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August 29, 2009

Placido Domingo, Susan Graham, Yo-Yo Ma perform eloquently at Kennedy funeral

I didn't figure on watching the entire funeral Mass for Sen. Edward Kennedy, but I'm glad I got drawn in, for, in addition to all the fine oratory (especially by Ted Kennedy, Jr.) , there was music-making of great eloquence by three of the finest artists in today's classical world. The senator, a hearty music lover, would have loved every note of it.

During the Offertory, Yo-Yo Ma played the Sarabande from Bach's Suite No. 6 for Unaccompanied Cello, a piece of elegant, comforting beauty, with a hint of sadness in the descending melodic motive that recurs. Intonation could not have been easy to maintain in the un-airconditioned church, but Ma came through, as always, with his deeply poetic phrasing.

The cellist returned at Communion to accompany Placido Domingo in the Cesar Franck hymn, "Panis Angelicus," a work of great warmth that was much loved in the days of pre-guitar  Catholicism. It was intriguing to  

hear just a tenor and a solo cello perform this music, and I found the result quite touching, a very personal performance. Domingo hit a rough note or two, but sang with considerable expressive power to the counterpoint of Ma's eloquent counterpoint. (Update: I've added video of the Franck.)

After Communion, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham offered a sublime account of another work long a favorite at Catholic services, Schubert's "Ave Maria," accompanied by organ. Graham possesses one of the most intrinsically beautiful voices of our time, not to mention exceptional interpretive instincts, and this solemn occasion benefitted greatly from her art.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:13 PM | | Comments (8)

August 28, 2009

Placido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, Boston Symphony members to perform at Sen. Kennedy's funeral Mass

The funeral Mass for Sen. Edward Kennedy will include music performed by two of the finest classical artists in the world -- tenor Placido Domingo and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Here are more details from the AP story:

The Rev. Philip Dabney, associate pastor of Boston's Mission Church, says Saturday's service will be a "regular Catholic funeral," with superb music.

In addition, a contingent from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a soprano from New York's Metropolitan Opera will appear.

Several clergy members will be on hand. The Rev. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, will be the principal celebrant.

The Rev. Mark Hession of Our Lady of Victories Parish on Cape Cod will delivery the homily, and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley will lead the final prayers of commendation.

President Barack Obama will delivery the eulogy.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Roundup of critical reactions to Baltimore Symphony's recording of Bernstein's 'Mass'

The BSO's just-out recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" reconfirmed my impressions of the performance the orchestra gave with music director Marin Alsop last fall. My earth-shattering review ran in the paper earlier this week (if you missed it, a single click will speed you to it). Here are excerpts from some other viewpoints, starting with my regional colleague, Anne Midgette, from her blog, The Classical Beat



Alsop's recording is certainly the best of the recent crop ... she captures the sense of Bernstein's irreverent exuberance. She also, in effect, synthesizes the approaches of the other two recordings: the BSO sounds a lot cleaner and richer than the orchestra on the original-cast album, and at times there's a hint of classicizing care, a sense that the singers, in particular, are trying to make it as pretty as they can.

Admittedly, a couple of those singers come a little short of the mark ... Bernstein was writing for Broadway singers who can really use their voices, and that's a Fach that scarcely exists today. It's important to remember that "Mass" is not a Mass as such, but a theater piece; it's written for theatrical singers. It also needs a singer in the title role who can actually act. One particular liability with Jerry Hadley's performance on the Nagano recording is the sententiousness he brings to the role of the priest, declaiming his texts with a kind of phony holier-than-thou plumminess.

Jubilant Sykes, Alsop's Celebrant, has a hint of sententiousness at times as well. He's an interesting choice for the role -- Alsop had performed the piece with him before, at the Hollywood Bowl -- since he's a singer who combines classical training with gospel. Unfortunately, he ...

had a cold during last fall's run of "Mass," and this badly compromises his performance (the recording was made live). It's thus difficult to give an objective evaluation beyond saying that it's an awful shame he was unable to bring his A game to an exciting project, especially since his hoarseness interferes with a few of the dramatic high points, like the Celebrant's extended mad scene, which drags on all the more when sung by someone who sounds like he's in danger of losing his voice.

...To my ear, there's a little more substance to the original recording, which transmits not only a gritty energy but a naivete -- an idea that music really can change the world -- that may be almost impossible to recreate. The prayer "Almighty Father," a simple but not-so-easy unison melody, has an unselfconscious awe for me in the original, a more manufactured prettiness in Alsop's version; that's the kind of thing I mean. But what I am hearing in the former is in part the sound of my own childhood, which, of course, no one can replicate. It doesn't diminish from the vigor of this new "Mass," which is one of Alsop's happiest achievements. DAVID PATRICK STEARNS, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER:

... ["Mass"] can now be viewed as the product of an era when sacred cows were casually slaughtered as America rebelled against any kind of authority and Pope John XXIII allowed populist innovations such as "guitar masses."

Bernstein joined the protesters, though since his generation was being rebelled against, he was considered a poser. I don't believe that. But as a composer, he wanted to matter, even though his musical idiom -- applicable both to Broadway and symphonies in ways that made each side suspicious of him -- was out of fashion. So if he couldn't be a musical radical, he would be an ideological one -- and he had the conviction to back it up. Maybe too much. "Mass" probes the nature of belief with all the grace of a battering ram and with such sprawling musical means that even the sympathetic album notes by the late Robert Hilferty describe Mass' details as "zany" and "goofy" ...

How could such a thing be rehabilitated? By performers, namely conductor Alsop and baritone Jubilant Sykes. Neither artist is always brilliant, but they are here, thanks to a deep belief that, however recklessly Bernstein expressed himself, the underlying issues are important. Alsop is the voice of solidity and integration. Sykes turns his role into a monologue that's too personal and vital to seem dated. Paradoxically, the more Sykes achieves dramatic specificity, the more I hear Bernstein himself talking in lines like "I feel like ev'ry psalm that I've ever sung turns to wormwood. . . . And I wonder . . . was I ever really young?"


Love it loathe it, Bernstein's "Mass" is here to stay. This is the second recording of it this year and next July it will form a mainstay of Marin Alsop's Bernstein Project at London's Southbank. It is a work that has something for everybody, or nothing for anybody, depending on your point of view. But Alsop passionately believes in it and, if anyone can pull together its diverse traits and make them gel into a dramatic entity, she can.

Bernstein harnesses the concept of Seventies radical chic with typical aplomb. He doesn't make things easy for his performers, what with all the syncopation and other demands of articulation, but Alsop directs a performance that attests not only to her admiration for the piece, but also to the way she can tap the musics colour and spirit. Naysayers need not apply, perhaps, but enthusiasts need look no further for a first-rate recording.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | Comments (0)

Remembering Sen. Edward Kennedy's musical collaborations

Sen. Edward Kennedy was a great friend of the arts in many ways, which is one more reason his leadership and embracing personality will be so sorely missed.

Thanks to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for providing two treasurable clips that provide an uplifting way to remember this great public servant. In the first, the Senator narrates Copland's "Lincoln Portrait":

And here's Sen. Kennedy's rousing turn on the podium, conducting the Boston Pops in "Stars and Stripes Forever":

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

Reveling (or wallowing) in my favorite aria, "Marietta's Lied"

Not sure why I suddenly felt so compelled to revel -- OK, wallow -- in my favorite aria, "Glück das mir verblieb" (popularly known as "Marietta's Lied") from Korngold's "Die tote Stadt," but the feeling came over me while working late at the paper on a story that has been tough going. (Various print projects have kept me from being a dutiful blogger lately. Please forgive.) Maybe I just needed the distraction, an escape, however brief. Maybe it's also, somehow, a reaction to Sen. Kennedy's passing; this music brings together so many feelings about life, love and, yes, death.

To me, "Marietta's Lied" is simply one of the most exquisitely crafted and deeply affecting five or six minutes ever composed by anyone. The opera itself will probably never be truly popular. The plot, with some little shades of "Vertigo" in it, is a bit thick, the score thicker. But I find the whole thing quite absorbing, and can easily overlook anything for the pleasure of the aria, which appears in the first act.

Here's a taste of the text: " 'Come to me, my true love. Night sinks into the grove. You are my light and day. Anxiously beats heart on heart. Hope itself soars heavenward.' A sad song, the song of true love that must die. I know the song. I heard it often in younger, better days. 'Though sorrow becomes dark, come to me, my true love. Death will not separate us. If you must leave me one day, believe there is a next life.' "

I never, ever tire of hearing the aria, and I love introducing it to people who haven't yet had the pleasure. So, if you don't know it, I hope these performances will hook you. If you're already a fan, I trust you'll enjoy spending time with the music again.

I couldn't choose just one version so I finally settled on four, starting with ...

today's most radiant soprano, Renee Fleming. How warm and effortlessly stylish her singing is here. Second, Anne Sophie von Otter's extraordinary account backed by a chamber ensemble; I was blown away when I found this (YouTube really is the greatest invention of the 21st century, isn't it?).

In the opera itself, "Marietta's Lied" blossoms into a duet, which can be wonderful if both the soprano and the tenor are up to the considerable challenges -- not, alas, all that frequent an occasion. I think you'll agree that Lottle Lehmann and Richard Tauber measure up superbly in the third clip, a blast from the past. Finally, my all-time champion of the aria, Beverly Sills, whose recording, at a wonderfully unhurried pace, finds her at a peak of tonal purity and expressive tenderness. To me, this performance casts the most powerful spell of all.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:23 AM | | Comments (7)

August 25, 2009

A birthday commemoration of Leonard Bernstein

Can't let this day go by without a salute to Leonard Bernstein, born Aug. 25, 1918.

The conductor/composer set off wonderful sparks like no one before him, or since. He could achieve magic on the podium, generating performances that took the listener to new, unexpected heights and often into unusually deep emotional territory. His death -- Oct. 14, 1990 -- came much too soon.

I picked just a couple examples of Bernstein's brilliance on the podium as a little tribute, starting with a sublime performance of Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" (few conductors could make such a slow tempo sound perfectly right) and closing with a dynamite excerpt from the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fifth (here, you get the deliciously fast and arrestingly slow side of Bernstein's style all in one clip):

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:06 PM | | Comments (1)

Music we've been missing (Part 7): Elgar

England and America have everything in common, Oscar Wilde observed, except the language. He could have excepted the music, too, at least the classical stuff. I think we hear way too little music by British composers, old and new, in our concert halls.

I've already lobbied in this humble blog for a dash of Finzi, and now I'd like to make a pitch for Elgar. Sure, we get the occasional (and ever-welcome) "Enigma" Variations. And the sublime concertos receive attention periodically. But that still leaves too much of Elgar's music absent from local programs.

The Baltimore Symphony did give us the Symphony No. 1 some years ago (James Judd led the authoritative performance), but I'd say it's high time for the majestic No. 2. If that seems too risky, box office-wise (for reasons that escape me, some folks find Elgar's symphonies boring), what on earth is preventing the programming of something as bright, brilliant and just plain entertaining as the "Cockaigne" Overture?

Then there's the ultimate in Elgar euphoria --

"The Dream of Gerontius." No, I don't really expect the BSO to tackle this heady oratorio anytime soon, but I can't abandon The Dream of Tim -- I picture myself luxuriating at Meyerhoff Hall someday in this combination of high theological discourse and noble music. (Given Baltimore's historic relation to Catholicism, I would think there'd be great local interest in a work based on a poem by Cardinal Newman about a journey to heaven. Of course, like all great art, the oratorio canm speak to listeners of any -- or no -- faith.)

I hope Elgar fans out there will let me know what other works of his we should be hearing. For those fans, and for anyone who has yet to fall under the composer's spell, I offer these excerpts from the Second Symphony, "Cockaigne" and "Gerontius":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:31 AM | | Comments (5)

August 24, 2009

Monday morning lift: Mae West sings Saint-Saens

Reviewing the Signature Theatre's engaging production of "Dirty Blonde" the other day has had me in a Mae West mood (I find myself uttering little, baritonal 'oooohhhs' for no reason). What an amazing creature Mae was.

Since it's Monday, when everyone could use a little lift, I can't resist offering this reminder of Mae's distinctive musical talent, singing, of all things, the great duet from ...

Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" in the film "Goin' to Town." I just love the way she says, "Come here, Sammy," before launching into the abbreviated "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix." It's a performance, needless to say, like no other:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)

August 21, 2009

The ultimate 'Ode to Joy,' at a Proms concert in London

I complained a while back about the Baltimore Symphony's nearly annual reprise of Beethoven's Ninth for the summer season, not because I don't like the work or because I don't appreciate its ability to attract audiences, including many first-timers. It's just that I think the BSO should try to shed new perspectives on the well-worn symphony when it offers yet another reprise, and I think I've found the ultimate example.

Thanks to for alerting me to a BBC story about a performance this week in London at the venerable Proms that has greatly expanded the previous known boundaries of interpreting the famous "Ode to Joy" finale of the Ninth Symphony -- using nearly 1,000 ukuleles. Can't we be this trendy in Baltimore? Click here for a taste of how it sounded. You may never think of the "Ode" the same way again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:21 PM | | Comments (2)

Documentary examines complex life of heroic tenor Max Lorenz during Third Reich

It has become so difficult to catch up on the CDs and DVDs that get released (you’d never know that the classical record industry was dead, judging by the ever-expanding pile-up of discs on my desk). I regret to say that I usually just stare at them and figure that I’ll never get to check them all out, so I might as well not try any of them and go back to doing stuff that really matters – like catching up (via blessed Netflix) on the first two seasons of “Mad Men,” so I can finally get in on the conversation around the newsroom.

However, one early morn this week, my eye fell upon a DVD called “Wagner’s Meistersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz” (couldn't they have put a few more words into the title?), and decided that’s what I would watch while doing the treadmill thing. Time very well spent.

This Medici Arts release provides a fascinating glimpse into an entire era of German operatic life, raises anew the many vexing questions about the role of artists during the Nazi regime, and, above all, provides a welcome reminder of a truly great tenor. (I found the experience of seeing a documentary about the real Nazi era to be somehow even more meaningful than usual at a time when some Americans are shamelessly and ignorantly hurling the charge of “Nazi” at health care debates.)

Max Lorenz may not exactly have been Hitler’s Siegfried. After all, as this documentary film by Eric Schulz and Claus Wishmann points out, Hitler demanded that Lorenz be banished from Bayreuth after the singer ...

was arrested in a gay liaison (that Lorenz was married to a Jewish woman only added to his precarious situation). But there was no question that the German public saw and heard in Lorenz the personification of the heroism that Wagner celebrated in his operas. The tenor's stature and magnetism onstage were hard to beat. No wonder that Winifred Wagner, the controversial woman who ran the festival at Bayreuth and maintained a very friendly relationship with the dictator, told Hitler that if she had to fire Lorenz she’d close Bayreuth. The tenor stayed. Lorenz and, more remarkably, his wife continued to avoid arrest and managed to survive the war.

That story makes for particularly fascinating telling in this valuable film, which offers a good deal of vintage footage as it relates the singer’s career. Contemporary commentary from such distinguished artists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Waldemar Kmennt and Rene Kollo add insights into what made Lorenz such a notable tenor. I only wish the filmmakers didn’t show quite so many tight close-ups of those interviewees blissfully listening to Lorenz recordings. (Speaking of recordings, the DVD comes with a valuable bonus -- excerpts from "Siegfried" recorded live in Buenos Aires in 1938.)  

Some of the most effective stuff in the documentary shows Lorenz himself in his late years, discussing his life and, touchingly, singing music by Strauss and Verdi with a lot of vocal quality still left in him. You can feel how much he loved to sing, how much he hated to give it up.

Here's a sample of the tenor in his golden age, from a 1943 "Tristan":

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

August 20, 2009

Baltimore Concert Opera announces first full season at Engineers Club

When the Baltimore Opera Company started its lamentable descent into oblivion last season, an intrepid band of local singers with longtime BOC connections launched an enterprise aimed at providing a fresh, intimate outlet for the art form -- no sets or costumes, only piano accompaniment. Initially, Baltimore Concert Opera was viewed as just a stopgap until Baltimore Opera could climb out of bankruptcy, but no such resurrection proved possible. So the new venture, with Brendan Cooke as general director and the Engineers Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion) as home base, started putting down roots for the long term.

Following up on its two presentations, which drew enthusiastic audiences last spring, Baltimore Concert Opera will offer a full season of three operas and a "flight" of Verdi (complete acts from three different works). The number of performances is expanding as well -- two each, instead of just one.

The season opens with Gounod's "Faust" Sept. 11 and 13. Steven Sanders will sing the title role, with Julia Turner Cooke as Marguerite, David Cushing as Mephistopheles; Jonathan Carle as Valentin. James Harp will be at the piano. Julien Benichou will conduct. Up next is ...

Donizetti’s "Don Pasquale," slated for Nov. 18 and 21, with Adam Fry in the title role, Leah Inger-Murphy as Norina and Tim Augustin as Ernesto.

The venerable double bill of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" will be tackled on March 19 and 21. The "Cav" cast includes Suzanne Balaes-Blair as Santuzza, Kevin Courtemanche as Turridu and Jimi James as Alfio; Courtemanche will be back as Canio in "Pag," with James as Tonio and Sara Stewart as Nedda.

Details on programming and casting for the "Flight of Verdi," May 21 and 23, will be announced later.

The 2009-2010 season will not lack for operatic activity here. The debut of Baltimore Opera Theater at the Hippodrome is planned. Two chamber-sized troupes, Opera Vivente and American Opera Theater, will have a sizable presence. Peabody Opera Theatre will be as active as ever. With Baltimore Concert Opera's full season, too, there certainly will be a good deal of void-filling options. No, it's not the same as having the Baltimore Opera Company up and running, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (1)

August 19, 2009

James Taylor is generous donor to Boston Symphony

James TaylorMaybe James Taylor will start a fad among pop stars -- supporting classical music in a big way. He's donating $500,000 to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the fee he would have pocketed for a five-day festival at Tanglewood, the orchestra's summer home in the Berkshires.

Taylor notes that “the support for classical music is diminishing." He and his wife, a former Boston Symphony staffer, "have real concerns for what the future is for it. We also know it takes a huge structure to maintain a symphony and a lot of money.’’

Now, imagine how cool it would be to hear Britney or Lil Wayne say -- and do --something like that, too. (Go ahead, suspend disbelief for a second.) 

Here's more on this feel-good story from the Boston Globe:


LENOX - The tickets sold out faster than any others in recent Tanglewood history. And they were not for just one night, or one show; these tickets were for a weeklong festival celebrating a bald, 61-year-old, baby boomer icon.

James Taylor, who has adopted the Berkshires as his home and musical headquarters, will be performing at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer campus. What’s more, the Grammy-winner, starting next Wednesday, will be the centerpiece of an unprecedented five-day festival. Never before has the BSO devoted so much attention to a mainstream musician.

For the BSO, which has faced financial challenges in recent years, the Taylor event will do more than introduce new visitors to the lush grounds of the campus. It will provide a financial boost. Instead of being paid for the gig, Taylor will give the symphony $500,000, his earnings after expenses. For Taylor, who has literally married into the BSO - his wife, Kim, was a longtime staffer and has now been elected to serve as a trustee - the concerts, roundtables, and master classes represent his latest and most dramatic show of support for the institution. Taylor, who played the cello as a boy, said that it is not by chance.

“The support for classical music is diminishing,’’ Taylor explained on a recent afternoon from his home in Lenox. “We have real concerns for what the future is for it. We also know it takes a huge structure to maintain a symphony and a lot of money.’’

The amount of Taylor’s gifts - the couple gave $500,000 this year and more than $700,000 in total from 2005 to 2008 - is large but not unheard of. The BSO has 60 other donors who have given $1 million or more over time. What makes the giving special, though, is that it is coming from a pop superstar. It comes as the relationship between the institution and the singer deepens.

Taylor has already committed to a pair of shows next July, and Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said that the singer can return for as long as he wants ...  


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:12 PM | | Comments (1)

Hildegard Behrens, dynamic German soprano, dies at 72

Hildegard Behrens died Tuesday in Tokyo of an apparent aneurysm at the age of 72.

The exceptional German soprano, highly valued for the strength and beauty of her voice, as well as for her intensity of expression, was especially successful in the works of Wagner and Strauss. She sang the music of Mozart, Puccini, Janacek and others, as well. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1976 and was a frequent performer there over the years (in 1990, she was injured by prematurely descending scenery during the finale of "Gotterdammerung" at the Met). I've posted the AP obit at the end of this entry.

The artistry of Hildegard Behrens is preserved on many recordings and filmed performances. To salute her memory, I chose this example of the soprano, at a peak of vocal and interpretive warmth, singing the ...

"Liebestod" in a performance led by one of ardent admirers, Leonard Bernstein:

TOKYO (AP) — Soprano Hildegard Behrens, one of the finest Wagnerian performers of her generation, has died while traveling in Japan. She was 72.

Jonathan Friend, artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, said Tuesday in an e-mail to opera officials that Behrens felt unwell while traveling to a festival near Tokyo. She went to a Tokyo hospital, where she died of an apparent aneurism.

Friend's e-mail was shared with The Associated Press by Jack Mastroianni, director of IMG Artists.

Her funeral was planned in Vienna.

Organizers of Behrens' visit said she was in Japan to perform at a music festival and then give lessons at a hot springs resort.

Miyuki Takebayashi, an official at the Kanshinetsu Music Association, said Behrens was taken to a hospital Sunday night and died there Tuesday.

"Her son and daughter were at her bedside when she passed away," she said.

Behrens was among the finest actors on the opera stage during a professional career that spanned more than three decades. She made her professional stage debut in Freiburg as the countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1971 and made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Giorgetta in Puccini's "Il Tabarro" in 1976.

One of her breakthrough roles came the following year, when she sang the title role in Strauss' "Salome" at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

She sang 171 performances at the Met, where she appeared until 1999. She was most acclaimed in the late 1980s and early 1990s for her portrayal of Bruennhilde in the Otto Schenk production of the Ring Cycle, the Met's first televised staging of Wagner's tetralogy.

"She is the finest Bruennhilde of the post-Birgit Nilsson era," Associated Press critic Mike Silverman wrote in 1989. "Though she lacks the overpowering vocal resources of a great Wagnerian soprano, she makes up for that with dramatic intensity as she changes before our eyes from a frisky young Valkyrie to a passionate and then betrayed lover, and finally to a compassionate woman whose sacrifice returns the ring to its rightful owners, the Rhinemaidens."

A dramatic soprano, her Met career included Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo," Isolde in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Senta in "Die Fliegende Hollander," Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," the title roles in Strauss' "Elektra" and 'Salome," and Puccini's "Tosca," and Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck."

She was injured during the final scene of Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung" at the Met on April 28, 1990, when Valhalla collapsed prematurely and an overhead of foam rubber landed on her. Behrens walked off the stage under her own power and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.

She missed subsequent performances because of the injury, and later sued the Met, according to a 1995 article in The New York Law Journal.

According to Behrens' Web site, she was born in the north German town of Varel-Oldenburg. Her parents were both doctors and she and her five siblings studied piano and violin as children. She earned a law degree from the University of Freiburg, where she was also a member of the student choir.

She received Germany's Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of the Merit Cross), Bavaria's Bayerischer Verdienstorden service medal and was honored by both the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Vienna State Opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)

August 18, 2009

Dutch researchers suggest 'super-bug' as cause of Mozart's death

The old slander that Antonio Salieri, jealous of Mozart's talent, poisoned his younger rival in Vienna pretty much died away ages ago, except for the brief flurry of renewed interest in the case caused by the hit play/movie Amadeus.

Still, the cause of Mozart's death has continued to be discussed and debated over the years. Renal failure has often been mentioned. The official death registration listed "severe military fever" as the culprit, which might have been closer to the truth than we thought.

A team of Dutch researchers, as reported in Monday's Telegraph, has proposed that Mozart died from...

"a bacterial infection spread by soldiers which was rife in Vienna at the time."

Here's some more from this intriguing story:

By studying the city's death register, they found that the three most common causes of death among men of his age were tuberculosis, severe weight loss and a condition called 'oedema' or 'dropsy' – an accumulation of fluids causing the body to swell up.

Mozart's symptoms match the last of the three, according to Dr Richard Zeger, from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, who said it could have been caused by a bacterial infection. He said: 'I think you can compare this to a superbug like MRSA or C.difficile.'

Eyewitnesses who saw Mozart days before he died, including his sister-in-law Sophie Haibel, said he was covered in a rash – consistent with a bacterial infection – and severely swollen – consistent with oedema or dropsy.

The outbreak probably started in a military hospital with poor hygiene, before spreading to the wider community, according to their research, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.


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

Music we've been missing (Part 6); maverick Heiner Goebbels

Last week, I advocated for more performances of music by composers who tend to scare American audiences: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. I figured I might as well follow that up with music by a composer who would be even more frightening: Heiner Goebbels.

This extraordinary creative artist has been writing some amazing stuff, music that, in my experience, is really quite unlike anything else out there today. And that's reason enough for orchestras to take note. I'll never forget the delicious shock nine years ago of encountering the US premiere of ...

Goebbels' Surrogate Cities at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, my first exposure to his work. This gargantuan piece blew me away, so fresh was the language, the structure, the feeling of the score. It was quite the event, and I've been waiting to repeat it ever since.

I don't really expect the Baltimore Symphony to tackle it any day soon, especially while the orchestra is carefully watching every penny (Surrogate Cities would cost plenty to produce, I'm sure). But it would be the sort of thing that Marin Alsop ought to have a fab time with. And I'd bet that a whole bunch of unsuspecting folks here would find themselves ultimately won over by the audacity and brilliance of Goebbels' vision.

There are, of course, other pieces to choose from, and I've rounded up the only ones I could find from that ever-treasured source, YouTube. They provide just the slightest taste of what the composer has to offer, but I hope you'll agree that this is precisely the sort of music we need to stir things up once in a while, the sort of music we've been sorely missing.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:08 AM | | Comments (1)

August 17, 2009

Classical music gossip/parody/satire site launched

It was bound to happen. Something called The Cereal List has emerged from the Internet ether, a site devoted to gossip, satire and parody involving the supposedly staid world of classical music.

I can't say I laughed 'til I cried over the material on the inaugural page, dated Sunday, but I dare not hasten to judgment -- especially since a PR release I got Monday promises an imminent report on the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association in New York that I just got back from (and that I was a considerable part of, in my last days as president of said organization). I quake in anticipation.

Here's the disclaimer posted on the site:

The Cereal List parodies and satirizes both the big stars and the bit players of the classical music world in a spirit of fun and good humor. The Cereal List blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, just like your best friend in the 9th grade, so take everything we report with a grain of salt. The Cereal List is not intended for readers under 18 years of age.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:29 AM | | Comments (0)

Play 'Barber!' Washington National Opera offers free simulcast at Nationals Park

lawrence brownleeThe popularity of live simulcasts is the opera story of the decade. Although the most successful and plentiful examples of this phenomenon are the HD transmissions by the Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters all over the U.S. and beyond, there have been other remarkable cases of bringing the art form to the masses in various locales, including athletic stadiums.

Washington National Opera, an early leader in this field, will offer a simulcast Sept. 12 at Nationals Park of Rossini's comic gem The Barber of Seville, which WNO general director Placido Domingo calls "undoubtedly one of the very best operas for young people, families and first-time opera-goers." This is the second annual such presentation at the ballpark; the company has previously beamed live performances from the Kennedy Center Opera House to the National Mall, as well as dozens of academic campuses around the country.

The Barber performance, which opens WNO's 2009-2010 season, features the terrific ...

tenor Lawrence Brownlee (he just might be America's answer to Juan Diego Florez) as Almaviva -- I've included a sampling of his talent at the end of this posting, a performance of the demanding, often omitted tenor aria from the original finale of the Barber. The cast also includes Simone Alberghini as Figaro and Silvia Tro Santafé as Rosina. The opera will be transmitted to the 4,811-sq. in. HD scoreboard at Nationals Park.

(Incidentally, a week after WNO says "Play Barber!" the San Francisco Opera will beam a simulcast of Verdi's Il trovatore to the Giants' ballpark. Now there's an opera that could really use an umpire.)

Nationals Park will open at 5:30 Sept. 12 with what WNO is calling "pre-game" activities; the Barber starts at 7 p.m. Admission is free. You can even get free admission in the "VIP seating sections" simply by making advance reservations.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)

Music Critics Assn. elects Don Rosenberg president a year after controversial demotion by newspaper

Don Rosenberg, longtime music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer controversially demoted a year ago for his negative views on Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most, received a new sign of solidarity from colleagues. Over the weekend, Rosenberg was elected president of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which has about 100 members from the United States and Canada. He served two two-year terms in that office, 2001-2005.

For the record, I succeeded him as president in 2005; my second term ended on Saturday, when the ballots from the 2009 election were announced at the association’s annual meeting in New York City. The other candidate for president this year was the distinguished and engaging Canadian critic, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. Although the MCANA bylaws limit a president to two consecutive terms, there is no restriction on a member running for election after being out of office.

Rosenberg’s return to the MCANA presidency provides one more affirmation of our belief in ...

his abilities and integrity, especially in the wake of the scandalous treatment that he received from his employer. A widely respected critic, he made waves over the years for his increasingly negative outlook on the overall quality and long-range value of Welser-Most at the helm of what many consider America’s greatest orchestra.

There was considerable opposition within Cleveland Orchestra management to Rosenberg, who was restricted by the Plain Dealer from covering that orchestra and demoted to a more general arts writer position, an extraordinary step for an independent newspaper to take. Rosenberg subsequently sued. That case has not yet reached court, but several depositions, including that of Welser-Most, have been taken.

The idea that anyone would attempt to limit freedom of thought and expression by a professional, fully qualified music critic remains deeply troubling.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 AM | | Comments (14)

August 14, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival features enchanting John Adams opera

Please forgive the slow-down in blogging. I’ve zipped up to New York for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. Had to -- I’m still president of our little brood (for two more days). I’ll post whenever I can.

John AdamsThe association chose to gather in New York this year partly because it afforded an opportunity to check out the long-running Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center. There wasn’t a note of Mozart Thursday night, but his spirit was conjured up by the NY premiere of The Flowering Tree, an opera by John Adams inspired by The Magic Flute, though based on a 2,000-year old South Indian folk tale.

One of the cool things about Mostly Mozart is that the programming has opened up considerably over its four-decade-plus existence, offering diverse fare from a variety of genres and eras. The Adams work, given in the inviting Rose Theater in the Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle, provided a refreshing experience on several levels. The story, adapted by Adams and his frequent collaborator, director Peter Sellars, explores ...

myth and symbol, with a degree of conflict and self-discovery not unlike that in Mozart’s Flute, I suppose. 

Kumudha, a poor young woman, is transformed by a ritual ceremony into a flowering tree, and is thus able to produce blossoms that she and her sister can sell in the market; a prince sees this transformation and, fascinated, marries the woman; the prince’s jealous sister causes the Kumudha to be mutilated and caught in a state between human and arboreal form; the prince searches in despair for his wife, who, when found, is able to be her self again.

The story has been stripped down to its essentials, with just three solo singers – Kumudha, the prince and a storyteller. Three dancers interpret the action; a chorus is deeply involved as well.

Adams brings all of these forces into a musical symmetry that can be really quite stunning at times. From the first shimmering orchestral notes to the final burst of radiance, the score reveals layers of intricate nuance. The vocal writing has an often exquisite clarity that recalls Britten’s sensitivity to text. This may not rank ultimately as high as other Adams operas, but The Flowering Tree has a poetic, exotic beauty that is strongly appealing and involving.

It couldn’t get a more committed or expressive performance than the one here, conducted by the composer and featuring the sterling contributions of Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (Prince) and Sanford Sylvan (Storyteller). The demanding choral writing was delivered with terrific flair by the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela (Adams set the choral lines in Spanish, the rest in English – an oddly satisfying arrangement). And the Orchestra of St. Luke’s produced a rich array of tone colors. Sellars had the action unfolding tellingly on a bare platform, achieving especially compelling results in the way he had the Indonesian dancers subtly intertwined with the singers.

For two hours, the opera cast a remarkably strong spell.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 AM | | Comments (1)

August 12, 2009

Attend a Verbier Festival concert for free -- at your computer

Some very cool musical things show up online, as you know, and I'm not just talking about YouTube (although there's enough classical treasure on that site to occupy months of viewing). I just came across what seems too good to be true -- live concerts from the high-profile Verbier Festival in Switzerland, available for free viewing through August.

As I write this, I'm still in the midst of an hour-plus, crisply filmed and warmly recorded performance by Vadim Repin, Mischa Maisky and Lang Lang, the latter not particularly known for doing chamber music. Their program is Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque and Tchaikovsky's mighty A minor Trio. I'm quite impressed with the ...

tightness and expressive vitality of the playing (and I just minimize the screen whenever Lang Lang's trademark bouncing around gets to be too much).

DG, which will release a studio recording on Oct. 20., has teamed with Medici TV to make a video stream of this concert available on the Web until Aug. 31. Although I haven't had time to explore the other Verbier performances that, apparently, are likewise available for viewing this month, they look very appetizing: a recital by Yuja Wang, and portions of the Brahms Violins Concerto with Repin and a Don Giovanni with Rene Pape. Click here for your free journey to this very tony festival.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:28 PM | | Comments (0)

August 11, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 5): Second Viennese School

The work of the Second Viennese School -- Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg -- is still embraced by orchestras in some lucky places, but not in these parts. The neglect isn't just unfortunate. I'd say it's criminal.

Reasonable folks can disagree about the ultimate value of the revolution started by Schoenberg and championed for decades by many a composer in many a land, but there is no way to ignore the impact and importance of the atonal style that changed forever the course of music history. To keep the masterworks of Schoenberg and his followers off of our concert programs makes as much sense as removing the cubist paintings of Picasso or the abstracts of Pollock from museum walls.

Yes, for a lot of folks today, this would mean some tough times on subscription night at the symphony (and, of course, a tough sell at the box office), but that cannot be used as an excuse to keep all of this brilliant and challenging music out of earshot. It's all a matter of how a program is constructed, how the music is delivered.

Back in 2000, during an interview I did with Mario Venzago, the subject of the Second Viennese guys came up, and he had this to say: "I just did a tour conducting Berg with incredible success, so I know it is possible for people to accept this music. I think much of the public is simply afraid of the names Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Perhaps we should play their music under a different name -- Monica Lewinsky, maybe." (That was much funnier in 2000.)

I'd especially love to hear Schoenberg's ...

Variations for Orchestra, a stunning and involving example of the composer's 12-tone method, played by the BSO, and I could imagine placing it in a whole program of works that incorporate variation form -- maybe ending with Beethoven's Eroica, which would reward the audience for having to confront the daunting Schoenberg score.

The great thing about Webern, in terms of wary listeners, is that he wrote so concisely; the pieces might be thorny and demanding, but they don't last long at all. Yet what a universe of sound and meaning he produced with each carefully chosen note, each wisp of tone.

And if there's one composer who ought to be sell-able and ought to connect with audiences now, it's Berg. His Violin Concerto, one of the most profound pieces in the entire repertoire, should come around much more often (it has been eight or nine years since the BSO offered it, if I recall correctly). There is much to savor in his other works as well, for Berg infused Schoenberg's 12-tone system with a kind of soulfulness that remains thoroughly compelling.

Here are some samples of music by these three bold Viennese pioneers, music we've been missing here:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 PM | | Comments (4)

August 10, 2009

Heinz Fricke withdraws from Washington National Opera fall engagements

Health issues have caused Washington National Opera music director Heinz Fricke to withdraw from conducting the company's production of Ariadne auf Naxos (Oct. 24 - Nov. 13) and a concert version of Götterdämmerung (Nov. 7 and 15). Andreas Delfs will take over the Strauss work, Philippe Auguin the Wagner. Last season, Fricke had to skip WNO's Siegfried production as well; he was recovering from heart surgery.

A press release quotes Fricke from his home base, Berlin: “I was so looking forward to being in Washington with my orchestra, especially for such stunning works as Ariadne and Götterdämmerung. Ultimately though, it is in my best interest to heed my doctors’ advice and therefore regret I am not able to make the trip to Washington. Given the reality of the situation, I am honored to pass the baton to maestros Delfs and Auguin; WNO audiences should be quite pleased to have such experts in the pit.”

From WNO's general director Plácido Domingo: “Heinz Fricke is a beloved member of the WNO family, and a maestro in the truest sense of the word. His expertise in the music of Strauss, with whom he studied, and of Wagner would have made for thrilling performances. We are all disappointed that he is not able to be with us this fall, but are pleased that his health is progressing well. We wish him all the best.”

Delfs and Auguin will be making their WNO debuts. 

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

Benjamin Zander, Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the art of music-making

Benjamin ZanderThe cult status of Boston-based conductor Benjamin Zander is easy enough to understand from his recordings, which reflect an intensely involved and involving style of music-making. It was even more rewarding to experience Zander in person Friday night in a summer treat presented by Strathmore and the Washington Performing Arts Society, leading the vibrant Youth Orchestra of the Americas.

It's not every day that you get to hear something new and startling in a work as familiar as Beethoven's Fifth, so Zander's refreshing way with that war horse was alone worth the trip to Bethesda. The whole concert proved enjoyable, for that matter.

The orchestra, comprised of players competitively chosen from South and North America, ages 18-28, is as dynamic and fundamentally strong in technique as you would expect. Even allowing for the occasional signs of tiredness on Friday (Zander told the audience the musicians had been on a 17-hour bus ride to get there), the playing had admirable cohesion, solidity and warmth of tone, rich expressive nuance. It was great to encounter an ensemble that could make so much out of a quick change in dynamics or give a melodic line extra depth with a beautifully coordinated surge of lyricism.

The evening opened with ...

Bernstein's Candide Overture, which Zander took at a slightly slower clip than I think is ideal, but that allowed the prettiest tunes to bloom nicely.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 proved more interesting orchestrally than keyboard-wise, since soloist Gabriela Montero did not produce much in the way of tonal variety and relied on velocity more than poetry to make interpretive points. Nonetheless, her lightning flashes of technique in the finale were certainly impressive, even when the notes burred into a haze. Zander drew out the orchestral coloring in the score to keen effect and, in the finale, he ensured that each statement of that movement's big, grand tune had its own characteristic.

Montero delighted the crowd, as she invariably does, and Zander encouraged her to offer encores in the form of her signature improvisations on themes shouted out by listeners. (Earlier this season, the pianist gave an all-improvised recital in Baltimore, so my interest level in hearing more was, I admit, no doubt a little low.) She delivered animated variations on La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni (Note: This corrects an earlier, careless error on my part) and Ravel's Bolero, in each case using a small melodic fragment. The Mozart item found her heading off into stylistic sweeps through the likes of Bach and Rachmaninoff; Piazzolla was the dominant force in the Ravel. All entertaining, but I was anxious to get to the post-intermission action.

Zander tore into Beethoven's Fifth with a vengeance. It wasn't just that he was determined to honor the composer's very fast metronome markings, which so many conductors are reluctant to do (or find suspect). As the proponents of period instrument performance practice demonstrated years ago, taking things at Beethoven's intended clip doesn't automatically a satisfying performance make. Zander got his young, eager players to celebrate the liberating force of those tempos, to infuse each measure with import and impact.

I readily confess that I still love the early 20th century style of elongating phrases in this work, especially for the iconic principal theme of the first movement, and inserting grand pauses or taking wild ritards to make a point. The Beethoven of Furtwangler is, to me, an essentially valid approach, however far removed from reality. (Hey, I'm all for getting away from reality -- legally -- whenever I can.) That said, Zander's faithfulness to the composer is as impressive as the sense of spontaneity and drama he can unleash.

Friday's performance made it possible to appreciate, as if for the first time, just how revolutionary a symphony the Fifth is, how daring the construction, and, yes, how startling the tempos. When for example, the Youth Orchestra's basses positively flew through the trio section of the scherzo, it was like a wild, musical joy ride.

Again, if it were only a matter of being fast, the performance would not have amounted to so much. It was the intensity, the passion in the players' response to Zander's bold guidance that delivered such a rewarding jolt, and such a memorable reminder of Beethoven's life-affirming symphony.



Posted by Tim Smith at 8:20 AM | | Comments (7)

August 7, 2009

Something to cheer Streisand fans: new album of standards

For ardent Barbra Streisand fans -- count me among the most ardent -- the news of any fresh album always stirs interest and keen anticipation. When a new recording promises the kind of songs Streisand was born to sing, the excitement intensifies considerably. (I'm such a die-hard admirer that I think that she was even born to sing classical repertoire. Although my colleagues look at me like I've gone insane whenever I say this, there was a lot of good singing on Streisand's Classical Album. I simply would have chosen different material -- there's some lieder she could do fabulously, and I'm ready to serve as adviser anytime she wants.)  

You may have read about the surprising way Streisand plans to launch the new disc, Love is the Answer -- appearing, after an absence of nearly 50 years, at the Village Vanguard in New York, where she opened for Miles Davis (!!) in 1961. The coolest thing about this Sept. 26 gig is that we little people get to enter a drawing for free tickets. (I put my name in today, and I figure I'll have the same chance I do every time I play the lottery, which means I'll be sitting forlorn in Baltimore that night, dreaming of what it must be like for the lucky ones at the performance.)

What really has me geared up for the new recording is a) the very classy track list, and b) the fact that there will be a two-disc release of the material, one featuring Streisand with a four-piece jazz combo (including Diana Krall), the other with the same songs arranged for orchestra by veteran songwriter/arranger Johnny Mandel.

Streisand has done too little in the way of singing with minimal backup, so it's going to be great to hear her sing a whole album with ...

just piano, guitar, bass and drums. Some of my all time favorite performances of hers are those with keyboard only or a few instruments. "One Kiss," for example, is a pinnacle of her vocal art, and I think one big reason is the piano-and-cello arrangement, which allows for such an intimate experience.

So there's a lot to look forward to with Love is the Answer. I'm particularly anxious to hear how she interprets "Some Other Time," that sublime ballad from On the Town (there are quite a few other Bernstein songs I'd love to hear her sing). And "A Time for Love," which Tony Bennett did so superbly, has the kind of haunting melody that Streisand is bound to caress with great sensitivity. It will also be great to hear studio versions of songs she only performed in concert way back when -- "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" and the Sinatra-classic "In the Wee Small Hours."

Basically, I can't wait to hear all of this material. Judging by the repertoire, the musicians behind the recording, and the fact that Streisand, at 67, retains such an exquisitely burnished voice, this has the potential to be her most thoroughly satisfying release since The Broadway Album.

Here's the complete song list:

1. "Here's To Life" (Artie Butler/Phyllis Molinary)

2. "In The Wee Small Hours" (Bob Hilliard/David Mann)

3. "Gentle Rain" (Luiz Bonfa/Matt Dubey)

4. "If You Go Away" (Jacques Brel/Rod McKuen)

5. "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" (Tommy Wolf/Fran Landesman)

6. "Make Someone Happy" (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green)

7. "Where Do You Start?"(Johnny Mandel/Alan Bergman/Marilyn Bergman)

8. "A Time For Love" (Johnny Mandel/Paul Francis Webster)

9. "Here's That Rainy Day" (Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen)

10. "Love Dance" (Ivan Lins/Gilson Peranzzetta with English lyrics by Paul Williams)

11. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach)

12. "Some Other Time" (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green)

13. Bonus Track - "You Must Believe In Spring" (Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman)


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:03 PM | | Comments (10)

August 6, 2009

Yefim Bronfman to be a judge on Food Network's 'Iron Chef America'

Yefim Bronfman, the powerhouse pianist, has a taste for fine food as well as great music. He's the first classical musician to serve as a judge on the Food Network's competition show, Iron Chef America. The broadcast is slated for Sunday (Aug. 9). Bronfman, described as a connoisseur of food and wine and a big fan of the network, got to judge a contest between two chefs using "a top-secret ingredient."

A couple months ago, Bronfman gave a fiery account of Rachmaninoff's Third with the Baltimore Symphony; the memory of that performance still lingers. Next week, he heads to Tanglewood, then off to Europe for more concerts.

In honor of Bronfman's foodie debut this weekend, here's ...

an appetizing sample of his work as a pianistic gourmet, playing the heck out of the brilliant, eventful concerto written for him (and here conducted) by Esa-Pekka Salonen: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:24 AM | | Comments (2)

August 5, 2009

Rare recordings of Vladimir Horowitz reconfirm his astonishing talent

One of the most tantalizing announcements to come out of the ever-dying classical music record biz came from Sony Masterworks a little while back touting a series of previously unreleased live recordings by Horowitz from the 1930s-'50s.

Horowitz Sony MasterworksThe pianist regularly arranged for his Carnegie Hall recitals to be privately recorded on acetate discs. In 1986, a stack of those treasures was donated to the archives at Yale University. The public is now getting its first taste of the magical music-making contained in that trove.

The first of three scheduled Sony releases contains Carnegie Hall performances of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in 1948 and Liszt's B minor Sonata in '49. Next up, due in September, is a program of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Balakirev; Jan. 2010 will see a Haydn/Beethoven disc.

The first issue is a stunner. It's hardly news that Horowitz was ...

a sensational keyboard artist, of course, but it's still a lot of fun to be reminded of that fact all over again. Although the sound quality on these recordings is not exactly pristine, the music-making comes through with a visceral impact just the same.

There is something wonderfully spontaneous about Horowitz' version of Pictures. The imagery in each movement leaps out of the speakers, from the spookiness of Gnomes to the electrifying build-up of volume in Bydlo, from the sparkling flurries in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks to the deliciously heavy atmosphere of Catacombs and Con mortius. And I don't think it's possible to make the Great Gate of Kiev sound any, well, greater than Horowitz manages here; this pianism is simply breathtaking in its sweep and richness of tone. The Liszt sonata likewise receives a majestic performance, brimming with tension and poetry. A riveting, revelatory experience.

Although you can question his stylistic choices, Horowitz nonetheless remains a benchmark of musical electricity. You can question his technique, too, I suppose.  Sure, he drops notes -- if you thought he only made mistakes in his later years, this recording will correct that impression. But even his messiest moments are more interesting and rewarding than much of what passes for keyboard brilliance now. Pianists today just don't play like this, think like this, grip like this.

Sony is off to a great start with this important series. I can't wait for the next installment.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (2)

Houston Symphony takes its recession hits, too

Here we go again. The whole Houston Symphony Orchestra -- staff and musicians -- goes on furlough next week to save money. Various other cost-cutting measures will go into effect there as well, including the extraordinary step of leaving the concertmaster vacancy unfilled, the Houston Chronicle reports.

As you will recall, when the Baltimore Symphony announced its pay cuts and furloughs, some of the blame was placed on the drop in endowment value, caused when investment markets began their steep decline. When you lose something like $20 million in endowment value, you're talking big trouble. That's the situation being faced by the BSO, Houston Symphony and others. The change in endowment means that the annual draw (usually five percent) that nonprofits count on either yields much less than anticipated a year earlier, when the budgets are put together, or, worse, yields zero (the value of the BSO's endowment, at about $38 million, is officially underwater -- below the original dollar value of contributions -- and no draw can be taken).

It doesn't look like things are going to improve anytime soon, unless Wall Street suddenly experiences a historic boom to counter its historic descent. I imagine we'll be seeing lots of soul-searching, not to mention game- and model-changing, at orchestras and opera companies everywhere in the months ahead.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:42 AM | | Comments (1)

August 4, 2009

Minnesota Orchestra joins growing list of recession victims

A few days after the Baltimore Symphony musicians agreed to more pay cuts and other concessions to help the orchestra deal with economy-related pressures, members of the Minnesota Orchestra took similar measures. From the press release:

The musicians and management of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) announced today that they have reached an agreement to modify certain terms of the musicians’ contract to help alleviate the financial pressures of the current economy. In total, the contract alterations will result in about $4.2 million dollars of cost savings—from salary and pension reductions and frozen positions—over the remaining three years of the five-year contract, which expires September 30, 2012.

The contract modifications involve salary reductions totaling $1.8 million—including a wage freeze in fiscal 2010—which equates to a 6 percent reduction in wage increases over the course of the agreement; a delay in filling open positions within the Orchestra, which allows for savings of approximately $1.8 million over the next three years; and a reduction in the MOA’s pension funding obligation that will save $600,000 over the course of the agreement ...


President and CEO Michael Henson said, “We’ve taken many preemptive steps over the last nine months to reduce our expenses in the economic downturn, and we are very appreciative that our musicians are part of these efforts. It is critical our company band together in this extraordinary economy to ensure our long-term financial viability. We thank our musicians for their helpful contributions.”

Principal Harp Kathy Kienzle, a member of the musicians’ negotiating team, said, “Although we had a binding contract through 2012, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra recognize that these are unusually challenging times, and we wanted to offer our help to minimize the negative impact of the recession and support our organization through this uncertain period.”  

... Earlier in the year, the MOA announced administrative staff and budget cuts that resulted in $2.3 million in savings for the Association’s 2009-10 budget. Those reductions included eliminating four full-time staff positions and reducing part-time staffing, instituting salary reductions or wage freezes for all staff, and reducing employer contributions to staff retirement plans. Music Director Osmo Vänskä and President and CEO Michael Henson reduced their salaries by, respectively, 10 percent and 7 percent.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:03 PM | | Comments (6)

Sonata sketch by Robert Schumann brought to light by Frederick Moyer and the Web

Frederick MoyerSchumann fans, especially those of a pianistic inclination, will want to delve into the sketches of an unfinished fourth sonata that can now be seen and heard, thanks to the Web and the extraordinary efforts of pianist Frederick Moyer and his uncle, Paul Green, an electrical engineer.

In brief, these guys tracked down the unfinished manuscript, deciphered Schumann's writing and prepared a performable edition. Then they created a very impressive download application that lets you follow, on the same page, both Schumann's original and the newly printed version, while listening to Moyer play the music (each measure is highlighted in sync with the playing).

You can zoom in on any spot of the score, and check out printed and audio commentary at various points along the way to learn more about ...

how Moyer and Green interpreted Schumann's intentions. The sonata sketch page of Moyer's Web site contains the download info, as well as an extremely detailed essay on the background of the abandoned fourth sonata. You can also download your own copy of the realized sketch.

This project is a very classy example of musicological excavation, IMHO, and the product is doubly enhanced by Moyer's sensitive, involving performance of this tantalizing music. He brings great commitment to the score, even those passages that Schumann clearly hadn't finished fleshing out, making it easy to appreciate the potential of the material -- and to regret all the more that the composer never got around to completing what he started.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:09 PM | | Comments (0)

August 3, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 4); an American romantic

Call me old fashioned, but I'll always have a soft spot for the romantic repertoire -- and the neo-romantic. Hey, I'm down with atonality, too, and just about every other stylistic language, but I'm still a pushover for a good tune and rich harmony. So, when it comes to considering worthy music we don't hear enough of in our concert halls these days, I'm bound to think of Howard Hanson.

Although he's had his champions in recent years (notably Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin), the composer still seems to be pretty much ignored by American orchestras. And my guess is that most American audiences have little knowledge of Hanson, or little interest in him.

Of course, there's a long list of other American composers likewise left on the sidelines. Locally, we have barely scratched the surface of the repertoire left by our greatest composer, Charles Ives, for example. Out of sheer patriotic duty, if nothing else, his music should be programmed every season -- and I'm talking about a lot more than just the occasional posing of The Unanswered Question. American concert-goers should embrace his Symphony No. 2 as fervently as Russians embrace Tchaikovsky's Fifth. We need to hear Ives' challenging Symphony No. 4, too.

But I digress. I'll return to Ives in another installment of this riveting what-we're-missing series. For now, back to Hanson. My own favorite, naturally, is ...

his Symphony No. 2, which carries the name "Romantic." The big, recurring theme in this score is one of those melodies that just burrows into you (if you're at all susceptible to this sort of thing), and the whole piece reveals sensitive craftsmanship.

I still remember the first time I encountered this symphony at some tender age, when I switched the dial on the car radio as I was driving. The sound hooked me, so much so that I had to sit in the parking lot after getting wherever I was going and hear the rest, so I could find out what it was. I've been an ardent fan of that symphony ever since.

There's more where that came from, of course -- six other symphonies, for starters. And it's worth noting Hanson's only opera, Merry Mount, which had its stage premiere at the Met in 1934 with no less than Lawrence Tibbett in the cast and Tulio Serafin conducting. The work has much to recommend it, as a recent recording (its first) demonstrates, so maybe that will help spark some renewed interest.

Meanwhile, those symphonies await greater attention. Here are excerpts from the first three, which, I hope you'll agree, demonstrate how much great stuff we've been missing:


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:05 PM | | Comments (6)

August 1, 2009

Remembering the definitive accompanist, Gerald Moore

Maybe it was that list the other day of most-searched stuff on a classical music download site that got me thinking about art songs again -- it was encouraging to see that solo vocal music would register on one of those lists. Then, I noticed that Thursday was the 110th anniversary of the birth of Gerald Moore, the most revered of accompanists.

So, naturally, I started digging around YouTube for some Gerald Moore clips. I could have gone on clicking for hours and hours, but I settled on two that I wanted to share.

First up is the wonderful tenor

Nicolai Gedda singing a song I never knew he sang, "Down By the Salley Gardens," one of my all-time favorite folk songs, in the spare Britten arrangement. Then, elegant and eloquent soprano Victoria de los Angeles sings Schubert's sublime An die Musik, the perfect summation of any musical artist's life. Both of these videos find Gerald Moore revealing, with his usual, calm authority, the art of accompaniment.




Posted by Tim Smith at 7:21 AM | | Comments (2)
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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.
View the Artsmash blog

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