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February 26, 2010

Sunday's musical attractions include world premieres and choral favorites

Sunday's music calendar is packed, as usual. Extra noteworthy are two programs occurring -- naturally -- at the same 3 p.m. time slot.

Works by notable Baltimore-based composers will be featured on a concert at An die Musik that combines the talents of ANALOG arts ensemble and the Monument Piano Trio, including Jonathan Leshnoff's "Song Without Words" for cello and piano. There will be world premiere of "Scenes from Eternity's Edge" for flute, violin, cello and piano by James Lee, III, and Rudolf Kamper's Music for Five Players. Rounding out the contemporary program are pieces by Michael Sheppard and Stuart Saunders Smith.

The other 3 p.m. enticement is

a concert by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society featuring two richly lyrical works, Schubert's Mass in G major and, from our own time, Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna," which has become one of the most popular choral pieces in years. Here's a sampling of Lauridsen's score, performed by another group (of course, Choral Arts will do a much better job):

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:50 PM | | Comments (1)

David Soyer, longtime cellist of Guarneri String Quartet, dies at 87

This news just in from the artist management firm Frank Solomon Associates:

We sadly share the news of the passing (on Thursday, February 25) of David Soyer, who was a major figure at the Marlboro Music School and Festival for almost fifty years. His last (and inspiring) public performances were at Marlboro last summer ... where he first came in 1961, at the invitation of Felix Galimir and Rudolf Serkin.

One of the most sought-after cellists in New York at the time, his involvement at Marlboro took his life in a new direction with the formation of the Marlboro Piano Trio with Anton Kuerti and Michael Tree and then, the founding at Marlboro of the Guarneri String Quartet in 1964 with Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley and Michael Tree.

The first internationally-recognized American string quartet since the Juilliard Quartet, the Guarneri became a role model for the many quartets that were formed by Marlboro participants including the Cleveland, Emerson, Vermeer and more, recently, Brentano String Quartets. David Soyer remained with the quartet until 2002 making the Guarneri the longest continuing collaboration of any quartet in the world. Peter Wiley, one of Mr. Soyer's many successful former students, succeeded him, playing with the Quartet until their retirement last season.

Mr. Soyer performed the Schubert String Quintet in C Major with his Guarneri colleagues and friends last May for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Mr. Soyer performed on a Gugliano cello from Naples, Italy, 1778. He was a member of the Marlboro Board of Trustees and its Senior Artistic Commitee and with his wife Janet, were beloved figures in the Marlboro community. He served on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music (since 1968), the Juilliard School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music.

Here's a sample of the famed Guarneri ensemble, with Mr. Soyer on cello, performing Mozart:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:25 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Symphony puts vigorous spin on classics with Nicholas McGegan, Robert Levin

Just as the messy weather keeps holding on, the pitch of C has maintained quite a grip on the Baltimore Symphony. Last week, there was all that C minor and major in the program that featured Itzhak Perlman (I gather some folks were none too pleased that he conducted way more than he played the violin). This week, there's a C major feast -- the home keys of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with a touch of D major spice at the start, from the Overture to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Not that anyone gives a hoot about harmonic variety in programming -- I just thought I'd mention it.

The really notable thing about this latest program is the way it is delivered, with a substantive dose of the exuberance associated with the historical authenticity movement. Nicholas McGegan, who directs the period instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, is on the podium. When he works with modern instrument ensembles, he doesn't insist on trying to turn them into imitations of the period type (the BSO strings didn't drop vibrato), but concentrates on rhythmic nimbleness and transparency of texture.

He got generally effective results Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, leading a reduced complement of players who seemed energized by the experience. The Mozart symphony benefited from a combination of crisp attacks and warm phrasing; the music danced and, in the minuet, even swaggered. I liked that. There was plenty of speed and lightness in the "Figaro" Overture, if not much in the way of distinctive nuance.

For the Beethoven concerto, the spotlight focused squarely on Robert Levin, a pianist particularly noted for his Mozart scholarship and a penchant for improvising in the manner of 18th- and early 19th-century instrumentalists. Much of Levin's playing sounded rather

brittle and pushy to my ears, but his energetic attacks in the outer movements certainly had their visceral appeal. His spontaneous cadenzas exuded fire, even some brimstone. A few not-quite-aligned moments aside, coordination between soloist and orchestra was supple. McGegan drew from the woodwind section especially glowing work.

Next week, the BSO launches a month of circus-themed concerts. The cynically inclined might think of Levin's solo spot on this program as a bit circus-y, too, but that would only be because we're no longer accustomed to musicians doing tricks, the way that young Beethoven (and even younger) Mozart routinely did, as a way of demonstrating their competitive edge and feeding public demand. Having this sort of pure entertainment feature on an otherwise normal orchestral program probably annoys some folks (they're usually the same ones who also complain that orchestras don't do enough stuff that's really different), but Thursday's crowd seemed to enjoy it thoroughly.   

With the stage to himself, Levin drew from a basket little slips of musical themes submitted by audience members during intermission. The first one happened to be "Happy Birthday," even though he had specifically asked that people submit themes in the style of Beethoven (this wasn't a Gabriela Montero concert, after all).

Luckily, an audience voice-vote nixed "Happy Birthday," and Levin proceeded to pull more appropriate items, including a phrase from a Beethoven string quartet and a couple of apparently original ideas. He then proceeded to improvise a fantasy on said themes -- with a home key of C major, by the way -- as Beethoven might have done, complete with insistent motives, rhythmic drive, explosive chords, bursts of contrapuntal cleverness, and more. 

The program repeats Friday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. Levin will do his improvised thing both nights, but each fantasy will, of course, be different. If you've got a Beethoven-like tune running around in your head, here's your chance to have it Levin-ized.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:35 AM | | Comments (2)

Guest blog review of Anne Koscielny's Beethoven piano sonata cycle

It' ain't easy -- actually, it just ain't possible -- for me to cover every worthwhile musical event in this area. One of the many things I've been unable to attend is the cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas being performed this season by Anne Koscielny at Howard Community College. The Massachusetts-based, award-winning pianist and teacher, will give the next installment in the series on March 27, with three more concerts after that into early June. The most recent program was last weekend. Here's what Benjamin Myers, an associate professor of music at HCC, thought about it (a brief video of the artist follows the review):

For some time previous to the 21st Century, records, and then CDs, had been readily available. It was not difficult for music lovers to collect several recordings of their favorite works, and make comparisons. But the past decade has seen an explosion of recording media and availability. The proliferation of inexpensive personal computers, mp3 players, and sites like youtube has made it much easier to hear a variety of performances of a given work. While music professionals and music lovers alike generally have welcomed this, it is worth considering Aldous Huxley’s view that “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” In the case of music, the recent technological progress has often led to performances becoming more similar to one another, despite the increased number of recordings.

How so? It may be that performers are now more tempted by this easy access to recordings to reference their peer’s work, and subsequently select from (or, to put it less diplomatically, “steal”) attractive elements of these other performances, and include them in their own. There may be something to the admittedly draconian notion posited by some of my former teachers that one should never listen to recorded performances of a given work, in order to ensure a unique and personal interpretation. To my mind, I had always felt that it was important to listen to recorded performances, in order to explore what special insights into the music musicians might have. Or, as one of my roommates from grad school put it, “Don’t you want to know how the masters play it?”

Thank you for sticking with me through that preamble. I felt it necessary to introduce you to this notion of increasing conformity, because I want to emphasize how absolutely unique an artist Anne Koscielny is. I have known Ms. Koscielny now for nearly 25 years, but have never had the opportunity to hear this distinguished master in such a distinctive series—performances of all 32 of the piano sonatas of Beethoven.

Of course, composers have always wanted their music to reflect their artistic voice—not necessarily the style of any particular performer (though composers often have their favorites). In other words, Beethoven should sound like Beethoven, and not necessarily like Richter, Bilson, or Brendel. Certainly, great performers do put their mark on the music, but they also put themselves in the service of the music. Anne Koscielny’s Beethoven is great Beethoven playing, and is unique.

One striking example of this was

how Ms. Koscielny approached the virtuoso passages in the early Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3. Many performers “eat up” the difficulty and exploit the fast passage work, running sixths, etc. to show off their virtuosity. Indeed, some may argue that since Beethoven used these sonatas not only to demonstrate his compositional abilities, but also to show off his consummate pianistic technique, that performers are then justified in taking that “turbocharged” approach. But Ms. Koscielny’s slant on the virtuoso passages was to take natural phrasing, tone quality, and voice leading as primary; thus leading to a more musical approach which still was so technically brilliant as to absolutely knock it out of the park. The same was also true with the fiery passages of the “Appassionata” sonata, which so often simply fall victim to a “Starbucks triple-shot” approach by some performers.

I was also impressed with how Koscielny played the allegro movement of the Sonata in G major, Op. 14, No. 2. I was not surprised at all that Ms. Koscielny would mine the movement for the lyricism performers sometimes neglect—what amazed me was the level of warmth and intimacy in the performance. Yes, allegros should be lively, but Ms. Koscielny was able to plumb the tonal and expressive depths of the movement, and let each listener experience this as if it were meant only for them.

Another good example of Ms. Koscielny’s artistry was how she took care that there be ample variety in her performance of the andante movement of the same sonata, which is a set of variations. Certainly it is a very basic notion that each variation should have its own character, but Ms. Koscielny paid such attention to detail that one felt she cared for each variation as if they were her children.

If you have been attending these concerts, you probably know what I am talking about. The fact that Anne Koscielny received a standing ovation not only at the end of the evening, but also before the intermission, is merely one indication of the caliber of the performance. If you haven’t yet heard Anne Koscielny play these sonatas, you need to start coming. It is increasingly rare to hear great and distinctive performances of Beethoven; and I believe it is absolutely essential to hear these transcendentally unique renditions by a great artist who has devoted much of her distinguished artistic career to the master.

-- Benjamin Myers


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

February 25, 2010

Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas among National Medal of Arts recipients

Two eminent classical music stars (and two of my own personal favorites, as if you care) received the National Medal of Arts Thursday at the White House -- soprano Jessye Norman, one of the most distinctive and expressive singers of the past 50 years; and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, an incisive interpreter of both established and cutting-edge repertoire, and a superb educator.

John Williams, the celebrated film composer and conductor, was also on this year's list. Other recipients: rock icon Bob Dylan, actor/director Clint Eastwood, designer Milton Glaser, artist/architect Maya Lin, singer/actor Rita Moreno, artist Frank Stella, and Joseph P. Riley Jr., the mayor of Charleston, S.C. (home of the Spoleto Festival USA). Two institutions received medals, too -- the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the School of American Ballet.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:49 PM | | Comments (0)

Mobtown Modern takes a chance on John Zorn's 'Cobra'

Back when he was writing for the New York Times, Alex Ross described John Zorn's "Cobra" this way: "At once brilliant and smug, the work represents the best and the worst of the new-music movement as it stands." That was in 1993, almost a decade after Zorn created this intriguing "game piece." I wonder if Alex's reaction would be any different today. (I rather doubt it.) I had my first encounter with "Cobra," presented by the intrepid Mobtown Modern Wednesday night at Metro Gallery.

I certainly admire the brilliance of the concept. Zorn provides only a set of instructions for performers; the music itself is entirely improvised. A leader holds up cue cards, signaling assorted methods of attack, so to speak. Ensemble members can raise their hands to get the attention of the leader and permission to jump into the fray in particular ways. Players can also don a cap that gives them certain directorial privileges. It's a barely controlled form of musical anarchy -- and a little anarchy once in a while never hurts.

What emerges in the process is dependent entirely on chance and the participants -- the instruments they bring to the battle, their comfort level with improvising, their ability to react to and interact with other players. "Cobra" can't be tackled by just any old bunch of players. (Mobtown co-curator Brian Sacawa told me he had more rehearsals for this concert than anything else.) One problem with an exercise like this is that the fun of all that improv can wear off if the sounds begin to repeat themselves, something I suspect that is very difficult to avoid. And I suppose the "smug" aspect that Alex Ross may have had in mind is that the audience is expected to buy all of it as a valid, substantive artistic statement.

Let me hasten to add that I

don't have trouble buying what Mobtown dished out, since the musicians proved so adept at the "game" and, mostly, so creative in terms of a sonic arsenal. It might have been wiser to quit while they were ahead, though; by the time they played the last round, the diversity of contributions had lessened considerably.

Still, it was hard not to be caught up in the audacity of it all, the flashes of jazzy counterpoint, the chorus of honks and beeps from assorted wind instrument mouthpieces, the thumping of acoustic and electric basses, the amusing slide whistles, the bursts of percussion. (One segment ended with a cool series of aggressive, uniformly attacked notes that skirted between improv and controlled process.) And the visual component never lost its appeal -- the rapid shift of cue cards, the pointing and challenging. At its best, the concert revealed the daring premise of "Cobra" -- a war game where everyone wins, bloodlessly.

I got an email from composer/trombonist/Peabody faculty member David Fetter, who attended the concert (he never seems to miss any far-out stuff in town). He called it "some of the best chaos I've heard ... The clever meshing of a variety of styles, including classical, jazz, free improvisation, and noise, to put it simply, sparked enthusiasm in both performers and audience ... The ghost of John Cage was felt in the room."

I liked David's summing up of the personnel for "Cobra" so well I thought I'd quote it here: "Brian Sacawa brought together classical iconoclasts, such as himself, free jazz experts, and local High Zero celebrities for a skillfully organized free-for-all."

In addition to Sacawa, who alternated between leading and playing, the other cue-giver/players were saxophonist John Berndt and reed man Sam Burt. Also on the roster: John Dieker, saxophone and bass clarinet; Adam Hopkins, bass; Will Redman, drums; Joel Ciaccio, bass; Erik Spangler, turntables and electronics; Audrey Chen, cello; Dave Ballou, trumpet.

For those of you who missed "Cobra" and are curious to know what it's like, here's a clip from a performance at Dartmouth College that provides a pretty good idea of what can happen (Mobtown's version was, of course, completely different -- and, I'd say, on a more powerful level):


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

'Shutter Island' soundtrack packed with contemporary classical music

As someone who spends much more time watching pre-1960s movies than the latest releases (sorry, but I think they really did make them better in the old days), I may not be the best judge of what's going on right now when it comes to film scoring. But I think I can safely say that the "Shutter Island" soundtrack, available from Rhino, breaks new ground in at least one respect -- its heavy reliance on contemporary classical music, enough to fill the better part of two CDs.

And I'm talking seriously contemporary, as in fabulously atmospheric pieces by John Cage (including "Music for Marcel Duchamp"), Morton Feldman (the otherworldly "Rothko Chapel 2"), Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Gyorgy Ligeti, Lou Harrison (a movement from the haunting Suite for Symphonic Strings), John Adams (the eerie, riveting "Christian Zeal and Activity"), and Giacinto Scelsi. For good measure, a youthful work by Gustav Mahler, his darkly lyrical Piano Quartet, is in the mix, too. Pop songs from the likes of Kay Start and Johnny Ray, and a particularly intriguing treatment of Dinah Washington's "The Bitter Earth," also figure in the picture, but are outnumbered on the recording.   

It may be a while before I ever see the movie (that's what Netflix was invented for -- and besides, considering the reviews this flick has received, I don't see the need to hurry), but the soundtrack has certainly conjured up some intriguing images for me. The coolest image of all is

 unsuspecting fans of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo diCaprio, et al., drinking in the sounds of such adventurous, challenging composers.

The soundtrack, chosen by Robbie Robertson, could almost serve as a mini-intro course in 20th- and early 21st-century music. Maybe some of the moviegoers will feel compelled to get some of this stuff onto their iPods, will start scanning the programs of their local musical organizations anxiously searching for opportunities to experience compositions like these in live performance, will rush to those performances and become subscribers, will become such a positive and dynamic influence on those organizations that programming across the land becomes broader and more daring, will ..... oh all right, I don't even believe it myself. But I had you going there for a moment, didn't I?

Bottom line: This is a very cool soundtrack, with excellent artists, including the Vienna Philharmonic (with Claudio Abbado conducting), and the eclectic mix of material makes an unusually vivid statement, even without the benefit of the film itself.

AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Andrew Cooper

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 AM | | Comments (2)

February 24, 2010

A salute to baritone John Reed, eminent Gilbert and Sullivan specialist

Somehow, even in the age of the instant message and 24-hour news cycle, I failed to notice  reports of John Reed's death on Feb. 13, the English singer/actor's 94th birthday, in Halifax, Yorkshire.

For any fan of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, this comic baritone means a great deal. He was a major presence for decades on the G&S scene, from the early 1950s, when he made his debut with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in London, on into more recent decades as a performer and director in the U.S. and England. He was featured in numerous recordings of the operettas, invariably shining. He just seemed to have the G&S style in his DNA.

After retiring from the stage, he directed the West Yorkshire Savoyards, doing his bit, as long as health permitted, to keep the great tradition alive. He's survived by his partner of 52 years, Nicholas Kerri.

(Mr. Reed's passing reminds me that the G&S operettas have been energetically preserved in Baltimore, where the Young Victorian Theatre Company will celebrate its 40th anniversary season this summer with "Iolanthe.") 

I know some people are resistant to the charms of the G&S canon. They are

to be pitied, poor dears. The rest of us are fortunate that we can get a continued kick out Gilbert's wordplay (if not necessarily all of his plots) and Sullivan's invariably sparkling, elegant music.

We can also consider ourselves fortunate to have recordings and films that document Mr. Reed's extraordinary contribution to the preservation of the G&S legacy. In memory of this endearing artist, here's a sample of his craft:    

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:38 AM | | Comments (2)

February 23, 2010

This week's should-hear musical events

It's another remarkably full week, in terms of classical music genres and diversity within those genres.

Naturally, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to catch everything, but it's fun to be spoiled for choice.

Tuesday's attraction is a wide-ranging vocal program featuring Peabody faculty members Stacey Mastrian (soprano) and Steven Rainbolt (baritone), among others. There will be works by Purcell, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Saint-Saëns, as well as contemporary composers Andre Previn and Tom Cipullo.

Wednesday brings another adventure from Mobtown Modern at Metro Gallery, this time taking on John Zorn's challenge in "COBRA," an ensemble work from 1984 that allows great improvisational freedom -- there's really no score, per se, just cue cards. A sterling lineup of instrumentalists has been assembled for the experience. 

At the same time, several blocks away at the Engineer's Club, another burst of improvisation will be going on, this one by gifted members of Harmonious Blacksmith, harpsichordist Joseph Gascho and recorder player Justin Godoy. They'll add their own improvised fancies, the way baroque artists did centuries ago, as part of a program that also includes works by Bach, Matthew Locke and others.

Speaking of improv, Thursday brings  

pianist Robert Levin to the Meyerhoff stage for an appearance with the Baltimore Symphony to perform Beethoven's Concerto No. 1; he'll also offer some improvisations at the keyboard in the spirit of the composer, who, like many classical instrumentalists of that day, developed improvisational skills. (The program is repeated Friday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.) 

And on the subject of pianists and Beethoven, Benjamin Pasternack will play the composer's "Waldstein" Sonata in a recital Thursday at Peabody. This excellent pianist, a member of the Peabody faculty, has also chosen works by Mozart, Haydn, Copland (the daunting Piano Variations) and Bernstein (Pasternack's own transcription of the Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town”).   

Friday introduces opera into the week's mix. Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" is one of the most exquisite works in the repertoire, but also one of most infrequently encountered. Opera Vivente, which staged a chamber orchestra arrangement of the work a few seasons ago at Emanuel Episcopal, returns to the material now in an abridged version by Marius Constant. Called "Impressions of Pelleas," this treatment aims to preserve the essence of the deeply layered love story and uses two pianos in place of the original orchestra to capture the multiple shades of the score. Performances continue Feb. 28, March 4 and 6.

Also on Friday, the new kid on the block, Chesapeake Concert Opera, opens a two-night run of Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" in concert form with piano at Memorial Episcopal (Episcopalians sure are welcoming to opera, aren't they?). 

Speaking of opera-in-concert, the famed Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg opens a residency at the Kennedy Center with an unstaged performance of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" Friday night, led by podium superstar Valery Gergiev. The company will also offer Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in concert form Feb. 28 and two programs of excerpts from several Russian operas March 3 and 4 (the latter date is to feature popular soprano Anna Netrebko). There will also be a full staging of Prokofiev's monumental "War and Peace" March 6 and 7.

The week just keeps on giving.

Friday and Saturday finds the Annapolis Symphony celebrating the romantic and sensual in music at the Maryland Hall. The Peabody Symphony tackles Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and more on Saturday. 

Also on Saturday, the Artemis String Quartet makes its contribution to the Beethoven quartet cycle being presented by Candlelight Concerts in Columbia. The program includes the "Serioso" Quartet and Op. 127. 

I can't even start thinking about next Sunday, 'cause there's too big a pile-up of musical possibilities. More on that anon. 



Posted by Tim Smith at 8:09 AM | | Comments (5)

February 22, 2010

Placido Domingo to undergo surgery, curtail performing

The AP and others report that stellar tenor Placido Domingo will undergo surgery later this week in New York, after experiencing lower abdominal pain during a performance in Tokyo.

A publicist is quoted saying that Domingo's "doctors have determined that he needs to undergo medically recommended preventive surgery." Only after the surgery will a determination be made when the 69-year-old singer will resume performing schedule. "It is hoped that it will be in about six weeks," according to the publicist's new release.

Given how in-demand the tenor is on opera house and concert hall stages these days, not to mention as general director of both Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, this news will likely have the equivalent effect on the music world as a sudden drop in the stock market does on the financial.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:56 PM | | Comments (1)

Peabody Chamber Opera goes through 'Transformations'

Before heading to Shriver Hall for Yefim Bronfman's recital, I stopped by the Theatre Project to catch as much as I could (about one-and-a-quarter acts) of Conrad Susa's "Transformations," in an imaginative, dynamic production from Peabody Chamber Opera.

This is a curious -- and curiously affecting --work. The text comes from Anne Sexton's poetic re-imagining of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. The poet, who took her own life a year after the opera's 1973 premiere, found in those tales new, provocative angles about sexuality, familial relations, love and death.

Susa, an underrated American composer (his "Dangerous Liaisons" from the 1990s deserves more attention, just for starters), produced a masterful opera out of the material, propelled by myriad styles, from Weill-esque cabaret to jazz. Somehow, everything fuses coherently -- well, as coherently as you would want for a work that is all about unexpected twists and strange detours.

Jennifer Blades directed the action on a minimal set with

an effective flow, generating from the cast a sturdy ensemble effort.

Maggie Finnegan was especially impressive in the central role of the opera, depicting the poet herself (cigarette and martini at the ready) and some characters from the stories; her singing had an admirable tonal purity and textual clarity. Stephanie Miller (the Princess) and Peter Tomaszewski (Neighboring King) also stood out for their warm, firmly supported voices. And all of the others -- Jennifer Hamilton, David Diehl, Curtis Bannister, Andrew Spardy, James Parks -- contributed something distinctive to the overall expressive musical and theatrical spark of the performance.

JoAnn Kulesza conducted sensitively and drew alert, polished playing from a chamber ensemble that seemed to relish the score's brilliant dance through Susa's idiomatic diversity.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (1)

Yefim Bronfman gives brilliant performance of demanding program at Shriver Hall

Like a lot of folks, I tend to think wistfully of past times when musical giants seemed to roam the earth in great numbers -- the singers, instrumentalists and conductors who now have the word "legendary" wrapped around their names. But, you know, we really don't have it so bad today.

Consider the realm of the keyboard. There are some mighty fine pianists on the scene, capable not only of delivering technical fireworks, but of producing experiences rich in musical feeling. One of the best in this regard is Yefim Bronfman, who chose an unusual recital program for his appearance on the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening and played the heck out it.

The pianist didn't just go out in left field to find some less-often played items by famous composers for the sake of novelty; his selections had a logical flow that revealed some subtle, intriguing links between the pieces.

Before getting to the gargantuan G major Sonata by Tchaikovsky, Bronfman offered some Beethoven (32 Variations in C minor) and Schumann ("Faschingsschwank aus Wien") -- Tchaikovsky used both composers as inspirational models for his sonata, and those connections became heightened along the way.

The pianist also placed a sonata by Prokofiev (No. 2 in D minor) on the first half of the program that reflected its own influences from Schumann and, coincidentally, had a little motiv in common with the Tchaikovsky sonata -- a hint of

the ancient "Dies Irae" chant (in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's, the third of Prokofiev's -- at least to my ears).

It all added up to an eventful evening. Bronfman's brilliant pianism impressed from the start in the Beethoven Variations. There was terrific clarity in his articulation, a considerable palette of tone coloring and nuance in his phrasing. The Schumann score found Bronfman paying equal attention to its explosive energy and soaring lyricism. Although he had the printed music of the Prokofiev sonata in front of him, the pianist sounded perfectly at home; he delivered a particularly dazzling account of the whirlwind Scherzo.

The 30-minute, zillion-note Tchaikovsky sonata occupied the second half of the recital. This work gets very little attention these days (especially on these shores), probably because it has none of the indelible tunes we associate with the composer. Even Tchaikovsky denigrated the piece as "dry," but, then, he was always putting down his own stuff, so that shouldn't be used against it.

Bronfman proceeded to make structural and expressive sense out of the whole thing, getting past any dry spots by keeping phrases richly animated. He even ensured that episodes of bravura-on-steroids communicated more than mere digital action. I would have preferred a gentler, Mendelssohn-style touch in the Scherzo, to provide more tonal contrast with the ensuing final movement, but otherwise Bronfman's playing was as rich in tonal variety as in communicative power. He drew out the considerable strengths of the sonata so imaginatively that he created a riveting four-act drama. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:50 AM | | Comments (1)

February 19, 2010

Itzhak Perlman conducts Baltimore Symphony in classical hit parade

Itzhak Perlman brought his still-considerable star power to the Meyerhoff Thursday night for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his first appearance with the ensemble in about 10 years, his first as conductor. He was greeted with several standing ovations, cheers and even a few wild yells from the packed house.

Any musician who achieves fame in one arena and then decides to add conducting provokes instant skepticism, especially from certain snooty types who already tend to frown on anyone who gets too famous for anything in classical music. As Perlman tells it in the interview I did with him for Friday's Sun (how do you like the new Live section, folks?), he didn't go after the podium; it came after him. It turns out that he took to it, and orchestras took to him.

Perlman was principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony for several years; he has been a guest with many other orchestras; he's in his second season as music director of the Westchester Philharmonic. The cynically inclined can ponder how much this is about box office appeal and how much conducting talent. I'll just focus on what happened on Thursday, and what happened was thoroughly respectable music-making in a program that featured some of classical music's greatest hits.

You can argue (someone's bound to) that the BSO could play Beethoven's Fifth in its sleep, or with no on one the podium; that the orchestra's string section could do the same with Tchaikovsky's Serenade. But there was no sign of auto-pilot playing.

And there was one little detail, in particular, that revealed how solidly Perlman's musical senses can operate when he replaces his famous fiddle with a baton. It was the way he handled 

the repeat of the exposition in the finale of that Beethoven symphony. A lot of times I've heard that repeat in concerts where it comes off as rather awkward and abrupt (one reason, perhaps, why some conductors skip it). Perlman nailed it by ensuring a tiny breath, if you will, in the phrasing and careful attention to dynamics, so that the repeat came off smoothly and tellingly, with even an element of surprise.

Another moment stood out -- the amazing oboe solo that Beethoven placed in the first movement, where it momentarily stops all the tension. I've heard too many performances where conductors restrict the soloist's freedom, and the dramatic potential for this unexpected little pause. Perlman allowed the BSO's assistant principal oboist Shea Scruggs all the time and liberty he wanted, and the result was magical, as much from the exquisite tone and expressive shading that Scruggs produced as for the space that the conductor provided for it.

The rest of the performance was less remarkable, with traditional, safe tempos being the rule, but it was always engaging. A few slips of cohsiveness aside, the orchestra sounded sturdy and involved.

Perlman obviously brought keen sensibilities to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and he ensured that the music flowed with lyrical intensity. Individual sections of the ensemble sounded thin and not quite smoothly blended at times, but tutti passages swelled richly.

The prorgam started with Bach's Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin, with BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman and Perlman as the soloists. It sounded more like a concerto for oboe, since Meyerhoff's otherwise admirable acoustics don't always flatter solo string instruments. But in the slow movement, the interplay between Needleman and Perlman emerged clearly and elegantly. The soloists enjoyed generally smooth support from a baroque-sized complement of players.

One little oddity of the program -- it had a lot of C in it, C minor being the home key for the concerto and symphony, C major for the serenade. Of course, after all the upheavals we've been through around here this winter, encountering such a firm harmonic grounding might have been just what we needed.

The concert repeats Saturday at Strahmore, Sunday at Meyerhoff; tickets are extremely scarce.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:59 AM | | Comments (3)

February 18, 2010

Kathryn Grayson, the endearing soprano/movie star, dies at 88

Seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when they made movie musicals all the time, and even featured singers with true operatic voices. One of the finest, Kathryn Grayson, died Wednesday at 88, "of natural causes at her Los Angeles home," according to her "longtime companion and secretary, Sally Sherman," reports the AP.

Miss Grayson had a good deal of what they used to call star quality, along with a pretty, flexible, well-focused soprano and abundant taste. Some of her film appearances in the 1940s and '50s include "Show Boat," "Kiss Me Kate," and "Anchors Aweigh," along with some movies with co-star Mario Lanza.

In memory of Miss Grayson, here are some clips that, I think, capture her musical personality beautifully:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:13 PM | | Comments (14)

Cool stuff on Peabody Conservatory's calendar

As I've pointed out before, most weeks bring lots of interesting music from Peabody Conservatory faculty and students. Even as the campus is flooded with prospective students for audition week,  there are several noteworthy musical events going on.

On Thursday, the Peabody Concert Orchestra has its make-up date for the program squashed by the recent snow. Hajime Teri Murai conducts a hefty program of Berlioz' "Le Corsaire," Joan Tower's "Made in America" and Shostakovich's Sixth at 4 p.m. (This one is free, and so is the open rehearsal at 2:30.)

There's action off-campus over the weekend (7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday), when Peabody Chamber Opera offers a production of Conrad Susa's fascinating "Transformations" at the Theatre Project. The 1973 work is based on the poetry collection of the same name by

Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Sexton, who took her own life in 1974. The provocative verses provide sometimes funny, sometimes dark retellings of several of Grimms fairy tales, which Susa treats with an imaginative mix of musical styles. The new production is staged by Jennifer Blades (familiar to local audiences for her dynamic singing in a variety of venues) and conducted by the exceptional JoAnn Kulesza, music director of Peabody's opera department. The eight-member cast includes Margaret Finnegan (pictured here, photo courtesy of the Peabody Institute) as the Anne Sexton character.

Back at the Peabody campus on Sunday (4 p.m.), the engaging organist Donald Sutherland offers

a wide-ranging program that features the Brass Roots Quintet, with works by the likes of Giovanni Gabrieli, Max Reger, Richard Strauss, Malcolm Arnold and Astor Piazzolla.

To give you a taste of Susa's "Transformations," here's a clip of the Hansel and Gretel scene from a 2007 Maryland Opera Studio production:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:42 AM | | Comments (2)

February 17, 2010

Glimpsing the future of classical music; five-year-old conducts 'Rite of Spring'

Thanks to Brian Sacawa (of Mobtown Modern fame and, darn it, fresh competition as a provocative blogger in Baltimore) for alerting me to this recent YouTube clip of a five-year-old conducting a recording of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

I have vague, humiliating memories of doing something like this kid when I was his age, but the records I pretended to conduct contained Ravel's "Bolero" and Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave" -- much easier in the rhythm department. Oddly enough, they're still two of my favorite pieces, which reminds me: how come no one ever puts that Tchaikovsky rouser on a concert program? It beats "1812 Overture" for quality any day, and you even get to hear the one of the same tunes.

Ah, but I digress. Back to this wunderkind. He's really cool, very into the drama and sound of the "Rite of Spring," and impressively alert to cueing. (UPDATE: The budding conductor is the son of Larry Loh, associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; it obviously runs in the family.) Maybe this is how Gustavo Dudamel started. With all the doom and gloom about classical music in some corners, this little demomstration of how young ears can be excited by and connected to this venerable art form has got to give you at least a teeny bit of hope for the future. It's also just a lot of fun, especially the finale:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:17 AM | | Comments (6)

February 16, 2010

Free downloads from Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

If you missed Monday's extraordinary performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Washington, or if you were there and want to add to your musical memories, note that the ensemble is offering 10 free downloads of symphonies conducted by Mariss Jansons, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink and others. It's a nicely timed gift coinciding with the ensemble's US visit this week.

The only catch: registration. Small 'price' to pay, I'd say, for recordings by such a classy orchestra.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:50 PM | | Comments (1)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Jansons, Jansen superb in DC visit

Nothing like the sound of an orchestra that is truly world-class (sorry to drag out that overused, often mis-applied word).

Mariss JansonsMonday night at the Kennedy Center, from the first, faint murmurs in the strings at the start of Sibelius' Violin Concerto to the final, massive whomp at the end of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and the bright dash through the encore, the Farandole from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" Suite No. 2, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam produced a compelling array of superbly articulated colors.

That would have been reward enough, but there was such a deep expressive quality behind the impressive technical polish that all the music felt freshly lived. Presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society (how I wish we had the equivalent in Baltimore, where our awfully good hall ought to be a stopping point for visiting orchestras), the concert started at a peak, and just kept rising. You don't get that kind of experience every day.

Concertgebouw admirers place the ensemble right alongside the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics as the world's top three. Folks who attended Monday's performance probably wouldn't put up much of an argument, not after hearing such smoothness of string tone, suppleness in the woodwinds, warmth and power from the brass.

These qualities were being noted when the Concertgebouw was new, 122 years ago, and they have been built upon by a succession of notable music directors. Currently at the helm is Mariss Jansons, whose incisive musicality has made him one of the most admired conductors on the scene today. He was in his element on Monday, going far beyond the printed score into that hard-to-find (and hard-to-define) world where music becomes so much more than its component parts, where the listener can step through a portal of sorts into a new, no less visceral reality.

I've heard some damn good accounts of the

Janine JansenSibelius concerto in concert halls, but I can't remember one quite as electric as what occurred on this occasion, with the sensational Janine Jansen -- a talent homegrown in the Netherlands -- as soloist and Jansons attending to the minutest orchestral detail. It was a vividly atmospheric, often surprising interpretation; this was a three-act drama with an engrossing sweep. Jansen produced a penetrating tone ripe with nuance, and was unafraid to sacrifice purity to make an emphatic point along the way.

The individuality may not have been to every one's taste, but I found the violinist's approach sublime. And I can't imagine a more attentive, supportive response than the one the orchestra provided. Jansons deftly kept the lid on the dynamics -- his musicians were capable of exceptional pianissimi -- so that the first fortissimo from the ensemble had volcanic impact. Come to think of it, the whole performance was like a volcano, starting with a portentous steam and yielding an energy force to be reckoned with.

Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony has its share of ardent detractors, including a certain former music critic of a certain major daily who would skip out at intermission if the piece were on a program, and then still bash it. Call me sentimental (as pianist Till Fellner would -- he finds the composer's music too sentimental to bother with), but I find the brand of lyricism and passion in Rachmaninoff's music irresistible. And this symphony represents his most unabashedly romantic expression, together with some of his most brilliantly constructed melodic and harmonic ideas.

Jansons clearly believes in every note, and he gave every note sensitive attention. Myriad details of tonal shading emerged in the process; the music sounded wonderfully alive with character and import. The orchestra responded to every gesture (even when the conductor kept his hands at his side, and just let the players go on their own). The grand structure of the score emerged tellingly, never tediously, and the surge of feeling in the most eloquent moments of each movement left an indelible mark.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)

A few more thoughts on the Lyric, 'Carmen' and Baltimore's operatic future

Yes, I'm back on this topic, which I hadn't planned on revisiting so soon. But in case you aren't so blog-addicted that you've already read every comment and response-to-comment on Monday's post, I just wanted to make a few more points about the presentation of Opera New Jersey's "Carmen" at the Lyric.

What I found so interesting and encouraging about the afternoon was the atmosphere and the demographics in the house -- lots of people, a wide variety of ages, all apparently drawn to the place for grand opera, just like in the good old days here. That response, assuming it wasn't just a fluke, ought to provide the boost, the incentive for opera-serious folks here to build something at least akin to a new Baltimore company in the house where the Baltimore Opera Company once resided.

Having said that, I don't want anyone

to think that I'd ever be fully satisfied with a regular dose of what was onstage Sunday. Let me go so far as to say that the Lyric staff should make a solemn pledge now to look for productions that go far beyond the level that Opera New Jersey revealed in this "Carmen." This was, as I wrote to a commentor on my previous post, a case of pleasant provincialism in terms of staging. (The cast was certainly better than that, in most cases.)

There are many talented, innovative stage directors and designers out there, and any new operatic venture at the Lyric should be looking to them when it comes to future collaborations. The theatrical side of things is enormously important in this visual age. I still think musical assets trump everything else, which is why I wasn't as bothered as some by Bernard Uzan's concept for this "Carmen," but I know that the total ear-and-eye package matters.

In practical terms, Uzan's bullring set, which turns choristers into mostly passive spectators, was probably the only production that would allow the former Baltimore Opera Chorus to be reunited for the performance -- there wouldn't have been time or money to have elaborate stage rehearsals; they could, more or less, just plop down and go to it (which they did, quite impressively).

In the end, I think the essential drama of "Carmen" emerged tellingly enough, as it did the first time I saw it years ago, (I never did buy Uzan's notion that Carmen would, in effect, stab herself, as she did here, but such directorial decisions are not so rare.) And with mostly solid singing and a fine orchestra in the pit, the operatic art was served.

So I still say the Lyric took a big step forward on Sunday. Now comes the tough part -- an encore.

Mind you, I haven't forgotten about Baltimore Opera Theatre, which debuted at the Hippodrome in November and is due back there with "Rigoletto" on March 11. This, too, represents a serious, passionate attempt to fill the void left by the sadly liquidated opera company. If this venture can pick up steam (the opening "Barber of Seville" featured some real vocal pros, but unacceptable chorus and orchestra), it could become a significant player on the scene. You never know.

Just as anything can happen in an opera plot, anything can happen with opera companies and opera-craving communities. That's why I say it's going to be interesting around here in the months and years ahead.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:13 AM | | Comments (9)

February 15, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's assistant conductor named music director of Memphis Symphony

Baltimore audiences have barely had a chance to get to know Mei-Ann Chen, the BSO's assistant conductor and League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow, but she's well on the way toward a career. She has just been named music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the fourth person to hold that title in the ensemble's 58-year history. She succeeds David Loebel and begins her tenure next fall. With the Baltimore Symphony, the Taiwan-born Chen has been primarily involved in conducting family concerts this season; she's half-way through a one year appointment at the BSO.

In Monday's press release, Paul Bert, head of the Memphis Symphony's music director selection committee, says: "After two years in the search process and hearing four wonderful candidates conduct this season, we are very pleased and excited that Mei-Ann Chen will be joining us. Mei-Ann has a great passion for music and the role it can play on the concert stage, in community engagement programs, and especially in our education system. She sees music as a celebration of life and something that can bring people from all backgrounds and age groups together to share great music. We feel very fortunate that we are able to have Mei-Ann, a true rising star, lead our orchestra in the coming years."

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:50 PM | | Comments (0)

Staged opera returns to the Lyric with 'Carmen'

Valentine’s Day 2010 just might come to be viewed as the beginning of the return of the Baltimore Opera Company.

No, it won’t be called that – reclaiming the name of an organization that was liquidated last year probably wouldn’t be too cool, marketing-wise. It will be known as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore, but it will resemble in many ways the defunct company. If you were at the packed Lyric Opera House Sunday afternoon, you could easily have imagined that the new enterprise was already well-established.

Let’s face it. Baltimore loves its past. If someone could revive Hutzler’s or Hausner’s or other faded gems and make them just like they were years ago, an awful lot of folks would be thrilled. Same for Baltimore Opera; if it could somehow just materialize again (and honor all the worthless tickets people got stuck with when it folded), you know it would have a ready audience. The opera regulars want to be back in the Lyric, with a full season of good-quality productions that bear a local stamp.

For all of the ventures that have sprung up aimed at filling the void left by Baltimore Opera, nothing is likely to have as much appeal around here as something that looks, sounds and feels like the old company and is even housed in the old venue. That’s one big reason why, I think, there was such a packed house Sunday for “Carmen.” (Spotted in the audience: Michael Harrison, former general director of Baltimore Opera. This must have been a very bittersweet occasion for him.)

Never mind that this was an Opera New Jersey production, with the New Jersey Symphony in the pit. It was presented by the Lyric; it featured the former Baltimore Opera Chorus (which, curiously, was nowhere to be seen at the end, and didn’t get a bow); the stage director was Bernard Uzan, who worked with Baltimore Opera in the past; volunteers from the former company were on the scene. The whole back-to-the-future thing was impossible to miss.

The Lyric wants to see opera restored to the space, and with former Baltimore Opera staffer Jim Harp on staff as "director of opera and educational activities," chances look good that

some sort of substantial enterprise will take root there, especially after renovations to the theater. Harp’s charisma and dedication will serve the enterprise well, and his core idea of building collaborations with existing companies makes financial and logistical logic. If he can keep the Baltimore connections, too, as in the case of the chorus for this “Carmen,” he’s got an obvious selling point; local pride is not be sneezed at.

(Personally, I think forging a bond with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which used to play in the pit for Baltimore Opera way back when and is in the market for new revenue outlets, is something worth pursuing by any new Lyric-based company. I know this would be tough on the former opera orchestra, which had become a reliable asset over the past decade, but I don’t see how everything from the BOC days could come back anytime soon. And having the BSO on board could change the dynamics and the possibilities in several positive ways.)

Needless to say, one performance on a Sunday afternoon of such a popular work as “Carmen” hardly means that a full-fledged grand opera company at the Lyric is a done deal. But, like I said, the sense of a big step being taken toward that goal was evident all over the theater.

This was, on balance, a pretty decent “Carmen.” Uzan's concept for this iconic work places all the action within a bullring-like area; the chorus is confined to the arena seats. The first time I encountered his approach years ago in a production at Florida Grand Opera, I wasn’t entirely sold on it; I wasn’t entirely sold on the similar version he devised for Opera New Jersey, either. But the essentials of the drama came through strongly enough, even without the extra atmosphere of scenery changes and animated crowd scenes. And the use of choreography, by Peggy Hickey, to fill out the action proved mostly effective. (The exception came in the symbolic dance during the final Entr’acte, when a disheveled Don Jose wandered disruptively into the ballet corps; it wasn’t meant to be funny, of course, but it looked dangerously close to an “I Love Lucy” episode when Lucy did much the same thing one night at the Tropicana.)

The production’s originally announced star attraction, mezzo Denyce Graves, canceled a few weeks ago for health reasons. Stepping in was Kirstin Chavez, sounding like stellar material herself, with a ripe, evenly produced tone; lots of dynamic phrasing (even at rather slow tempos for her arias); and acting that, while not without its clichéd sensual poses, had a natural, involving flair. Richard Leech, as Don Jose, kept mostly to one volume, but poured on the passion persuasively. Luis Ledesma needed a little more vocal heft and tone coloring as Escamillo, but delivered the goods; he did expressive, nuanced work in his duet with Chavez in Act 4. Caitlin Lynch, as Micaela, was dressed much too Rebecca of Sunnybrook Granja, but the soprano sang radiantly, sculpting phrases with as much technical finesse as communicative richness.

The supporting cast proved respectable. The former Baltimore Opera choristers, billed as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore Chorus, produced a zesty, cohesive sound and neatly carried out the minimal action required of them (this included standing up to point at Don Jose a couple of times – not one of Uzan’s most inspired touches). The New Jersey Symphony played with care and style. Conductor Joseph Rescigno didn’t always keep everyone together tightly, but he brought a good deal of intensity, as well as poetry, to the score.

It sure will be interesting to see how things develop at the Lyric from here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:01 AM | | Comments (9)

February 14, 2010

A Valentine's Day greeting for my faithful Clef Notes friends

Spent the morning doing some more shoveling, so I'm a little late with a Valentine's Day greeting to my valued readers. For that matter, thanks to that abundant gift from the sky last week, I never got around to mailing any Valentine cards out to those near and dear to me (not to mention finding one for the neartest/dearest -- sorry Robert; you'll have to consider your birthday later this week partly a belated Valentine).

So, here's the best musical way I can think of to say say thanks for following my ramblings on this blog, and to offer everyone best wishes for a pleasant Valentine's Day. As faithful readers know by now, there's one non-classical artist in particular who counts for a lot in my life, so it will come as no surprise that I've turned to her interpretation of the song most appropriate for the occasion (and the visuals that go with it just happen to be extra-appropriate for a whole bunch of us):

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (3)

February 13, 2010

Pictures at the symphony: BSO performs works by Mussorgsky, Hindemith and Brubeck

It was possible Friday night to believe that there is life in post-blizzard Baltimore. There'd surely be even more action if the city could somehow manage to push just a little more snow off the roads, so we could get just a few more lanes of traffic operational, but I know I'm being much too demanding, not to mention unrealistic.

Anyway, the cool thing was finding such a big crowd at the Meyerhoff to hear a hefty program of visual art-inspired works performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

This was the first time the BSO had been back in business since last weekend's storm, which knocked out all performances of a Tchaikovsky-Vaughan Williams-Gershwin program, and the subsequent punch from the skies, which forced the cancelation of Thursday's scheduled concert at Strathmore.

As I understand it, the orchestra wasn't able to get in all of the rehearsals for this latest program, and that showed a little on Friday night, but there was no mistaking the sound of musicians eager to be

back in the thick of it. Marin Alsop was clearly relishing the return to normality, too; in remarks to the audience about the music, she inserted several references to being cooped up for the week.

The conductor's cohesive theme for the program was how composers can be inspired by the art they see. The one, obvious war horse, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," was balanced by two rarer items: Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler," drawn from his opera on the Reformation-era painter Matthias Grunewald; and "Ansel Adams: America," jointly composed by Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, and receiving its East Coast premiere.

The presence of the Brubeck name on the bill no doubt generated some of the turnout (Chris Brubeck attended), but it did not generate the most memorable results. Played while several Ansel Adams photographs were projected (weakly) on a screen above the stage, the work opened with a promising, atmospheric brass chorale, then settled into film score routines of rather nondescript, but richly orchestrated, tunes. Long stretches were stuck in a waltz tempo, not the first rhythmic motion I would readily associate with Adams' rugged landscapes.

In the end, it was all very pleasant, and all very ably, sensitively performed. But it didn't begin to match the startling images on the screen; Adams conveyed more meaningful color with his black and white pictures than all the instrumental flourishes employed by the Brubecks.

Hindemith's symphony, relating to three religious paintings by Grunewald but easy to appreciate in abstract terms, is an involving masterwork that speaks vividly, even if the melodic and harmonic language is more intellectual than emotional. It ought to be heard much more often -- same for a lot of Hindemith's music. It was great of Alsop to give it attention, and seemed to be strongly connected to the material throughout, focusing on structural and expressive detail with equal power. 

The players, once past a tentative start, dug into the surging poetic imagery in the first movement and, especially, the battle of taut thematic ideas in the finale. The reflective middle movement found the strings summoning a gorgeous tone and phrasing with admirable subtlety.

The Mussorgsky crowd-pleaser, performed here in the familiar Ravel orchestration, received a vibrant, genuinely evocative account. Alsop kept the momentum going, emphasized dynamic contrasts and bursts of character, and lit an impressive fuse under the brass in "Great Gate at Kiev." The several soloists, among them trumpeter Andrew Balio with his laser-beam articulation and saxophonist Brian Sacawa with his mellow phrasing, made valuable contributions along the way.

Saturday morning's "casual concert" includes the Brubeck and Hindemith works; Saturday evening's "off the cuff" program concentrates on the Mussorgsky. Either ought to be worth dodging snow drifts for.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (2)

February 12, 2010

Another Clef Notes free BSO concert ticket giveaway, with a catch


Please excuse the short notice, dear bloggie brethren, but I've got two pairs of tickets to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert with music director Marin Alsop, and I'll give them to the first two people who request them. (These are courtesy of the marketing folks at Baltimore Sun Media Group.) Just be sure to fill out your email address when you use the comment section to post your request, so I can contact you.

There is one tiny little catch. These tickets are for

Saturday MORNING's program -- Feb. 13 -- at the Meyerhoff. But, hey, if you've been stuck at home because of the snow, you should be ready to jump at any opportunity for diversion. And I'll make it a little easier by putting the tickets at Will Call for you.

This BSO "Casual Concert" at 11 a.m. Saturday features "Ansel Adams: America," composed by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his son Chris; this multi-media work will include the projection of some Adams photographs. Rounding out the program is the vivid symphony from 1934 that Paul Hindemith created out of music from his opera "Mathis der Maler."

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:41 PM | | Comments (2)

Leonard Slatkin extends contract with Detroit Symphony

Leonard Slatkin has signed on for two more years with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He also "made adjustments in compensation and will contribute conducting and community weeks without pay," according to the press release.

Slatkin, former music director of the National Symphony, started his DSO tenure with a three-year contract in '08-'09; the new agreement keeps him on the podium through the '12-'13 season. In a statement released by the orchestra Friday, the conductor said:

"Over the course of my early tenure with the Detroit Symphony, I have come to love everything that this organization represents. We have great musicians, a great hall and a great team of hard working staff and board. It is vitally important that every component do as much as possible to insure the continuing excellence of the musical experience. The pleasure of making music for and with everyone is beyond description, and so I am more than pleased to extend my contract with the DSO."

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:09 PM | | Comments (0)

Here's a switch: Concerts that are NOT canceled

As the weekend arrives and cabin fever pressure reaches dangerously high levels, let me assure you that musical relief awaits in the world beyond your immediate snow mountains. Several events originally planned for the next few days have NOT been canceled. How cool is that?

Yes, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra  had to scrap Thursday's scheduled performance at Strathmore, but the concerts at Meyerhoff Friday are still on. Friday night, Marin Alsop conducts the East Coast premiere of the multi-media work "Ansel Adams: America" by Dave and Chris Brubeck, as well as Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Saturday morning's casual concert includes the Brubeck and Hindemith works; Saturday evening's "off the cuff" concert focuses on the Brubeck and Mussorgsky pieces.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra will proceed with its Valentine's Day concert at Goucher College featuring concertmaster Madeline Adkins in the perennially popular

"Four Seasons" by Vivaldi. The program includes the equally popular "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber, along with a choral work by another fine American composer, Randall Thompson: "Place of the Blest," with the Peabody Children's Chorus.

Also on Sunday, Concert Artists of Baltimore will present a chamber music program devoted, since it's Valentine's Day, to highly romantic pieces by Brahms, Dvorak and Kreisler. The performance will be at the Engineer's Club.

Speaking of romantic (if you forget about the downer ending), there's Bizet's "Carmen" Sunday afternoon at the Lyric, starring Kirstin Chavez and Richard Lynch. This Opera New Jersey production, with concept and direction by Bernard Uzan and conducted by Joseph Rescigno, is proceeding as planned. The former Baltimore Opera Chorus, which will be onstage for the performance, is making up on Saturday for rehearsals lost to the snow this week.  

I'll add more to this the-show-must-go-on list as I get confirmation.

Meanwhile, note that the Peabody Symphony Orchestra concert with Mahler's Fourth that was postponed from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12 has been postponed again, to 2:30 p.m. Feb. 17. and the Peabody Concert Orchestra program with Shostakovich's Sixth scheduled for Feb. 12 has been postponed to 2:30 p.m. Feb. 18. Both will be free to the public. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)

February 11, 2010

Yefim Bronfman wins $50,000 prize in piano performance

Yefim Bronfman, one of the most dynamic keyboard artists of the day, has been awarded the $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance from the Northwestern University Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music.

Previous winners in this recently established biennial award are Richard Goode (2006) and Stephen Hough (2008); the prize is named for a 1952 Northwestern alum.

As it turns out, Bronfman is due in Baltimore (like everything else this winter, subject to weather conditions) on Feb. 21 to play a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. His adventurous program includes

Tchaikovsky's infrequently played Sonata in G, along with works by Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev.

Bronfman's particular blend of fearless virtuoisty and expressive intensity has always appealed to me. He's got the streak of individuality so crucial to making meaningful music. 

Here's a sample of the talent that earned Bronfman the Lane Prize:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:14 AM | | Comments (1)

Bad boys in the classical music world

With all the meterological distractions around here lately, I've been slowly catching up with some bits of news out there. Of morbid interest are the items about bad guys in the classical music world.

There's quite a dust-up at the Salzburg Easter Festival, one of the toniest events of its kind, with a long, distinguished history behind it. This story includes massive embezzlement and an apparent suicide attempt, so, naturally, folks are comparing it to the operatic drama that is a traditional part of the festival's attractions -- coincidentally, Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" is on the schedule this spring. 

This scandal comes close on the heels of a scam at the Barbican Centre, home of the great London Symphony Orchestra and much more. A much smaller amount of

money was involved, but still rather creepy.   

And then there's the sad case of Alberto Vilar, once the king of opera patrons, famed for throwing money at the Met, Covent Garden and the Kennedy Center, and for getting his name all over the place. He was recently sentenced to nine years for his Madoff-like schemes. I've always felt rather sorry for him ever since his rapid fall from the heights of donordom. After all, when the checks were good, this crook sure did some nice things for the arts.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:55 AM | | Comments (4)

February 10, 2010

Snow's impact on the arts will be felt for a long time

I meant to alert my faithful, dearly treasured blog readers to my Tuesday column, which addressed the snow's unwelcome punch to the local performing arts world, but I've been ever so distracted by that damn snow. 

Anyway, that column came out before the latest blast from the sky, which has already claimed Wednesday's schedule at Everyman Theatre. That company's production of "Two Rooms" has been very hard-hit in terms of cancelled shows. And it's cutting deeply into the bottom line, since you can't really make up for things like that.

If you manage to find seats at subsequent performances for patrons left out in the snow, 

it only means you've cut off the possibility to earn revenue from those unsold seats. And since it's impossible to extend the run of the play (availability of actors, preparations for the next production, etc.), you can't add inventory. It's a loss all the way around.

Same for (I almost wrote "ditto" -- but that's nearly as archaic as a fax) the Baltimore Symphony, which had to call off much-anticipated concerts last weekend, or anyone else who had to cancel ticketed events. And remember, all of the arts have already been limping from the recession. When all is said and melted, many organizations are going to be struggling with the toll from the disrupted season.

This is without question the worst winter of our discontent.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:28 AM | | Comments (0)

February 9, 2010

Pianist Till Fellner makes compelling Baltimore debut

Till FellnerIt was finally possible Monday night, at least for a couple of hours, to forget all about the whole bleak business that fell from the sky over the weekend and messed up so much of our lives and routines. I spent those hours at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Till Fellner, the extraordinary Austrian pianist, played an all-Beethoven recital that had been called off on Saturday because of you-know-what. This Baltimore debut of the much-heralded artist was remarkable on several levels, not the least of which was that it happened at all.

Presented by An die Music Live, in a departure from that organization’s home base in Mount Vernon, the event might easily have been canceled for good, as many other arts attractions were when the snow hit. Fellner’s scheduled recital Sunday at the National Gallery in DC was such a casualty, but he was willing to give the Baltimore gig another try on Monday. That was awfully fortunate for the folks who braved the still-iffy road conditions to get there – and fortunate for me that a couple of kindly souls were willing to give me a lift to and from; my car was still held captive by the conditions of the streets in my neighborhood. (Speaking of travel, there was a little glitch in the delivery of the Steinway to the BMA. Fellner had spent hours a few days earlier in DC picking out the instrument he wanted; that one stayed on the truck, alas. The crew unloaded the wrong one and departed.) 

Fellner, the heir apparent to Alfred Brendel’s legacy of intellectually incisive, expressively refined interpretations of the fundamental German repertoire, has been busy presenting a cycle of all 32 Beethoven sonatas in a series held in various cities. This single run-out to Baltimore contained five, starting with No. 12 in A-flat. Except for the statement of the theme in the opening movement, which could have used a subtler, softer, warmer touch, Fellner’s account of this compact, yet action-filled, score was rich in detail. When he reached the whirling finale, he  revealed a striking ability to maintain clarity and color even at a heady pace.

That flair would serve him well in every subsequent burst of rapid-fire finger work, such as the nearly perpetual motion finale of Sonata No. 13 in E-flat (Fellner’s tempo was both furious and fun). And the virtuosity-testing last movement of No. 14 (“Moonlight”), delivered with a particularly startling ease of articulation and compelling sense of drama. I found the pianist’s phrasing in the iconic first movement of No. 14 a little

antiseptic for my tastes, but the quality of execution was still impressive.

The first movement of No. 22 in F inspired abundant touches of character from Fellner; the way he delivered the burst of 21 repeated chords -- finely graded from a terrific fortissimo to a whisper -- just before the soft close of the first movement was but one example. The boldness of Beethoven’s vision and harmonic imagination in that score, as well as the “Waldstein” Sonata (No. 21) that closed the program, could be truly, deeply felt anew at every turn in Fellner’s performance. The closing movements of the “Waldstein” were magically shaped, from the sobering Adagio into the sweeping Rondo; the final prestissimo section, taken at a supersonic speed, was a marvel of musical muscle.

At 37, Fellner has already matured into a most impressive keyboard artist. It’s pretty cool to imagine what he’ll be capable of in the future.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 AM | | Comments (6)

February 8, 2010

Guest blog post: Kim Witman, from Wolf Trap Opera

One of my favorite summer activities is catching Wolf Trap Opera at the Barns. So I thought I'd let Kim Witman, the director of this remarkable company, tell you about that very appealing place in Vienna, Virginia:

Tim has been gracious enough to allow this guest post today, part of Wolf Trap Opera’s mini-internet splash on the occasion of our 2010 season announcement. You can find all of the details back on my blog -– but my intention here is to give you a glimpse inside our home: The Barns at Wolf Trap.


That’s the magic number. Of seats. I don’t know too many opera companies who regularly perform in a space where the distance from the edge of the stage to the back of the house is the same as the distance to the back of the orchestra pit at the Met. If you’re in the front row, you can almost reach out and touch the singers. If you’re in the back, you can still see the whites of their eyes.


As in: no fly space, no crossover space, no wing space.

When future directors and designers come to see the space, I preface the visit with drastic descriptions. No fly space (can’t pull anything out of sight above the stage); no upstage space (can’t walk from stage right to stage left without going down to the dressing rooms, walking under the stage, and back up a flight of stairs); and no wing space (as in, any set pieces that start onstage stay onstage.) Let’s just say, this is

not typical for an opera house.

The wonderful thing is that when artistic team members visit The Barns, they make friends quickly. There’s something warm and charming about that old barn that makes people forget to worry about all the things it can’t do. Quickly the brave stock phrases about “limitations inspiring creativity” turn to actual embrace of the space. And the work begins.

Watch Out for that Bow

We can fit 28 orchestra musicians in our pit. And that’s pushing it. It’s kind of a perfect size for a Mozart opera, but even problematic for Rossini and Donizetti, who tended to write for a few more brass players than Mozart did. We owe our players a debt of gratitude for their ongoing flexibility (figuratively and literally) in making music inside our tiny pit.

This summer, due to the percussion complement for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," some of the players are getting edged out of the pit. The audience will be joined in the house by harps, harpsichord and celesta, making Britten’s sonic world even more atmospheric!

The Magic in the Wood

There will be theatrical magic in the Athenian woods of "Midsummer," but there’s acoustical magic in the actual wood of this old barn. Our theatre was an actual working barn, taken from its home in upstate New York and reassembled (using 18th-century style tools) here in 1982 as a theatre. (As in “Hey! My dad has a barn! Let’s put on a show!) Wolf Trap founder Kay Shouse thought that the natural warm, clear acoustics of the building would be perfect for a performance space, and she was right.

Beer with That?

Some patrons aren’t sure about the fact that you can bring food and drink into the theatre with you. But I believe that enjoying a glass of wine with that second act of "Turk in Italy" could be a fine thing. There are occasional worries about noisy wrappers and clinking ice cubes destroying the mood, but most people have a surprising amount of common sense about this. In decades of attending and producing opera at The Barns, there have been very very few problems – probably no more than there are with candy and cough drop wrappers in a hall with traditional restrictions.

Never Been There?

You owe it to yourself to check us out someday. It’s a special place.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:47 PM | | Comments (2)

Baltimore Opera Chorus to sing again

In case you missed Sunday's paper (who didn't? I haven't seen a paper since Friday, and the roads where I live will still present a severe challenge to any would-be delivery on Monday), or in case you didn't find it online yet, may I be boldly self-pushing and mention that I had a story about the return, however limited, of the Baltimore Opera Chorus.

The ensemble, directed by the irrepressible and ever so amusing Jim Harp, just like in the old days, has been reassembled for the purpose of performing in Opera New Jersey's production of "Carmen" at the Lyric on Feb. 14. Not quite like having the old company back in business there, but it does look like something of a start.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

February 6, 2010

Snowbound blast from the past: Lensky's aria from Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin'

Are we having fun yet?

As if the blizzard weren't bad enough, our home computer died over night, leaving Robert and I feeling so last century. Our kindly nextdoor neighbor took pity on us and just leant us a laptop so I can try blogging a bit and Robert can catch up his real estate biz (thanks, Peter!).

I had planned on doing some profound analysis of Baltimore's musical future on the blog this weekend, but that will have to wait; I'm too worn out from shoveling a pathway and brushing off piles of snow on fragile shrubs and trees. So I'm just going for the easy way out and try posting a bit of snow-related music that also happens to provide a remarkable demonstration of refined, eloquent singing.

This is the great tenor aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" when Lensky, having rashly challenged his former best friend Onegin to a duel, contemplates

his fate before the fatal contest begins. This winter scene seems doubly fitting right now, as I look out at a ton of snow and who knows how many challenges to come. (I've had a soft spot for this scene ever since the first time I saw "Onegin" on the stage, a Bolshoi production that, in its unashamedly literal way, offered such a realistic-looking depiction of a snowfall that you would have sworn the real stuff was descending from the sky.)

Somehow, hearing a poor guy sing about his storm-tossed life on a bleak field seems terribly fitting as Baltimore lies buried by the wintry elements. But I'm sure you won't find yourself depressed by this scene, so much as moved by the quality of the performance from the old days by Sergei Lemeshev. He may be on the indulgent side interpretively, as some contend, but, man, what golden tones, what melting phrases. And melting is what I could use right about now:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (2)

February 5, 2010

Free dress rehearsal by Peabody Symphony Orchestra Friday

The Peabody Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform a program of Mahler, Schwantner and more Saturday night. That event, like so many others, has now been canceled in anticipation of the meteorological horror due any minute now. However, there's a silver lining in this case.

The orchestra will open its final rehearsal free to the public Friday afternoon (UPDATE: that's the 12th) at 2:30, when two of the works from the program will be played: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and "...durch den Tod zu Gott gekommen..." by Joshua William Mills, the winning work in the Macht Orchestral Composition Competition. (Schwantner’s "Chasing Light..." will be moved to a Peabody Symphony concert on Feb. 27.)

If you have tickets to Saturday's canceled performance, refunds or exchanges can be made through the box office: 410-234-4800.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:22 PM | | Comments (1)

Snowy blast from the past: Music for the approaching blizzard

Here we are again, under threat of the White Death, people frantically stocking up on milk and toilet paper (there's got to be a severe, mid-Atlantic shortage of that stuff by now), canceling or postponing events before the first flake even falls from the sky. Ain't it grand?

Speaking of grand, I figured this would be a good time to seek out another of my universally acclaimed, blog numbers-busting blasts from the past -- this time related to snow, of course. And that made me think of grand opera.

I couldn't find a clip of the avalanche scene in Catalani's "La Wally" or the atmospheric snowy opening to the third act of "La boheme," but the end that third act from Puccini's gem should work as well. I think you'll find a 1979 snippet from La Scala worth a look and listen, since it features the radiant soprano Ileana Cotrubas, giga-star tenor Luciano Pavarotti and sublime conductor Carlos Kleiber.

And maybe this lovely, snow-flecked glimmer from the not-so-distant past will help calm your nerves as blizzard hysteria rises around you:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:26 AM | | Comments (2)

February 4, 2010

Check out the Baltimore Symphony's collaboration with "Rusty Musicians"

In a resounding affirmation of how valued orchestras are in their communities, more than 600 amateur players jumped at the news that the Baltimore Symphony would hold a "Rusty Musicians" night at Strathmore.

The response was so great that two nights were set aside. The first was held Tuesday and, judging by the YouTube clip the BSO has quickly posted, a good time was had by all. (To save you the trouble of clicking, I've posted that clip below.)

The public is invited, for a nominal fee, to observe the second session Thursday (the 4th), from 6 to 10 pm, at Strathmore.

There is talk of offering a similar event at Meyerhoff early next season. (The recently announced BSO Academy for amateurs, scheduled for June, is a week-long enterprise with tuition.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:32 PM | | Comments (4)

In the Sun: the enduring 'Porgy' and the remarkable Till Fellner

Should you not have scoured Thursday's Sun fully, you might have missed more precious prose by moi, and I'd really hate for that to happen.

One article is about the enduring power of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which gets attention from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday in the form of a concert suite, and from Washington National Opera next month in a revival of Francesa Zambello's fabulous production. There are so many intriguing and rewarding things about this work, which I think easily justifies the ranking many of us give it -- the greatest American opera, period.

Coincidentally, both the BSO and WNO will have the benefit of soprano Indira Mahajan as Bess. In Baltimore, she'll be joined onstage by Derrick Parker as Porgy; in DC, she'll be singing with Lester Lynch as Porgy (there will be two casts for this production, the other starring Morenike Fadayomi and Eric Owens).

My other story is an interview with Till Fellner, the exceptional pianist who is slated to make his Baltimore debut on Saturday. (If the weather interferes, I may never look at snow the same way again.) I can't agree with his dismissal of Rachmaninoff's music, by the way, but I'll save my rebuttal for another time.

Speaking of Saturday, that's also the night when the Peabody Symphony Orchestra is set to offer one of its most appealing programs of the season --

Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (conducted by Teri Murai, with soprano Jennifer Edwards); the Maryland premiere of Joseph Schwantner's "Chasing Light" (conducted by Peabody grad student Ryan Haskins); and the winning work in the conservatory's Macht Orchestral Composition Competition, "...durch den Tod zu Gott gekommen...", by Joshua William Mills (conducted by grad student Karin Hendrickson).

I really hate the fact that two such enticing events should end up landing on the same night. This sort of thing happens all the time, of course. Maybe the Baltimore Cultural Alliance can start a project aimed at figuring out how to help performing arts in this town from competing against each other so often.

Meanwhile, good luck deciding what to hear this weekend -- assuming you can dig out from the massive white death that already has everyone in a panic.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:18 AM | | Comments (3)

February 3, 2010

New concert series brings free programs to Hopkins Hospital

Sorry to be late with this (you've noticed by now that lateness is part of my DNA, so there's no use fighting it) -- a new concert series was launched last week a co-production of the Peabody Conservatory and the Office of Cultural Affairs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The series of Wednesday-at-noon, free-to-the-public performances by recent or current Peabody students continues today (Feb. 3) at the hospital's Turner Auditorium, E. Monument St., between North Broadway and Rutland Avenue.

Today's artist is pianist Michael Sheppard, one of my favorite local musicians. He'll perform works by Bach, Chopin and more, as well as one of his own compositions. If you hurry, you'll just about make it.

The series continues Feb. 10th with

flutist Anastasia Petanova, violinist Netanel Draiblate and pianist Timothy Hoft;

March 3rd with singers from the Peabody Opera Department performing Brahms' "Liebslieder";

March 10th with the Brass Roots Quintet;

April 21st with Duo Transatlantique (classical guitarists Maud LaForest and Benjamin Beirs);

and May 12th, with Trio ELL (Luri Lee, violin, Laura Jekel, cello, Eunkyung Yoon, piano).

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (0)

Leon Fleisher, Pamela Frank and other Peabody faculty perform Brahms

As the snow was covering Mount Vernon Place with a picturesque layer Tuesday night, faculty members of the Peabody Conservatory performed a rewarding chamber music program.

The big draw was another opportunity to hear Leon Fleisher in two-handed mode, playing Brahms' F minor Quintet. Any time this pianist takes the stage is an occasion, of course, even when he is using only his left hand (damage to his right restricted his keyboard options for decades until Botox therapy in recent years made it possible to use that hand again, within limits). Each ambidextrous venture becomes all the more treasurable an occasion.

Fleisher was joined in the Brahms work by violinists Violaine Melancon and Pamela Frank (a major talent who has not been in the spotlight much lately and here took the second violin chair), violist Maria Lambros and cellist Michael Kannen. Except for the most emphatic moments, when Melancon's tone tended to fray, the string players poured on a cohesively blended, warm-bodied sound and phrased with great sensitivity. Fleisher's contributions were, as usual, authoritative in character throughout.

Although I wouldn't have minded a little more

tension from the ensemble in the second movement, a little more abandon in the finale, this was an insightful, loving account of a darkly beautiful score.

The string players alone delivered the first half of the concert. After an amiable account of Beethoven's D major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 3, attention turned Webern's Five Movements, Op. 5. I readily confess that this, for me, was the most satisfying part of the whole evening.

Webern, widely ignored by musical organizations and even more widely feared by listeners, remains one of the most significant composers of the last century. Hearing these brief, idea-packed scores, which reveal Webern boldly stretching away from traditional tonality toward a new world of sound and structure, was a rare, absorbing pleasure.

It was made all the more intense by the superb technical control and expressive nuance of the players -- and the extraordinary silence in the audience. Every note could be fully savored in the hall, even the softest, when the musicians masterfully filed their tone down to the barest, yet still wonderfully expressive, essence.

I'll always stubbornly believe that the the general public could embrace a lot more of Webern (not to mention Schoenberg and Berg) if only a) the music were programmed more frequently and carefully, and b) if it were always performed with the kind of care and commitment demonstrated here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:03 AM | | Comments (2)

February 2, 2010

Guest blogger: Mary McCauley reviews "Sea of Birds" at Theatre Project

Here's a guest blog entry by my colleague Mary Carole McCauley (, reviewing a new production that will have its final performances Thursday-Saturday at the Theatre Project:  

In “Sea of Birds,” the long and sinuous goose neck of a lamp morphs into the tail on a cow. An armful of sticks turns into a percussion instrument when suddenly dropped upon the floor. In the next instant, one stick is balanced upon a leg. As the limb rocks gently back and forth, the curved piece of wood begins to resemble a seagull in flight.

The multimedia piece running through Saturday at Theatre Project presents one arresting, startling image after the other. The audience revels in the fertile imagination of Sebastienne Mundheim, who not only created the work based on her mother’s memories of wartime Latvia, but who provides the sparse narration.

But watching show presented by the Pennsylvania-based White Box Theatre is a little like walking through an art museum. The paintings aren’t expected to relate to one another, so the most intense pleasure comes from the individual moments. What is missing in “Sea of Birds” is the sense that the score, the movements, the story, and yes, the images themselves, add up to a larger whole.

The show takes place beneath a curved white tent that resembles the

inside of a cave or an egg. Four performers clad entirely in black take turns making shadows with their hands. Or they simultaneously stand up and fall down as if the stage floor had suddenly become coated with ice. Or they manipulate two elegant, oversized sculptures that resemble the skeletons of a human being and a horse.

Mundheim writes in the program notes that “Sea of Birds” is based on her mother’s experiences growing up in Latvia during World War II, at a time when the country was occupied by the German army, and invaded by the Russians. But rather than a strict recounting of history, she says, the show is about inheriting a sensibility in which the most tragic events were suffused with the beauty of the natural world. She writes that the text is limited because it’s not central to the show.

Fair enough.

But because Mundheim chooses to include words, that element ought to be complete, and there are times when she leaves narrative threads dangling. Adding one more piece of information – even if just a phrase, or a sentence -- might provide the sense of closure that audiences crave.

For instance, at one point, Mundheim’s family flees in advance of the Russian army, but her mother’s grandmother, who is old and infirm, is left behind. But the audience is never told what happens to the old woman. Was she killed by the invaders? Did she survive, but die during her family’s long exile? Or were they eventually reunited? Without an answer to that question, the audience is left feeling unsettled and irritated at the narrator for holding out on us.

The original score by James Sugg and Chad Kinsey is moody and evocative and very nearly provides the unifying thread that the audience seeks, but can’t do it unaided.

There also were times when the show, at a mere 45 minutes, seemed overstuffed. I think this is because Mundheim is so entranced by the vibrant visual world that she will go to great lengths to set up an elaborate effect.

For example, the narrator describes how her mother used to play with dolls beneath her bed. Two performers cart a wooden bed on stage, then carefully lower from the bed a miniature “set” consisting of a board covered with grassy hills, on which the dolls move around. Someone else builds a stone path leading from the edge of the Theatre Project stage to the wooden bed. It all takes about five minutes before the “scene” starts -- and the action is over in another two, at which point the performers slowly disassemble the entire contraption.

The problem isn’t that the bed and stones and dolls aren’t appealing. They are, but the pay-off isn’t spectacular enough to justify the prolonged set-up. The more time an audience spends watching a performer preparing to a magic trick, the higher are our expectations. After many long minutes of nothing much going on, the conjurer better pull an elephant, at the very least, out of his top hat.

But though “Sea of Birds” might not be perfect, it is brimming with wonder. This show might not be as seamless as theater pieces by other artists, but it nonetheless yields greater rewards than do many more conventional works.

Mundheim has a remarkable eye and the rare ability to catch her audience by surprise and set us back on our heels. In a profession filled with almost-theres and not-quites, she is the genuine deal, the real thing -- an artist who helps the rest of us see more than we have before.

-- Mary McCauley

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (1)

February 1, 2010

Emanuel Ax salutes bicentennial of Chopin, Schumann in Shriver Hall recital

One of the most anticipated events on the local music calendar was Sunday's recital by Emanuel Ax for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, his first appearance there in more than 30 years. I'd like to be able to report on the whole program, but I was stuck on Grammy watch at the Sun that day, waiting for word about Baltimore's representation among the assorted nominees -- the BSO (for its Bernstein "Mass" release) and the children's band Milkshake.

Alas, neither won, which was bad news for them, and good news for me -- it meant that there was no story to write and I had a decent chance to hear at least some of Ax's playing.

By the time I got to Shriver, intermission was starting. Rats. But there still were some great items left in this program devoted to 2010's bicentennial boys, Schumann and Chopin, and the pianist had plenty of great music-making left, too.

The two composers had a good deal in common -- relatively short lives, assorted ailments (physical and/or mental). And, musically speaking, an ability to take the piano into a whole new realm of color and expressive range, much of it packed into short forms. Most of the individual movements of, say, the "Fantasiestucke," Op. 12, by Schumann are only about three minutes long; Chopin's four Mazurkas, Op. 41, are that brief or briefer. But what worlds of poetry and feeling each creative burst opens up.

It's possible to find even more nuances in the

"Fantasiestucke" than Ax did, but he did marvelous things nonetheless, offering as much formidable technique as poetic sensitivity. I especially enjoyed the subtler passages. "Des Abends" floated on a gossamer tone; "Warum" sang out wistfully; the last chords of "Ende von Lied" were articulated with exquisite timing and finesse, each one reaching a lower, yet more compelling, pianissimo.

Those Mazurkas emerged a little less interestingly, though with unerring, patrician taste. Ax's affinity for the music of his fellow Pole shone through more vividly in his account of the "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise." In less imaginative hands, both parts of this score can sound ever so slightly repetitive (dare I say tedious?), but Ax used delectable rhythmic freedom and a wide array of tone coloring to create an arresting performance. The surge of power at the end proved particularly effective. 

And the A minor Waltz, Op. 34, No. 2, played as an encore, was beautifully delivered with what you might call a noble wistfulness.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:05 AM | | Comments (4)
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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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