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November 2, 2009

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen celebrates 50 years with concert

The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the striking neo-Deco landmark on the north side of Baltimore, celebrated its 50 years with a free concert Friday night capped by the mighty strains of Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony.

The program had a curious start. The Peabody Concert Orchestra assembled in front of the altar to play the short Overture to "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss. A splash of Viennese operetta is just about the last thing I'd expect to hear on a grand occasion in a cathedral. Maybe the approach of Halloween had something to do with it -- the operetta's English title, after all, is "The Bat." Maybe somebody simply wanted a brief, ear-grabbing piece to get things rolling.

Mind you, the Strauss wouldn't have seemed so out of place had it been followed by music at least remotely in the same vein. Instead, the evening continued with

the solemn "Magnificat" for chorus and organ by Robert Twynham, former music director at the cathedral. Talk about non sequiturs. Oh well. Mine's not to reason why.

If there had to be an orchestral kick-off, I might have gone for Beethoven's "Fidelio" Overture, or maybe a colorful orchestral arrangement of something by Bach. Then again, given the considerable length of Twynham's work, I would have skipped the orchestral lead-in -- or turned to the other Strauss, Richard, and settled for his two-minute intro to "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which would have provided one more use for the cathedral's organ.

As for the brush with "Fledermaus," it would have been more enjoyable in a less reverberant space; many a detail in the scoring disappeared in the acoustical haze. But conductor Hajime Teri Murai was in typically energetic mode, and he drew spirited playing from the ensemble, which then filed off to await the Saint-Saens assignment on the second half of the concert.

Twynham's "Magnificat" resonates with several stylistic influences, among them Durufle, and does not quite add up to a totally individualistic statement. But the writing for voices and the organ is colorful, and such moments as the descending harmonies in the "Quia Respixit" movement and the lilting rhythmic motion of "Suscepit Israel" are particularly effective. Some intonation slips aside, the Cathedral Choir, directed by Daniel J. Sansone, sang well; Katherine H. Hunt was the solid organist. The audience rewarded the composer with a sustained ovation.

The Saint-Saens symphony had to fight the same acoustical battle as the overture; cathedrals just aren't kind to orchestras. But Murai conveyed the dramatic parts of the music with considerable power and allowed the slow movement to unfold spaciously. Sansone brought a combination of sensitivity and panache to the organ solos, letting the instrument really rip in the finale. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:08 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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