« April 2010 | Main | June 2010 »

May 31, 2010

A musical reminder of the war that led to Memorial Day

The original purpose of Memorial Day can get easily lost amid all the cookouts or, in these parts, trips to the beach for the unofficial start of the summer season. The origin of the holiday can get overlooked, too, since there have been so many wars since the one that led to the practice of commemorating those who died in service to the country.

It was in 1868 that the first Decoration Day ceremonies were held, honoring the dead of the Union Army in the Civil War. Over time, of course, the observance incorporated the dead of both sides and, renamed Memorial Day, encompassed all of this country's fallen in subsequent wars.

I was thinking today of those Civil War roots of the holiday and of a song that was popular with Northern troops: "We're Tenting Tonight On the Old Campground." I'm fascinated by Walter Kittridge's words from 1864 as much as the tune. This is a remarkably powerful, personal expression of that war's toll -- any war's toll.

It seems doubly appropriate to recall it on this Memorial Day, when there are still conflicts and casualties. I've posted some of the lyrics here, followed by a recording of "Tenting Tonight" that effectively communicates the song's sadly timeless message:

We're tenting tonight on the old campground. Give us a song to cheer our weary hearts, a song of home, and friends we love so dear. Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease. Many are the hearts looking for the right to see the dawn of peace ..."

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:05 AM | | Comments (1)

May 28, 2010

Kathleen Battle soars with Baltimore Symphony, Morgan State Choir

More than a year ago, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced its 2009-2010 season, two of the eye-poppers involved famed singers.

One, Jessye Norman, never made it; "scheduling conflicts" prevented her appearance in "Ask Your Mama," a multi-media, multi-genre project based on a Langston Hughes poem. But another soprano, Kathleen Battle, arrived this week as planned to join the BSO and Morgan State University Choir for a newly constructed program commemorating the Underground Railroad. It's an ideal vehicle for Battle, as the audience Thursday night at Strathmore discovered. The repeat performance Saturday at the Meyerhoff would be well worth catching.

This event had "must-hear" all over it from the get-go, if only for the opportunity to hear Battle again. Since the soprano's much-publicized dismissal from the Met back in the 1990s, she has not been a presence in the opera world. Recitals and concerts with orchestra don't seem to have been all that numerous, either. And she doesn't exactly have recordings coming out every month. So being able to experience the voice was an irresistible draw, especially since this program was built around spirituals, a genre she has long shown great affection and affinity for.

The first thing evident Thursday night was that Battle, at 61, still

retains a remarkable amount of the vocal radiance that made her a sensational star decades ago -- the purity and accuracy of the tone, the clarity of articulation (many a singer could learn from her distinct consonants), the ability to connect with a text and make a listener feel the same connection. Battle never had a large voice, yet was able to be heard in places like the huge Met; her voice penetrated easily at Strathmore. There's just something magical about that sweet sound. 

The soprano spun out compelling phrases all night, sometimes with jazzy inflections that had terrific spontaneity and naturalness, sometimes with a disarming, Schubertian gentleness. Top notes didn't come as effortlessly, perhaps, as they used to, but there was an awful lot of loveliness in the timbre just the same.

Battle could not have been more heart-warming than in the a cappella selections, especially "Over My Head" and her encore, "Were You There" (I heard that one from the first balcony, where the voice floated quite beautifully). When the orchestra was involved, Battle projected with little difficulty; conductor Damon Gupton, a sensitive partner throughout, did his best to maintain an effective balance. It may have been frustrating for the players to keep a lid on for most of the evening, but it paid off. The ensemble's admirably nuanced support in such endearing, enduring gems as "This Little Light of Mine" complemented Battle's glowing vocalism fully.

As usual, the Morgan singers sounded splendid, whether adding their voices to a cappella numbers with Battle or to orchestra-accompanied pieces. The choir also got a couple of solo spots; "The Battle of Jericho," in Moses Hogan's brilliant arrangement and conducted by Eric Conway, packed a particular wallop.

A highlight of the evening was "Balm in Gilead," which inspired exquisite phrasing from Battle, a sweet blend from women in the chorus, and silken support from the BSO. In such moments -- and there were many -- the full emotional depth and melodic appeal of spirituals came through with affecting grace.

The BSO had the spotlight to itself a couple times. Gupton led subtly molded performances of "Land of Peace" from William Grant Still's "Africa" (why do we always have to wait for African American-theme programs to hear something by this great 20th century composer?) and some wonderfully atmospheric music by James Lee, III -- "...and on either side of the river" from his "Beyond Rivers of Vision" (we should get more opportunities to hear the works of this contemporary Baltimore-based composer, too).

Interspersed through the program were readings from the work of Frederick Douglas, read by Kweisi Mfume with the mesmerizing vocal richness and telling inflections of a seasoned actor.

As effective as the concert was, there were some little problems -- crossed signals, awkward breaks in the flow. These should be smoothed over before Saturday's performance. And I sure hope the Meyerhoff crowd will pay more attention to silencing cell phones and other noise-makers than the miscreants at Strathmore did (Battle would have been forgiven had she decided to walk off stage).

Ultimately, nothing could diminish the warmth of the music-making and the satisfaction of being in the presence of Kathleen Battle's still-gleaming "little light."


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:39 AM | | Comments (4)

May 27, 2010

Clef Notes ticket contest: Baltimore Symphony with Marin Alsop, Andre Watts

 UPDATE: Contest over; we have our winners.

Once more, the folks at the Baltimore Sun Media Group have passed along two pairs of tickets for me to give away.

These are for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert at 8 pm Thursday June 3rd at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Marin Alsop will conduct the program, which features Barber's beloved Adagio for Strings, Bartok's brilliant Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Beethoven's evergreen Piano Concerto No. 5 (nicknamed "Emperor"). Taking the solo role in the concerto will be Andre Watts, one of America's finest pianists.

The first two blog readers who provide correct responses to a few questions about Andre Watts will receive a pair of tickets. I'll contact the winners by email to make the arrangements for sending the tickets, so be sure to include your email address when posting your answers.

Ready? Set? Google your way to the answers of these oh-so-tricky questions:

1) What city and country was Andre Watts born in?

2) How old was he when he made his much-acclaimed New York Philharmonic debut?

3) Who was the conductor for that Philharmonic debut?

4) At what conservatory did Andre Watts finish up his musical studies and what pianist did he study with there?


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (2)

May 26, 2010

Guest blog post: Diana Ross in concert at Strathmore

Diana Ross gave a concert Tuesday night at Strathmore, a relatively intimate space for such a pop icon. I had a great time there -- this was my first live encounter with Ross -- except for the sound system, which confused loudness with effectiveness much of the night (initially, the star's voice disappeared into the mass of sound, and, although you could see five string players sawing away all night in the band, you almost never heard them).

I was impressed with how well Ross has maintained her voice over the decades; most of her singing was as technically solid as it was emotionally alive. And when she had a chance to do some subtle phrasing, especially in a couple of Billie Holiday numbers, the results were remarkably effective. Above all, Ross demonstrated the keen instincts and tireless energy of a true entertainer. She owned that house and everyone in it for 90 action-packed minutes. Cool.

But, hey, don't take my word for it. Here's a guest blog report from one of the world's most devoted Diana Ross fans -- my longtime partner, Robert. This was his fifth Ross concert (the first two were in the days of The Supremes, so that gives him bragging rights for a start), and he was looking awfully happy after this one. I invited him to share his reactions here:

The sold-out crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore last evening was eagerly anticipating pop diva Diana Ross as the lights dimmed and the band began to play. The music was unfamiliar, non-Motown or RCA-era Ross, but the images of vintage Diana Ross and The Supremes albums flashed on a screen behind the band helped to set the mood. When the music led into the first recognizable notes of 1979’s “The Boss,” Miss Ross rose from the back of the stage and the audience rose from their seats (some of them stayed upright for the entire concert, much to the annoyance of folks in the row behind them.)

Diana looked sexy and glamorous -- at least  

20 years younger than her 66 years -– in her first of five Bob Mackie-style gowns she wore during the evening. It was an infectious opening number. "The Boss” was followed by “More Today than Yesterday,” one of two selections she performed from her latest studio album, “I Love You.” It was a lively performance.

Telling the crowd that “tonight is truly about memories,” Miss Ross launched into a grouping of Supremes tunes. Unlike in her 1980s-era concerts, which disposed of a Supremes medley in short order, these songs were sung in their entirety for this concert.

Beginning with "Reflections” (vintage photos and videos flashed on the screen behind her), she continued with “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” “Love Child” ended this segment too soon. Hearing her iconic, still strong and clear voice singing these much-loved songs united the racially diverse crowd in a true love-fest.

The disco anthem “Love Hangover” led into more of Miss Ross’ solo hits. There was a new gown for “I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down,” “It’s My House,” “Ease On Down the Road” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”

Another change of costume and another change of mood led into a jazz-blues segment, with “Fine and Mellow” and “Don’t Explain,” two Billie Holiday songs Diana originally performed in “Lady Sings the Blues.” (It’s worth remembering that Diana was nominated for an Academy Award for that film role.) Her heartfelt interpretations of these songs highlighted her versatility as a songstress. The other song from her latest album, a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love,” with a hot saxophone solo adding to the impact of the number, was well received, as were “Endless Love” and "Touch Me in the Morning." 

Diana was warm and personable throughout the evening, waving and talking to the crowd, inviting a fan on stage to dance and thanking everyone for being there. She also personally introduced every member of her band by name – and it’s quite a sizable ensemble.

The last segment began with a medley of “I Will Survive” and “Take Me Higher,” two of her hits after her return to Motown. During “Reach Out and Touch,” her first single after leaving the Supremes, Diana did reach out and shake the hands of those lucky fans in the first row. The Theme from “Mahogany” (“Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”) led into “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

The almost 90 minute concert came to a close with a brief tribute to Michael Jackson; a picture of the late singer and Diana was shown on the screen. Although this was touching, this segment should have been a bit earlier so that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” could have ended the show in a more rousing fashion.

In secure, sweet voice and looking fabulous, Miss Ross proved again that she remains a true superstar. Our music world would be empty without her.

-- Robert Leininger


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (7)

May 25, 2010

Opera Lafayette takes comic turn with 1762 work about Sancho Panza

Opera Lafayette, the remarkable DC-based company that focuses on 17th and 18th century repertoire, has steadily built an impressive name for itself.

Several recordings on the Naxos label attest to the artistic quality. Earlier this season, a very successful presentation of Gluck's "Armide" at the Kennedy Center and New York's Rose Theater won raves -- and lots of admiration for how the company sold out  both places through old-fashioned, hand-to-hand, word-of-mouth, budget-less marketing.

Monday night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Opera Lafayette closed its 15th season with an obscure item from 1762: "Sancho Pança," by François-André Danican Philidor. It's not likely that too many more opportunities to hear this comic piece will come along anytime soon.  (This was billed as the work's modern American premiere.)

Antoine Alexandre Henri Poinsinet's libretto,  based on an episode in "Don Quixote," is not exactly full of intricate plot lines, but has some cute bits involving Sancho Panza on the Isle of Barataria. The score reflects the composer's gift for charming melodic lines and colorful orchestration, not to mention occasionally vivid harmonic turns. Every now and then, the quality of the music really was striking, even -- dare I say? -- almost evocative of Mozart.

I know conventional wisdom has it that

neglected composers deserve neglect, forgotten operas deserve to rot on the shelf. By a neat coincidence, while "Sancho Pança" was unfolding in the Terrace Theater Monday night, a performance of another rarity from the French repertoire, Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet," was going on in the Opera House below. I've noticed some folks complaining that Washington National Opera bothered to revive that third-rate muck, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to experience "Hamlet" again. And I still say that it's a lot better than its reputation, and that this particular production helps to mitigate the work's weak spots with theatrical power. Likewise, I think Opera Lafayette provided a valuable service restoring to life, however briefly, a piece that has genuine charms. It made me want to hear more by Philidor. 

Opera Lafayette's semi-staging concept, directed by Catherine Turocy, got a little cutesy, perhaps, but the idea was sound -- a take-off on how the actors and singers of the Comedie Italienne in Paris used to govern the place and audition new works, including Philidor's. This provided the workable framework to fill in plot details. The cast jumped in with theatrical flair. Vocally, things were a bit uneven. Darren Perry, as Sancho, needed a more secure top register to go with the rest of his vibrant effort. I wouldn't have minded greater tonal color from sopranos Meghan McCall and Elizabeth Calleo, but their dynamic delivery paid off. Karim Sulayman was particularly impressive, puting a lot of character into his singing. John Lescault, in the speaking role of librettist Poinsinet, served as an amiable host for this fast-paced dip into opera history. The rest of the cast provided able support.

Artistic director and conductor Ryan Brown presided over a fleet performance that found the company's period instrument orchestra bubbling along nicely.  

Next season, Opera Lafayette has scheduled Handel's "Acis and Galatea," Grétry's "Le Magnifique," and more. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (0)

Remembering Beverly Sills with my favorite recording (today) of the soprano

Beverly Sills would have -- should have -- turned 81 today, May 25. She died, much too soon, three years ago.

For me, the distinctive, silvery sound of Sills exerts an immediate pull, just as the earthier tone of Callas does. And when Sills is at her interpretive best, I find myself totally won over.

Some days, if asked to choose my favorite performance by the singer, I'd immediately say Marietta's Lied from "Die tote stadt." But today, I'd have to pick "Im chambre separee" from the 1898 operetta "Der Opernball" by Heuberger --a love song about leaving the bright night life behind to share a cozy corner where secrets of love can be whispered.

During a phone interview with the soprano not long before she died, I mentioned my fondness for her interpretation of this aria and she sounded genuinely pleased, saying that it was one of her favorites as well. She talked about how she and conductor Julius Rudel had decided at the recording session that they wanted to really take their time with the music -- and, boy, do they ever! I just don't think this gentle aria could be more beautifully and beguilingly sung. It's a recording that sums up the magic of Beverly Sills perfectly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (3)

May 24, 2010

Feel-good stories about music in Iraq, Afghanistan

I came across two AP stories from the heart of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan that gave me pause. Both stories do not just reconfirm the golden-oldie cliche that music is a universal language; they underline how music is a universal need.

The Afghan report is about a music school in Kabul, where young people are eagerly learning instruments, Western ones and those from the region. Just a decade ago, in the neo-medieval days of the Taliban, instrumental music was banned entirely, and only songs of worship or praise to the Taliban were officially permitted.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been open for a brief while, but is already buzzing with the activity of 150 students, the AP's Jerry Harmer reports. Enrollment is expected to double soon. Among the schools goals: to rekindle knowledge and appreciation of folk music traditions, and to create the country's first symphony orchestra.

Here's a quote from the school's web site (how encouraging it is to see that site): "The institute is committed to providing a dynamic, challenging and safe learning environment for all students regardless of gender, ethnicity or social circumstances. We also have a special focus on supporting the most disadvantaged group in Afghan society – the orphans and street working kids -  to help them attain a vocation that will allow them to reach their full potential, while contributing to their emotional healing."

The new institute was spearheaded by Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan who returned from Australia to his native country for this project. Donors from around the world have helped with the funding. The German Society of Music Merchants, for example, donated five tons of instruments. There's a long way to go to finish and furnish the school, but what an encouraging start.

The AP story quotes American violinist William Harvey, who came to Kabul to teach at the school: "Great talent can come from unexpected places." One of his students, 12-year-old Marjan Fidaye, was

selling chewing gum on the streets before getting a chance to attend the school, which provides her a stipend of $30 a month to make up for the money she had been raising for her family. She is quoted as saying: "I want to be a good student, to learn something here, to make something of my life."

I sure hope she gets her wish.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, a 13-year-old pianist from California, son of an official from a US investment firm working in Baghdad, debuted over the weekend with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

The AP's Barbara Surk reports that Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner, a Juilliard student, won over a mostly Iraqi audience in the concert at a Baghdad hotel. The pianist said "we had a ball up there." (He reached the performance site wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest.)

Werner sounds like a bright guy, and not just musically. As he told the AP: "Several mistakes from my country have been made in terms of invasion and occupation. But me being here today is one way to show the U.S. has a lot of wonderful things to offer." 

The Iraqi orchestra, which has slowly come back to life after the 2003 invasion, is up to 90 players, a remarkable success story itself in a country where life is still a long way from safe and normal.

Music doesn't win wars or quell conflicts, but it sure can help remind us of the bonds we share as human beings, and it just might make a difference in how we treat each other. That, at least, is something worth hoping for in Afghanistan, Iraq and everywhere.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:53 AM | | Comments (1)

May 23, 2010

Suggestions for your Sunday reading and concert-going

First, for my cyber-only readers who may have missed it in the Sunday paper, I should point out my interview with soprano Kathleen Battle, who is heading to the area this week for concerts with the Baltimore Symphony and Morgan State Choir. Battle's long career has sure been fascinating. Hers is one of the most intrinsically and exquisitely beautiful voices of our age, surely one of the most beautiful of any age. For a while, though, she seemed to be bent on a baffling path of self-destruction. I hope that's all far, far behind her. Her performances here, devoted to spirituals, promise to be memorable.

Now, for those of you looking for live vocal music today, consider rushing out for Baltimore Concert Opera's "A Flight of Verdi" (3 p.m. at the Engineers Club). It's something of a luxury to have Steven White conducting, and he brings his customary sensitivity to this program of three acts from Verdi operas. White has been a strong supporter of this organization from the start, and will likely be involved in the future, especially if money can be found to move up from piano-only accompaniment to orchestra. For this occasion, Jim Harp is at the keyboard, so that's practically a full orchestra right there.

I was especially impressed during Friday's performance by the presentation of Act 4 from "Otello." The music seemed a little more personal, in a way, heard in such an intimate setting. Thomas Booth filled out the title role with considerable vocal presence, with firmness of tehcnique to match intensity of phrasing. Lesley Ann Friend sounded a bit tentative at times, but nonetheless shaped Desdemona's lines effectively. Sarah Lambert provided vivid support as Emilia. I missed part of the first scene from Act 2 of "La Traviata," but heard enough to be persuaded of baritone Jonathan Carle's significant contribution in the role of Germont. He's got style, above all, always looking for ways to vary the tone color and find nuances in the text. It was nice to hear him sing not just "Di Provenza," but the usually omitted cabaletta. Karen Myers, as Violetta, could have used more vocal weight and expressive insight.

Act 3 from "Rigoletto" gave Carle another chance to shine in a title role; his singing had a good deal of warmth and insight. I wish Rolando Sanz, as the Duke, had

done something more distinctive with "La donna e mobile." He plowed through the two verses at the same loud volume and fast tempo, a common enough shortcoming with many a tenor -- and conductor -- in opera houses today. How easy it would have been in a situation like this to add some individual and subtle flourishes. Still, Sanz' bright sound and vibrant phrasing did have appeal, especially in the Quartet. Myers, as Gilda, got the job done. Lambert was again in fine form as Maddalena. Matthew Curran revealed a sturdy bass in the role of Sparafucile.

If you're looking for instrumental music today, there's an interesting choice tonight. Members of the Baltimore Symphony will be the focus of two concerts that will take place at the same time (7:30 p.m.). The season-finale of the free Chamber Music by Candlelight series at Second Pres offers a violin sonata by Beethoven, a strong quartet by Bartok and a quintet for winds and strings by Prokofiev. Over at An die Musuk, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski will perform selections from his new CD of solo pieces by Hindemith, Saariaho, Ligeti and more (the An die Musik Web site wasn't working when I tried it, so here's the phone number: 410-385-2638).


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:47 PM | | Comments (1)

May 20, 2010

Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" packs musical, theatrical power

By a curious coincidence, when I took a break from my obsessive listening to traffic reports while driving to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday and switched to the Met Radio channel on XM/Sirius, lo and behold, I suddenly heard music of Ambroise Thomas -- a broadcast from the 1940s of "Mignon." That seemed like a fortuitous sign.

Here I was about to attend a performance of the composer's "Hamlet," an opera that only rarely gets attention in the world today, and I was suddenly enjoying a little taste of his "Mignon," which has slipped even more from the public consciousness. I felt like I was being swept up in some sort of Bring Back Ambroise Thomas campaign. After all, only a few months ago, the Met put "Hamlet" on its stage after an absence of more than a century, and Washington National Opera decided to tackle its first-ever "Hamlet." Cool.

Anyway, the point is (you didn't think I had one, did you?) was that I was already in a very Thomas-friendly mood as I took my seat. But that still didn't prepare me for what followed -- a revelatory, riveting production of an unjustly neglected work. With this staging of "Hamlet," Washington National Opera has saved the best 'til last for its season, and you'd be as crazy as Ophelia to miss it.

Thomas and his librettists have taken a lot of heat since 1868 for their adaptation of the Shakespeare play, especially for the original semi-happy ending (the Moody Dane lives!). And, even with the composer's revised ending used for the Washington production (he dies), it's still possible to quibble about plot details. But what a waste of time that would be. The opera respects the original source well enough, while providing a continuously appealing musical framework. Is the score the work of a genius? No. So what? Thomas had an undeniable gift for ear-friendly tunes and colorful orchestration. In his own modest way, he produced a viable and valuable vehicle for good old-fashioned grand opera. All it needs to come vividly to life is an imaginative touch, and that's what WNO provides. The result is a damn good fusion of music and theater. 

Director/set designer Thaddeus Strassberger has placed the action in a grim Cold War totalitarian state, where the murderous power-grab of Claudius and Gertrude takes on an extra sinister connotation, and he intensifies the drama by adding to the opera's original corpse count (bringing it more in line with Shakespeare's play). 

The opening scene is quite the attention-grabber, with  people in dark coats pulling down the statue of the dead king near a graffiti-covered, Berlin Wall-like barrier, and a crowd pouring into the aisles to hail the new leader. The visual intensity never lets up, reaching a peak of brilliant stagecraft during the mad scene for Ophelie (the French spelling is used in the opera). The crowning kaleidoscopic effect -- I don't want to spoil it by giving away too many details --is terrifically daring, but also so right. This scene, the most famous part of the opera (sopranos have long cherished its show-off opportunities), sticks out from the rest of the score anyway, so Strassberger has taken full advantage of that to devise a super-theatrical experience out of it.        

So many of the sights in this production are striking -- artfully arranged ensemble scenes; thugs burning books in the background; a fanciful take on the pantomime that Hamlet arranges to test the new king's guilt. There's something extra chilling about the gravediggers scene, where the two men and their floozy dates toss trash from a picnic into what will be Ophelie's final resting place. The first, smoky appearance of the ghost, however, is a bit on the cheesy side, but that's a minor disappointment. Mary Traylor's impeccably tailored costume design adds greatly to the effectiveness of the concept, especially the orange outfits for Claudius and Gertrude that suggest the stylish look of a Douglas Sirk film. Mark McCullough's perfectly timed lighting adds greatly to the theatrical flourish of the production.

Obviously, the drama of "Hamlet" has to be fired by singers as much as any directorial flourishes. I found the cast ultimately satisfying Monday night, despite reservations here and there. Most crucially, the title role was     


persuasively performed by baritone Michael Chioldi, who offered an admirable evenness and warmth of tone, consistently sensitive phrasing. A little more volume would have been welcome in places, but this was still very potent singing. His acting, too, hit home. He conveyed the character's brush with madness tellingly, and, in the confrontation with the frightened Gertrude (one of the opera's most inspired passages), Chioldi hit a dramatic peak to match the vividness of his vocalism. Elizabeth Futral was a tender, sympathetic Ophelie and, occasional graininess aside, sang with considerable beauty and nuance. Her colorful delivery of the mad scene set off a remarkable ovation.

In the case of veteran bass Samuel Ramey, as Claudius, you're faced with having to make allowances for a voice that is now in Wobble City. Ultimately, I found that drawback fading as the evening progressed, since Ramey generated so much expressive heat and created such a convincing characterization. 

Elizabeth Bishop, as Gertrude, strained on top notes, but otherwise sang with a ripe, penetrating tone and put an incisive spin on every phrase. John Tessier's light, bright tenor served him well as Laertes. John Marcus Bindel was a vocally pale Ghost. Aleksey Bogdanov and Jesus Daniel Hernandez made the most of their brief appearance as the Gravediggers.

The chorus summoned an impressive sound. The orchestra, guided in sure, elegant fashion by conductor Patrick Fournillier, was in fine form; excellent horn, trombone and saxophone solos helped underline the elegant craftsmanship of the score.

"Hamlet" may never enjoy a big presence in the repertory, but Washington National Opera's triumphant production makes an awfully strong case for it.  



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:38 PM | | Comments (7)

Strathmore's 2010-11 season to feature Stravinsky, Sondheim and guitar fest

stephen sondheimBaltimore area folks can be forgiven if they think of Strathmore primarily as a venue for the BSO, but many other performers, of course, are featured at this major cultural center. The variety of activity there has been impressive since the place opened in 2005 -- my own favorite non-BSO events at Strathmore include a Barbara Cook concert and a venture spearheaded by the center to celebrate a forgotten 19th century African American opera company. Great stuff happens all the time there, and maybe if they ever finish that inter-county connector thing (and if it lives up to its promised ease), I'll get to experience more of it.

I'm certainly tempted already by some of the attractions on Strathmore's just-announced 2010-2011 season, including a Great American Song series that includes concerts by Patti LaBelle, Mandy Patinkin, Johnny Mathis, Ann Callaway and Liz Hampton Callaway, and Dave Brubeck.

But the super-big news of that series is an afternoon of conversation with Stephen Sondheim (he'll be interviewed by Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks). For the "Sondheim Is God" crowd (I've been known to worship at that church myself), this Nov. 14 encounter with the 80-year-old music theater legend is going to set off serious palpitations. "He's one of the people we have wanted to present for a long time," says Shelley Brown, Strathmore's artistic director. "We were looking for a way to bring him here. He has a new book coming out, so that provided a good way to do this."

On the classical side, a major component to the season will be

the Stravinsky Project next April, co-produced by Strathmore and the Post-Classical Ensemble. Put together by Joseph Horowitz, the series will offer a multi-faceted look at the Russian-ness of Stravinsky (a lively theme the New York Philharmonic just explored). "Les Noces" and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments are among the scheduled works to be presented; pianist Alexander Toradze will be among the featured performers.

Note, too, Strathmore's Guitar Festival, which will run through the season. "It's a look at the development of the guitar from the lute on," Brown says, "chronologically and geographically." The pipa will be included in the survey, played by virtuoso Wu Man; the mandolin will get a nod, as well, played by the sensational Chris Thile. Classical guitarists taking part include Jason Vieaux and Ana Vidovic; among those from the pop/rock/jazz side taking part will be Kris Kristofferson, Del McCoury, John Scofield and more.

The guitar fest will offer the American premiere of Steve Reich’s "2x5," performed by Bang on a Can All Stars, and the world premiere of Aaron Grad’s "The Father Book," performed by Grad and bassist Rob Jost. Another starry event on the guitar series is likely to be announced shortly.

From Savion Glover to the Baltimore Consort, it's a fun lineup for '10-'11. "We have really tried, from the birth of the Music Center, to feature the best music from the widest possible genres," Brown says. Looks to me like Strathmore has succeeded.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:14 PM | | Comments (0)

Teaser review: Washington National Opera's "Hamlet"

I still have to finish writing some other stuff for the paper (I'm ever so slightly past that deadline) before I can start on my review of Washington National Opera's production of "Hamlet," which opened last night. In the meantime, let me pass along this advice right now:

Don't get thee to a nunnery -- just get thee to the box office. Trust me. You don't want to miss this.

I'll have a full report as soon as I can. And, in case you missed it, here's my preview article from Sunday's paper.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:52 AM | | Comments (1)

May 18, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic make notable impact in DC concert

Gustavo DudamelThe hype surrounding Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor, was on overdrive well before he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since his tenure with that orchestra began last fall, the buzz machine has simply overloaded. Not since Leonard Bernstein has anyone in the classical biz made such a splash.

Fortunately, there's an awful lot of substance behind the Dudamel juggernaut, and it was on display Monday night at the Kennedy Center, where the Washington Performing Arts Society presented Dudamel and the LA Phil. The conductor, who has yet to hit 30, sure knows how to put an exciting edge into music-making, how to ensure that the players give their all to each and every measure.

He did so last spring in DC when WPAS presented the sensational Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, practically lifting the roof of the Kennedy Center, and he achieved something of the same effect again on Monday with his American orchestra. It was possible to hear less-than-ideal playing at times, quite a few off-center notes from the woodwinds and brass, some fuzzy entrances. But it was also impossible to miss the expressive thrust from the ensemble, especially the huge surge of power behind fortissimo passages.

Fittingly, the program opened with a big work by Bernstein, his Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety." Dudamel seemed thoroughly at home with the diverse stylistic elements in the score, from the jazzy to the Mahlerian, although he didn't always pull evrything together. His handling of the coda, though, with its broadly paced build-up of affirmation, proved very impressive. In a bit of luxury casting,

Jean-Yves Thibaudet was on hand to serve as the keyboard protagonist in this part symphony/part piano concerto, and he dispatched the solos with terrific fluency and character.

In many ways, the real test of Dudamel's abilities came after intermission, when he turned to Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique." It takes considerable imagination to make such standard fare come alive in compelling fashion, rather than just let the familiar, beloved tunes carry the day on their own.

Several times on Monday, I was reminded of Mstislav Rostropovich's approach to this score with the National Symphony in that same hall. He had a way of tearing into the loudest, busiest moments of the piece with such ferocity that you could be knocked back in your seat. You might not hear all the details, because the brass and percussion would be going ballistic, but you sure felt the emotional heat. That's very much how it was here, as Dudamel encouraged startling power from the Philharmonic in the turbulent development section of the first movement, not to mention the third movement's manic march and the dark, climactic peak in the finale. This was visceral stuff.

Subtler portions of the symphony were sensitively shaped, too, although I would have welcomed more grace in the second movement and some more refined pianissimos here and there. Whatever was lost along the way, like the last four notes of that march (just a blur came through), much was gained from the conductor's urgent approach and his appreciation for the poetic richness in this noble work. The orchestra's passionate response included especially fine contributions from the string sections, which maintained admirable cohesiveness and poured out a deep, golden tone.

Dudamel remained motionless after a beautifully achieved fadeout, and the audience respected that gesture with a long, long silence, allowing the full weight of the "Pathetique" to be felt internally before eruption of applause.

The sustained ovation eventually yielded an encore. Dudamel told the crowd that it was hard to play anything after the Tchaikovsky symphony, but his choice, the Intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" -- an apparent favorite of the conductor's (it was among the encores when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in WPAS concert in 2008) -- really hit the spot.

For other reactions to the Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic tour, check out my colleagues Joshua Kosman in San Francisco and Anne Midgette in DC. And one more: Andrew Patner's view from Chicago.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:39 PM | | Comments (1)

Composer/conductor John Adams in concert with members of NSO, Conservatory Project

John AdamsThe main items in the enticing "John Adams: Perspectives" project at the Kennedy Center are two big programs with the National Symphony conducted by the composer, last week and this week.

But there was room, too, for a bonus event held Monday night in the center's Terrance Theater, where Adams led a free concert devoted to two of his finest instrumental works.

The program opened with "Shaker Loops," a certified classic of minimalism from 1978 -- and a major contribution to 20th century music, period. Seven intrepid string players from the NSO dug into the hypnotic score, responding smoothly to every gesture from the animated Adams. They offered admirable technical finesse and an intense phrasing that found expressive richness behind each melodic pattern, each rhythmic pulse.

The featured performers: violinists Alexandra Osborne, Glenn Donnellan and Marissa Regni; violist Jennifer Mondie; cellists James Lee and Yvonne Caruthers; and bassist Jeffrey Weisner.

By the composer's own admission in remarks to Monday's audience, the Chamber Symphony from 1992 is

the hardest piece he has written. It certainly is an eventful score, taut and propulsive, filled with ideas that get brilliantly explored and colorized.

Adams couldn't have asked for a more eager and involved group of musicians than the 15-member ensemble gathered for the occasion from the Conservatory Project, a semi-annual Kennedy Center/Millennium Stage project that brings together some of the best and brightest from the country's leading music schools. (Local plug: The players for this concert included bassist John Coker, a grad student at the Peabody Institute, where his teacher is the NSO's Jeffrey Weisner.) UPDATE: The spelling of John Coker's name corrected 5/19. Someday I'll go in for that eye exam.

The performance of Adams' Chamber Symphony crackled with energy and tension, and the coolest parts -- especially the finale, titled "Roadrunner" -- seemed even cooler than usual. The trickiest bits appeared to pose no challenge for the participants, among them violinist Yiying Julia Li, a Curtis Institute student who tore into the wild last movement cadenza with disarming confidence and brio.

This bracing immersion in Adams' music served as a perfect appetizer for Monday's main event at the Kennedy Center -- a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More on that later.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (0)

May 17, 2010

Opera Vivente puts Baltimore spin on 'The Magic Flute'

Given that we don't have a surfeit of great singers these days, it's no wonder that stage directors have moved into the forefront of the opera world, as in no other time during the history of the art form. This means, of course, a whole lot of concepts floating around.

Directors routinely put their emphatic stamps on standard and contemporary operas alike, a process that can generate wonderful results, with fresh insights enhancing the experience for performers and audiences. Things can also get a little messy, too, needless to say. You'll recall the rampant booing on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera this season for Luc Bondy's unconventional take on "Tosca"; that kept the blogosphere sizzling for weeks. In 2003, Yuri Temirkanov walked out on a production of "Queen of Spades" he was to have conducted at Opera National de Lyon in France when he felt a stage director had gone too far afield. Last week, Carl St. Clair handed in his resignation at the Komische Oper in Berlin after being forced to conduct a literally trashy staging of "Fidelio" -- with Florestan singing his aria in a dumpster. Ah, but I digress.

Opera Vivente's Baltimore-ized production of "The Magic Flute," which opened over the weekend, isn't likely to set off over-heated reactions. It's a workable, often imaginative approach. I didn't hear any boos Friday night at Emmanuel Episcopal, and I can't imagine any of the artists would have ever considered quitting the venture to protest liberties taken. Everyone in the place seemed to have a grand time with it, and the audience ate up the local allusions (as Young Victorian Theatre patrons do every summer when references to Baltimore people, places and events get tossed into Gilbert and Sullivan operettas).

The most pronounced and entertaining Bawlmer element in OV's "Flute" is

a Papageno who has been turned into a nerdy Orioles fan peddling team souvenirs. The character is nowhere more colorful than when, singing about finding an ideal wife, he punctuates his aria with perfectly timed flips of the lids on Natty Boh cans. There are laughs to be had, too, from the sight of the Three Ladies who dispense with the "snakes" -- in this case, paparazzi following Tamino around -- and their pouting teenage girls as the Three Spirits. The trials of fire and water are given an interesting spin. They take place behind closed doors of a boiler room, as security guards clown for cell phone photos outside; Pamina and Tamino emerge from one suitably scorched, the other suitably wet.

In the end, though, I wish there were a little more Mozart and a little less Bowen. His English version of the libretto has contemporary zest, but also some vulgarisms that seem gratuitous. Speaking of vulgar, the scene between Pamina and the threatening Monostatos sticks out for a crudeness that doesn't match the rest of the staging. And turning the wild beasts of the original opera into panhandlers and street persons strikes an awkward note. The director's touch is most heavy-handed, though, when Pamina reaches her Act 2 aria, one of the most eloquent moments in the score. While she sings, Papageno has a noisy nosh with bags of snack food, spray-cheese-in-a-can and more. Yeah, the Papageno shtick is funny, but the visual and aural distraction creates a peculiarly anti-musical effect.

Speaking of wishes, I would have welcomed stronger casting here and there. On Friday night, the weakest vocal link was Frederic Rey as Tamino. Except for some pleasantly shaded soft passages, his singing sounded effortful and inelegant. As Pamina, Leah Inger offered expressive phrasing, but not quite enough tonal warmth. John Dooley had a romp as Papageno. Even if his accent veered more toward Cockney than Dundalk, his endearing characterization carried the Baltimore concept along nicely. The baritone's vocal contributions were a decided asset as well. Marcy Richardson didn't master the hon accent, but sang brightly and offered vibrant acting as Papagena. Joy Greene stole the show, vocally, as the Queen of the Night, navigating the treacherous coloratura confidently. David B. Morris didn't have the deep, dark bass notes for Sarastro, but his eloquent singing paid handsome dividends just the same. The rest of the cast brought more or less effective vocal talent and a good deal of spirited acting to the production. Jed Gaylin efficiently conducted the small, mostly reliable orchestra.

Like Center Stage's "Importance of Being Earnest" production back in the fall, the "Flute" set relies on large block letters to provide the main scenic props, in this case spelling out "HON," and they're cleverly manipulated into various shapes along the way.

Remaining performances of "The Magic Flute" are on Thursday and Saturday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (4)

Baltimore Symphony's classy concert with Mena, Lortie; and a programming suggestion

I've said before, and I'll say again, that there's still plenty of justification for programming the well-worked standards of the classical music repertoire -- as long as the performances are truly alive and communicate something fresh and involving. Case in point: Thursday night's Baltimore Symphony concert with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and pianist Louis Lortie at Meyerhoff Hall.

On paper, it looked like just a routine greatest hits night -- Strauss' "Don Juan," Schumann's Piano Concerto, Brahms' Third. It turned out to be quite invigorating. Mena's ability to summon expressive performances is well established here, and he had the Strauss score soaring nicely at the top of the evening. His Brahms, too, had considerable character, especially in the most introspective moments; the poetic nature of the inner movements emerged most beguilingly. The orchestra purred nicely, for the most part, in both pieces with particularly distinguished contributions from the woodwinds and strings. It sounded as is all the musicians onstage really wanted to be there, really wanted to make something out of the music. That's what it's all about, isn't iy?  

Lortie sure seemed to have a ball with the Schumann war horse. So did I. It's been a while since I've heard

the martial bits in the score sound so jaunty, the lyricism of the middle movement flow so tenderly. This was playing of infectious energy and effortless elegance, and Mena partnered it smoothly. The BSO again sounded quite cohesive and vibrant. 

(The pianist couldn't resist a bit of fun when, during the pause before the Intermezzo, a musically over-active cell phone went off. While everyone waited -- and waited and waited -- for the owner to silence the offender, Lortie began to imitate the odd ring tone at the piano, breaking the house up.)

Listening to this concert reminded me of something that I think today's orchestras ought to consider. Time was when programs were often constructed in the reverse of the order most commonly encountered now -- with the big, meaty item first, not last. Mahler, for one, believed that audiences were at their most alert and receptive when a concert started, so, as a conductor, he was known to put the heavier music first -- including, as I recall, some of his own compositions. After intermission would come shorter, often lighter works.

Thursday's BSO program followed the tired old format: curtain-raiser, concerto, symphony. Given the subtlety of the Brahms Third, his only symphony with a quiet ending, I'd bet the crowd would have enjoyed it more if that had been performed on the first half (certainly the squirming folks near me would have). Then people could have enjoyed the Schumann crowd-rouser as the finale and headed out into the night on that lively note.

I'm not suggesting that this heavy-to-light approach should be used on all occasions, but there sure are a lot of times when you just know folks would be happier with that format, if they less demanding fare to look forward to after the snacks and restroom breaks. (And maybe this would stop people from slipping away at intermission. I see that all the time, including last Thursday.) 

Re-arranging the program order every now and then would be an easy, harmless way for orchestras to shake things up a little and get out of old ruts, yet remain totally faithful to their mission. Just a thought.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (4)

May 16, 2010

Rosa Rio, colorful theater organist, dies at 107

The obituary of Rosa Rio caught my eye. She was a much-admired theater organist who provided live soundtracks for silent films (an exceptional art form) and kept her career going after the arrival of talkies by switching to radio and eventually TV soap operas. What a cool, inspiring life she had. She died Thursday in Florida, a few weeks before her 108th birthday -- a fact made all the more remarkable when you learn that she gave a concert as recently as a year ago at the Tampa Theater, once again accompanying a silent film. To quote from the Times obit:

Several times a year Miss Rio would rise from beneath the stage there, seated at the organ in sequined evening gown, diamond rings and gold lamé slippers. As she wafted majestically upward, the room shook with her signature tune, 'Everything’s Coming Up Roses,' or, as she much preferred to call it, 'Everything’s Coming Up Rosa.'

By all accounts, Miss Rio was quite a character, always willing to challenge sexism in the days of a male-dominated entertainment industry. She also offered a remarkable connection to history -- she played the sobering music in between NBC radio broadcasts of the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

I would have loved hearing Miss Rio in person. I had to settle for these two video clips, which offer a sense of her personality and her talent -- making her entrance at the Tampa Theater a few years ago, and accompanying a Buster Keaton comedy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:29 PM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program gets a shout-out on '60 Minutes'

Just saw tonight's "60 Minutes" segment about hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his activities in Southern California as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But all the talk about El sistema, the compelling education program in Venezuela that helped Dudamel as a kid and that he has begun emulating in L.A., provided a perfect excuse to look at what's happening along these lines elsewhere around the country.

And that led right to a West Baltimore neighborhood (described in less than flattering terms, of course, and filmed back in the dead of winter), where the BSO's OrchKids program got a nice shout out. I'm glad this venture was alloted such valuable exposure on such a highly-watched show.

There was a decent amount of air time for BSO music director Marin Alsop, commenting on how the project can changing kids' lives, and good shots of the program's main administrator, Dan Trahey, and some of the teachers working with students. (It would be cool if Dudamel, who will be in DC Monday with the LA Phil, could zip up here and get a look at OrchKids himself.)

The effort to get music back into schools to start substantive training at an early age couldn't be more valuable or more necessary. Every step taken in any part of the country is worthy cheering.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:01 PM | | Comments (1)

May 13, 2010

Mobtown Modern delivers sizzling jazz version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"

The modest repertoire niche of classical pieces transformed into jazz vehicles got substantially enriched Wednesday night when Mobtown Modern premiered Darryl Brenzel's sizzling version of Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score, "The Rite of Spring," with a kick-ass band. This was, on many levels, an exceptional event, and it was good to see a sizable turnout at the Metro Gallery for it. (I wonder how many of the people there were fans of the Stravinsky original; I wonder, too, if that matters.)

For me, much of the fun was discovering how Brenzel managed to preserve the rich flavor of the "Rite," the familiar harmonic tang and rhythmic punch. If anything, he may have taken on too much -- his arrangement is quite longer than the original, adding up to an hour and change. There were a couple times during the performances when I felt the coolness factor starting to wear off, the tautness starting to loosen, but only a couple., and the feeling quickly passed 

In the end, this turned out to be high-class jazz (and some rock), a brilliant combination of musical imagination, technical talent and chutzpah.

The Frederick-based Brenzel did not merely transcribe notes from symphony orchestra to a 17-piece ensemble of saxes, trumpets, trombones, guitar, piano, bass and drums to create his "Rite of Swing." He treated the 14 titled passages in Stravinsky's through-composed score as

separate numbers. Each one retained characteristics of the source material, from intricate chordal writing to tricky rhythmic jolts, but also allowed room for thematic development and improvisation. (Someone at the Frederick News-Post dubbed Brenzel's work as "The Re-Write of Spring" -- I wish I had thought of that.)

Several sections, notably "Spring Rounds," "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls" and "Ritual Action of the Elders," really hit the spot. The effect was uncanny, at once fully evocative of the "Rite" we know, and yet totally fresh in color and atmosphere. The very end of the piece -- the unexpected, wispy woodwind solo just before the last whomping chord -- didn't translate so well into the new version; I wanted something with a bit more impact and finality. 

But that was a minor thing, especially given all the energy pouring out from the Mobtown Jazz Orchestra. (You might spot those same players in the Jazz Ambassadors of the U.S. Army Field Band. Brenzel, who recently retired from that group, joined in on sax for the "Rite" finale.) There might have been one off-kilter entrance, but the sheer tightness of the playing was still very impressive, the expressive force behind it even more so.

A recording is planned. It should be a knockout.

Meanwhile, all you folks at symphony orchestras worrying about how to engage audiences and liven up concert formats -- here's a pitch: Program the original "Rite of Spring" on the first half, then put Brenzel's version on the second. Such a double-barrel roof-raiser sure sounds awesome to me.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 PM | | Comments (5)

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids project to get mention on 60 Minutes

In a welcome splash of national publicity, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's groundbreaking OrchKids project at Lockerman Bundy Elementary in West Baltimore will get a look from "60 Minutes" on Sunday during a segment about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's wunderkind music director Gustavo Dudamel.

He's a product of Venezuela's famed no-child-left-music-less program called El sistema, which he plans to emulate in L.A. and would like to see embraced everywhere. Bob Simons' "60 Minutes" report will include a visit to the BSO's own El sistema-inspired OrchKids, launched a couple years ago with seed money from music director Marin Alsop.

About 150 students, from pre-K to 3rd grade, take part in the program, which has proven

remarkably successful from every angle. Just spend a couple minutes watching the kids taking instrument lessons or participating in group ear-training exercises and you feel there really is hope for the future of classical music after all.

No way to know for sure how much ended up on the CBS cutting-room floor, but any exposure for the project on "60 Minutes" has to be good for OrchKids, the BSO and, of course, Baltimore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:24 PM | | Comments (3)

John Adams conducts Elgar and other surprises during National Symphony residency

John Adams has emerged over the years as more than just a major composer. Turns out he knows his way around a podium, too, and orchestras seem to enjoy offering theirs to him.

Three years ago, he conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a potent program that featured one of his most profound pieces, "The Wound-Dresser," and Beethoven's Seventh. The latter didn't seem all that surprising a choice for Adams, given the almost minimalistic reiteration of some thematic ideas in that score.

But I must say I was a little surprised, and certainly intrigued, by what Adams will be conducting during his two-week residency at the National Symphony.

This week's lineup offers

"The Wound-Dresser" (Eric Owens will be the baritone soloist), balanced by pieces that might not leap to mind as being in the conductor's repertoire, especially Elgar's "Enigma Variations," along with Copland's "Billy the Kid" Suite and Barber's "Adagio for Strings." Cool. And check out Adams' blog for some typically enlightening and provocative comments about the Elgar classic. I was especially pleased to see him discuss Elgar's own recording of the Variations.

Next week, two big Adams works, "The Dharma at Big Sur" and "Dr. Atomic" Symphony are on the bill (the BSO played "Dharma" in 2007 and will tackle "Dr. Atomic" next season), along with Stravinsky's "Feu d'Artifice" and the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes." Both programs are loaded with potential.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)

May 12, 2010

Guest blog post: Review of 'Reasons to be Pretty' at Studio Theatre

By Mary Carole McCauley

Sun arts reporter

There's an explanation why "Reasons to Be Pretty" has been extended twice at Washington's Studio Theatre, why potential customers are waiting in the lobby before performances, seeking turned-back tickets.

From the first, expletive-laden line of dialogue to the surprisingly satisfying finale, this production of Neil LaBute's black comedy crackles. The very air in the room quivers with an invisible, barely contained force.

"Pretty" is the third offering in LaBute's trilogy of plays exploring the Americans obsession with physical beauty. For once, the plot is populated not by cubicle inhabitants in suitcoats, but by blue-collar workers who labor as warehouse stockers, a security guard, a hair stylist. With this shift alone, one layer of hypocrisy and pretense gets stripped away, though -- this being LaBute -- plenty remains.

When the play opens, Steph, the hair stylist, has just learned that her longtime boyfriend, Greg, has referred to her appearance in less than flattering terms. Steph goes berserk; what she knows, but can't find a way to articulate, is that a male shorthand exists in our culture in which the language of desire often substitutes for the language of affection. When Greg confesses to his best buddy, Kent, that he finds Steph's looks to be "ordinary", what he's really admitting is that he doesn't love her wholeheartedly -- despite his protestations to the contrary.

Though LaBute's plays deal ostensibly with male-female relationships, I've always thought his true theme is male friendships and the quest for dominance. This is the area in which his revelations are the most surprising and disquieting.

Typically, he looks at the dynamics between an alpha male and a more submissive -- and seemingly more evolved -- friend. Greg, for instance, spends his work breaks reading literary masterpieces. But, even LaBute's most seemingly civilized guy characters possess a streak of hidden cruelty. If these men don't act on their hostile impulses more often, it's because they fear retaliation.

In the universe of "Reasons to be Pretty," Kent is the top dog, and actor Thom Miller imbues the role with a finger-snapping, nerved up vitality. Kent is utterly without conscience, and therefore, is perversely attractive. He has at his disposal the energy that most of us use to squelch our ugliest impulses.

LaBute provides Greg with something he denies most of his other characters -- the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Even in the earliest scenes, actor Ryan Artzberger gives his shambling slacker the suggestion of a spine, which strengthens perceptibly as the play progresses. As the play concludes, Artzberger even seems to be standing straighter.

In Kent's crude assessment, Carly, the security guard, knows that her only significant asset is her striking good looks. Carly may be a bit slow on the uptake, which puts her at a disadvantage. But actress Teresa Stephenson grounds the character with a welcome substratum of self-respect.

Margot White is a convincingly volatile as Steph, even if the actress is considerably prettier than her character is supposed to be. No one would ever describe White as plain. But, at times, White over-relies on hand gestures. She seems to want to shove away not just Greg, but the audience.

Scenic designer Debra Booth has created a versatile set consisting of a formica-topped table and two molded plastic chairs. The set can be rolled on and off the stage quickly -- a significant advantage in a play which changes locations roughly every ten minutes. And, just as important, it grounds the four characters in an environment as banal as it is uncomfortable. Just try to relax when you're sitting in one of those chairs.

Director David Muse, who will be taking over the artistic helm of Studio Theatre next season from the departing Joy Zinoman, not only elicits gutsy performances from his four actors, he keeps the pace moving along at a rapid staccato clip.

"Reasons to be Pretty" runs through May 23 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. N.W., Washington. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $35-$63. Call 202-332-3300 or go to

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)

Midweek comic relief: Breaking Wind Bassoon Quartet plays Lady Gaga

Thanks to the folks at the Baltimore Symphony (via a post on Facebook), I got wind of a fab YouTube clip featuring the Breaking Wind Bassoon Quartet (gotta love that name) from the Eastman School of Music, performing a medley of hits by giga-star Lady Gaga.

Well, I just had to share this. We can all use a little midweek comic relief and, besides, it may be a while before I can post something more substantive 'cause I'm kinda BIZ-EEE.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:50 AM | | Comments (7)

May 11, 2010

Concert operas here, there, everywhere

Even in some cities where operas get staged all the time there are organizations devoted to presenting operas in concert form. Any why not? As I've pointed out before, there can be some very cool advantages to the non-staged versions, especially the opportunity to zero in more intently on the music (vocal and instrumental).

And, lately, it seems that concert presentations are likely to include so much semi-staging that the experience can be amazingly close to the full-fledged variety. When, for example, Washington National Opera offered a concert version of "Gotterdammerung" last fall, it hardly lost a thing in terms of dramatic impact. Singers did so much acting that it was easy to forget they weren't in costume.

Here in our fair city, two organizations, Baltimore Concert Opera and Chesapeake Concert Opera, have been providing much more than singers standing in front of music stands. There's a lot of physical action, a significant attempt to convey a sense of the theatricality of opera. I imagine that's one reason audiences have responded so enthusiastically to both groups, even though both have only piano accompaniment, rather than orchestra.

Reminder: Baltimore Concert Opera's next program, May 21 and 23 at the Engineers Club, offers "A Flight of Verdi" -- the first scene of Act 2 from "La Traviata," containing the great Violetta-Germont duet; the last act of "Rigoletto," which includes the famed quartet and "La donna e mobile"; and the last act of "Otello," which features some of Verdi's most affecting, heart-stirring music. Note that Steven White, a conductor who did great work for the late, lamented Baltimore Opera Company and who recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut, will lead the performance. That same weekend, Chesapeake Concert Opera presents a semi-staging of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," one of the most popular operas ever written. Performances are May 21 and 22 at Memorial Episcopal Church.

Last Sunday, Washington Concert Opera wrapped up its season at Lisner Auditorium with

an incandescent performance of Rossini's "Cenerentola" that served as a model for how to make the concert format terrifically entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. Significantly, a stage director, Kristine McIntyre, was engaged for the occasion, and she crafted nearly as much activity as you would likely find in a fully staged, costumed production. Even conductor Antony Walker got in the act. And the chorus, although confined to bleachers behind the orchestra, still managed to contribute a lot of cute shtick. I don't remember seeing a regular opera house production of this work that was more fun than this.

An excellent cast was on hand, headed by Vivica Genaux in the title role. She used her ripe, warm, evenly produced mezzo to compelling effect. Kenneth Tarver brought a light, uncommonly sweet tenor and often exquisite phrasing to the role of the Prince. Eduardo Chama nearly stole the show as Don Magnifico, as much for the technical panache of his singing as for the deliciously colorful characterization; he's the real deal, buffo-wise. Daniele Lorio (Clorinda) and, especially, Magdalena Wor (Tisbe) provided abundant vocal power to go with their comic spark.

As Dandini, Daniel Mobbs turned out to be another stylish scene-stealer, with his supple, deftly nuanced singing and vibrant acting. Eugene Galvin did fine work as Alidoro. The choristers proved admirable; aside from a momentary derailing in the woodwinds, so did the orchestra. Walker's propulsive tempos ensured a lively evening; his attention to the finer details of Rossini's score ensured an enlightening one.


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

May 10, 2010

Weekend in review (Part 2): Distinctive pianist Michael Berkovsky

In the midst of that quirky wind storm on Saturday, I breezed into the Baltimore Museum of Art to catch the first half of Michael Berkovsky's piano recital. Time very well spent.

Berkovsky's appearance was presented by the valuable Discovery Series of free events launched four years ago by the Shriver Hall Concert Series in conjunction with the BMA. The Russian-born pianist, a doctoral candidate at the Peabody Institute, was the 2008 winner of the Yale Gordon Competition at the conservatory. He stepped in on this occasion to sub for the 2009 winner of that competition, cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein, who had originally been scheduled, but was recovering from an injury (and was in the audience Saturday afternoon).

It's not surprising to encounter talented pianists, but it sure is fun to hear one who has something distinctive to say. (Better acoustics would have helped him say even more, I'd bet; the piano sounded rather muffled. I wonder if it would be better placed closer to the edge of the stage.)

I was taken with Berkovsky from the start in Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata. There were a few technical slips, but the playing generated effective suspense and tension right away. Then, the defining moment -- the two ghostly recitative passages toward the end of the first movement. Berkovsky sculpted them the way a really intuitive singer would phrase them, and that made all the difference. The effect was haunting and absorbing, and I felt certain then that this was no routine keyboard talent.

I was even more convinced when Berkovsky turned to

two Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs -- "Serenade" and "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel." His performances of these two pieces revealed remarkable sensitivity and color, a deep sense of the dramatic arc to each song, a natural application of rubato.

Where some performers concentrate on the Liszt side of these works, all those brilliant pianistic embellishments, Berkovsky zeroed in on the soul of Schubert that still inhabits the indelible melodies. And when the pianist turned to an all-Liszt score, "Vallee d'Obermann," he employed those same qualities to fashion quite a poetic experience. It's possible to get even more warmth, drama and scope out of this music (see Horowitz, V.), but Berkovsky revealed impressive technical and interpretive skills. I was sorry I had to slip away after that (pieces by Mozart and Gershwin were slated for the second half), but I hope I'll have another opportunity to hear him again before too long.

Meanwhile, to give you a taste of Berkovsky's talent, here he is in the concluding minutes of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, performed with the Peabody Symphony conducted by Leon Fleisher:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:42 AM | | Comments (1)

Weekend in review (Part 1): Jonathan Carney leads Baltimore Symphony

Concertmasters can make a world of difference to an orchestra. If you're lucky, and the Baltimore Symphony is exceedingly fortunate in this regard, you get a lot more than an excellent fiddler. You get someone whose musicianship lifts the entire string section, and even the whole ensemble. You also get someone who can step confidently up to the plate -- for solo roles in concertos and even as conductor.

I don't hear a lot about concertmasters conducting their orchestras these days, but it was once relatively common. If I recall correctly (I'm too lazy to look it up right now), it was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic who filled in initially when Mahler, fatally ill, had to leave the conductor post in 1911.

Anyway, back to the BSO. In Jonathan Carney, this orchestra gained a remarkably well-rounded and capable artist nine years ago. He is regularly featured as soloist in concertos and, increasingly, as conductor. The latest occasion came over the weekend.

On Friday night at the Meyerhoff, it was interesting to see a lot of risers back onstage (they have been mostly absent during music director Marin Alsop’s tenure), with the players forming a tight semi-circle. Carney, sitting on a slightly raised platform in his usual concertmaster location, played and conducted a sensitive, cohesive performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony at the start of the evening. Carney’s attention to dynamic contrasts and the shape of phrases paid handsome dividends. Woodwind soloists in the orchestra did particularly shining work.

The “Duett-Concertino” by Richard Strauss, one of those endearing products of his autumnal years, provided a showcase for two valued BSO veterans – clarinetist Steven Barta and bassoonist Phillip Kolker. The genteel, subtly crafted score, with its ever-flowing melodic lines, worked its magic. The soloists phrased elegantly; Carney ensured smooth support from the ensemble of strings and harp.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano closed the program. This is not

top-drawer Beethoven to my ears. In the outer movements, the composer drives a couple of so-so tunes into oblivion, making it hard to remember how eloquent the Largo in between can be. But the piece made a favorable impression on me here, thanks to the caliber of the solo contributions and the expressive force of the ensemble.

Carney, in double-duty mode, was joined by two big names from the Peabody Institute – its director, Jeffrey Sharkey; and a member of the faculty, cellist Amit Peled, who enjoys a busy career as soloist. I was especially struck by the richness of Peled’s tone and the intensely poetic nature of his phrasing; this was very classy cello playing. Sharkey offered solid, increasingly colorful work at the keyboard.

Carney sounded a little tentative at the start, but soon produced plenty of his usual silken tone and nicely detailed phrasing. All the while, he kept and a careful eye and ear on the orchestra throughout, shaping a performance of consistency and character.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:03 AM | | Comments (1)

May 9, 2010

A musical bouquet of roses for Mother's Day

I couldn’t let Mother’s Day pass without some appropriate music.

Instead of finding a song with “mother” in it, I started thinking about flowers, since they're such a part of the day -- and which I sure hope someone else got for my mother, ‘cause Robert and I are only bearing food when we head down to Northern Virginia to spend the day with her and the rest of the small clan at Chez Smith. And, since my mother’s given name happens to be Rose, that got me to thinking about one of the loveliest of all ballads, “Roses of Picardy.”

I’ve had a soft spot for sentimental tunes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries since I was a teen – go figure – and I still find them impossible to resist, at least when sensitively sung. And I think “Roses of Picardy” represents a perfect fusion of words and melody. These lines seem particularly appropriate today:

Roses are shining in Picardy

In the hush of the silvery dew,

Roses are flow'ring in Picardy,

But there's never a rose like you.

Here, then, a bouquet of sonic roses for my mother -- there's never been a Rose like her -- and for all treasured mothers on this day. To deliver this bouquet, I chose the exquisite voice of Richard Tauber, who gives this song a particularly eloquent touch:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:41 AM | | Comments (0)

May 7, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel bows out of concert due to injury

Sounds like quite a wild night at Walt Disney Hall Thursday.

My old pal David Mermelstein reports on that Gustavo Dudamel withdrew at intermission from a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The wildly, widely acclaimed conductor apparently injured himself during the first half, while leading an account of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with soloist Alisa Weilerstein.

Since the orchestra is about to head off on its first national tour with Dudamel -- the trip includes a much-anticipated stop at the Kennedy Center May 17 for WPAS -- this news is likely to have quite a few folks feeling nervous today.

I've heard of baton-based wounds (quite a few unfortunate conductors have stabbed themselves during a concert), but not

a pulled neck muscle so severe as to cause someone to call it quits for the night.

By the way, the performance did go on in L.A., thanks to the Philharmonic's associate conductor, Lionel Bringuier, who led the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s "Pathétique" (one of the works scheduled to be played in DC). Meanwhile, Dudamel may end up holding back on some of the physicality he's known for on the podium. Chances are, that wouldn't reduce the passion in the music-making one bit.

UPDATE: Since I filked this post, a report has appeared from my colleague at the LA Times about last ngiht's incident.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (2)

May 6, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's summer season to include music of Zappa, Glass, Gershwin

For years, the Baltimore Symphony has struggled to find a lasting formula for its summer season. How much classical or light classical? How much pop or rock? Some summers tilt decidedly in on direction, others bend back and forth. The 2010 lineup suggests a fairly even compromise, with a real surprise or two in the mix.

How's this for starters: Marin Alsop conducting the BSO in a program that celebrates two Baltimore-born music legends, Philip Glass and Frank Zappa, and features Baltimore's super-cool beatboxer Shodekeh in what promises to be a unique collaboration with orchestra.

This event, July 23 at the Meyerhoff, will include performances of Glass' "Heroes" Symphony (inspired by a David Bowie album) and Zappa's "Be-Bop Tango," "Dupree’s Paradise" and "Dog Breath Variations." Now that's my kind of summer entertainment. Heck, I'd take it any time of the year.

Alsop will also be on the podium July 22 at Meyerhoff in a welcome make-up date for the sold-out, all-Gershwin program that got canceled in February by the Snow That Ate Baltimore.

Although some adjustments had to be made for the "Porgy and Bess" selections -- the Heritage Signature Chorale from Washington will step in for the Morgan State Choir -- we'll still get to hear sopranos Indira Mahajan and Alison Buchanan and bass-baritone Derrick Parker, who were among the originally scheduled soloists. This concert ought to take the mind off the humidity.

Another crowd-pleaser is likely to be

a concert version of the BBC/Discovery Channel documentary, "Planet Earth Live." Presented July 8 at Strathmore and July 9 at Meyerhoff, the concert, conducted by composer George Fenton, will include hi-def projections of nature in all its glory.

For the more traditional classical fans, there's an all-Tchaikovsky program led by Christian Colberg, the BSO's assistant principal violist, who has been doing more and more conducting lately. The soloists will be two 15-year-olds making their BSO debuts (hey, you've got to save a little money where you can -- and audiences love promising young talent): Sirena Huang for the Violin Concerto and Conrad Tao for the Piano Concerto No. 1. The dates are July 10 at Meyerhoff, July 17 at Strathmore.

Back on the pop side, Brent Havens conducts a Michael Jackson tribute July 15 at Meyerhoff with some vocalists being described as "Jackson-esque." Havens will also lead the BSO July 16 at Pier Six in tribute to The Eagles, complete with a rock band. And there will be a few events at Oregon Ridge to round off the summer package -- a July Fourth celebration (on the 3rd and 4th) with Baltimore Orioles veteran Rick Dempsey as host and conducted by Donald Pippin; and a Broadway program July 24 conducted by Randall Craig Fleischer.

It's intresting to see that the BSO has scaled back Strathmore this summer to just two performances. Apparently, getting the right off-season mix there has been even trickier than in Baltimore. 

As for the 2010 programming, the cool stuff easily stands out, but so does the lack of an overall theme or philosophy. Personally, I still wish there could be room for something, well, classier during the summer -- maybe a series celebrating the kinds of pieces that first draw people to classical music, but usually are heard now only on the radio; a fresh approach to the  "Mostly Some Composer or Other" format that allows for fun as well as focus; even a daring dash of new music, a la Alsop's Cabrillo Festival. It could also help to have a regular, audience-friendly summer season conductor, as was tried in years past.

Still, all things considered, the BSO's 2010 lineup certainly has its attractions, and it's especially encouraging to see Alsop being a part of it -- this will mark her first summer appearances as music director of the orchestra (she led an Oregon Ridge program in 2007 as music driector designate). The more she gets to experience the July scene here, the more likely she'll help find a really hot approach to a BSO summer season.    


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:23 AM | | Comments (1)

May 5, 2010

A sampling of new operas at Peabody focusing on women

Despite my best intentions, I only lasted for about 90 minutes at Peabody's Opera Etudes program Tuesday night -- enough to hear four of the seven new one-act operas composed by Peabody grad students and united around a theme of "Women's Studies." It had been a long day for me, and I confess that, as the immortal Mame Dennis would have said, "Auntie needed fuel." So, sincere apologies to the creators whose work I didn't get to sample.

But plaudits to this remarkable program of Peabody Opera, led by Roger Brunyate, that brings composers and students together every couple of years to generate fresh material. This year's project started some time ago with improvisations by singers discussing various themes and issues from a woman's point of view -- harassment in the workplace, spousal infidelity, mother/daughter relationships, etc. Composers then started to work with those ideas and developed these short operas, written expressly for voice students at the conservatory.

The four works I saw certainly proved interesting, in some cases more for the words and action than the music. Most impressive to me was "Generations," a snapshot of four intersecting lives in a single family. Emily Koh's subtly spicy score produced some strong lyricism (there's a vivid quartet along the way). Katherine Krueger wrote the effective libretto and also performed as the Grandmother in the vibrant cast, joined by Alexandra Iranfar (Daughter), Danielle Edwards (Mother) and Annie Laing (Great-Grandmother). Brunyate provided the telling stage direction.

The audience sounded most taken with "Missed Connections," which has music and text by Jon Carter. It's something of a risque sitcom (especially the portions that use spoken dialogue), all revolving around two women who connect via a personal ad on craigslist. Carter's score takes an occasional turn toward 

Broadway, and rather engagingly; other times, a certain mechanical quality takes over, and the music recedes into the background. The cast, directed by the composer, clearly relished the assignment, especially Erica Hamby as a flirtatious barroom employee. Also in the cast: Juliana Marin (Corina) and Sonya Knussen (Julia) as the women who find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other; and Tyler Lee, as Julia's wandering-eye husband.

Joshua Bornfield's "On Your Own Time" has some sitcom elements in it as well, these involving a guy with a "Mad Men"-vintage idea of how to treat women at work.

The piano score settled into colorless dabs of harmony as the vocal lines went into recitative overdrive. The humor in the story got a bit heavy-handed, but the animated cast -- Christine Killian, Maisi Pedersen and William McCullough (William Schaller directed) -- made the most of it.

In "Cheated," composer/librettist Jeff Zeiders gives a deep nod to Philip Glass (even down to the right-hand, cross-over bass notes periodically supporting minimalist patterns in the left). The plot consists of a brief, emotional conversation between two friends, Clara (Rachel Gitner) and Zoe (Lisa Perry), and how they react to news that Zoe's husband has strayed.  

Whatever my reservations, I admired all of these creative efforts in one way or another, along with the commitment of all the performers involved in a very worthy project. I hope to catch up someday with the operas I didn't hear. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore's Ace of Cakes unveils confection for Boston Pops' 125th anniversary

Duff Goldman, the Baltimore pastry king known as the Ace of Cakes, created a little something for the 125th anniversary of the Boston Pops.

The cake, unveiled Tuesday night onstage at Symphony Hall for the opening of the Pops season, featured Boston iconography -- mascots of the Red Sox (Wally the Green Monster) and Celtics (Lucky the Leprechaun), and the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, where the Pops plays its Fourth of July concerts. (Photo courtesy of Boston Symphony.)

Here's a video of the occasion (courtesy of After a thankfully brief snippet of Doc Severinsen playing the big tune from Beethoven's Ninth, you'll see the Food Network star wheel out the cake. Then, Pops conductor Keith Lockhart turns the podium over to Goldman, who can be seen moving his arms up and down a lot, even occasionally aligned with the beat, as the orchestra plays "Stars and Stripes Forever":

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:39 AM | | Comments (0)

May 4, 2010

Seven short, new operas at Peabody focus on 'Women's Studies'

One of the cool programs at Peabody (at least it looks cool to an outsider like me) is Opera Etudes, which gets grad student composers creating new works for performers at the conservatory. At 7:30 p.m. tonight, May 4, you can catch seven premieres -- one-act operas, about 15 minutes each, linked together by the theme "Women's Studies." (The perspective of those studies tilts a bit on the male side; only one of the composers and three of the librettists are women.) 

The operas will be performed performed in English. Some will have piano accompaniment, others will be backed by instrumental ensembles. Roger Brunyate, director of Opera Etudes, has done the staging for three of the new pieces. Oh, yeah -- the performance is a steal. Free admission 

Plot descriptions from the seven operas suggest a very provocative evening in store:

Joshua Bornfield's "On Your Own Time" (he wrote the libretto as well as the score) addresses sexual harassment in the workplace. Jon Carter provided music and text for "Missed Connections," which is inspired by personal ads on Craigslist and involves "a married woman who has started to question her sexuality."

Zhangyi Chen's "April Showers," with text by Elizabeth Dow, focuses on

a bride-to-be and her bridesmaids on the eve of the wedding. Daniel Gil-Marca is composer and librettist for "Just Tomorrow," which examines the lives of two sisters facing crises a year after their mother’s death. Emily Koh's "Generations," with a libretto by Katherine Krueger, looks at women from four generations of one family.

Jake Runestad's "The Toll," with text by Elizabeth Reeves, takes off on the Cinderella fairytale, the challenge of " 'happily ever after,' and what compromises must be made in order to attain it." And "Cheated," with words and music by Jeff Zeiders, revolves around a woman who discovers her husband is unfaithful.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)

May 3, 2010

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra strings together a pleasant season finale

Like a lot of other arts groups, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra took something of a roller-coaster ride through the dark economy last year, at one point suspending operations. But the ensemble managed to bounce back sufficiently to offer a 27th season, which wrapped up Sunday evening at Goucher College with an attractive program for strings. And, in one more sign of renewed strength, a 28th season has been announced (more on that in a moment).

The big item on Sunday was Tchaikovsky's Serenade, and BCO music director Markand Thakar shaped the well-worn score with considerable care. Phrases were given room to blossom fully, and keen attention was paid to dynamic subtleties, especially at the pianissimo end. The players did impressive work; I don't think I've ever heard this orchestra's string sections sound quite so luxurious.

Thakar turned the first half of the concert over to Christopher Chen, an Australian conductor who did some of his training at Peabody and who runs an arts center in China where the BCO performed this past New Year's. Chen fashioned a smooth, if a little too laid-back, performance of the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa Lobos (a string orchestra arrangement of the familiar version for soprano and cellos). He then assured attentive, vibrant support from the orchestra for Xiang Gao, an impressive Chinese soloist, in the C major Violin Concerto by Haydn.

Gao's tone had an appealing sweetness (a few frayed edges aside), and his phrasing was consistently elegant. His style may have been more Mendelssohn than Haydn, but the lyricism proved quite engaging. Gao was joined by

Su Xu and Courtney Chang (the latter two are winners of the Delaware International String Competition) in a pleasant account of Vivaldi's F major Concerto for Three Violins, with Thakar conducting.

Four concerts have been planned for the BCO's 2010-11 season. Concertmaster Madeline Adkins (she has clearly been a positive influence in that chair) will step into the limelight for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in a November program that includes Beethoven's Seventh. BCO fans will get a New Year's-style concert of light Viennese music in early January.

Noted flutist Chris Norman will play some Bach in a February program that also features string serenades by Dvorak and Elgar. And the season will close in April with Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony, Brahms' Double Concerto (violinist David Perry, cellist Michael Mermagen) and -- the only offbeat item on the season lineup -- Ives' Symphony No. 3.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:38 AM | | Comments (0)

May 2, 2010

Favorite mail of the week: A welcome face from the past

In this business, you learn to be wary of hand-addressed mail that arrives at your workplace, especially when the world "personal" has been penned in the corner and when there's no return address. Such items tend to be filled with something less than gushing compliments. (People are far more apt to contact you to complain about what you've written than say they enjoyed reading it.)

Early in my career in Florida, a piece of mail with the above-mentioned characteristics contained not just a block-lettered diatribe against my reviews of the local symphony, but, for good measure, an actual "Palmetto bug" (as Floridians like to call the gigantic cockroaches that inhabit the area -- one of them seems a gazillion sizes larger than the ordinary household vairtey up North). Luckily for me (less so for the poor creature), only the corpse remained after the letter had been through the mail, but the shock value was still pretty high.

Then there was the time when, after writing about one of my favorite conductors, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and his controvserial years during the Third Reich, I got a 'personal,' no-return-address letter from a neo-Nazi organization suggesting that I should embrace the greatness of Hitler and his breed. Ah, but I digress.

As I said, I usually expect the worst. Such was the case last week, when a plain white, 9x12 envelope arrived, with my name and Sun address neatly hand-written, the word "Personal" on the side, and no return address. But my face brightened considerably when I opened it and discovered

two photos from the dynamic comic actress Ruth Buzzi of "Laugh-In" fame.

She had somehow spotted my reference to her in a review of "On the Verge" at Rep Stage, and that, I guess, was enough to merit a response. All I had done was mention that Natasha Staley, one of the three excellent actresses in this production of Eric Overmyer's imaginative play, reminded me of Ruth Buzzi -- partly a coincidental physical resemblance, partly the amusing way she carried out stage business. (To tell the truth, I didn't think I'd even get that allusion past the editors, since it does rather date some of us.)

Well, many, many thanks, Ruth Buzzi, for the great surprise -- and for all the laughs over the years. I hope you're doing well. I also hope you don't mind my sharing your pictures with my valued blog readers, but I couldn't resist: 

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

May 1, 2010

American Opera Theater, Handel Choir collaborate on powerful staging of 'Jephtha'

Excuse the short notice, but if you happen to see this in time and you haven't made firm plans for your Saturday night, consider spending about three hours of it at First English Lutheran Church up on Charles Street. Not for a service, mind you, but for an experience that, if you're so inclined, does offer a spiritual dimension.

It's a staged version of Handel's "Jephtha," the last and among the finest of the composer's oratorio, and it represents a successful collaboration between the American Opera Theater and the Handel Choir of Baltimore (specifically the latter's chorus-within-the-chorus, the Chandos Singers). All things considered, this is a powerful, often provocative presentation of an extraordinary work.

"Jephtha" tells one of the darkest, most emotionally and intellectually challenging of Old Testament stories. In brief, Jephtha, once spurned by his half-brothers, is begged by them to lead the Israelites in a conflict against the Ammonites. He agrees. But Jephtha makes a harsh vow to God conditional on being victorious in battle. He swears to sacrifice

whoever "emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon." That person turns out to be his only daughter (unnamed in the Book of Judges).

Handel's version, with a text by Thomas Morell, replaces the horrid human-sacrifice ending of the story with something cheerier, but it's still a heavy drama, nowhere more so than when the chorus sings, "No certain bliss, no solid peace, we mortals know on earth below. Yet on this maxim still obey: "Whatever is, is right."

This production has a concept from director Timothy Nelson (he also designed the abstract scaffolding of a set, lit by Samuel Shumway). The original notion of tragedy in the biblical story is preserved here, but with a twist.

Whether Nelson's solution works can be debated. So can the rest of his staging, which, to my tastes, gets carried away at times (characters are pushed and knocked down several times too often in an attempt to make the action more visceral). And I may never know what all the hymn books are doing as props. But no matter. In the end, the oratorio successfully becomes personalized, inhabited by real characters, rather than oratorio soloists, and the music does gain something from the process.

That certainly was the case Friday night. All the performers seemed deeply into this version, communicating vividly. Scott Mello, in the title role, phrased with admirable sensitivity. When pushed to his upper or lowest extremes, his tenor thinned out, but the rest rang out beautifully. He shaped the oratorio's most famous number, "Waft her, angels, through the skies," with considerable eloquence.

Emily Noel used her pure soprano effectively as Jephtha's daughter, Iphis (Morell gave her the name, with an appropriate touch of Greek tragedy about it). Mezzo-soprano Sophie Louise Roland, as Jephtha's wife, Storge, revealed compelling expressive depth. Countertenor Brian Cummings (Hamor, beloved of Iphis) offered consistently stylish phrasing; his duets with Noel were exquisite. And baritone Benjamin Moore, as Jephtha's brother, Zebul, sang warmly, elegantly. The chorus produced a smooth blend and shaped lines with care.

Speaking of lines, few were intelligible, a great pity. It wasn't the fault of the singers, but rather the reverberant acoustics, which swallowed up much of the text. Even so, the essence of the text and the dramatic situations emerged.

Adding immeasurably to the performance was the sensitive work by the Ignoti Dei Orchestra of period instruments; the impeccable organ and harpsichord playing of Adam Pearl offered particular pleasure. And presiding over the score with her usual fluency and grace was Handel Choir artistic director Melinda O'Neal.

"Jephtha" may never rival "Messiah" in popularity, but it is an amazing work, as this production nobly reaffirms. To give you a taste of the score's riches, here's a clip of "Waft her, angels," sung by the wonderful English tenor Ian Bostridge:


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Keep reading
Recent entries
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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected