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September 22, 2009

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)


A studio version of the piece "Pre-Dawn Artscape/Ghost Town" can be heard (and downloaded) here:

Great. Thanks. TIM

Check out the audio recording of this fantastic show:

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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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