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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)


Cell phones and often far more coughing than I hear in other places have marred my experiences at the Meyerhoff. Sunday's concert is on my calendar, but I might skip it. I've reached the point where I sit through concerts fearing that an electronic device will go off and I might just as well stay home and listen to CDs.

I understand the feeling, but we can't let the terrorists, I mean rude folks, win. TIM

The BSO concert at Strathmore was fantastic. IMHO, the BSO never sounds better than when Herbig conducts. I'd been disappointed that Herbig wasn't on the 2009-2010 schedule, so this was an unexpected treat. It was a pity to lose the Czech pieces, but it was a small price to pay to have Herbig.

"Cell phones and often far more coughing than I hear in other places have marred my experiences at the Meyerhoff...

I understand the feeling, but we can't let the terrorists, I mean rude folks, win. TIM"

I just tell people to can it. I'm sick of people talking, humming, singing, tapping, coughing, checking cell phones and making other ridiculous noises.

One time during a quiet piece of music, this lady sitting near me just said out loud "Gosh, this music will put you to sleep." I didn't see who it was so right after that there was an intermission and I turned to my wife and openly mocked her saying, "Gosh if it puts you to sleep, why are you here? Did you know what you were paying for when you bought your ticket?"

Whether it's the Symphony Hall or the movie theater I'm sick of people not knowing how to behave. I honestly believe people are incapable of sitting still and paying attention to something, anything, for two hours.

Thanks for venting. TIM

The younger audience at The Opera Show will surely now want to see a complete opera. Let's hope that we see them at Carmen at The Lyric.

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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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