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January 31, 2010

We was robbed; no Grammy for the BSO

Gee, wasn't the humiliation of the football season enough? No, our fair city had to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra lose the 2010 Grammy for Best Classical Album to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

I'd call it a travesty of justice if it weren't for the fact that there was some very starry, solid competition in this category. Still, the BSO's sizzling recording of Bernstein's "Mass" had "winner" all over it, at least in my book. A very tough score to perform, and one that conductor Marin Alsop grasped with all her might, generating from the orchestra, Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children's Chorus, baritone Jibilant Sykes and the other soloists a powerhouse, deeply moving performance.

Oh, well, if it had to lose, at least it was to a recording of another monumental challenge,

Mahler's Symphony No. 8, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. His cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the SFSO has been justly praised since it was launched several years ago.

And there was a little consolation for the BSO, I suppose, in that the producer for "Mass," Steven Epstein, won a Grammy for Producer of the Year. And it wasn't a total washout for Marin, either -- she conducted the recording of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto (with the London Philharmonic) that won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:20 PM | | Comments (1)

Ever-provocative Stephen Hough on the issue of gay pianists

Leave it to Stephen Hough, the English pianist who combines technical panache and incisive music-making in such compelling ways, to stir the blogosphere pot.

On his inevitably provocative blog, where he's apt to talk sexuality (he's gay) and religion (he's Catholic) with equal daring, Hough has raised the subject of whether it's possible to tell from the playing whether a pianist is gay. 

Not surprisingly, there's a lively comments section on this post, and I'm sure conversations will be going on in real-live domains as well.

To tell the truth, I've occasionally wondered, too, if such an essential characteristic as one's sexual orientation invariably

finds a way into a musician's art (and not just a pianist's).

Not that it's a hugely important issue, but you've got to admit, it's interesting. All of life's experiences, presumably, can translate into an interpretation at the keyboard, or on the podium, of whatever. But how might this manifest itself?

As Hough is the first to point out, there's no use relying on stereotypes in this sort of guessing game: "Is there something which makes Horowitz, Richter and Cherkassky (to choose three completely contrasting artists) different from, say, Rubinstein, Gilels and Serkin? Can you tell they were gay? It’s certainly not the old stereotype of effeminacy – Richter is one of the most physically powerful, and ‘unglamorous’ pianists of all time ..." 

Maybe next someone can address another topic that I've always been curious about: How come there seem to be so few gay male violinists? 


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:42 PM | | Comments (1)

Musical week in review: Pro Musica Rara

Here I am once again hoping for a little sympathy and some better-late-than-never leeway. This time, I'm way late on saying a few words about the last week of musical life in dear old Baltimore, and I just know you haven't been able to get on with your lives while waiting for me.

My plan had been to catch Pro Musica Rara's annual SuperBach Sunday on the 24th, and the Aspen Chamber Ensemble, or the equally enticing Peabody Trio, on the 27th. (I would have had the Evolution Contemporary Music Series on my schedule for the 26th, but a prior commitment to serve on a panel discussion about the future of Arts in Baltimore prevented that.) Where the heck did that week go, and how did I slip-slide away so badly?

As it turned out, I only made it to the Pro Musica event, and every time I tried to sit down to write a few words about it, something got in the way. So, for the record, here are those words about the SuperBach presentation at Towson University.

The first nice thing was

the turnout. This is, remarkably, Pro Musica's 35th anniversary season, and there were times over the past decade when things looked pretty dicey for the period instrument organization. So it was encouraging to see so many folks on hand in TU's large concert hall (Pro Musica usually holds forth in the center's more intimate venue).

The second nice thing was having Philadelphia's excellent Tempesta di Mare ensemble participate on this occasion with Pro Music Rara members, which resulted in a hefty sound (well, as hefty as original instruments can get) and some hot music-making.

Highlights included Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with a finale at a presto speed that found the players maintaining admirable transparency and producing a good deal of color. A similar application of zip and expressive bite characterized the G minor Concerto da chiesa by Johann Georg Pisendel, one of the many gifted baroque composers who have been largely obscured by Bach and other other big guys. Violinist Emlyn Ngai gave a terrific account of the solo part in that piece, his tone sure and his phrasing animated by dynamic nuance.

The afternoon also featured stylish solo contributions from Gwynn Roberts (recorder) and Stephen Boyd (oboe). Throughout the concert, lutenist Richard Stone and harpsichordist Adam Pearl provided supple support.

Given Tempesta di Mare's Baltimore connections -- Roberts and Stone teach at Peabody, for example -- it would be cool if the group could team up with Pro Musica for a program each season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:31 PM | | Comments (0)

January 28, 2010

Denyce Graves leaves Opera New Jersey 'Carmen' production heading to Baltimore

For heatlh reasons, Denyce Graves, the popular mezzo-soprano long associated with the title role in Bizet's "Carmen," has bowed out of an Opera New Jersey production of that work, a little more than a week before it was due to open. 

After performances in three New Jersey locations, the production heads to Baltimore, where it will be presented at, and by, the Lyric Opera House on Feb. 14.

Replacing Graves in New Jersey and Baltimore will be Kirstin Chávez (left), who has sung Carmen with the New York City Opera and elsewhere.

In a statement released by Opera New Jersey, Graves says: "I am deeply disappointed ... I arrived in New Jersey on the tail end of a bronchial virus and rehearsed with my colleagues in anticipation of a wonderful run of performances. Frustratingly, the bronchial virus got worse over the past week, and my physicians have recommended that I come out of the production in order for my body to recover completely."




Posted by Tim Smith at 10:17 PM | | Comments (7)

Rolando Villazon defends the UK TV show Pop Star to Opera Star

I've said a few less-than-enthusiastic things about the British TV reality show "Pop Star to Opera Star" (or, as they spell it over there, "Popstar to Operastar"), based on what little I know through video clips. And I questioned what a bona fide stellar tenor, Rolando Villazon, was doing on that show as a judge and vocal coach. He wouldn't likely see my commentary, but Villazon couldn't miss the broadsides from some critics in the UK, and, this week, he fired back in The Telegraph.

A sampling:

No sooner had the first episode ... aired then the sacred gates of the opera world opened, revealing a resounding chorus of disapproving voices. Among them, one stood out: Rupert Christiansen not only expressed his disgust and insulted all participants; he even wished doom on the entire project.

Why are the critics so angry? What do they fear? ... Popstar to Operastar is not a high-brow educational programme and it never claimed to be ... Opera is not in danger. Instead, perhaps we all could try to reduce the divide between the wider public and what is often - and wrongly - perceived as an elitist and inaccessible art form ...

Opera is treated with nothing but respect and admiration by the contestants in the programme. They have recognised its challenges and have been amazed and overjoyed by what they have discovered. That sincerity and curiosity have been the real discovery for me ...

As much as I can appreciate Mr. Villazon's reasoning, I'd be able to buy more of it were the show in question just a wee bit

classier. No, not elitist, but more tasteful and serious and sensible. To have a panel that includes Meat Loaf, a Charlotte Church-like-only-older British singer and some designer guy evaluating how the pop stars handle Puccini is just silly. It might not work if only true opera singers were judges, but one or two more wouldn't hurt, especially some of today's stars whose fresh, down-home personalities so strongly refute stereotypes about divas and divos.

My big problem with the show is that, except for the material being sung, it's really just another Whatever's Got Talent, or Whoever Idol -- lots of makeup, lighting, swirling camera angles, souped up arrangements, and an absurdly screaming studio audience. Putting a more substantive veneer on the product surely wouldn't hurt the ratings that much.

I don't really have trouble accepting the basic, fish-out-of-water premise of the show -- but, then again, I'm one of three people in the universe who love Barbra Streisand's classical music album. I think it's kinda cool when pop singers stretch. There still needs to be a credible artistic point to that exercise, though, and that's what I couldn't quite get from what I saw of this new show.

No one detests the elitist label on classical music more than I do, but I'm not crazy about seeing it treated like just any old form of entertainment, either.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (4)

Attention, campers! BSO to open summer academy for amateur musicians

Elsewhere in today's Sun you'll find my story about the Baltimore Symphony's latest outreach project, the BSO Academy.

Adult amateur musicians are invited to apply for the week-long, intensive session starting June 13, working with BSO players and music director Marin Alsop, who will conduct a public concert featuring all of the participants on June 18 in

Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra." (That program will also feature the BSO on its own; the musicians lobbied for a work they have long wanted to perform, Prokofiev's striking "Scythian Suite.")

It sounds like a cool venture, one that sparks up a traditional dry part of the season, the time right after the subscription concerts finish and before the Fourth of July start of light summer fare. It's not cheap for the campers. Tuition starts at $1,650; add-ons, such as private lessons and chamber music sessions, would drive the per-person cost considerably higher. (One potential applicant I talked to said she hoped the BSO would consider turning the tuition into a tax-deductible contribution, to make the cost go down a little more smoothly.)

Even so, for folks who used to play, or still trot out, musical instruments, folks who would like a taste of the professional symphonic world and a chance to rub shoulders with first-class players and one of today's brightest conducting stars, this should be a rewarding experience.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)

January 27, 2010

Baltimore Symphony will play two Carnegie Hall gigs next season

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will return to Carnegie Hall next season with music director Marin Alsop for two programs in November.

The first will include Mahler's controversial reorchestration of Beethoven's "Eroica" (Mahler introduced his touched-up Beethoven scores to Carnegie Hall when he led the New York Philharmonic a century ago), as well as a performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Simon TrpĨeski.

The second concert will feature the BSO in

"Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah," a project Alsop helped to launch years ago and has brought to Baltimore for the past two seasons.

At Carnegie, this gospel version of the oratorio will feature a choir of New York City high school students -- a nice follow-up to the BSO's highly successful presentation of Bernstein's "Mass" in 2008 with hundreds of local kids at New York's Palace Theater in a collaboration with Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (2)

Happy 254th, Wolfgang; celebrate Mozart's birthday by choosing a favorite work

There's nothing more pointless -- or more fun -- than choosing favorite composers or compositions. That's why those what-recordings-would-you-take-to-a-desert-island questions have long been so popular. It forces you to take a good look at what really makes you tick musically, and why.

I thought the occasion of Mozart's 254th birthday on Wednesday offered a perfect excuse to drag out a favorites quiz in his honor. Whether you echo Rossini's view that "Beethoven is the greatest composer, but Mozart is the only one," or place Mozart somewhere lower on your personal list, I expect you still have your favorite Mozartean highs, those moments that floor you every time with their beauty and expressive power. If you could only choose one, what would it be, and why?

As for me, I could probably live with just "Ave verum corpus" or the slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto, or a whole bunch of other gems, but, ultimately, I'd have to select

the trio from "Cosi fan tutte." Maybe it's because of when I first heard it, well before I was even deeply into classical music. It was on the soundtrack of the groundbreaking film "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," a movie that affected me strongly. I still remember the scene when the Peter Finch character put the needle on a record (needle? record? what are those?) and I felt a pleasant shock as I heard the delicate floating accompaniment in the strings and the sound of the three voices emerge above it. Still gets me every time, even in so-so performances of the opera. I think it's simply perfect, and simply exquisite.

Of course, that can be said about any number of Mozart's creations, which is why he's still so popular two and half centuries after he was born, and why he still speaks so deeply to musicians and listeners alike. I've attached a clip of the sublime trio as my way of saying happy birthday, Wolfgang.

But enough about me. What do you think of my choice? No, wait, I'm serious. I do want you to weigh in and share the one Mozart work, or portion thereof, you just couldn't live without on that desert island.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:20 PM | | Comments (15)

January 26, 2010

This week's should-hear musical events

A glance at the music calendar in Baltimore reveals enticing chamber-size programs performed by excellent ensembles this week, especially over the next couple of days.

On Tuesday evening at An die Musik, the Evolution Contemporary Music Series goes where few local organizations have dared go before -- contemporary Finland. Works by two very big names on the composer front, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, will be performed, along with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, better known as a conductor, but a very persuasive composer as well. Among the performers: pianists Lura Johnson and Kenneth Osowski, percussionists Kelsey Tamayo, soprano Andrea Edith Moore, clarinetist Elisabeth Stimpert, and harpist Jacqueline Pollauf. (I wouldn't miss this one if I didn't have a good excuse -- I'll be participating on a panel discussion at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library about what the arts in Baltimore might look like in 2020. After that, I may have to check myself into a depression clinic.)

Wednesday pits two worthy chamber music events against each other. At Peabody's Friedberg Hall, the

Peabody Trio will serve up a gem by Mendelssohn and then, joined by another of the conservatory's faculty artists, clarinetist Anthony McGill, will perform one of the most profound and absorbing works of 20th century music: Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." A few blocks away, the Aspen Ensemble will launch its residency at the University of Baltimore with works by Beethoven, Brahms and Martinu. You can read more about this in my Arts Scene column in Tuesday's Sun.

And one more chamber music evening worth noting -- the Poulenc Trio plays works by its brilliant namesake on Saturday at An die Musik.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (3)

January 25, 2010

Blast from the past: conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler

Some listeners and even some musicians (they're usually the ones in the back stands) wonder why orchestras need conductors. The players know how the stuff goes anyway, don't they? All they have to do is start and end at the same time, and they could do that just fine on their own, right, even in the biggest, most complex symphonies? Yeah, sure. Good luck with that.

Some conductors never rise above the level of traffic cop, to be sure; they keep everything flowing in the right direction and avoid collisions, but they don't bring the music alive. A great conductor inspires musicians and audiences alike, and takes all of us out of ordinary existence and into some other, higher plane. To me, when it comes to this level of inspiration, it's hard to beat Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Since Jan. 25 happens to be the anniversary of his birth in 1886 (he died Nov. 30, 1954), I thought he should be the latest in my globally in-demand series of blasts from the past.

Yes, I know that Furtwangler raises very difficult, extra-musical issues, because, unlike some notable artists who fled the Nazis, he stayed behind at the helm of his beloved Berlin Philharmonic during the barbaric Reich. That he was cleared after the war (and championed by the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin) has not absolved him in the eyes of some people. But I find Furtwangler's music-making of such nobility that I can accept his argument that he, who never joined the Nazi Party (unlike Karajan), remained on the podium primarily to do what he could to serve and save German art.

There is a considerable recorded legacy of Furtwangler's music-making to choose from. I finally decided to focus just on Brahms -- excerpts from a filmed rehearsal of Symphony No. 4 (you get a great look at his strange, fluttery baton style -- he had to be truly inspiring for players to follow that beat); and an audio-only account of the finale to Symphony No. 2. Here, then, is just a sampling of the individuality, drama and eloquence that made Furtwangler's artistry so indelible:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:49 AM | | Comments (5)

January 24, 2010

Remembering the great American pianist Earl Wild

The weekend brought news about Earl Wild, who died at the age of 94 Saturday in Palm Springs, where he lived with his partner of nearly 40 years, Michael Rolland Davis. Remarkably, Mr. Wild continued to perform into his 90s.

This extraordinary American pianist had a musical lineage that stretched right back to Liszt -- two of Mr. Wild's teachers studied with pupils of Liszt. And, like Liszt, Wild had a terrific, fearless technique. He could play just about anything, with exceptional technical skill, abundant tone coloring and musical taste. He also wrote his own transcriptions (another Lisztian trait).

The much-recorded pianist communicated not just the notes of a score, but the expressive essence of it and, perhaps above all else, the sheer joy of making music.

Mr. Wild was the last in a glorious line of keyboard virtuosos. He will be sorely missed. Here are a few souvenirs of his artistry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:41 PM | | Comments (1)

January 23, 2010

Musical week in review: Baltimore Symphony, Opera Show, Mobtown Modern

My latest week of musical experiences included a first-rate concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall. If you can make it to Strathmore Saturday night or Meyerhoff on Sunday afternoon, I think you'll find it well worth the effort.

Yes, I'm still disappointed that a change in conductors -- Jiri Belohlavek had to cancel after injuring his back over the holidays, and Gunther Herbig stepped in -- meant some adjustments to the program. Out went rarely encountered works by Dvorak and Janacek and in came Schumann's considerably more common Symphony No. 4. But the performance Herbig led of that symphony was hardly common. 

There's no mistaking this conductor's authority in the German repertoire (and much more), and there was no missing the structural unity, expressive warmth and rhythmic solidity of his interpretation. He had the players responding with admirable discipline and lyrical sweep. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and assistant principal oboist Shea Scruggs offered particularly shining solos.

The rest of the program, devoted to Beethoven, remained the same as originally slated. The Piano Concerto No. 3 proved a superb vehicle for the soloist, Garrick Ohlsson -- come to think of it, is there any work that isn't a superb vehicle for this brilliant American pianist? He did some marvelous things here, especially in the first movement cadenza (a mix of fiery spontaneity and wonderful dabs of subtle coloring) and throughout the Largo (his poetic touch was magical). Herbig provided attentive support, and, excepting a thinning out of tone in the violins, the ensemble responded vibrantly. A taut account of the "Coriolan" Overture got the evening started.

It won't surprise you that

a cell phone went off -- for a very long time -- during the concerto. What is surprising is that the BSO still doesn't follow the widespread practice of having a silence-those-damn-devices announcement made before Meyerhoff performances. That might cut down on the abuses at least a little bit.

Thursday night found me at the Lyric for the local debut of a UK import called The Opera Show. A nice-sized crowd was on hand and appeared to have a grand time. I may have gotten greater enjoyment out of this heavily-produced hybrid of hit opera numbers, kinetic dancing, big-statement costumes and heavy-duty lighting effects had the singers been more distinctive (in some cases, more fully developed). Of course, sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the singing, since there was so much staging going on beneath and around the set, akin to the tickertape blurbs crawling at the bottom of the screen on TV newscasts.

Still, the object of dressing up opera arias for the MTV (or ADD) generation has its merits, and The Opera Show, presented in three unrelated acts, certainly went the extra mile in snazzy (sometimes sugary) coatings. You had to admire the commitment to entertain, and the level of respect for the music that came through (even when arias were turned into duets, duets into quartets). Real opera isn't amplified, of course, but I admired the restraint used in the miking of the first two acts; the vocalism never sounded artificial. The third act, alas, veered dangerously into the Schlockera Show, revved up with electric guitars and leather, and peppered with woefully-out-of-place versions of a Bach fugue and the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."

Wednesday was Mobtown Modern at the Metro Gallery. The founders and co-curators of the intrepid contemporary music venture, Brian Sacawa and Erik Spangler, performed their imaginative interpretation of Stockhausen's "Tierkreis," fusing the 12 Zodiac-related pieces together into a mostly seamless aural journey. I won't presume to judge whether this particular mix of live and sampled music, often backed by an impulsive urban beat, honored Stockhausen's original intentions. But I found the parade of sounds, from caffeinated sax riffs to cool, crisp bursts of toy piano, to be quite persuasive. (The accompanying video didn't do quite as much for me.) It was, as usual with Mobtown Modern, an experience outside the Baltimore norm, which alone would make it worthwhile. But, also as usual, it had considerable artistic merit and, without the slighest whiff of pretension, offered serious ideas about significant contemporary music.   

All in all, not a bad run of concert-going for one week.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:49 PM | | Comments (4)

January 22, 2010

First Clef Notes ticket giveaway: BSO Pops-Judy Garland tribute

Hey, bloggie buddies, thanks to the marketing folks at Baltimore Sun Media Group, I hold in my hot little hands two pairs of tickets to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's SuperPops concert and I'm giving them away free (with a tiny catch). The program is "Linda Eder's Judy Garland Songbook," the date is Friday Jan. 29, the place Meyerhoff Hall. The tickets are on the orchestra level.

Linda Eder, a Broadway singer/actress who won particular praise for her performance in the musical "Jekyll & Hyde," will sing this tribute to the incomparable Garland next week with the BSO, conducted by Jack Everly.

OK, now for that tiny catch. To ensure that folks with a true appreciation for Judy have the best shot, I figured a few trivia questions would be in order. So, the first two readers who provide correct responses here to all three questions in the comment section of this post will each win a pair of tickets. (Check the comments field later to see if you're a winner and send me an e-mail at to retrieve the tickets. Your address will not be published.)

OK, here are the trivia questions and a chance to win the prize of a lifetime:

UPDATE: We have our winners, which you'll see in the comments section. Congratulations to Rachel and Greg. Don't fret, the rest of you. There will be more thrilling, possibly life-altering contests soon.

1) What was Judy Garland's real name?

2) An iconic scene of Judy singing "Get Happy" in a black hat, the top half of a tuxedo jacket and fishnet stockings was used in the finale of "Summer Stock." But the costume was originally created for her to sing a different song in another musical, a song that was cut because the costume style didn't fit the rest of the picture. What was that earlier musical? (For extra credit: What was the deleted song? You won't win additional tickets if you answer this part, but you will enjoy unlimited refills at all Meyerhoff Hall drinking fountains.)

3) What song in "A Star is Born" was filmed multiple times with different dress styles and in two different formats (CinemaScope and WarnerScope) before Judy and director George Cukor were satisfied?

Good luck. And if you don't win these tickets, those Sun marketing folks have kindly provided me with more for quite a few BSO concerts later in the season, so stay tuned.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:55 AM | | Comments (2)

January 21, 2010

Washington National Opera Chorus to give AGMA Relief Benefit

In a strong gesture of solidarity with colleagues struggling in the recession, including choristers out of work from the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company, the excellent Washington National Opera Chorus will perform American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) Relief Benefit Concert this weekend. WNO chorus master Steven Gathman will conduct the program, which includes scenes from "Magic Flute," "Madama Butterfly," "Flying Dutchman," "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Daughter of the Regiment" (tenor Timothy Augustin will tackle the famous aria with the nine high Cs). Barber's "Agnus Dei," folks songs, spirituals and more will also be performed.

“Many artists in the area are suffering as performance schedules are cut or entirely eliminated, most notably those performing with the Baltimore Opera Company. To address this current crisis and help our friends in need, we took action and organized the AGMA Relief Benefit Concert,” Gathman says in a press release. “...These musicians are a source of great pride for the region, and are deserving of our help in these trying times.”

The concert is at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Ann Catholic Church at Tenley Circle in Washington. Admission is free; donations will be accepted for the cause.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:34 PM | | Comments (0)

Art vs. schlock: comparing Met Opera's 'The Audition' to UK's 'Pop Star to Opera Star'

Last night, I happened to catch a repeat broadcast (on WETA) of "The Audition," Susan Froemke's recent documentary about finalists in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

It wasn't the most interesting or informative show of its type, but the more I saw the young singers preparing their arias for the big finals, I kept thinking about the tripe currently on telly in the UK: "Pop Star to Opera Star." The video clips of the latter are popping up on YouTube, and I've had a morbid curiosity to check them out.

Can't say I know anything much about those pops stars, but I do know they can't sing opera after a few short weeks of coaching. Who could? And why should anyone attempt such a thing? And what's a real, honest-to-goodness tenor star,

Rolando Villazon, doing as a judge/coach on that travesty? Yikes. The end of civilization is a lot closer than I previously thought.

How moving it was, by comparison, to see the late, so promising Ryan Smith -- the tenor died from lymphoma a year after winning the auditions -- deliver "Federico's Lament" with great emotional power onstage, or, during a coaching session, deliver a subtle, rapt account of "Che gelida manina" that seemed incredibly personal.

The rather highly strung Michael Fabiano was another impressive tenor, not to mention the boyish Alek Shrader, who pulled off the nine high C's of "Pour mon ame" with an infectious spirit. And how eloquent Angela Meade's "Casta diva" was, how beautiful of tone and thoughtful of phrase.

Here were budding artists determined to improve, to master the fine details of the operatic art, to give themselves wholly to it. And then there are those silly pop stars play-acting (play-singing?) on TV, while viewers at home dial in their votes, "Idol"-style, and while the studio audience demonstrates an absurd Pavlovian urge to applaud any note of any type, at any time during a performance.

Marcella Detroit gets through an abbreviated "Casta Diva" by the skin of her throat. Darius croons "Nessun dorma," producing ecstasy in the studio audience, even though the tenor aria has been transposed into his baritone range and he still can't make much of a sound. And what to make of bouncy Danny Jones warbling "La donna e mobile"? Oh, dear.

It's all just too damn stupid for words. I wanted to believe there would be some redeeming value in all of this, that this pop-to-op exercise might a) treat opera with full respect and b) reinforce what makes opera great, challenging, rewarding, special. I can't detect any of that from the video clips, and based on those, I'd hate to sit through the whole show -- how much of Meat Loaf's inane comments form the judges box could any sane person take? Oh yes, Meat Loaf is one of the judges. 'Nough said.

Judge for yourself. I've posted a summary clip of "The Audition" and a few from that other thing:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:58 PM | | Comments (10)

New study finds big growth in organizations, big lag in money

No surprise, but it still hurts: The first National Arts Index released this week by the Americans for the Arts doesn't present an upbeat picture.

The good news is that more and more nonprofit arts groups have been created -- from 73,000 to 104,000 since 1998; the bad news, one out of three went into the red. There are other good news/bad news items, like the one where demand for the arts in this country is down, but the demand for arts education is up (more college degrees in the arts over the past decade).

The study suggests that the arts world won't even hit the bottom economically until 2011, before the financial side of things starts to improve. Keen.

There's more, including the usual bits about dwindling audiences and funding resources, but I'm too depressed to detail it here. Feel free to read/download it for yourself.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (0)

January 20, 2010

'War and Peace,' concert featuring Anna Netrebko part of Mariinsky Opera's DC visit

The visits to the Kennedy Center by the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra from St. Petersburg have been major highlights of the past decade. The company's 2010 residency, again conducted by the magnetic, globe-trotting Valery Gergiev, will include a fully-staged, note-complete production of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" (March 6, 7), which would be reason enough to build interest.

This year, there won't be any other stagings (the economy affects everyone, you know), but Gergiev will lead complete performances of "Eugen Onegin" (Feb. 27) and "Boris Godunov" (Feb, 28) in concert form. There will also be concerts devoted to scenes from

other Russian operas: Rimsky-Korsakov’s "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh," Mussorgsky’s "Khovantchina" and Borodin’s "Prince Igor" (March 3); and an all-Tchaikovsky bill that includes excerpts from "Iolanta," "Mazeppa," and "The Queen of Spades" (March 4).

The starry news of the Tchaikovsky night is the participation of soprano Anna Netrebko in the "Iolanta" selections. She may be the best known of the Russian artists appearing on this Mariinsky visit, but you can count on many distinctive voices and, of course, a dynamic orchestra -- Gergiev has honed this company into quite a showcase.

To get you in a Marrinisky mood, here's Gergiev conducting the orchestra in the whiz-bang Overture from Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla":

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:28 PM | | Comments (3)

January 19, 2010

Details on tentative agreement to end Cleveland Orchestra strike

They're calling it a tentative agreement to the day-long strike, but it looks pretty solid, and it appears to be good news for both sides. The Cleveland Orchestra musicians, who had asked for a one-year wage freeze instead of a pay cut, will get a two-year freeze, then two raises in the third year totally 5 percent. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Musicians’ Union and Management of The Cleveland Orchestra reached a tentative agreement early this morning for a new three-year contract through September 2, 2012.

The agreement calls for a two-year wage freeze through August 2011, followed by semi-annual wage increases of 3% and 2% in the subsequent year. In addition, the Musicians will donate up to 10 services, which will provide cost relief and additional revenue for the Musical Arts Association. Musicians will increase their medical premium contribution beginning in July 2011.

The agreement was announced by the Musicians’ Committee Chairman, Jeffrey Rathbun, and the Orchestra’s Executive Director, Gary Hanson.

Mr. Rathbun said, “We are very happy that management has heard our message and agreed not to further erode our base compensation allowing us to stay as competitive as possible with the marketplace. We look forward to working together to build our base of support and continue our tradition of excellence.”

Mr. Hanson said, “Both sides worked effectively through a difficult process to reach an unprecedented agreement that will do much to help the Association’s finances going forward. I am very grateful for the Musicians’ passion and abiding concern for the Orchestra’s artistic excellence.”

... The Orchestra’s Miami Residency performances will proceed as scheduled.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (1)

News reports: tentative deal reached in Cleveland Orchestra strike

No details yet, but news services are reporting a tentative deal in the day-old Cleveland Orchestra strike, the first labor stoppage by the musicians in 30 years.

Just a hunch, but I imagine the money the orchestra was about to lose if its annual Miami residency were canceled may have tipped the balance toward a quick resolution. From what I hear, the talks that began Monday at noon -- the strike began at the start of that day -- went on for about 18 hours straight.

If the deal is approved, it certainly doesn't mean the end of troubles. The Cleveland Orchestra is hardly alone in an ugly economic situation, with dwindling ticket sales, aging audiences and drying-up funding sources. People all over the industry keep saying a new financial model for orchestras is essential. No one, it seems, has generated a fully viable one yet.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:26 AM | | Comments (0)

Mario Lanza's death at 38 gets a fresh look from doctor, biographer

Elsewhere in Tuesday's paper you can find my humble little story about renewed interest in the untimely death at 38 of tenor Mario Lanza, the huge -- no pun intended -- movie star of the 1950s. I didn't have room to include everything I had hoped to squeeze into that story, so I'll just add a few things here.

There were any number of contributing factors to Lanza's demise in 1959: obesity, heavy drinking, liver damage (naturally), enlarged heart, thrombophlebitis, hypertension. Baltimore-based Dr. Philip A. Markowiak took a fresh look at the available evidence (Lanza's extant medical records are not complete) and, with the singer's biographer, Armando Cesari, tried to nail down the culprit.

In the process, the doctor was surprised to discover that Lanza submitted to a weight-loss treatment that involved injections of

a hormone labeled hCG, derived from the urine of pregnant women -- and even more surprised to see that said treatment is newly fashionable, plugged on infomercials. Dr. Markowiak doesn't buy any of the claims for the therapy, and, in a just-published article for a journal called The Pharos, suggests that Lanza was already "at extreme risk of cerebral hemorrhage" from untreated hypertension, and that he may well have suffered a fatal hemorrhage "precipitated by hCG-induced thyrotoxicosis."

The doctor does not blame all the medical professionals who treated Lanza in the '50s; they may have missed some symptoms, but treated others. And he notes that charlatans pushing dangerous fads -- in addition to hCG, the tenor tried "sleep therapy" that involved intravenous feeding -- have hardly disappeared today.  

There are many unfortunate things about Lanza's short life. A lot of opera singers go through terrible pressures, of course, and experience assorted health problems. Lanza seems to have hit the fatal jackpot, long before he ever really fulfilled his artistic potential. He only performed in a couple of complete operas ("Merry Wives of Windsor" while a student at Tanglewood, a "Butterfly" in New Orleans) before MGM snapped him up in 1949 and turned him into the first really big cross-over artist. So most of what we know of Lanza's singing today is from a mix of greatest-hit arias, a Neapolitan song or two, and the pop tunes that were part of his movies.

In an e-mail I received from Armando Cesari, who lives in Australia: "Lanza’s biggest dream was that of an operatic career. The thought of singing on the operatic stage and being accepted as a legitimate opera singer was ever present in his mind. At the time of his death he had in fact accepted an offer from Riccardo Vitale, the Artistic Director the Rome Opera, and had told Vitale that after undergoing an operation for the thrombosis early in the New Year he would begin preparing the role of Canio in Pagliacci for the 1960/61 season. In order to achieve his dream Lanza would have had to drastically change his life style. Had he been able to do this I have no doubt that he would have concentrated on performing complete roles in various opera houses while making the occasional film purely for monetary purposes."

Personally, I never got on the Lanza bandwagon, although I can certainly understand and appreciate his appeal. A lot of great singers point to him as an early inspiration, and the public embraced him with a fervor that would probably not be seen again for a tenor until the heyday of Pavarotti. Here's a sampling of what made Mario Lanza a global star half a century ago, and a reminder of how tragic his early death was:


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

A cellist with a future: Hans Kristian Goldstein

Of course it's insane to predict any musician's career, but what the heck. I say that cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein, the Peabody student who won the 2009 Yale Gordon Competition at the conservatory, will make it. He seems to me to have everything it takes to develop a career -- not just the raw talent, but the keen artistic impulses.

Oh yes, the Norwegian player, barely into his 20s, also has some marketing assets, which can't be discounted in the era of the superficial -- boyishly handsome looks and a rather evocative name.

Goldstein gave an impressive recital Sunday afternoon for the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian; it also turned out to be a warm-up for a competition he has been accepted into in South Africa. That connection generated the sole contemporary item on the program, a brief, appealing, rhythmically propulsive romp by 35-year-old South African composer Bongani Ndona-Breen, "Jozi Dreamtime."

It would have been interesting to hear Goldstein tackle

some big 20th-century score, too, but that was a minor disappointment. The recital afforded an opportunity for the the cellist to show off his deep, burnished tone, and many subtle dynamic gradations of it; his intonation and articulation also proved to be considerable strengths. He never settled for merely skillful playing. He made something of phrases, and connected phrases into full, meaningful statements.

A highlight of the afternoon was his lyrical touch in Schubert's "Arpeggione"; the wistful quality he generated in the subdued closing measures proved particularly telling. Goldstein was well-partnered in that work, as throughout the concert, by the ever-reliable pianist Clinton Adams. The two musicians caught the boldness and beauty of Beethoven's A major Sonata and tapped the romantic charms of some pieces by Schumann.

The cellist treated a Boccherini sonata as if it were fully on a Mozart-worthy level, and that's how it sounded, thanks to his warmly expressive nuances. Goldstein's bravura side found vivid outlets in pieces by Tchaikovsky and David Popper. The encore, Ernest Bloch's "Prayer," received an eloquent performance.

All in all, a most satisfying encounter with young, fresh, promising talent.

P.S. Goldstein will give a free recital, presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, on May 8 at the BMA.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:07 AM | | Comments (3)

January 18, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra on strike; Seattle Symphony may be next

It looked all along that the situation with the Cleveland Orchestra would get ugly, and it has.

The players went on strike Monday, a move that threatens an educational residency at Indiana University and concerts in Miami as part of the orchestra's annual residency. One slight bright spot: a bargaining session is scheduled for Monday at noon.

Money, of course, is the main issue -- management, having already gone through its own pay cuts, wants a 5 percent reduction in musician salaries this year, with a return to current level the year after and a 2.5 percent rise the third year. Players countered with an offer of a pay freeze this year. This is going to be a tough PR battle for both sides.

Same out West, where the Seattle Symphony players have authorized a strike; no word yet on when, or if, that threat will be carried out.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (4)

Some music in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Due to a lack of funding, the Baltimore Symphony is not presenting its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial concert in conjunction with the State of Maryland, a considerable loss to the community. If all goes well, the event will return next year. Meanwhile, here are a couple of MLK-related performances around the area worth catching.

On Monday at Baltimore's An die Musik, Opus Nine, the imaginative young chamber ensemble that features several Peabody Conservatory alumni, will give matinee and evening performances of an appealing program that aims "to celebrate the vitality of [Dr. King's] dream." The lineup includes John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" (composed for the Obama inauguration) and Gershwin's "Lullaby" for string quartet, as well as works by Duke Ellington, Darius Milhaud and Ricky Ian Gordon.

On Tuesday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, the

Washington Symphonic Brass will perform Joseph Schwantner's "New Morning for the World," an affecting work that incorporates selections from King's writings (Bill Ray will be the narrator). Music by Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis will also be played.

Here's my own humble contribution to the MLK holiday -- a live performance by legendary contralto Marian Anderson from 1939 (the same year of her triumphant concert at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from Constitution Hall). Something about the spiritual "Deep River" seems particularly appropriate on this occasion, especially the line "That promised land where all is peace," and it would be impossible to surpass the eloquence Miss Anderson achieves here:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (3)

January 16, 2010

Reflection from the past: Bernstein and Ravel

As I thought about posting the next installment of my humble little series of musical moments from former days (I've been calling it, none too originally, 'Blast from the Past, but that didn't seem appropriate this time), the horrific scenes from Haiti kept replaying in my mind. And that made me think of the contemplative second movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto, performed in sublime fashion by soloist/conductor Leonard Bernstein.

This Adagio will always be one of my very favorite passages in all of music. There is something at once beautiful and bittersweet about it, something at once worldly and otherworldly. Bernstein's interpretation of this movement is, to my ears, perfect.

If he were still with us today, I know he would have been the first musician to offer a benefit concert for Haitian relief. So this combination of Bernstein and Ravel seems like the right musical moment now, a response to this painful time:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)

January 15, 2010

Proceeds from National Symphony Orchestra concert to benefit Haitian relief effort

This press release just in from the NSO:

The Kennedy Center and National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) today announced that proceeds from the Friday, January 22 performance by the NSO will benefit the relief efforts underway in Haiti following the devastating earthquake that struck January 12 ... prior to the NSO concert, the Millennium Stage will feature a Haitian-themed performance at 6 p.m.

“In this time of crisis, it is important for us to take heed, and take responsibility for helping those who urgently need aid,” said Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser.

The NSO program will begin with a special performance of “Air on the G String” from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major. Principal Conductor Iván Fischer will conduct the Bach selection, and then will continue with the previously announced program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 ... and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde ...

Proceeds will be sent to the Haiti Relief and Development Fund of the American Red Cross.

The NSO's Haiti Relief Benefit Concert will be at 8 p.m. Jan. 22. Tickets are from $25 to $85. Call 202-467-4600 or go the orchestra's Web site.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:39 PM | | Comments (0)

January 14, 2010

Placido Domingo's multi-tasking comes under increased scrutiny

Placido DomingoThe music world's most celebrated workaholic, Placido Domingo, is coming under increased scrutiny -- and increased fire -- for what is perceived as a stretched-way-too-thin schedule.

It's not so much his habit of singing in one opera and conducting another on alternate days that has people more concerned; he's been doing that sort of thing for years. It's the fact that the two companies, Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, where he is general director are experiencing tough going financially.

Those who have questioned Domingo's bi-coastal managerial career all along are no doubt wallowing in I-told-you-so smugness; those who have fervently believed in the superstar tenor's ability to do all things at all times for all customers may be feeling a bit less secure.

In a Thursday New York Times story by Dan Wakin, Domingo sounds

just a tad defensive ("If they are worried because I am too spread, let them tell me, and I will leave"), and representatives of the two opera companies sound basically supportive (WNO board chair: "It is unfair to blame any individual for the financial problems existing in an opera company in the United States"). Given that Domingo's contracts in D.C. and L.A. expire in 2011, it will be interesting to see if he extends either.

Things might be very different had the tenor's voice gone into severe decline, but, for a guy who turns 69 next Thursday, he has an awful lot of vocal capital left. No wonder he's still at it (occasionally switching gears for the baritone title role in "Simon Boccanegra" these days -- he sings it at at the Met this winter, in between conducting "Stiffelio" there).

But opera companies are obviously huge monsters requiring constant care and feeding. This may be the worst time for any company to find its leader gallivanting about the globe to perform, teleconferencing or texting in his spare minutes as he goes. It's not unheard of for opera stars to go into management, but not while still singing, conducting and managing a second company. The novelty of it all, and the enormous personal appeal of Domingo, has made this an amazing story right from the start. It gets more interesting every day, especially with the financial squeezes affecting Domingo's two administrative domains.  

My colleague Anne Midgette at the Post weighed in on the matter Wednesday with a strong point of view. Don't miss the equally strong comments made by readers -- they sure do reflect what a passionate thing opera is. (When I questioned Domingo's effectiveness in my blog post in early December, there seemed to be a little more support for him expressed in the comments I received than in most of those I noticed on Anne's article. Not sure if that means anything, but I just thought I'd mention it.)

Personally, I have a hard time buying into the notion that Domingo is a total disaster as a general director for either company. At the same time, I sure can't see him as faultless. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, a place where a fitting solution to the problems in both organizations may also be found.

UPDATE: Per the comment below, you may want to check out a fresh story on the L.A. side of the Domingo equation.


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

January 13, 2010

Conan O'Brien scheduled to welcome Hilary Hahn onto embattled 'Tonight Show'

Hilary HahnAssuming Conan O'Brien is still on the job Thursday, one of his scheduled "Tonight Show" guests will be Baltimore's own Hilary Hahn. Maybe she can help soothe emotions on that embattled set.

The exceptional violinist, who recently turned 30 (seems like only yesterday that she was a child prodigy), will be plugging her latest CD.

This recording focuses on vocal works by Bach that include prominent solo violin passages -- "St. Matthew Passion," B Minor Mass, etc. -- and features baritone Matthias Goerne and soprano Christine Schafer, with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (they won't be joining her on the "Tonight Show," as far as I know).

Classical musicians have not been exactly 

plentiful on Conan's guest list (not that other late-night shows are much better in this regard), so Hahn's presence is doubly welcome. Assuming she gets interview time, rather than just performance time, the violinist's engaging, down-to-earth personality is likely to go over very well with the studio and TV audience alike. 

Hahn's looking forward to the appearance. Her publicist quotes her as saying, "As I've grown up on the road, I've spent many post-concert hours watching Conan O'Brien on late-night television. I'm thrilled to perform on his show this week. I can't wait!"

And Hahn's violin case Twittered this message the other day: "Guess what????!!!!! Hilary's going to be on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien on January 14! Let's amp up classical-music ratings, folks!" (That Hilary's Tweets are in the voice of her ever-present violin case tells you something about her personal style.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (2)

January 12, 2010

Gunther Herbig to step in for ailing Jiri Belohlavek at Baltimore Symphony

Drat the luck.

I've been waiting patiently for a substantial dose of Janacek in Baltimore Symphony programming, and 10 days before one was due, it has been yanked away.

Turns out that distinguished Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek had some sort of accident over the holidays and his doctor advised rest, which meant canceling on the Beethoven-Dvorak-Janacek program he was to have performed with the BSO Jan. 22-24.

In stepped Gunther Herbig, the always welcome German-born conductor, a frequent BSO podium guest. But he, alas, must not have either Dvorak’s "Othello" Overture or Janacek’s "Taras Bulba" in his rep, 'cause they're both off the program, replaced with the Schumann Fourth. The Beethoven works remain the same: "Coriolan" and, with the fab Garrick Ohlsson, Piano Concerto No. 3.

I hope someone is feverishly trying to make amends by getting a big Janacek work or two into the BSO's yet-to-be-announced 2010-11 season. "Glagolitic Mass," anyone?


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:48 PM | | Comments (3)

Latest hire at the Baltimore Symphony

Jonathan Kretschmer will join the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's trumpet section next Monday.

The California-born Kretschmer has held the same position for six seasons with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, where he was also artist-in-residence. Previous affiliations include the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra (principal trumpet), West Michigan Symphony Orchestra and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

He has also taught trumpet at Kalamazoo College and Albion College. Kretschmer has degrees from Indiana University at Bloomington and Juilliard.

Speaking of BSO musicians, if you missed my story in Sunday's Sun (how could you?), you may enjoy reading about another newcomer to the orchestra, assistant oboist Shea Scruggs, who joined last spring. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)

January 11, 2010

Campaign to outfit U.S. service personnel on two war fronts with MP3s

Through a campaign called Songs for Soldiers, Americans can support the troops in a musical way.

The campaign, created by the Connecticut-based Flatflash Group, aims to hand-deliver credit card-sized, sand-proof and shock-proof MP3 players to all 184,000 U.S. service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can order a player (or lots of them) for soldiers by going to 

this site. Clicking on "donate now" at the bottom of the page will take you to the site of the USO of Metropolitan New York, which is handling the orders. The MP3 is priced at $29; the purchase price is tax-deductible.

According to the press release, "the USO guarantees that each gift will be handed to all active duty troops in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Although the players will come loaded with original music composed and performed by military personnel (active and vet), soldiers can, of course, upload their own choices at will. Naturally, I'd like to think that at least a few of the recipients will opt for some hot classical music tracks, but this campaign is obviously worthy regardless.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:02 PM | | Comments (1)

Classical music world off to a shaky new year

Haven't even got half way through January, and the classical music world is looking rather shaky.

The tremors started as 2009 was winding down. We're still dealing with the fallout from a study by the NEA, backed with further analysis by the League of American Orchestras, that emerged over the past couple of months, revealing that audiences for the symphony, opera and the like are aging and dwindling more than previously thought -- and not being replenished. So much for the commonly held belief that folks who reach upper middle or lower senior age are apt to gravitate to the fine arts.

There was even bad news last month about listenership for classical music stations taking a 10 percent plunge when a new, supposedly more accurate, ratings system was introduced.

Now, in the early days of 2010, we've got orchestras in two cities, Cleveland and Seattle, experiencing intense troubles over negotiations. The Clevelanders are threatening to go on strike because musicians are unhappy over salary reduction proposals from management. (The $152,000 average compensation for players last year is not winning them a lot of sympathy in the blogosphere.) 

Things aren't exactly rosy in other places. The New York Philharmonic just reported

a deficit of more than $4 million last season, and anticipates another $4 this season; the Baltimore Symphony will, when the official audit is completed, reveal a substantial deficit from last season.

And, as if things weren't depressing enough, the fat lady can't even get on stage, let alone signal that the opera ain't over. Daniela Dessi, a respected soprano who falls comfortably between anorexic and obese, walked out of a "La Traviata" production at the Rome Opera after director Franco Zeffirelli criticized her weight. He was quoted in news reports saying, "A woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character of Violetta ... She is is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis." She fired back, "You don’t sing with the body but with the voice." (Dessi told the press she is 143 pounds and about 5'3.)

I'm not sure which of these items discourages me more. I hate to think that culture is losing its grip on the public at a greater clip than feared, although none of us can have believed that classical music would thrive in an age when reality shows are mistaken for reality; when so much attention is paid to superficiality, inanity, triviality and talentless buffoons; when, to borrow an Oscar Wilde observation, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

And I certainly don't like the sight of orchestras having labor strife. With the country still weighed down by the recession, and with players in so many orchestra having given back money and benefits to help keep their organizations afloat, this sure seems, well, risky to be insisting on salary retention. This may be the toughest economic time for the arts ever, and it should be a time when all sides find common ground, pull together and just get on with it, for the sake of the greater good. If audiences are now getting older and smaller at a faster rate than before, how ironic if orchestras were to drive people away with picket lines now.  

Maybe Daniela Dessi's problems pale in comparison with the other stuff, but I find it a really annoying story. It's just the latest indication of how, over the past several years, the opera world has gone slightly nutty, has tilted so far to the visual side of the equation that the whole point of opera is getting lost. It's about the singing, stupid -- the quality of the voice, the artistry of the phrasing, the ability to communicate the essence of a character first of all vocally, with the dramatic element added to the equation, not replacing the aural. It just bugs me to keep hearing this singer-must-look-the-part argument, whether from directors or critics. Opera is a difficult balancing act, with all sorts of components that need to work in harmony, but if there's any tilting, I'd rather it be toward the ear, not the eye. 

Oh well, I'd suggest you fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy year.       

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:31 AM | | Comments (4)

January 8, 2010

Slatkin, Znaider, National Symphony hit expressive peaks in Elgar concerto

The friendly roar that greeted Leonard Slatkin when he first stepped up onto the podium at the Kennedy Center Thursday night said a lot.

You might never have guessed it from reading some of the snarky press coverage the conductor received in Washington during his dozen years as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, but Slatkin did a lot of good in that post, and I think that audiences genuinely liked and appreciated his work. This was his first return since leaving the post in 2008, and his first conducting appearance anywhere since suffering a heart attack two months ago, so there were clearly good wishes behind that hearty reception. The musicians joined in the welcome.

It was encouraging to see Slatkin looking so hale, and it was gratifying to hear him generate so much powerfully expressive music-making in a program that was catnip to us Anglophiles -- Elgar's Violin Concerto and Holst's "The Planets."

That concerto is, IMHO, the most

profoundly personal work of its kind. Yes, I know, the violin concertos by Beethoven and Brahms, to name a few, are towering, sublime masterpieces. But there's something deeper still, more revealing in Elgar's long (nearly 50 minutes), challenging score.

Even if you didn't know a thing about the back story, which has emerged over the decades since its 1910 premiere, you could sense that this is much, much more than just music in the abstract. That back story, needless to say, concerns romance, in this case extra-marital and not necessarily consummated.

Like a musical precursor to "Brief Encounter," the concerto is intimate, passionate, poignant, playful, bittersweet. It is unconcerned with following conventional concerto procedure; it asks the listener to suspend expectations, especially when it comes to the finale, which is anything but the kind of light-hearted, propulsive release common to so many of the concertos that preceded this one. The long, misty-colored cadenza in that finale defies convention, but its unhurried, reflective look back at preceding themes is uncommonly affecting.

The soloist for the NSO performance was Nikolaj Znaider, one of the most respected players of the younger generation. He just happens to have a recording of the Elgar Concerto hitting the stores and download engines this week. On Thursday, Znaider, playing on the same Guarnerius violin that Fritz Kreisler used for the concerto's premiere, may not have always dug all the way into the inner beauty and poetry of the piece (he had the music on a stand in front of him), but, overall, offered an admirable combination of technical security, penetrating tone and radiant phrasing. He caressed the tenderest themes quite beguilingly and poured on the drama in the outer movements; he brought a rapt and deeply expressive touch to the cadenza.

Slatkin tailored the orchestral side of this fully symphonic concerto masterfully, attentive to subtle shades in the scoring (the delicate shading behind the soloists during that cadenza emerged with particular care) and alert to opportunities for emotional urgency (within proper British bounds of taste, of course). The NSO responded with warm, vivid and, for the most, finely articulated, playing.

"The Planets" was, for me, almost anti-climactic after that. But Slatkin put considerable life into the war horse, giving "Mars" a good kick, for example, not to mention getting extra mileage out of the noble march tune in "Jupiter" and making every effort to produce the eerie atmosphere of "Neptune."

The orchestra sounded a little less cohesive in a couple spots, yet the performance easily reaffirmed the fundamentally sturdy ensemble that Slatkin honed during his tenure. The rapport between the players and their former music director was evident throughout. Occasional pitch-drooping aside, the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington delivered their off-stage contributions in "Neptune" effectively; their gradual fade-out, complemented by dimming of the lights in the hall, came off very well.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 

PHOTOS: SLATKIN (Donald Dietz/Detroit Symphony Orchestra), ZNAIDER (Baltimore Sun File)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (1)

January 7, 2010

Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein named 2010 Gilmore Artist; award worth $300,000

The quadrennial Gilmore Artist Award is a remarkable anti-competition prize for outstanding pianists, chosen after a confidential process. The players don't know they've been nominated, and don't know that folks from the advisory committee of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival are listening to them in performance. It's everything that traditional keyboard competitions are not, which is one reason the award is held in high regard.

The just-named 2010 Gilmore Artist is Kirill Gerstein, a Russian-born pianist who became a U.S. citizen a few years ago. The prize includes $300,000 "in support of his musical and career goals over the next four years," as the press release puts its. Gerstein joins a roster that, since 1991, has included Piotr Anderszewski, Leif Ove Andsnes, Ingrid Fliter, Ralf Gothoni and David Owen Norris.

To give you an idea of what the committee found in this latest award-winner (the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, who taught for many years at Peabody, was on that committee), here are clips of Gerstein playing music by Rachmaninoff and Bernstein:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (1)

Seiji Ozawa has cancer, expects to conduct again after six months

seiji ozawaSeiji Ozawa, one of the biggest names in classical music for decades, "said Thursday that he has esophageal cancer and will cancel his concerts for the next six months to focus on treatment," the New York Times reports.

The 74-year-old Japanese conductor will miss the final portion of his eight-year tenure as chief conductor of the Vienna State Opera, AP reports. His contract expires in June.  

Ozawa's cancer was detected recently during a routine checkup. According to news accounts, the cancer has not spread.

At his press conference in Tokyo (see photo at left), the Times notes, Ozawa said: “I have no problems drinking and eating. I intend to be back in even less than six months.”

Ozawa led the Boston Symphony for 29 years and has conducted throughout the world. He'll miss more than two dozen conducting engagements in the months ahead.

AP Photo/Kyodo News

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:45 AM | | Comments (2)

January 6, 2010

Pianist Byron Janis gives expert interpretation of what interpretation means

The one issue that interests me more than any other in classical music (all music, really) is interpretation, what the performer does with the notes provided. Not how they play or sing those notes -- the accuracy and virtuosity side of things -- but how they make truly individual musical statements, how they reveal their own interpretive ideas (or lack of same).

I'm always intrigued by the reviews of some of my colleagues who get considerably bothered when a musician strays from the printed boundaries -- going slower or faster than the tempo marking in the score, increasing or decreasing the volume in violation of what is written, etc. -- as if the object of performing is to present fundamentally the same thing, over and over, remaining totally respectful and subservient to the composer.

Yeah, I can understand that thinking, and I can almost buy it, until

I hear an artist go wonderfully "astray" and create an indelible experience.

So I was delighted to find an article by the excellent pianist Byron Janis in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal on this topic of interpretive freedom. I couldn't agree more. Here are some excerpts:

The score is really a blueprint for our creative talents and, consequently, our interpretive options abound ... No score will tell you how to play allegro (quickly)—there are a lot of different "quicklies" to go around. No score will give you the coordinates for playing rubato (freely), agitato (agitated) or semplice (simply) ... 

"As far as my experience goes," Brahms wrote, "every composer who has given metronome marks has sooner or later withdrawn them" ...

(Janis describes a recital where Chopin repeated one of his Mazurkas, playing it the second time) with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka ... He would often say, "I never play the same way twice."


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)

January 5, 2010

Reality show on British TV: Pop Star to Opera Star

Well, I'll say this for British TV -- at least they recognize the existence and appeal of opera. The latest manifestation of a reality/talent show over there is called Pop Star to Opera Star, debuting Jan. 15 in ITV.

The gimmick: Pop singers are mentored in the art of singing a few opera arias. The mentors include one of today's big-name tenors, Rolando Villazon, on the mend from throat surgery that curtailed his booming career. His participation provides a remarkable level of respectability for this project.

Make that the main level, really, since the other mentors include

crossover tenor Andrea Bocelli (his ardent fans may not notice or care, but this guy isn't really close to being a top-notch opera singer) and another crossover sensation (at least overseas) named Katherine Jenkins, who doesn't appear to have any substantive operatic credentials.

It all sounds like a half-hearted attempt at going operatic, but it's still more than you'd ever get an American commercial TV reality show to do, so that's something, I guess. Rupert Christiansen offers a preliminary assessment of the show in an article Monday in the Telegraph.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:23 PM | | Comments (5)

Leonard Slatkin returns to the podium for first time after heart attack

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony and former music director of the National Symphony, is about to make his first podium appearance since his heart attack two months ago. He'll lead the NSO in an Elgar-Holst program at the Kennedy Center Thursday-Saturday.

I caught up with him by phone on Monday evening and the interview is the second half of my column today.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (0)

January 4, 2010

Blast from the Past: pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

Please forgive the recent breaks in manic blogging; I slipped away for the holidays and am only now returning to reality, ready again to expound, pontificate and whine with regularity.

I happened to noticed that three eminent pianists share a January 5th birthday: Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini and one no longer with us, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. And thinking about the latter instantly suggested the next candidate for my internationally clamored-for Blast from the Past feature.

Talk about your patrician artists. Michelangeli was the epitome of the musical aristocrat, a pianist who maintained extraordinary standards of stylistic integrity and taste. His playing could reach a level of exquisite poetry, with a wealth of subtle coloring and perfectly judged rubato (that art of rhythmic elasticity seems in particularly short supply today). Michelangeli, who died in 1995, was, like the other true keyboard giants, in a class by himself. Here are just a few reasons why (the third Chopin clip starts with the last couple notes of another piece, but the performance I want to share starts a few seconds later):

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:54 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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