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October 31, 2009

A little more on the BSO/Robert Spano reunion

You must get tired of my excuses, but I fell behind Friday working on stuff for Sunday's paper, then writing a review of the Baltimore Symphony with guest conductor Robert Spano, then rushing off to catch a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. What I forgot to do was post the BSO review on the blog, which I had promised to do in my quick-shot post Friday morning.

Now you know not to trust me about anything. Except my impeccable judgment and good taste, that is.

Anyway, my review, if you still care (and even if you don't), is in Saturday's paper. To reiterate, the combination of Spano and the BSO really was notable Thursday night, and I am sure Saturday's Off the Cuff concert focusing on "Scheherazade" will be well worth catching (Spano will chat about the work before leading a complete performance).

What impressed me greatly Thursday was

the conductor's affectionate phrasing, a sense that the music meant much more than notes and structure. And the players sure sounded as if they were right on the same wavelength all the way.

I also should note again how powerful Leila Josefowicz was in the Adams Violin Concerto, one of the most substantive additions to the repertoire of the past few decades. It's a fascinating work, with so many things packed into it, a journey propelled by darkly beautiful harmonies and often arresting rhythmic motion. It was great to hear such challenging -- and rewarding -- music so vividly performed.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:21 AM | | Comments (1)

October 30, 2009

Blast from the Past: Dimitri Mitropoulos

For my weekly salute to the good old days, I thought I'd salute Dimitri Mitropoulos, a conductor who never fails to impress me -- at least from recordings, which are all I have to go by (he was long gone before I got interested in classical music). I've featured Mitropoulos before in this blog, and will no doubt continue to do so, since I find in his music-making a truly unique mix of drama and poetry, humanity and spirituality.

One of my favorite examples of Mitropoulos in action was captured live at a performance of Verdi's "La forza del Destino" in Florence in 1953, so I thought that's what I would share today. What he does with the Overture is, to me, simply astonishing and spine-tingling. And it's such a daringly individualistic interpretation.

No one I know of has ever slowed down just before the coda to punch out each of the chords, for example (around 5:50 on this audio clip). There are many other distinctive touches, too, including his shaping of the great, arcing melodic line that rises and falls in the strings early on in the overture (starting at 1:43); Mitropoulos has the strings accent the descending notes of the theme in such a way as to bring out an extra layer of inner torment.

This is not just a live recording, but a fully alive performance, and a demonstration of inspired conducting.

For comparison purposes, I've followed the Mitropoulos clip with a recording by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, which has its own considerable appeal -- you won't ever hear me knocking Toscanini -- and provides a faithful account of the printed score. Note the smoother descending string line at 1:32 and the normal steady push of the pre-coda chords at 5:35.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me that Mitropoulous is supreme in the "Forza" Overture, but I hope you'll grant that this is one mighty blast from the past:
1:32 on Toscanini)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore Symphony soars with conductor Robert Spano

Not long after I arrived in Baltimore in 2000 (you thought you'd been suffering from me for a lot longer than nine years, didn't you?), I started asking why certain music and certain musicians didn't seem to turn up at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I often got shrugs or vague answers from some of the folks who were running the show over there at the time.

One name I remember asking about was Robert Spano, the conductor who had hit the radar big-time in New York for his adventurous programming as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and who was tapped by the Atlanta Symphony in 2001. It seemed to me back then that Baltimore should be hearing what the fuss was all about. I'm happy to report that we have that opportunity this week. (UPDATE: Just learned that Spano first led the BSO out at Oregon Ridge in 1991 and returned in 1999 to conduct a program at Meyerhoff. I'm surprised it took a decade before he was got back.) 

Spano is here leading

a colorful program that surrounds a major contemporary work -- the Violin Concerto by John Adams -- with two war horses, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite. If you know what's good for you, you won't miss it.

Thursday night's performance at the Meyerhoff found Spano generating music-making of exceptional beauty and power in those two standard scores (concertmaster Jonathan Carney outdid himself in the "Scheherazade" solos), and providing supple support for brilliant violinist Leila Josefowicz in the concerto. I'll be writing a more detailed and maybe even cogent review later on today, but I wanted to get the word out early.

The full program repeats Friday night; the Adams and Stravinsky pieces will be played at the Casual Concert Saturday morning; "Scheherazade" is the focus of Saturday night's Off-the-Cuff concert.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:31 AM | | Comments (3)

October 29, 2009

Simon Rattle renews through 2018 with Berlin Philharmonic

So much for all the periodic nay-saying: Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic will remain hitched through 2018. The British conductor, who took the helm of the famed orchestra in 2002, signed a new contract Wednesday, the AP reports.

His tenure has had its share of criticism, but it appears that Rattle has retained the support of the players, who have veto power over their music director. Reports have surfaced over the years that Rattle was in trouble with the orchestra, mostly because of his adventuresome programming, and in danger of being voted out. Some critics, especially in the German press, have carped that the Philharmonic has lost some of its luster with this conductor.

But none of that seems to have stuck. Besides, I think everyone agrees that Rattle has done wonders in the area of educational and community outreach with the Philharmonic (including on tour), and that's exceptionally valuable. There's obviously a lot of potential left in the relationship between one of the world's most gifted conductors and one of the world most sensational orchestras.

To salute the new contract, here's a taste of Rattle and the Philharmonic in action. First, the conclusion of "Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody" by Frederick Delius -- a composer, I suspect, the Berliners had little or no experience with until Rattle arrived. (We could use more exposure to Delius around here, too, but that's another story.) And then, as a reminder that Rattle and his ensemble can make beautiful German music together, too, the sublime "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde":

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (4)

October 28, 2009

Classical music is focus of next White House arts education event

Classical music stars violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, guitarist Sharon Isbin and pianist Awadagin Pratt (one of the Peabody Institute's most remarkable alumni) will participate in the next presentation of the White House Music Series on Nov. 4.

Earlier this fall, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the series, a mix of educational and performance activities. The first three sessions were devoted to jazz, country and Latin. This classical music day will include workshops for more than 100 middle and high school students, ending with a concert by the featured artists in the East Room.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:48 PM | | Comments (0)

Midweek humor break: A 'Bolero' for one cello, four players

As usual, I'm far behind on everything, so I thought I would try to buy a little time before doing a real blog post by distracting you with an off-beat take on Ravel's "Bolero." It's performed on a single, snazzy cello by four presumably normal players. Seems like just the thing for a midweek humor break. (Thanks to the London Symphony Orchestra's Twitter folks for alerting me to this video.)

Now I wonder what these guys could do with a Bruckner scherzo:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (2)

October 27, 2009

Disorderly soprano has novel excuse for cell phone flap: Michael Jackson

A mini-soap opera involving Argentine soprano Gabriela Pochinki, who was arrested Oct. 18 in a New York eaterie for disorderly conduct, criminal trespass and obstructing-government charges, got even stranger this week when she revealed the cause of it all.

According the the AP, Pochinki "was talking to the organizers of the Las Vegas premiere of Michael Jackson's film 'This Is It' when she was arrested at a swank Manhattan restaurant for yelling into her cell phone."

The opera singer was being invited by Jackson's family to sing at the Las Vegas premiere of the movie when she talked so loudly that restaurant employees complained. She didn't even notice their requests for her to tone it down, so they did the only sensible thing.

They called a cop and took away her food. She didn't go too quietly, either. 

The charges will be dismissed in six months, if she doesn't get into trouble again. Turns out that Pochinki charmed law enforcement officials while she was detained, singing a song from "West Side Story."

"They ... noticed that I was an opera singer and they applauded, they relaxed a bit," she told the AP. "When I was leaving, they asked me to sing one more song ... It was the nicest thing."

The soprano ultimately had praise for the justice system in this country, calling it "good" and "correct."

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:43 AM | | Comments (0)

Music we've been missing (part 13): Alexander Borodin

I've always had a soft spot for Borodin's music, probably because he wrote one of the pieces that first drew me toward the classical path when I encountered it as a kid -- "In the Steppes of Central Asia," a perfect little gem of irresistble melody and clever construction. It gets radio play regularly, but how often have you found it on a concert program by a top-drawer orchestra? And how often have you heard one of his symphonies live? (They would make nice alternatives once in a while to the ever-present Tchaikovsky symphonies.)

It seems that Borodin's claim on fame remains, for many people, the atmospheric "Polovtsian Dances" from his opera "Prince Igor" and the exquisite Nocturne from his String Quartet No. 2 -- pieces also familiar for their adaptation in the musical "Kismet." But there's more to savor, and the rest of Borodin's relatively small list of works deserves greater attention.

How can you not want to hear stuff by the guy Victor Borge (in his book "My Favorite Intermissions") describes as "a gentle, kindly man, a general in the Russian Army, a famous chemist, and the original Absent-Minded Professor. Borodin was so absent-minded that he once walked out of the house in full military uniform, complete with medals and plumed helmet, in fact complete with everything except his pants ... and in the middle of playing something on the piano he'd suddenly jump up and rush over to the lab because he'd remember that something was boiling over."

A very cool composer, if you ask me. And what a gift he had for melody. To illustrate, here's the third movement from his Symphony No. 2, with its haunting little theme that, when first intoned by the horn (at 2:21 on this clip), gets right under your skin; the Scherzo from his unfinished Symphony No. 3; and my old fave, "In the Steppes of Central Asia":

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:37 AM | | Comments (8)

October 25, 2009

Justices Ginsburg, Scalia onstage in Washington National Opera's 'Aridane'

The celebrity quotient was pretty impressive onstage at the Washington National Opera's Saturday for the opening night performance of Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." In this production, directed by Chis Alexander, the setting for the opera-within-an-opera portion of "Ariadne" is a contemporary mansion, and guests of an extravagant host are seen onstage watching the proceedings.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who have been known to get in the act for WNO events, were up there among the supernumeraries, along with Martin Ginsburg (the justice's husband), D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. The audience particularly enjoyed the sight of the bubbly character, Zerbinetta (performed by Lyubov Petrova), jumping into Scalia's lap. You don't see that everyday.

I'll have more to say about the production anon, but I thought you might like to see some shots of the celebs in action right away (PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER FOR WASHINTON NATIONAL OPERA):

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:20 AM | | Comments (1)

October 23, 2009

Nora, the feline pianist/composer, wins ASPCA Cat of the Year

You're probably already among the 20 million or so who have checked out the YouTube of Nora, the pianistic tabby, but I figured it was worth giving the clever critter another shout-out, since she was just named ASPCA Cat of the Year. The honor will be officially bestowed next week in New York at the ASPCA Humane Awards. (There's more about Nora at the ASPCA site.)

This former animal shelter resident, who allows a Pennsylvania couple to take care of her, goes way beyond the stupid-pet-trick category, if you ask me. The performance of her original music gives one paws.

Here's the clip that made Nora famous:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (0)

Blast from the past: Alfred Cortot, pianistic poet

Eearlier this week, I attended a preview of the Baltimore Museum of Art's extraordinary exhibit, "Matisse as Printmaker," which opens Sunday. Among the 150 or so prints, all of them worth a long look, are two portraits of Alfred Cortot, the Franco-Swiss pianist with an intensely poetic nature. Seeing that distinctive face, which Matisse captured perfectly in just a few lines, gave me the idea that Cortot should be this week's blast form the past.

This guy had something at once spiritual and aristocratic, a style of playing quite unlike anything else we have recorded evidence of, a certain inner radiance that still comes through even the scratchiest sound.

It's typical for people these days to speak more about Cortot's missed notes than the richness of his legancy, since we live in a digitally manipulated age that seems to have removed so much of the human element from music-making. So Cortot didn't have a flawless technique. To borrow Oscar Wilde's phrase from "The Importance of Being Earnest," the pianist didn't play accurately -- anyone can play accurately -- but he played with wonderful expression.

Today, musicians who depart too much from, or stretch out, or rush the notes of a score are

branded self-indulgent (and many of them really are self-indulgent). But Cortot demonstrated that it is possible to be very personal about music, yet totally respectful of its character; to make highly individualistic choices about phrasing, tempo, and dynamics, yet stay fully within the spirit.

To me, Cortot remains a benchmark of keyboard artistry. And, as you'll see in the clip of him explaining a dreamy Schumann piece as he plays, Cortot was a fabulous character, too.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:17 AM | | Comments (2)

October 22, 2009

The staying power of 'Fiddler on the Roof'; cast member Mary Stout a Germano's Cabaret

The best musicals don't age much. The plots still hold up, the songs still catch the ear. I'd argue that "The Fiddler on the Roof" is such a case.

It's currently at the Hippodrome in a touring production featuring Topol, the actor who has held claim to the role of Tevye for decades (his name is printed in larger type than the title of the show).

All in all, as I pointed out in my review, I found Topol's performance persuasive, even if he's ever so slightly, um, old for the role.

The whole production is spirited and well-oiled. The dancing has flair (including the famous bottle-on-hat routine from the original Jerome Robbins choreography); the music is treated with sufficient freshness (the reduced instrumentation provides a folksy, almost klezmer-y sound); and the supporting cast contains several strong performances. This is not a run-of-the-mill, overly economical road show.

One of the most amusing and rather endearing contributions comes from 

Mary Stout, who offers a vibrant portrayal of compulsive matchmaker Yente. She's a veteran of Broadway whose credits include "Beauty and the Beast" and "My Favorite Year." In our area, she has been featured in such shows as "The Happy End" at Center Stage and "Mame" (portraying Mother Burnside) at the Kennedy Center.  

On Monday, when she could be enjoying a quiet day off from "Fiddler," Stout will perform her own cabaret show of comic and standard songs at Germano's. Proceeds will benefit Broadway Cares: Equity Fights Aids.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:51 AM | | Comments (3)

October 21, 2009

Guest blog post: Brian Sacawa asks "New York City or Bust?"

(This is a guest post by saxophonist Brian Sacawa, co-curator of Baltimore's Mobtown Modern. I'm always happy to consider guest posts. Please contact me at if you'd like to submit one.)

Musicians in Baltimore, especially the young and talented folks around town looking to launch a career in new-music, need to rethink their definition of success and get over the idea that New York City is the center of the universe with Baltimore serving merely as a low-rent stopover on the path to bigger things.

New-music (or alt-classical, anyone?) is in the midst of a zeitgeist. There is an undeniable energy and vitality to much of the music being created.

And although there are different streams within this movement, there seems to be a common overarching goal to create a new musical culture. This new hybrid combines modern composition with sound worlds drawn from a wide range of genres — from pop to rock to hip-hop and beyond — as well as aspects of the cultures that surround those forms of expression. Some attempts to realize this new culture, such as juxtaposing a new-music ensemble and an indie-rock outfit on the same bill with no clear purpose, do absolutely nothing of musical value (except maybe make the new-music kids in the audience feel a bit cooler and the indie-rock kids in the audience feel a bit smarter), while others get much closer to the mark. The most successful experiments have been those that combine genres unselfconsciously while highlighting the similarities between musical cultures and forgoing the gimmicks that this sort of synthesis lends itself to much too easily.

The majority of the credit for this movement has been bestowed on the scene in NYC, which might lead an ambitious new-music composer or performer to think that in order to be a part of the vanguard and really "make it" they need to be in New York themselves. That's been the traditional benchmark of success. And if you can’t make it there, well, why the hell would you even want to try to make it anywhere else since you've failed already?

I think it’s time that we

turn the page on this antiquated idea that to be a successful and important artist it’s imperative that NYC plays a significant role on your CV. It’s an old idea that has in many ways been rendered moot in the age of interconnectivity and constant contact. Without taking anything away from the contributions that have come from the NYC scene, I think Baltimore is uniquely positioned and equipped to create a more definitive and lasting version of this brave new sonic world.

About two years ago there was an article in the Guardian about the booming music scene in Brooklyn, NY, which addressed, in part, the role Baltimore had played in the borough's so-called musical renaissance. It was cool for Baltimore to be recognized for its "curveball creativity," but I was honestly a little offended by the notion that Baltimore was merely serving as Brooklyn's farm team — a stepping stone to the musical big leagues — and couldn't be a place where a hip and innovative musical culture could throw down roots and thrive. But that article was published almost two years ago and paradigms have shifted. More and more musicians who call Baltimore home are defying the stereotype that you need to live in a closet in a dingy Brooklyn apartment for a chance at notoriety outside of Charm City.

I think it's time the emerging new-music voices get on board. Jason Foster, the owner of the Baltimore-based record label and management group We Are Free, was quoted in the Guardian article cited above saying, "There's nothing [in Baltimore]. Absolutely nothing. So you can do what the f*** you want." I don't really agree with the first part of that statement. However, the second part is spot on. You could argue that you could do whatever the f*** you want anywhere, but the atmosphere in Baltimore does seem much more conducive to that sort of thing. The city's DIY ethos combined with the overwhelming sense of community within and across artistic disciplines will enable the realization of the yet-to-be-defined hybrid culture that many are attempting to establish. And the relative smaller size of Baltimore — you've heard the term Smalltimore, right? — makes it possible to create an interconnected city-wide artistic front — rather than a series of artistic ghettos.

Artists have a choice these days: you can go to NYC and be one in a thousand playing against stacked odds, or you can stay in Baltimore and create your dream on your own terms.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:30 AM | | Comments (4)

Charles Theatre continues its opera series with 'Die Walkure' from Valencia

The Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast series in movie theaters may be the biggest thing since sliced bread, but it's not the only game in town. The Emerging Pictures opera-in-cinema series provides similar services, although most performances are on tape, rather than live. (A notable exception -- opening night at La Scala, which will be beamed live to participating theaters on Dec. 7).

Locally, the Charles Theatre is a great place to check out this non-Met action. Next up is Wagner's "Die Walkure" from Valencia, conducted by Zubin Mehta and with a cast that includes Peter Seiffert as Siegmund, Petra Maria Schnitzer as Sieglinde, Matti Salminen as Hunding, Juha Uusitalo as Wotan and Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde. The staging is by Carlos Padrissa. Showings are noon on Oct. 25, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Ho-jo-to-ho.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:02 AM | | Comments (0)

October 20, 2009

Music we've been missing (part 12): Charles Ives

As Tuesday happens to be the 135th birthday of Charles Ives (2009 marks the 55th anniversary of his death), it seems as good an excuse as any to return to my list of music we've been missing -- especially orchestral repertoire that gets too little exposure, or none at all, around here.

During my recent trip to New York, I enjoyed greatly the chance to hear Ives' Second Symphony, played with typical brilliance by the New York Philharmonic, led by its new music director Alan Gilbert. It reaffirmed my conviction that American audiences should get to hear this piece a lot more often. And not just the Second, of course.

The Third is a wonderful work. (Last season, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra almost got to perform the Third, before having to suspend operations due to financial pressures; the orchestra is back in business, but that symphony has not been re-programmed.) And what about the

fascinating Fourth? A huge challenge in many ways, but an amazing sonic and intellectual experience.

There are other orchestral pieces, too, of course, that we need to hear. Then there's the more intimate Ives -- all the sonatas, quartets and songs. We really could, and should, be having Ives feasts on a regular basis.

So here's a nod to the composer on his 135th (movements from the Second and Fourth symphonies), and a plea to programmers: more Ives, please.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:27 AM | | Comments (2)

Mario Venzago speaks out about being removed as music director of Indianapolis Symphony

Mario Venzago, the exceptional conductor who was unceremoniously pushed out the door of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra by the CEO over the summer, has spoken for the first time about the situation, in a statement released by his personal assistent. It's an eloquent document (the complete text follows), as you would expect from such an expressive artist.

Venzago says he is speaking now because "further silence on my part would be unfair to my many friends in Indianapolis who have expressed in very touching words their concern and provided me their overwhelming support during these difficult weeks."

Negotiations on Venzago's contract, which had been going on for many months, suddenly halted. Word came that the orchestra's president and CEO Simon Crookall wanted the conductor to take an effective 50-percent pay cut, which seemed absurd to some of us.

In his own statement, Venzago does not address financial issues, but concentrates instead on the abruptness of Crookall's decision not to renew his contract a few weeks before the start of a season that the music director had planned. "Termination on such short notice is unprecedented in the world of classical music," Venzago says. "For me, as you can well imagine, this news was emotionally devastating. Only one week before, Mr. Crookall embraced me at the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University in recognition of my artistic achievement. The ISO administration and I had been planning the 2009/10 season for more than two years."

In the end, the conductor says, he "will

continue to support the ISO despite this unfortunate event. Even if I am hurt and disappointed, my soul is not broken. I will never stop loving this great orchestra in Indianapolis with its sensitive, enthusiastic musicians who gave of themselves so freely ..."

Anyone who has heard his music-making knows the value of Venzago. We were fortunate in Baltimore to experience his work often back at the start of the decade, when he energized the BSO's summer music festival, and in a few guest appearances during the regular season over the years. (I never did understand why he wasn't brought back even more often, but, then, I've also wondered that about some other classy conductors who have been absent from that particular podium.)

It's hard not to feel that management of the ISO made a serious error. At the very least, Venzago deserved better treatment than this.

Here's his complete statement:


Mario Venzago, Music Director, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2002-2009:

Since the ISO announced the non-renewal of my Conductor and Music Director Agreements on July 30th of this year, I have, on the wise counsel of my advisors, refrained from making any formal statement and have not commented on the many things written in the newspapers – true or untrue regarding my departure as Conductor and Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last July.

After so many weeks, however, further silence on my part would be unfair to my many friends in Indianapolis who have expressed in very touching words their concern and provided me their overwhelming support during these difficult weeks. For the moment, I wish to touch only on the main events surrounding my departure and will reserve any additional comment for those who request it.

On July 30th, I received without any warning or expectation a short e-mail from Simon Crookall, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, informing me that my Conductor and Music Director Agreements would not be renewed for the 2009/10 season. These agreements were set to expire just 31 days later on August 31st and have indeed now since expired. Mr. Crookall and my agent had been negotiating the renewal of these Agreements since the Fall of 2008.

Termination on such short notice is unprecedented in the world of classical music. Just six weeks prior to the start of the season and with contract negotiations still in progress, I was abruptly told that my Agreements would not be renewed, but that I would be offered the opportunity to conduct a “farewell week”. In the view of Mr. Crookall, this would be a fitting celebration of my seven years of artistic success as conductor and music director of the ISO.

For me, as you can well imagine, this news was emotionally devastating. Only one week before, Mr. Crookall embraced me at the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University in recognition of my artistic achievement. The ISO administration and I had been planning the 2009/10 season for more than two years. I had blocked the dates and turned down numerous conducting offers from other orchestras. The dates of the concerts were set and the programs planned. We contracted soloists, calculated costs, prepared PR materials, printed a brochure and started to sell tickets. No reputable orchestra mindful of the costs would make changes at this critical point, unless money was of no concern. I relied during these negotiations on the good faith of Mr. Crookall and the Board and expected to be treated fairly.

After the announcement of the non-renewal, I have received hundreds of letters from ISO musicians, members of other orchestras, concert-goers, composers, people from Indianapolis and other places. They have confided in me how shocked they were upon learning of my departure and how much they loved and respected my work. In particular, the musicians described in touching, heart-felt words how much they loved performing with me. I have not been able to answer all of their wonderful expressions of concern and appreciation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has written and spoken with me.

In conclusion, let me express the hope that the donors, sponsors and subscribers will continue to support the ISO despite this unfortunate event. Even if I am hurt and disappointed, my soul is not broken. I will never stop loving this great orchestra in Indianapolis with its sensitive, enthusiastic musicians who gave of themselves so freely, and I will always be deeply moved remembering my Indianapolis friends in this warm-hearted and peaceful community. Here and there, if only for a fleeting moment, we were privileged to have touched the stars. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart and wish the ISO all the best in the future.

Mario Venzago

October 2009

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:40 AM | | Comments (3)

October 19, 2009

Classical music shows strength in Sun's Celebrity Smackdown

Take that, sports fans.

In the Sun's breathlessly anticipated Celebrity Smackdown, two of Baltimore's classical music movers-'n'-shakers have advanced to round two, in each case beating out local sports figures. (The ballot pairings were randomly selected, I'm assured.)

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, bested WJZ sports director Mark Viviano. And Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, outpaced Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (I'm sure the team's record so far this season has absolutely nothing to do with that).

Feel free to jump into the voting, classical music lovers, and do your part for the triumph of elitist culture. (This will also help distract you while I put together more interesting blog posts.)

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

October 16, 2009

Blast from the past: Franco Corelli sings 'E lucevan le stelle' from 'Tosca'

The debate over the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Puccini's "Tosca" shows no sign of dying down, three weeks after the opening night.

The ever-thought-provoking Parterre Box site, for example, posted yet another analysis of the much-booed staging this week, making lots of good points about both sides of the debate. (I came down on the side of those wondering why there was so much fuss over director Luc Bondy's concept, which struck me as quite valid, for the most part, and certainly interesting, as opposed to criminal. My views  earned me my own share of boos from some readers, but, hey, those of us in the tough working-class city of Baltimore are used to handling brickbats.)

You've got to say this for the Met, it sure did generate a helluva lot of chatter. And all that talk of "Tosca" has had me thinking again of the opera's music, which led me to remembering the incomparable Italian tenor Franco Corelli singing the role of Cavaradossi, which led me to his crowning interpretation of the Act 3 aria, E lucevan le stelle. No one, and I mean no one, could do what he did with this aria, especially at the passage when Cavaradossi recalls the beautiful form of his adored Tosca revealed beneath her cloak. What Corelli could do with his voice at the top of that phrase, producing a slow diminuendo on a single, seemingly endless breath, is simply beyond words.

I never saw Corelli live, but when I hear one of his performances I feel I am there, and nowhere is that experience more palpable than when I hear one of his opera house performances of "Tosca" that, fortunately, were recorded. Here's one of the best, a blast from the past taped in the 1960s in Parma, when the tenor gave a truly stunning account of E lucevan le stelle. The emotion he produces at the end of aria may be a little much for today's tastes, but the exquisite sensitivity he brings to that caressing phrase earlier (starting at 1:55 on the video), has a priceless, timeless stylistic value:

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

Alex Ross has a new blog, Unquiet Thoughts

Alex Ross, the New Yorker's superb classical music critic (he sets a bar for insight and style the rest of us can only dream of reaching), has transferred the bulk of his blogging activity from his cool site The Rest is Noise to what can only become cooler, Unquiet Thoughts.

Ross' new blog, part of the New Yorker's Web site, was launched this week. Consider it required reading.

(Speaking of blogs, thanks to Opera Chic for alerting me to Unquiet Thoughts, and for providing almost sinful amounts of reading pleasure.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:42 AM | | Comments (0)

October 15, 2009

Adrienne Arsht donates $5 million to Kennedy Center to support musical theater

Adrienne Arsht, a major philanthropist whose generosity has been keenly felt in Washington and Miami, has donated $5 million to the Kennedy Center to support of musical theater programming.

In a statement released Thursday, Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser noted Arsht's "longstanding relationship with the Kennedy Center" and said her latest gift means that the public "will be able to continue to enjoy wonderful theatrical productions for years to come." Arsht said that she had "experienced first-hand the unbelievable memories the Kennedy Center creates" and looked forward to supporting working "many more history making seasons and performances."

Arsht is a major underwriter for the Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis project, which was launched to help nonprofit performing arts organizations throughout the country in dealing with the pressures of the weakened economy. A $30 million donation in 2008 to a struggling arts center in South Florida proved a substantial boost; the venue is now called the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Other beneficiaries of Arsht's generosity include Goucher College; her $2 million gift in 2005 established the Roxana Cannon Arsht Center for Ethics and Leadership, in memory of her mother.


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

Center Stage celebrates the musical language of Oscar Wilde

For those of you craving a break from my musical ramblings, I thought I should, immodestly, direct you to my review in today's paper of "The Importance of Being Earnest," Center Stage's season-opener.

One of the production's many pleasures is simply the opportunity to revel in the language of Oscar Wilde, as melodious and witty as a Haydn symphony.

Speaking of Wilde and music, there is a musical of his comic masterpiece from 1960 titled "Earnest in Love." Maybe it's ripe for revival here. It was, apparently, a hit in a version produced four years ago in Japan, performed by an all-female cast (don't ask me why). Here's a taste of that staging, "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother," sung by Lady Bracknell when she discovers that Mr. Worthing was "born or, at any rate, bred in a handbag;" and a duet for Jack and Algernon, during the muffin scene:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:27 AM | | Comments (1)

October 14, 2009

Opera's love couple, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, on the rocks

Soap opera and real opera often collide.

It's not exactly news, but tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who have been separated for a while, are heading for divorce court.

Once dubbed opera's "love couple" and famously married on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1996 (with then-mayor Rudy Giuliani officiating), had a great run together early on, delighting audiences when they performed in operas together. They also developed a reputation for being extremely difficult offstage, with many an unflattering story about making demands of one kind or another.

Still, when they were in the mood, and in peak voice, they could deliver the goods very impressively. Too bad their marriage is on the rocks.

This week, things heated up between the singers. The tenor told an interviewer that his wife wouldn't hear of divorce. She fired back on her Web site: “Angela Gheorghiu wishes to emphasize that she has been separated from Roberto Alagna for the last two years. Her attempts to save the marriage in this period failed. Having initiated divorce proceedings months ago, she awaits the finalisation of their divorce as soon as possible. Ms. Gheorghiu understands that Mr. Alagna is bitter about this situation. As for her part, contrary to his declarations, she would like to live her life now with peace and tranquillity.” Alas.

To recall the "love couple" in happier times, here they are in the balcony scene from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette":

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 PM | | Comments (29)

October 13, 2009

On Pro Musica Rara, Edgar Allan Poe and clever programming

Pro Musica Rara hasn't just become a much more consistent ensemble in recent years. It's become more fun, too.

For its 35th season-opener, the period instrument ensemble offered a novel salute to the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe that included "scary" baroque music and the premiere of a piece devised by cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear to accompany a recitation of Poe's chilling story, "The Cask of Amontillado."

On Sunday, while Poe fans were giving the author a proper funeral in Baltimore -- 160 years after his first, poorly attended one -- there was a good turnout for this concert at Towson University's Center for the Arts. I could only stay for the first half (I had a play to review in Columbia that evening), but it proved quite filling.

How often do you get a chance to hear Marin Marais' Le Tableau de l'operation de la taille? This is the composer's cut-by-cut depiction of gall stone surgery, ca. 1700, without, of course, any anesthesia -- and performed, as Whear pointed out in his engaging program notes, on original instruments (yikes). WBJC program director Jonathan Palvesky recited in French the brief descriptions that go with the piece -- "silk restraints for the arms and legs," "introduction of the forceps," and the like -- as Whear played the cleverly evocative cello lines with flair, elegantly supported by harpsichordist Dongsok Shin.

There was a piece by Jean-Marie Leclair nicknamed Le Tombeau, which had a grave beauty that made it ideal for the occasion (so did the fact that the composer was murdered and his killer never brought to justice). Violinist Judson Griffin joined Whear and Shin for an expressive performance. The three also collaborated on a remarkable chaconne by Antonio Bertali to start the concert in dynamic form.

Seeing how Pro Musica Rara acknowledged Poe made me think about other ways the Baltimore music world could have done so. We should have heard

some of the compositions inspired by the master of the macabre. What a great hook the Poe bicentennial would have made for, say, programming Rachmaninoff's "The Bells." It's a marvelous work, and one I've never had an opportunity to hear live. I think it would have been an ideal project for the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

There's also Florent Schmitt's orchestra piece "The Haunted Palace." And wouldn't it be cool to hear even a few snippets from Debussy's unfinished opera, "The Fall of the House of Usher"? Oh well, maybe when the next Poe anniversary comes around. (UPDATE: I overlooked the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, which deserves a shout out for programming Andre Caplet's Contes fantastique, based on "The Masque of the Red Death", in November.) Meanwhile, here's a sampling of Rachmaninoff's "The Bells":



Posted by Tim Smith at 4:20 PM | | Comments (1)

Ben Heppner ill, cancels National Symphony engagement

The great Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner has canceled what would have been his National Symphony Orchestra debut on Oct. 22 at the Kennedy Center, due to a viral infection.

From the press release: Refunds will be issued to the original method of purchase. If you have any questions, please contact the Advance Sales Box Office at (202) 416-8540, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:45 PM | | Comments (0)

October 12, 2009

Video of 16-year-old Ilyich Rivas, recipient of BSO/Peabody Conducting Fellowship

In Sunday's paper, I had a story about Ilyich Rivas,  the exceptional 16-year-old, Venezuelan-born recipient of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra-Peabody Institute Conducting Fellowship. He's clearly a talent to watch.

Not many teens have high-profile management. Rivas is represented by IMG Artists, on the same roster that includes the likes of Temirkanov, Gilbert, Previn, Honeck, Flor, Welser-Most and Jurowski. Rivas has already made his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra debut and is bound to get other interesting opportunities, even while pursuing his studies at Peabody (he's in the graduate conducting class, just a few months after earning a GED to put high school behind him) and gaining further experience at the BSO.

It's impossible to predict any one's career, but all the signs look promising for Rivas. He not only has obvious and engaging talent, but also the marketing-ready back-story and looks to go far in today's music business. 

Here's a taste on video of Rivas in action as a child and a teen, followed by a clip of his father, Alejandro Rivas, who is also a gifted conductor, and a major mentor for his son:  

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:42 PM | | Comments (2)

Remembering the late Luciano Pavarotti on his birthday

As I walked into work today, an editor mentioned that it was Luciano Pavarotti's birthday. The immensely gifted and popular Italian tenor would have turned 74 today. (Yes, I know, I do a lot of birthday salutes on this blog. What can I say? I live in the past. Get over it.)

Pavarotti died in 2007, the same year that Beverly Sills passed away. The two artists performed Bellini's "I Puritani" in 1972, an event that was, fortunately, recorded. I thought I would use that extraordinary occasion to offer a salute to Pavarotti, since it captures him in peak form, spinning out the elegant melodic lines of "A te o caro," one of the most beautiful tenor arias in the repertoire. (I prefer to remember Pavarotti from his pre-arena-concert-by-rote-singing days.) And we get to enjoy Sills, one of my all-time favorites, in a few ardent notes as well.

Also, this performance was led by Anton Guadagno, who died in 2002. The Italian conductor, underrated in some corners, had an innate sense of style (and a wildly dynamic personality).

All three artists served the operatic art in treasured ways, and hearing them together on this live recording seems like a fitting way to commemorate the anniversary of Pavarotti's birth.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (6)

October 9, 2009

Blast from the past: violinist Carl Flesch

Thanks to my hand-dandy Music Diary from Boosey & Hawkes (call me old-fashioned, but no cold, electronic, life-organizing device for me), I noticed that Oct. 9 is the 136th birthday of Carl Flesch, the Hungarian-born violinist and teacher who died 65 years ago.

His pedagogical methods are still in use today, but I suspect a lot of violin students know little about him or his playing style. Like many other great musical figures from long ago, Flesch is easily overlooked in an age that is all about the now.

In addition to passing on his wisdom to several pupils who became major violinists, most notably Henryk Szeryng and Ida Haendel, Flesch left valuable recordings of his exceptional artistry. With the help of that wondrous treasury known as YouTube, I've put together a few audio examples of Flesch and his fiddle. Since this is his birthday, I figured he should have some company, so the third clip finds him being joined in a movement of the Bach Double by another legendary violinist, Joseph Szigeti:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:44 AM | | Comments (2)

October 8, 2009

Mobtown Modern takes the low (note) road

Mobtown Modern, the edgy-friendly new music gang that has settled into Baltimore's funky Metro Gallery this season, offered an interesting program Wednesday night built on low-register woodwind instruments.

The concert (accompanied by Guy Werner's video work) centered around Mobtown co-curator Brian Sacawa, a first-rate sax man with a very open ear who dressed for the occasion in a "Mad Men"-worthy three-piece suit -- the most unlikely image at a Mobtown event.

Sacawa (he soon dropped the jacket) tackled some tough stuff, starting on baritone saxophone with David Lang's kinetic "Press Release." Much of the work is driven along by low-note patterns that set up a kind of urban beat, punctuated by occasional high-pitched bursts; at one point, short bass notes alternate with long-held treble ones to create an intriguing dialog. Sacawa delivered it all with flair, including the final yelping flourish.

Gerard Grisey's "Anubis et Nout" is a study in sonic exploration and structural diffuseness. In the first movement, Sacawa summoned a wealth of honks, eerie vibrations and squeals from a bass sax (and added occasional human cries as required); the moody second movement, which employs the tricky technique of playing two notes simultaneously, proved most effective.

Sacawa yielded the stage to

Mobtown regular Jennifer Everhart, who performed three jazzy-cool excerpts from Michael Lowenstern's "Ten Children" on bass clarinet, with loops of Lowenstern's own playing providing counterpoint. Everhart demonstrated a combination of bravura and expressive nuance.

The program-closer was a seamless progression through Giacinto Scelsi's "Maknongan," with Sacawa on baritone sax; an instant, vivid remix of it by Mobtown co-curator Erik Spangler; and Lee Hyla's "We Speak Etruscan." The latter proved to be a great showcase for Sacawa and Everhart, who meshed tightly through intricately syncopated flurries of spicy dissonances and a feast of thunderously low, low notes.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:25 AM | | Comments (3)

Beach Boy Brian Wilson to complete unfinished Gershwin songs

Here's an idea straight from La-La Land, figuratively and literally. Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, has been authorized by the estate of George Gershwin to create songs out of fragments left by the iconic American composer of "Rhapsody in Blue," "American in Paris" and "Porgy and Bess." Turns out that Wilson is working on an album of Gershwin songs, a project that will now likely include a couple of his realizations of what Gershwin left behind.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a terrible idea? No disrespect to Wilson, but he doesn't strike me as the most logical choice to take on such a project -- assuming the very notion of choosing anyone to do such a thing is logical. But, according to a story in the LA Times,


Todd Gershwin, George's great-nephew and a trustee of the George Gershwin family trusts, said, "George for his time was a visionary. He certainly crossed genres and musical lines, tried things that hadn't been done before and Brian Wilson has done exactly the same thing."

For his part, Wilson, 67, described himself Tuesday as "thrilled to death." "I'm proud to be able to do it," he said in an interview. "Hopefully I'll be able to do them justice."

Todd Gershwin said a collection of several dozen song fragments, ranging from "a few bars to some almost finished songs and everything in between" had been sitting virtually untouched for more than seven decades. He and other trustees began reaching out in the last year or two to find contemporary artists who might be interested in completing those musical bits and pieces.

Oh, well. I suppose it could be even stranger -- a hip-hopper, or Country-Western star, for example. But maybe Wilson will surprise everybody with music that manages to retain and imaginatively expand upon the essence of whatever kernels of melody, harmony and fascinating rhythm Gershwin left behind. On the other hand, maybe someone will declare, "Let's call the whole thing off."



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:52 AM | | Comments (13)

October 7, 2009

Economic pain continues to spread; Indianapolis Symphony agrees to 12 percent pay cut

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians ratified a three-year contract that calls for a 12 percent pay cut in the first year, gradual increases after that. It's the latest retreat in the face of the lingering recession. Over the summer, the Baltimore Symphony players swallowed a 12.5 percent salary reduction and other cost-saving measures.

A few months ago, the Indiana ensemble tried saving money by asking then-music director Mario Venzago to take what would have effectively been a 50 percent drop in pay. He declined and departed. A successor has yet to be named.

Here are excerpts from the Indianapolis news release:


Ratified October 4, 2009, the new agreement will result in substantial savings for the ISO and is a critical component in stabilizing the Orchestra’s financial operations. The terms of the new contract include a 12% reduction in salaries for the first year, with an increase by 2.7% for the second year and 7.8% in the third year. In addition, ISO musicians agreed to greater individual contributions toward health care benefits and a limited reduction in their pension earnings. This new contract represents approximately $4 million in savings to the ISO during the next three years.

...Along with the new agreement for ISO musicians, the Orchestra has taken steps to proactively reduce additional operating expenses in this new fiscal year (Sept. 1, 2009-Aug. 31, 2010). Effective in October, 2009, the President and CEO will take a 15% cut in salary; ISO vice presidents will take a 10% reduction in pay; and the remainder of ISO staff will take a 5% cut in salary. Approximately $2 million will be saved with these and cuts within other departmental expenses in addition to the savings from the musicians’ contract. During the previous fiscal year, the ISO eliminated a total of 13 administrative positions and trimmed its operational, marketing and development budgets to save the organization approximately $1.7 million.

Michael Borschel, chairman of the musicians’ negotiating team, said, “Given the current economic environment, the real concern for the musicians was whether or not our community is willing and able to support a truly world-class symphony orchestra. For the short term, we have pledged to do our part by agreeing to cuts in wages and pension and in shouldering additional health care costs. However, the longer term answer lies with our employer, the Indiana Symphony Society. The Society’s willingness to address our wage and pension concerns over the next three years points toward future fiscal stability and artistic growth of the Orchestra, under its yet-to-be determined Music Director...”

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:16 PM | | Comments (0)

New York Report (Part 2): Alan Gilbert at the helm of the New York Philharmonic

The splashiest podium arrival this season is Gustavo Dudamel, launching his highly anticipated tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We're talking a second-coming level of publicity for that. Meanwhile, Alan Gilbert has taken the helm of the New York Philharmonic to a slightly less emphatic drumbeat, but it's a newsy development just the same, one filled with great promise.

Alan GilbertThe son of two NY Phil players (his father is retired, his mother still in the ensemble), Gilbert brings a strong mix of technical qualities and personality to the job, traits Baltimore audiences got to savor frequently some years ago in his guest appearances with the Baltimore Symphony. He's certainly quite a contrast to Lorin Maazel, whose aloof manner and highly controlled, individualistic interpretations never sat well with some folks (especially in the NY press).

But Maazel left a fabulously polished and responsive orchestra behind, allowing Gilbert an immediate comfort zone that has to be a great advantage as he applies his own stamp.

Reports of Gilbert's debut in mid-September, televised nationally on PBS, drew mixed responses, but I had a decidedly positive experience at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall last Saturday night, when the conductor led an intriguing program. It started with a work written by the Philharmonic's new, Finnish-born composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg (his appointment was an immediate sign of Gilbert's intentions in New York). Titled "EXPO," the piece was

commissioned by the orchestra and premiered at the season-opening gala. It wouldn't have been at all unusual had that been its only outing, since lots of orchestra routinely give limited exposure to new music, so it was doubly impressive to see Gilbert bring it back a few weeks later for the regular subscription crowd.

In just 10 minutes or so, Lindberg packs in a lot of brilliant material, suitable festive in overall effect, yet full of tension and import. The harmonic style is rich and flavorful, at once emphatically contemporary, yet grounded in good, old-fashioned tonality. The composer and conductor spent almost as long talking about the piece to the audience beforehand as it took to play the music itself. I didn't think the remarks were particularly smooth or informative (this was the final in a string of performances, so maybe they just ran out of steam), but it was a good way for people to get a more personal sense of both men.

The performance was startling in its visceral power. Even though I heard the orchestra in June (Maazel's farewell with Mahler 8), I was struck all over again by what a terrific ensemble this is, beautifully balanced section to section, so that every component functions for the good of the whole -- just like it should be, of course, but nothing you can ever take for granted.

Gilbert followed the Lindberg score with something more or less a century old, but just as modern in outlook -- the Symphony No. 2 by Charles Ives. I've said before that this should be as well known to American concert-goers as any staple from the German repertoire; this is our first great symphony and we should hear it often. Gilbert stressed equally the European roots and wonderfully quirky Ivesian touches in the score, fashioning a cohesive and involving performance. He drew from the strings particular richness.

After intermission, more Ives, this time a much more often encountered work, "The Unanswered Question." Unless my ears (a wee bit tired after a Met performance that afternoon) deceived me, there was a mishap toward the end, when the trumpet and flutes entered the same air space, but the performance was nonetheless arresting. And, in an unusual twist, the fade-out of the Ives score led directly into Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with its revolutionary keyboard-only opening -- the effect was to provide an encouraging answer to Ives' question.

The soloist in the concerto was Emanuel Ax, who, as usual, delivered exceptional poetry and strength. Gilbert was a masterful partner, not just ensuring a smooth flow, but bringing the orchestra fully and dynamically into the dialog.

The Gilbert era is clearly going to be interesting and, I'd wager, quite eventful.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:21 AM | | Comments (0)

October 5, 2009

New York Report (Part 1): 'Tosca' and 'Aida' at the Met, a study in contrasts

Two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season to the one sound that no one really wants to hear in such an august house -- booing. The cause was a production of Puccini's evergreen "Tosca" in a staging that took the polar opposite view of what Met audiences had seen and relished for years.

Gone was the monumental design of Franco Zeffirelli that did everything but relocate the entire audience to the opera's actual historic settings in Rome. In its place, you might say defiantly, was a darkly minimalist design by Richard Peduzzi and  direction by Luc Bondy, who didn't hesitate to ignore stage directions or traditional bits of stage business. I gather the opening night boos could be heard in New Jersey when the production team came out for a bow.

I finally got a chance to check out what the fuss was all about over the weekend, when the only disturbance I noticed was at the first intermission, when it appeared that an outraged patron was loudly complaining to an usher as he departed in disgust. "This is not good!" he shouted, before a security guard motioned him to the door. Of course, maybe he was really complaining about something else entirely. I was primed to expect trouble, after all. 

This "Tosca" is apt to have people talking longer than they do about most performances of the work encountered these days. And you can bet there will be a lot of heated discussions at the popcorn stand during intermissions on Oct. 10, when "Tosca" opens the Met's HD broadcasts season at scores of movies theaters around the country.

Perhaps because of all the fuss -- the media had a field day with the opening night protest (Alex Ross' review in the New Yorker carries the stark headline "Fiasco"), and even the tenor in the cast publicly dissed Bondy -- I was not particularly surprised and certainly not outraged by what was happening onstage. Instead, I found myself enjoying most of it immensely, and admiring Met general manager Peter Gelb all the more for his willingness to shake things up a little.

I understand the disappointment people might feel about the lack of visual opulence, especially in the opening scene, where the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle looks more like a brick prison. But by removing the typical trappings of "Tosca," Bondy has made a world where the characters seem more important, more central than ever. And in that first act, the director has encouraged a remarkable level of playful intimacy between Tosca and Cavaradossi, who sit next to each other at one point (no pews in this church, just a few chairs), looking like lovestruck high school kids. Quite charming.

Tosca is an awfully volatile woman, prone not only to jealousy, but also to conclusion-leaping (leaping, of course, is a particularly unfortunate trait for this character). The Tosca portrayed by Karita Mattila in this production reveals the full extent of that mercurialness in several telling incidents. After Scarpia plants the seeds of doubt over Cavarodossi's faithfulness, she rushes to the portrait her lover had been painting and stabs it right through (a violent impulse that will overtake her in Act 2). The way she collapses in a heap after that act says something, too. This Tosca cannot control her temper, and she is physically drained by each flare-up.

Cut to Act 2, and you've got

Tosca impulsively deciding early in the game to murder Scarpia (this premeditation has bothered some folks), but, once she carries through, she's wasted. Rather than the usual stage business of laying a cross on Scarpia's body and two candlesticks at either side, Tosca -- impulsive as ever -- climbs up on the windowsill and nearly jumps, before easing herself back down, and, in a daze, lying on a couch, slowly fanning herself as the curtain falls.

OK, I can hear you booing, but I think that Bondy -- with the help of Mattila's considerable acting skills -- makes this all quite tense and visually striking: two giant red couches on either side of the window, Scarpia's body half dangling from one, Tosca's oddly reclining on the other. To me, a very theatrical look, and a plausibly theatrical situation. Having established the heroine's traits earlier, Bondy can have her stay in place to ponder what she has done, what she should do next, rather than depart the murder scene as soon as she can.

Yes, I know that's not what Puccini called for, and not exactly what the music suggests. But I wonder if people miss the candles and crucifix because they want to believe that Tosca is a good religious, moral girl at heart, even if she's living in sin with her boyfriend, betrays his trust (the location of the escaped prisoner), and commits murder. Well, maybe she's not so pure and simple after all. Maybe her first thought is not religion and expiation, but just how to survive the whole messy business with her life and lover intact. Or maybe she can't even think straight at all about anything, and essentially zones out, as if not even really conscious. All plausible, it seems to me.

Bondy has been accused of messing up this scene or totally lacking imagination, but that's not how it came across Saturday afternoon. It seemed oddly more natural than the usual business with the candles, and just as oddly riveting. That said, Bondy should have paid greater attention to the score, and come up with more in the way of action to justify his approach and to gain musical grounding for it.

Likewise, his concept for Tosca's suicide -- a freeze-frame device involving a body double who jumps, but is stopped midair -- needs to be better timed and keyed directly into the music. (Still, on Saturday, the effect produced an audible gasp in the house, and you could easily sense how powerful this could look with a little tweaking.) Other questionable elements: Scarpia doesn't need three -- count 'em, three -- hookers to service him at the start of Act 2. (Bondy isn't the first director to give an opera character an audience during what is normally a soliloquy, but this is piling it on a bit thick.) In Act 1, the painting of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi has been working on is revealed to be about as likely to be hung in a church as an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. And the firing squad practice is a pretty lame time-filler during the orchestral opening of Act. 3.

But back to the good stuff. Many deft little strokes occur, from the Sacristan dumping a pail into the holy water font to Cavaradossi crumpling up the letter he tries to write Tosca while awaiting execution. The Te Deum scene is quite potent, and not just because Scarpia gets carried away with a statue at the end of it. There is something wonderfully spooky about the advancing crowd of clerics.

In the end, this is not the wildest, strangest, silliest "Tosca" you could conjure up. Costuming is basically normal (I rather liked the vampirish get-up for Scarpia's goons), and nothing critical to the opera is removed or rendered entirely senseless. It's simply a different telling of a familiar tale. Bondy's "Tosca" may not be one for the ages, but, as Alex Ross and others have noted, the production could probably be finessed in the future by other directors to smooth out or refocus some things.

Musically, I suspect better performances will come along, but Mattila makes a valid stab not only at portraying the title role, but giving it vocal power to match. She did some beautiful singing on Saturday, and some not so beautiful (a note that went astray at the end of Vissi d'arte was nonetheless so intensely dramatic that it somehow worked to her advantage). Marcelo Alvarez belted more than he needed to, but there was enough poetry mixed in to make his effort effective. George Gagnidze was a little low on vocal wattage as Scarpia, yet still sufficiently commanding. Joseph Colaneri (subbing for James Levine) led a sure and sensitive account of the score, generating a lush response form the justly hailed Met Orchestra.

For a complete contrast, I attended the company's revival of "Aida" Friday night and found myself thinking that it could use a daring directorial flourish or two. Sonja Frisell's grandly scaled production -- massive sets (Gianni Quaranta), brilliant costumes (Dada Saligeri), several horses -- is everything that Bondy's "Tosca" isn't. It also seemed ever so slightly dull, since all that visual splendor didn't translate easily into human drama. The principals rarely interacted with each other in any involving manner; the millions of excellent choristers stood oratorio-style through their big numbers.

The star of the evening was Daniele Gatti, whose warm, artfully nuanced conducting had Verdi's music sounding richer than ever. (I didn't hang around for all the bows, but I learned from Jim Oestreich's review in the Times that Gatti was booed when he took his Friday night. Is this some stupid new fad in New York, or an honest reaction by genuine opera fans?)

As Radames, Johan Botha produced clarion tone and some notable nuances, including a welcome diminuendo on the B-flat at the end of Celeste Aida and gentle phrasing in the final duet. A rough top note or two aside, Violeta Urmana sang nobly as Aida. Dolora Zajick, as Amneris, caught fire in the third act. Carlo Guelfi was a sturdy Amonasro. The Met ballet excuted Alexei Ratmansky's stylish choreography with flair.

Even before I saw the "Tosca," this "Aida" seemed a bit too square for its own good, for all of it's musical values. Still, it was a hearty reminder that the Met can still deliver old-fashioned opera values in abundance one day, and provocative departures the next. Isn't that a good thing?


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (6)

October 2, 2009

Your weekend guide to musical attractions

I'm skipping town for a couple days so I can catch up on New York's musical life (hey, we all need a little perspective from time to time), but if I were around, there would certainly be plenty of music to catch in Baltimore.

In case you need a little guidance, here are some suggestions for your weekend musical pleasure (you're on you own for any other type):

The BSO has a most engaging program (reviewed elsewhere on the blog); performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Meyerhoff.

Other attractions:

Friday: Peabody Concert Orchestra performs Mozart, Dvorak and Barber.

Saturday: the Katona Twins, an excellent guitar duo, kicking off the season of the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society at Towson University



1) baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Eva Mengelkoch in a program of songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel and Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy (a grandson of Felix Mendelssohn whose works were recently discovered). Free, but reservations recommended: email

2) Lyra, a vocal sextet from St. Petersburg, will give a free concert of Russian music at Central Presbyterian

3) Community Concerts at Second presents the husband-and-wife early music duo Asteria in a free program of 14th and 15th century works at Second Presbyterian

4) the Bach Concert Series opens its 21st season with a free performance of Bach's Cantata 140, directed by T. Herbert Dimmock, at Christ Lutheran. Soloists are soprano Jennifer Young and bass Phillip Collister.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)

BSO explores folk roots in works by Bartok and Tchaikovsky

Although it’s convenient for some to think of music being divided into totally separate worlds, with the classical variety way over in some isolated corner where only the “elite” indulge in it, there are innumerable connecting, welcoming points between genres. One mission of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new season is to emphasize such links, programming works that reveal roots planted in folk music or jazz, for example. Last week, bluegrass found its way into the picture via a concerto by Jennifer Higdon featuring a hotshot crossover trio; this week, the folk influences behind familiar pieces by Tchaikovsky and Bartok are being given fresh attention.

On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Friday-Sunday), the stage was devoid of orchestral players at the start of the concert. Instead, BSO music director Marin Alsop walked out to introduce Harmonia, a crack ensemble devoted to Eastern European folk music.

The five instrumentalists gave a mini-concert that helped focus the ears anew on the piquant scales and vigorous rhythms that Bartok incorporated into his Concerto for Orchestra, which followed. And Harmonia’s dynamic presentation still resonated later, when Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has plenty of its own folksy elements, arrived after intermission.

The Bartok score remains a keen test of conductor and orchestra alike. Although there were moments Thursday that could have benefited from a little more urgency, snap and earthiness, the overall effect proved

highly satisfying. Alsop had the music well in hand, bringing out the sarcasm of the fourth movement with particular flair and driving the finale along powerfully. The violins, violas and cellos made an especially impressive showing, though there certainly were deftly shaded contributions from the winds and brass as well.

The Tchaikovsky war horse had the distinct advantage of a young, exceptionally sensitive rider on this occasion. Canadian-born, Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes revealed a refreshing concentration on the actual music in the concerto -- no show-off tricks or unduly fussy tempos. Everything flowed with a natural elegance and, in the most songful passages, great eloquence. There may have been a measure or two when the clarity of his articulation slipped a bit, but never the expressive force.

Ehnes’ tone had both sweetness and body, easily holding its own against the orchestral forces, which Alsop guided surely. She and the ensemble sounded as fully caught up in this familiar concerto as the soloist, and the result was a remarkably involving performance.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:45 AM | | Comments (5)

October 1, 2009

Free tickets to Washington Opera's 'Ariadne'

(UPDATE: Whoops. That's noon Thursday, 10-1. I wrote Friday originally, because that's where my head was. Also, the Free Night link is the one to us. The site seemed to be having trouble at 12:25 p.m., perhaps because of volume. It should be up before long. And note that Washington National is the only opera company participating in Free Night of Theater.) 

 Cool. Washington National Opera is participating in the nationwide "Free Night of Theater 2009" project, offering gratis tickets to its production of a fab work by Strauss, "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Five performances, between Oct. 28 and Nov. 13, are included in the give-away, which happens at noon Thursday, Oct. 1. As far as I can tell, the tickets will be made available through the Free Night site. (I couldn't find a ticket link there when I checked early Thursday, but maybe something kicks in at noon. I'll update this post if/when I get more specific info.) 

By the way, quite a few theaters are participating in the program, both in DC and Baltimore. So if you miss out on the opera freebies, you might pick up a play on the rebound.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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