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September 30, 2009

Streisand reaches new heights with 'Love is the Answer' CD set

Barbra StreisandIf there has been anything missing in the astonishing, nearly five-decade career of Barbra Streisand, it's a few more more recordings of songs truly worthy of her, the kind that enabled her to establish that career. I don't begrudge her interest in exploring the contemporary trends that surrounded her as the decades passed, but each detour into disco or whatever robbed us of time Streisand might have spent with the likes of Gershwin, Kern and Porter -- material she was born to interpret. But with the release of "Love is the Answer," she has made up for those lost opportunities with some of her most exquisite performances since the 1960s.

The material includes "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" and "A Time for Love" -- which is to say, first-class material. Some lesser known items, such as "Love Dance" and "You Must Believe in Spring" (a bonus track), also make welcome additions to the singer's discography.

The release reminds me of "Simply Streisand," the album that found her spinning gentle vocal magic out "More Than You Know," "The Nearness of You" and other standards. Where that earlier album also offered a couple of tracks highlighting the dynamic, electrifying side of Streisand, "Love is the Answer" never raises the volume. It's all laid-back, a late-night, candles-in-the-room session that gives off an internal glow.

The sameness of character might be a disappointment to some, but I found myself won over by the consistently low voltage. In fact, the one time Streisand breaks loose a little, in

"Smoke Gets in You Eyes," the result is rather jarring. Happily, it's a brief departure into the sort of fussy melisma business that she has occasionally (and, I would maintain, unnaturally) adopted in the past decade or so. And when she comes back down, she does so wonderfully, with a downward leap that recalls a similar expressive effect way back on "A Sleepin' Bee" on her first album.

StreisandThroughout "Love is the Answer," Streisand sounds not just in fine voice -- at 67, it is extraordinary how much of that uniquely stirring timbre remains untouched by time -- but in a direct, personal mode, affectionately connected to each melody, each lyric. For those of us who weren't among the 90 or so lucky souls who got to savor Streisand's CD-launching performance at the Village Vanguard last weekend, this recording is so intimate that it's possible to imagine that you're in a lovely salon with just the singer and a few choice friends.

This illusion is particularly easy to sustain when you play what is mistakenly considered the secondary recording of the deluxe, two-CD set -- the program of 12 songs backed by no more than piano, guitar, bass and drums. These are the tracks that actually count the most, since they represent what Streisand recorded originally. She did not record live with the orchestra heard on the full-arrangement disc; the orchestrations were layered onto the tracks originally done with the combo.

Of course, those orchestrations, most by veteran arranger Johnny Mandel, are top-drawer (and blissfully free of those damn wind chimes that clattered through several Streisand albums in recent years). The full instrumental version is how we are so used to hearing Streisand that the results sound perfectly natural, not studio-layered. But I know I'll find myself returning much more often to the purer sound of those pared down tracks, where Streisand's almost conversational phrasing communicates with extra warmth and immediacy.

It's also on these more basic tracks that you can more fully appreciate the refined piano playing of Diana Krall (who also produced the album) and the other keyboard artists shared collaborative energy on the project: Tamir Hendelman, Bill Charlap and Alan Broadbent.

As I said, these performances take us back into vintage Streisand territory, as far as her stylistic approach is concerned, and that's something to sing about. It's an occasion to simply drink in the sound of the voice, the purity of the articulation, the intuitive phrasing.

One sublime example is the "Wee Small Hours" track. Streisand goes far beyond her 1970s performance, achieving here a genuinely wistful effect. On the last line, "That's the time you miss him most of all," she takes a short intake of breath between "of" and "all," an exquisite touch (something Judy Garland also did to sublime effect, as in "A Cottage for Sale").

There's another significant pause at the end of "If You Go Away," the old Jacques Brel hit, which, in lesser hands can turn maudlin. Streisand treats the song with a disarming honesty; when she reaches the line "I would have been the shadow of your shadow," the nakedness of the tone communicates richly. The subtle bossa nova "Gentle Rain" is sung delicately and deliciously, a mini-masterpiece of vocalism and arrangement. "Where Do You Start?," a fine Johnny Mandel tune with typically eloquent lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, is yet another memorable moment on a disc filled with them (this time, it's an intake of breath after the last note that proves telling). 

Surprisingly, a few foggy notes made it through the final edit of the album, notes that I suspect would have been rejected in years past. It only adds to the overall naturalness of this release.

To be sure, it is possible to wish for even more from Streisand here and there, interpretively  speaking. She only skims the surface of "Some Other Time," for example; I would have thought this bittersweet Comden/Green/Bernstein gem would have inspired much more profound music-making. Maybe she'll come back to it, some other time.

Meanwhile, this new release reaffirms what many of us have long known -- when you want to know what it means to be a great pop singer, Streisand is the answer.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (6)

September 29, 2009

Gil Shaham stars in YouTube promo for new CD

OK, you've got to hand it to violinist Gil Shaham (and his high-power PR team at 21cMedia). To hawk his new CD of Sarasate works, he stars in a little video, "Run, Gil, Run," that has him rushing all over Manhattan. There are cameos by some big-deal classical types along the way.

I'm not promising you'll double over with laughter, but you should find it entertaining:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:26 PM | | Comments (1)

James Levine to undergo surgery, cancels Met, Boston Symphony gigs

James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony, has canceled appearances with both institutions to undergo back surgery. (Just my luck. I'm heading to New York this week to catch up on all the fuss about the Metropolitan Opera's roundly booed new "Tosca" production, figuring I would at the very least enjoy Levine's conducting.)

Here are the hot-off-the-email press releases:

FROM THE MET: Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine will have back surgery this week to repair a herniated disc. He has withdrawn from conducting performances this fall in order to recuperate. Joseph Colaneri, who was already scheduled to conduct "Tosca" on October 3, 14, and 17, will take over Levine’s performances of the Puccini opera on October 6 and 10 matinee. (He already filled in for Levine conducting Tosca on September 24 and 28.)

The conductor for "Der Rosenkavalier" performances on October 13, 16, and 19 will be

announced soon.

Levine’s doctors expect him to recover in time to conduct the new production of "Les Contes d’Hoffmann" which opens December 3. In addition to six performances of the Offenbach work, he will return to the Met podium later in the season for "Simon Boccanegra" and "Lulu," as well as "Der Rosenkavalier" in January and "Tosca" in April. He is also scheduled to lead the Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall performances in December and January.

FROM THE BOSTON SYMPHONY: BSO Music Director James Levine has had to withdraw from his upcoming conducting appearances tonight, September 29, and Saturday, October 3, at Symphony Hall in Boston, and Thursday, October 1, at Carnegie Hall in New York, due to immediate unanticipated back surgery for a herniated disc.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Shi-Yeon Sung will conduct tonight’s performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductors Julian Kuerti and Shi-Yeon Sung will split the program on Saturday, October 3, which honors Ann Hobson Pilot’s 40-year tenure as harpist with the BSO. Mr. Kuerti will conduct the first half of the program, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Ms. Sung will conduct Elliott Carter’s "Mosaic," for harp and chamber ensemble, Debussy’s "Danses sacrée et profane" for harp and orchestra, John Williams’s "On Willows and Birches," for harp and orchestra, and Ravel’s "La Valse," with Ann Hobson Pilot returning to the BSO principal harp chair for this special occasion.

“All of us at the BSO are disappointed that Maestro Levine will not be able to conduct the Tuesday and Saturday subscription concerts in Boston and Opening Night at Carnegie Hall,” said Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director. “Our thoughts are with Jim and we wish him a speedy recovery so he can soon return to the BSO podium and the glorious music-making for which he is so universally known. We are fortunate at the BSO to have two very talented assistant conductors, Shi-Yeon Sung and Julian Kuerti, who are scheduled to fill in for the two programs to take place in Boston this week. Despite Jim’s absence, we remain very excited to open Carnegie Hall’s 2009-10 season.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:33 PM | | Comments (2)

Concert review round-up: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Monument Piano Trio

Last weekend offered reassurances that two of the area's fine, homegrown musical resources are entering the new season with flair and imagination.

On Saturday night at the Gordon Center, the Concert Artists of Baltimore offered a wonderfully off-beat program, the sort it can do so well, since it's the only professional chamber orchestra and chorus around.

The choral component was featured in the five a cappella songs of Brahms' Op. 104, beautifully crafted pieces that seem to glow with autumn colors (yeah, I know -- autumnal Brahms is a cliche, but it really does fit). Edward Polochick guided his singers expertly through the music, coaxing a smoothly blended, expressive sound.

The chorus did admirable work as well in Mozart's Solemn Vespers, K. 339, with elegant support from the orchestra. The soloists, among them soprano Jennifer Edwards in the Laudate Dominum movement, handled their assignments with flair.

In between the vocal items came two rarities for strings. Polochick drew out the spice and structural brilliance of Bartok's Divertimento so persuasively that it was possible to forget about some rough patches in the playing. Schnittke's Moz-Art a la Haydn was presented in all its theatrical cleverness (it calls for players to arrive and depart individually on a darkened stage); the resonances of 18th century idioms and 20th century piquancy made their intended effect tellingly.

The only serious disappointment Saturday was the turnout. I've said before that folks here don't know what they're missing. The Gordon Center has superb acoustics, and Polochick and the Concert Artists can be counted on to deliver unusually engaging programs.

Speaking of engaging programs, the Monument Piano Trio regularly

devises them, too, as was the case Sunday afternoon at An die Musik.

A standard score, Beethoven's C minor Trio, Op. 1, No. 3, got things started. Violinist Igor Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard demonstrated their familiar rapport and technical poise; the performance had a good deal of drama and poetic inflection.

Then a big novelty -- a transcription by Sheppard of Brahms' Symphony No. 2. The pianist was the first to admit, in remarks to the audience, that the presence of such a transcription on the concert raised the question: Why? Well, because Sheppard loves Brahms, that's why. Works for me. Besides, as I've written before, I have a fondness for transcriptions, from solo piano Wagner or Mahler to souped-up orchestral Bach.

Brahms' Second lends itself to a chamber reduction quite well, for the most part, and Sheppard clearly revealed an ability to preserve the essence of the symphonic tapestry. (The first movement repeat wasn't taken, a common enough, if lamentable, practice in orchestral performances, but I hope that doesn't mean Sheppard didn't include the first ending in his transcription.)

Not surprisingly, the keyboard part turned out to be particularly successful. The voicing of the chords sounded so authentically Brahmsian that it was easy to imagine that the composer had made the transcription himself. A few unsteady violin notes aside, the playing was again polished and powerful throughout from all three musicians, who reached a sweeping virtuosity in the finale. The performance answered the "why" question with an emphatic "why not?"


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:18 AM | | Comments (6)

September 28, 2009

Opera Vivente opens season with Rossini's 'Cinderella'

Rossini is good medicine for recessions. Washington National Opera opened its season with "The Barber of Seville" a couple weeks ago, generating considerable humor. On Friday night, Opera Vivente jumped into its 12th season with another comic gem by the composer, Cenerentola -- "Cinderella," in this case, as the company always performs in English.

The production, staged by Opera Vivente's general director John Bowen, proved diverting, and things were in decent shape musically, while the basic set (by Thom Bumblauskas) and traditional costumes got the visual job done.

The libretto Rossini used for "Cinderella" isn't quite the same as the one we all know and love, but the basics are still there -- a long-suffering maiden with nasty stepsisters; a surprise entrance at a palatial ball; a prince searching for an unknown beauty who left something behind (a bracelet, rather than glass slipper). The music abounds in cleverness, rivaling "Barber" for tuneful flights and colorful orchestration. 

In the title role, Ann Marie Wilcox could have used more sparkle and spontaneity in her voice at times, but she nonetheless offered considerable style and negotiated coloratura passages deftly. There was something almost matronly in her characterization, though; a more girlish streak wouldn't have hurt. Gran Wilson, as Prince Ramiro, is a much-seasoned tenor, and that background was

evident in the thoughtful way he phrased everything. His voice did show some signs of wear and effort along the way, but his musicality provided abundant compensation.

As Don Magnifico, Cinderella's cruel, drink-inclined father, Christopher Austin produced a round, mostly firm tone and brought a good deal of theatrical flair to the proceedings. Charles Stanton used his rather soft-grained baritone effectively as the prince's magically-powered tutor Alidoro. 

Erica Cochran (Clorinda) and Jessica Renfro (Tisbe) sang brightly as the vain, idiotic stepsisters, but Bowen saddled them with too much of the same physical shtick. There are only so many primping gestures and annoyed facial expressions you can produce before it all wears thin.

More annoying was what happened to the character of Dandini, the prince's valet who pretends to be Ramiro in order to get the lowdown on matrimonial prospects. Bowen has given Dandini the full queeny treatment, a tired cliche that should be permanently banned from opera stages for at least a decade. Baritone Brian Pettey certainly gave it his all, but, here again, the one-note nature of the characterization quickly turned wearying. Vocally, Pettey was a charmer, even allowing for a disappearing low register; his phrasing always had flair.

As tiresome as the prancing and flouncing of Dandini became, it was worse seeing the male chorus likewise mincing about every time they arrived onstage, holding mirrors at the ready for yet another look at themselves. Once again, it was all very heavy-handed and repetitive. These particular choristers might have carried it off had they proven to be better actors, and more solid singers.  

Conductor Philip Lauriat didn't always get everyone on the same rhythmic page, but he drew from the small orchestra enough skill and color to honor Rossini's brilliant score. Joseph Gascho was the excellent harpsichordist for the recitatives. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 AM | | Comments (2)

September 27, 2009

Closing out the world, but letting the music in, with Phiaton headphones

Ordinarily, the products I receive unsolicited in hopes of a review are recordings. Lately, I've been having fun testing a product made for listening to those recordings -- headphones by a company called Phiaton.

Time was when I could work contentedly with any amount of distraction in the newsroom, but I've been finding it harder to do so. I tend to plug into the computer soon after getting to work, listening to CDs or XM/Sirius while I write. Until now, that has meant using whatever headphones came with the computer -- featherweight, adequate-sounding types that just did barely the job.

I was intrigued to try out Phiaton's model MS 400, not only for the chance to gain a sonic advantage (and greater noise reduction), but also for the cool look -- this baby's got a bright red headband and ear cushions to match. Nothing like making a fashion statement while you're gettin' down with Mahler or Strauss.

Of course, I'd never want to have an aural accessory purely for style (although a devotion to "Mad Men" has sure made me susceptible). It's got to sound good, good enough to put up with having something that weighs 6.5 oz. stuck on your head.

To tell the truth, it has been so long since I put on any truly solid headphones that I didn't think I'd like the experience at all. I had gotten used to earbuds or products only a small step up from those junky things that airlines pass around. There's something to be said for barely being able to feel something on your head or in your ears, but there's a lot more to be said

for putting on a device that can deliver life-like, full-spectrum sound. Phiaton does that handsomely. I have found that great clarity, warmth and evenness from bass to treble are the rule, as much in listening to classical as pop (I really do listen to other stuff, you know). External noises are nicely muted, but I can still hear the phone or an angry editor just fine.

The headphones show off best when plugged into a regular stereo system, needless to say (a plug adapter is included), but I'm delighted with the results at the computer, where I end up spending so much time each week. They're also terrific with an iPod.

(By the way, I tried out the cool-looking Phiaton PS 200 earbuds, which I assumed would provide a big improvement over the standard issue you get with an iPod, but I can't say I was blown away by the results.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:46 PM | | Comments (1)

September 26, 2009

Remembering elegant Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha

Physically diminutive but musically grand, Alicia de Larrocha maintained a standard of pianistic elegance that never faded, after more than seven decades before the public. She died on Friday in Barcelona at the age of 86, leaving behind an extensive recorded legacy that preserves her artistry. (Allan Kozinn has, as usual, written an excellent obit in the Times.)

Where Ms. de Larrocha particularly excelled was in Mozart, though she covered a lot of the keyboard repertoire and played it with distinction. I didn't get to hear her live nearly often enough, but I recall well the effect she made -- the technical poise, the refined taste in her phrasing, the beauty of tone, and the total lack of any self-conscious display. She was all music.

Here are some examples of the special art of Alicia de Larrocha:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:13 AM | | Comments (3)

September 25, 2009

BSO opens subscription concerts with fiery Tchaikovsky and crossover concerto by Higdon

Time for ThreeNearly two weeks ago, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 provided the finale to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s splashy season-opening gala concert. The Tchaikovsky thread has carried over into the BSO’s first subscription series concerts of 2009-2010; one of his greatest hits, Symphony No. 4, closes the program.

Next week’s lineup will end with yet another Tchaikovsky war horse, the Violin Concerto, so we’ve got a clear little trend going on here. (And people complained that former music director Yuri Temirkanov did too much Russian stuff.)

Musically speaking, Tchaikovsky is faring a lot better this week than he did at that gala, when Lang Lang applied too much bling bling to the concerto. On Thursday night, all was serious, sensible and satisfying as Marin Alsop led a forceful account of the fate-challenging Fourth Symphony that found the BSO playing impressively.

Individualistic touches were not exactly rampant, but the conductor’s approach had an invigorating sweep that gave each drama-drenched moment its due, right from the opening notes.

The second movement, graced by Katherine Needleman’s golden oboe solo, was perhaps too squarely phrased, but still conveyed considerable warmth, and the scherzo was very effectively carried off — lots of dynamic nuance, even at a good sprint. The finale really crackled, showing off the fearless strings to fine advantage.

This performance seemed doubly rewarding, given the unevenness earlier. The program, very Alsop in its mix of the standard and the new, is part of, yes, another connective theme running throughout the season — music that reflects cultural roots.

So the taste of Russian folk tunes in the Tchaikovsky symphony had a counterpart in the ethnic flavor of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances,” which opened the evening. Alsop put a few effective bends in the rhythm in those dances, but more charm would have been nice, and the orchestra sounded in need of some technical tightening.

Next up was the area premiere of

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto “4-3,” a vehicle composed for a hip, young crossover ensemble called Time for Three. (Last season’s subscription concerts ended with the area premiere of Higdon’s Violin Concerto, so having Higdon back to start this season’s series suggests that connective threads have become, well, a connective thread in BSO programming.)

Higdon writes some of the most instantly likable music to be heard today, always rich in engaging ideas and instrumental coloring. It’s easy to see why she would have been attracted to the idea of creating specifically for the trio of violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer. While students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (where Higdon teaches), they discovered a mutual interest in bluegrass, country and jazz and ran with it.

Higdon is just as at home in those styles. Other than fiddler/composer Mark O’Connor, she is surely the best equipped to create a concerto that incorporates them. But Concerto “4-3,” in three movements with descriptive titles referencing Higdon’s Smoky Mountains roots, left me largely unconvinced on Thursday.

The piece gave the soloists perhaps too much of the limelight. Their extended (and rather repetitive) cadenzas were ripe with twangy bluegrass slides that tended to smooth out whenever the orchestra kicked in. And that orchestral side of things didn’t have much substance to it.

The net effect was sort of like seeing a city slicker accenting his Brooks Brothers suit with ostentatious cowboy boots. I had trouble buying it.

That said, the amplified Time for Three guys offered tremendous energy and tightly meshed virtuosity. In passages that called for gradual decrescendos, they also produced expressive power out of the softest wisps of sound. Alsop was, as usual, a secure, attentive partner. The brass executed their snappy licks in the third movement with particular panache.

The trio delivered the fiddler classic “Orange Blossom Special” as an encore and played the heck out of it, earning a hefty, happy roar from the crowd.

The program repeats Friday night at Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:51 PM | | Comments (3)

Some gentle music for Shostakovich's birthday

It's Shostakovich's 103rd birthday, so we've got to have musical commemoration.

It's also a drizzly Friday morning in Baltimore, so we could use a little lift. Oh yeah, and I somehow managed not to blog at all on Thursday -- despite having to participate that evening in a discussion on the joys of blogging with other local bloggers at a Baltimore Symphony pre-concert. That's, like, grounds for dismissal from the blogosphere, isn't it? I plead for mercy, even though it was all through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. I promise to be more diligent and faithful, and I'm hoping you'll be in a more forgiving mood if you get listen to something real, real purty.

Back to Shostakovich. No, I'm not going to offer something from his searing symphonies or concertos. This particular anniversary of the guy I consider the 20th century's Beethoven (want to make something of it??) calls for a warm and fuzzy choice, and possibly not as widely known -- the Romance from

his film score to a 1955 swashbuckler film called "The Gadfly."

I first heard it, as I suspect a lot of folks did, when it was used as the theme music for the gripping British TV series "Reilly, Ace of Spies" that came out in the early 1980s and was shown on PBS in the States.

I am sure that some folks would call this a send up of romantic music, not really a genuine attempt at it. But I find it irresistible and genuine. The piece seems to open up a disarmingly gentle, lyrical, less internally troubled side of Shostakovich. And, given the news headlines right now, from local terror plots to Iran's hidden nuclear facility, I figured gentle, lyrical and internally untroubled was just the ticket.

Here, then, a little birthday salute to a musical giant.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:33 AM | | Comments (3)

September 23, 2009

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra to ring in New Year in China

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, which, as far as I know, hasn't devoted a lot of attention to light Viennese music before, will bring a batch of Johann Strauss waltzes and other gems to China for a series of concerts in Suzhou, a large city 65 miles west of Shanghai.

The programs, in the style of the famed New Year's concerts Vienna, will be conducted by Markand Thakar.

There will be two guest artists. Soprano Rachel Inselman will sing operetta arias by Strauss, Franz Lehar and Victor Herbert.

And violinist Jonathan Carney, concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony, will be featured in popular pieces by Fritz Kreisler, among other things. The BCO was invited by the Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Centre.

The ensemble opens its Baltimore concert series on Oct. 18 at Goucher College with a program featuring the Handel Choir of Baltimore.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:58 PM | | Comments (0)

September 22, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 11): Franz Schmidt

I noticed that when I went out into left field and advocated programming music by Heiner Goebbels earlier in this what-we've-been-missing series, I got nary a comment. Must have scared too many folks. This time, I figured I'd venture into right field (speaking tonally, not politically, of course), and try the much-neglected Austrian composer Franz Schmidt.

He played cello in the Vienna State Opera when Mahler conducted there and went on to direct a major conservatory. Schmidt, who died in 1939, wrote in a late-romantic style that he held onto even as his famed contemporaries, Schoenberg and company, were doing their best to turn the music world upside down.

Every time I hear Schmidt's music -- this usually means by accident on radio, or by slipping a CD into the changer -- I'm

impressed with its technical quality and expressive warmth. I think he deserves more of a hearing in our concert halls.

His third and fourth symphonies, in particular, would be most welcome. And, although I don't expect any opera company around here to revive his "Notre Dame," the Intermezzo from that work was once much admired and would make a great filler on concerts. (For that matter, why doesn't anyone bring out all the great opera intermezzi out there and put them together to form a juicy program half?)

Here's just a sampling of Franz Schmidt's distinctive music, that "Notre Dame" Intermezzo and a movement from his Symphony No. 1, to offer a taste of we've been missing:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:02 PM | | Comments (6)

Concert review round-up: Ronn McFarlane, BSO Chamber Music, Mobtown Modern

What with one thing and another, I've fallen hopelessly behind with concert-reviewing. Blame it on the health care debate. (That doesn't make any sense, of course, but neither does most of the health care debate.) For the record, here are the musical splendors I've soaked up recently:

On Sunday, I did a one-and-one-half-header, starting at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, where the annual concert series opened with an engaging recital by superb lutenist Ronn McFarlane in a cozy side chapel. This much-recorded artist and former Peabody faculty member knows how to make the lute sing, how to bring such life to the music of the the 16th and 18th centuries that it sounds freshly composed. He phrased a group of Dowland pieces with abundant nuance; "Melancholy" and "Lachrimae," in particular, benefited from his sensitive touch.

McFarlane has also been contributing new music to the lute repertoire, and he devoted the second half of his program to his own work. (His latest CD, "Indigo Road," got a Grammy nomination for best crossover album.) Joined by William Simms, he played a three-movement piece for two lutes, "On the Heath," which exudes a pleasant, 1960s-ish folk music flavor. The concluding group of solo items revealed McFarlane's penchant for effectively building works around descending melodic lines; the gently songful "A Day in November" proved especially beguiling. 

I moved from the soft palette of the lute to

the fuller sounds of modern instruments and the season launch of Chamber Music by Candlelight, the free series featuring BSO players and friends presented by Community Concerts at Second Presbyterian Church. I took in the first half of the off-beat program, which opened with Schumann's "Fairy Tales" for clarinet (William Jenken), viola (Karin Brown) and piano (Sylvie Beaudoin). The performance was technically refined, interpretively vivid and involving.

Eric Ewazen's Trio for horn (Philip Munds), bassoon (Phillip Kolker) and piano (Lura Johnson) was new to my ears, and most agreeable. The composer, a longtime Juilliard faculty member, employs a tonal style to imaginative effect here, tightly integrating the instruments in colorful fashion and, as in the bittersweet second movement, generating considerable melodic warmth. The playing was first-rate.

Bernard Garfield, former principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, also writes in a decidedly conservative style. His Quartet No. 3 for bassoon (Julie Gregorian), violin (Jonathan Carney), viola (Richard Field) and cello (Dariusz Skoraczewski) is inconsequential, but pretty. A few uncentered bassoon notes aside, the performers gave it a solid account.

Last week (I told you I was behind), my musical adventure came courtesy of Mobtown Modern, the fun and funky ensemble that kicked off its season at a new home, Metro Gallery. It's a good fit of downtown music and unstructured space. The sizable turnout of mostly young listeners, some of them sprawled on couches, seemed fully engaged in the program, which revolved around the technique of looping and contained works written within the past six years.

The opening set with violinist Todd Reynolds was, for me, the high point of the evening. His own virtuoso piece, "Outerborough," with its percussive spice, and the clever interactive Etudes by Phil Kline proved especially potent. Mobtown co-curator Erik Spangler's "Pre-Dawn Artscape Ghost Town" had some great things going on in it, including a recurring soundtrack of a train and the striking effects of such instruments as melodica, theremin and toy megaphone. Just when the music was really cooking, though, it fizzled out. In my quaintly old-fashioned way, I missed a definitive arrival point.

I could have done without the vocal improv of a trio called Vox Thread; the performance ventured dangerously close to another-amateur-night-in-Dixie territory. The concluding medley of DJ culture songs was tightly played, for the most part, by an ensemble of strings, winds, percussion (not to mention electric guitar and rubbed wine glasses), but it could have used more heat.

Still, it looks like Mobtown will settle into the venue nicely and continue its invaluable effort to hip-i-fy Baltimore's music scene.

If you've read this far, you could use some relief, so here are samples of Ronn McFarland, performing his "Cathedral Cave"; and Todd Reynolds, demonstrating his electric flair:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:45 PM | | Comments (2)

September 21, 2009

Add Philadelphia Orchestra to long list of the financially troubled

Over the weekend, my colleague Peter Dobrin reported on the Philadelphia Orchestra's emergency need $15 million to held ends meet. Here's an excerpt: 

The orchestra is running a string of large deficits - $3.3 million for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, and a projected $7.5 million for the current year - and has maxed out its line of credit.

"Unless we, individually and collectively, provide critical financial support in the next several weeks, there is danger that

our effort to fix and transform the orchestra will falter," incoming board chairman Richard B. Worley wrote in a four-page memo to the board. "Without financial stability, we will continually be forced to devote our energy to triaging short-term financial crises, making long-term sustainable change more difficult. We cannot shrink our way to a better future."

Discouraging news is everywhere in the arts world, of course. It's going to be another rough season. The situation in Philadelphia drives home what's happening here, where the Baltimore Symphony has been doing the battle of the budget since the Great Recession grabbed hold, and has done so with a remarkable degree of internal cohesiveness. For more on the local picture (just in case you missed it -- and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?), I've got a story in today's paper.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:16 PM | | Comments (1)

'Phedre' with Helen Mirren takes us into another twilight of the gods

It's always a privilege to be in the presence of great artists -- musical, dramatic, visual. The production of Racine's "Phedre" from the National Theatre of Great Britain provides such an occasion. It's in D.C., thanks to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, for a short run, a visit well worth catching. (If you didn't snare a ticket when they went on sale -- and quickly sold out -- months ago, this is a good opportunity to practice your bribery skills. Or maybe breaking and entering.)

I reviewed the show already, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. For one thing, the level of acting, from a terrifically cohesive ensemble headed by the divine Helen Mirren, left quite a mark. Long after my evening at the Harman Center, I found myself recalling the richly layered texture of Mirren's vocalism -- a term I'd usually reserve for opera singers. Mirren was like a great mezzo, relishing the nuances of timbre, the ability to sculpt a phrase in such a way that every syllable registers with impact.

For that matter, the whole performance was

an opera in speech. After all, we're talking ancient myth here, the same sort of material that produced so many operatic works. Racine's take on the Euripides original (and the striking English version by Ted Hughes that the National Theatre production uses) puts us right into the same sort of place where Wotan and his breed are stuck in Wagner's "Ring," a place where love, including the incestuous variety (the dramatic spark in "Phedre"), swallows up mortals and causes gods to take sides.

I noticed at the performance of "Phedre" I attended that odd laughs occasionally broke out in the audience, I assume because some of the dramatic situations seemed too silly by today's oh-so-high standards of entertainment. Greek tragedies aren't staged every day, so maybe theater audiences just aren't prepared for all the emotion and fate-twisted events. We opera freaks, of course, are overly familiar with this sort of thing, and we're known to find it terribly plausible and moving.

One of the pleasures of seeing this brilliantly realized "Phedre" was this operatic quality -- in both the play itself and the delivery of it -- and the chance to delve again into the whole fascinating issue of the gods, those willful, wily beings who seemed to cause so much trouble. I suspect that a lot of ancient Greeks figured out that mortals caused plenty of problems on their own, that blaming the gods was a very tricky business.

At the end of "Phedre," when Theseus is left to mourn his son, a scene this production makes extremely powerful without overdoing a thing, it's really another twilight of the gods. The deities are not consumed as they are at the end of "Gotterdammerung," of course, but they're much weaker, fainter. The humans are left to grow out of their misery, and the realization that much of their grief stems from not being honest with each other and with themselves, not being able to listen and respect, or look beyond the superficial. Lessons, it seems, that we poor humans still have trouble learning today.

By the way, I'd feel guilty posting a video clip I found of "Phedre," taped during a performance that Mirren and her colleagues gave recently in Greece, because it just doesn't seem quite kosher. Presumably, the same "no audio or visual recording of any kind" message was given to that audience. But if you care to go surfing on a certain popular Web site famed for its massive trove of video clips (HINT: it rhymes with "New Boob"), you'll find a nine-minute sampling of a live performance that will give you a taste of this exceptional production.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (1)

September 18, 2009

Washington National Opera's 'Barber of Seville' a snappy staging

In case you missed it in print, or elsewhere on the paper's Web site, I thought I should mention my review of Washington National Opera's season-opening 'Barber of Seville' production finally saw the light of day. (The BSO gala was the same night as the first 'Barber' performance, so I was a little slow catching up with it.)

The production is a snappy affair (literally, in one respect), and it does something few 'Barbers' do for me these days -- provokes fresh laughs.

And it's a great opportunity to experience Lawrence Brownlee onstage, having a field day, vocally and theatrically, as Almaviva. In addition to his enormous talent, the tenor can't help but


be seen in symbolic terms, too. Few black tenors have performed major roles with major opera companies, so it's doubly significant that Brownlee has been triumphing at the Met, La Scala, Vienna State Opera and elsewhere.

The DC 'Barber' production also introduces a very impressive mezzo, Silvia Tro Santafe. She has 'bright future' written all over her. And the conducting of Michele Mariotti is far from routine. He really knows how to uncork the bubbly stuff in Rossini's score, and how to massage tempos for maximum impact.

For another view of the production, see my colleague Anne Midgette's take on last weekend's opening night performance. Also, from the Ionarts blog, Charles T. Downey weighs in.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)

More fabulously bad classical CD covers

Jason Medwid's Two Many Tristans blog, where I was exceedingly delighted to discover his series of truly awful classical CD covers earlier this week, is back with another installment. Check it out.

Some of these manage to top the others in his series, no mean feat. I'm not sure I'll ever get the image of that "Aida" cover out of my head.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:15 AM | | Comments (1)

September 17, 2009

On the theater beat: 'Rabbit Hole,' a potent examination of coping with loss

In case some of my faithful and eternally appreciated blog readers haven't heard, I'm covering some other beats these days at the Sun. It dawned me I should push all of this on you, too (ordinarily, I'm much too shy for anything that smacks of self-promotion, of course).

Anyway, in today's paper, I'm in theater mode, with a review of "Rabbit Hole" at Everyman Theatre. It's a production I cannot recommend highly enough. Yes, the play addresses a difficult subject -- the loss of a young child -- but this is not really a depressing work. David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning script manages to address the topic of how we grieve, how we go on in a remarkably natural manner, and Everyman's cast offers a riveting example of first-rate acting.

Last night, I was back in musical gear to hear

Mobtown Modern's season-opener, and I hope to post something about that later today, after finishing up something else for tomorrow's paper and before rushing to DC (it seems I'm always getting to DC in a rush) for another theater gig -- the divine Helen Mirren in "Phedre." You know what they say: It's a lousy job, but somebody's got to do it.
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:10 PM | | Comments (1)

Greatest (really worst) classic CD covers

One of my treasured Twitterites alerted me to this blog page that has a survey of the absolute greatest (as in most hideous) classical CD covers.

I must say the sight of these gave me a good laugh, especially when I recalled that I've got several of them in my collection and just never realize how hilarious they look.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:35 AM | | Comments (2)

September 16, 2009

Struggling Charlotte Symphony gets boost from two $1 million gifts

Maybe the economy really is turning around.

Two donors gave $1 million each to the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina, an unprecedented act of philanthropy to the orchestra, reports my colleague Steve Brown.

The ensemble has been hampered by deficits for the past seven years and is not exactly out of the woods yet, but seeing such a generous response in these tough times has to be giving everyone a big lift down there.

My favorite quote in this story comes from Jane McColl, who, with husband Hugh, made one of the $1 million donations:

“The Charlotte Symphony is the sound of the city. It is our hope that everyone works together to support this important institution for our region.”

That's precisely the attitude that can save arts in trouble anywhere. It has to be a matter of civic pride and a firm belief in cultural values. Coming the same week as the startling $10 million gift to the New York Philharmonic to underwrite a composer in residence and create a new music award, the $2 million gesture in Charlotte gives one a little more hope.

Now, if we could only light a fire under all the moneyed folk in the Baltimore area -- and you know who you are -- we could be taking some big steps forward here, too.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)

September 15, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 10): Sibelius

Maybe I've just missed it somehow, but it seems to me that we haven't been hearing enough Sibelius.

Oh sure, the Violin Concerto comes around, as well it should; what wonderfully earthy, vital music that is. The first two, stirring symphonies are not too long out of the picture; they will surely never lose their place in the active repertoire. And, if we're lucky, we do get No. 5 and No. 7 once in a while.

But, quick -- think of the last time you went to a concert around here and found, say, Symphony No. 4 on the program. Or "Cassazione." I think it's odd that even "Finlandia," probably the best known of all Sibelius works, seems to be largely confined to radio station airplay these days -- although I hasten to add that the BSO has programmed it this season.

I'd be up for a Sibelius festival, with

all of the symphonies and a bunch of the tone poems, as well as some of those fabulous orchestral songs (I've said before that the great orchestral song repertoire, spanning so many great composers, has been grossly underserved locally). For a taste of the Sibelius we've been missing, here's the finale of the darkly beautiful Symphony No. 4 conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and a great example of Sibelius' vocal music, "Sav, Sav, Susa," sung by the supreme Jussi Bjorling :

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:02 AM | | Comments (7)

September 14, 2009

New York Philharmonic gets $10 million for composer-in-residence, new works

Alan Gilbert's tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic is off to a great start. His inaugural night isn't until Wednesday, but today the orchestra announced an extraordinary vote of confidence in Gilbert -- a $10 million gift from Henry R. Kravis that will underwrite a composer-in-residence position at the Philharmonic and establish a $250,000 prize for new music.

The first resident composer (each term will be two years) is Magnus Lindberg, whose "Expo" will receive its world premiere on Wednesday. 

In these tough economic times, it's reassuring to know there are still folks around not just with deep pockets, but the willingness to spend it in support of contemporary music. (The new Kravis Prize of $250,000 will be given ever two years, starting in 2011, and will include a New York Philharmonic commission.)

The $10 million gift clearly signals strong support for Gilbert, who is expected to shake things up at the Philharmonic in many ways, following Lorin Maazel's basically conservative tenure. Gilbert's several appearances with the Baltimore Symphony back at the start of the decade revealed considerable talent, which has only intensified over the years. It's going to be an interesting time up there at Lincoln Center, and I hope to catch some of the action soon. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)

September 13, 2009

Baltimore Symphony gala showcases Lang Lang and local talent

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual gala Saturday night was about as feel-good an occasion as you could hope for during rough financial times for the institution. One of the biggest ovations of the night came before any music was played, when board chairman Michael Bronfein mentioned Music Matters, the musicians' voluntary gesture aimed at helping the bottom line -- they gave back $1 million in pay and benefits last spring, and another $1 million this summer. The tuxedo-speckled audience stood and cheered the players heartily.

There was positive news about the challenge part of Music Matters -- the musicians' plea to the community to match their gift with new or increased contributions. A recent $250,000 donation just brought to $1 million the total raised so far by this campaign.

In other financial news, Bronfein announced that $800,000 was raised by the gala in support of the orchestra's educational efforts. A recent addition to that activity, OrchKids, a kind of American version of Venezuela's famed El sistema program, was launched last year with $100,000 in seed money from BSO music director Marin Alsop. An encouraging report on OrchKids was provided in an effective video that showed West Baltimore school kids embracing the program, which clearly has enormous potential.

Speaking of potential, a promising senior from the Baltimore School for the Arts,

soprano Arielle Armstrong, got a spot on the gala concert. She reflected strongly on her school's value with a poised, vibrant delivery of "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," sensitively backed by the orchestra.

Alsop, who has championed the work of African-American composer James P. Johnson in previous galas, led a snappy account of his symphonic poem "Drums," preceded by a performance by the vividly costumed African Heritage Dancers and Drummers from D.C. Their appearance on this particular program bill didn't quite make a smooth fit. For that matter, neither did a video piece at the start of the evening, which featured Alsop discussing her mentor Leonard Bernstein and 1980s shots of her being coached by him in a conducting session. That video would have made more sense at last season's gala, which kicked off a season that had a recurring Bernstein theme. Oh well, mine is not to reason why.

Alsop led the ensemble in straight-ahead performances of Bernstein's "Candide" Overture and an abbreviated version of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" before reaching the big-ticket item on the program, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring the enormously popular Lang Lang.

Anyone who came into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall already an admirer of the pianist no doubt left in the same condition. Those arriving with a skeptical or dismissive attitude would have found reinforcement, too. It was certainly an exciting event, in much the same way that watching Michael Phelps set a new world record can be. Come to think of it, this was very much an athletic feat, for Lang Lang seemed determined to play the concerto's fast bits faster than any other human. The flurries of octaves, in particular, were astonishing in terms of velocity. I only wish they had made more musical sense. If Tchaikovsky had envisioned a wild, thunderous blur, I rather suspect he wouldn't have bothered writing out all those little notes.

That said, this open-hearted concerto is pretty much indestructible, and Lang Lang is hardly the first soloist primarily intent on making it a bravura display vehicle, or exaggerating tempos (slow and fast alike). And there were times, to be sure, when he phrased beautifully, warmly, elegantly. Not often enough, alas, to persuade me that deeply inspired music-making was taking place at the keyboard. Fabulous facility and daring, yes. That, especially on a gala occasion, was probably enough.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:03 PM | | Comments (3)

September 12, 2009

Baltimore Concert Opera opens season with satisfying account of Gounod's 'Faust'

As longtime readers of my drivel know, I'm quite fond of opera in concert form. Sure, if given a choice, I'd go for the fully staged version, but there's something to be said about getting down to just the musical gritty-nitty, focusing all of the attention on the aural side of an opera. It's a great way to appreciate all over again what the composer was up to, and, of course, a great way to zero in on what the vocalists are doing.

Baltimore Concert Opera, the determined ensemble founded last season by local singers as an outlet during what they thought would be just a temporary shut-down of Baltimore Opera Company, has emerged as a viable addition to the cultural scene. The young company doesn't have the financial resources to do concert versions in the best sense, with full orchestra. But, even with only keyboard accompaniment, it can produce a serious, satisfying substitute, as evidenced by Friday night's season-opening performance of Gounod's "Faust" in the intimate ballroom at the Engineers Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion).

If you haven't yet given Baltimore Concert Opera a try, there's another performance Sunday afternoon. I think you'll find yourself very nicely rewarded. For one thing, the soloists are, by and large, fully up to the challenge of this hefty 19th century classic. For another, the chorus is excellent. And James Harp works wonders at the keyboard.

Throughout Friday's performance, sensitively conducted by Julien Benichou, the strengths in Gounod's score -- trimmed for this occasion, but not severely -- registered strongly. (So did the weakness; the composer did have his share of uninspired ideas.) Above all, this was a dynamic account of the opera, not some stand-and-deliver routine; the singers sounded thoroughly involved in the piece from the get-go.

In the title role, Steven Sanders (left) produced a rather thin, but well-produced tone and, except in the uppermost reaches, met the musical demands firmly and always stylishly. He hit an expressive peak in the love duet with soprano Julia Turner Cooke as Marguerite; the two voices sculpted their lines in that scene with admirable poetic nuance. Cooke proved quite telling in the rest of the opera as well. Although her tone tended to get a little edgy when pushed, her overall vocal polish and eloquent phrasing left a strong mark.

David Cushing had fun with the role of Mephistopheles. A somewhat dry timbre proved limiting at times, but he put plenty of bite and fire into his delivery (the wicked laughs in the Serenade were produced with particular flourish).

The real find of the performance was

Jonathan Carle (right) as Valentin. The baritone offered quite a plush tone and a rich variety of expressive detail, digging deep into the music, especially in his final scene. This was sit-up-and-take-notice singing. I'd like to hear him again soon.

Rounding out the cast were Madelyn Wanner as Siebel, Jason Widney as Wagner and Jenni Bank as Marthe (she managed to generate quite a lot of vocal charm in her brief appearance). The chorus did a star turn of its own, doing consistently sturdy, vibrant work. At the keyboard, Harp demonstrated his usual technical panache and supported the singers beautifully. There are only so many tremolos any pianist can produce before they start sounding a little tacky, but Harp had a way of making it possible not to miss an orchestra too much -- no easy feat.

All in all, a classy account of "Faust" and a strong start to Baltimore Concert Opera's first full season.

Hearing all of Gounod's "Faust" played on the piano reminded me of the great Liszt transcription of the opera's famous Waltz. So, just to keep the Faustian/pianistic theme going, here's a terrific performance of that Gounod/Liszt item, performed (and occasionally embellished) by the incomparable Earl Wild:



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

September 11, 2009

A musical reflection on the anniversary of 9/11

To mark the anniversary of that dreadful day eight years ago, I thought this exquisite music would be an appropriate way to acknowledge all those lost on 9/11, and all those still living with that loss.

This is the Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber, a choral arrangement of his haunting Adagio for Strings, using the text from the Latin Mass that concludes with a final plea, "Donna nobis pacem" -- "Grant us peace."

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:59 AM | | Comments (1)

September 10, 2009

Cereal List parody site skewers Marin Alsop/Baltimore Symphony publicity shot


 The photo of Marin Alsop adorning the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 09-10 season brochure makes a statement, and prompts diverse reactions.   

 I've heard it said that it looks like the conductor is swinging a golf club.

 A much more vivid interpretation has now been provided by The Cereal List, the recently launched (and, IMHO, occasionally effortful) classical music parody site. Have a look.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:37 PM | | Comments (2)

Lang Lang returns to Baltimore, still dividing opinions

In today's paper, I have an interview with the ever-controversial Lang Lang, who returns to the area for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala on Saturday. I mentioned the pianist's style divides listeners into love-him and hate-him camps, and, coincidentally, the hate-him side reared up right on cue in Thursday's New York Times.

Michael Kimmelman, in a report from the Lucerne festival in Switzerland, doesn't mince words about Lang Lang's account of Chopin's F minor Concerto: "I can't recall a more galling soloist," he writes. Kimmelman, who is hardly alone in his judgment, castigates the pianist for swooning and swaying, and for turning the performance into "a jumble of hyped-up anecdotes" and "flashy passages strung together."

Now I really can't wait to hear Lang Lang play on Saturday. (He'll tackle Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 with the BSO. A far cry from Chopin, to be sure, but a work that will certainly give the pianist plenty of opportunity to "gall" -- or impress.)  

I remember well first hearing this guy back at the start of his meteoric rise, which happened to involve the BSO -- the first American orchestra he performed with, and the orchestra he teamed up with for his Carnegie Hall debut. I remember the excitement of those early performances, the spontaneity and individuality of the playing. I thought the kid had something. He could be reckless or careless, but

hardly boring.

I noticed that some critics, who would lament one day about all the faceless, ordinary soloists out there, would then tear into Lang Lang the next day for being so outside-the-mold. I also thought it odd how some folks would complain about Lang Lang's animated facial expressions and tendency to move all over the place, but not mention similar emotive physicality in, say, Yo-Yo Ma.

That said, I came to have my own reservations about some Lang Lang performances, those where I felt his interest in rushing or slowing a tempo, his way of alternating between heavy pounding and drawing back to mere wisps of sound, ended up putting more attention on him than on the music. 

Over the years, though, Lang Lang has also expanded his repertoire and has turned in some fine music-making. Only 27, he's got plenty of time to grow, to deepen, to surprise. In time, he might even sway his most virulent detractors. 

Here's a clip of Lang Lang playing Chopin, a performance guaranteed to divide opinions. Feel free to express yours. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (7)

September 9, 2009

Opera great Grace Bumbry to receive 2009 Kennedy Center Honor

The list of Kennedy Center Honors for 2009 is slanted toward the pop culture fields -- Mel Brooks (movies, Broadway), Dave Brubeck (jazz), Bruce Springsteen (rock), Robert de Niro (movies). But holding up the classical side with great distinction will be soprano Grace Bumbry, an artist who generated quite a lot of electricity in the heyday of her operatic career, which was really two careers -- initially a mezzo, she made a successful transition to soprano.

Bumbry helped break down barriers against vocal artists of colors; she was the first black singer to perform at the Bayreuth Festival, in 1961. Her versatility in repertoire, her musicianship and potent personality proved to be a dynamic combination that earned her a hearty fan base. Bumbry has long worn the mantle of "diva" with ease, style and (no pun intended) grace. Excellent choice, Kennedy Center Honors nominating folks.

Here's a sample of Bumbry's talent,

singing one of the beloved anthems of divahood, "Io son lĀ“umile ancella," from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." (Translation: "I am the humble servant of the creative genius.") The sync between audio and video may not be perfect in this clip, but the singing is divine.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:42 AM | | Comments (7)

A musical observance of 09-09-09

You can get a little nutty thinking about what to post on a blog. I woke up with the notion that there should be a musical way to observe the cool date of 09-09-09. Why, I couldn't tell you. Just seemed like the thing to do.

Ninth symphonies seemed too obvious. So, then I wondered about all the pieces of music that bore the designation Op. 9 (meaning that the work -- opus -- is the ninth by a composer to get published).

I'm terrible at remembering opus numbers, so I just did a quick little search to see what kinds of pieces would turn up bearing the designation Op. 9.

I figured I'd pick three very different items with that opus number, but I found myself drawn instead to Chopin's Nocturnes, Op. 9, especially since there are three pieces in that set. Bingo, I silently declared -- three 9s. (OK, so it IS a stretch -- you try to come up with a classical version of 09-09-09 after too little sleep. Go ahead. I dare you.)

So hear are the three Nocturnes of Chopin's Op. 9, each played by

a different pianist from the past, and each offering an example of individualistic interpretive styling. Op. 9, No. 1: the noble Richter. Op. 9, No. 2: the supremely poetic Cortot. Op. 9, No. 3: the patrician Rubinstein. They just don't make them like this anymore.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:02 AM | | Comments (3)

September 8, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 9): Scriabin

The name of Alexander Scriabin should appear more frequently on programs. His solo piano music turns up on recitals with some freqeuncy, I know, but his symphonically inclined works haven't received the attention they should around here -- at least not during my nine years in Baltimore. It's certainly high time we had an opportunity to plunge into that great orgy of sound, "The Poem of Ecstasy," not to mention the Symphony No. 3 ("The Divine Poem").

Scriabin had an extraordinary sense of tone color that influenced many others, and he knew how to create vivid musical structures. There's nothing quite like the great washes of sound he could unleash in his sumptuous orchestral scores. So let's get some Scriabin flowing here soon -- and let the more exposed Russian composers have a rest.

Here's a taste of "The Poem of Ecstasy":

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)

September 7, 2009

Guilty pleasure: Watching classical composer become crazed murderer in 'Hangover Square'

Part of the Labor Day weekend was devoted to a guilty pleasure, discovering the 1945 film "Hangover Square," thanks to Turner Classic Movies. (Have I mentioned that TCM is the best thing to happen to television since "I Love Lucy"?) I was surprised, and intrigued, to hear the ever-dapper host Robert Osborne say that "Hangover Square" was Stephen Sondheim's favorite movie. Who knew?

I found the movie very entertaining, but I did feel a tad conflicted about a plot that uses a classical composer in late-Victorian London as the villain, a serial murderer driven mad every time he hears a discordant sound. I guess it's not such a far cry from the famous tale of another composer who creates his own little reign of terror at the Paris Opera House. Still, it's a bit of a downer to see a classical music type who goes in for some vile deeds and has a penchant for treating corpses to theatrical cremation.

Anyway, I'd say the best thing about "Hangover Square" is the score by Bernard Herrmann, whose music for subsequent films, especially several Hitchcock masterpieces, is much better known. There's one heck of a piano concerto at the heart of this film, a piece that poor George Harvey Bone -- isn't that a divine name for a composer? -- struggles to finish, in between churning out popular ditties for a vapid music hall singer he falls for and, eventually, kills.

When Bone finally gets his chance to premiere the concerto, he's being pursued by the police, who, at long last, have figured out that he's been quite the naughty fellow. The performance goes on anyway, ending with a conflagration-suicide rivaled only by that of Brunnhilde in "Gotterdammerung." Way over the top, but

a scene that certainly sticks in the mind. (So does the sad fact that Laird Cregar, who lost a lot of weight to play the role of Bone, died of a heart attack at the age of 28, just before the movie was relased.)

Herrmann's genius for scene-setting and for revealing subtext through music can be easily appreciated throughout "Hangover Square," and the piano concerto that proves to be Bone's roasted swan song makes quite a statement about dark forces of the mind. Given time limitations in film, it's not a full-fledged, three-movement concerto, but Herrmann packs a lot of material into the piece, including a very haunting theme that offers a foretaste of what he would create for "Vertigo" years later.

Here's a fine performance of the concerto, accompanied by stills from the film:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 PM | | Comments (3)

September 4, 2009

Remembering troubled legacy of Paul Robeson, 60 years after Peekskill Riots

On Sept. 4, 1949, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to hear Paul Robeson sing near Peekskill, NY, just a week after a mob had brutally attacked people arriving for a concert the great African American bass was scheduled to perform.

The earlier incident, on Aug. 27, involved demonstrators wielding billy clubs and throwing rocks, injuring would-be concert-goers and damaging cars. Police did little to interfere. Robeson’s intense sympathy for the Soviet Union at a time when the Red Scare was raging, made him a target of hate.

For the rescheduled performance, Robeson supporters put together their own security force and the concert went on, but, afterward, there was more trouble, as demonstrators attacked the departing audience. More than 100 people were hurt.

Now, 60 years after what became known as the Peekskill Riots, it should be possible to have some perspective on Robeson and the ugly opposition to him. But, as Peter Applebome’s fine column in Thursday’s New York Times points out, there is still anger and hate out there. It surfaced when plans were announced for a concert on Friday that will celebrate the life and legacy of Robeson in the very region where the riots took place.

Applebome quotes from emails: “Has anyone noticed that these minorities who hate this country are now running it?” posted one reader on an online message board linked to a story about the concert. “Obama should come to this. One commie to honor another,” posted a second.

There won’t likely be any riots at Friday's concert, probably not even any demonstrators. But it does give one pause to know that some folks still can’t take a longer view of history and of the individuals caught up in it. Surely it's possible today to look soberly at Robeson's embrace of the Soviet system, to appreciate the world he lived in, the battles he had to fight for dignity in his own country. We can still disagree with the choices he made, and disagree strongly, without condemning the soul of such a gifted artist.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re about to plunge right back into all-out McCarthyism, so wild and incendiary are the accusations that fly about every day in what passes for political discourse today. The anniversary of the Peekskill Riots should be a sobering reminder of what happens when people stop thinking, stop behaving with civility, stop listening.

Speaking of listening, here's the splendid voice of Paul Robeson, singing some of my favorite American and English songs:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:05 AM | | Comments (10)

September 3, 2009

Borodina, Abdrazakov to give concert for Washington Nat'l Opera with Domingo conducting

Fans of Russian singers will want to take note of a concert next month featuring Olgar Borodina, whose sumptuous mezzo is a force to be reckoned with, and her husband, the excellent bass Ildar Abdrazakov.

The event is being presented by Washington National Opera; Borodina and Abdrazakov starred in the company's 2006 production of "The Italian Girl in Algiers."

WNO general director (and pretty good tenor) Placido Domingo will conduct the program, which, naturally, includes a lot of Russian fare -- works by Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

There's also room for some Rossini, Verdi, Ponchielli, Bizet and Cilea, so don't expect to get home early that night. 

The concert is at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $30 to $140. More info here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:21 PM | | Comments (0)

'Mad Men' (Season 2) stirs unexpected memories of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Song of India'

Robert (my better half) and I are trying to catch up with the rest of the oh-so-with-it world by Netflix-ing our way through "Mad Men." Can't say I like a single character in the show, but I love the acting, the whole look and mood of the thing. One element that I find quite impressive is the telling use of popular music from the day, especially each choice for the final credits.

In the first show of Season 2, which we just saw, I was startled by the appearance of a classical golden-oldie that has long been out of favor and earshot, the so-called "Song of India" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Sadko." An instrumental ensemble was playing the piece as Don Draper met his wife in a hotel lobby for their Valentine's celebration, and it was used again for the credits at the end.

I can't remember the last time I thought of this music, which is so out-of-fashion that even unadventurous classical radio stations probably don't think to play it. Hearing it on that "Mad Men" episode brought back memories of learning the tune in a simplified version at the piano as a kid (it was the sort of thing you used to find in beginner books).

Later on, I associated the piece with Ethel Mertz hamming it up through the melody when she and Fred were auditioning for something, or, with Tommy Dorsey, who did a fab big band arrangement of it (no, I wasn't around when he recorded it -- I just got hooked on music of the '30s and '40s when I was young, decades and decades after that era).

Eventually, I discovered Rimsky-Korsakov and "Sadko" and several

wonderful recordings of this tenor aria, which occurs in Tableau IV of the opera when townsfolk of Novgorod gather at a pier to hear foreign merchants tell of their wares. One of those merchants sings about the diamonds, pearls and rubies "of miraculous far-off India." Rimsky-Korsakov was such a master of musical atmosphere that it's easy to believe the music really is exotic, from that far-off place.

I think the melody got such a workout over the years, in so many, often cheesy arrangements, that it must have seemed kitschy, rather silly. It didn't help that, in the West, no one staged "Sadko," so there wasn't much chance for people to discover where the aria came from. Today, I suspect a lot of folks would still consider this more pops than classical, not something to take too seriously. Well, I think the "Song of India" retains enormous charm and quality, revealing the hand of a master composer.

Don Draper seemed to be afraid someone might start warbling it in that hotel lobby, but I'm sure you'll be delighted to stick around for the two vocal performances I've retrieved from good ol' YouTube. Neither is in the original Russian, but never mind that. The first gives us the aria straight, sung (in Swedish) with his usual elegant styling by the incomparable Jussi Bjorling, my all-time favorite tenor. The second, by Miguel Fleta (in Spanish), offers much more rhythmic freedom and some very individualistic phrasing by a singer who ought to be better known today. I think both versions honor the simple beauty of the music and serve as reminders that the "Song of India" deserves fresh respect.

Oh, yeah, I also couldn't resist tagging on the Tommy Dorsey arrangement, just for fun. You weren't in a hurry, were you?

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (4)

September 1, 2009

Eruch Kunzel, conductor of much-recorded Cincinnati Pops, dies at 74

Erich Kunzel, whose fame as a pops conductor came closer than anyone else to that of the legendary Arthur Fiedler, died Tuesday of cancer at the age of 74.

For more than 30 years, he led the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, a collaboration preserved on more than 100 recordings that have sold more than 10 million copies. Mr. Kunzel had an unmistakable gift for the pops idiom and a flair for communicating his enthusiasm. His talents reached a large TV audience thanks to the many Fourth of July concerts he conducted with the National Symphony Orchestra that were broadcast on PBS from the grounds of the US Capitol.

Here are some more details from Lisa Cornwell's obituary for the AP:


Kunzel was diagnosed with liver, colon and pancreatic cancer in April, but continued conducting while undergoing treatment. He died Tuesday morning at a hospital near his home in Swan's Island, Maine, said Chris Pinelo, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Pops.

On July 4, Kunzel conducted a concert at the U.S. Capitol with Aretha Franklin. He had led the National Symphony on the Capitol lawn in nationally televised Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts since 1991.

This year, he also conducted a concert in Beijing, where he and the Cincinnati Pops last year performed in opening festivities for the Summer Olympics.

Kunzel also led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops in many performances.

Born in New York City, Kunzel was educated at Dartmouth, Harvard and Brown universities and began his professional conducting career in 1957 with the Santa Fe Opera. He came to Cincinnati in 1965 as assistant conductor to Max Rudolph, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's former music director. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was officially established in 1977 with Kunzel as conductor.

The Cincinnati classical pops ensemble has been one of the most active in the world, maintaining a year-round performing and recording schedule and making numerous television appearances. Kunzel recorded more than 125 albums and was named Billboard Magazine's Classical Crossover Artist of the Year for four consecutive years.

Kunzel received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2006 for outstanding contributions to the arts and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Kunzel is survived by his wife, Brunhilde.

Maintaining a crowded agenda at an energetic pace throughout his career, Kunzel told The Cincinnati Enquirer in an interview in July that he was stunned by his cancer diagnosis. "It wasn't on the schedule," he said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:31 PM | | Comments (0)

Fund drive for the arts in Detroit suggests possible model elsewhere

A few communities around the country have a kind of United Way for the arts, where people can contribute to a general fund that benefits multiple organizations. I have wondered from time to time if that kind of campaign would have been useful in Baltimore, especially when the Baltimore Opera Company was slipping toward the abyss, and also back in the early part of the decade when the Baltimore Symphony piled up deficits.

I don't know what the overall track record for such community funds is; one discouraging sign is what happened in Orlando, where the local opera company essentially folded last season, despite a united arts fund. But now comes word of a successful drive in Detroit, a city that hasn't exactly been a boom town of late. A remarkable $4.8 million was raised there last week in a burst of fundraising fervor that benefited 75 arts groups there, including the Detroit Symphony ($596,000). Given the economy, that's 

pretty damn impressive. I gather from Mark Stryker's story in the Free Press that the online system for contributions wasn't exactly flawless, but it looks like it did the job well n the end.

I know that arts groups can be very turf-conscious, especially when it comes to harvesting prospective donors, so a campaign like this can be tricky. But there's something about the concept that seems awfully appealing to me. It's a way of reinforcing a message that can't be underlined enough -- the arts are good for everybody in the community and everybody who visits the community.

It may be worth looking at a united fund here, to drive home that point and offer people a chance to step up to the plate in a communal way.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:19 AM | | Comments (0)

Music we've been missing (Part 8): Messiaen

A survey of music we don't get to hear live around here -- at least orchestrally speaking -- would have to include the works of Olivier Messiaen. And the item I think of first is "Turangalila-Symphonie," one of Messiaen's most audacious creations.

Finished in 1948 and lasting nearly 80 minutes, the symphony sums up just about everything of the composer's style and ideals. It is a mesmerizing work, "a hymn to joy," as he called it, "joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited."

There are references in the music to birdsong, of course, a Messiaen trademark, and there's also the exotic use of the ondes martenot, an instrument we tend to associate with cheap horror movies, but which fits perfectly with the composer's vision of transcendence.

Needless to say, I don't expect to

spot "Turangalila" on a Baltimore concert anytime soon, especially in such restrictive financial times -- the score calls for a gargantuan orchestra, not to mention an ondes martenot virtuoso (they're never in great abundance) and a massively talented piano soloist. I'm grateful that Leonard Slatkin programmed it with the NSO some years ago; what an uplifting experience that was.

Even if it's too expensive an undertaking to contemplate now, "Turangalila" should be on the back-burner, ready to boil over the minute money starts to flow more easily. If you're not already a fan of this audacious symphony, I hope the clip I've included here will hook you.

And speaking of Messiaen, let me put in a plug for something even more unlikely here, his daunting opera "Saint Francoise d'Assise." I've had only one chance so far to experience it live, in a riveting production by the San Francisco Opera.

It's hard to absorb all the elements and ideals in the time-stopping work, yet you can feel totally gripped by something incredibly beautiful and real in this music. A scene of St. Francis overcoming his fears and embracing a leper gave me chills unlike any I've ever felt in an opera house. (The clip of that scene I've attached doesn't come close to duplicating how the music came across in person.) I know it would be more than any local company in Baltimore or DC would even dream about tackling, but a presentation of "Saint Francois d'Assise," even in concert form, sure would be a major event.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:12 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.
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