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March 31, 2010

Guest blog review: 'The Light in the Piazza' at Arena Stage

My colleague Mary McCauley has posted this guest review of the Arena Stage production of "The Light in the Piazza," which runs through April 11:

Florence's city squares are famous for the sunshine that illuminates the pillars and monuments, the extraordinary clarity with which visitors can see the smallest details -- and the deceptive optimism that glow can engender.

So "The Light in the Piazza" isn’t merely the title of the musical currently running at Arena Stage, but the perfect metaphor for love at first sight, the kind experienced by a free-spirited American tourist in 1953 and the gallant Italian who falls hard for her.

As the young lovers, Clara and Fabrizio, Margaret Anne Florence and Nicholas Rodriguez, are splendid, healthy creatures, alluring of face and radiant of voice. They, and the performers who play their respective families, were so perfectly cast by the show's director Molly Smith, and are so persuasive in their roles, that it's hard not to so carried away that we overlook the occasional flaws.

This is the chamber concert version of the musical that won six Tony Awards in 2008 by capitalizing on the strength of Adam Guettel's unconventional, operatic score characterized by surprising harmonic shifts and Craig Lucas' psychologically complex script.

"Piazza" is based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer that served as the basis for the 1962 film starring George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and Olivia de Havilland. The novella, film and musical raise compelling questions about romantic love, illusion, and parental responsibility.

The lovers meet when Clara’s hat is blown away by a gust of wind, and Fabrizio, who has been gazing wistfully at the beautiful girl from a distance, comes to her aid. The two are instantly smitten, and seem so well-suited to one another, that initially Clara’s mother, who opposes the match, seems the model of maternal over-protectiveness.

But, the audience gradually becomes aware that Clara isn’t as she seems, and that, because of the language barrier, Fabrizio might be missing the clues that could illuminate his new love.s unconventional behavior.

For all their physical appeal, Florence and Rodriguez

never trade on their good looks. He displays a gently self-mocking touch when the role requires him to act like a distraught adolescent, and she imbues her performance with a slight, intentional raggedness, the suggestion of sandpaper. When Clara’s secret is revealed at the end of Act I, it doesn't come as a total surprise – but then, it probably shouldn't.

Ken Krugman, Mary Gutzi and Jonathan Raviv also deliver assured performances as, respectively, Fabrizio's father, mother and ne'er-do-well brother, while Ariela Morgenstern, as the disillusioned Franca, displays a ravishing mezzo.

But "The Light in the Piazza" succeeds or fails on the performance of the actor playing Margaret. Luckily, Resnik is as formidable a singer as she is an actress, and her rendition of the bittersweet "Dividing Day" about the growing distance in her own marriage is one of the evening's poignant high points.

Resnik plays Margaret as less a controlling monster than as a confused caregiver torn between conflicting responsibilities and codes of ethics, who yearns after an order that constantly eludes her. Resnik's Margaret seems always to be on the verge of stumbling, of her scarf becoming unknotted or her hair undone.

Because "Light in the Piazza" is set in Italy, and features some emotional (and very funny) scenes between Fabrizio's family, the score’s operatic inflections seem not just appropriate, but inspired. Because many of these characters speak only Italian, many lyrics are in that language.

"Piazza's" creative team could give pointers to the folks who put together the bilingual production of "West Side Story" currently running on Broadway – that's a show that never quite figured out how to handle the linguistic back-and-forth. In "Piazza" the shifts from English to Italian are integrated so seamlessly into the script that the audience barely notices that the characters are speaking a foreign tongue.

The exception is "Aiutami," when the director explicitly calls attention to the show's bilingual character by having the Naccharelli family matriarch translate their comic family melt-down from Italian into English. The result is the comic highlight of the evening.

But, because "Piazza" is in many ways a play about light, it's confusing that the stage frequently looks almost murky. You would think that designer Michael Gillam would have drenched the stage in sunshine, would have made the lovers in particular seem lit from within. It's possible that Arena's temporary, underground home in Crystal City made creating such an effect impossible. Or perhaps Gillam and director Smith were trying to make a point about the moral ambiguity in which Margaret and many of the other characters find themselves.

But, by working in opposition to the story's main theme, some of the show's bright, crisp wattage unfortunately gets dimmed.

-- Mary Carole McCauley (

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Terrence McNally's 'Golden Age' spices up opera history

The Kennedy Center is awash in opera these days, but not in the usual sense. Three provocative, opera-centric plays by Terrence McNally are running in repertory on three different stages, connected by a common thread -- the legacy of the ever-compelling Maria Callas.

Two of the works are deeply wrapped up in the soprano who conquered the opera world with her distinctive timbre, imperfect technique and stunning emotional honesty. "The Lisbon Traviata" gets its name from one of the many live performances by Callas that used to be coveted by pirate-recording collectors (now readily available). Although the singer is neither a character nor the primary plot-driving force in the play, her spirit is felt in some way or another at every turn. (My review is posted elsewhere on the Sun site.)

"Master Class" takes as its starting point the singer's famous sessions with Juilliard students in 1971 and '72, using that platform to create a mesmerizing glimpse into the woman behind the legend. (I'll be seeing this revival on Thursday.)

And then there's "Golden Age," McNally's fanciful vision of backstage on the opening night of Bellini's "I Puritani," Jan. 24, 1835, in Paris. Here, Callas serves as a sort of a pre-echo. Her recording of that opera is the one played throughout the play, and the character of mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran -- "La Malibran," as she was called by her devoted followers -- becomes very much a Callas-like presence in the second act.

"Golden Age" is an intriguing work, one that manages to be

several things at once -- history lesson, personality study, a discourse on the nature of fame and talent and temperament. McNally doesn't attempt a literal re-creation. His language is totally 21st century, expletives included, and wonderfully bitchy one-liners fly by at a good clip. Characters are drawn mostly with broad strokes, and the action gets a little Marx Brothers-y at times (their greatest film was "A Night at the Opera," after all), but a seriousness and sympathy beneath the surface can always be felt.

The "Puritani" premiere, one of the most celebrated occasions in all of opera, certainly provides a wealth of material to run with, and McNally has a field day drawing out the individualistic tics of Bellini, full of nerves, charm and illness; Giulia Grisi, the silvery-voiced soprano wondering how many jewels to wear onstage; Giovanni Rubini, the stupendously gifted tenor anxious to prove he's got the high notes; Antonio Tamburini, the clarion baritone with equal parts vanity and insecurity; and Luigi Lablache, the sonorous, sensible bass. (The four singers, then at the height of the fame and powers, became known after that opening night as "the 'Puritani' Quartet.")

Added to this colorful assortment are Grisi's rival Malibran, who would inspire Bellini to write a mezzo version of "Puritani"; Francesco Florimo, Bellini's lifelong friend and, in McNally's view, lover (some scholars will dispute that possibility, but the circumstantial evidence is awfully persuasive); and the dean of Italian opera at the time, Rossini.

For non-opera buffs, "Golden Age" may not be terribly interesting, but for anyone who loves Bellini, bel canto and backstage back-stabbing, this is an irresistible concoction.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company's premiere production from 2009, with its vivid set by Santo Loquasto, has been imported to the Kennedy Center. There's a new director, Walter Bobbie, who paces things deftly and gets a lively response from the players.

The agile and arresting Jeffrey Carlson makes Bellini a compelling figure, an operatic Algernon from "The Importance of Being Earnest," with hands and feet a-flutter in wonderfully expressive ways. Marc Kudisch nearly steals the show with his delicious preening as the cocky Tamburini ("a satyr with high notes"). Christopher Michael McFarland effectively conveys the likable, hopelessly romantic nature of Rubini. Hoon Lee makes a vibrant Leblache. Rebecca Brooksher could use a little more nuance, but does an amusing turn as Grisi. Amanda Mason Warren captures Malibran's mix of divahood and womanhood in telling fashion. Like Judi Dench in "Shakespeare in Love," George Morfogen makes the most of his brief stage time as Rossini. It's an award-worthy performance, one that creates a remarkably detailed portrait with the subtlest of vocal inflections and physical expressions (the audience gave him an ovation as he exited the scene at the performance I attended). Roe Hartrampf is not nearly as polished an actor as the others, but he conveys enough of Florimo's charm to do the job.

"Golden Age," which runs through Sunday, creaks a little when the text switches back and forth from historical context (one character even helpfully recites the date) to witticism to historical context to schtick. There are occasional quirky bits, too. Why, for example, does Bellini play "Stormy Weather," "Hello, Dolly" and the like on the piano? But, in the end, what hits you is McNally's passion for the subject matter, his ability to animate the distant past so imaginatively and affectionately. This breezy production honors that exceptional creativity.

PHOTOS BY MARK GARVIN COURTESY OF THE KENNEDYCENTER (Jeffrey Carlson as Bellini, Amanda Mason Warren as Malibran)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)

March 30, 2010

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky sing up a storm for WPAS

It's hard to keep up the lament about the dearth of great, or even just interesting, opera singers today when you encounter American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who teamed up for a concert Monday presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. (Hvorostovsky dedicated the evening to the memory of the victims of Monday's terrorist attack in Moscow.)

The two artists have two of the most distinctive voices to be heard in our time, and the musical/dramatic instincts to back those voices up. By any era's standards, these are substantial singers, and that's how they sounded in a hefty program backed by the National Philharmonic and conducted by Metropolitan Opera regular Marco Armiliato.

You can carp about the limited tonal power of Hvorostovsky, if you like. He has never had the biggest sound around, and he has to push hard to reach his maximum volume. But, 21 years after his career-launching win at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, his tone remains nearly as smooth and sensual as the velvet tux he wore on Monday.

Radvanovsky has been a major buzz-generator for some time now, and no wonder. The soprano's voice might not be conventionally beautiful in terms of tonal cream, but, man, is it alive with color gradations and expressive nuances, from the burgundy low register to an often gleaming top. You just can't take your ears off of her. And the soprano seems to live each line she sings; there is no skating through text or focusing on effect. Her every note carries expressive weight.

The two singers produced plenty of theatrical chemistry to match their vocal intensity in excerpts from

"Simon Boccanegra" and "Un Ballo in Maschera." In the Renato/Amelia scene from the latter, Radvanovsky fell to her knees to sing the plaintive "Morro, ma prima in grazia" and tapped deeply into the music's poignancy. The baritone encountered a slight crack in "Eri tu," but recovered quickly; the "O dolcezze perdute" lines in the aria were phrased exquisitely.

An aria from "William Tell" received a smooth performance from Hvorostovsky. His colleague offered an involving "Song of the Moon" from "Rusalka." The final scene from "Eugene Onegin" found both singers in dynamic, involving form -- the whole opera seemed to be conjured up onstage in those few minutes.

Throughout the evening, Armiliato provided supple support on the podium. The orchestra began in decidedly uneven form (several of the solo efforts were particularly rough), but, after intermission, it sounded almost like a new ensemble, tighter in articulation, warmer in tone, more responsive in phrasing.

All in all, a classy night for WPAS, which has announced a most attractive lineup for the 2010-11 season.

(You didn't hear this from me, but the last I checked, there was a brief, unauthorized clip of Monday's "Onegin" performance posted on YouTube by someone sitting pretty close to the stage. If that gets taken down, you'll find samples of the two artists in a 2008 Moscow concert that covered some of the same repertoire as the DC program -- a program, by the way, that will be presented at Carnegie Hall on Thursday.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (6)

Washington Performing Arts Society announces star-packed 2010-11 season

Looks like the Washington Performing Arts Society will be batting a "Thousand" during its 2010-11 season. The lineup includes a performance in October of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 -- the one nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the forces required -- conducted by Valery Gergiev, leading the Mariinsky Orchestra and Choral Arts Society of Washington. This is bound to be one hot ticket (speaking of which, WPAS season subscriptions go on sale Friday).

Another Russian orchestra is on the schedule, this one led by the man who gave Gergiev his first big break years ago -- Yuri Temirkanov. Remember him? He has canceled so many guest-conducting engagements in the States in recent years, including with his former orchestra in Baltimore, that he seems quite the stranger now. But he's likely to be at the helm of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic when it performs Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 (with Alicia Weilerstein) and Brahms' Fourth at Strathmore for WPAS in April 2011.

And speaking of missing maestros, there's


James Levine, whose health issues have forced him to cancel a slew of performances this season. But, if all goes well, he'll make his first WPAS appearance as music director of the Boston Symphony at the Kennedy Center in March 2011, leading a Mozart-Schumann program.

Other orchestras on the series: Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Daniel Harding (Kennedy Center); NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan, Andre Previn conducting (Strathmore); Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting (Kennedy Center).

It looks to me like the list of WPAS recitalists for 2010-11 is about as starry as it could get these days:

soprano Renee Fleming; mezzo Joyce DiDonato; pianists Evgeny Kissin (all-Liszt program), Maurizio Pollini (playing the last three Beethoven sonatas), Emanuel Ax, András Schiff, Marc-André Hamelin, Till Fellner, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Simone Dinnerstein; violnists Anne-Sophie Mutter (playing the three Brahms sonatas), Hilary Hahn (Baltimore's own, as we like to call her, and she's including works by Ives on Antheil on her program), Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman; cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Amit Peled (another Baltimore connection -- he teaches at Peabody).

There's much more, including chamber music and jazz, to round out a very impressive collection of talent.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (2)

March 29, 2010

Weekend roundup: Recitals by two popular veterans of Baltimore's music scene

In addition to a couple of plays in DC, I slipped into portions of two Baltimore recitals over the weekend, each one featuring a popular, longtime contributor to the local cultural life.

On Saturday night, pianist Ernest Ragogini drew a sizable audience to LeClerc Auditorium at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. The engaging artist has been a musical anchor at the school for more than 30 years, valued for his erudition and sensitivity. In addition to teaching, he founded the Music at CND concert series and co-directs the Liszt/Garrison Festival and International Piano Competition held at the college.

I caught the first half of his program, which began with a thoughtful, clear-cut account of Bach's Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue. The pianist's articulation wasn't entirely crystalline in the two big Chopin pieces that followed, but his sense of architectural cohesion, tonal nuance and a singing line paid off nicely in the A-flat major Ballade and the F minor Fantasie (the martial tune that turns up in the latter was approached with particularly effective vitality).

Sunday afternoon found me at

Second Presbyterian Church, where another good-sized crowd gathered to hear what was billed as the final public recital by organist Margaret Budd and, on the second half of the event (I couldn't stay), a recital by guitarist David Burgess.

Budd was organist at the church for more than 30 years and is the founding director of Community Concerts at Second, the free series that has been a mainstay of Sunday musical activity in the city. She also happens to be one of the most amiable figures on the local music scene. (One of the first dreadful things I did after starting on this job a decade ago was to accept an invitation from Budd to meet for lunch and then forget to show up. I couldn't have been more embarrassed; she couldn't have been more gracious.)

This farewell performance almost didn't happen. Budd has been fighting pneumonia and, last week, had to have her dog euthanized. She had more than enough reason to cancel, but decided to go ahead anyway (she thanked antibiotics in remarks to the audience), but wisely reduced the program from five to three pieces.

She offered an atmospheric account of Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variation; you could almost smell the incense as the darkly beautiful music unfolded. Frederick Swann's retro Trumpet Tune got a buoyant workout. Whatever cloudiness of execution crossed her playing of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, the nobility and breadth of the score emerged tellingly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (0)

Classical Relief for Haiti brings together 23 UK artists in fundraising download

Those of us on this side of the Pond may not recognize as "classical" all of the artists who have made "Classical Relief for Haiti," but the sincerity behind their efforts is beyond question.

Among the UK performers are cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, tenor Paul Potts (a reality-show sensation before Susan Boyle), the Priests (often featured in PBS pledge-time programming) and percussionist Evelyn Glennie, not to mention the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

This "We Are The World"-type fundraiser to benefit Haitian relief efforts is a performance of "The Prayer," a pop ballad recorded orginally by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion. Although the Web info on obtaining a copy of the recording says the CD version is for delivery to UK addresses only, I imagine that the downloadable version would be obtainable by anyone.

Here's the video:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:20 AM | | Comments (2)

March 28, 2010

Renee Fleming rocks out

There has been a buzz for some time now about Renee Fleming's latest recording project -- covering a whole bunch of rock songs -- we're talking Death Cab for Cutie, Tears for Fears, Muse, Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Jefferson Airplane, et al. The recording is due out in early June. 

Seems like Fleming, whose affinity for jazz is already documented (in a smoky chest voice quite unlike her operatic sound), is perfectly comfortable getting all rock-y, too. A few tantalizing snippets of the disc, "Dark Hope," are included in an audio clip that accompanies a story about the soprano that appeared Sunday in The Observer. (My thanks to the on-top-of-it folks at Washington National Opera for bringing the story to my attention via Twitter.) 

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:29 PM | | Comments (0)

March 26, 2010

Baltimore Symphony wraps up circus programs with operas, ballet

In one of the best known moments from opera, the character of the traveling entertainer Canio in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" reluctantly puts on his clown costume, the last thing he wants to do after a distressing incident in his private life. But the audience expects to be entertained, he sings, so he must laugh anyway and make the people applaud.

I don't mean to get too maudlin, but that image crossed my mind last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gathered onstage for another of this month's series of circus-theme programs. This one, as fate would have it, even included some ballet dancers cavorting in the same sort of Pierrot costume Canio wears in "Pagliacci."

The BSO players could not have been totally in the mood for making merry, not after accepting a new contract this week that will see them continue to lose financial ground -- they'll end up in a few years just about where they were, salary-wise, in 2001; more than a decade of treading water. Once again, the musicians have taken a financial blow to help the BSO stay on solid ground; last year's concessions weren't enough. (BSO staffers have been hit, too, during this recession.)

So there the players were Thursday night, listening stone-faced to pre-concert remarks by Lainy LeBow-Sachs, a vice chair of the BSO's board of directors, who spoke of their "painful" sacrifices and suggested that a standing ovation was in order. The audience obliged heartily; the musicians sat through it stoically, still largely expressionless. But expression was abundant once Marin Alsop took the stage and led the orchestra in one of the most unusual and captivating programs of the season.


Never mind that it's hard to relate the circus concept to the two short American operas on the first half of the bill -- Samuel Barber's 10-minute "A Hand of Bridge," about two rather dysfunctional married couples; and George Gershwin's 20-minute "Blue Monday," about sentiment, jealousy and violence in a Harlem nightclub. The rest of the evening, devoted to Igor Stravinsky's ballet "Pulcinella," given complete and with choreography, offered a kind of Big Top fun.

The 1959 Barber opera is a remarkably compact creation, propelled by a recurring bit of slinky, spiky music that leads to into jazzy or Broadway tunes one moment, and lush, operatic arias the next. It's much too intimate a work for Meyerhoff. A lot of the text (by Gian Carlo Menotti) got swallowed up in this large space, and there's some awfully colorful, even off-color, stuff in there worth hearing distinctly as the opera's four bridge-players reveal their inner secrets. But the young artists from Washington National Opera brought dynamic vocalism and acting to the assignment: Jennifer Lynn Waters (revealing a particularly appealing soprano voice as the melancholy Geraldine), Aleksey Bogdanov (David), Jesus Daniel Hernandez (Bill), Cynthia Hanna (Sally).

Kevin Newbury, who did the semi-staging for Bernstein's "Mass" with the BSO last year, devised an effective presentation for "A Hand of Bridge" and "Blue Monday." The latter, written in 1922, cannot be mistaken for a masterwork. Much of it is, well, laughable. The libretto (by B.G. DeSylva) is a mess of racial stereotypes, not to mention theatrical and operatic cliches. But what a cool piece it is just the same, revealing Gershwin's early thinking about how to approach something like an opera (he'd do it up right a decade or so later in "Porgy and Bess").

Alsop, who conducted the premiere recording in 1993, has obvious affection for the score, and she drew tight, colorful playing from the orchestra. The "Blue Monday" singers -- alums (and one current student) of Morgan State University -- made what they could of the silly story and lavished considerable sensitivity on the music (they were gently amplified). Issachah Savage, as the gambler Joe, even made the imitation mother-dear Irish ballad sound inspired. Kenneithia Mitchell offered a sweet, pure soprano as the suspicious Vi.

The neo-classical charm and brilliance of "Pulcinella" emerged tellingly, thanks to Alsop's deft tempos and phrasing, and a great deal of refined, warmly nuanced playing from the orchestra. The Baltimore School for the Arts Dancers executed the witty choreography by Lisa de Ribere with aplomb (a couple of the most energetic ensemble routines recalled the Dancing Santas in the BSO's annual Holiday Spectacular). Soprano Emily Albrink, tenor Robert Baker and bass Brendan Cooke made vibrant contributions -- an extra bonus of having the complete score performed (usually, only the all-instrumental suite from "Pulcinella" is heard in concert).

Although clouded at the end by the unfortunate news about the musicians' contract, this month of circus-y diversion has been remarkably enjoyable -- terrific repertoire (much of it rarely encountered), vivid presentation. I even started to like the smell of popcorn and the sight of cotton candy in the lobby.

This finale will be repeated in full Sunday afternoon; "Pulcinella" will be the focus on Saturday morning and evening.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | Comments (0)

In today's paper: Baltimore Symphony contract, 'Porgy' and more

While you're waiting for something fresh and fabulous to appear on this site (it's always such a long wait, I know), don't miss other efforts by your humble scribbler.

In a followup to Thursday's bulletin, check out Friday's story about the new, painful contract over at the BSO, which will effectively push the musicians back to 2001 pay levels (and that was a pretty low level then).

Also, you'll find a mini-review of Washington National Opera's "Porgy and Bess," a welcome revival of the striking Francesa Zambello staging. Oh yes, and a review of Everyman Theatre's gentle new production of "Our Town."

That should distract you until I can get a review up of Thursday night's BSO program of Gershwin. Barber and Stravinsky.   

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:40 AM | | Comments (5)

March 25, 2010

Another sensational Clef Notes ticket giveaway


Once again, the folks at Baltimore Sun Media Group have passed along some concert tickets that I'll offer free to lucky Clef Notes readers.

Two winners will each receive a pair of seats to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance at

3 p.m. Sunday (March 28) at Meyerhoff Hall. The program, conducted by Marin Alsop, offers Stravinsky's colorful ballet score, "Pulcinella" and a rare opportunity to hear two short operas by great American composers -- Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge" and George Gershwin's "Blue Monday." The soloists are members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program -- who took part in a cool publicity stunt in Baltimore Wednesday afternoon. 

The 1922 Gershwin work is a precursor of sorts to "Porgy and Bess," a blend of operatic and jazz worlds used to tell the story of a passionate scene in a Harlem club. Barber's compact opera from 1959 depicts two married couples playing cards, each person thinking of something else.

To receive the free tickets, just answer this: Who wrote the libretto for each of those two operas? The first two correct answers received by 11:15 a.m. will win. If there are more than two correct answers by then (there are bound to be hundreds or thousands, surely), winners will be selected from a random drawing.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:20 AM | | Comments (3)

March 24, 2010

So much for the encouraging news about the Vienna Philharmonic

The other day, I got on the bandwagon celebrating the appointment of the Vienna Philharmonic's first female concertmaster -- the story emanated from the AP. Can't trust any news outlet these days, I guess.

My diligent colleague Susan Elliott of reported Wednesday that the story is not quite what it seems, that Albena Danailova was actually named a permanent concertmaster of Vienna Opera Orchestra --not entirely the same thing as the Vienna Philharmonic.

As Susan points out, while Philharmonic members play in the opera ensemble, it doesn't mean that everyone in the opera plays in the Philharmonic. So it appears that Danailova has not landed the concertmaster post at the august Philharmonic after all. Bummer.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:57 PM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore Symphony to record complete symphonies of Prokofiev for Naxos

In addition to the programming announcement of the BSO's 2010-11 season, reported on Tuesday's blog and, with a few little extras in Wednesday's paper, there's some news regarding the orchestra's recording projects.

One of the bonuses in having Marin Alsop as music director is that she brought a strong connection to the Naxos label with her, and the company was happy to add the BSO to its product line. The initial project was a cycle of Dvorak symphonies (Nos. 6-9). The first release, with the "New World," came out last season, the next, with the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, is due in June, but BSO subscribers can nab it early (and "at a special price," of course).

Next season, you will notice two Prokofiev symphonies, No. 1 and No. 6, on a program that Alsop will conduct. This marks the start of a new cycle that will be recorded by Naxos over the next few years; it will cover all seven of the composer's symphonies and possibly other orchestral works.

Never mind that, as the great experts have it, there is no classical music recording industry left and no real market for the CDs and downloads that keep being churned out by that dead industry. It's still understandable that orchestras want to get their work recorded, for marketing (well beyond the home turf) and, if you will, for posterity.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:30 AM | | Comments (1)

March 23, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's 2010-11 season rich in Mahler, Verdi, Glass

Marin Alsop has kept music by Mahler prominent in her programming since taking the helm of the Baltimore Symphony. The just-announced 2010-11 season, Alsop's fourth as music director, is no exception.

The season straddles the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth and centennial of his death, providing an extra hook for the inclusion of his Seventh Symphony, the unfinished Tenth, the discarded "Blumine" movement from Symphony No. 1 and "Das Lied von der Erde" (soloists TBA). Add to this several of Mahler's controversial re-touched scores by other composers: Beethoven's "Eroica" and "Leonore" Overture No. 3; Schumann's "Spring" Symphony and "Manfred" Overture; a suite Bach; even Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Overture.

Still more Mahler will turn up: Britten's arrangement of the second movement from the Third Symphony ("What the Wild Flowers Tell Me"). Mahler's wife, Alma, also will be remembered with the performance of some of her songs. Alsop will conduct most of the Mahler item. Cornelius Meister will be on the podium for the Smetana arrangement, Carlos Kalmar for the Britten.

Verdi's Requiem, which, coincidentally, has been quite popular lately around here (performances this month by the National Symphony and Concert Artists of Baltimore), will close the BSO's '10-'11 season. Alsop will conduct; the Washington Chorus (the NSO's superb partner in the Requiem) will participate; soloists TBA.

Baltimore native Philip Glass, whose music Alsop has long championed, will be back in the picture. Alsop will conduct his

multimedia work "Icarus at the Edge of Time," based on the children's book by physicist Brian Greene; this program also offers John Williams' "Star Wars" Suite.

Other notable contemporary fare on the '10-'11 lineup: John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" Symphony (based on the recent opera of that name); Roberto Sierra's Sinfonia No. 4 (conducted by Juanjo Mena); and a new work (not yet identified) by Osvaldo Golijov. Some compelling classics of the 20th century will be heard, notably Berg's Violin Concerto (soloist Baiba Skride, conductor Mario Venzago) and Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra (conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier)

Alsop and the BSO will go operatic with a semi-staged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," featuring members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

There are several bread-and-butter pieces spread throughout the season, among them Beethoven's Fifth (yet again, this time with Venzago conducting), Schubert's Fifth (Venzago), Rossini's "William Tell" Overture (Hasn Graff conducting) Dvorak's "New World" Symphony (yet again, with Alsop), Brahms' Symphony No. 2 (Meister) Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (Graf); violin concertos by Mendelssohn (soloist Stefan Jackiw with Alsop) and Brahms (soloist Augustin Hadelich with Mena); piano concertos by Chopin (Ingrid Fliter playing No. 2 with Graf), Grieg (Orion Weiss with Tortelier), Rachmaninoff (Kirill Gerstein playing No. 1 with Alsop, Yuja Wang playing No. 2 with Mena) and Prokofiev (No. 3 with Simon Trpceski). Orchestra players stepping into the limelight include principal fluist Emily Skala for Corigliano's "Pied Piper Fantasy" with members of the OrchKids education program (Alsop conducting) and concertmaster Jonathan Carney for Burch's rarely heard Violin Concerto No. 2 (Meister conducting).

Speaking of Russian fare, there will be no less then three Shostakovich symphonies" Alsop conducts No. 5, Gunther Herbig No. 10 and teenage Ilyich Rivas No. 1. Alsop conducts Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 and "Cinderella." Mena will lead Bruckner's Sixth (which Christoph Eschenbach has also programmed with the NSO next season).

The star-conscious will take particular note of two big-name artists, pianist Emanuel Ax performing Brahms' No. 1 with Alsop, and violinist Midori performing Shostakovich's No. 1 with conductor Gilbert Varga.

The opening gala features violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloist in Piazzolla's popular "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." And Alsop will bring back another Charlie Chaplin film, "The Gold Rush," with the BSO performing the original score (the presentation of "City Lights" a couple years ago was terrific).

At first glance, it looks like a very attractive season, repertoire-wise, with a lively mix of tried and new (several selections have been identified as "musicians' picks" -- pieces the BSO players especially wanted to perform). Given the economic constraints of the day, the guest artist roster isn't bad (it's especially nice to see Venzago's name again). Although I'd welcome some other conductors and soloists here, it looks like we'll be in for some fine music-making.

It's also a season with one big change -- the Casual Concerts series of Saturday morning concerts at Meyerhoff has been canceled after 24 years (attendance has been too flat for too long, I'm told). This loss of six performances in Baltimore will be balanced by the addition of six concerts at Strathmore (conspiracy theorists long worried about the implications of the BSO's second home may well become re-caffeinated by this news).


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (6)

Baltimore musicians rally for Terry Riley's minimalist classic 'In C'

For those of you who share my enthusiasm for minimalism (you never have to admit it, since clicking can be fairly anonymous in cyber-ville), I wanted to offer this video forwarded to me.

Earlier this month, about 30 local musicians from the non-classical world (I was so not cool enough to hear about this in advance) gathered at a place with an unlikely name, the Soft House (in the Copy Cat Building), to collaborate on 'In C,' the piece by Terry Riley that effectively gave birth to the musical movement annointed with the name minimalism.

It's great to see that this groundbreaking work from 1964 could find a fresh bunch of eager protagonists to give it an ecstatic performance in 2010 at an underground Baltimore venue.

Here's the list of performers, followed by the video:

Will Redman (of Microkingdom), vibraphone

Dave Jacober (of Dope Body/Holy Ghost Party), marimba

Nathan Elman-Bell (of Quartet Offensive), glockenspiel

Rob Parrish (improvisational percussionist), glockenspiel

Rod Hamilton (of Avocado Happy Hour), Malletkat

Emmanuel Nicolaidis (of Thank You), xylophone

Jeremy Hyman (of Ponytail), marimba

Jon Birkholz (of Soul Cannon), organ

Ben Frock (of Ben Frock and the Subatomic Particles), organ

Tim Murphy (Baltimore jazz legend), rhodes

Amanda Schmidt (of Avocado Happy Hour), rhodes

Dustin Wong (of Dustin Wong/Ponytail), electric guitar

Zach Utz (of Dope Body/Holy Ghost Party), electric guitar

Jaime Moffett (jazz musician), electric guitar

Andrew Bernstein (of Teeth Mountain), alto sax

John Dierker (of Microkingdom/Quartet Offensive), tenor sax

Andy Abelow (of Small Sur/Soft Cat), alto sax

Britton Powell (of Hume), double bass

Kate Barutha (of Soft Cat), cello

Will Pesta (of Happy Family), laptop

Grayson Brown (of Comeback Ranch), laptop

John Somers (of Do While), laptop

Sam Shea (of Copycat Theatre), laptop

John Jones (of Each Others), laptop

Beau Crawley (of Turquoise Cats/Drugs Bunny), live processing

Mark Brown (of DJ Mark Brown), live processing

John Butler (of Mothersday), live processing

Tom Fitzgibbon (sounds), live processing

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (4)

March 22, 2010

Review round-up: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Pro Musica Rara, Piffaro

While you were having a grand time drinking in the luscious spring weather over the weekend, your intrepid critic was scrambling from performance to performance (five in 48 hours, including a play I'll write about later). A thankless job, but someone has to do it.

I've already reported on the Baltimore Concert Opera from Friday night. Now, a few words about the rest of the musical activity that engaged my attention, starting with a valiant performance of Verdi's imposing Requiem Saturday night by the Concert Artists of Baltimore.

I was heartened to see Peabody's Friedberg Hall so full for the event (the usual home for full-sized presentations by Concert Artists is the under-appreciated Gordon Center in Owings Mills). Having so recently heard the National Symphony/Washington Chorus performance led by Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center, it was a little hard for me to switch aural gears, but, on its own terms, this was

a fully respectable, quite impressive account of a score that never ceases to amaze.

Conductor Edward Polochick kept the momentum taut and applied a strong electric current to the whole score. He drove the "Dies Irae" hard to particularly explosive effect, but he did not slight the subtler contours of the piece.

Uneven patches cropped up in the orchestral playing, and there was some loss of blend among the choral voices, but most of the music-making was admirably cohesive and fully charged. In one key respect, Polochick fared a lot better than Eschenbach did -- he had a much more reliable soprano soloist on Saturday. Theresa Santiago lacked the extra tonal heft and fire that can really hit home in this work, but she had the notes and enough of the style to get the job done. Ryan MacPherson proved especially admirable for the glint in his tenor and the poetic intensity of his phrasing. Mezzo Eudora Brown and bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd made generally strong contributions.

Sunday was early music day, starting with Pro Musica Rara's salute to birthday boy Johann Sebastian Bach, born that day in 1685. The concert at Towson University's Center for the Arts offered a welcome twist to conventional programming.

This was an intimate Bach party, with just violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Allen Whear (Pro Musica's artistic director). Instead of just divvying up the afternoon between them, Whear hit on the clever notion of creating fresh duos -- including transcriptions of Two-Part Inventions and arrangements of canons from the Art of Fugue -- to place in between movements from solo suites. I liked the resultant variety and the flow, not to mention Whear's aptly chosen anecdotes about Bach, interspersed through the afternoon. 

Period instrument players stereotypically favor snappy tempos. Roberts and Whear took an almost leisurely approach much of the time here, while also putting a good deal of personality into their phrasing. A few ragged spots aside, both musicians met Bach's technical challenges sturdily.

I had to skip out before Roberts reached the famed Chaconne of the D minor Partita, so that I could get over to the Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation of Piffaro, the Renaissance band formed 30 years ago.

I had enough energy left for the first half of the program, which was devoted to music from the time of Elizabeth I and involved an imposing array of instruments. Highlights included fun songs about tobacco, lively dances (the ones with bagpipe had extra appeal) and beautifully sobering pieces by William Byrd. There were a few less than ideally placed sounds from the ensemble along the way, but a contagious spontaneity and enthusiasm that helped to deliver a lively lesson in early music history.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (1)

Wonders never cease: Vienna Philharmonic gives permanent status to its first female concertmaster

Gee, history was being made all over the place over the weekend.

While major health care was being enacted Sunday in Washington a century or so after being proposed, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday appointed its first female concertmaster in 168 years. Women weren't even admitted on a trial basis as players into the august ensemble until the 1980s, so we're talking a painfully slow process.

I'm not sure how frequently audiences

will see Albena Danailova in the concertmaster's chair -- I wouldn't be surprised if it were more often on tour than at home (the Philharmonic invariably took heat for its male-dominated traditions whenever it traveled, especially to New York). But the fact that the Bulgarian-born violinist has now been given the permanent appointment is still big news. Danailova, a former concertmaster of the London Philharmonic, was named acting concertmaster in Vienna two years ago; she formerly begins her tenure as tenured concertmaster on Sept. 1.

(I tried without luck to find a YouTube clip of the Philharmonic with her playing in the first stand; if you spot one, please let me know and I'll post it.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (2)

March 20, 2010

Baltimore Concert Opera tackles 'Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci'

Baltimore Concert Opera might be called the "Lemonade Company" -- assuming you don't mind being reminded of that cloying line about how, when life hands you lemons, you need to learn to make lemonade.

It all started last year when Baltimore Opera Company began its pathetic slide into oblivion. A group of local singers who used to perform regularly with that organization decided to form their own enterprise, Baltimore Concert Opera, based at the Engineers Club and offering "a new way to experience real voices'' -- unstaged operas performed with piano accompaniment. From an initial budget of $1,000 for the inaugural season, BCO grew to a $50,000 operation this season.

You've got to admire all the chutzpah, the energy, the ability to connect with a portion of the opera-loving public. I only wish

I could have admired more of the latest presentation, the venerable double bill of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." There was a real shortage of "real voices" Friday night; maybe the weaker singers will suddenly find extra strengths at the repeat performance Sunday afternoon.

"Pag" had the benefit of a compelling Silvio in baritone Michael Mayes -- rich tone, often beautiful shading, vivid phrasing. Sara Stewart's Nedda was nearly as impressive. She tended to land a little short of pitch in the upper reaches, but her voice revealed considerable promise and she fleshed out the character effectively.

Jimi James offered dramatic fire and, for the most part, solid tonal resources as Tonio. Jeremy Blossey sang valiantly as Beppe. But, in the crucial role of Canio, Kevin Courtemanche seemed in over his head. Aside from a few brightly booming high notes, he was more tenorino than tenor, with little support in the mid and low range, and his Italian came with a heavy American accent. He certainly threw himself into the theatrical side of things (there was a good deal of acting from most of the participants), but that wasn't enough.

Courtemanche sounded even more strained and unfinished as Turridu in "Cav." Francesca Mondanaro brought abundant emotion to the role of Santuzza, but a substantial wobble and a strident, insecure top register as well. Maria Barnet likewise revealed an uneven, mostly harsh tone as Mamma Lucia. It all seemed more like an amateur operatic society for a while there. The picture improved with Jessica Renfro's generally smooth singing as Lola, and basically firm work from James as Alfio. The most exciting and spot-on vocal contribution to "Cav" came from an offstage chorister doing the "Turridu is dead" shouts at the end -- that really hit home.

In both operas, the chorus, prepared by Jim Harp, sang expressively. Doug Han was the hardworking, occasionally messy pianist. Anthony Barrese conducted.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 PM | | Comments (4)

March 19, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's latest circus-theme program is a blast

Check your fears and hearing aids at the Meyerhoff door this weekend and brace yourselves for one of the most stimulating blasts to come from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in years.

Even before the actual blast of a shotgun, John Corigliano's surround-sound Symphony No. 3, "Circus Maximus," delivers more un-amplified volume than anything I can think of off hand, even Mahler at his most heaven-storming. It's a stunner in so many ways, from the concept itself -- "a celebration and a warning," as the composer put it in remarks from the stage Thursday night at Strathmore -- to the construction.  

The work is scored for masses of woodwind and brass instruments, placed all over the hall; a marching band that actually marches around at one point; and an arsenal of percussion with enough fire power to start a small revolution. It's all perfectly suited, of course, to the BSO's nearly month-long circus-related programming.

Corigliano's symphony, taking its name from the celebrated mass-entertainment venue of ancient Rome, clearly took some folks by surprise (or storm) Thursday; I saw a few holding their hands over their ears, a few others fleeing the hall before it was over. The peak decibel levels sure got parts of me vibrating that aren't usually awakened at classical concerts. But trust me -- this is a must-hear event, a rare and visceral experience that will have you buzzing for hours afterward (hey, that can be a good thing, as rock club habitues will tell you). I just hope the aural effect will be as visceral at Meyerhoff; the smaller, more rectangular Strathmore is clearly ideal for this sort of thing.

It wouldn't be so memorable if Corigliano had only intended to shock and awe. But this composer has never been capable, as far as I can tell, of superficiality, and this symphony from 2004 is packed with explosive subtexts. As he explained to the unsuspecting crowd (maybe some people did suspect -- the turnout was noticeably smaller than I usually see for BSO's concerts at Strathmore), Corigliano was thinking about

the relationship between the graphic, shamelessly pandering Roman shows at the arena, with all the violence and spectacle, and "our need for entertainment and diversion" in the era of reality-TV and remote controls (one of the wildest movements is titled "Channel Surfing").

The score might evoke "Ben-Hur" chariot-race imagery (not the Miklos Rozsa soundtrack, mind you) one minute, big-city mayhem the next; the wailing of nocturnal animals one minute, glitzy advertisements the next. A mirror is held up to the appealing and appalling sides of life, and the listener is pushed and pulled every which way in the process. The penultimate, masterfully timed movement, "Prayer," momentarily stops the head-spinning to beg for some soul-searching, but the enticement of all that wildness out there is too great. The symphony throws the audience right back into the whirl for the ultimate circus stunt.

Corigliano's harmonic language incorporates the most vivid and bracing dissonance, yet it springs from a fundamentally tonal well and always speaks in a highly communicative fashion. His keenly developed sense of instrumental coloring is hardly limited here by the absence of a string complement; there's a marvelous range of sonic shading. It's simply a compositional tour de force.

Alsop marshaled her expanded forces with typical calm and assurance, summoning great swells of sound from the stage and players stationed along the back wall and in balconies and boxes (an assistant conductor was in one to do some cueing). But Alsop was equally interested in the softest portions of the score, ensuring, for example, that the atmospheric shimmer of the "Night Music I" movement emerged compellingly.

There may have been a little articulation fuzziness along the way, but the playing by members of the BSO, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and Morgan State University's Magnificent Marching Machine was consistently impressive.

The experience can best be summed up in one of today's most overused words -- awesome. If a hipper, younger crowd than usual turns out for the repeats Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, I would expect that word to be used a lot afterward.

There's cool circus stuff on the first half of the program, too. David T. Little's "Screamer" from 2002 evokes the multi-sensory world of a circus with what he calls a "three-ring blur" for orchestra. In the space of a few minutes, diverse melodic ideas charge into the fray to brilliant sonic effect; a droopy, scratchy recording of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" pops up now and then (as the composer explains, circus bands used to strike up that march as a distraction whenever an accident occurred). Given the pileup of ideas and a lot of humor in the piece, it sounds like something Charles Ives would be writing if he were around now (for that matter, so does "Circus Maximus"). Alsop had the music bounding along mightily and drew a high-spirited response from the BSO.

In between came Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," Alsop's invitation to the audience to "be kids again." The orchestra sounded somewhat less than sterling, but it was fun hearing the music outside its usual youth concert confinement. NPR's Scott Simon delivered the narration nicely. And hearing about that ravenous wolf (PETA would never sanction this fairy tale) unexpectedly provided a little link to what was to come later -- lupine sounds are among myriad riches that turn up in Corigliano's startling symphony.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:22 AM | | Comments (9)

March 17, 2010

A sampling of the incomparable John McCormack to celebrate St. Patrick's Day

My favorite way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and the Irish culture (especially since I can't stand beer) is to drink in the voice of John McCormack. He was not just the greatest of all Irish tenors, but one of the greatest tenors, period. Here's a sample of his timeless art:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 AM | | Comments (1)

March 16, 2010

Guest blog review of Baltimore Opera Theatre's 'Rigoletto'

A scheduling conflict prevented me from catching the second production in Baltimore Opera Theatre's inaugural season at the Hippodrome, so I asked local opera buff Andrew Pappas -- I knew he'd bet there -- to submit a report, which is below. (Feel free to add your own reactions.)

Note that the company, on its Web site, has announced that "Madama Butterfly" will be performed next season (Oct. 23), directed by Giorgio Lalov and conducted by Markand Thakar.

Now, here's that guest blog post about "Rigoletto":   


Thursday, March 11, 2010, at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, an ample crowd of opera fans and would-be aficionados attended a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto presented by Giorgio Lalov and Baltimore Opera Theatre. From the first notes of the overture to the final curtain there were abundant orchestral and vocal performance highlights to assure a successful evening. Led by conductor Krassimir Topolov, the orchestra capably supported the vocal and dramatic achievements of the talented soloists and able chorus. For regional opera, the sets, costumes, and lighting were grand. The staging was remarkable. The appreciative audience rewarded the performers with boisterous applause throughout the evening. Any doubts that one might have held about the company prior to the performance were emphatically banished. This was a first-rate production.

The role of Rigoletto was performed by young Verdi baritone Nelson Martinez, who began his career in Cuba and who, at this juncture, has sung several roles in a number of venues across this country and abroad. His voice is larger than life, deeply expressive throughout the entire vocal range of the role. From poignantly and plaintively delivered pianissimos to super-grand explosions of sound with power to spare, his dramatic emotional impact was always impressive. With his immense vocal and acting talents, he convincingly portrayed the old and deformed court jester, capable of hurling derisive insults himself, but profoundly vulnerable to the terrifying curse that humbles him and portends the tragic outcome that unfolds.

The Duke of Mantua was portrayed with vocal ease and a great deal of polish and swagger by Ukrainian tenor Igor Borko. With numerous credits in this country and abroad, Borko brought a wealth of experience and exceptional timbre and stamina to his impressive performance. Most notable were the Act I aria about a life of pleasure with as many women as possible (Questa o quella - "This woman or that") and the more famous Act III aria about the wonderful inconstancy of women (La donna e mobile - "Woman is fickle").

Gilda as sung by Puerto Rican soprano Magda Nieves was performed exactly as you would want. She was the epitome of youth and innocence. She was tender, pure, and articulate in vocal delivery and dramatic portrayal. I found her exceptionally demure and pleasing in her Act I aria in which she adoringly repeats the name of her newly found love, Gaultier Malde (Caro nome - "Dearest name").

Of the many others in the cast, William Powers, an American, as the assassin Sparafucile and Viara Zhelezova, from Bulgaria, who sang both Maddalena and Countess Ceprano, were standouts.

Conductor Krassimir Topolov and the excellent orchestra and chorus were from Bulgaria, with a few local additional instrumentalists in the orchestra. The supernumerary roles were admirably served by students of the Hereford Theatre based at Hereford High School in Parkton, Maryland.

Lest you think I forgot, I must mention how well performed was the famous and abundantly loved quartet in the final act. The four singers gave a spacious and well tendered account, each voice given its perfect due. This was opera at its best!

-- Andrew Pappas

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:39 PM | | Comments (19)

Monument Piano Trio, Analog Arts Ensemble focus on Baltimore composers

This has been a good week for contemporary music around here, and that's even before the BSO delivers its jolt of works by living composers.

On Monday night at Morgan State University there was a repeat of a program originally presented at An die Musik last month (I missed it at the time, being deep in Mariinsky Land, drinking in the Russian opera feast at the Kennedy Center). I was grateful for that second chance.

Among the pieces I especially admired was the compact, tense new quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano by James Lee III called "Scenes from Eternity's Edge," given an admirable performance by the Monument Piano Trio and flutist Marcia Kamper of the Analog Arts Ensemble. The composer often uses biblical references in his work; this one draws from the books of Daniel and Revelation. Without knowing those associations, I suspect listeners would just as easily detect that a whole lot of drama is going on in the harmonically spicy, expertly crafted score.

The build up of energy in the first movement ("An Enigma Unveiled") is especially potent. The delicate sound world and sense of expectancy in the second ("Shabbat of Radiance") and the aggressive punch of the scherzo ("Until the Ancient of Days Came...") are equally intriguing. There are moments in the work, especially the finale, when Messiaen-like splashes of color pop through ecstatic chords. I think that closing movement could use a slightly longer coda -- the ethereal effect Lee creates would be doubly haunting with a little expansion.

Speaking of beautiful,

Jonathan Leshnoff's 2006 piece, "Song Without Words" for cello and piano, takes the listener on a brief, arresting journey; the harmonic motion seems to be searching for a destination that, even in the long-held final cello note, remains just out of reach. Cellist Darius Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard sensitively played this gem of a score.

Sheppard's own 2003 piece, "Let Beauty Awake," might serve as theme music for a lush British costume drama imported for "Masterpiece Theatre" -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The steadily flowing, folksy melodic line in the violin (warmly played by Igor Yuzefovich) is inflected with some atmospheric slides; the keyboard part includes Rachmaninoff crescendos (Sheppard delivered those with aplomb).

Rudolf Kamper's brand new Music for Five Players is wonderfully subtle, a maze of sustained, time-suspending chords and wisps of sound. The muted trumpet tones, articulated by the composer, added a particularly intriguing layer to the atonal fabric.

"Part," a 1993 piece by Stuart Sanders Smith, found Marcia Kamper, Skoraczewski and Sheppard occupying their own separate spaces onstage and performing, in effect, their own separate music. That independence nonetheless allowed for a clever kind of complex dialogue, interspersed with some very powerful silences.

On Wednesday night at Metro Gallery, Mobtown Modern offered the flip side of an earlier program devoted to low-register wind instruments. The high range this time came from flute and clarinet (and, unintentionally, at least one passing siren outside -- hey, this is Baltimore, not Mayberry.).

Katayoon Hodjati had the lion's share of the concert. She conjured up the dense world of Brian Ferneyhough's "Casandra's Dream Song" from 1970 -- the soloist described it as a nightmare to learn, but she negotiated the challenges in stride (and, to cheers from the audience, took a celebratory swig of beer after getting through it all).

The flutist also made a powerful case for Kaija Saariaho's "Noa, Noa" (1992), interacting with its vivid electronic counterpoint, and sailed through Jason Echardt's "Multiplicities (1993), with its schizophrenic battle between lyrical repose and aggressive squeals. Hodjati was joined by Marica Kamper for an edgy account of Philip Glass' "Piece in the Shape of a Square," a 1960s score that puts two flutes through increasingly intricate patterns as the players slowly walk around music stands placed in a square.

To close the program, clarinetist Jennifer Everhart offered something of a tour de force, brilliantly playing live to her own equally brilliant playing on recorded tape (bouncing among six speakers spread around the room) in Pierre Boulez' "Dialogue du l'ombre double" from 1985. The music is almost Bach-like in its joy and complexity, and Everhart made the music speak vividly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)

March 15, 2010

Annapolis Opera offers high-energy production of Puccini's 'Tosca'

Annapolis Opera's 37th season featured a production of Puccini's "Tosca" over the weekend that reconfirmed several things:

There will always be a valuable place for regional opera companies and the live-performance experiences they offer their communities; there are young singers around today capable of giving credible portrayals of challenging roles; economical sets that could be blown over by a good breeze can do the atmospheric job well enough (Arne Lindquist was the designer here); and in an age of stage director supremacy and theatrical concept-run-amok-ness, there's still something to be said for thoroughly traditional approaches (Braxton Peters directed).

Sunday afternoon's performance also reconfirmed a less positive, all-too-familiar fact --

the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts makes a lousy venue, especially for opera. With no pit, it's almost impossible to maintain proper balances between orchestra and stage, an issue extra problematic with a big score like "Tosca." I wonder if that difficulty caused the principals to keep pumping out the volume, as if they feared they wouldn't be heard otherwise.

Jonathan Burton, as Cavaradossi, proved particularly short on a dynamic range. It sure was enjoyable hearing such a healthy tenor voice, one that even boasted an effective ping at the top, but the constant full-throttle wore thin after a while. "E lucevan le stelle" and "O dolci mani" would have benefited greatly from a few truly soft edges.

Elisabeth Richter, in the title role, achieved more in the way of subtlety -- the last lines of "Vissi d'arte" were sculpted with considerable nuance and depth of expression (not to mention terrific breath control). There still were places when more varied and sweeter coloring would have been welcome, but this was nonetheless a solid performance, one full of fire (Richter spat out "Assassino" and "Quanto? Il prezo" with special venom). Like Burton's, the soprano's acting was old-school -- but there's still something to be said for that, too.

Although Jerett Gieseler needed a little more vocal wattage and tonal variety as Scarpia, his phrasing registered effectively. Ryan D. Kuster was the sturdy-voiced Angelotti. Andrew Adelsberger was a lively Sacristan, in voice and gesture.

Collin Powell sang the Act 3 shepherd boy's off-stage song nicely, but it was a major mistake to amplify it so heavily; this, needless to say, should be a distant, evocative sound that blends into the opening scene. (Speaking of mistakes, what was up with the portrait of the Madonna unveiled in Act 1? The figure was was depicted practically with her back to the viewer, rendering unlikely Tosca's comments about the color of the Madonna's eyes.)

The chorus summoned sufficient power for the Te Deum scene. The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra played sturdily and sensitively, for the most part, and Ronald J. Gretz conducted with an admirable interest in rubato and dramatic underlining.

On its own terms, then, a respectable, faithful, high-energy production.

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

Eschenbach serves notice of exciting era to come with National Symphony

Years ago, I met a music critic who said he knew after only the first minute of a concert how the whole performance -- and his review -- was going to come out. That always struck me as just a wee bit unlikely, but, what the heck, I'm going to take that concept another whole step:

After the first few seconds of playing by the National Symphony Orchestra at the performance of Verdi's Requiem Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, conducted by music director designate Christoph Eschenbach, I didn't just know that the concert was going to be awfully good. I also knew in that brief moment that Eschenbach's tenure -- it launches officially in September -- will be terrifically rewarding. So there.

All right, I'll try to talk more sensibly now. But, still, I wish you could have heard that fabulous opening pianissimo from the strings, which seemed to emerge from the Other Side (the same effect was achieved later at the beginning of the "Lux Aeterna" movement). You just don't hear soft playing like that every day, and subtlety is always harder to produce -- and often far more rewarding -- than gung-ho power. That exceptionally delicate sound, filled as it was with great import, signaled, to me at least, that the orchestra was locked already onto Eschenbach's wave length, was already trying hard to give him what we wanted.

Not that he didn't unleash brute force as well, and draw from the NSO and superb Washington Chorus an equally involved response in the process. The iconic "Dies irae" explosions shook the place, for example; the great crescendo in the "Rex tremendae" passage likewise had visceral impact.

Throughout, Eschenbach's

masterful sense of line, his way of ensuring that phrases developed organically, generated affecting results. His tempos were flexible, allowing room for rubato and some very emotionally charged expansiveness. The surefire Last Judgment call, with its antiphonal brass forces, seemed even more compelling than usual, thanks to Eschenbach's spacious, detailed approach (and some spot-on players). The closing measures of the score were molded with a superb ear for musical drama.

Coodination among all the assembled masses slipped out of gear once in a while, as in the fugal activity of the "Sanctus," but there was never any doubt of Eschenbach's sensitive command. All evening, this was quite a demonstration of interpretive integrity and imagination, signaling that the Eschenbach era is going to be stimulating, at the very least.

In addition to all the admirable playing by the NSO on Saturday, the Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director) offered carefully balanced, vividly articulated singing. It's impossible to overstate how strongly these first-rate choristers contributed to the experience.

Alas, it was a different story with the guest artists. Presumably, Eschenbach chose (or at least sanctioned) the solo vocal quartet, and, presumably, he had good reasons at the time. I can't imagine he was thrilled with the results.

I wouldn't call any of the four singers ideal in terms of voice size and quality for this work; they all lacked the kind of heaven-storming, Verdian power and glint I like to hear in this work. But three did get the job done decently, with a good deal of basic musicianship and some ardent phrasing -- mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Nikolai Schukoff (his soft tones in the "Hostias" line of the "Offertorio" were especially effective), and bass Evgeny Nikitin (he has at his most imposing and persuasive in the "Cunfutatis").

Too bad the composer put so much responsibility on the soprano soloist. Twyla Robinson never sounded fully up to that challenge. Her tone was much too thin, for starters; this is a part for dramatic soprano (there's a reason some early critics of the Requiem complained that it was too operatic). Robinson had a few appealing moments, to be sure, but her top register often turned shrill and pitch-shy. Worse, she had an embarrassing choke on the high, pianissimo note in "Libera me." Since no announcement of indisposition was made, it's hard to understand so much technical unevenness.  

That said, even this curious and unfortunate drawback could be put aside in the end, since so much went so well in a performance that was surely a harbinger of great things to come in Washington.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (3)

March 12, 2010

Baltimore Symphony goes to the circus

Admit it. The first time you heard about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Under the Big Top” series of circus-theme concerts, your cynical muscles started clenching.

And when you spotted publicity photos of music director Marin Alsop in a ringmaster’s get-up (what were they thinking over there?), you just knew the whole thing had to be too darn silly.

Well, relax and get over it. This project could turn out to be the sleeper hit — and hoot — of the season.

Thursday’s concert, featuring the brilliant flying, juggling, contorting troupe called Cirque de la Symphonie, might have settled for mere gimmickry, from the smell of popcorn and sight of cotton candy in the lobby to the stage decked out with streaming fabrics behind the orchestra and bathed in show-biz lighting. But Alsop constructed too substantive of a program to be mistaken for a pops night out, and she made sure that the music registered with terrific impact, even when the cirque folk had the limelight.

It was cool to

hear collective “oohs” and “ahs” rise from the crowd at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall — people really did get into the circus mood — and also to hear shouts of approval for such a gritty score as the Suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” That piece was wisely delivered without any visual extras, but the rhythmic thrusts and melodic leaps in the music created their own kind of dazzle. Alsop was in her element here as she drew a taut, biting response from the orchestra.

The conductor led impressive accounts of three other vivid ballet scores — Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” Poulenc’s “Les Biches” and Satie’s “Parade” — that were expertly, inventively choreographed by Cirque de la Symphony. Aerialists took complex and elegant flights into the rafters, occasionally out over the audience. During the Satie work, there was a startling demonstration of slow-motion, seemingly impossible hand- (and foot-) balancing by the duo of Jarek and Darek. Vladimir Tsarkov’s colorful juggling was remarkably well-timed to the music.

All of these scores could have stood solidly on their own, of course. Poulenc's distinctive voice is delectably urbane and witty in "Les Biches," and Satie indulges in wonderfully audacious touches, including wacky additions to the percussion section. Copland's ballet seems as fresh as ever. Alsop was attentive to details large and small in each of the works, and the BSO's responded with vigor and clarity. 

There’s always a lot of talk about the need to break down barriers in classical music, to rethink concert the format and put a fresh spin on the experience. This imaginative concert actually did that, and with a panache that whets the appetite for what’s next under the BSO’s inviting tent.

The Cirque program repeats Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (6)

'Die Fledermaus' gets a lively workout at Peabody

Just in case any of you are blog-only readers of mine, I should point out that you'll find elsewhere a review of Peabody Opera Theatre's production of "Die Fledermaus." I'll also add just a few words that aren't in the review (with the space they give me, I can't cram in all of my precious insights).

I've always had a soft spot for the music of Johann Strauss, especially when it's served up with the right combination of legato, rubato and Schlag-ato, not to mention the distinctive Viennese way of slightly rushing the second beat of a waltz. I was impressed Wednesday night during the overture by how much of that style Teri Murai had conveyed to the orchestra, and how much nuance in phrasing the cast summoned during the evening. T

hat counted for a lot, especially in such numbers as the sublime "Brotherhood/Sisterhood" near the end of Act 2 (the operetta is performed here in English) and in Adele's arias (Lindsay Thompson sang the role that night and will again Friday -- she struck me as the real deal in many ways).

I wish there had been a greater quantity of polished singing. Judging by the limited exposure I've had this season, it seems as if the current Peabody crop of voice students is not especially rich in well-developed talent (a "Cosi" in the fall disappointed big time). I heard quite a few technical shortcomings Wednesday, including

strident top registers and indistinct low ones, along with occasional intonation slippage.

But there was such a kick to the performance, so much charm (even when some of the stage business wasn't entirely smooth), and such a strong sense of true ensemble effort that it became easier and easier to get past any shortcomings.

And I must reiterate one truly great thing about this production, deftly directed and designed by Roger Brunyate -- a briskly paced third act.

Time and again, I've seen a soaring "Fledermaus"  take a nose dive because of an endlessly prolonged opening scene of that act and an indulgent actor in the role of the drunken Frosch. Here, it was strictly the minimum -- just enough schtick, just enough laughs, no major drop in the momentum. I, for one, was grateful.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:14 AM | | Comments (1)

March 11, 2010

Maryland Opera Studio in training for premiere of "Shadowboxer," about legendary Joe Louis

A shoutout to the communications office of the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for one of the most imaginative press packets I've seen yet, this one drawing attention to next month's Maryland Opera Studio premiere of "Shadowboxer," a work about the legendary Joe Louis by composer Frank Proto and librettist John Chenault.

Inside an intriguing package that came in the mail was a miniature red boxing glove (alas, not quite big enough for me to threaten annoying editors with), as well as

a pack of snazzy, square-shaped, well-illustrated sheets of thick paper, each devoted to an element of the project.

That got my attention, and so did a dedicated Web site that provides a sterling example of how to promote an arts product. You'll find video, music clips, photos, behind-the-scenes info, background material on Louis (audio, video, print) -- a very with-it way to entice folks into a new operatic experience. Check it out.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:54 PM | | Comments (1)

March 10, 2010

To clap or not clap; Alex Ross looks at the concert-going experience

A lot of the buzz this week in classical music circles will be about a lecture Alex Ross gave Monday in London for the nearly 200-year-old Royal Philharmonic Society, an organization dedicated “to create a future for music through the encouragement of creativity, the recognition of excellence and the promotion of understanding." An edited version also appeared under his byline in the  Guardian.

Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and author of the widely praised book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," is not the first to question whether classical music is its own worst enemy, in terms of making the concert-going experience so stuffy, ritualistic and even prohibitive. But, naturally, he has expressed his views with more flair and insight than most. His primary focus, and the one that got online commenters and Twitterers going, was the oppressive no-applause-between-movements rule.

To quote Ross: "The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence, “Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.” Should we be surprised that people aren’t quite as excited about classical music as they used to be? To be sure, the question of concert etiquette is only part, and perhaps a rather small part, of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself—as a largely acoustic art in an electronic culture, as a mainly long-form art in a short-attention-span age ... Nevertheless, I do wonder about it, as I wonder about other tics of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-center lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of the average professional musician, especially in America."

Just a few weeks ago, when Itzhak Perlman conducted the Baltimore Symphony, he admonished  people for applauding between movements, a scene I recalled when I read these lines from Ross' lecture:

"I would much rather prefer to hear a smattering of applause than be subjected to that distinctly un-beautiful, un-musical, coughing, shuffling, rustling noise, which is quite literally the sound of people suppressing their instincts. Even worse, in my opinion, is the hushing of attempted applause. People who applaud in the “wrong place”— usually the right place, in terms of the composer’s intentions—are presumably not in the habit of attending concerts regularly. They may well be attending for the first time. Having been hissed at, they may never attend again." (For sad validation of that point, check out the second comment on my review of that Perlman/BSO concert .)

But, as Ross also points out, there are pieces of music that are simply more effectively listened to without inter-movement applause. There is something to be said for mood. I remember getting terribly annoyed during a performance of

Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" because of the applause after each part of the score; all that audience participation just shattered the atmosphere of what, to me, was such a high-art moment. But if I thought that an applaud-whenever-you-feel-like-it policy would fill concert halls again, I'd be the first to endorse it.

Let's face it, that's not going to make a huge difference. What could make a difference is if more musicians took the time to talk to people about such things, right there in the concert hall. If Perlman, for example, hated the clapping so much, he only had to turn around and say (OK, I know this might not have been practical without a microphone handy, but just go with me here): "I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but I think this piece makes a much stronger impression if each movement is thought of as connected" -- or something like that.

If more soloists, conductors and orchestras were to remember that there may well be classical music novices at every single performance, and to welcome them into the experience with informal remarks beforehand, things could be a whole lot nicer in the halls. Assuming that everyone knows "the rules" is the surest way to keep driving people away. Assuming that all of those rules are infallible is another.

There are several folks who have made careers out of declaring the death of classical music for a long time now. There's a whole cottage industry of great experts and for-hire consultants promising cure-alls for what ails the business. Seems to me like a bracing dose of common sense would do the trick.

Not that you asked for my advice, but I'd break it down like this: First, let people have fun at a concert, as long as it's appropriate for the music at hand. And if the music is too serious, meant to be seamlessly heard, take a few minutes to explain that and gently request for applause to be withheld. For all the other stuff, don't just tolerate "wrong" applause, acknowledge it with a little turn and a smile -- yes, from the whole orchestra, too.

Speaking of orchestras, enough with that stony-faced, eyes-front bunch in the white ties and tails. I don't care if y'all still want to wear Victorian clothes -- you don't have to act like mannequins while you're in them. Concert attire is a prime target of many who think classical music is dying. I wonder how much would really change if players wore business attire, or casual Friday, or jogging suits. It's the attitude, not the clothes. Too many musicians look like they're miserable or haughty, or both. That's as big a barrier as any no-applause rule.

And never, ever forget some people in the house will be inexperienced. Give them something good, nourishing, enticing to remember.  

Anyway, it's valuable for people on both sides of the stage to be talking about such things. I heartily recommend that you download and read the whole Alex Ross lecture; lots of provocative material there.

These days, thoughts of budgets and salaries and benefits may be most pressing on the minds of musicians and managements, but there has to be increased attention on the basic issue of how music is communicated to the public, how the public can become a more active and warmly embraced component in the struggle to preserve and promote a precious art form.

I rather think the classical music biz could use the equivalent of a Second Vatican Council. We've already seen some reforms (orchestra players turning to face audiences is as radical in its way as priests facing their congregations), but we simply need more changes, more imagination, more innovation to energize and connect everyone who truly loves this music.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (2)

March 9, 2010

Samuel Barber's centennial provides a reminder of the composer's communicative power

There was a period when American music of a decidedly lyrical nature was looked down upon by academics and, of course, some critics. Composers were suspect if they fell for ear-catching melodies or lush harmonies, or kept even a toe in 19th-century waters. The gold standard was supposed to be music that was thorny, gritty, abstract, aggressively atonal.

Samuel Barber, born 100 years ago March 9, ignored all of that thinking, fortunately for us, and became one of America's most communicative composers. (Not that I have anything against gritty, dissonant music, mind you; I just like there to be room for all styles and forms of sincere musical expression.) If Barber had written nothing more than the Adagio that he transformed from string quartet to string orchestra in 1936, he would still have left a substantial mark.

That Adagio, which has become an aural icon thanks to its use in movies and on solemn national occasions, works on every level, from the technical (the construction is masterful) to the emotional. It resonates, it speaks, it connects to listeners in a way that is at once personal and universal, the hallmark of great art.

Barber's centennial may help drive attention to more of his works. There is a lot of quality there, from songs and chamber pieces to

symphonic and opera scores. There's much to be said for the often-maligned "Antony and Cleopatra" and even more to be said for "Vanessa." I'm glad to see that Marin Alsop programmed "A Hand of Bridge" with the Baltimore Symphony this month; that certainly doesn't come around often. She'll also lead the BSO in performances of the Second Essay for Orchestra next season (including at Carnegie Hall). Her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, conducted the BSO in vivid accounts of the First Essay and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" (one of my favorites, such an affecting exploration of nostalgia without a hint of sentimentality). Barber's concertos are always worth hearing; they're remarkably skillful and eventful, propelled by rich thematic ideas.

I have a particular fondness for the slow movement of the early 1960s Piano Concerto, with its poignant, bittersweet aura. It may not be as familiar as the Adagio for Strings, but it is cut from the same expressive cloth. I think that concerto movement is an apt choice to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth, and I hope you enjoy this (audio-only) performance, which seems to me very effective at conveying the distinctive beauty of Barber's unabashedly neo-romantic world:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:58 PM | | Comments (5)

Opera Vivente presents adaptation of Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande'

Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" is one of the most elusive of operas. The slow-motion, tragic love-triangle plot, infused with symbolism, is surrounded by music of a rare, gauzy beauty.

Opera companies, especially in this country, are reluctant to take a chance on it, afraid of box office results, but magical things can happen onstage with this work. Even, as Opera Vivente just demonstrated, when it is given in a condition the composer never imagined.

"Impressions of Pelleas" is one-act abridgement by Marius Constant that streamlines the action to its essentials and reduces the orchestral score to a two-piano arrangement.

Of course, Debussy's original is incomparable, and, of course, the seductive sound of the orchestra is major part of the opera's appeal.

But Constant's version has considerable quality and is particularly successful in terms of transforming the score to keyboard.

The music sounds natural and idiomatic on the piano, an instrument, of course, that Debussy wrote for so brilliantly. (You could never get that effect reducing operas by Wagner, Verdi and Puccini.)

I caught the final Opera Vivente performance of "Impressions of Pelleas" Saturday night and found the experience

quite satisfying, among the better things I've seen the company do. The cast seemed strongly connected to the piece, and there was an appealing, unfussy, stylized look to the staging -- 19th century evening dress for the principals, a minimal set by Thomas Bumblauskas gently lit by Peter Jakubowski. Director John Bowen paced the action smoothly and evocatively (from what I could see of it -- a couple of very tall folks were sitting in front of me).

Lisa Eden was a telling Melisande in voice and movement, disarmingly girlish and affectingly vulnerable. Kenneth Gayle sounded more Broadway than opera in terms of tone, but phrased effectively, for the most part. Nathan Wentworth, as Golaud, commanded attention with his solid baritone, expressively detailed articulation and vivid acting.

There was sturdy work from Dina Martire (Genevieve) and David B. Morris (Arkel). Boy soprano Samuel Bishop sang the role of Yniold. Pianists Diane Kinsley and Dana Nichole Scott provided a subtle, beautifully nuanced foundation for the performance.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (1)

March 8, 2010

Mariinsky Theatre wraps up Kennedy Center visit with explosive 'War and Peace'

For local fans of Russian opera, the past decade has been a remarkably rewarding period, thanks to the just-about annual Kennedy Center visits by the Mariinsky Theatre, an association that has come to an end. Not that the company only brought its national repertoire over (there were some engaging Verdi and Rossini productions along the way), but the Russian fare invariably proved memorable. After all, we're talking an obvious idiomatic authority here.

That sense of ownership was palpable throughout this year's visit, devoted entirely to Russian opera. Last week's schedule included two concerts of excerpts from works by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov that revealed the company's strengths -- and weaknesses (some well-worn voices, occasionally uneven orchestral and choral work).

How refreshing it was to hear those eternally popular "Polovtsian Dances" from "Prince Igor" performed in context, and how satisfying to hear them delivered with such a visceral drive. Valery Gergiev summoned terrific sonic richness and color from his forces in those dances, as he did in scenes from "The Invisible City of Kitezh" and "Mazeppa" (in the latter, soprano Victoria Yastrebova, as Maria, served notice of some serious star potential). And it was quite a luxury having Anna Netrebko singing the title role in a sampling of "Iolanta"; her sumptuous voice and sensitive phrasing brought the character strikingly to life.

The danger of having Netrebko on hand -- in a dazzling new Valentino gown, by the way -- was that she

rather eclipsed the company with a voice that had more penetrating power than anyone else, men included, and a certain electricity in the phrase-shaping that eluded many of the Mariinsky regulars. Still, those concerts afford much pleasure for the opportunity to soak up all those soaring melodies and vivid orchestrations.

Capping the Mariinsky residency was the company's gargantuan production of Prokofiev's four-hour "War and Peace" over the weekend, the only staged item in this year's visit. This is the version that drew lots of attention when it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera some years ago (especially after a supernumerary fell off the globe-suggesting, steeply raked, often moving set and landed in the pit). It packs about as much eye candy as opera scenery should (the designer is Geroge Tsypin), and it also serves the action with cinematic fluidity.

I enjoyed seeing it again. A few details of Andrei Konchalovsky's stage direction struck me this time as a little unimaginative or clumsy (a lurching dance for the chorus), but there's just no getting around the cumulative visual thrust of a production that boasts swirling, ever-changing skies; bodies being tossed about by cannon fire; and a really cool vision of the burning of Moscow.

It's not easy, especially after the war part in "War and Peace" asserts itself, to remember the complicated love story at the heart of Tolstoy's story, but this staging allows for an affecting intimacy where it counts. On Sunday afternoon, Gergiev ensured that those romantic scenes, with their lushly lyrical music, were beautifully etched; the passage for the dying Andrei and the regretful Natasha proved particularly affecting.

Those two roles were admirably performed by Alexey Markov and Irina Mataeva. Neither singer produced stop-in-your-tracks tonal power or a totally distinctive timbre, but both artists offered insightful phrasing and thoroughly fleshed-out portrayals. If Alexei Steblianko had some trouble in the upper register, he also sang with terrific ardor and communicative impact as Pierre. Sergei Skorokhodov (Anatol) and, especially, Ekaterina Semenchuk (Helene) provided dashes of vocal and theatrical spark to the performance. Mikhail Kit brought dignity and style to the role of Rostov. Gennady Bezzubenkov would have made a greater impression as the Russian war hero Kutuzov had he summoned something like a heroic sound. Alexander Nikitin provided sufficient force as Bonaparte. Mikhail Petrenko, a stand-out throughout the Mariinsky's visit, did another animated, vocally telling performance as Old Prince Nikolai.  

Chorus and orchestra delivered some compelling waves of expression on Sunday. And Gergiev, apparently feeling none the less for wear after leading "War and Peace" at the Kennedy Center the night before and the premiere performance of Shostakovich's "The Nose" at the Met the night before that, conducted with his usual flair.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (0)

Shriver Hall Concert Series announces 45th season lineup

The stars, both young and ever so slightly older, will be numerous during the 45th year of the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

The season opens Oct. 17 with the eminent Emerson String Quartet, which just took home another Grammy last month; the ensemble's program lists Mozart, Schubert and Shostakovich. Nov. 14 will see a recital by two hot-shot talents, cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Gabriela Montero, playing works by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Prokofiev. (I've attached a 2009 clip of Capuçon playing an exquisite Faure transcription.)

The Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio (pianist Yael Weiss, violinist Mark Kaplan and cellist Clancy Newman) will offer a program of Beethoven, Brahms and Bright Sheng on Dec. 5. Pianist Jonathan Biss has chosen music of Schumann, Janacek and Bernard Rands for his recital Jan. 23, 2011. (Let me say right here that I love seeing such names as Bright Sheng and Bernard Rands popping up on programs next season.)

Soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who made a memorable Baltimore debut on Shriver Hall's "Discovery Series" at the BMA a few years ago and recently sang at the Winter Olympics in her native Canada, will be part of the main series with a recital on Feb. 13, 2011. Her program will be pegged to

her recent album, "Night and Dreams," which features songs by Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Duparc and others.

Nelson Freire, one of the most elegant interpreters to be found at the keyboard in this or any era, gives a recital March 6, 2011, devoted to Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt and Prokofiev. (I've attached a clip of the pianist playing Chopin sublimely in the early 1980s.)

The annual early music concert on the Shriver series will be devoted to the iconic music for solo violin by Bach, performed by the ever-engaging Gil Shaham on March 20, 2011.

The season concludes May 1, 2011, with the Tokyo String Quartet and the just about legendary pianist Leon Fleisher performing the F minor Piano Quintet by Brahms.

The Discovery Series at the BMA offers free performances by the Jupiter String Quartet Oct. 9; the Escher String Quartet April 9, 2011; and clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich (winner of the Yale Gordon Concerto Competition at Peabody) on May 7, 2011.

Now for those videos to whet the appetite for the 2010-11 Shriver Hall season:


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:31 PM | | Comments (2)

Official update on Placido Domingo's condition after surgery

Confirming the upbeat assessment I heard from a few folks last week, here's the statement released by Placido Domingo's publicist:

Placido Domingo (69) was discharged Sunday, March 7 from Mount Sinai hospital in New York City after undergoing laparoscopic surgery to successfully remove a localized malignant polyp in his colon, it was announced by his representative Nancy Seltzer.

Mr. Domingo is expected to make a full recovery.

Per his doctors orders Mr. Domingo will rest for 6 weeks. His exact return to his performing engagements remains subject to how fast he can heal and regain his characteristic strength. It is however anticipated that his first singing performance will be in "Simon Boccanegra" at La Scala on April 16, 2010.

He continues his administrative responsibilities as General Director of Los Angeles and Washington National Operas during his recuperation.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (3)

Monday morning ear worm: A song you may wish you never heard

Over the weekend, I was informed of an astonishing ditty that apparently comes from the 1970s -- and quite possibly from another planet. Now, I just have to share.

If you haven't yet experienced this phenomenal performance, please stick with it to the very end, as each new verse brings a fresh thrill. And if you're one of the 1 million-plus who have already had the indescribable pleasure afforded by the YouTube clip, please pass it along to unsuspecting folks far and wide.

There just couldn't be a better musical way to start the week than with this impossible-to-forget (hard as you may try) exercise in pop vocalise:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:55 AM | | Comments (5)

March 5, 2010

Marilyn Horne dispenses wisdom and humor in master class at Peabody Conservatory

Marilyn Horne, the mezzo-soprano whose sumptuous tone provided many a vocal thrill during her heyday onstage, spends a lot of time sharing her knowledge and insights with the next generation of singers. Thanks to the Levi Family Distinguished Visiting Artists Fund, Horne did some of that sharing Thursday afternoon during a master class at the Peabody Conservatory.

I was able to catch a portion of it and, like the rest of the packed house at Griswold Hall, I hung on every word, and also enjoyed some good one-liners -- as when she encouraged mezzo Jennifer Hamilton to put a more seductive spin on "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from "Samson et Dalila." Horne asked the student to imagine herself singing "to a nice, sexy tenor -- good luck finding that."

It had to be extra nerve-inducing for Hamilton to sing an aria that used to be one of Horne's calling cards, but the young singer

held up well and proved adept at adjusting her tone, breathing, phrasing and tempo, per Horne's requests. (Hamilton's accompanist, Aaron Herzog, had to do the same, as Horne didn't miss a note of singing or playing.)

Every time she interrupted to say "A tiny thing..." or "It's a very small point..." it was anything but; there was a lot of valuable information behind each observation she made. And, let's face it, there was a lot of weight behind it, too. When someone can preface a remark with, "As my dear friend Joan Sutherland used to say...", you're talking a voice of authority.

I was especially impressed with soprano Melissa Wimbish, who sang "Ah, non credea mirati" from "La Sonnambula" with considerable assurance -- and, at first, considerable animation: "You've got a little too much energy for a sleepwalker," Horne told the young soprano. The famed mezzo also helped bring to the student's work an enhanced sense of style, pointing out the small details that make a big difference in how such an aria registers. By the time this session was over, Wimbish was cranking out the bel canto with extra "bel." A master class, indeed.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:24 PM | | Comments (0)

In advance of Academy Awards, weigh in on your favorite film scores

As faithful readers iof my humble blog posts have determined, I'm not inclined to rush out to see the latest flicks, but more likely to be at home with golden oldies. It's not that I don't enjoy new movies, but today's at-the-cinema experience often leaves something to be desired -- like people more interested in what's on the screen than how many tons of food and drink they can cart to their seats. Ah, but I digress.

On Thursday afternoon, I was a guest on WYPR's "Midday With Dan Rodricks" to discuss film scores (there's podcast available), and the discussion reminded me all over again just how movie music, from the silent era to today, can yield a satisfaction equal to (sometimes surpassing) what's on the screen. It takes remarkable talent to compose a score that serves a movie fully, one that supports the action, enhances overt and subtle emotions with equal skill, perfectly evokes moods and things and places.

On Sunday night, an Oscar will be handed to a composer of this year's best original score. The odds favor "Avatar," but you never know what's inside that elegantly sealed envelope, do you? I thought I'd take a little poll and see what you think of the nominated scores. (Especially since I haven't seen/heard any of these movies yet.) Then, I'd like to hear from you about your favorite film scores from any year.

(I won't address the topic of Best Song, since that particular Academy Award category was, after a long string of questionable decisions, finally rendered irredeemably useless for me the year the Oscar went to that timeless ditty, "It's Hard Our Here for a Pimp." Puleeeeeeeezzzzze.)

So here we go. Round One. Which of these nominees for Best Original Score do you think should win the gilded statuette Sunday night -- and why?

"Avatar," James Horner

"Fantastic Mr. Fox." Alexandre Desplat

"The Hurt Locker," Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders

"Sherlock Holmes," Hans Zimmer

"Up," Michael Giacchino

And now, Round Two. Which film scores from any era do you consider most Oscar-worthy (whether they won the award or not)?

I'll start off the discussion with with my own choice for top score (it wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award)

 -- the one Bernard Herrmann fashioned for "Vertigo," with its gripping blend of Wagnerian richness and striking moodiness. The music becomes as crucial a component in the film as the excellent actors and the vivid San Francisco location.

Herrmann had an incredible track record for creating scores that, in terms of cinematic effectiveness, were note-perfect, from "Citizen Kane" to his iconic collaborations with Hitchcock ("North by Northwest" and "Psycho" rank right up there near "Vertigo," and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" isn't that far behind). But for communicative brilliance, it's hard to beat the "Vertigo" score.

I could go on and on, but this isn't about me. So, what do you think of my choice?

No wait, what I really meant to say is: What are your favorite film scores?


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (6)

March 4, 2010

American Academy of Arts and Letters honors Baltimore composer James Lee III

The New York-based American Academy of Arts and Letters, founded 112 years ago to "foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts," announced Thursday recipients of the 2010 awards. Among the honorees is Baltimore composer James Lee III, a faculty member at Morgan State University.

His music, with its distinctive style and intriguing allusions (especially to scriptural references), has been attracting more and more attention lately. Locally, Leonard Slatkin conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of "Beyond Rivers of Vision" a few years ago at the Kennedy Center; just last weekend, members of Monument Piano Trio and the ANALOG ensemble premiered "Scenes from Eternity's Edge" for flute and piano trio at An die Musik.

Lee received the $10,000 Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond award, given to "a promising mid-career composer."

The awards jury -- Robert Beaser, Bernard Rands, Gunther Schuller, Steven Stucky, Yehudi Wyner -- distributed $170,000 in awards; the presentation will be in May. Among the honorees:


Academy Awards in Music ($7,500 and additional $7,500 toward a recording) for "outstanding artistic achievement" by a "composer who has arrived at his or her own voice": Daniel Asia, David Felder, Pierre Jalbert, and James Primosch.

Goddard Lieberson fellowships ($15,000) "to mid-career composers of exceptional gifts": Philippe Bodin, Aaron J. Travers.

Charles Ives Fellowships ($15,000): Anna Clyne, Michael Djupstrom.

Six Charles Ives Scholarships ($7,500) for "composition students of great promise" were awarded; one of the recipients is Roger Zare, who got his master's degree at Peabody Conservatory grad).

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)

March 3, 2010

Christoph Eschenbach's enticing inaugural season as National Symphony music director

It's that time of year when music organizations announce their next season. While waiting for the Baltimore Symphony to make its plans known, take a gander at what the National Symphony has in store for its inaugural season with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

It's an unusually enticing lineup, which only has me wishing more than ever that DC and Baltimore were better connected by mass transportation (I am so tired of that drive, but unable to resist a lot of musical activity there).

Eschenbach tends to divide critics into pro and anti camps, primarily because of the individuality of his music-making. I've always been in the pro column, ever since hearing him conduct music of Berg with the New World Symphony ages ago, and each subsequent experience -- even when I've been less impressed with his results in a work here or there -- has reaffirmed my belief that he's one of the most interesting, incisive and inspiring conductors around. So I'm eager to hear what he achieves with the NSO, especially in his adventurous first season.

The opening gala Sept 25 is all about star power -- Renee Fleming and Lang Lang are the guests, both of them vocal Eschenbach fans -- but a program that includes

Strauss "Four Last Songs" is not just playing to be-tuxed masses. The subscription series kicks off a week later with an obvious, hey-I'm-in-charge-now blockbuster for a new music director, Beethoven's Ninth, but it's balanced by the NSO's first performance of Matthias Pintscher's "Hérodiade-Fragmente."

A fair amount of contemporary works dot the programming all season, including, as part of the Kennedy Center-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, the world premiere of a piece by Peter Lieberson for narrator and orchestra, using as texts some of Kennedy’s speeches. Eschenbach will also lead the U.S. premiere of a violin concerto by Augusta Read Thomas and the first NSO performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "She Was Here."

Eschenbach will be on the podium for such blockbusters as Messiaen's "Turangalila Symphony," Bruckner's Sixth and Mahler's Fifth. The Messiaen work will be part of the Kennedy Center's celebration of India; the NSO's contributions also include a sitar concerto by Ravi Shankar and Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony (texts by Tagore), both led by Eschenbach.

When the music director is not on the podium (he's got 10 weeks of the season), there's still a lot of attractive, under-exposed repertoire -- Tchaikovsky's "Manfred," Prokofiev's Sixth, Walton's Cello Concerto, et al. -- along with bread-and-butter works. All in all, a season that bears a strong stamp and promises much.

You don't have to wait until the fall to sample Eschenbach's artistry. He makes his first appearance with the NSO since the 2008 announcement of his appointment next week, leading Verdi's "Requiem." Seems a little odd to say "Howdy, Washington" with a musical Mass for the Dead, but, hey, it sure is a great attention-getter. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:33 PM | | Comments (2)

Getting your musical organization's events into the Sun's database

Although it's impossible to guarantee that every musical event will get published in the Sun (at least the return of the Live section has made more space available), there is a way that organizations can improve their chances of inclusion in online and in-print listings.

Instead of just emailing (or, for 19th-century types, snail-mailing) press releases, you should also input your info into the Sun's events and venues database. This will give people here what they need to create online lists and the material to choose from in compiling the lists published in Friday's Live section.

So just follow this link to the Web page and give us what you've got. It's pretty easy. One tip: When you get to the "Type of Event" line, click on the little arrow and you'll find a list of options on a drop-down menu. For classical music events (including opera), choose "Concert."

If you have any questions, please contact Rebecca Hyler ( or Amanda Krotki (



Posted by Tim Smith at 12:27 PM | | Comments (1)

March 2, 2010

Valery Gergiev, White Nights Foundation of America at Russian Embassy

Around here, talk of a mega-multi-tasking musician usually means Placido Domingo, tenor, conductor and general director of Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera (from what I hear, he's doing fine after recent surgery in New York). But there's another wildly over-extended gentleman on the classical scene -- Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, principal conductor of the London Symphony and a whole lot more.

In typical fashion, he has been everywhere lately. Last Friday, he kicked off the Mariinsky Opera's annual Kennedy Center visit, then dashed to Vancouver to conduct part of Sunday's closing ceremonies, then back to Washington for a reception at the Russian Embassy Monday night with the White Nights Foundation of America (a support arm of the Mariinsky's famed summer festival), then to New York to continue rehearsals Tuesday morning at the Metropolitan Opera for a new production of Shostakovich's "The Nose" that opens Friday. For Gergiev, this isn't really that busy a stretch; after all, everything's on the same continent. 

Part of Monday's reception at the embassy (which could be mistaken, inside, for a Las Vegas hotel, ca. 1970s) was devoted to a showing of "You Cannot Start Without Me," a documentary directed by Allan Miller about the conductor's life and labors; it's out on DVD from BelAir Classics. It was interesting to be there watching the film while the subject was sitting in the front row.

It's a pretty reverential product, as you would imagine, but it packs in a good deal of substantive information on Gergiev's musical philosophy (the rehearsal footage, including a lot of "Rite of Spring" with the London Symphony, is quite revealing). There's also a terrific sense of just how adept a multi-tasker he can be -- the best scene has to be the one

shot in his Mariinsky office, when Gergiev keeps one eye and ear on a ballet staffer who has come in to complain about something, the other eye and ear on a TV set showing a soccer match.

After the embassy showing, Gergiev seemed almost sheepish in brief remarks to the audience. "It was a very long film," he said, "so I shouldn't talk at all." He did, however, remember to put in a plug for this weekend's performances of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" at the Kennedy Center, in the grandly scaled (what else?) Mariinsky production that he introduced to the Met with electric results several years ago. "I'm sure it will be very exciting for people," he said.  

I would have thought Gergiev could then make an escape and get some rest, but he stayed to mingle with the guests at a nosh. (I'm not sure everyone appreciated that. While I was talking to Gergiev near one of the buffet tables, the conductor was nudged out of the way by a man hurriedly scavenging for food. Gergiev took it in stride, even said "Oh, I'm sorry," and moved aside. I would have clobbered the guy.)

The Gergiev phenomenon remains one of the most fascinating stories in the music world. He routinely defies the odds, delivering many a notable performance even when severely pressed for time. And, as "You Cannot Start Without Me" underlines, he has a genuine, infectious commitment to the art of music and to the Mariinsky, which has thrived greatly since he took the helm. He calls the company "family," and that connectiveness sure does comes across vividly whenever the Mariinsky is in town.

Those visits have generated some of the most memorable musical experiences I've had in the past 10 years, which is why I'm so looking forward to the remaining events this week.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:53 AM | | Comments (3)

March 1, 2010

'Onegin,' 'Boris Godunov' performed in concert by Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra

For the better part of a decade, thanks to a kick-off donation from the fallen-from-grace, recently sentenced philanthropist Alberto Vilar, the famed Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg has been a regular visitor to the Kennedy Center, bringing opera, ballet and more. Although other donors have stepped up along the way to keep the association going, this year's Mariinsky trip to Washington is -- sigh -- the last in the official 10-year deal. No word yet on any future arrangement.

With the globe-straddling Valery Gergiev as artistic and general director, the Mariinsky -- known as the Kirov during the communist era -- has enjoyed renewed attention and admiration. One of the coolest things about its visits is the opportunity to experience the value of an old-fashioned ensemble-style company, with a reliable, resident troupe of singers who switch back and forth from major to minor roles with ease and (apparently) grace. Before the jet age started, this sort of family-style company was much more common. There's a lot to be said for such cohesiveness.

The 2010 Kennedy Center programming shows some signs of fiscal restraint. There's only one staged opera this time, but hardly a low-budget item: Prokofiev's suitably large-scale "War and Peace," March 6 and 7. This week, two concerts of opera excerpts will be offered -- a Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov evening March 3; a sample of Tchaikovsky works March 4 (with high-profile soprano Anna Netrebko in scenes from "Iolanta").

The Mariinsky visit opened last weekend with two operas presented in concert form, Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov." 

The "Onegin" cast on Friday night featured what might be considered one of the company's 'B' roster of artists, but the lack of star power did not dim the solid musical values, the palpable sense of involvement in the drama (even without scenery or costumes, there was a good amount of genuine acting displayed by the principals on the edge of the stage).

Gergiev conducted, as he prefers to do, without a podium. In a few passages of the score, he didn't seem terribly engaged, allowing phrases to plod along, and he failed to secure totally tight playing from the orchestra (I got the impression the musicians were simply tired). But most of the opera came vividly to life nonetheless; Gergiev had the softest, subtlest moments communicating with great poetic impact.

Alexey Markov sang the title role with a firm baritone and increasingly powerful phrasing. As Tatyana, Irina Mataeva's voice tended to turn edgy at the top, but her singing was otherwise lovely in tone and expressive shading. Sergey Semishkur revealed a youthful sound and affectingly ardent style in the role of Lensky. Mikhail Petrenko offered considerable tonal warmth and smoothness in Prince Gremin's aria. There was character-rich vocalism from Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga), Andrey Popov (Triquet), Svetlana Vitman (Larina) and Elena Vitman (Nurse).

Sunday afternoon's performance of "Boris" was to have been conducted, like everything else in this DC visit, by Gergiev, but he got called to Vancouver to participate in closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics. In his place stepped

Pavel Smelkov, who brought a sure, sensitive touch (and a lot of hair) to the assignment. Performed without intermission and more or less in Mussorgsky's original version, the opera had terrific sweep. The choral outbursts registered mightily; the orchestra produced volcanic and delicate sounds with equal skill.

Evgeny Nikitin gave a noble account of the title role. Whatever he lacked in depth and roundness of tone, he made up for with interpretive weight; the hallucination and death scenes were sung with particularly gripping force. Petrenko was again impressive, this time as Pimen. Dmitri Voropaev sang the Fool's lament eloquently (too bad that, in this version of the score, the lament did not return as the opera's final, haunting word). The rest of the large cast delivered effectively.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:52 PM | | Comments (1)

'In the Heights' cast members perform cabaret to benefit Broadway Cares

Rayanne Gonzales and some of her fellow colleagues who are featured in the dynamic cast of the "In the Heights" production currently at the Hippodrome -- a Tony-winning musical well worth catching, if I do say so myself (and I did in Friday's review) -- will spend their night off doing cabaret.

The performance at 7:30 p.m. Monday (March 1), is part of the Cabaret at Germano's series in Little Italy. Gonzales and friends will be accompanied by pianist James Fitzpatrick. Proceeds from the show will benefit Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Bicentennial salute to Frederic Chopin

Although Frederic Chopin was probably born in February, he always said his birthday was March 1, so that's good enough for me. And since March 1, 2010, happens to be the 200th anniversary of his arrival in the world, it's a good opportunity to pause for a moment and lift a hearty glass in his memory.

Chopin didn't just write a remarkable quantity and quality of piano music; he gave the piano its soul. The instrument became something richer because of his refined lyricism, his poetic temperament, with its strain of bittersweetness running so often just beneath the surface.

I think Chopin's music provides one of the toughest challenges for would-be keyboard artists, because it requires so much more than digital virtuosity, even more than a good sense of expressive nuance. It demands a kind of honesty and openness that cannot be faked. It requires, I think, a certain vulnerability.

Stick to the notes, so as to appease middle-of-the-road competition juries or strict constructionist critics, and it's just a case of going through Chopin-esque motions. Open up to the full range of human emotions, using flexibile rhythms and subtle gradations of tone as your own personality dictates, and it becomes a matter of living Chopin's music. That's what I like to hear.

I've got a long list of favorite Chopin interpreters, and I may bore you with several of them periodically during this Chopin bicentennial. (Please let me know your favorites, too.) For the actual birthday, I decided to choose only one artist to demonstrate Chopin's creative genius, Krystian Zimerman, who shares the same Polish heritage as the composer and who has a truly individualistic style always makes me imagine that this is how Chopin must have played. One more cool thing about Zimerman. Spookily, he even looks like Chopin in some of these videos:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (3)
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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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