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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)


Did you attend the same concert I did? The Mezzo was spectacular at mine.

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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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