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December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve reflections on a decade of covering Baltimore's music scene

With the Decade of the Naughts fading away, I started to look back, as one does on such momentous occasions, and realized that said decade corresponds almost exactly with my time in Baltimore – I arrived three and a half months into 2000. And that had me thinking back on the highs and lows of covering the music scene (and lately, some theater and art as well) for the Baltimore Sun and adjusting to life in Charm City.

The latter hasn’t really been too difficult, except for the occasional manifestation of a you’re-not-one-of-us attitude from some Baltimore natives (early on, one of them huffily declared that my S.O. and I would never be accepted as new customers of a certain dry cleaning establishing because we weren’t from here – a fact that we enjoyed disproving later by becoming customers of that very same business). I hasten to add that most folks here have been welcoming and fun, those met in person and those I know only from their engaging comments on this blog.

As for the music of the past 10 years, I look back fondly on the happenstance of my arrival on the job just weeks after Yuri Temirkanov started as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I felt quite fortunate to chronicle his tenure, and to hear some performances that rank among the most affecting I’ve ever experienced. His detractors can continue to carp all they want about one supposed shortcoming or another, but I’ll always remember instead the emotional intensity he could generate onstage, especially in works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Mahler. Music-making like that doesn’t occur every day, anywhere, and we were damn lucky to encounter it in Baltimore.

I also recall with particular relish the

European tour Temirkanov and the BSO made in late November-early December 2001. That’s when conductor and players really started to come together and begin building a bond that would last right through his final concerts with them. I remember an encore in Vienna of Elgar’s “Nimrod” that was so stunning in its beauty that I readily confess to getting teary-eyed (afterward, I noticed I wasn’t the only one).

Recollections of the Temirkanov years involve remembering the last portion of it, when the orchestra took an unfortunate chance on a CEO who promptly drove the BSO into a ditch. I still think Temirkanov would have stayed a while longer had not that guy shown up, but no use thinking about that now.

The whole messy business of how the appointment of Temirkanov’s successor, Marin Alsop, was handled by management left quite a bad mark on the BSO’s decade. But there’s no mistaking the rapid recovery the ensemble made with Marin at the helm (especially after that CEO moved on and was replaced by a real pro). The BSO leaves the Naughts in remarkably good shape musically and, I think for the most part, emotionally, and Marin deserves a great deal of the credit.

What she and the orchestra achieved with Bernstein’s “Mass” last season counts as a major highlight of the decade, a triumph on every level. I’ll never forget the expressive punch of the performance given on tour at the Palace way uptown in Manhattan, with several hundred local students jumping up from the first rows to join in the biggest choral numbers. I still get goose-pimply when I think about the "Donna nobis pacem" that day. 

The decade left bittersweet opera memories. Although I found plenty of fault with some casting and staging decisions, I also enjoyed many a Baltimore Opera Company venture, none more so than the compelling production of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” during the city-wide Russian festival (a Temirkanov initiative, by the way). At its best, the company could be counted on to deliver the goods in a highly effective manner.

That the organization should have folded in ’09 is still hard to accept or understand. It seems that a tragic failure of will was as much to blame as anything – not just the will to raise money on a huge scale, but to reach consensus internally, to resolve personality and/or managerial issues responsibly and maturely. The tragic fall of Baltimore Opera could well cast a shadow on many a succeeding decade.

But, all in all, I’m feeling OK as 2009 gives way to 2010. There are lots of positive things still happening musically, big and small; and lots of people wonderfully dedicated to fueling the city’s cultural fires. Personally, I’ve had a rewarding decade here, all things considered, and I’m hopeful of enjoying another one.

So Happy New Year, bloggie buddies. I look forward to interacting with you on all sorts of matters in the days ahead. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:06 PM | | Comments (2)

Irving Berlin salute at Everyman Theatre provides holiday lift

For the benefit of my cyber-only readers who may not venture beyond this action-packed blog (you are, of course, as dearly cherished as those hopelessly-out-of-date souls who never venture beyond the print world), I thought I should draw your attention to an item you may not have spotted in Thursday's paper -- my review of the "Tribute to Irving Berlin" cabaret at Everyman Theatre.

The show celebrates the songwriting genius in high-spirited fashion, making this a great entertainment option in the closing weekend of the holiday season.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:51 AM | | Comments (0)

December 30, 2009

Church of Beethoven in Albuquerque sounds inspirational

Here's something a bit off the beaten path. A Los Angeles Times story that appeared this week describes a place where classical music lovers gather for a different kind of Sunday service at the Church of Beethoven in Albuquerque.

The place was founded by Felix Wurman, a cellist with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Wurman, who died Dec. 26 after a year-long struggle against cancer, was inspired a couple years ago after playing a church gig and experiencing a deep reaction to both the music and the way the churchgoers responded. Quoting from the Times:

Wurman had an idea: "How about a church that

has music as its principal element, rather than as an afterthought?"

He recruited other musicians from the symphony, and ... in an abandoned gas station off old Route 66, they began playing concerts each Sunday. More and more people started coming ("I just leave here feeling really soul-satisfied," explained one regular, Veronica Reed, 68 ...), and after a couple of years, the concert series outgrew the space. Its current home, a renovated warehouse in downtown Albuquerque, is rather cathedral-like, with warm red walls, vaulted wood ceilings and stained glass windows. 

Given the way things are going for classical music and the arts, maybe there will be a lot of such churches springing up around the country. This is certainly one way to keep the music going. (I'd probably be more inclined to stop by a Church of Mahler or Church of Bach, 'cause I think of those guys as extra-spiritual, but that's just me.)

The New Mexico church has lots of the little touches that set it apart from the more routine lliturgical operations -- massages and espresso bars are part of the scene -- but this is clearly no silly whim. You've got to hand it to Wurman and his friends for thinking way outside the religious box. And I rather like what one of the Beethovians, Pamela Michaelis, said to the Times reporter after a recent 'service': 

"... she had felt the music "in the cavities" of her chest. She said she thinks the point of religion is to feel a part of something. The Church of Beethoven, she said, provides that. "That's what music is," she said. "It's something bigger than us."

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:49 PM | | Comments (0)

December 28, 2009

CD set shines spotlight on neglected composer and Peabody director Asger Hamerik

In case you missed my Sunday story, I couldn't resist providing this link.

The piece is about composer Asger Hamerik, whose 27 years at the helm of the Peabody Institute in the last part of the 19th century was a big deal, and whose own music has been largely ignored for decades. A new CD set of his symphonies and Requiem should help revive interest in this talented figure.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 PM | | Comments (1)

December 24, 2009

BSO Holiday Spectacular hits fresh peak with Ann Hampton Callaway

Thanks to the snow and other little things, I didn't make it to this year's BSO Holiday Spectacular until the penultimate performance Wednesday afternoon. This fifth annual production turned out to be the best yet, IMHO, thanks in large measure to Ann Hampton Callaway, who served as host.

If you saw previous versions of the Baltimore Symphony's show, you'll appreciate the description of Callaway as "the dark side of Sandi Patty" (not original with me, darn it). It's not just Callaway's hair coloring that distinguishes her from Patty, who vibrantly hosted the BSO's show a couple of times, but also the earthier voice, the delectable extra layer of humor. If Callaway wanted to do this show every December, I'd say bring her on.

My favorite highlight on Tuesday was her eloquently phrased, silver-toned interpretation of

"I Wonder as I Wander" (in a wonderfully moody arrangement by Steven Reineke -- who  conducted Tuesday and Wednesday -- that seemed to have been inspired by the Ray Ellis one used on Streisand's first Christmas album). Callaway also belted out a seasonally adjusted version of "Blues in the Night" with terrific flair, and she blended beautifully with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch in an elegantly phrased medley of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song."

Callaway, who joked that she was changing her name to Ann Hampden Callaway, showed off her amusing improv skills by creating a Baltimore Christmas ditty on the spot, based on words shouted out by audience members (including "matzo balls").

This year's lineup also included the top-notch sax ensemble Capitol Quartet, which lit up the place with some hot licks in, among other things, a clever jazz distillation of "Nutcracker" favorites. Speaking of "Nutcracker," members of the Baltimore School for the Arts danced a passage from that ballet with considerable polish and charm. The show featured a strong chorus, too.

The only thing missing was the BSO -- in the sense of getting the spotlight to itself. Only one just-the-orchestra item was on the program, not enough attention, it seems to me, for the musicians.

One other complaint -- the sound system. High-quality amplification exists these days and should be available even for as large space as Meyerhoff Hall. The often tinny, mushy results on Wednesday took some of the bloom off of this good-looking, spirit-lifting extravaganza.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:19 PM | | Comments (0)

'Christmas with Choral Arts' to air Thursday and Friday

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society is reponsible for one of the city's most popular annual holiday concerts. Traditionally held in the gorgeous Baltimore Basilica, "Christmas with Choral Arts" gets an extra life each year thanks to WMAR-TV (ABC2). The 2009 concert will air at 11:35 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Christmas Day.

Effectively conducted by Tom Hall, the program offers a considerable amount of fresh material (folks seeking nothing by chestnuts roasted by an open choir may be disappointed). Several contemporary works are included, among them

premieres by Rosephanye Dunn Powell and jazz legend Dave Brubeck.

Powell's multi-movement "Christmas Give" contains resonances of traditional spirituals (the minor-key "Christus Natus Est," for example, sounds like a distant cousin to "Go Down Moses"), along with pop music ("Christmas Memories" is a shimmering ballad that could well enjoy a wider life) and African folk music ("Ogo ni fun Oluwa" has an infectious, joyful propulsion).

Brubeck's "Precious Gift His Wondrous Birth," with text by his wife Iola, offers a grand message ("Unify the human race") in musically modest fashion. "A Clean Heart," by Baltimore-based composer James Lee, III, is a subtly powerful, a cappella gem with rich harmonization; the chorus sings it beautifully.

The concert also includes a vibrant performance of Mendelssohn's "Rise Up" that easily demonstrates the ensemble's vocal and expressive strengths, and it's fun to hear a "Halleljuah" by Handel that isn't from "Messiah" (the familiar one is here, too). The orchestra is an asset throughout the program. All in all an entertaining celebration of music that communicates the essential messages of Christmas.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:07 AM | | Comments (0)

Belated birthday nod to Puccini

Had some blog software issues Wednesday and couldn't post anything, including my intended little salute to one of my favorite composers, Puccini, who just happens to share my birthday -- depending on what source you accept for his entry-into-this-world date; several go with Dec. 22, but, naturally, I like the ones that choose Dec. 23 (a recent biography of the composer fudged it nicely by saying he was born on the night of Dec. 22-23, 1858).

Since there has been so much talk of "Tosca" lately, thanks to a certain production at the Met, I got to thinking about the ultimate diva aria, "Vissi d'arte," from Act 2 of that opera. And that made me think of a soprano who, in her prime, sang Puccini's music with unusual beauty and amazing technical control.

Montserrat Caballe did something very, very few sopranos ever could manage -- sing the end of the penultimate phrase, "Perche, perche, Signore" ("Why, why, Lord?") on a single, exquisite breath, connecting "Signore" with the following "Ah." Nearly everyone else has to gulp for air after "Signore" -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but hearing Caballe keep the line going is something really magical and affecting.

So here's my belated salute to my birthday buddy, Puccini, courtesy of a soprano I've always loved:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:08 AM | | Comments (5)

December 22, 2009

Latest twist on that reviled 'Tosca' at the Met

This is rather funny, actually. Dan Wakin, the intrepid New York Times reporter who covers (and uncovers) the classical music scene, reports that "the Metropolitan Opera is considering bringing back its Franco Zeffirelli production of 'Tosca' next season to run in tandem with the new version directed by Luc Bondy, which was introduced to boos and reviewer scorn in September."

My favorite line is the one where Met general manager Peter Gelb "stressed

that the possible return of the Zeffirelli 'Tosca' was unconnected to the response to the Bondy production."

We apparently won't know until February, when next season's lineup is announced, whether the lavish, audience-pleasing Zeffirelli extravaganza will return, but I'd be tempted to bet on it. Of course, there's a technical reason being given for the possible reprise for the old set, having to do with backstage facilities during the time the Met will be introducing a new "Ring" Cycle, but it's hard not to suspect that this is a case of patron revenge.

Those who could not stomach the Bondy version of "Tosca" -- the booing on opening night could be heard all the way to East Orange, New Jersey -- have no doubt been directing fire at Met officials ever since. Any company that tries something new, whether unfamiliar repertoire or a fresh concept applied to standard fare, faces a backlash if it doesn't go down well with the core, invariably conservative constituency.

It's hard to imagine the Met actually allowing the public a choice between two productions of "Tosca" or any other work during the same season. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we eventually hear that, gee, we're having a little glitch with that Bondy set, so we'll just go with Zeffirelli's after all.

Even as things stand now, with only the possibility of a revival, it suggests a curious lack of courage in one's convictions. I suppose if I felt Bondy's "Tosca" (broadcast last week on PBS) was really a horror show, I'd be putting the champagne on ice now. But I still think some folks, especially some of my distinguished colleagues, doth protest too much. What a curious place the opera world can be.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (2)

December 21, 2009

Last-minute holiday gifts for the classical music lover (Part Two)

As I mentioned in my first post of gift suggestions (for those on your shopping list, or for yourself when all those gift cards come in), I ended up limiting myself to opera, orchestral and piano. Here are my picks from the last two categories:


Two of the most enjoyable keyboard CDs I heard this year both feature pianist Jeffrey Biegel, and both are ever so slightly (and delectably) out of the mainstream.

Even if you've got a zillion recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas, you're not likely to have any that include embellishments of the repeats. In the three-disc Volume 1 of his survey of the sonatas for the E1 Music label, Biegel argues that, given Mozart's famed improvisational skills, there's room for improv today when sections of a sonata movement get repeated. Doesn't seem at all far-fetched to me. Then again, I'm in favor of embellishing repeated sections in Mozart arias, a practice that relatively few singers dare to try. And I think even the repeats in symphonies -- not just by Mozart -- could stand a little variety, Maybe not  actual changes or additions to the notes, but at least variances in dynamics and emphasis. Ah, but I digress. 

The modest amount of ornamentation and variation Biegel applies in the sonatas seems just right, adding a welcome dimension of spontaneity and intensified character. That's not the only distinction. The pianist also demonstrates admirable technical fluency, considerable tonal shading and a great deal of stylish sensitivity to make this a first-rate exploration of Mozart's ever-rewarding sonatas.

For even more of a left-field excursion, how about

a piano transcription of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons"? I'm so over-dosed on this music that I didn't think any version of it would awaken my senses, but Biegel won me over with the first notes of his own keyboard version, contained on a Naxos release. Although Vivaldi's seasonal-themed collection of descriptive violin concertos would not seem, at first glance, to translate easily to the piano, Biegel provides the color, nuance and virtuosity to make it work. He fills out the disc with Andrew Gentile's classy arrangements of Vivaldi's C major Mandolin Concerto and D major Lute Concerto. Again, the experience proves thoroughly winning.


Sure, you can find the usual symphonies and such among current recordings, but how about  something a little different? I was very impressed with three releases, all on Naxos, devoted to orchestral suites from stage works by Strauss and Janacek. 

The Strauss collection, with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta (yes, Virginia, there is another very talented American female conductor besides Marin Alsop), contains one truly familiar item, the Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier," which gets a sturdy workout. What makes the disc more appealing is the inclusion of a less-often encountered suite from another opera, "Die Frau ohne Schatten," and a suite from the relatively obscure ballet "Josephs-Legende." Falletta secures vibrant responses from the orchestra in both of these richly layered scores.

Even farther afield are the premiere recordings of orchestral suites fashioned by Peter Breiner out of the potent operas of Janacek. Breiner captures the flavor of the composer's sound and dramatic instincts so well that it's easy to imagine Janacek penned the suites himself. At more than a half-hour each, there is a lot of action in these pieces, and the New Zealand Symphony digs deeply into to the material with the guidance of Breiner on the podium. The first release pairs "Jenufa" with "The Excursion of Mr. Broucek." The second contains suites from "Katya Kabanova" and "The Makropulos Affair."

These three discs would be perfect for the opera-shy person on your shopping list. Not a note of vocal music, but a strong sense of each opera's melodic and emotional power.


If you're having a tough time deciding on a classical music gift, you can't go wrong with a hefty collection -- six CDs, 111 tracks, 111 artists -- released by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate its 111th anniversary. The selections are arranged alphabetically by performer, so it means that the repertoire is constantly varying -- orchestral, vocal, solo instrumental, chamber. The one constant is quality, since the musicians include the likes of Argerich, Caruso, Furtwangler, Heifetz, Maazel, Michelangeli, Segovia, Rostropovich and Wunderlich. The set wouldn't necessarily be for the classical music purist, who may well frown on miscellaneous excerpts, but it's a handsome compendium of (and a possible introduction to) the art form and those who have served it nobly for more than a century.        


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:23 AM | | Comments (1)

December 20, 2009

Last-minute holiday gift ideas for the classical music lover (Part One)

Of course, this wouldn't be a last-minute guide if I hadn't put off writing it for so long, but, hey, you gotta cut me some slack. I've had my own last-minute shopping to do, without worrying about your needs. But now that I'm finally caught up (I spent part of Saturday's blizzard going Web-shopping), I'm ready with some recommendations that I should have offered way back when.

If you've got a classical music lover on your gift list, there's still a chance to grab these items for Christmas. Alternatively, if you end up with gift cards, these suggestions may help you spend them.

I decided on only three basic categories (opera, orchestral, piano), since I ended up with more than enough good stuff to mention -- and because I was running out of time. Here, then, to start things off, my operatic picks: 


For the operatically inclined, my first choice would be the Decca DVD of Puccini's "La Rondine" in a visually luscious, musically vibrant Washington National Opera production, filmed live in 1998.

It doesn't come without its touch of controversy. Director Marta Domingo has decided that

the original bittersweet ending of this so-called "lyrical comedy," which contains no fatalities, is not really true to what Puccini felt in his heart. So, in keeping with nearly every other Puccini opera, the heroine here, a beguiling demi-mondaine named Magda, is allowed to die.

You can argue against that directorial decision, but Domingo does have a point when (as she writes in the accompanying booklet) you consider the final, somber orchestral music of the score, with the tolling of a bell. But even if you just refuse to buy the argument, you've got to admit that Magda gets a fabulous death scene (with shades of Joan Crawford in "Humoresque").

Anyway, this and other ideas from Domingo are very easy to take in light of so many positive things about the performance, starting with Ainhoa Arteta's exquisite portrayal of Magda. She's got the shimmering high notes to make the most of the music, the elegance and nuance to make the most of the multi-layered role. The supporting cast is quite respectable. Emmanuel Villaume conducts masterfully. And Michael Scott's sets and costumes are most attractive.


For the musically adventurous, a great choice would be the Opus Arte DVD of Messiaen's stunning masterpiece "Saint Francois d'Assise." The Netherlands Opera production deals quite well with the theatrical difficulties of this very long (275 minutes), sometimes very cerebral, but truly spiritual and transfixing work. The cast is headed by Rod Gilfry in the title role. Ingo Metzmacher conducts.

For the traditionalist, you can't go wrong with the 1978 performance of Verdi's "Otello" featuring Jon Vickers and Renata Scotto, now available for the first time on DVD on the Metropolitan Opera's label. A towering achievement by all involved.

And for choices in CD format, two colorful, involving contemporary operas stand out. 

John Musto's amusing, cleverly crafted "Volpone," "unfaithfully based on Ben Johnson's comedy," is one of the most instantly engaging pieces to come around in years, a ringing affirmation of tonality and the values of classic Italian comic opera. It was commissioned and premiered in 2004 by Wolf Trap Opera, which has now released a recording on its own label of the excellent 2007 revival, with a lively cast conducted by Sara Jobin. The recording, Wolf Trap's first, has been nominated for a 2010 Grammy.

And John Adams' brilliant "Nixon in China" has been given a fresh recording on the Naxos label, this one made live during an Opera Colorado production in 2008. Marin Alsop is the rock-steady, expressive conductor in this performance, which boasts a sturdy cast and the fine Colorado Symphony Orchestra.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:26 PM | | Comments (0)

December 18, 2009

Renee Fleming soars in recital at the Lyric Opera House

On one level, Renée Fleming’s eloquent recital at the Lyric Opera House Thursday night was just that — a solo performance by a pulchritudinous and ever-engaging soprano, one of the biggest vocal stars on the world stage today. But the event also carried a certain symbolic weight.

Arriving patrons were met at the front door by the familiar greeters in red sashes who used to welcome patrons of the now buried Baltimore Opera Company. In the lobby, a concession stand featured some of the opera-themed items that used to be on sale when that company was in business. Many of the people pouring into the theater were the same ones who used to be seen on opera nights back then.

And, just in case anyone missed the point, there was talk from the stage and in the program book about bringing “grand opera” back to the Lyric, which lost a longtime tenant when Baltimore Opera tanked least season. It remains to be seen if anything approaching that lamented company will ever emerge inside the historic house, but it’s encouraging to see all the determination.

The Lyric certainly couldn’t find a more appealing artist to help kindle the flame than Fleming, whose previous appearance there two years ago happened to be for a Baltimore Opera fundraiser.

The sizable crowd she drew Thursday got to hear her reprise one of the selections from that 2007 concert, the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” sung by the doomed Desdemona in the final act of Verdi’s “Otello.” “Let’s see if we can do this without the door alarm,” the soprano joked, referring to

the unfortunate incident that caused her to stop partway through the music on that earlier occasion.


This time, nothing interrupted Fleming as she delivered long scene in trademark fashion, not only lavishing her luscious tone on the melodic lines, but conveying all of the character’s inner turmoil with mesmerizing expressive power. Her delivery of the final, gently rising line was meltingly beautiful.

Here and there during the recital, the singer encountered a raspy patch when moving into the upper reaches, and there was a little articulation fuzziness at the start of the evening in an aria from Rossini’s “Armida” (she stars in a new production of the work at the Met this spring). But these were minor matters in light of all the familiar Fleming magic that filled the space.

Given the predominance of opera excerpts on the program, it was hard not to miss the presence of an orchestra, but pianist Gerald Martin Moore proved a masterful substitute. He produced lots of colors at the keyboard to complement the soprano’s appropriately shimmering account of the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust” and provided abundant nuance in the sampling of arias from Fleming’s latest CD, devoted to the verismo age of Italian opera, with its focus on realism (of emotion, if not necessarily plot).

Fleming’s choices for the recital included a touch of the familiar, Mimi’s Act 3 aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” and four of the rarities that make the CD so fascinating and valuable — selections from Leoncavallo’s long-overshadowed version of “La Boheme,” Zandonai’s “Conchita” (“Carmen on steroids” is how Fleming described the title character), and Giordano’s “Siberia.” The latter generated a particularly treasurable performance of an first-rate, deeply poetic aria, “Nel suo amore rianimata,” which the soprano capped with a sublime, long-held note.

The non-operatic pieces on the program yielded memorable results as well, for these were songs by Strauss, a composer who always brings out the best in Fleming. She caught the lightness and innocence of “Standchen,” phrased “Freundliche Vision” and “Winterweihe” with extraordinary warmth, and poured on the tonal ecstasy for “Zueignung.” Moore did particularly shining work in the Strauss songs as well.

Another Strauss gem was served up during the encores — an ecstatic “Cacilie.” Fleming also offered a little more Puccini in the form of a sublimely shaped “O mio babbino caro” and, switching to her distinctive pop music side, closed the evening with a poignant performance of a Blossom Dearie song, “Touch the Hand of Love.” The sound of Fleming’s smoky low notes and deeply considered phrasing of that melancholy number lingered in my ears all the way home. (I've attached a video clip of Fleming singing "Touch the Hand of Love" with Yo-Yo Ma and friends.)



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (3)

December 16, 2009

Met Opera's controversial 'Tosca' production airs Wednesday on PBS

If you didn't make it to New York for the Metropolitan Opera's heartily booed production of "Tosca" earlier this season, or catch the HD broadcast at a cineplex, you can discover what the fuss was all about when PBS airs a performance Wednesday night (the Baltimore and DC affiliates have it scheduled for 9 pm).

It was fascinating to observe all the ire generated by this unconventional staging of the Puccini war horse. To read some of the reviews or the comments on various opera-centric Web sites, you might have suspected that an actual crime had been committed at Lincoln Center.

I found myself liking a lot more about director Luc Bondy's concept than I expected to when I encountered the production at the Met in early October. The emphasis on the volatility of the

title character made particular sense in this context; the starkness of the sets had a way of focusing the attention on the human drama; several of the smaller details registered with great weight.

No question that some things don't work or don't add enough of value to justify their inclusion (the cameras go into discreet mode for the cheesy Scarpia-and-his-hookers routine in Act 2). But, ultimately, I still think this is a theatrically absorbing "Tosca" on many levels. Musically, it's OK, too, sometimes much more than that.  

But enough about me. Feel free to use this space to cheer or jeer after the broadcast.    

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (10)

December 15, 2009

Blast from the Past: tenor Miguel Fleta

One of the reasons why some folks carry on about the golden age of singing is that there were (or at least seemed to be) so many exceptional artists all at once -- a whole bunch of amazing sopranos and tenors, an impressive quantity of rich-toned baritones and basses. Even a lot of the singers who are not as well know today as Caruso and that legendary ilk had voices that we would kill for today. Among the less widely famous tenors of days gone by I have a soft spot for Miguel Fleta, the Spanish tenor (1892-1938) who created the role of Calaf in "Turandot."

Although he didn't have a very long career (it seems he didn't treat his vocal instrument as carefully as he should have), Fleta left a distinctive mark via recordings. His specialty was soft dynamics, which I think he does to particularly magical effect in "La donna e mobile" (just once, I'd like to hear a tenor today do something as unhurried and sweetly nuanced as Fleta does at the end of the first verse in this aria).

Whatever flaws one might pick out, this guy sings with a kind of personality that is all too rare now. For this blast from the past, in addition to the "La donna" chestnut, I've picked a couple of other arias that I think capture the engaging Fleta style (including a version of the dream aria from "Manon" that carries individuality to an dangerous extreme, which I find hard to resist nonetheless):

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:11 PM | | Comments (2)

December 14, 2009

Weekend concert roundup: Handel Choir, Monument Piano Trio

I ventured out into Sunday's rainy gloom to catch the first halves of two concerts, starting out at An die Musik, where its resident ensemble, the Monument Piano Trio, performed music of two composers you might not expect to find on the same program: Sibelius and Villa-Lobos. The former's early C major Trio is of modest proportions and modest content, with few clues that point to the kind of composer he would become. The players sounded a little less cohesive than usual (for one thing, violinist Igor Yuzefovich needed greater tonal smoothness), but made a vigorous case for the work.

Before heading uptown for my next performance, I got to hear one of the Villa-Lobos pieces on the bill, an arrangement of perhaps his best-known work, the Aria from "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 5. Bonnie McNaughton was the soprano soloist, spinning out the graceful main theme with a lovely tone that lost none of its quality when switching to humming mode for the reprise (the last, soft high note emerged with particular subtlety and sweetness).

There was no way that her two collaborators from the trio, pianist Michael Sheppard and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, could

duplicate the magical effect of the original instrumentation -- eight cellos -- and, curiously, they didn't try to imitate all of the wonderful pizzicato accompaniment patterns from that original. A lot was lost in the translation as a result. The two players weren't always in sync, either. Still, it was nice to hear that indelible vocal line sung so sensitively.

Sensitive singing was also an attraction at the performance of "Messiah" by the Handel Choir of Baltimore at the Church of the Redeemer, a venue with very clear acoustics and just enough reverberation. I stayed for the first half, which included portions of Part I and II.

I've said several times before that Melinda O'Neal has done wonders with the choir. It may still be lacking in tenor weight (a not uncommon shortcoming even in some all-professional choirs), but the ensemble offers considerable polish and musical responsiveness; texts were sung with admirable articulation.

O'Neal's introduction of a fine period instrument orchestra into the annual "Messiah" presentations (and other programs) continues to pay off. There was a combination of transparency and warmth in the orchestra's sound on this occasion, providing a dynamic foundation for the vocalists.

Given the presence of that period band, you might expect O'Neal to take consistently zippy tempos, but the conductor was almost leisurely much of the time, as if determined to prove that historical authenticity in baroque performance need not mean breathlessness. Her spacious shaping of the music proved highly effective.

Another plus was the stylish, well-matched solo vocal quartet -- smooth-toned soprano Katharine Dain; countertenor Ian Howell, whose remarkably ripe sound and powerfully communicative approach hit the spot; tenor Steven Brennfleck, who offered equal portions of elegant and dramatic phrasing; and bass Craig Phillips, who produced vibrant sparks.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:12 AM | | Comments (1)

December 11, 2009

Music we've been missing (part 15): Elliott Carter

The other day, I was one of five listeners at a cool piano recital that included the relatively early Piano Sonata by Elliott Carter. I don't know if the presence of Carter's music kept folks away; the whole program was contemporary, so it would never have caused a stampede at the box office anyway. But I know all too well that even a hint of Carter can send otherwise reasonable folks into tantrums or shock. It has long been thus. Yet, the composer is still hard at work, even though he has reached on this very day -- Dec. 11, 2009 -- his 101st birthday.

The music he has produced most recently has been met with great critical favor, like much of his output over the decades. Audience favor is something else again. There's no question that Carter's uncompromising atonality and complexity will always challenge people. Music doesn't get much tougher than his. Yet, I also firmly believe that when folks are willing to open their ears and minds to it, Carter's compositions can generate deeply satisfying experiences. He takes you on eventful journeys that explore the vast possibilities of music; he's never content to merely scratch the surface. Massive puzzles are worked out with startling skill; fabulous tone colors are generated.

Funny how some people will spend hours in a modern art museum, trying very hard to grasp highly abstract paintings, but they'll run screaming from a concert hall when a comparable creation of the aural variety is placed before them. I say bring on the Carter. Make 'em squirm. (Besides, if classical music is dying anyway -- the latest League of American Orchestras and NEA reports on audience participation in the arts is a real downer-- might as well make a stand for contemporary music while there's still a chance. Can't do much harm at this late date, and might even generate some fresh faces in the halls.)

Locally, we don't have any big advocates for Carter that I know of, certainly not like Boston has with James Levine (you can hear the grumbling and moaning from some Boston Symphony subscribers all the way down here). Carter's chamber music does turn up every now and then in our area, which is great, but the Baltimore Symphony has performed Carter's music on exactly two -- count 'em, two -- programs during the

past 61 years: Jan. 7, 1948, when Reginald Stewart conducted the first American performance of the "Holiday" Overture; and May 2/3, 1979, when Sergiu Comissiona led the orchestra in the Suite from "The Minotaur." (Thanks to BSO librarian Mary Plaine for the stats -- I hope she doesn't get in trouble for sharing them.) Both of those works, alas, were written in the mid 1940s, before Carter found his true, longlasting voice. So we're still waiting to hear the real deal at the BSO.

It would be great to see the orchestra take a giant step into Carterland, starting, perhaps, with the 1955 Variations for Orchestra; I've attached a clip of that work.

Or how about the 1987 Oboe Concerto? I bet BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman would tackle it with distinction. I've posted a clip of the final movement (for you Carter-shy readers, please try to make it to the end -- those closing measures are really, really beautiful and powerful).

Also give a listen to an excerpt from the composer's Flute Concerto, composed just last year -- music that puts a fresh spin on the concept of lyricism (could be a great vehicle for BSO principal fluist Emily Skala).

There is a lot more, of course, and there may well be a lot more added to his repertoire, since Carter shows no signs of slowing down. His work deserves much more prominence throughout the country. Heartiest congratulations to the centenarian-plus-one.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:52 PM | | Comments (5)

Cincinnati's symphony, opera, ballet to benefit from $85 million gift

Here's an eye-popping story, perfectly timed for the holiday spirit of giving:

My colleague Janelle Gelfand reports that Louise Dieterle Nippert, a 98-year-old arts patron and former soprano, has donated $85 million to a fund that will generate support for the city's cultural institutions -- to the tune of $75 for the Cincinnati Symphony, another $10 million for "the Cincinnati Ballet, the Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival, with the stipulation that those organizations continue to use CSO players in their performances."


I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Rich people in Baltimore, what are you waiting for? Yes, those other gifts you've been making are most appreciated by one and all, but they're just not in this league. When you get up to $85 million, you're starting to talk real money. Imagine what that could do here, could have done last year, say, before Baltimore Opera sunk beneath the waves. Oh well, no point in being jealous. Hats off to Mrs. Nippert.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (5)

December 10, 2009

'Unsilent Night' returns to Baltimore; public welcome to chime in

Since its New York premiere in 1992, Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night," a work of what might be called street music art, has been drawing the crowds each year -- as many as 1,500 turn out in Manhattan.

The concept is simple and cool. To quote from the official "Unsilent Night" site, it's a "free outdoor participatory sound sculpture of many individual parts, recorded on cassettes, CDs and mp3s, and played through a roving swarm of boomboxes carried through city streets every December. People bring their own boomboxes and drift peacefully through a cloud of sound which is different from every listener's perspective." Since '92, the fun has spread from NYC to more than 45 cities and on three continents.  

Each participant's boombox contains a portion (randomly chosen) of Kline's shimmery, chime- and jingle bell- filled sometimes floating, sometimes rhythmically alive composition. When all the boomboxes get pumping, the result is a unique mixture that -- through the magic of the season, of course -- blends into a cohesive sonic experience.  

Saxophonist Brian Sacawa introduced the "Unsilent tradition to Baltimore in 2006, and it will be back again on Saturday night, this time under the auspices of

Mobtown Modern, the unavoidably cool new-music group that Sacawa and Erik Spangler founded a few years ago.

As the Mobtown hipsters put it, "our favorite yuletide ambient flash mob will be dropping jewels on the soundscape of our city." The public is invited to take part; you can even just walk along with the parade if you don't have a portable sound-producing machine.

Those with audio capacities can download in advance an MP3 of "Unsilent Night" -- you'll be asked to pick a city, and one of four downloads will be chosen for you (part of the randomness factor of the event). I tested a download myself and enjoyed listened while I wrote this blog entry to nearly 45 minutes of quite hypnotic sounds -- lots of sparkling bells, minimalist patterns, even some Gregorian chant woven into the aural fabric.

Baltimore's willing Unsilent Nighters should gather at 6:45 p.m. Saturday in front of Penn Station. The parade starts at 7 and will finish up at Metro Gallery for an after-party that includes a performance of John Cage’s "Imaginary Landscape" No. 4 for 12 radios and Jacob ter Veldhuis’s "Pimpin' " for baritone saxophone. All free. For a sample of what "Unsilent Night" can be like, I've attached a clip of the 2006 parade in New York.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)

'Santaland Diaries' provides welcome detour from holiday routine

For those of you who are looking for a respite from the usual holiday attractions (or distractions), Center Stage has a welcome production of "The Santaland Diaries," based on the now classic essay by David Sedaris. And for those of you who haven't spotted my review elsewhere in the Sun, I've provided this helpful little link.
Posted by Tim Smith at 10:03 AM | | Comments (0)

December 9, 2009

Domingo's other opera company gets financial rescue from Los Angeles County

A week or so after Washington National Opera announced staff cuts and a reduction in productions next season to help keep the finances in order, the Los Angeles Opera, which also has superstar tenor Placido Domingo as general director, went with cup in hand to the local government. The Los Angeles County supervisors approved a $14 million loan loan Tuesday. The main reason for the bailout is said to be the cost of the LA Opera's "Ring" Cycle, which will be presented in the spring.

The LA Times reports: The loan "is needed now, literally next week," Stephen Rountree, chief executive of both the opera company and its landlord, the Music Center, told the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting. The company is $20 million in debt, Rountree said.

I imagine somebody at the boards of directors of companies on both coasts may be asking a few questions about Domingo's stewardship. After all, if I may paraphrase Lady Bracknell,

to run into financial trouble with one company may be regarded as a misfortune; to run into financial trouble at both looks like carelessness.

I was particularly struck by this line in the Times story: "The opera was being very ambitious artistically, pushing the edges," said Rountree, and its creative reach overtook its financial grasp.

Some folks were warning about that very thing in DC a long while ago. Strange that both organizations appear to have been heading down the same over-spending path, without anyone applying the brakes earlier.

At least it looks like WNO has stabilized, but that doesn't lessen the severity of the pullbacks at the company. Something of WNO's prestige and legacy will be lost with the reduced season. Something of DC's cultural status will take a slip, too (as was the case in Baltimore when Baltimore Opera collapsed). And the LA company may find it hard to shake the image of insecurity after this big slurp form the public trough.

I can't help but wonder if one problem at both places may be that folks have a hard time telling Domingo no, given that he's such a persuasive, hugely admired figure. At the same time, maybe a lot of folks just assume that he's a money magnet, that everything will be fine financially with him at the helm. Doesn't look that way in DC or LA. Something's not working right. Whatever the root cause, it's awfully discouraging to see two august institutions being shaken this way.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (9)

December 8, 2009

Met Opera's new "Hoffmann" production short on musicological scholarship

Although not nearly as controversial as its season-opening production of "Tosca," the Metropolitan Opera's new staging of "The Tales of Hoffmann" is generating diverse views on the singing (the distinctive sound of tenor Joseph Calleja, who has the title role, will probably always divide listeners) and the production concept by Broadway vet Bartlett Sher.

An additional element, the question of what edition of the score is being used, may not get all audience members as worked up, but it ought to, considering the extraordinary scholarship on Offenbach and "Hoffmann" over the years. The leading force for changing old perceptions and performance practices regarding this opera has long been Marylander musicologist Michael Kaye, who helped bring to light the composer's original intentions and a lot more about Offenbach and this opera.

That the Met chose to go with an outdated version of the score has, understandably, not gone down well with Kaye, who wrote a response to the new production that he shared with me. For those of you heading to New York to catch a performance of the Met's "Hoffmann," or to movie theaters for the HD broadcast on Dec. 19, or sitting home on the 19th to hear it on the radio, I think that Kaye's observations are well worth keeping in mind. Here's what he has to say:


I have devoted nearly three decades to establishing the landmark edition of Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann,” which is now a co-edition with Jean-Christophe Keck, being published by a trio consortium of Schott Musik, Boosey&Hawkes, and Bote&Bock. For more than a year I have known that the MET will ignore our long-standing work on the opera in their new production.

They are promoting it’s new production of HOFFMANN with some serious misinformation about Offenbach and it would be great if you would set the record straight.

I respect and acknowledge the fact that a stage director requires an artistic freedom to interpret the works he or she is charged with producing. However, In the recent press release from the MET about HOFFMANN, stage director Bartlett "Sher says, referring to the early German romantic polymath whose stories are used for the opera’s episodic plot. ‘I’m more interested in why Offenbach, who had been a very popular operetta composer, was seeking to write a serious work to gain acceptance. Why, so late in his career, did he feel this need to be accepted? That led me to consider Offenbach’s sense of being Jewish and an outsider.

Whatever group he was in, he always appears as an outsider who never feels like he belongs, never feels like he’s connected.’ The ambiguities and split identities of the characters figure in Sher’s vision of the piece. ‘For any artist, ambition and paranoia are both always present. The door keeps opening and there are many Hoffmanns, identities that keep overlapping. I think the real artistic dilemma for Offenbach is the tension between the cover [sic] and the internal state, and that’s what I hope to try to show.’"

That statement indicates that Mr. Sher has very little understanding of Offenbach at the time he wrote HOFFMANN, or of E.T.A. Hoffmann himself and how Barbier and Offenbach synthesized the essence of E.T.A. Hoffmann's life, works, and literary style in “Le contes d'Hoffmann.” Neither Mr. Sher nor his designer were interested in receiving copies of the most important source materials for HOFMANN that I offered to send them (the final pages of the co-edition with the latest discoveries are still in unpublished proofs for formal publication).

The idea that Offenbach was looking for "acceptance" is really misguided. Yes, he wanted to write for the Paris Opéra and did so, but having composed more than 100 smash hits for the stage; being dubbed the darling of the entire Third Empire Paris; designated as “the Mozart of the Champs-Élisée by no less than Rossini; and able to return Wagner's hatred for Jewish artists with sarcasm and humor mocking the "composer of the future" with salvos in music and onstage is information available from the oldest biographies of Offenbach.

As for James Levine's statement quoted in the press release: "Maestro Levine says of the musical version, ‘The music is so inspired, and I think we have made effective choices in the absence of an authentic, fully realized original version, using a great deal of the information that has come to light over the years.’” – that is total balderdash, inaccurate, and I'm really concerned that people might believe him!

I also don't understand why maestro Levine would permit the MET’s press department to make statements that negate the existence of totally complete manuscript sources for the opera (much more than sketches, including the complete score of the way the opera was first performed in Paris and, in particular, the full manuscript of the Giulietta Act – including the final scene of that act – published for the first time in my editon. Many of those manuscripts, previously unknown to other editors of the score, were fully orchestrated and rehearsed at the Opéra Comique before Léon Carvalho (impresario of that theater and stage director of the premiere) decided to eliminate the Giulietta Act from the opera.

I think it is admirable that Maestro Levine can prepare new scores by Gunther Schuller and Elliot Carter, and (his recent serious health issues aside) shocking that for years maestro Levine has refused to restudy HOFFMANN. Apart from the affront to scholarship, it also deprives the MET artists and their audiences of evaluating and experiencing Offenbach’s own achievements for his masterpiece that we have tried so diligently to reflect in the HOFFMANN edition. Perhaps in future revivals of the new production they can revise their performing version to include the authentic music by Offenbach that will not be heard at the MET this season.

Michael Kaye

PS: In March, the Zurich Opera will mount a new production of HOFFMANN, with Vittorio Grigolo singing the title role for the first time in his career. There, as with many other European opera companies, they have chosen to base their performing version on our co-edition.

UPDATE 12/11/09: Some of the comments posted on this blog entry seem to think that I (or Michael Kaye) was trying to discourage people from seeing the Met's new production. Not at all. Just wanted folks to know that they are not getting the advantage of Offenbach/"Hoffmann" scholarship, something the august Met might have been expected to provide, especially with regard to what Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier actually wrote for the Giulietta Act. Michael Kaye also has provided some additional information that answers some of the comments posted here:

-- multiple versions of the opera are possible through the possibilities afforded by integral edition: versions with the original spoken dialogue and versions with the recitatives of Ernest Guiraud modified to be compatible with the authentic Offenbach material cut from the world premiere of the opera.

-- Performed uncut, the entire Giulietta act runs only around 37 minutes!

-- When judiciously cut, a theatrically effective version of ALL the dialogues for the entire opera takes 15 minutes to perform.

-- Oeser added more than 30 minutes to the score consisting of music Offenbach never intended for HOFFMANN.

-- For producers desiring to do so, now there are ways to include the apocryphal "Scintille diamant" and Sextet with Chorus in a different context than the traditional version of the score.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:35 PM | | Comments (24)

Weekend review roundup: guitarist Jason Vieaux, Juilliard String Quartet

In addition to catching the Mayor's Christmas Parade in Hampden -- I just had to see if a) the mayor turned up and b) what sort of reaction she would get -- I heard two excellent concerts.

On Sunday night, the Shriver Hall Concert Series provided a welcome opportunity to get acquainted with the most recent personnel of the Juilliard String Quartet, one of the best known and highest-standard brands in classical music for more than 60 years. (Photo courtesy of

Violinist Nick Eanet has only recently taken the first chair in the group; the start of his tenure was delayed when he broke his wrist while skating in Central Park a few months ago. He sounded thoroughly at home here, not just blending in with violinist Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick, but making richly detailed music with them.

There was a dynamic warmth to the performance of Mendelssohn's D major Quartet (Op. 44, No. 1), a sense of spontaneity in the beautifully molded phrasing. Same for Schumann's A major Quartet (Op. 41, No. 3). The slow movements of both works inspired particularly eloquent playing.

Spiritually, you could say that this was an all-German program, since the other piece, the Quartet No. 5 by contemporary Argentinean-born composer Mario Davidovsky, was inspired by Beethoven's Op. 132. It's not that you hear Beethoven clearly in the music, but Davidovsky makes you sense something of Beethoven's profundity in this score's masterfully communicative dissonance and wide range of tone coloring. The Juilliard ensemble made the work a taut, involving drama.

On Saturday night at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I heard a recital by

Jason Vieaux, a substantially gifted guitarist whose playing revealed equal portions of stylistic elegance and technical polish. Presented by the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society and drawing a sizable crowd, the program would have been memorable if it had contained no more than the few minutes needed for Vieaux to perform the Sarabande from Bach's Lute Suite No. 3. What the guitarist did in that short span of time was magical, creating a deeply lyrical poem from the subtly articulated phrases.

Gentle nuances accounted for several other highlights in the concert, including "Julia Florida: Barcarola" by Augustin Barrios (the closing measures of that piece were treated with the most exquisite tonal and rhythmic shading) and the "Evocacion" movements of Jose Luis Merlin's "Suite del Recuerdo." Vieaux's arrangements of Albeniz' "Sevilla" and Pat Metheny's "The Bat" also proved highly effective. The guitarist brought a great deal of virtuosity and atmosphere to Leo Brouwer's "El Decameron Negro."

For an encore, there was a disarming, smooth-jazz (in the best sense of the term) treatment of "Christmas Time is Here"; it seemed doubly satisfying on the night of the season's first snowfall.

To give you a taste of Vieaux's refined musicianship, I've attached a clip of a 2007 performance of that gorgeous work by Barrios that he played so tenderly at the BMA: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:49 AM | | Comments (0)

December 7, 2009

Blast from the Past: Sir John Barbirolli

Various distractions kept me from my fabulous, much-in-demand series devoted to favorite artists from the old days, but I'm happy to resume it today with a salute to Sir John Barbirolli.

This English conductor left a remarkable stamp on music, especially, IMHO, the works of his countrymen (noble interpretations of Elgar and Vaughan Williams) and of Mahler. Barbirolli could take tempos that no one else seemed to consider -- a very slow scherzo in Mahler 1 or very, very slow march in the opening of Mahler 6, for example -- and yet could make them seem totally persuasive. He could get deep inside the notes to find fresh layers of drama or poetry. He had, in a word, style. I've never heard a performance led by this guy that didn't impress me in some way, from scratchy 78s to his late stereo recordings.

Last week marked the 110th anniversary of the conductor's birth (Dec. 2); he died nearly 40 years ago. He is well worth remembering now. I couldn't find much live-action footage of Barbirolli, but I think the clip of him leading the Halle Orchestra in "Le Corsaire" Overture by Berlioz captures a good deal of his beautiful music-making (ignore the misspelling of the piece done by whoever posted it on YouTube).

Then drink in the glorious sounds of two sublime vocalists who seemed extra-inspired when collaborating with Barbirolli: Kathleen Ferrier, singing what has to be the most stirring account ever of "Land of Hope and Glory," recorded live a couple years before her death; and Janet Baker, singing the profound Mahler song "Ich bin der Welt abhanden Gekommen":

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

December 4, 2009

La Scala's season-opening "Carmen" to air live at cinemas, including the Charles

Dec. 7 is a bid deal every year in Milan, for that's when La Scala, the famed opera house, opens its season. This is one of the most paparazzi-laden nights on the Continent, when everyone who is anyone turns out.

Time was when the rest of us could only see the pictures of the glitzy arrivals and wonder what it must be like inside the elegant opera house with all those celebs crawling around. Now, you, too, can get in on the action, and at a fraction of the ticket prices over there. The series of HD opera transmissions presented by Emerging Pictures includes a live broadcast of Monday's La Scala opening -- a new production of Bizet's "Carmen."

The cast includes Anita Rachvelishvili (your guess is as good as mine) in the title role and the two of the

buzziest male stars in opera right now, Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose and Erwin Schrott as Escamillo. (The indefatigable Opera Chic reports that Kaufmann missed Friday's dress rehearsal due to an indisposition, but is expected to come through on Monday. You'll find some sneak-peek photos on that site.) Daniel Barenboim conducts. The production is by Emma Dante.

Locally, "Carmen" will be simulcast at noon Monday at The Charles, where another live simulcast will be shown Dec. 22 -- "Il Trovatore" from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:32 PM | | Comments (0)

Peabody students form Be Orchestra to "be involved"; will perform in a jail

A new ensemble called the Be Orchestra -- as in "be involved" and "be a part," artistic director Osvaldo Mendoza says -- has been formed by Peabody students and will debut Dec. 12 inside the Baltimore City Correctional Center.

Performing for "people who do not normally go to a concert hall" (or, in this case, can't) is part of the mission for this orchestra of 30-40 players, all of them volunteering their time and talent. Mendoza, a grad student in composition at Peabody, says the orchestra is focused "on the future, on hope."

Plans call for monthly concerts during the spring semester. June Choi, a grad student in flute, is the organization's executive director.

Although the inaugural concert will be heard only by those behind bars, the public is invited to a repeat at noon Dec. 13 at St. Ignatius Church; admission is free.

The new orchestra's music director, Simeone Tartaglione, a recent recipient of a Peabody Graduate Performance Diploma in conducting, will share the podium with grad student Gemma New. The program includes Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (with Peter Kwan, a Peabody undergrad, as soloist). 

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:18 PM | | Comments (1)

National Symphony premieres Higdon Piano Concerto on colorful program

Jennifer HigdonIf there were such a title as "The People's Composer" in this country, Jennifer Higdon would be on the short list for receiving it.

She writes in an extraordinarily communicative manner, but without the slightest hint of pandering. There's something very American in the sound of her music, and something I'm tempted to call joyful -- not in terms of what is expressed (Higdon's works cover a wide range of moods), but in how it is expressed.

She is a composer in love with composing. And her new Piano Concerto, given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night with Yuja Wang as soloist and Andrew Litton conducting, exudes that enthusiasm in every one of the 19,000-plus notes of the solo part and who knows how many orchestral ones. (Higdon provided the piano total during a pre-performance onstage chat with Litton -- a chat curiously and regrettably short on details about the music itself, which, I imagine, the audience would have appreciated.)

The concerto is big in structure and gesture, with three eventful movements. A soft-hued, rather jazzy keyboard passage sets the work in motion. The piano proceeds to engage in a vigorous dialogue with the orchestra throughout the first movement, which is punctuated by fluttering horn riffs and a striking, march-like theme that makes a few telling appearances. There's a substantial cadenza, and an unexpected, exquisitely subtle ending. On first hearing, the second movement seems

a little padded with material, but there are many arresting features as Higdon makes effective use of piquant chromaticism. The finale, in the grand concerto tradition, goes for bravura above all else. It's an exhilarating ride.

Yuja Wang gave a brilliant performance of the new piece. As the Chinese-born pianist, barely into her 20s, demonstrated in her appearances with the Baltimore Symphony (especially a spectacular Prokofiev 1 in 2008), she is not just another excellent technician. She's got something deeper and imaginative going on, and it came through vividly here.

Litton was a fully supportive presence on the podium, coaxing an alert, vibrant response from the NSO. Assorted scheduling conflicts have kept me from hearing the orchestra for quite a long while now. This occasion provided reaffirmation of the basic strengths of the ensemble, especially the warm and supple strings.

Litton, whose early years included a stint as an assistant conductor at the NSO, was in great form throughout the colorful program, which surrounded the Higdon premiere with two Russian gems that don't get a lot of attention. The Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden," full of delectable tunes and tones, was sensitively shaped.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 closed the concert. If the composer had stopped writing symphonies after this, he'd still have left a notable mark. Maybe the finale wanders a bit and doesn't quite know when to quit, but what a wealth of melody and instrumental vitality there is in this early gem, which Tchaikovsky titled "Winter Daydreams" and which provides a rich foretaste of his famed ballets.

Litton drew out the score's beauty and charm most engagingly, allowing lyrical phrases to breath and adding extra bite when the music kicked into high gear. A few minor smudges aside, the NSO performed superbly, with alternately gossamer and velvety playing from the strings (the violas shone wonderfully in the Adagio), and lots of character in the brass and winds (the oboe soloist in that Adagio did eloquent work). Litton and his colleagues underlined why this symphony deserves to be heard much more often.

The program repeats Friday afternoon (if you're not already walking into the Kennedy Center lobby, you've missed it -- sorry to be late posting this) and Saturday night. Well worth the trip.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (1)

December 3, 2009

Baltimore Symphony recording of Bernstein's 'Mass' gets Grammy nomination

The sizzling Naxos recording of Leonard Bernstein's epic "Mass" by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, is among the 2010 Grammy nominees for Best Classical Album. (The producer of the CD, Steven Epstein, is also nominated for Producer of the Year.)

The BSO will face some pretty classy competition for the Grammy. The other nominees: Maher's Symphony No. 8/San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Ravel's "Daphnis Et Chloe"/Boston Symphony/James Levine; Shostakovich's "The Nose"/Orchestra Of The Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev; Ravel's "L'Enfant Et Les Sortileges"/Nashville Symphony/Alastair Willis.

Alsop has another Grammy association for 2010. She conducted Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto on a London Philharmonic recording that has been nominated for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

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

December 2, 2009

Pianist Joel Fan performs Bolcom, Carter, Kirchner in bold recital

There weren't any minimalist composers on Joel Fan's all-contemporary recital Tuesday night at An die Musik. The minimalism came from the audience -- all five of us (including two employees from the store, drafted for duty). I think this is now my own personal record for a concert with low attendance, but it also turned out to be one of the most satisfying piano performances I've heard.

It's absurd that there aren't more folks in Baltimore willing to turn out for a program of William Bolcom, Leon Kirchner and Elliott Carter -- three of the best known, most distinguished composers in American music history. The fourth composer Fan chose, Derek Bermel, has a significant presence on the contemporary scene, too.

At the very least, where were the students from Peabody? Don't they want to hear a first-rate keyboard artist -- a Peabody alum, at that, with a substantial international career -- play incredibly demanding repertoire that doesn't turn up every day? Pitiful, just pitiful.

Oh well, our intimate little gathering heard

some hot playing, and Fan didn't seem to mind the tiny turnout at all. He shook everybody's hand, chatted amiably and informatively about the pieces, and played the heck out of the program. Carter's still-astonishing Sonata from 1946 (the same year he joined Peabody's composition faculty for what turned out to be a short stay) was delivered with uncanny technical skill, even at the greatest velocity. Fan ensured that the ingenious thematic material (some of it sounding almost Copland-esque in its stark harmonic outline) and vast tone-color range registered vividly throughout. It was a nice pre-birthday salute to the composer, who turns 101 next week.

The superbly crafted gems that make up Bolcom's Nine New Bagatelles were delivered with abundant nuance. Fan, who recently made the premiere recording of the work, shaped the "Valse Oubliable" and "Pavanne" movements with particular vibrancy.

The late-Leon Kirchner composed his Sonata No. 3 ("The Forbidden") for Fan. The work derives a sweeping power from its distinctive fusion of atonal and tonal languages, its struggle between lyrical repose and unbridled animation. Fan handled it all with elan. Bermel's colorful, agitated "Funk Studies" received a taut performance as well.

Fan, who played the same program Wednesday at the National Gallery in DC, even rewarded his faithful An die Musik listeners with an encore, one far away from the program's stylistic world -- Liszt's "Rigoletto" Paraphrase. I wasn't as crazy about the playing this time. The pianist curiously pounded out the initial melody, missing the vocal quality of the line entirely, but his subsequent bravura flights were certainly impressive.

All in all, Fan's generous, show-must-go-on spirit proved to be a class act. It deserved to be heard by a lot more people. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:25 PM | | Comments (8)

December 1, 2009

A musical offering for World AIDS Day

As people everywhere pause to remember those living with or lost to HIV-AIDS (I've been thinking a lot about those in my own life claimed by the stubborn virus), I thought of some music that expresses darkness and light, reflection and hope.

Here, then, for World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), excerpts from Maurice Durufle's "Requiem":

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:14 PM | | 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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