, from soprano Heidi Stober, mezzo Kelley O’Connor and tenor Gordon Gietz. The whole evening was elevated by the vocal forces.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:18 AM | | Comments (11)

July 23, 2009

Baltimore Opera Theatre to audition for supporting roles

Baltimore Opera Theatre, the organization recently formed by impesarios Giorgio Lalov and Jenny Kelly, will hold open auditions for comprimario roles in The Barber of Seville and Rigoletto. Those two productions are scheduled to be presented at the Hippodrome during BOT's inaugural season.

The auditions will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church on Sept. 12. An accompanist will be provided. To schedule an audition, send an email to

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:18 PM | | Comments (1)

Previously unknown Mozart piano works discovered

Hard to believe, but unknown pieces of music by great composers still turn up every now and then. The Mozarteum Foundation reports the discovery of two piano works, which will be performed on Aug. 2, when more details of the unearthing are to be revealed.

Here's the news report:

VIENNA (AP) — The International Mozarteum Foundation said Thursday it has discovered two more works composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The previously unknown works are piano pieces composed by a young Mozart, the Salzburg-based foundation said in a brief e-mail statement.

The Web site of the organization said its department of research had identified the works, long in the foundation's possession, as Mozart compositions ...


The foundation declined to provide more details Thursday, saying specifics would be made public during a presentation in Salzburg on Aug. 2. During the event, Austrian musician Florian Birsak will perform the pieces on an original Mozart piano.

The foundation, established in 1880 and a prime source for Mozart-related matters, seeks to preserve the composer's heritage and find new approaches for analyzing him.

Discoveries such as the one announced Thursday are rare but not unheard of. In September, Ulrich Leisinger, Mozarteum's head of research, said that a French library had found another previously unknown piece of music handwritten by Mozart. The work, described as the preliminary draft of a musical composition, was found in Nantes in western France as library staff members were going through its archives. Leisinger says the library contacted his foundation for help authenticating the work.

There have been up to 10 Mozart discoveries of such importance over the past 50 years, Leisinger said at the time.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:51 PM | | Comments (0)

July 22, 2009

Tender close to summer chamber music series in Roland Park

Somehow, I missed out entirely on the Summer Chamber Music in Roland Park series last year. This year, the free presentation at Roland Park Presbyterian almost passed me by again, but I made it to the final program of the '09 series Tuesday night. The inviting, intimate church proved to be a hospitable place for music, and the good-sized crowd on hand was demonstratively appreciative of the efforts by familiar players from the area who collaborated on a very attractive program of Copland and Vaughan Williams.

The latter's early Piano Quintet is a fascinating work. The scoring alone is distinctive -- instead of the usual two violins, viola and cello with keyboard, this quintet has only one violin and adds double bass to the mix. The resulting darkness of sound gives the rhapsodic music extra weight. The composer doesn't sound here much like the Vaughan Williams we know; this 1903 piece has a lot of late-19th century German romanticism in it. But his voice nonetheless comes through powerfully at times, especially in the moody second movement and subdued coda of the finale. The performance was ...

persuasive. Violinist Tamara Seymour could have used more solidity of intonation and pianist Clinton Adams more subtlety of phrasing here and there, but they and their colleagues -- violist Jackie Capecci (founder of the series), cellist Gita Ladd and bassist Laura Ruas -- all put a strongly expressive stamp on the work.

After an unusually generous nosh offered to the audience at intermission, the program concluded with the original 13-instrument version of Appalachian Spring, which I think is the most affecting way to hear Copland's famous music. Joining the players from the Vaughan Williams item were violinists Melina Gajger, Nicholas Currie and Katarzyna Bryla; violist Julius Wirth; cellist Todd Thiel; flutist Kristen Winter-Jones; clarinetist David Drosinos; and bassoonist Bryan Young. Occasional roughness of ensemble aside, there was quite a vibrant glow to the playing, with particular tenderness reserved for the quiet close. The score sounded as fresh, evocative and earnest as ever.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:01 PM | | Comments (1)

National Symphony to introduce real-time Twittered program notes

This in from the NSO: Conductor Emil de Cou has prepared real-time program notes to Beethoven's Sixth that will be beamed to Twitterati sitting on the lawn of Wolf Trap July 30.

It's an interesting variation on a palm-held device, tried out by some orchestras a few years ago, that texted program notes as a performance was in progress. There were skeptics then, and I can imagine there will be howls and scowls from some corners about the Twitter application, but you just know this was bound to happen. And what a great thing this will be for those folks who can't go more than a minute or two without staring down at some sort of electronic device in their hands.

Here's the press release:

"With this first ever in-time symphonic Twitter you can have the conductor as your personal guide through Beethoven's most colorful and atmospheric work,” explained NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor Emil de Cou. “I have designed the tweets to go perfectly with ideas I have about the piece as I conduct it but also some interesting commentary to go along with the sights and sounds of Beethoven's day in the countryside: an adult musical pop-up book written for first timers and concert veterans alike."

The messages will begin during intermission and provide facts about Beethoven’s life and work. Once the concert begins, the tweets will be sent at specific points in the score, becoming streaming program notes that mark musical signposts depicting Beethoven’s symphonic tribute to a day in the country.

Please note that the Filene Center does not allow electronic devices to be used in the main house, only on the lawn.

Current NSO at WolfTrap and Wolf Trap followers on Twitter have the exclusive opportunity to purchase $10 lawn tickets through a promotional code included in a series of tweets to come this week.



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:38 AM | | Comments (7)

Common sense prevails: L.A. County board of supervisors vote support for Wagner fest

You may recall the bit of controversy stirred up by a Los Angeles county supervisor who wanted Los Angeles Opera to downplay the emphasis on Wagner at next spring's 'Ring' festival, because of the composer's anti-Semitic views. (I enjoyed the lively discussion of folks who posted on my blog entry about this, except for the slimy Holocaust-deniers who started chiming in, perhaps while taking a break from denying President Obama's US birth certificate or the landing on the moon 40 years ago.)

Anyway, here's some welcome news:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — County supervisors have voted to ...

support the Los Angeles Opera's planned festival next year celebrating Richard Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle despite one supervisor's protest over the German composer's anti-Semitic views.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 Tuesday in support of a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky replacing a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Antonovich wanted to add pieces by other composers to lessen the focus on Wagner because of his anti-Semitic writings. Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell says the supervisor is disappointed at Tuesday's outcome, but intends to work with the opera company to make improvements in the next year.

The opera says the festival, which will spotlight Wagner's four-part cycle, will include seminars and discussions to address Wagner's anti-Semitism.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)

July 21, 2009

Jessye Norman's 'Ask Your Mama' production at Baltimore Symphony canceled

One of the most enticing events on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2009-2010 lineup has been canceled: Ask Your Mama, a multi-genre, multi-media presentation featuring stellar soprano Jessye Norman that was a big hit at Carnegie Hall last season. The BSO was to have presented it as a "premium concert" in February, conducted by Marin Alsop.

"Scheduling conflicts" are blamed. BSO VP Eileen Andrews Jackson says that three of the instrumental musicians involved in the production have been engaged in the house band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon since the BSO signed the deal and are no longer available for the tightly constructed Ask Your Mama program. (You'd think three good players could be found somewhere who could step in smoothly well before February.)

To replace Jessye and company, the BSO will ...

offer a program that includes a suite from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (vocal soloists to be announced). This adds even more Gershwin to a season that already lists Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, 'I Got Rhythm' Variations and the rarely performed Blue Monday.

In other season updates, the soprano soloist for Mahler's Fourth in November has been announced: Susanna Phillips. She'll also sing three concert arias by Mozart on that program. The cello soloist in Beethoven's Triple Concerto in May will now be Amit Peled, replacing former BSO principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, who is heading to the Cincinnati Symphony next season. And the performance of Brahms' German Requiem in June will feature the Washington Chorus, replacing the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Morgan State University Choir. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:21 PM | | Comments (4)

Music we've been missing (Part 2); French fare

Periodically, I'm reminded of all the interesting, affecting music we don't get to hear live around these parts. Actually, just about ever day, I'm so reminded.

One area of the repertoire not being fully served, especially by the Baltimore Symphony, is the French variety. Sure, we get the usual suspects -- Symphonie fantastique, La Mer, La Valse, the occasional Faun -- and, next season, there is a welcome dollop of music by Poulenc and Satie from the BSO. But we're still missing an awful lot.

Consider the symphonies of Albert Roussel, for example, which were suggested by readers last week when I started this series. These brilliant pieces absolutely deserve a place on programs, along with the overlooked Saint-Saens No. 2 (a worthy alternative to the more exposed No. 3). And there could never be enough Poulenc to satisfy me; how I'd love to find his Two-Piano Concerto, for example, on a BSO program. Or Ravel's Sheherazade (the wonderful world of orchestral songs, by any composer, has barely been mined here).

But for today, I'd like to call attention to ...

Ernest Chausson, the late 19th century Frenchman who famously died in a bicycle accident. There was a time when his great Symphony in B-flat was in vogue; it's overdue for fresh attention. And then there is his gorgeous Poeme de l'amour et de la mer for soprano and orchestra (I told you we don't get enough orchestra songs).

Today's audiences may be unfamiliar with these works, but I can't believe that, given sensitive performances, the response wouldn't be highly favorable. And such music is also very good for developing an orchestra's tonal palette and expressive nuance. If I didn't detest the phrase, I'd call it a win-win situation.

Here's a taste of Chausson's symphony in a terrific vintage performance conducted by one of my podium heroes, Dimitri Mitropoulos (ignore the mistaken E-flat designation given on the YouTube title, and don't let the dated sound deter you). And an excerpt from Poeme de l'amour et de la mer, sung by the incomparable Jessye Norman.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:14 AM | | Comments (11)

July 20, 2009

Daughter of British conductor Edward Downes describes the process that led to her parents' double suicide

The news last week that exceptional British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan had committed suicide at a Swiss clinic saddened the music world. In an interview published in The Observer on Sunday, the couple's daughter, Boudicca Downes, discussed the decision-making process and the final event in Switzerland. Here are some excerpts:

My father "told me that my mum had cancer ... And he told me the prognosis: a matter of months, possibly weeks. Then he just said, 'so we've decided, we're both going to Switzerland'."

Her 85-year-old father and his terminally ill wife, Joan, 74, would travel together from their London home to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich where they would be helped to fulfil their final desire - to commit suicide together. It was there that Boudicca, 39, and her brother Caractacus, 41, gripped their parents' hands as each swallowed a single dose of a lethal barbiturate. Within minutes Edward and his wife were dead. It was three months, to the day, since he had made that phone call to his daughter ...

"Mum was not frightened of dying, but ...

she was frightened of a living death ... The idea of being increasingly weak, fragile and tired in the last weeks of her life were unbearable."

... "In my father's case, and I think in the case of many others, the issue is not the fact that you are about to die of a terminal illness in a certain number of weeks or months. It is that your life becomes unbearable because of physical or mental suffering. My father wasn't terminally ill, but he was 85, he had many health problems. He was in terrible, terrible pain and had been for a long time."

Boudicca described how hard it had been for her father to lose his sight and with it one of his greatest loves - reading. [He also lost his hearing.] For someone with my father's ear, that was hard to bear," said Boudicca of the man who conducted the first night at the Sydney Opera House, led the BBC Philharmonic, and worked with the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra for more than five decades ...

After 54 years of marriage - 37 in the same family home in Blackheath, south London; after bringing up two children and watching a grandson come into the world; after a lifetime filled with professional triumphs and moments of joy - Edward and Joan boarded a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, for their final trip together ...

They were given anti-nausea liquid, and after half an hour they swallowed the lethal shot that would bring their "wonderful lives" to an end. "It was calm and dignified - as they wanted," said Boudicca. "I will always know that they had a peaceful death - together."

The bodies were cremated and the ashes scattered in a Swiss forest. There was no funeral.

"My parents were fiercely independent and determined people. They did everything in a rational, slightly controversial and imaginative way - that is how they lived their lives. They weren't mainstream," she added, explaining that her father had chosen their names because of a love of ancient history.

As a tribute to the memory of Sir Edward Downes, here's an excerpt from a 1986 concert he conducted featuring stellar soprano Jessye Norman, who sings a lovely Michael Balfe aria. The words take on a wider meaning now: "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls ... But I also dreamt, which pleased me most, that you lov'd me still the same."


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:28 PM | | Comments (0)

Music scene isn't slowing down yet for the summer

For the third week in July, the local classical music scene looks remarkably active.

Naturally, the lion's share of activity is at An die Musik, where concerts seem to go on around the clock. At 8 tonight (the 20th), the third and final event in a Haydn/Mendelssohn series by Camerata Philadelphia will be offered, featuring the ensemble's founding director, cellist Stephen Framil. He'll play two solo works at the center of the program -- Ligeti's Sonata and a folksy showpiece by Mark Summer called Julie-O (see below for a performance of this cool item). Quartets by Haydn and Mendelssohn frame the program.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, young players from the International Music Institute and Festival USA at Mount St. Mary's University will give a concert (faculty at this summer institute include such well-known Baltimore-area musicians as Jonathan Carney, Jose Miguel Cueto and Brian Ganz).

Pianist Thomas Pandolfi, a Juilliard grad, wraps up the An die Musik week with a recital at 2 p.m. Saturday. Interesting program: Liszt's Dante Sonata, pieces by Chopin and Scriabin, Rhapsody in Blue and ...

Pandolfi's own improvisations on Gershwin tunes.

The free Roland Park Chamber Music Series wraps up with an exceptionally enticing pairing of works: the original 13-instrument version of Copland's Appalachian Spring and an early work of Vaughan Williams, the romantic C minor Piano Quintet from 1903. Vaughan Williams didn't think enough of it to have it published -- his distinctive stylistic voice hadn't yet emerged fully -- but it has since won favor as an attractive, well-crafted composition. (An excerpt is below.) The concert is at 7 p.m. Tuesday Roland Park Presbyterian.

This would be enough to make for a solid, off-season week, but there's also  the BSO's performances of Beethoven's Ninth led by Gunther Herbig Thursday (Strathmore) and Friday (Meyerhoff). And, if you don't mind a bit of a schlep, consider Wolf Trap Opera's production of Monteverdi's Homer-inspired The Return of Ulysses, one of history's earliest examples of the operatic art, opening Friday (repeats Sunday and July 28). 

Now, here's that Mark Summer cello work, which has a great summer-listening flavor, and a taste of the rhapsodic Vaughan Williams Piano Quintet:


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:56 AM | | Comments (0)

July 18, 2009

Personal appearance by your humble blogger at Artscape

If you're heading to Artscape and find yourself running out of things to do, feel free to drop by the Sun's tent on the northwest corner of Charles and Mt. Royal on Sunday between 4 and 5 p.m. I'll be there for a meet-and-greet with readers, and it would be fun to see you there (not to mention terribly mortifying if no one shows up).
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:38 AM | | Comments (0)

July 17, 2009

County supervisor asks Los Angeles Opera to remove Wagner focus from 'Ring' fest

Los Angeles OperaWagner is still causing trouble. That brilliant bastard, whose anti-Semitic views earned him extra favor with the Nazis who came to power 50 years after the composer's death, is the understandable focus of a large-scale festival the Los Angeles Opera has planned in conjunction with the company's first presentation of the complete Ring Cycle in spring 2010.

Last month, I received an email from a music critic, Carie Delmar, who wrote:

I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors and I am opposed to an arts festival that is being touted by Los Angeles city and county leaders as the most massive arts festival to hit LA since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The idea for the festival came from Placido Domingo and others within the umbrella of the Los Angeles Music Center, including music director James Conlon, who saw the financial benefits of such a festival to raise money to fund the company’s $32 million “Ring” cycle ... In spring 2010, the company will present three “Ring” cycles in concert with this arts festival – Ring Festival LA – which is basically a Richard Wagner Festival. More than 60 arts and educational organizations will present concerts, lectures, seminars and special events focused on or inspired by Wagner ... It is a known fact that Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite who ...

inspired Adolf Hitler and was the forerunner of the Nazi doctrine. Wagner wrote essays depicting Jews as insect life with hopes of their destruction. Hitler used Wagner’s music as a score or backdrop for his speeches at Nazi rallies and even as Jewish victims were hauled off to concentration camps. I believe that Ring Festival LA is an affront to Holocaust survivors who still associate Wagner’s name and music with the horrors they endured during the Nazi era. I have started a protest campaign to broaden the festival so that more composers are included to take the focus off Wagner ...

Supervisor Mike Antonovich agrees with me, that the festival should be broadened to include other composers. LA Opera called it a Wagner festival at the onset. After much pressure from the Jewish community, Rabbi Adlerstein at the Wiesenthal Center and from newspaper articles, LA Opera now has taken Wagner’s name out of much of their marketing materials and exchanged it for the word, “Ring.” They have also added a paragraph in their “Overview” to acknowledge Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and a couple of lectures are planned to address his racism. But the festival still has about 60 other events that add up to a Wagner festival, which serves to glorify the man ...

Also what makes this so disheartening to me is that some major patrons are Jewish and they are supporting this festival. One is E. Randol Schoenberg who is President of the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles. Eli Broad has contributed $6 million to the “Ring” and I have heard $3 million to the festival. The organizer, Barry Sanders, is also Jewish and prominent in the Los Angeles community. These Jews have totally forgotten their heritage and the Holocaust in their efforts to promote Los Angeles Opera. Elitism and power seems to be winning over values and morality. I am very grateful that Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is not Jewish, understands the significance of such a misdirected festival.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich officially asked the L.A. Opera to make changes in the focus of festival, an action that set off plenty of discussion. My colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed, jumped in with a counter-argument:

The supervisor’s proposition would be a cultural public relations disaster for Los Angeles, since the mounting of any "Ring" is an occasion of civic pride and our provocative $32-million production by German artist Achim Freyer is of international interest. It would bankrupt L.A. Opera, which has been "Ring" obsessed for a decade. It would harm Los Angeles' economy: The tourism industry is banking on a “Ring” windfall, and the "Ring Festival" brings together 50 different arts organizations. And it's even bad for the Jews.

That Wagner contributed to 19th century anti-Semitic literature is hardly news ... Wagner was a complicated man and his relationship to Jews was and remains confusing.  This is hardly news either ...

Hitler’s regard for Wagner is also extremely well documented. In Antonovich’s statement, he notes that Wagner supplied the "de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust." But it is highly debatable that Wagner, who had supported anarchist and anti-Fascist causes of his day, would have approved of Nazi tactics.  Besides, Hitler loved and appropriated many other composers. The Nazis did not hesitate, for instance, to pervert Beethoven and his message of brotherhood ... Should we not also consider, then, asking the Los Angeles Philharmonic to cancel Gustavo Dudamel’s free performance of the Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl in October?   

... As a staple of Western civilization, "The Ring," whatever you think of it, is inescapable. This means that we need more attention focused on Wagner, not less, if we are to understand why Seattle is gaga about its “Ring” cycle this summer, and why L.A. Opera, New York's Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera are all going through the extraordinary effort and expense of making new “Ring” productions ...

So let the Wagner Festival go forth and let the conversation be vigorous.  That’s our best defense against intolerance.  And I recommend Supervisor Antonovich perhaps educate himself about Wagner's operas.  The downfall of Wotan is an object lesson for any politician who takes an indefensible position.  

I have to say that I am surprised that, in 2010, such a heated debate should have broken out in this country. I would never downplay the hideous aspect of Wagner's personality, nor make light of Hitler's appropriation of the composer's music, but I think we ought to be able to deal with the issues with perspective. Great art is great art. Wagner's Ring is great art. That's one reason many Jewish conductors have mastered the score, from Mahler to Barenboim. (That Wagner entrusted the premiere of his ever-so-Christian Parsifal to a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi, says something, too.) 

Any Wagner festival that attempted to "glorify" the man would be rightly challenged. I don't think the L.A. fest has any such intention. Wagner the incredibly creative, revolutionary artist deserves to be acknowledged and studied. I'm terribly naive, I know, but I still believe that a totally evil person cannot create beautiful art. Hitler's inconsequential drawings are a case in point. Wagner's operas reach a level of such transcendent beauty and power that they must reflect, it seems to me, some tiny, redeemable portion of his soul. 

The simple truth is that the world of music would be a much poorer place without his work. So the Ring will go on, as it must. The debate over Wagner will go on, too, of course, just as it should.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:54 PM | | Comments (18)

Artscape has a classical music side, too

Although best known for its visual arts and pop/rock/jazz concerts, the annual Artscape extravaganza has its classical side. Here are some free events that should provide a welcome break from the heat and mobs outside.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will give a concert at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff; backstage tours and an "instrumental petting zoo" (sounds spooky to me) are also planned that day.

Local opera organizations have programs, too, all held at Corpus Christi Church (110 W. Lafayette). First up is a tribute to the immortal ...

Maria Callas. This Baltimore Concert Opera presentation will be narrated by Fabrizio Melano, a friend of Callas, with music performed by soprano Francesca Mondanaro and pianist Jim Harp (5:45 Friday).

Opera Vivente offers "I Hear America Singing: A Musical Celebration of the American Spirit," which promises folk, pop and more (2 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday).

And American Opera Theater will present John Dowland's A Pilgrimes Solace from 1612, performed by mezzo Monica Reinagle and guitarist Andrew Dickenson (2 and 5 p.m. Sunday).

Interspersed with the opera will be recitals by local organists (1 and 3:15 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday).


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:22 AM | | Comments (0)

July 16, 2009

Famed musicians' union lawyer arrested for embezzling

UPDATE July 11, 2011: News reports say Leibowitz pleaded guilty to embezzling from Independent Artists of America (now American Guild of Musical Artists). He wrote checks to himself, his law firm and his former wife -- more than $350,000. Sentencing will be handed down in October.  

That outbreak of schadenfreude you may notice around the country could be orchestra management folks getting news about their national nemesis, lawyer Leonard Leibowitz, arrested this week in New York and charged with embezzling $150,000 from a union fund at the American Ballet Theater.

Hired for many years by unions across to the country to represent players at the negotiating table, Leibowitz was famed for his strong tactics -- and for damaging orchestras hit with strikes he had advocated.

I remember covering a tense contract negotiating session at the ...

now-defunct Florida Philharmonic back in the 1990s. It was clear which way Leibowitz was leaning early on. When I asked for a reaction on how the meetings were going, his response was, "Sometimes you just have to strike to get their attention."

As it turned out, a strike was narrowly averted that year, but not the next time. 

Of course, I'm sure he did lots of good things for musicians along the way. And he may even be able to explain his current situation to the satisfaction of the court. Meanwhile, I suspect he won't be generating heaps of sympathy in some corners.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 15, 2009

Baltimore Concert Opera brings out the applause meter for open auditions

I stopped by Baltimore Concert Opera's public auditions Tuesday evening -- the second of two nights in a row -- at the Engineers Club. Most opera auditions, of course, are held privately and, needless to say, do not include an applause meter. But this attempt at a Baltimore's-Got-Talent approach was meant to turn the process into more of a fun event by announcing that audience reaction would figure into hiring decisions by the young company, which presents un-staged operas at the club with piano accompaniment.

I have to say right upfront and unequivocally (to use a Sonia Sotomayor phrase from her first day of hearings) that something about this concept, and the execution of it, didn't quite feel right to me, but the modest crowd on hand Tuesday seemed to have a good time.

I heard 11 singers; another six were scheduled after intermission (17 were on the program Monday). The quality varied, from the professional to the student-like (one participant's intonation troubles veered dangerously close to Florence Foster Jenkins territory), but almost everyone revealed sound musical instincts. I heard two stand-outs.

Soprano Leah Inger used her bright, clear voice, with its fast vibrato, to compelling effect in an aria from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The applause meter registered accordingly, and Baltimore Concert Opera's general director, baritone Brendan Cooke, called for more. Inger obliged with some stylish, if slightly less polished, Donizetti.

Also earning a two-aria shot was tenor Rolando Sanz, who gave impassioned accounts of popular Puccini and Massenet pieces. The very top range proved wanting, but the rest had considerable color and strength.

I also enjoyed the confident, dynamic performance of Sempre libera by soprano Abla Lynn Hamza (she wasn't asked for more); and the vibrant work of soprano Natalie Conte, who wasn't always firmly on pitch, but exuded personality and style in Lehar and Puccini favorites.

Conte is currently onstage with Cooke in the Young Vic's Pirates of Penzance. A couple of other cast members from that production took part in the BCO auditions, including baritone Jason Buckwalter, who set the applause meter on fire. But the engaging singer did not actually produce enough solidity of tone, especially at the upper and lower ends, to warrant so much carrying on in the audience.

No question, though, about the reaction to the hard-working pianist, Jim Harp, a model accompanist for each performer. When he was given a solo bow, the meter moved quickly and decisively into the red.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (2)

1934 film 'The Firebird' provides good laugh to start the day

As overly devoted readers of this blog will have learned, Turner Classic Movies plays practically round the clock at our house on a little set in the kitchen. We don't turn that particular TV off (the button disappeared into the set years ago and it's a major pain to get the thing rebooted if it ever does lose power), and we keep it tuned to TCM most of the time.

Overnight, it's in mute position and part of the fun for me when I crawl into the room for my early morning tea is to see what's playing and, if it's unfamiliar, try to judge whether it's worth turning on the sound. Something from the '30s was playing today and, although it looked very stagey, something made me go for it. 

A young, obviously upper crust woman was dancing in a big room of some mansion to music on the Victrola, which, as I un-muted the TV, turned out to be ...

Stravinsky's Firebird. So far so cool. But it gets better.

Her mother walked in, immediately stopped the record and said something to the effect of: "It's a good thing your father didn't hear this. Don't listen to this again. We believe that classical music is enough for you." Hilarious.

I can't wait to see the whole 1934 movie, which, as I discovered, is titled The Firebird and directed by William Dieterle. It's a murder mystery involving a guy who, I gather, lures women to his pad with the promise of playing that daring Stravinsky's ballet score for them. What a pick-up line. It sure beats "Do you want to see my etchings?" Now I'm dying to find out if the composer approved or loathed the use of his music in this ever so tawdry manner.   

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (1)

July 14, 2009

A little more on the Rufus Wainwright opera

La Cieca, the indomitable voice of the entertaining, ever-so-bitchy blog Parterre Box, makes an astute comment about Prima Donna, the first opera by moody-voiced singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright:

A piece like 'Prima Donna' is exactly the sort of thing (or at least one sort of thing) that the New York City Opera ought to be offering. It would sell like crazy, foster the most intense debate both online and in the meat universe, and just generally be scandalous.

That the leading role seems to have ...

'Lauren Flanigan' written on it in letters of fire doesn’t hurt either. Lauren as an insane camp opera singer? That’s what Ethan Mordden calls 'Gable as Rhett casting.'

Given how little (so far) outright bashing from the press Prima Donna has generated, it seems that the piece may well have legs and could certainly be a box office boon in several places. Hmmm. Maybe one of the existing or planned operatic troupes in Baltimore will take the risk. We could use some "intense debate" and scandal.

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

Sel Kardan, former director of Shriver Hall Concert Series, to head Colburn School in L.A.

Sel Kardan, who led the Shriver Hall Concert Series with considerable success for several years before becoming president of the Music Institute of Chicago, is heading West to take the helm of the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Colburn has both a tuition-free conservatory and a community school. Read more here.
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)

Distinguished conductor Edward Downes and his wife commit suicide

This sad news in from the AP:

British conductor Edward Downes, a longtime stalwart at the Royal Opera and maestro of the first-ever performance at Sydney's iconic Opera House, has died with his wife Joan at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. He was 85 and she was 74. The couple's children said Tuesday that the couple died "peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing" on Friday at a Zurich clinic run by the group Dignitas. "After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems," said a statement from the couple's son and daughter, Caractacus and Boudicca.

The statement said Downes, who became Sir Edward when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, had become ...

almost blind and increasingly deaf. His wife, a former dancer, choreographer and television producer, had devoted years to working as his assistant. British newspapers reported that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Dignitas founder Ludwig A. Minelli said he could not confirm the deaths due to confidentiality rules.

Downes' manager, Jonathan Groves, said he was shocked by the couple's deaths, but called their decision "typically brave and courageous."

... Born in 1924 in Birmingham, central England, Edward Downes studied at Birmingham University, the Royal College of Music and under German conductor Hermann Scherchen. In 1952 he joined London's Royal Opera House as a junior staffer — his first job was prompting soprano Maria Callas. He made his debut as a conductor with the company the following year and went on to become associate music director. Throughout his life he retained close ties to the Royal Opera, conducting 49 different operas there over more than 50 years. He also had a decades-long association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, where he became principal conductor and later conductor emeritus.

Downes was known for his support for British composers and his passion for Prokofiev and Verdi, on whom he was considered an expert. In the 1970s he became music director of the Australian Opera, conducting the first performance at the Sydney Opera House in 1973. He also worked with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and ensembles around the world.

The couple is survived by their children, who said their parents "both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally." The family said there would be no funeral.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:11 AM | | Comments (2)

Introducing a new feature: Music we've been missing

When you consider how much classical music has been created over the centuries, it's kind of pathetic how little of it we actually hear, especially in concert halls and opera houses. An awful lot of programmers and audiences, and far too many musicians, prefer staying largely within a narrow path of the tried and true, the familiar and already popular.

I understand box office concerns, of course, but there should still always be room for something different, something that takes the blinders off our ears and wakes us up to what we have been missing.

So I'm starting a humble little feature on the blog that will regularly highlight an example of the musical trove that, for one reason or another, has been widely overlooked. I won't just focus on music of the past; there are many living composers whose valuable work is ignored in favor of the well-worn stuff that comes back year after year. (Feel free to make your own suggestions along the way.)

To start, I let today's date -- July 14 -- determine my choice, since this happens to be the birthday of ...

a British composer whose beautifully crafted music is all too rarely encountered on our shores: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). When was the last time you went to a concert and found his Eclogue on the bill? I've never heard it live, and only rarely on the radio. This gentle work for piano and strings deserves much more attention. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:37 AM | | Comments (9)

July 13, 2009

This is early music week in Baltimore

Two mid-week concerts offer music from medieval, Renaissance and baroque eras.

The fine Peabody Consort, led by Mark Cudek, will explore two enticing areas of repertoire -- pieces used in early productions of Shakespeare plays, and Sephardic music from medieval Spain. This concert is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (the 14th) at ...

the Bolton St. Synagogue, 212 W. Cold Spring Lane. Admission is free.

The engaging ensemble known as Harmonious Blacksmith will perform a colorful sampling concertos by Vivaldi, Bach and Telemann at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (the 15th) at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $20, with $5 rush seats for students.

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

Rufus Wainwright's debut opera, 'Prima Donna,' opens to mixed reviews

You will recall that singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright was invited by the Metropolitan Opera, no less, to compose a work for the company, but the project hit a snag. The Met announced that Wainwright's insistence on writing Prima Donna, his first opera, in French, rather than English, was unacceptable, so the deal was off. My sources tell me a different tale, for what it's worth -- that Met officials listened to some of the score at an early stage in the creative process and found it ever so slightly wanting.

Whatever the full story (as Tony Tommasini points out, if the Met can produce an opera by American composer Philip Glass sung in Sanskrit, it seems odd to reject an opera by a Canadian-American composer sung in French), Wainwright was hardly deterred. His opera, which tells a Norma Desmond-like tale of a troubled, aging diva named Regine and her effort to start singing again after a long silence, was quickly snapped up by ...

the Manchester International Festival, where it was premiered over the weekend. The reviews that I've spotted are, unsurprisingly, mixed. One thing that was a clear hit, I gather -- Wainwright's provocative arrival at the theater, dressed as one of opera's greatest composers.

Here's a sample of the reactions:


The first thing to point out is that this is no mere rock star's vanity project, though few stars are quite as vain as Wainwright, who swans to his seat in the stalls sporting a top hat and silver-topped cane, having apparently decided that the best way to announce himself as an opera composer is to grow a beard and dress up as Verdi.

The score itself comes clothed as Strauss, Massenet and Puccini; Wainwright would seem to be on a mission to drag opera back into the late 19th century. But his gift as a melodist and an orchestrator are in no doubt, having been proved on a series of albums which are mini-operas in their own right.


As a longtime admirer of his music, I wish I could report that Prima Donna fulfilled his ambitions for writing a fresh and personal new opera. He certainly brings deep talents and potential to the challenge ... There are inspired touches and disarmingly beautiful passages in this mysterious, stylistically eclectic work ... But Mr. Wainwright’s score and his attitude toward the drama often seem muddled, as if he were relying too much on his keen musical and theatrical instincts lest he overthink and impede his imagination ...

In his songs Mr. Wainwright will evoke Hollywood strings, a hint of Carmen or a brass band, and the listener goes along for the stylistic ride. But in an opera of some two and a half hours the extended passages in sundry styles make you wonder what is going on. Is it ironic? Cavalier? Intentionally maudlin?

Some of the most captivating moments are the simplest musically ... The opera ends with a tender aria for Régine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.


[T]his flimsy plot is spun out into a cheesy piece of full-length music theatre. The only surprise was that Wainwright didn't create a part for himself, the primo uomo having made a grand entrance into the theatre dressed up as Verdi, with a beard grown for the occasion, his companion making a remarkably realistic Puccini. The buzz was palpable before the curtain rose. Flanked by his sister Martha and mother Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright, basking in flash photography, seemed in no doubt as to who was the star of this show ...

Musically, Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea. Wainwright didn't need to pay homage to all those dead composers he adores by including so many fragments of their scores in his own opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:53 AM | | Comments (5)

July 10, 2009

More details on instrumental album Michael Jackson started before his death, and his love of classical music

TV and film composer and conductor David Michael Frank may have been one of the last persons to collaborate with Michael Jackson on an artistic project. The pop singer’s untimely death left that project in an uncertain state. Initial reports suggested that Jackson planned to do an album of “classical music” he had written; the pieces were to be orchestrated by Frank. Actually, Frank says, the pieces were closer to film music and would have gone into an all-instrumental album had Jackson lived. The Baltimore-born Frank, interviewed by phone in California, gives an account here of his experience with the King of Pop:

Four or five months ago, I received a call from Michael Jackson’s longtime personal recording engineer, Michael Prince, who told me Michael was looking for someone to arrange some music for orchestra. I thought it was going to be for the tour he was going to do. For the next month or two, he would call, saying, ‘Michael Jackson says he’s going to call you.’

At the end of April, another Michael, Michael Jackson’s personal assistant, called me and asked me to come the next day at 10 a.m. and asked me the make and model of my car. I drove to the Holmby Hills home. I drove up to the front door, and was met by an assistant who told me to go inside. I was met there by a woman dressed like a housekeeper, but with a white turban on her head. She said, ‘Michael Jackson will be with you shortly.’ About two minutes later, he came down the stairs.

I was reluctant to shake his hand because I had heard that he was concerned about germs, but he immediately stuck his hand out and gave me a very firm handshake. He was very skinny, but not the least bit frail. He was wearing a suit and a hat. He was going to rehearsal later for the tour. He said, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him a long time ago I worked on a TV tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. at Shrine Auditorium [that he had participated in]. I told him I had met him briefly there.’ He said, ‘I never forget a face.’

He told me, ‘I have three projects going on simultaneously.’ One was the tour that the whole world knew about. The other two I believe no one knew about. One was to be an album of pop songs. Then he said, ‘The other one is that I want to record an album of classical music’ — what he called classical music.

He said he listened to ...

classical music all the time; it was his absolute favorite. I was impressed with the pieces he mentioned: Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait; Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I mentioned Bernstein's On the Waterfront. Then Michael mentioned that he loved Elmer Bernstein's film music, too, and he specifically mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird.

I realized that almost all the classical pieces he mentioned are childlike, very simple and pretty, like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. He also mentioned Debussy several times, specifically Arabesque [No. 1] and Clair de lune. He was very soft-spoken when were talking about music, but when he got animated about something, he was very changed. When he mentioned how he loved Elmer Bernstein, and I said I liked the Magnificent Seven score, Michael started singing the theme very loudly, almost screaming it.

He said, ‘I’m making a CD.’ Then his son, Prince Michael, came in, and Michael asked him to find a CD player. Paris found one and brought it in with Prince. Michael played the CD. It was very pretty music. He said, ‘But a section is missing.’ He played a second piece. And he said, ‘But a section is missing, too. But I can hum it to you.’ I asked if there was a piano in the house, and he said there was one in the pool house. We headed out there, but Michael stopped when he saw the dog was outside, soaking wet from being in the pool. He didn't want us to get splattered. It was kind of funny. Michael got another assistant to hold the dog while we went to his pool house.

I sat at the piano and Michael hummed the missing part of one of the pieces. I had taken a little digital recorder with me and asked if I could record him. He was in perfect pitch. I tried to figure out chords to go with it as he hummed. He said, ‘Your instincts are totally right about the chords.’

We talked about classical music some more. I played some Debussy pieces. Michael seemed very happy and I think he felt very comfortable with me. He mentioned Leonard Bernstein again, and I played some of West Side Story. He told me he had met Bernstein once and that Bernstein had said he was a big fan of Michael’s.

Back in the house, whenever he’d go from room to room, you’d hear, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ ‘I love you, Paris.’ They all seemed pretty normal and happy.

Michael was very anxious to get the pieces orchestrated and record the music with a big orchestra. I suggested we record it at the Fox, Sony or Warner Brothers lot. I asked if he could have someone call me to discuss the budget and he said he would take care of it. When I left there were several fans outside the gate.

[Later] I talked to Michael on the phone. He asked me how the project was going and I said I was waiting to hear from someone so we could set the deal. I suggested we could record the music in London while he was doing the show there. He liked the idea. He again brought up Arabesque.

I laid the music all out on my computer and started on the orchestrations. Finally, a week before Michael died, his manager, Frank Dileo, called and asked me for an email with the budget and an electronic mock-up of the music, the costs of orchestration.

Now I have no idea what’s going to happen with this. I’m hoping the family will do something to get this done. I will not bring it up [with them] until after what I think is an appropriate time.

My guess is that each piece would be seven to ten minutes long. [Each one] is more substantial than a song. It’s very pretty music. One piece had an Irish quality about it. I suggested that we could use a Celtic harp. The pieces sound like pretty film score music, with very traditional harmony, and definitely very strong melodies. One of them was a little John Barry-ish, like in Out of Africa -- that kind of John Barry score. I could hear [in my head] sweeping strings and French horns in unison.

I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that. I guess I still will use that baton if I ever get to conduct the music.


In honor of Michael Jackson's interest in classical music, as reported by David Michael Frank, here's a performance of Debussy's 'Arabesque' that the late singer apparently held in high regard: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:36 PM | | Comments (61)

BSO turns 'Psycho'-tic, performing Bernard Herrmann's vivid score live with Hitchcock's film

The concept of performing live soundtracks to famous movies is one of the more entertaining and insightful ideas to come around in the orchestra business in recent years. For lovers of film scores, it means a rare chance to hear the music in a whole new light, not mixed in, but right out front, played in real time with what is being projected.

It would be easier, of course, to deliver such scores in a regular concert format, but this approach is much more fun. That was the case a couple years ago, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented The Wizard of Oz, and it's the case this week with Psycho, which boasts one of Bernard Herrmann's most telling and economical scores. (In today's paper, I have an article about the Psycho project.)

Thursday night at Strathmore, the effect wasn't totally overwhelming, as I had hoped. Even with 40 strings on stage, the sound ...

didn't always come across with in-your-ear force. The famous shower scene, for example, with its brutal, high-pitched slashes, could have used a few more volts.

Still, it was great to be able to savor so fully the inegnuity of Herrmann's score, with its almost minimalist writing, and his expert sense of how even just a couple of slowly rocking chords can intensify a scene. The ensemble played with considerable polish throughout, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, whose timing never erred as the wonderfully creepy action unfolded on a screen above the stage -- the prisitine print of the film was another distinct plus. The presentation repeats tonight at the Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:55 AM | | Comments (2)

July 9, 2009

NEA Recovery grants benefit several Baltimore-area arts groups

While politicians and bloviators in the various media debate whether the federal stimulus package has actually produced any results, a whole bunch of arts groups around the country can point to honest-to-goodness money awarded this week by the NEA.

The grants, totaling $50 million, are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and are aimed specifically at helping organizations retain arts jobs that would otherwise be lost because of the economic downturn.

Here are some of the local recipients:

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: $50,000

Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra Association: $25,000

CenterStage: $50,000

Baltimore Museum of Art: $50,000

Museum for Contemporary Arts: $25,000

Baltimore Clayworks: $25,000

Fells Point Creative Alliance: $50,000

Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts: $250,000

Maryland State Arts Council: $318,600


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)

July 8, 2009

Michael Jackson reported to have been planning classical music recording

UPDATE: Reached David Michael Frank after posting this. He described the material that Michael Jackson asked him to orchestrate as closer to "pretty film score music" than anything fully classical. See extensive interview with Frank here

Michael JacksonHere's an unexpected (at least to me) bit of news about the late, much-lamented Michael Jackson.

In a recent Guardian article, David Michael Frank, a Baltimore-born composer who studied at Peabody and has been based in California since the late 1970s, says that Jackson was interested in writing classical music and had started on some pieces. Frank, who has composed for several films and TV shows, was recently asked to help with the orchestration.

An intriguing story. Perhaps Jackson ... 

felt the same sort of urge to spread his musical wings into the world of classical, or concert, music that has inspired Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and Elvis Costello (to name a few) over the years.

Pop artists don't necessarily succeed in a different genre; classical artists aren't necessarily able to do pop, either. But it's always interesting to see someone try to switch gears, to achieve something substantive in a field where they don't usually roam.

A pity that Jackson's apparent dream could not be fulfilled. Maybe enough material will turn up in his estate to generate a recording of what he had in mind.  


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

Baltimore Concert Opera's public audition to feature nearly three dozen singers

Baltimore Concert Opera, the recently formed ensemble that performs un-staged works at the Engineers Club, announced last month that it would hold public auditions under the title "So You Think You Can Sing Opera."

The auditions will have an Idol-like component, in that audience reaction "will potentially [play] a part in future casting decisions." The somewhat cheeky (others might say somewhat cheesy) project generated more eager singers than ...

the company can handle.

In the end, 34 were chosen to participate in this Baltimore's-got-talent effort, which will be held over the course of two evenings next week (July 13 and 14). For $10, you can get in on the fun of hearing the auditions and making your opinions felt. Sounds like a good occasion to dig out an applause-meter (remember those?).  

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:16 AM | | Comments (1)

July 7, 2009

Tickets for Renee Fleming's Dec. 17 recital at the Lyric Opera House on sale July 15

Renee FlemingTickets for Renee Fleming's Dec. 17 recital at the Lyric Opera House will go on sale July 15.

The golden-toned, glamorous soprano will be accompanied by pianist Gerald M. Moore in what is being described as "a recital of operatic arias."

More detailed programming is expected by September.  

The Lyric's management and the newly formed Lyric Opera Foundation will use proceeds from the Fleming concert "to support The Lyric in presenting grand opera and to provide educational activities throughout the state,” as well as community outreach projects, according to a press release that quotes Ed Brody, chairman of the Lyric's board of trustees. 

Tickets for the recital are priced from ...

$30 to $125.

They'll be available at the Lyric box office starting at 10 a.m. July 15, and by phone at 410-900-1150 and 410-547-7328, as well as ticketmaster.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:52 PM | | Comments (2)

A 149th birthday salute to Gustav Mahler

I won't go on and on again about Mahler, a topic I fear I return to much too often. Suffice it to say that, on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth (July 7, 1860), I have to have some of his music.

At some point today, in the privacy of my home, I'll dig out and play through portions of the piano transcriptions I've been fortunate to find of several of his symphonies (his spirit may be offended by my mistakes at the keyboard, but he'll surely adore my rubato). In this public forum, I'll share ...

one of my favorite Mahler movements, the beguiling Andante from his Symphony No. 6, which you'll have to watch/listen in two segments. That minor inconvenience will surely be worth it as you savor this glowing live performance by the Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (4)

July 6, 2009

Michael Sheppard's piano recital celebrates the art of fantasy and transcription

Michael Sheppard does not, apparently, think small. His piano recital Sunday afternoon at An die Musik (a preview of one he will perform soon in Singapore) was jammed with challenging repertoire. That he not only made it through unscathed, but also managed to keep everything interesting, says a lot about the Peabody-trained pianist.

He has done a lot of admirable work in the area over the years, especially with the Monument Piano Trio, and his educational pedigree -- his teachers included two keyboard poets, Leon Fleisher and Ann Schein -- invariably seems to shine through in Sheppard's playing. So it was here.

The big-ticket items were two opera-inspired showpieces by piano virtuosos from different eras, Sigismund Thalberg and Earl Wild. Thalberg doesn't get much attention these days, although he once was mentioned in the same breath as Liszt. His Grand Fantasy on Themes from Donizetti's 'Don Pasquale'  is great fun, with lots of delectable filigree and finger-busting pyrotechnics surrounding the melodies, sometimes at the expense of ...

those tunes (Thalberg treats the lilting Come' e gentil in rather blustery fashion, for some reason). Although Sheppard could have added more rhythmic and tonal nuance in places, he had the music singing engagingly and, other than a slightly cloudy coda, he met the virtuosic demands impressively.

Wild's overly generous Fantasy on Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' is quite the tour de force, the sort of thing only a great pianist could write. It also manages to conjure up something of the flavor of Gershwin's own electric playing. Sheppard seemed thoroughly comfortable with both the bravura demands and the stylistic idiom; the music was given an expressive surge.

The recitalist also showed off his own skills in the transcription department, performing highly effective arrangements of three songs by Samuel Barber. Time was when pianists routinely arranged vocal or orchestral pieces for themselves. Sheppard's clearly got the knack for it.

I enjoyed, too, one of his original compositions, Invitation to Travel, which sounds like a potential soundtrack just waiting for the right moody indie film to come along. The initial theme (it seems to hint at the intergalactic tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is put through imaginative paces in a tonal, pop-flavored, directly communicative style. The performance, of course, was authoritative.

The long program also had room for a crisply articulated Haydn Sonata and two Barcarolles -- the well-known one by Chopin (the playing need just a little more eloquence) and a recent, very moody and slightly over-extended one by Peter Klatzow (delivered with abundant sensitivity).


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:50 AM | | Comments (1)

Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate opens with compelling 'Turn of the Screw'

Castleton FestivalCastleton Farms, the 550-acre Virginia estate of celebrated conductor Lorin Maazel, is sort of like Michael Jackson’s Neverland, without the tackiness. In addition to the stately manor house, the well-manicured grounds include an intimate theater, a pool house, lakes (one of them where a group of ostriches and at least one swan hang out), and a zoo that boasts a camel, a zebra, a “zonkey,” pigs, goats and llamas. It’s all very cool, classy, and very welcoming.

The opening weekend of the 2009 Castleton Festival included an open house on the Fourth of July, when the public was invited to roam about freely (you wouldn’t believe the snazzy portable toilets that were brought in for the visitors); take tours of the house where Maazel and his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, live part of the year; and attend a production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, the first of the festival's four Britten stage pieces this summer (only the opera had an admission price).

The festival is a project of the Castleton Foundation, which the Maazels established in 1997 to ...

mentor young artists. Up-and-coming singers, instrumentalists and conductors -- something like 200 in all -- are gaining valuable training and experience, while folks living in the area or willing to make the drive (it took 2 hours and 15 minutes each way on Saturday from north Baltimore) get to enjoy the artistic results. The festival will include orchestral concerts later on, featuring members of the New York Philharmonic, where Maazel just finished up his tenure as music director with an unusually broad-paced, ultimately enriching performance of Mahler’s Eighth.

Castleton FestivalA few years ago, Maazel led The Turn of the Screw, his first performance of a Britten stage work, as part of the summer mentoring program. That staging, unveiled in the Theater House at Castleton, was subsequently presented at the Kennedy Center. The new production would be deserving of exposure elsewhere as well.

Saturday afternoon’s performance boasted a uniformly dynamic cast, superb playing by students from London’s Royal College of Music, taut and involving direction by William Kerley, and typically masterful conducting by Maazel. Nicholas Vaughan’s stark, yet evocative, sets and costumes were a significant asset. Same for Rie Ono’s lighting (the way she illuminated the fateful, sealed letter in the second act was especially fine).

Attending an opera in this warm, wood-filled theater, which seats only 130 on six rows on the main floor and a small balcony, automatically means an extra level of involvement in the music and drama. On Saturday, there was very little distance separating opera-goers from the performers, who often moved onto a lip of the stage that extended beyond the cozy orchestra pit, and, in the case of the two ghosts in the work, sometimes appeared right alongside unsuspecting patrons. This in-your-face element was ideal for such a tense, fast-moving piece as The Turn of the Screw.

Charlotte Dobbs was a persuasive Governess, her growing fear and concern registering with telling force. She revealed a silvery soprano and considerable expressive nuance (her fast vibrato seemed doubly appropriate, given the plot). Steven Ebel made a particularly strong impression as Quint, and not just for the way he managed to sing so vividly while practically hanging by a thread over the balcony in his first scene. Throughout, the tenor produced a honeyed tone and negotiated even the most florid lines with admirable smoothness. He conveyed the curious attractiveness and hideous insinuations of the spectral character in compelling fashion.

For the most part, 13-year-old Harry Risoleo, as Miles, offered confident, effective work, musically and dramatically. Kirby Anne Hall’s colorful singing added to her knowing portrayal of Flora. Rachel Calloway, as Mrs. Grose, sounded a bit strident at full-throttle (in this very small house, a little vocal power goes a long way), but hers was a vibrant, insightful effort. Greta Ball sang sturdily and affectingly as Miss Jessel. Brian Porter made the most of the Prologue’s brief lines, delivered with great clarity and subtlety. A potent performance all around.

The festival continues with productions of The Rape of Lucretia July 10 -12, and Albert Herring July 17-19 (Maazel conducts the first night of each). Remaining performances of Britten’s arrangement of John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera are July 12, 16 and 18. Orchestral concerts, led by Maazel, will be held July 11 and 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:58 AM | | Comments (1)

July 5, 2009

Proposal for an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis-type of company in Baltimore

After writing about Baltimore's operatic future in early May, I received a thought-provoking, extraordinarily detailed analysis from a couple of opera lovers in Annapolis, Jan and Ellen Richter. My column in the July 5 Sun refers to the ideas the Richters raised for building here something along the lines of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It's pretty easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm, and I can already envision such a company blossoming here, either downtown in an intimate place like Centerstage, or in Towson at Goucher College (an environment not unlike the campus where OTSL performs.) 

I thought it would be of interest to anyone following the Baltimore scene to have access to more of the Richters' comments, which they gave me permission to present here. There's a lot of stuff here, but I think you'll find it well worth reading. Feel free to post your reactions, or your own visions of Baltimore's operatic future.

... We believe that the next step in this discussion is to examine the financial and artistic prospects of a Baltimore Opera Company (BOC) follow-on company, and also to broaden the discussion to ask what kind of opera could succeed in Baltimore. We would like to lay out here some personal thoughts on these topics.

We believe that current trends indicate that any BOC follow-on will only succeed, if at all, at a lower artistic and financial level. Baltimore is a mid-sized metropolitan area (20th largest in the U.S.) that has shown the proven ability to devote up to $6 million per year to the former BOC. The BOC at the end of its life was in a three way competition for the grand opera audience in Baltimore along with the Metropolitan Opera High-Definition broadcasts and the nearby Washington National Opera (WNO).

While the Met broadcasts are not live opera, the casts are hard to equal and the price is very appealing ... 

The WNO is located less than 40 miles from Baltimore’s Washington Monument, and the productions are major league. The cost is, however, generally higher than for the old BOC. According to Guidestar (Form 990), the budget for 7 productions at WNO is about $35 million. Thus, on a very rough basis, the old BOC had $1.5 million available for each of 4 productions, while WNO has about $5 million available for each of 7 productions.

Given the break in operatic activity, it is not likely that the Baltimore opera community will support a new company at anywhere near $6 million in the first season of operations. That old BOC budget will probably not be achieved again for at least 5 to 10 years, as the new company proves that its productions are “must see” events. Meanwhile, the Met keeps expanding the number of broadcasts and WNO seems to be expanding a budget that is already far greater than Baltimore can hope to raise. These trends figured in the demise of the former BOC and will slow the growth of a new “grand” company, since it will compete with the Met and WNO. Once money flows to the Met broadcasts and WNO, it may never return to a new grand company.

The result is that a BOC follow-on company will, with near certainty, have to ...

operate for some time, and possibly for the long run, at a much lower financial and artistic level than the old BOC ... Baltimore had the resources to compete in grand opera in 1950 at the BOC founding, but it no longer has the population or money to compete with Washington and the other great, grand operas of America ... 

When BOC was founded, Baltimore was competitive in resources for funding grand opera. Today, the metro area no longer has the resources typical of those cities which support great, grand opera companies ...

The BOC budget was 4th to 8th largest among American opera companies in the early 1950s. So the reality is that the Baltimore metropolitan area population rank has fallen from 12th in 1950 to 20th now, and the BOC budget rank shortly after its founding was 4th to 8th largest but fell to 24th largest near the end of its life. By way of comparison, the 12th largest metro area now is Phoenix with 4,281,899 (1.6 times larger than Baltimore). The 8th largest opera company budget is Houston with $22,094,055 (3.6 times larger than BOC’s budget). The 4th largest opera company budget is Chicago with $56,714,466 (9.3 times larger than BOC’s budget). Baltimore is no longer in the population and budget class to compete in grand opera as successfully as the BOC did early in its life.

Given the financial and population resources of Baltimore, what kind of opera can succeed here? The goal should be to create a nationally important 21st century opera company ...

Surveying other companies in a similar budget class ... reveals that it is possible to have internationally important opera on a roughly $6 - $8 million annual budget. The two companies that jump out are Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) and Glimmerglass Opera. Two other significant companies that operate on even lower budgets (ca. $2 - $3 million) are Chicago Opera Theatre and Des Moines Metro Opera. These are all small- stage companies performing in intimate houses (fewer than 1,000 seats) and featuring young, emerging American singers.

The most direct comparison is to OTSL, the principal opera company of St. Louis. Since moving to Annapolis from St. Louis in 1999, we have continually observed the similarity between the cities of St. Louis and Baltimore. They are comparable in population and wealth, and we think, have a similar psychology. St. Louis stands in the shadow of Chicago as Baltimore does of Washington. In 1975, Baltimore had a nationally significant opera company and St. Louis had none. In 2009, Baltimore has no professional opera company with even a $250,000 budget. St. Louis has an adventuresome, small-stage opera company with a ca. $8 million annual budget that attracts audiences and critics internationally and is among America’s fiscally strongest opera companies ...

We think that circumstances in Baltimore are encouraging for the creation of a small-stage opera company based on young American singers that could live within the old BOC budget and do nationally and possibly internationally important work. The issue for Baltimore is great versus grand. Many prominent participants in the opera business attend OTSL and by their presence and critiques make clear that it is a great opera that any city could be proud of. A revived grand opera in Baltimore, given likely resources and trends will almost certainly not be able to aspire to greatness or even national notice.

The key is that St. Louis does not compete directly with the largest budget companies in the U.S. (Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco) in repertoire, singers, or performance style. With its intimate theater of 987 seats, OTSL is ideal for young voices and lets the drama almost leap off the stage ...  The small house has enabled OTSL to originate 21 world and 22 US premieres in 34 seasons ...

In contrast, the old BOC and various proposed large-stage follow-on companies need to generally do relatively conservative “top 40” operas to fill the 2,500 seat Lyric theater. There are a limited number of singers who have the required large voices for the Lyric and few of the best will be affordable for any revived Baltimore grand company. The only company that will be able to financially succeed in Baltimore producing grand opera will in all probability be a pale artistic shadow of the old BOC.

So a company utilizing the current abundance of accomplished young American singers based in a suitable 500 - 1,200 seat theater and performing a mix of popular favorites and new and unusual works could thrive here and serve the local opera audience well. This could be a summer festival (St. Louis and Glimmerglass) or a regular season company (Chicago Opera Theater). Ideas could be drawn from all of these companies to create a unique Baltimore institution that looks forward to the future of opera. This type of company could make a real impression on an initial $2 - $3 million budget and would have an excellent chance of growing to the $6 million class.

In short, we believe that Baltimore will be much better off with a small-stage opera company that aspires to be great but not grand and has a real chance of high achievement, as opposed to a large-stage company that will with near certainly be always constrained by the size and resources of the city to be grand, but not great.

Finding an appropriate theater in Baltimore is clearly a challenge in creating new small-stage company. First, let’s look at the fine, but less than ideal, St. Louis theater. It has 987 seats all on one level (no balconies), and the acoustics are optimized for spoken voice. It was built about 1965 to house what became the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, which still occupies it between September and April. This is where the May-June season originated—because the theater was available. The pit was enlarged for the first season to about 35 players and has since been expanded to 55. The pit opening is small and part of the orchestra sound is swallowed up. Fortunately, the excellent St. Louis Symphony is the pit orchestra and overcomes the circumstances. There is a thrust stage with no curtain. The theater, located in suburban St. Louis, is owned by Webster University, which uses it for some academic activities during the winter months in addition to usage by the Repertory Theater. Nevertheless, great opera has found a home here for 34 seasons.

The Glimmerglass Opera house is our favorite in this size class. It has balconies for very short viewing distances, a larger pit and good acoustics (to our ears). This is another adventuresome opera company that operates on roughly the same budget as the old BOC and attracts national and international attention.

We are not so familiar with the resources of Baltimore as to be able to suggest an appropriate theater, and finding a suitable venue will likely be a challenge. We both thought that the larger house at Center Stage might have possibilities for a summer opera. It reminds us of the OTSL theater. The auditorium at Goucher College struck us as having the same general “feel” and park-like setting as at OTSL. Perhaps a college or junior college theater could be used for a summer opera. Someone with imagination and a solid knowledge of stage and orchestra requirements needs to scour the area for possibilities.

In full disclosure, please note: While Jan is currently a board member of Opera Vivente and Ellen has been, the purpose of these musings is to advocate adventuresome, small stage opera for Baltimore, not any specific company. We have also been subscribers and supporters of OTSL since 1978 and are currently members of the OTSL National Patrons Council. We are also looking forward to our 7th Glimmerglass season.

We would love to see the excitement and originality that characterizes OTSL and Glimmerglass appearing regularly on a stage in Baltimore. We further believe that such a company could relatively quickly (less than 10 years) become one of the crown jewels of the Baltimore cultural scene.

Sincerely yours,

Jan Paul Richter

Ellen von Seggern Richter


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (5)

July 4, 2009

Celebrating the Fourth of July with the incomparable voice of Leontyne Price

Happy Fourth of July.

For a fabulous blast of vocal patriotism, you can't beat this a cappella performance of "God Bless America" by indelible soprano Leontyne Price, from a concert appearance in 2001. She has always been one of my favorite artists -- a singer with an extraordinarily rich tone and deep expressive power, a woman of ...

great dignity and integrity.  I didn't get to hear her in operas before her retirement, but in several concerts that I'll never forget -- not to mention her thrilling a cappella ''America the Beautiful" last fall in Washington, when she was honored at the NEA Opera Awards. At 81, she still sounded supreme. Here she is, filmed in her 70s, delivering Irving Berlin's stirring anthem. Hearing Miss Price her gives me all the fireworks I need for this day.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:39 AM | | Comments (2)

July 3, 2009

From Judy Garland, a musical start to the Fourth of July weekend

The other day, I posted about the 40th anniversary of Judy Garland's death. I still have her on my mind, so I thought I'd turn to her for something musical to start the Fourth of July weekend.

Here she is from her CBS TV show (a show that should have gone much longer, but was thwarted by corporate idiots who didn't appreciate what they had), coming out of her tramp-outfit routine to sing "America the Beautiful."

Visually, the transition may look odd at first, but ...

I think there's something rather touching about it, a way of affirming the American spirit in the face of adversity. And it sure seems all the more relevant now that so many people in this country have so many troubles again.

When you hear Judy sing this song, our unofficial second national anthem, it's easy to believe all will soon be good and strong again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:10 AM | | Comments (2)

July 2, 2009

Candlelight Concerts in Columbia to offer Beethoven quartet cycle, Emma Kirkby and more

ConcertanteThe 37th season of Candlelight Concerts, the fine chamber series in Columbia, will include the start of a two-year survey of the complete Beethoven string quartets. Six ensembles, American and European, will participate in the cycle, beginning the the Illinois-based Pacifica Quartet Jan. 23. The Ebene Quartet from France (Feb. 6) and Artemis Quartet from Germany (Feb. 27) will also be part of the series during the 2009-2010 portion of the Beethoven series.

Starting off the Candlelight lineup is soprano Emma Kirkby, the much acclaimed specialist in early music, who will perform a 17th century program with lutenist Jakob Lindberg on Oct. 24. The Concertante Sextet will play Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht and Brahms' G major Sextet, along with John Novacek's Three Rags, on Nov. 21. Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan will perform works by Beethoven, Schumann, Shostakovich and others on March 13. 

And, providing the most concentrated dose of contemporary music on the series, the ... 

Del Sol Quartet will explore works by Gabriela Lena Frank and Zhou Long, as well as Bartok, on April 10. The season will end June 13 with the winner of the 2010 Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition (chosen March 27).

All performances will be at Smith Theatre, EXCEPT the Artemis Quartet, which will be presented at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (0)

July 1, 2009

Wolf Trap Opera takes clinical look at 'Cosi fan tutte'

The idea loudly espoused in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – that women can’t help being unfaithful to their men – is hard to swallow under normal circumstances. Encountering the work while Gov. Sanford’s confession of serial line-crossing is all over the news requires even more indulgence than usual.

Wolf Trap Opera’s intriguing production, which had its final performance Tuesday night at the Barns, emphasized the darker side of Cosi fan tutte, treating the wager that sets the plot in motion as a kind of calculated scientific experiment, set in a pristine clinic. Folks in white lab coats peered through two-way mirrors and secretly taped everything that went on as two couples were gradually torn apart, thanks to Don Alfonso’s wager with Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiances will betray them if given half a chance.

It is possible to question various elements in director Eric Einhorn’s concept, especially 

the uneven balance between broad slapstick and a gentler sitcom approach, but he managed to pull off this updating of the plot in often compelling, not to mention humorous and some ever so slightly vulgar, ways.

He’s not the first director to put an unhappy, unsettled spin on the opera’s ending, but Einhorn strongly underlined how none of the four central characters would ever be the same, how deeply wounded each one was by what happened during the experiment. In a persuasive touch, Einhorn showed one of the women ... 

 discovering the wicked scheme earlier than the libretto has it.

The look of the staging – Erhard Rom designed the sleek lab/office set, complete with a magazine-stocked waiting room and restroom (the latter used for more than freshening up) – created a neat, cohesive package. Mattie Ullrich’s predominantly black and white costumes added an extra dash of visual style.

Wolf Trap Opera’s young, eager cast offered a true ensemble effort and uniformly effective acting, something this company routinely generates. The participants did not all sound like stars in the making, but there was abundant personality in the singing, as well as a good deal of style.

David Portillo (Ferrando) proved particularly promising. The tenor’s soft notes had a tenderness not often encountered today among young singers; he was capable of truly lyrical vocalism. There is more strengthening of the voice to be done, but his musicality is already impressively developed. Matthew Hanscom (Guglielmo) produced some lovely tones and vivid phrasing, too. Rena Harms (Fiordiligi) encountered brittleness at the top, and her coloratura was not always effortless. Still, the soprano’s passionate singing had an effective impact. Jamie Van Eyck (Dorabella) did generally firm, colorful singing.

Alicia Gianni, as the servant Dorabella, was made up to look like a pampered rich girl, which didn’t quite make sense with the plot, but she certainly got into the spirit of things with panache. She also brought a strong, warm, colorful soprano to the assignment. Carlos Monzon was a vocally lightweight, yet spirited, Don Alfonso. Conductor Timothy Myers led a basically breezy, yet often quite sensitive, performance (the Act 1 trio was allowed an affecting breadth). The lively orchestra could have used firmer strings and a bit more discipline.

Next up for Wolf Trap Opera: Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:51 PM | | Comments (0)

Mollie Sugden, of 'Are You Being Served?' fame, dies at 86

It may not register on the global scale as Michael Jackson's death, but the passing of Mollie Sugden today will leave a much deeper mark on a lot of us, and, as she would say, I am unanimous in that. 

Miss Sudgen endeared herself TV audiences as Mrs. Slocombe, the head of Ladies' Intimate Apparel on the long-running Brit com, Are You Being Served?, a show that gained its American following thanks to endless reruns on a lot of PBS stations for many years. I can never go too long without watching an episode for the millionth time. (Hey, I can't devote myself entirely to classical music.) 

Everything about Mollie Sugden's Mrs. Slocombe was ...

compelling, from the ever-changing color of her hair to her giggles and tantrums and, of course, her startling lines about her "pussy". She was simply fabulous. I found this tribute on YouTube, which gives you a taste of this terribly talented woman and the affection she so easily generated:


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:39 PM | | Comments (23)

Michael Kaiser takes Kennedy Center's 'Arts in Crisis' project on the road

Baltimore was one of the early stops on what is now a full-scale, 50-states-plus-Puerto-Rico-and-the-District-of-Columbia tour by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser as part of the center's "Arts in Crisis" project.

Michael KaiserKaiser was at the Baltimore Museum of Art a few weeks ago for a public discussion on arts organizations facing the harsh challenges caused by the recession. He has a long track record of rescuing financially challenged institutions and for invigorating the programming and reach of arts groups, so a lot of folks naturally hang on his every word.

"Arts in Crisis," launched in February, is already working with more than 350 organizations around the country, providing planning advice on a range of issues. More than 100 veteran arts professionals are participating in the project as volunteer mentors.

The press release from Kennedy Center announcing the Kaiser road show included ...

quotes from a starry bi-partisan lineup. I realize that various handlers probably prepared these statements, in the time-honored tradition, but, still, it's nice to think that Republicans and Democrats can agree on the need to help the arts get through these unusually tough times. (Besides, it might be useful to recall these quotes the next time NEA funding or other arts issues get debated on the Hill.) Here are some excerpts:

First Lady Michelle Obama: “Nearly six million people make their living in the non-profit arts industry and arts and cultural activities contribute more than $160 billion to our economy every year. The President provided an additional $50 million in funding to the NEA in the Recovery Act to preserve jobs in state arts agencies and regional arts organizations in order to keep them up and running during the economic downturn. Our future as an innovative country depends on ensuring that everyone has access to the arts and to cultural opportunities and the Arts in Crisis initiative addresses this important intersection of creativity and commerce.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: “Arts organizations are facing the same challenges as America’s families and communities; in this recession, it is tough to make ends meet. Yet as President John F. Kennedy once said, ‘The life of the arts – far from being an interruption in the life of a nation – is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose.’ That is why I applaud Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Crisis initiative ..." 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “The recent closure of the Las Vegas Art museum – which had been operating continuously since 1974 – shows that this economic recession is taking a serious toll on our art institutions in Nevada and throughout our nation ... I know that the arts in Nevada will benefit from the Kennedy Center’s expert advice and I look forward to Mr. Kaiser’s visit to my state.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Like many Kentuckians, I appreciate the contributions of the arts and humanities in enriching our communities and I would like to thank the Kennedy Center for lending its considerable fundraising and management expertise to help local arts agencies weather these difficult times.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner: “At this time of economic challenge for our country, families and small businesses are struggling to make ends meet, and the same can be said of arts organizations throughout our nation. I commend Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center for stepping up to help arts organizations in communities across America to weather the storm, sharing their expertise and counsel at a time when they’re needed most.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California: “The Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis initiative will help ensure that America’s treasured arts organizations have the knowledge they need to survive this economic downturn ...”

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi: “... I am glad the Kennedy Center has provided an avenue for performing arts groups to receive financial and management counsel to help survive the current economic climate and thrive in the future.” 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:30 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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