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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)


It may seem petty for a member of the Handel Choir to quibble with this positive review, but I must report that by leaving after the Hallelujah Chorus, Mr Smith missed the way Melinda O'Neil shaped the final "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen" into the true climax of the performance.

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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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