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April 30, 2010

BSO offers Leshnoff premiere, Stravinsky concerto, Rachmaninoff symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made many an excursion into Russian repertoire during Yuri Temirkanov's brief era as music director. Turns out that his successor, Marin Alsop, likes that repertoire, too, and she has done her fair share of programming it here.

This week, she's focusing on Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. It happens to be something of a Temirkanov specialty; he achieved unforgettable results when he led performances of the work with the BSO in 2004. Alsop's account Thursday night at Strathmore was on a somewhat different level. More on that in a moment.

The program included a welcome premiere by gifted Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff and a sterling account of Stravinsky's spicy Violin Concerto with stellar soloist Gil Shaham. (The full program will be repeated at Meyerhoff Hall Friday night. On Saturday, Alsop will devote one of her popular, innovative "Off the Cuff" presentations exclusively to the Rachmaninoff symphony.)

Leshnoff has been building a name for himself over the past decade or so. Among his recent commissions is one from the Philadelphia Orchestra for a flute concerto that will be premiered next season. His first BSO commission has resulted in a short, eventful score called "Starburst." It's a curtain-raiser in the best sense of the word, full of energy and anticipation.

The composer's most distinctive talent may be for creating deeply lyrical themes, but, here, his focus is

on propulsion and creating a sense of almost frantic searching. From a short, up-and-down melodic motive, Leshnoff creates considerable action as harmonies tighten and nearly minimalist motor rhythms help drive the music along. Even a momentary repose partway through can't stop the sense of urgency, and the final arrival point suggests more of a temporary resolution than a final one, as if the notes could start churning all over again at the slightest provocation. It's a colorfully orchestrated work, and Alsop had the ensemble articulating deftly.

The Stravinsky item from 1931 finds the composer in his neoclassical groove, but, in the last of the four movements, with a hint of his earlier, kick-ass "Rite of Spring" days providing extra flair. It's cool music, clever and surprising. Stravinsky dismissed the grand gestures of romantic violin concertos, but still devised plenty of bravura activity for the soloist, while giving the orchestra vividly colored activity.

Shaham played with a sterling technique and wonderfully animated phrasing, interacting with the ensemble seamlessly (the romping duet with concertmaster Jonathan Carney in the finale came off particularly well). Alsop kept things firmly on track.

As for the Rachmaninoff Second, the conductor certainly had the orchestra playing superbly. It was impossible to miss the discipline and cohesion of the effort, qualities that Alsop has steadily cultivated. Missing, however, was a deeply distinctive interpretation.

Everything was in its proper place; the big tunes heated up when they were supposed to; the scherzo and finale took off with the expected dash; lots of inner details emerged with unusual clarity along the way. But when all was played and done, there was more control than tension or passion, more abstractness than personality. I was particularly disappointed with how the slow passages -- the first several minutes of the opening movement, for example -- sounded merely slow in Alsop's hands, rather than portentous or mysterious or sensual.

I proudly profess my love of this symphony (some of my colleagues would rather admit to a felony than tolerance for this piece, or much of anything by Rachmaninoff), and I can be easily swept up in its melodic eddies. I was stuck on the shore this time.

SUN STAFF PHOTO OF JONATHAN LESHNOFF; PHOTOS OF MARIN ALSOP (by Dave Hoffmann) and GIL SHAHAM (by Boyd Hagen) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (3)
        

Pipe organ fans can tune in via Web to Indiana U's new $2 million instrument

To all you lovers of organ music -- and I know you're out there -- you may want to be snuggle up with your computer tonight (April 30) to hear a live stream of the dedicatory concert for the $2.2 instrument at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. The stream starts at 7:50 p.m. If you miss that, there will be a live broadcast when the concert is repeated Sunday (May 2) on WFIU starting at 3:50 p.m.  

The C. B. Fisk-built, 4,000-pipe organ has been named for its donors, Maidee H. and Jackson A. Seward. The inaugural concert will feature performances by Janette Fishell, chair of the Jacobs School's Organ Department, as well as Christopher Young, Jeffrey Smith, Charles Webb and Marilyn Keiser.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:30 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 29, 2010

'Triumph of Love' gets charming revival from Olney Theatre

The persistent folly of us mortals when it comes to pursuing romance or power (or both) has provided abundant fuel for any number of theatrical works over the centuries. Among the entertaining examples is an early 18th-century play, Pierre Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love,” sparked with cross-gender disguises and sexual-political complications.

That piece found its way into our own time and place, thanks to a much-admired translation by James Magruder that was produced in 1993 at Center Stage, where he was dramaturg. The play version subsequently was developed into a musical with a book by Magruder, music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Launched in 1996 at Center Stage, the tuned-up show then had a short run on Broadway.

“Triumph of Love” is now back on the boards in our region, enjoying something of a, well, triumph at the Olney Theatre (running through May 9). This revival of the clever musical has panache and charm to spare. A vibrant cast, fluently directed by Clay Hopper, digs into the material so engagingly that any weaker elements — some creaky jokes, a few draggy or padded passages (it's a long show) — are easily overlooked.

The story revolves around Leonide, who came to be princess of Sparta through less than honorable means, and unfolds in a topiary-dotted French garden (this is ancient Sparta in name only). Leonide has developed a crush on the sheltered Agis, who just happens to be the legitimate heir to the Spartan throne and is sworn to kill her.

Leonide adopts a male disguise to get closer to Agis, and things quickly go awry from there. Before it’s all over, the princess pretends to be various people, male and female, and ends up with two men (Agis and his philosopher uncle Hermocrates) and one woman (Hesione, repressed sister of Hermocrates) in love with her. Meanwhile, Leonide’s maid, Corine, has adventures of her own with Hesione’s gardener, Dimas, and valet, Harelquin (of course, there’s a joke about “a Harlequin romance”).

Got all that? Never mind. It’s better to just surrender and enjoy this frothy farce about the transformative effect of love, or at least sex. And that’s easy to do, since

the Olney production does not push or belabor anything. A sense of whimsy prevails, along with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge. No one's pretending this is Shakespeare, or Sondheim. (Looking back on reactions to the show when it opened on Broadway, I wonder if  certain New Yorkers just weren't in the mood at the time for a little humor on wry.)

Speaking of Sondheim, his influence can be detected all over the score, in rhythm, melody and wordplay. If the tunes and lyrics don't quite rise to the master’s level, they get the job done skillfully. The musical also makes an occasional nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber (the second act ballad “Love Won’t Take No for an Answer,” for example) and even Frank Loesser — “Henchmen are Forgotten,” a terrific buddy duet for Dimas and Harlequin, would sound right at home in “Guys and Dolls.”

The tight-knit ensemble features Patricia Hurley as Leonide. Her singing could use refining, especially on high notes, but her assured, engaging performance gives the production a solid center. She handles all the gender switching with finesse and puts abundant color into her delivery of lines. At one point, on her way offstage, a delicious smile spreads across her face as she delivers a brisk aside: “I love me in this.” She's not alone.

Jake Odmark makes an appealing Agis, deftly capturing the gradual shift in the would-be ruler's world, from naive and bookish to hormonal. He sings pleasantly as well. Stephen F. Schmidt (Hermocrates) and Helen Hedman (Hesione) likewise bring effective acting and vocal skills to their assignments; they both generate considerable sympathy when the final plot twist leaves them facing the deflation of love.

Andrea Andert is a hoot as the omni-amorous Corine, bounding about the stage with extra vitality and a wealth of telling facial expressions. She can sing up a storm, too. J. J. Kaczynski does a dynamic spin as Harlequin, vocally and theatrically. And Lawrence Redmond is an amusing, gravelly Dimas, who seems to have taken voice lessons from Jimmy Durante.

The action plays out smoothly on Cristina Todesco’s unit set. An excellent six-piece band, led by Chris Youstra at the keyboard, is tucked neatly upstage. Pei Lee’s fanciful costumes add a good deal to the package.

PHOTOS BY STAN BAROUH COURTESY OF OLNEY THEATRE

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:02 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 28, 2010

"The Marriage of Figaro" gets stylish treatment from Washington National Opera

It seems almost radical, given the spread of Directorial Concept Disease throughout the opera world, to find a staging of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" that plays it very straight. One of the many pleasures to be gained from Washington National Opera's production, directed by Harry Silverstein and designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle (originally for Houston Grand Opera), is the fun of seeing how a thoroughly traditional approach can still yield so much freshness and style. This is a "Marriage" well worth celebrating. 

I know it seems a little thing, but I, for one, was glad to see no stage business at all during the overture (too many directors treat opera overtures as shtick time). And once the curtain rose Monday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, revealing a monochromatic, but somehow never dull, set that framed the action neatly and elegantly, it was apparent that this "Figaro" was in safe, sane hands.

The singers were well in the groove from the get-go, thoroughly inside their characters and admirably attentive to the subtleties of the score. I found myself caught up all over again in the familiar piece. Silverstein did not really add much, but rather simply put a nice new spin on all the comic bits already built into the opera, and he coaxed from the cast tight, sparkling ensemble work.

Although this wasn't necessarily a night of historic vocalism, the artists 

certainly fulfilled the technical demands of the music and put abundant animation into every phrase (several arias were enhanced by judicious embellishments).

Ildar Abdrazakov bounded into the title role with admirable assurance. His bass resonated warmly and evenly; he animated every phrase, making occasional, telling use of mezza voce along the way. Veronica Cangemi, as Susanna, did not generate a big sound, but used her distinctive soprano very colorfully.

Virginia Tola created an affecting Countess. Her tone, with its slightly metallic edge, penetrated easily; her long-breathed, eloquent phrasing, especially in "Dove sono," proved quite disarming. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, suggesting a dark-haired version of Fabio (anyone remember Fabio?), strutted and preened delectably as Almaviva. Although his baritone dried out a bit when pushed, he sang with admirable smoothness and expressive vibrancy.

Michele Losier made a winsome Cherubino, offering a mellow mezzo and exquisitely spun phrases to match her incisive acting.

The supporting roles were filled with solid actor-singers, notably Victoria Livengood as a highly spirited, irresistible Marcellina. She produced more sheer volume than all the rest put together and filled that sound with myriad colors (not all of them necessarily pretty, but always rich in communicative force). Robert Baker likewise hammed it up endearingly as Don Basilio. Vivid contributions from Valeriano Lanchas (Bartolo), Emily Albrink (Barbarina) and Jose Ortega (Don Curzio) rounded out the well-meshed troupe. The choristers made the most of their brief moments onstage.

The WNO orchestra started off unevenly -- the woodwinds sounded quite out of sorts during the overture -- but soon settled down and generated cohesive playing for Patrick Fournillier, whose conducting deftly combined momentum with sensitive breadth.

All in all, a most satisfying, refreshing, thoroughly classy encounter with a venerable opera.

(The principals I heard perform again April 29, May 2, 4 and 7. A second group of principals will be featured May 1 and 5. In addition, a performance of the opera by members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program will be given for the 18-35 generation on May 6.)

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:28 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 27, 2010

Washington National Opera's 'Hamlet' undergoes another cast change

And I thought the Scottish Play was the cursed one. Turns out that "Hamlet" can be a bad luck inducer, too -- at least in its operatic version by Ambroise Thomas.

When this infrequently staged work made it to the Metropolitan Opera in March -- the first time it was presented there since 1897 -- starry soprano Natalie Desay dropped out of the cast a couple weeks before the opening.

Washington National Opera, which opens a production of "Hamlet" May 19, has been through it's own to-sing-or-not-to-sing troubles.

First to go, several weeks ago, was baritone Carlos Alvarez, who was to have sung the title role; Liam Bonner and Michael Chioldi will share that assignment.

On Tuesday came word that

soprano Diana Damrau, now pregnant, has had to withdraw from the role of Ophelia. She will be replaced by Elizabeth Futral.

Oh yes, then there's company general director Placido Domingo, who was to have conducted all performances. After he underwent cancer surgery recently, he decided, quite understandably, to cut back on some of his activities; he relinquished three of the seven "Hamlet" performances to Patrick Fournillier.

Got all that?

PHOTO OF ELIZABETH FUTRAL BY CHRISTIAN STEINER COURTESY OF ELIZABETH FUTRAL.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:40 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Succeeding the late Erich Kunzel, Jack Everly to conduct National Symphony's Capitol concerts

Jack Everly, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ingratiating principal pops conductor, will be on the podium for two high-profile events in Washington this summer. Everly will succeed the late Erich Kunzel on the podium for the National Symphony Orchestra's 2010 Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts on the the West Lawn of the Capitol, performances broadcast nationally on PBS.

Kunzel, who died last September, led those popular programs for 20 years. Everly, who serves as principal pops conductor in Indianapolis, Ottawa and Naples (Fla.), ought to be a smooth fit for these concerts.

In a statement released Tuesday, Jerry Colbert, executive producer for Capital Concerts, the non-profit production company that has produced these concerts for three decades, said: "It was a real tragedy to lose our long-time conductor and friend Erich Kunzel ... [he] paid Jack the highest compliment he could by recommending him so strongly. With his experience conducting numerous orchestras around the world, on Broadway, and in ballet, Jack Everly will help bring new ideas to these national celebrations ..."

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO

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

What's up with Wolfgang? Mozart rides atop Google trends

Arrived at the Sun -- tardy, 'cause I got home so late from Washington National Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro" -- and was promptly greeted by my Web-savvy pals Amanda and Mark in our department with the news that dear, dead Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart topped Google trend Tuesday morning (see below). As I write this, he's still going strong at No. 12. What's up with that? Please let me know if you know. 

I can't think of any anniversary tied to the composer, and I can't believe WNO alone would generate so much Web traffic, especially since the company's "Figaro" opened four days ago (I caught the second performance). A production of the same work also just opened over the weekend at Toronto's Opera Atelier; maybe Canadians are pushing the Google search engines big time. 

Whatever the reason, I say: Way to go, Wolfie! Who says culture is dead?

Speaking of WNO's "Figaro," I'll get my review posted later today, after which I expect to drive Mozart right back to the top of the chart.

 

AP FILE PHOTO OF MOZART PORTRAIT

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

April 26, 2010

Weekend concert scene (Part 3): Hagen Quartet at Shriver Hall

Shriver Hall Concert Series wrapped up its 2009-2010 season with a knock-out performance by the Hagen Quartet -- siblings Lukas (first violin), Veronika (viola) and Clemens (cello) Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (second violin).

The long-admired ensemble, formed in Austria nearly 30 years ago, made its Shriver debut -- and first U.S. appearance in a decade -- with a disarming demonstration of interpretive insight and technical precision. There were jaw-dropping moments throughout the concert, examples of music-making on an uncommonly high plane.

Consider, for example, the time-stopping, soft fade on the last chord of the second movement in Beethoven's E minor 'Razumovsky' Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2. This was truly a sublime moment. For that matter, the whole score benefited from the players' second-nature timing, their grasp of structure, their rich variety of tonal coloring. (The program listed the 'Razumovsky' No. 3, by the way; the change was not communicated in advance to the audience, or, for that matter, to Shriver management.)

The wildest, almost dissonant moments in the Beethoven quartet provided an ideal lead in for Webern's on-the-very-edge-of-tonality Five Pieces, Op. 5. The Hagen players found exquisite, deeply communicative details in every note -- and silence -- of this amazing music. There were particularly profound pianissimi along the way, and some subtly shimmering phrases from violist Veronika Hagen.

While some musicians seem determined to proclaim their coolness by taking pot shots at romantic composers, the Hagen group seemed downright proud to perform

Grieg's over-heated G major Quartet, with its heart-on-sleeve tunes and constantly swirling emotions. I don't think it would be possible to make a stronger case for the piece than was made here. The playing had tremendous tensile strength, with unfailingly secure pitch, superb articulation. But it was the gripping expressiveness that carried the most weight as the musicians turned the quartet into an intense four-act play. I hated to see the curtain come down.

There was a generous encore -- the first movement of Mozart's D major Quartet, K. 575, delivered with the utmost in stylistic grace.

For a taste of the Hagen Quartet's artistry, here's a clip of the group playing Ravel:

 

PHOTO BY REGINA HECHT COURTESY OF OPUS 3 ARTISTS

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Weekend concert scene (Part 2): Music in the Great Hall

Sunday afternoon found me at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church for the season finale of Music in the Great Hall.

At the start of the program, Qing Li, principal second violin of the Baltimore Symphony, gave a fiery account of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, sometimes sacrificing beauty of tone, but certainly getting expressive mileage from the intensity in her phrasing. She was ably partnered by pianist Adam Mahonske (I wouldn't have minded more tonal nuances from him, though).

The violinist and pianist were subsequently joined by cellist and BSO member Bo Li for

Schubert's divine E-flat Trio. I admired the vitality the players brought to the music, even if, as at the end of the first movement and in parts of the scherzo, the sound sometimes got a little heavy (I know Schubert isn't Mendelssohn, but there are moments in the trio that can handle lightness and delicacy). Bo Li's poetic shaping of the the melancholy theme that appears in the Andante and haunts the finale proved particularly effective.

The long-running Music in the Great Hall series will return next season with a five-concert lineup. Among the attractions: a chamber music program with clarinetist Anthony McGill (one of the starry quartet that participated in the Obama inauguration), cellist Amit Peled and pianist Lura Johnson (the artistic director of the series); a performance by Duo Transatlantique (classical guitarist Benjamin Beirs and Maud Laforest); and a concert celebrating the founder of the series, pianist Virginia Reinecke.

PHOTO OF QING LI BY NING FAN

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Alan Rich, 'bellicose' and 'prejudiced' music critic, dead at 85

Alan Rich, one of the great classical music critics of the past 60 years, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 85.

The Boston-born writer had the chance to prepare his own entry for the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, and he made the most of it. The opening line still provides an ideal summation:

Rich, Alan, American music critic of an uncommonly bellicose disposition tempered by prejudice toward favorites.

During his long career -- he was still blogging in last year -- he wrote for a remarkable number of publications, some of them long gone (the New York World-Journal-Tribune, for one). Wherever his prose landed, it proved invariably entertaining and enlightening. Enraging, too, at times.

He must have been the most Brahms-resistant critic since G. B. Shaw. I still remember the shock of hearing Mr. Rich on a radio interview blasting the composer's technique and style. But you had to admire the strength of the man's convictions -- and his unstinting praise for things he loved. In a profession where blandness so often rules, Alan Rich was a breath of ever-fresh air. 

After reading of Mr. Rich's death, I called up his blog, "So I've Heard," and quickly found a couple of passages written in recent months that illustrate why his writing was so prized, and why he'll be missed. (Update 4/27 -- In my haste yesterday, I referenced the wrong Copland piece in one of the quotes below; eagle-eyed Sedge Clark set me straight and I've made the correction):

 

ON HAYDN SYMPHONIES: I love the mix, of humor and suspense, of the meticulous classical melody and the rudeness of the country dance. Take, to cite one of many instances, a C-major symphony numbered 90 (in the usual if shakily assembled chronological listing), with its finale a virtual compendium of orchestral tricks. At one point Haydn has his players come to a sudden and prolonged silence in mid-phrase; a few bars later they resume, but in the “wrong” key, D-flat instead of the expected C — a small distance on the keyboard but a jolt to the flesh!

The progression of themes, dramatic yet inevitable as idea begets idea; the play of memory as themes vanish, metamorphose and then stage glorious returns; the notion of symphony as grand design and as battlefield: Haydn’s glory lies in his appeal to our powers of memory and our willingness and our appetite for surprise. His music stands as a grand monument to process, the triumphant kind of process both clear and quirky; where you always know what’s happening… …Or think you do, at any rate.

ON COPLAND'S 'MUSIC FOR THE THEATER': It’s actually a fascinating piece, for the music and for its historical place: a young composer building his music kingdom from a base in Paris, the most thrilling location for an early-twenties American. I don’t know another piece so energized by its own time and place, discovering – in Jazz – a whole new language to go along with his reborn American conscience.

What’s amazing, too, is how much of this wide-eyed enthusiasm of Aaron Copland, circa 1924, achieves this throbbing, thrilling relationship with a Brave New World that he had so recently discovered and made his own.

ON A MANDOLIN CONCERTO COMPOSED AND PERFORMED BY CHRIS THILE IN JANUARY: Young, affable Mr. Thile, as it happens, also composes and plays one helluva Mandolin. From under his flying fingers, enchanted and airborne, emerge swirling clouds of musical tone as of a banjo strummed by angels. His four-movement Concerto bears the subtitle of maximum logic, “to the Stars On Pigs’ Wings.” It draws its inspirations from the breezes that blow though Locatelli and that gang; autrement dit,  he is one of us, to the manner born. In other words: his Concerto, which had its first-ever hearing at Royce at a exhilarating concert by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (lovable bunch, they) is a small masterwork instantly lovable, out of which he himself did play the veritable Hades.

FILE PHOTO

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Weekend concert scene (Part 1): Pianists Jenny Lin, Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia

I decompressed from a short vacation by heading back into the thick of things over the weekend, catching a musical Friday night (more on that anon) and then three concerts in a 22 -hour stretch Saturday-Sunday (not that I'm looking for a medal or anything -- I just don't want you to think I've been lounging around eating bonbons).

The first of the concerts afforded me an opportunity to hear keyboard talents of considerable note in an exceedingly imaginative program. Saturday night's performance, part of the An die Musik Live series, was built around Bach, without actually any 100-percent authentic Bach being played. This was, in essence, a celebration of counterpoint and transcription.

The first half of the concert featured the Stephanie & Saar Duo. Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, who studied at Peabody, have been building a fine career built around duet and two-piano repertoire.

There is such a large amount of terrific music for four hands -- utilizing one or two keyboards -- and we don't get to hear nearly enough of it in concert. For this appearance, Ho and Ahuvia explored mostly off-the-beaten-path items by Bach (and a couple by Frescobali), as transcribed by important contemporary composer Gyorgy Kurtag.

These well-matched artists found considerable expressive depth in Kurtag's version of the Sonatina from Bach's "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," and drew out the piquant imitation of organ sonorities in Kurtag's treatment of Bach's chorale "Durch Adams Fall." They also brought  technical flourish to the C major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 545, originally composed for organ and transcribed by F. X. Gleichauf.

The rapport between Ho and Ahuvia was readily apparent throughout their portion of the program; their music-making placed added value on elegance and subtlety. The two were joined for one short Bach/Kurtag item by Jenny Lin, and the six hands at one piano produced delightful sonorities.

Lin, who also did some of her studies at Peabody, has established a significant presence in the piano world. She focused here on the Preludes and Fugues composed for piano by Shostakovich in homage to Bach. These works, too, deserve greater attention, and Lin, who has recorded all of them, is clearly equipped to be their champion.

She chose five for this program and created vivid experiences out of each, from the shadowy eloquence of No. 1 in C to the tense drama of No. 24 in D minor, which achieves a level of profundity equal to that in the greatest of Shostakovich's symphonies and chamber works. The pianist's handling of bravura outbursts was as confident and sure as her sensitive phrasing in more lyrical passages. She got deep behind the notes to extract the emotional heart.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEPHSAARDUO.COM and JENNYLIN.NET

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:02 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 24, 2010

Guest blog review: Baltimore Symphony's Motown pops concert with Spectrum

My co-worker at the Sun -- and darn good friend -- Lori Sears caught the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 'Motown Tribute' Friday night and filed this report:

The Motor City rolled into Baltimore last night. The musical group Spectrum -- a four-member quartet featuring Darryl Grant, Pierre Jovan, David Prescott and Cushney Roberts -- sang the greatest hits of Motown for the audience at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (The group also played a show at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday. And they'll play the Meyerhoff again at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.)

But the sweetest part of the show came not from hearing the amazing songs of R&B's heyday (that was a sweet given) but rather from these professional singers enjoying the support and backup of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with conductor Michael Berkowitz. The songs were made fuller and even more enjoyable with the full orchestra getting their groove on, relatively speaking, with the songs. And by the looks of it, the many fans who danced in their seats and sang along with every word were thrilled at the performances.

Spectrum worked the audience well, with

lots of joking and cute quips and even a few ventures into the audience. And the group, which was formed originally as a Four Tops cover band, showed their versatility in delivering songs that ran the gamut of Motown's stars. From James Brown's "This Is a Man's World" and the Spinners' "Rubberband Man," to the Drifters' "Up on the Roof" and Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," as well as numerous Four Tops and Temptations hits, they covered all the big bases.

While I particularly enjoyed "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" (a 1969 hit for Diana Ross and the Supremes with the Temptations), I wouldn't have minded even more girl-group songs... or even some Jackson 5 tunes. Spectrum clearly could have handled it. And speaking of handling the high bits, singer David Prescott wowed me with his spot-on falsetto on the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New." With so many fantastic songs to choose from, and with the BSO as its backing "band," Spectrum couldn't have gone wrong with any of their choices. And they didn't.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BSO

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

A birthday greeting to my all-time favorite singer: Barbra Streisand

It's not an exaggeration to say that my life changed the first time I heard the voice of Barbra Streisand. Something in that timbre and the expressive richness behind it woke up my musical senses like nothing else ever had. The only other experience quite so transforming for me would happen years later, when I finally succumbed to the power of opera and discovered the phenomenon of Maria Callas.

Even as my own world moved professionally from pop to classical, my fixation on Streisand never waned, and I get nostalgic about her every April 24, her birthday. I refuse to believe she has turned 68 today. That's just a number, after all. This singer -- excuse me, this actress who sings -- is obviously timeless. Over the years, I've regretted some of the musical choices Streisand has made, but the vocal talent has remained a source of wonder and inspiration for me decade after decade.

To mark her birthday, I thought I'd share the opening montage from her 1966 TV special "Color Me Barbra." This is what introduced me to her (I must have still been in a crib then, given the age I admit to today). In these three songs, you can find nearly the whole range of Streisand's talent on display, vocal and theatrical. I am particularly fond of the second number, "One Kiss," which has always been one of my desert island choices when it comes to Streisand. I don't think this song has ever, could ever, be more divinely sung. It goes from being a pleasant Romberg operetta tune to something on a par with Schumann, and not just because of the sensitive arrangement. It's the singer who makes it gold. (I'd love to know what Streisand performances you could not live without -- and why.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:51 AM | | Comments (19)
        

April 23, 2010

In Friday's Sun: A play filled with musical language, an arts fest in Virginia

I'm still on a little getaway this week, so please forgive the lazy blogging. Instead of dazzling fresh stuff, I'll just direct my Web-only readers to some items they might otherwise miss in Friday's paper.

For those of you looking to make your own getaway, consider the attractions of the 14th Virginia Arts Festival, which goes on well into May. I've never made it there myself, but I've heard great things about this extravaganza from colleagues over the years, and the 2010 lineup is full of things that should be well worth the trip.  

Meanwhile, in our area, if the idea of clever wordplay is music to your ears, consider the bright revival of "On the Verge" at Rep Stage. Eric Overmyer's play is like an unsung opera, with arias, duets, trios and the occasional quartet, all spun into a comic, witty, literary fantasy. The production is a visual winner, too.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:47 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 22, 2010

A salute to the artistry of English contralto Kathleen Ferrier

I've escaped from the newspaper for a few days this week (I faced a use-or-lose situation with my leave), so I won't be too bloggy (or Tweety). And while I enjoy some so-last-century time away from the computer, I hope you won't mind this simple little post that acknowledges one of the most beloved singes of that last century: English contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

She was born on this date, April 22, in 1912, and died absurdly young of cancer in 1953. Fortunately, she left a recorded legacy that is still greatly treasured for the sumptuous beauty of her voice, the unerring taste of her interpretations. Here's just one of example of Ferrier's rare artistry, a performance of the sublime Schubert song, "Du bist die Ruh":

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:50 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 21, 2010

Baltimore Symphony heats up marketing effort with parties, concierge service

Marketing classical music is an endless challenge in the age of idols and dancing pseudo-stars. The latest effort at the Baltimore Symphony caught my eye. I don't recall ever seeing anything like this tried before, and it sounds kind of cool.

Of course, everybody in the business is trying to break down barriers between stage and audience, so the fact that BSO musicians will be hanging out with the public after concerts at Meyerhoff Hall for the next few weeks isn't exactly earth-shattering. But here are the extra features:

 

These will be "BSO Fan" parties (they've got fan buttons for you), complete with free drinks (including beer and wine, I'm told) and desserts. So you can hob with every BSO nob worth hobbing with, while sipping and noshing the night away. But wait, that's not all. If you call in the next five minutes -- sorry, wrong marketing project.

There really is more, though, and this is the most novel part. You can take advantage of something called the “Musicians’ Concierge” at these post-concert parties. Players will be available to help advise you on selecting a subscription package for the 2010-2011 season, tailored to your particular musical tastes. That personal connection strikes me not only as a clever take on traditional marketing, but one with the potential for fostering something more than ticket sales.

The fan parties, which started last weekend, will be held after Meyerhoff concerts through May 15. (At Strathmore, a modified version will be offered during intermissions.)

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 20, 2010

'Shadowboxer,' opera about legendary Joe Louis, premieres at Clarice Smith Center

 

Joe Louis, the celebrated “Brown Bomber,” deflated Nazi propaganda with his two-minutes-in-the-first-round defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938, but the boxer found it a little harder to fight racism and personal weaknesses. The ups and downs of Louis’s life have been incorporated into an ambitious opera called “Shadowboxer” that has received a theatrically impressive premiere from Maryland Opera Studio. The words and music, alas, do not have quite enough punch to leave an indelible impact.

Frank Proto’s carefully crafted score is at its strongest when moving into pop/jazz idioms, which allows the vocal lines welcome melodic freedom. But much of the time, singers are stuck in ponderous recitative mode, wading through a lot of text while the orchestra churns thickly and often obviously (string tremolos and percussive whacks invariably signal stress or ominous developments).

John Chenault’s subtly rhyming libretto

 

packs in too much detail to allow for a tight focus on the central character, and several lines land with a thud — “Your world is a boxing ring,” “The only way out is to fight your way out,” “The past is a graveyard.” At its best, though, the text sets up various historic incidents and dramatic situations evocatively. (This may be the first opera to mention the IRS, the boxer’s longtime nemesis; the n-word and several other ugly epithets are also sung.)

The piece is built on a flashback device, which finds a wheelchair-bound Louis in the opening scene facing death in the form of a boxer wearing a skeletal mask — an awfully creaky approach. Still, it’s hard not to be caught up in the eventful Louis story, which touches on so many compelling issues.

The production, directed with an almost choreographic flair by Leon Major, has a cool, sleek look. Erhard Rom’s minimalist set is filled in with various projections (sometimes, as when standard World War II newsreel footage flashes by, the opera starts to look like a musical version of a History Channel documentary). David O. Roberts’ spot-on costumes explore myriad shades of black and white. The ring scenes are neatly executed, with the boxing mimed by two actors.

As the older Louis, Jarrod Lee could use more tonal variety and heft, but his passionate phasing hits the mark. Duane A. Moody, as Young Joe, likewise sings vividly. Adrienne Webster uses her warm mezzo to keen effect as Marva, one of the boxer’s wives (wisely, the others are not crammed into the opera). And soprano Carmen Balthrop brings considerable style and sensitivity to the role of Lillie, Louis’ mother.

The well-drilled chorus adds a lot to the performance. Same for the excellent orchestra in the pit and jazz band located upstage, all conducted in sure, expressive fashion by Timothy Long.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 19, 2010

Chesapeake Concert Opera offers intimate, youthful 'La Boheme'

In between trying to have a little bit of personal life (hey, that's not too much to ask, is it?), I caught two operas and a play over the weekend, starting Friday night with Chesapeake Concert Opera's "La Boheme" at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church in Bolton Hill. More on the other two events anon.

Like Baltimore Concert Opera (formed last year), the Chesapeake organization (launched this season) presents works sans sets, costumes and orchestra -- but avec plenty of spirit. In the case of both ensembles, you can't miss the sense of singers just wanting to sing, to jump into an opera and take the audience along with them.

That certainly was the case Friday, as Chesapeake Concert Opera's young cast -- easily fitting the youthfulness of Puccini's characters -- offered a lot of vivid acting and stage business (there was clever use of a balcony area in some key spots). A few of the singers kept an eye on a music stand -- nothing wrong with that in a concert version, of course -- but everyone sounded quite at home.

There were three drawbacks to the presentation. Terrible acoustics; the performers sounded like they were singing in a tunnel. (The company is usually based at another Bolton Hill church.)

No chorus, so a chunk of Act 2 and a little of Act 3 went unheard. That didn't matter so much in the end; the drama, after all, is centered so squarely on the individual characters that this merely added to the intimacy of the evening. (And don't tell anybody, but I rather liked not having to hear all those damn kids squealing about Parpignol for a change.)

More problematic was

company general director Beth Stewart's idea of interrupting Act 1, just before Mimi's entrance, to provide some more narration (the program calls this "our signature cheeky narration"). Artistically speaking, that was a terrible idea, one that, happily, Stewart did not repeat -- she got all of her narrating out of the way in one swoop before each remaining act. (Given that the plot was also printed in the program, I'm not entirely sure that any narration was really needed, but I understand the point of trying to connect more personally with any uninitiated folks in the house.) 

That said, I was impressed with the general quality and commitment of the singing. Christine Kavanagh was an effective Mimi, her voice sure of pitch, rich of tone and sensitive of phrase. William Davenport, who sang the role of Rodolfo has the makings of a significant tenor. There's an immediately expressive and appealing quality in the timbre, one with quite an Italianate tint (in a couple places, he produced a sound reminiscent of a young Pavarotti). He needs to get the top of the voice under better control and develop more distinctive phrasing, but he sure has a lot going for him already.

Kevin Wetzel's sturdy, warm-voiced Marcello added another asset; this was an admirably finished performance. Aside from some stridency when pushed, Chloe Olivia Moore did a nice job as Musetta. Andrew Adelsberger, as Colline, could have used more tonal weight and a little more nuance for his aria, but he brought personality to the proceedings. Douglas Peters made an amiable Schaunard and sang with a good deal of character. Jason Buckwalter was his usual dynamic self as Benoit and Alcindoro.

Grant Gilman conducted fluently. Clinton Adams was very much a star of the evening for his colorful, sensitive work at the piano.

Chesapeake Concert Opera continues its season with "Barber of Seville" in May, "Abduction from the Seraglio" in June.

PHOTOS OF CHRISTINE KAVANAGH AND WILLIAM DAVENPORT COURTESY OF CHESAPEAKE CONCERT OPERA

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:35 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 16, 2010

Juanjo Mena leads Baltimore Symphony in colorful, off-the-beaten-path program

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been especially fortunate in its podium guests lately.

People are still talking about Hannu Lintu's sensational BSO debut last week, when the Finnish conductor led incendiary accounts of familiar works by Beethoven and Sibelius. This week marks the return of Juanjo Mena, one of the orchestra's favorite and most frequent collaborators since his first appearance here in 2004, and this reunion is producing memorable results, too.

The program -- three 20th century works that take distinctly different lyrical paths -- is noteworthy in itself, since none of the music is over-exposed in concert halls. On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), Mena lavished care on each item, from the gentlest whisper in Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" to the most aggressive thrusts in Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4.

The 1916 Nielsen score, which the Danish composer called "The Inextinguishable," is a knockout. The title refers

to the force of life, human and otherwise (including, Nielsen noted, volcanoes -- so the symphony provides the perfect soundtrack to this week's outburst of nature in Iceland). In four seamlessly connected movements, the work is rich in thematic ideas and development, leading inexorably to the tympani-gone-wild finale. Two sets of those instruments, placed on opposite sides of the stage, become protagonists in a battle gradually resolved when the orchestra reaches the grand transformation of a short, descending melody woven throughout the work.

The sense of an eventful journey is palpable in the symphony, and Mena proved to be a masterful guide, maintaining taut control, yet allowing for plenty of breathing room. The BSO responded with playing of considerable vitality, character, impact. The woodwinds sounded particularly inspired.

The first half of the evening was devoted to music of a mostly delicate hue. The strings-only Suite No. 3 of the "Ancient Airs and Dances" reveal the subtlest side of Respighi. This is baroque music seen through an early 1930s gauze of romantic warmth, and Mena coaxed appropriately gorgeous -- but never sentimental -- and admirably cohesive sounds from the ensemble; pianissimo fade-outs were achieved with great sensitivity.

Given the weather we've been having lately, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de estio (Spring Concerto) seemed a doubly fitting choice for the program. Though not  as well known as his works for guitar and orchestra, this violin showpiece from 1943 is a charmer, propelled in the outer movements by brilliant, dancing flourishes for the soloist, and enriched in the central movement by a noble, elegant theme of timeless lyricism.

The solo role proved a strong fit for BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who offered a combination of technical aplomb and refined style, while Mena assured smooth partnering from the orchestra in this understated gem of a concerto.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO (Jonthan Carney photographed by Grant Leighton)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 15, 2010

Ups, downs and outs at the Baltimore Symphony

It has been a week since that sensational debut of Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu with the Baltimore Symphony, and I'm still feeling the high from all the remarkably vivid music-making. That has me even feeling good about making the schlep to Strathmore tonight (Thursday) to hear the BSO's next program, since this one will be led by another conductor who has been know to generate some sit-up-and-take-notice performances with this ensemble -- Juanjo Mena. I can't wait to hear what he does with Nielsen's compelling Symphony No. 4.

The dynamics of guest conductor experiences would, I'm sure, make a great study. You've got musicians used to working with a music director much of the time (at smaller orchestras, it's often all of the time), and then they have to readjust to a temporary figure on the podium. There's a lot of sizing up that goes on, right from the first beat at the first rehearsal. Skepticism is guaranteed for anyone who doesn't arrive with a big name and reputation -- maybe even more skepticism for those who do. My guess is that the magic either happens right away, or not at all, in most cases.

Clearly, Lintu lit a spark from the get-go, which is why the concert was so superbly disciplined, yet full of spontaneity and expressive bite. There was a similar case early in 2009, when Vasily Petrenko made his BSO debut. The technical element of the playing that time could have been tighter, but the emotional commitment couldn't have been much stronger.

Ideally, of course, such dynamic collaborations would happen at every performance with every guest conductor. (Needless to say, the same goes for collaborations with the music director.) But there are just too many mysteries in the combustible art of music, too many variables to predict any outcome. That's part of the fun of going to concerts -- the great expectations, the great unknown. Each event is deliciously new, totally of the moment. And that's how I like it. (It's also one reason I tend to prefer live recordings; they're more likely to give you the sense of real chemistry in action.)

Meanwhile, on the down side at the BSO,

the steady salary and benefit reductions for players and staffers cannot be helping overall morale. Everyone inside that organization, on and off the stage, has to be wondering just what level of orchestra this community is able and willing to support long-term. Not the easiest condition to work in, but, if last week's incendiary performance is any indication, the artistic heart of this music-making body is still beating strongly.

Now, for the outs. There are vacancies in two of the five vice president slots on the BSO staff. Jeff Counts, vp of artistic planning, stepped down a few months ago to pursue other interests, as they say, after less than a year on the job. (Although his appointment had been announced with the usual press release, his exit went under the radar.) Kendra Whitlock Ingram, vp and general manager, recently announced her resignation; she's taking a challenging university job. Although both departures may fall under the general heading of attrition, the timing can't be great for an orchestra that needs all remaining hands on deck.

That said, I still get the impression that the BSO is continuing to move in the right direction, with considerable energy and imagination from music director Marin Alsop, exceptional management and board, enthusiastic audiences. And next season's lineup of repertoire is one of the strongest in years, providing another reason to feel optimistic. And who knows? Maybe there will be another Lintu-like surprise in the mix.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (4)
        

April 14, 2010

Lyric Opera House to offer scholarships to summer camp of voice, theater training

Close on the heels of the Baltimore Symphony's first adult music camp for amateur instrumentalists (the "BSO Academy") in June at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall will come the Lyric Opera House's first "Opera Camp" for Baltimore City Public School middle-schoolers in July.

The opera camp (July 12 to August 6) will offer free scholarships for 25 middle schoolers (ages 11-13), chosen by audition.

Students will get voice and drama training, along with

sessions on movement, improvisation and the backstage world of opera (sets, costumes, lighting, etc.). Various performances and field trips are planned for the students, but the coolest project for them is likely to be an opera that they write, produce and, at the end of the camp term, perform.

In a release from the Lyric Opera House, James Harp, director of opera and education for the theater, says: "The goal of the program is to provide a greater awareness of vocal music, particularly operatic music ... We are not seeking trained operatic voices and performers, but rather talented young singers with potential who wish to learn more about singing and opera and who want to experience the possibilities of artistic expression within a disciplined framework."

Auditions for the Opera Camp will be held on April 24. To schedule an audition, call 410-685-5086, ext. 323.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:50 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Inventive musical '[title of show]' gets area premiere from Signature Theatre

On paper, “[title of show]” sounds like a bad dream you might have after swigging too many mocha lattes in the East Village: two New York buddies sit around trying to create an entry for the annual New York Music Theatre Festival; they end up writing a “musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.”

Well, two longtime, theater-bitten friends – Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen – really did just that. The result, which had a decent run on and off-Broadway (winning awards for the latter), is an exceedingly clever, instantly likable piece, qualities reconfirmed by the snappy production the Signature Theatre has provided for “[title of show]” -- its area premiere.

The musical turns the theatrical process on its head and takes the venerable let’s-put-on-a-show device for a wild spin. At once smart and smart-alecky, self-conscious and self-confident, "[title of show]" is a nonstop send-up and mash-up of just about everything related to the Great White Way, spiced by wry references to failed productions (and, for reasons only the creators could explain, a mention of Shields and Yarnell, those mundane mimes from the '70s).

Except for a draggy spot near the end, when things turn a bit serious, the structure of the intermission-less show 

functions remarkably well, weaving in and out of the real, the half-real and imaginary with great skill.

Bell's dialogue offers inspired and often amusingly salty wordplay, capturing the natural cadences of a conversation among 20-somethings so perfectly that it is possible at times to forget that there’s an actual script. (You’ve got to love a show that can toss out such a line as: “Trannies need their protein, too.”)

Bowen’s more-than-serviceable songs are enlivened by clever turns of melodic line and harmony, occasionally riffing off of overly familiar patterns from today’s trendy musicals, and his lyrics can be awfully inventive.

Signature Theatre’s tightly meshed cast includes James Gardiner as the heavy-dreaming Hunter. The actor’s coincidental appropriateness for the role is the fact that he and a buddy actually wrote a musical called “Glory Days” that was launched by Signature Theatre and went to Broadway, where it suffered the ignominy of opening and closing on the same night in 2008. It gives this production a delicious little inside joke. Gardiner, who displayed his solid vocal chops in Baltimore earlier this season in “A Tribute to Irving Berlin” at Everyman Theatre, sings winningly and creates a spot-on characterization. His wild tangent as a blank paper muse is a highpoint. 

The slightly more down-to-earth Jeff is deftly, drolly, disarmingly portrayed by Sam Ludwig, whose reedy voice seems tailor-made for the score. As the friends who lend a hand to the guys' project, Jenna Sokolowski (Susan) and Erin Driscoll (Heidi -- she makes it easy to imagine Reese Witherspoon in the role) fill in the picture with dynamic, nuance-rich performances. As Larry, the unflappable accompanist, Gabriel Mangiante -- the production's music director -- provides assured work at the keyboard.

Director Matthew Gardiner (James' twin brother and the director of that Berlin show at Everyman) gets superb timing and supple interaction from the ensemble. Gardiner also devised the kinetic choreography, which has the cast overusing certain steps and hand gestures, but still manages to look fresh and witty throughout.

Adam Koch’s spare set design (neatly lit by Mark Lanks) and Kristopher Castle’s perfectly attuned costume design provide the finishing touches in this affectionate, invigorating staging of a show that, like one of those Russian nesting dolls, keeps revealing new angles and rewards with every twist.

“[title of show]” runs through June 27.  

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER COURTESY OF SIGNATURE THEATRE: Top picture: James Gardiner (left) and Sam Ludwig. Second picture, from left: Ludwig, Erin Driscoll, Gardiner, Jenna Sokolowski.
Photo credit: Karin Cooper

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:01 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 12, 2010

Pulitzers for Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto and the musical 'Next to Normal'

Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, written for Baltimore's own Hilary Hahn and given its East Coast premiere last June by the Baltimore Symphony (Hahn was the soloist, Marin Alsop the conductor), won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday. If you'll pardon the self-quotation, I wrote this about the BSO performance:

"...the half-hour concerto makes a grand statement, packed with thematic material and expansive development, all of it delivered with extraordinarily prismatic colors. The opening of the score, plaintive musings from the violin against delicate wisps of percussion, is quite the ear-grabber, a wonderful way to begin what amounts to a journey through moods and events, through light and shade ... Higdon's fundamentally tonal, yet imaginatively spiced, style communicates with a refreshing directness. The violin part encompasses an enormous range, technically and expressively, and the orchestral writing is no less substantial ..."

My colleague Mary Carole McCauley has filed this report on another of today's big Pulitzer winners (and note that the Pulizter board moved the winning work into contention for this prize, essentially overruling the jury):

“Next to Normal,” the little musical about manic-depressive illness that was developed at Arena Stage in Washington, might not have pulled in last year’s Tony Award for best musical. But on Monday, creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey won the Pulitzer for Drama, which is not a bad consolation prize.

“Next to Normal” took its final shape during a pre-Broadway tryout in Washington in 2008 before moving to the Big Apple. The critics loved the show, but the plot line, about the effect of one woman’s bipolar disorder on her family, was decidedly offbeat. <i>UPDATE: Incorrect info about the 2009 Tonys contained in this contribution when it was posted Monday.</i> When it came time for the Tonys, the musical lost out to "Billy Elliot." 

The national tour of "Next to Normal" will include a stop at the Kennedy Center in June, 2011.

PHOTO OF JENNIFER HIGDON BY CANDACE DiCARLO

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:24 PM | | Comments (1)
        

A birthday shout-out to Montserrat Caballe

After a private recital given by Montserrat Caballé in a Miami mansion years ago, I was introduced to the luminous Spanish soprano and promptly babbled away idiotically. I said something about how, whenever I feel disappointed that I never heard Callas live, I took great pleasure in knowing that I was around to hear the great Caballé. There was a compliment in there somewhere, but it must have sounded awfully stupid.

I thought of that encounter today when I noticed that April 12 is Caballé's 77th birthday. And that's reason enough to revel in her glorious voice again. I know well the standard criticisms about the soprano -- all tone and technique, no temperament; too limited an actress in opera; etc. But I still think that she produced some of the most viscerally beautiful, supremely stylish singing of the past century. For that, I'll always be grateful. So feliz cumpleaños, Montserrat Caballé.

To mark the occasion, here are two performances that reflect her taste, talent and range -- a bel canto gem, the finale of Bellini's "Il pirata," and the sublime Richard Strauss song, "Morgen":

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

H.L. Mencken's Saturday Night Club reconvened by Concert Artists of Baltimore

H.L. Mencken, by his own admission, wasn't much of a piano player, but the Baltimore icon gave it his all, especially when his Saturday Night Club convened to make music and imbibe. Mencken's colleagues included fellow amateurs, as well as some pros, among them Gustav Strube, the first music director of the Baltimore Symphony; composer Louis Cheslock, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member; and Adolph Torovsky, band director of the Naval Academy club. For more than 40 years, club members regularly assembled to perform arrangements of the classics and pieces written by colleagues, creating in the process a legendary part of Baltimore's history.

That legend stepped into the sunlight Sunday afternoon when the Concert Artists of Baltimore presented a diverting program in the atrium of the Engineer's Club, offering nearly a dozen of the arrangements once played by Mencken and his fun-loving buddies. I hope this won't be the last such event. Given that there are 54 boxes of the club's music held by the Pratt Library (staffer David Donovan has devoted a great deal of time and clearly rewarding effort in digging out the material there), Concert Artists could make this reconvening an annual event -- a Sunday Afternoon Club, maybe.

From the first sounds of

the opening movement to Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony -- scored for five strings, clarinet, flute, horn and piano -- a really cool picture emerged of what went on back in the day. Edward Polochick, artistic director of Concert Artists, was an engaging guide for this time travel, and he drew from his musicians consistently spirited playing (a couple of rough patches could be considered, in this context, a case of historical authenticty).

The faithful arrangements of the Schubert work and the opening of Beethoven's "Eroica" offered reminders of how serious Mencken's club members could be about their music. Hearing such biggies reduced to salon orchestra size took a relatively minor ear-adjustment, and Polochick treated the material as if he were conducting a 50-piece ensemble -- there was a lot of expression packed into those performances.  

The program featured plenty of lighter fare, the sort that clearly went down very well with the Mencken crowd as the beer flowed freely. "Valse Vodka" by Cheslock and "Fox Trot" by Strube contained intriguing, even quirking ideas. Bright arrangements of favorites by Johann Strauss -- father ("Radestsky March") and son (waltzes from "Fledermaus") -- received particularly colorful performances. Same for the march "I Am a One," a club anthem with music by William Woolcott and barbed words (not sung here -- maybe next time) by Mencken. The finale hit precisely the right note for the occasion: the "Beer Barrel Polka."

Seems to me that Concert Artists should look for a way to launch a recording project of treasures from the Mencken club (I'd bet Naxos would be interested). It would surely have an appeal beyond Baltimore.

SUN FILE PHOTO OF SATURDAY NIGHT CLUB DINING IN A PRIVATE ROOM AT SCHELLHASES RESTAURANT

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:15 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 9, 2010

Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu makes electric debut with Baltimore Symphony

If you don't already have plans to hear the Baltimore Symphony Friday night at Meyerhoff of Saturday night at Strathmore, make them. Trust me. This is something you really shouldn't miss.

I know what some of you are thinking: "Why would I bother changing my life around for a concert with a conductor I've never heard of leading a program that contains such two overly familiar pieces as Sibelius' "Finlandia" and Beethoven's Seventh? Not to mention a new percussion concerto by a composer with a name no one can pronounce."

Well, just get those silly thoughts out of your head right now. You won't be thinking that way after you go. You'll only be wondering how fast the BSO can re-engage Hannu Lintu as a guest conductor (in his native Finland, he leads the Tampere Philharmonic). You might still have trouble pronouncing Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer of the percussion concerto on the program -- titled  "Incantations" and co-commissioned by the BSO -- but you'll likely find yourself interested in hearing more of his music. 

All right, enough of the hard sell. Let me just explain why I left Meyerhoff Thursday night on such a high. 

I'll start, as the program did, with "Finlandia." Although this is the most famous piece by Finland's most famous composer, I'd bet

it gets played a lot more often on radio than in concert halls (a whole bunch of similarly appealing gems get treated that way, but that's for another blog post). So part of the fun was just having the chance to soak up all that earthy power of the opening brass chords -- like mighty fjords rising into view -- and the noble, stirring hymn tune that emerges later. What made this performance such a memorable experience was the way Lintu had the music sounding so fresh, so bold and bracing. He drew from the BSO a startling current of energy and expressive involvement from the get-go, a communicative bond that remained sturdy all evening.

The 81-year-old Rautavaara is one of the most unabashedly lyrical composers around. His melodic and harmonic idioms are immediately accessible, even when he adds layers of complexity. "Incantations," a work in three action-packed movements, is weakened a little by the big, recurring musical idea stated at the outset with great emphasis by the orchestra; that theme is just this side of the border from movie-score banality. It's catchy, though, no question about that. Luckily, Rautavaara has other ideas churning around in the orchestral portion of the score, while giving the soloist a lot of cool stuff to do.

Percussionist Colin Currie jumped into the assignment with his usual, apparently effortless aplomb, darting back and forth between marimba and vibraphone, as well as a battery of drums, cymbals and bells. The sheer virtuosity of his playing was enough to hold the interest, but there was considerable musical value in the way the percussion battery was deployed throughout this taut concerto. Much of the writing is subtle, atmospheric, evocative, rather than assertive (of course, whenever you see a lineup up multiple-size cymbals, you know they're going to get hammered in succession every now and then -- and that's part of this score, too). The dialogue between soloist and orchestra is often engaging, but the former's contributions understandably dominate the argument. Lintu provided Currie with supple support and drew lively work from the ensemble.

The BSO has played its fair share of Beethoven Sevenths over the years. The performance with Lintu has to rank among the finest. The conductor's combination of relentless drive, yet remarkable dynamic nuance, reminded me of Carlos Kleiber, and I can't think of any higher praise. I've been known to enjoy more restrained, weightier versions of this symphony (remember Bernstein's final concert?), but I can't resist the chance to be swept up into the kind of frenzy so expertly generated and managed by Lintu.

Even in the finale, at max tempo, the conductor ensured subtle varieties of expression so that the sound was never monochromatic. Lintu was no less engaging in the other movements, balancing propulsion with warmth, and his efforts drew some of the most cohesive, colorful and electrifying playing I've heard from the BSO in my 10 years here. That's why I'd really hate for you to miss it.   

PHOTO OF HANNU LINTU (by Ulla Alderin) and COLIN CURRIE (by Chris Dawes) COURTESY OF BSO    

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

April 8, 2010

Fleisher to conduct Peabody Symphony this week, give benefit for BARCS in June

Leon Fleisher, the dean of Baltimore's classical music world, perks up ears whenever, wherever and however he appears. Any opportunity to savor such an extraordinary artist is automatically newsworthy.

This week, he's in conducting mode -- he'll lead the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Brahms and Ravel Friday night at the conservatory.

And it's not too early to note that

he'll be in pianistic mode June 4 for a recital of solo and duet repertoire, joined by his wife Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. The latter event, featuring music of Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, will be a benefit for Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS).

I can't make Friday's Peabody Symphony concert (I'll be reviewing theater that night), so I stopped by for some of the rehearsal Thursday afternoon. I had hoped this was going to be closer to a dress rehearsal situation, affording an opportunity to hear Brahms' Symphony No. 2 all the way through. Instead, Fleisher devoted the first 90 minutes of the session to a single movement from that score (I couldn't stay for more, alas). It was instructive, affording much insight into Fleisher's thinking.

As a pianist, his recordings of the Brahms concertos are well known and highly prized for their technical mastery and expressive impact. From the podium, polish and sensitivity were likewise on his mind as he strove to get a tighter, more involved response from the students as they tackled the bracing finale of the Second Symphony. Fleisher did some particularly telling things with the broad, lyrical theme that warms up this closing movement, and he drove the coda along powerfully (taking full advantage of the two startling bits of silence that interrupt it).

The students are fortunate to be working with such a rare and insightful artist, to have the benefit of his long experience with living deeply inside the music of the masters.

PHOTO BY JOANNE SAVIO COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE 

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 PM | | Comments (0)
        

April 7, 2010

Billie Holiday's birthday celebrated Wednesday at the Pratt Library

The indelible jazz artist Billie Holiday, one of the greatest talents to emerge from Baltimore, will be saluted Wednesday by the Pratt Library and Billie Holiday House.

This birthday celebration -- the singer was born on April 7, 1915 (she died much too soon on July 17, 1959) -- will be held at the Central Library. It includes the 11 a.m. opening of an exhibit, "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," and the unveiling of a replica of James Earl Reid's striking sculpture of Billie Holiday (the original is located at Pennsylvania and W. Lafayette avenues). At 7 p.m., vocalist Lonette McKee will perform a Holiday tribute.

To me, Billie Holiday is the jazz equivalent of opera's Maria Callas, a singer with an imperfect vocal instrument, but incomparable style. Here's my own birthday salute to Lady Day, from her exquisite "Lady in Satin" album recorded about a year and a half before her death. It doesn't get better than this:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:43 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 5, 2010

Gilmore Young Artist Award-winner Ivan Moshchuk gives dynamic Baltimore recital

It takes a certain amount of nerve -- or maybe just youth, as an audience member suggested to me -- for a pianist to program as hefty a program as the one 19-year-old Ivan Moshchuk delivered Saturday afternoon at An die Musik.

On the first half: the Bach/Busoni Chaconne and Beethoven's "Appassionata." On the second: a set of Scriabin Preludes and Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2. That's a lot of finger-busting for one afternoon, but Moshchuk sounded like he could have added a few much such challenges without breaking a sweat; this was a very impressive demonstration of talent and potential.

Moshchuk, who studies with Boris Slutsky at Peabody, recently was named one of two recipients of the 2010 Gilmore Young Artist Award, which includes a $15,000 grant and a commission for a new work. Like the Gilmore Award, which carries a $300,000 prize and is given to an established pianist, this nod to young artists is non-competitive; candidates typically have no idea they are under consideration. The Gilmore brand has become quite prestigious over the past two decades. It was easy on Saturday to hear what evaluators must have found so appealing about this particularly pianist.

The Moscow-born Moshchuk, who was raised in Michigan, has a pronounced virtuoso streak -- there were times when it seemed like he couldn't wait to get to the next bravura passage. Like many pianists, he took the finale of the "Appassionata" at such a good clip from the get-go that there wasn't much room for contrast at the home stretch. Still, he put across the bold, bracing quality of the score very effectively. During the wildest dashes of the Beethoven score and the thunderous outer movements of the Rachmaninoff, note-counters could have tallied a few misses, but that hardly mattered in light of so much absorbing, dynamic music-making.

Moshchuk had something meaningful to say throughout the recital. When, for example,

he reached the major key section of the Chaconne, he sculpted the phrases with a deal of expressive warmth. The second movement of the Rachmaninoff sonata was likewise delivered eloquently, as was, to an even greater degree, the encore from Rachmaninoff's Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39 (the darkly poetic No. 2 in A minor).

When all was played and done, I wouldn't have minded more contrasting repertoire on the program, but it was impossible not to be impressed with Moshchuk's handling of the material. I look forward to hearing him again.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of clips from other performances by the pianist that easily reveal what the fuss is all about:

PHOTO COURTESY OF GILMORE INTERNATIONAL KEYBOARD FESTIVAL 

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:51 PM | | Comments (2)
        

McNally fest at Kennedy Center finds Tyne Daly triumphant in 'Master Class'

In case you missed Sunday's paper (I hope you were out having fun on such a fab day), I thought I should mention my review of "Master Class," the third production in the Kennedy Center's festival of Terrence McNally opera-theme plays, featuring a brilliant performance by Tyne Daly as Maria Callas.

I know that this play is not historically accurate in a whole mess of ways -- Callas gave a few famous master classes, all right, but not for unprepared singers; she treated students with kindness, not bitchiness; she probably never said, and maybe never even thought, a lot of the lines that McNally gives her in this play; some details presented here about the Callas/Aristotle Onassis relationship are open to debate. But I still think there is something that rings true about almost all of "Master Class."

In this new production, Callas seems to be right there, in all her formidable divahood and with her inner self visible as well. Daly doesn't resemble the famed soprano physically, yet captures the woman's essence, sometimes in startling ways. It's a terrific portrayal in an awfully entertaining and meaningful play. 

PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY CENTER

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:11 PM | | Comments (1)
        

April 4, 2010

Contrasting reflections on Easter from Rachmaninoff

To complete my little series of musical reflections for that I started on Good Friday (and I'm honestly not sure what possessed me, so to speak, to start it in the first place), I thought I'd turn to Rachmaninoff, whose birthday I noted earlier in the week.

I remembered his song about Easter, "Christ is Risen," a song that is far from uplifting. The composer's setting of a poem by Dmitry Merezhkovsky carries a potent message about the failures of humanity, failures that are as obvious on this Easter Sunday as they were when Rachmnainoff composed the music in 1906:

" 'Christ is risen' they sing in the holy places, but I feel sad. My soul is silent. So much blood and so many tears are shed in the world and this song of praise before the altars offends like a mockery. If he were among us and could see the achievements of our glorious age, how brothers have come to hate one another ... if he were in the glittering churches and heard 'Christ is risen,' he would weep."

I found a fine performance of the song by a young Dmitry Hvorostovsky (he was also on my mind earlier in the week, so he seemed a perfect choice).

But I don't want to leave you with only these dark thoughts about Easter, so I've followed that clip with another piece by Rachmaninoff called "Christ is Risen," this one a movement from his sublime Vespers of 1915, and with a sacred text that provides a calming contrast to the gloom of the first piece. I hope you enjoy these reflections of Easter, from two very different sides, by the same extraordinary composer:

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

April 3, 2010

Music for Holy Saturday from Bach's St. Matthew Passion

I figured if I started something on Good Friday with my posting of Marian Anderson's noble recording of "Were You There" -- one of my favorite performances by the legendary contralto -- I should follow up with some music for Holy Saturday. And that brings me to one of my favorites passages in all of Bach's extensive output, the bass aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" from the "St. Matthew Passion."

The steady, calming flow of the melodic line gets to me every time I hear it. So perfect in construction, so affecting in mood. One need not have the slightest religious leaning to respond to the subtle expressive force of this poetic contemplation on the burial of Jesus: "Make my heart pure; I want to bury Jesus myself; he shall now find in me a sweet rest; world, depart, let Jesus in."

Here's a performance of the aria sung by Walter Berry, with Karl Richter conducting:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:02 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 2, 2010

Leonard Slatkin's disastrous week yields great opportunity for Steven White

Even if you hate opera, you gotta admit the art form never ceases to produce juicy stories. I'm reminded all the time of the old crack that music is an insane asylum and opera is the wing for the incurables.

The buzz on April Fool's Day was no joking matter. That day, word came that conductor Leonard Slatkin had withdrawn from his remaining scheduled performances of "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera.  The rocky opening night had been on Monday. Slatkin had never conducted that work before and, by his own admission on his blog (according to various reports), wasn't fully prepared.

I happened to hear, thanks to the Met's channel on Sirius-XM, the final act of Monday's performance while driving home from DC. I remember thinking that the poignant prelude to that act had no distinguishing interpretive characteristics. I didn't think the rest was wretchedly conducted, so much as impersonally. (I rather liked some of the singing, though, by Angela Gheorghiu and James Valenti as the unlucky lovers in the opera.) From what I've read, things were far from ideal during the rest of the evening, and the blame was laid at Slatkin's dressing room door.

This sort of thing is nearly unthinkable at such an august institution. Where was management during the rehearsal period? Weren't there warning signs? Singers are "withdrawing" from productions before opening night all the time, for "personal reasons" (the phrase used in the Slatkin case), "artistic differences" or "illness." A conductor could surely do the same.

On the other hand,

what was Slatkin thinking? He had not originally been contracted to conduct "Traviata," but Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles." When that latter was canceled for financial reasons, he was retained for the Verdi replacement. In hindsight, he clearly should have said "no thanks," should have admitted that Verdi was not his thing. For that matter, Met management should have understood this from the get-go and simply found him something more suited to his considerable talents. And, at the very least, Slatkin should have arrived thoroughly immersed in the Verdian style, fully alert to every aspect of the "Traviata" score.

The whole mess is just too odd for words.

On the bright side, Slatkin's withdrawal allows opportunities for other conductors. Of particular note for Baltimore area opera fans is the news that Steven White will be one of those stepping into to help finish the "Traviata" run, making his Met debut to lead the performance on April 10.

White became a popular figure at Baltimore Opera in the few seasons before that company's demise; his sensitive conducting was a decided asset in works by Rossini, Bellini and Gounod. A successful Met debut could give him a substantial boost in many ways.

Marco Armiliato conducts "Traviata" on April 3, a few hours after conducting the "Aida" matinee that day; Yves Abel will be on the podium April 13, 17, 21, and 24. A conductor for April 7 performance has not been named. (Not they'd ever ask, but I could make a good suggestion or two.)

SUN FILE PHOTO OF LEONARD SLATKIN, SUN STAFF PHOTO OF STEVEN WHITE AND HIS WIFE, SOPRANO ELIZABETH FUTRAL

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:51 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Music for Good Friday from the incomparable Marian Anderson

When I first discovered the rich repertoire of spirituals, it was like discovering Schubert songs for the first time. And when I first heard recordings of Marian Anderson sing spirituals, it was like hearing a voice from on high -- this clearly was no ordinary mortal.

On many a Good Friday, I've listened to her sing one of the most haunting of spirituals, "Were You There." On this Good Friday (thanks to a YouTube Anderson fan), I thought I'd invite you to do that listening with me:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:53 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 1, 2010

A salute to Rachmaninoff's birthday and the arrival of April

It's Rachmaninoff's birthday -- April 1, 1873 -- and that's a good enough reason for me to post a little salute.

I've said before on this blog that I do not understand why the composer is dismissed as inferior by otherwise sensible folks, but, as the old song goes, they're more to be pitied than censured. Personally, I can't get enough of the guy's distinctive lyricism. And, since this April 1st in Baltimore happens to be simply gorgeous, with the sun lighting up blooms spring everywhere, I thought of Rachmaninoff's song "Lilacs."

Being horticulturally challenged, I have no idea when lilacs come out, but that's not as important as the sentiment of the song (text by Beketova), which is about drinking in the fragrance of the flowers and contemplating the promise of true happiness. I found a clip of the divine Jussi Bjorling singing an English version of the song.

Rachmaninoff made a transcription for solo piano of "Lilacs," and I've attached a performance of that version played exquisitely by Evgeny Kissin at a very tender age:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:15 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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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