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April 12, 2010

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.


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

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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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