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June 29, 2010

A grateful nod to Bernard Herrmann and his Wagnerian 'Vertigo' score

Just noticed that June 29 is the anniversary of Bernard Herrmann's birth in 1911. Next year, obviously, there should be major retrospectives of the composer's music -- the cinema scores, the concert works. And the opera. I'm glad to see that Herrmann's neglected "Wuthering Heights" will get a production next season from Minnesota Opera in observance of his centennial.

Most associated with Alfred Hitchcock films, Herrmann, who died in 1975, was a true genius in the highly specialized world of film scores. It's impossible to imagine the movies he scored for Hitchcock being as great without the musical soundtrack; Herrmann's scores were really as crucial to a film project as characters or plot.

Heck, his best scores became characters in the movie, nowhere more so than in "Vertigo," his most Wagnerian creation. I fondly remember doing a little "Vertigo" tour in San Francisco some years ago, checking out all the sites I could get to where the movie was made. The whole time, the rich music floated through my memory, especially when I walked around the Mission Dolores cemetery and Palace of the Legion of Honor, where indelible scenes were filmed.

I wish orchestras would embrace Herrmann's movie music in regular concerts, not just on Hollywood-theme pops nights. (The practice of playing live soundtracks, which the Baltimore Symphony did with "Psycho," for example, is a great way to honor the composer, too.) How cool it would be to sit in a concert hall and hear a great orchestra play the haunting themes from "Vertigo." . Here's an idea of what that can be like -- the "Scene d'amour," performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:41 PM | | Comments (5)

Wanted: An '1812 Overture' to call our own for the Fourth of July

Is it just me, or are you likewise confounded by the fact that Americans celebrate their Independence Day every year by thrilling to music that actually commemorates Czarist Russia's defeat of the invading imperialist army of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812? Don't people remember that we had our own battles in 1812, including one right here in dear old Baltimore that gave birth to our national anthem?

This weekend, there will be innumerable performances of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," complete with cannons (real or on tape) for the grandly pealing finale that leads into the inevitable fireworks display, just as on every Fourth of July. But souldn't we be listening to music that has a more American stamp on it?

I know it's a little late for a composer to create a stirring orchestral evocation of the bombardment of Fort McHenry -- or, even more appropriately, the Battle of Yorktown. But I'd like to propose a relatively easy solution, and I think it would be exceedingly appropriate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to run with it. Here's the pitch:

Somewhere back in the dark, dank Soviet era, the state ordered changes made to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" so that people wouldn't hear the quotations of the former Russian national anthem in the score; the yucky USSR one was substituted. (I heard a recording of that weird version once, but can't find one now.)

That, of course, was reprehensible on artistic grounds, but it does provide a precedent, of sorts, and has given me the inspiration for my bold, brilliant, path-breaking scheme. Let the BSO hold a competition for the best re-working of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" so that the structure and length stay the same, along with as much as the original musical material as possible, but all French and Russian allusions are transformed into appropriate British and American counterparts. No more "Marseillaise." No more Russian hymns.

The BSO would premiere the new version in a splashy manner, perhaps on the grounds of Fort McHenry, and the whole country would soon want to perform it. (The BSO would get a cut of the royalties, of course, allowing the long-delayed salary advances for the musicians.)

Imagine the extra thrill of having the big build-up in the piece lead not to the Czarist anthem, but to "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead, bringing lumps to throats and audiences to their feet. If you listen carefully near the very end of Tchaikovsky's work, you'll notice that he unintentionally outlines some of the opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner," so maybe that's a sign that he would approve. You'll hear that allusion at 05:48" to 05-52" on the fabulous Swingle Singers version I've attached here, just for the fun of it.

So there you have it. A challenge to create a new, more American tradition for the Fourth of July. (If anyone has already tried something like this, hey, I'm sorry, but it must not have been too successful.) Seems to me that everyone would benefit from an alternative "1812 Overture" we could call our own.

Meanwhile, here's that great Swingle Singers version:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:05 AM | | Comments (5)

June 28, 2010

Weekend in review: Jonathan Carney and Lura Johnson; Viardot's 'Cendrillon'

Over the weekend, I took in couple of outdoor performances of Shakespeare plays and a couple of indoor concerts (one of the latter might as well have been outside, too, given the temperature in the venue). As for the music, the highpoint came Sunday evening.

Just the drive to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glyndon was a treat. I always get a lift seeing the Maryland countryside, which seemed especially inviting and peaceful on that hazy, humid day. There was a full house in the church hall for the recital by violinist Jonathan Carney (concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony) and pianist Lura Johnson. This was the final event of this season’s Music in the Valley series, an enterprise that has presented notable talent for a few years at St. John's, which occupies a particularly beautiful spot of Baltimore County.

Carney offered a meat and potatoes program of Mozart and Beethoven. The Mozart item was not a sonata, as might be expected, but the Violin Concerto No. 5, with piano reduction. Carney's playing of that work featured his usual refinement of technique and instantly communicative, consistently elegant phrasing. Johnson was a solid partner in the concerto and in Beethoven’s Op. 96, which Carney delivered with considerable flair.

The 2010-11 season of Music in the Valley will include a return by Carney, appearances by the Monument Piano Trio, the Mendelssohn Trio, the Canticle Singers and organist Victor Li.

On Sunday afternoon, I made the acquaintance of

the Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, a venture spearheaded by Robyn Stevens, a singing and acting teacher. She chose an intriguing vehicle as a showcase for local singers – Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon,” a modest, intimate operetta based on the Cinderella story and first heard in Paris in 1904. Intended for a salon environment (Viardot’s score calls for only piano accompaniment), the work fit nicely into a very warm Theatre Project (there was little evidence of a/c).

This semi-staging, performed in English, had a certain let’s-put-on-a-show feeling, and the quality of the vocalism, not to mention the acting, varied widely, but there was a certain charm about the effort. And it was interesting to hear this curiosity.

Viardot, a hugely famous singer in her day, was a minor composer. Some of the oom-pah passages in “Cendrillon” sound dangerously close to the level of “The Pleasant Peasant” from “I Love Lucy.” But Viardot always has a nice melodic line or neat harmonic shift around the next corner, and her crafting of ensemble numbers reveals considerable skill. A fully professional performance may uncover more substantive qualities in the piece than this one did.

Taleesha Scott, in the title role, offered the most impressive singing, with a gleaming tone, sensitive phrasing and admirable clarity of articulation. Andrew Spady, as Prince Charming, did some, well, charming work. Michael Rainbow camped it up heartily as Count Barigoule, but his voice needed more firmness. As La Fee (the fairy-godmother character in this version), Juliana Marin phrased expressively, if without quite enough tonal smoothness in the upper reaches.

Completing the cast were Tyson Upham and Dwan Hayes as the stepsisters, Daniel Gorham as the father. Michael Angelucci was the sturdy pianist.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:27 AM | | Comments (0)

June 24, 2010

Philip Glass among the recipients of the 2010 NEA Opera Awards

Philip Glass, the extraordinary, Baltimore-born composer who helped to define and popularize the reiterative style dubbed minimalism, is one of four recipients of the 2010 NEA Opera Honors.

Glass has left a sizable mark on the history of contemporary opera with such epic works as "Einstein on the Beach," "Satyagraha"  (see excerpt below) and "Akhnaten."

Also being honored for "their significant lifetime contributions to American opera" are Martina Arroyo, a soprano whose rich voice and expressive intensity earned her a distinguished career and who established a foundation for the training of young singers; David DiChiera, whose guidance as general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre put that company on the national map; and Eve Queler, music director of the adventurous Opera Orchestra of New York.

The Opera Honors were launched three years ago by the National Endowment for the Arts. Previous recipients of the $25,000 award include singers Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne, composers John Adams and Carlisle Floyd, and conductors James Levine and Julius Rudel. The $25,000 award is the highest national honor recognizing contributions to opera.

The 2010 awards ceremony, open to the public, will take place on Oct. 22 at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Information on free tickets will be made available online on Sept. 20 at


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:00 PM | | Comments (0)

That annoying vuvuzela thing goes classical, with help of some German musicians

Just when you thought you'd heard all you could stand of that infernal vuvuzela thing that has become the soundtrack of the World Cup, three disarming German musicians with delicious deadpan delivery have demonstrated the vast potential of this darn instrument.

Here's a video clip from Die Zeit Online (complete with a short ad at the beginning) of these intrepid Berliners performing the chorale from the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and a bit of Ravel's "Bolero." You may never be able to hear these two pieces the same way again:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:32 AM | | Comments (4)

June 23, 2010

Musical novelty for your weekend pleasure, including viola, Viardot and Vitebsk

The summer season around here can be a little iffy for classical music. Conventional wisdom seems to be that people get out of their classical mood as the temperature and humidity rise, a point of view I've never been able to embrace.

Well, I'm happy to report that you can, indeed, find substantive classical events on the calendar if you look hard enough, this weekend being a fine example.

To begin with, how about an operetta by Pauline Viardot? Who's that? I'm glad you asked.

Her father was Manuel Garcia, the tenor who premiered the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Her sister was mezzo Maria Malibran, one of the most sensationally talented and celebrated opera singers of the 19th century.

Pauline was awfully talented, too, as a mezzo (she premiered Brahms' "Alto Rhapsody"; Schumann and Saint-Saens dedicated pieces to her) and as a composer. Her speciality in the latter field was

operetta, and her "Cendrillon," a version of the Cinderella fairy tale composed around 1895 and first heard in Paris in 1904, reveals her considerable gifts for melody and charm.

Viardot wrote "Cendrillon" with only piano accompaniment, making it more of a salon piece -- and ideal for modest-sized companies. The Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, a recent addition to the area's musical scene, will present a production of "Cendrillon" at the Theatre Project Saturday and Sunday, performed in a new English translation by Robyn Stevens of the French libretto. (A concert version of the operetta will be offered first at Germano's on Thursday night.)

"Cendrillon" is easily the most unusual item this weekend, but there are a couple of other surprises out there. How about an all-American chamber music program? The West Garden Trio -- violinist Luke Wedge, cellist Benjamin Wensel and pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn -- will perform infrequently encountered trios by Ives, Copland (an early work, "Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme"), and Bernstein. This ensemble-in-residence at the National Gallery of Art will be presented Sunday at An die Musik (where you'll find some unusual jazz the night before from a group called Fire in July that mixes voice, cello, trombone and vibraphone).

Anytime the viola steps into center stage -- and isn't just there to encourage more viola jokes -- is unusual. Peter Minkler, a longtime Baltimore Symphony member, is a first-rate violist who received one of the 2010 Baker Artist Awards. Although a rotator cuff tear has caused him to curtail what would have been a full recital at the BMA to celebrate the Baker prize, Minkler will still have a program there on Saturday afternoon that includes live performances of excerpts from his CD of solo viola works and a conversation with Tom Hall.

That's still not all you'll find during what is shaping up to be a nicely classical weekend. This next item may not have unusual repertoire, but the talent involved is certainly uncommon: BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney will give a recital of sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven with pianist Lura Johnson on Sunday at St. John's in Glyndon.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (1)

June 22, 2010

Centennial of Peter Pears a welcome reminder of English tenor's contribution to vocal art

In a year that has already had some notable anniversaries -- the bicentennials of Chopin and Schumann, for example -- I had to take notice of one more, this one on June 22. It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter Pears, the elegant and eloquent English tenor who died in 1986.

He never had -- he couldn't have had -- the fame of a Pavarotti. His voice lacked the vibrant warmth or clarion ping that typically excite the general public, and his repertoire did not include the big operas that help tenors win popularity. But those of us who fell under the spell of Pears felt mightily rewarded just the same.

He was such a sublime communicator, especially when singing the music written expressly for him by his longtime partner, Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th century's greatest composers. Pears was an essential component in most of Britten's operas, creating the title roles in "Peter Grimes" and "Albert Herring," not to mention Captain Vere in "Billy Budd" and Aschenbach in "Death in Venice," among others. The tenor's voice left its mark as well on the Britten's "War Requiem" and so much more.

The combination of his distinctive timbre, superb articulation and incisive phrasing put Pears in a rare class. Today's singers -- not just tenors -- could learn a lot from his example. Here's a taste of the Pears artistry, captured in a bit of Schubert and a folk song arranged by Britten, who's the accompanist in both videos. And, since I don't think Pears would have minded too much, I appended a little comic relief from Dudley Moore, who nails Pears and Britten in a single burst of parodistic brilliance:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:08 AM | | Comments (0)

June 21, 2010

Up close with cellist Amit Peled in Frederick, courtesy of piano store

Downtown Piano Works, which occupies a corner building on S. Market St. in Frederick opposite where Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in 1862, presents a classy, monthly series of free concerts in a very intimate room seating 65 people. (Think Baltimore's An die Musik, only smaller and without plush chairs.) The ambitious and generous series has been going strong for about a year and a half now, offering a substantial roster of artists, many of them heard regularly in more famous venues.

I finally got a chance to sample the action at Downtown Piano Works on Friday evening, when Amit Peled, the exceptional cellist and Peabody faculty member, gave a recital with pianist Dina Vainshtein. It proved well worth the drive, even if the program was just an hour long (not complaining, mind you -- I've become increasingly fond of short concerts).

Peled, recently featured in a performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the BSO, is a commanding musician in tone and temperament. Hearing him up close reconfirmed those attributes in a big way.

Beethoven's A major Sonata, Op. 69, got quite a workout. It's possible to emphasize elegance and refinement in this piece, to keep tempos in check, and leave a great impression. Peled went for the bold instead, digging into the music with considerable expressive fire. He and Vainshtein pushed things along to bracing effect (the piano lid was up all the way, adding to visceral impact of the performance).

The well-matched players balanced the Beethoven with a remarkable rarity, a work

by 20th century Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze: "Five Pieces on Folk Themes." The bittersweet opening song and endearing "Nana" movement allowed Peled's lyrical side to bloom eloquently, while the virtuosic movements, especially the colorful, cello-only, pizzicato "Chonguri," were delivered with elan.

For an encore, there was the slow movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata, which inspired exquisite phrasing from Peled and beautifully nuanced support from Vainshtein.

The recital afforded an opportunity to judge Peled's new cello, a rich-toned Schnabl instrument recently made for him in Germany. The cellist, who usually plays on a highly-prized Guarneri, joked that this was the first time he gave a recital where the piano was was more expensive than his cello.

Peled did a lot of joking, by the way, in remarks to the audience; he's a funny guy. His amiable and inviting personality is exactly the type everyone says we'll need more of if classical music is to survive.

Here's a sample of Peled's artistry, taken from a recital a few years ago -- the gorgeous slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:03 AM | | Comments (0)

June 18, 2010

Morgan State University Choir wows them in China

The Morgan State University Choir, which added greatly to the success of soprano Kathleen Battle's program of spirituals with the Baltimore Symphony a few weeks ago, just got back from a tour to China.

I don't have access to reviews in the Chinese press (do they have reviews in the Chinese press?), but I have no doubt that this venerable Baltimore chorus wowed audiences in all four cities on the tour, including Beijing and Tianjin. After all, these singers bowl over crowds whenever and wherever they perform. Last stop on the tour was the Shanghai World Expo, where director Eric Conway led the Morgan State choristers in two concerts at the American Pavilion.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:37 AM | | Comments (1)

June 17, 2010

Maureen Forrester, the extraordinary Canadian contralto, dies at 79

True contralto voices, with richness and smoothness of tone, are as rare as they are compelling. Maureen Forrester was one of the few.

The Canadian singer died Wednesday at the age of 79 in Toronto, leaving behind a valuable legacy on recordings that capture her artistry in a wide variety of repertoire.

I only got to hear Miss Forrester in performance once (it was a recital at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s, if my foggy memory serves me well), but I still fondly remember the experience of encountering in person the depth of her sound, the warmth of her interpretations.

Here's a superb example of the contralto's artistry, singing an aria from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion":

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:53 PM | | Comments (3)

Wolf Trap Opera lets audience choose finale for Mozart's unfinished 'Zaide'

Usually, when the words "unfinished" and "Mozart" appear in the same sentence, people are talking about the "Requiem" the composer was working on when he died. Wolf Trap Opera has provided a welcome reminder of another incomplete gem from Mozart's pen, "Zaide," a singspiel from 1780 that never saw the light of stage during his lifetime.

What has come down to us is a colorful, rather dark story (Johann Andreas Schachtner devised the libretto) about a sultan named Soliman, who loves his slave Zaide, who loves fellow slave Gomatz. With the help of Allazim, a high-ranking slave, Zaide and Gomatz escape, only to captured and threatened with death. At that point, after a terrific quartet for those four characters, the story ends. There's no clear evidence what denouement Mozart intended.

So the Wolf Trap presentation allows the audience to vote at intermission during each performance for one of three possibilities -- happy, happier and downer. (The final performance is Saturday.) The night I saw it, the bleak option won, with the implication that Zaide and Gomatz would be executed after the curtain fell.

That finale certainly fits the often gritty edge in this imaginative production, which looks like a lost episode of "Dr. Who" -- Erhard Rom designed the cool set, S. Katy Tucker the sci-fi projections, Mattie Ullrich the high-fantasy costumes -- and which emphasizes the violence and oppression in the story. If the opening scene of beatings doesn't register, the water-boarding in the second act will.

There's a sense of overkill in that initial scene. Since Mozart didn't compose an overture for "Zaide," the ominous first movement of his Symphony No. 25 has been put into that service, used as a musical soundtrack to the sight of slaves being constantly pummeled and pushed around. It all goes on much too long.

Still, director James Marvel's concept has 

its logic and integrity, and the cast of young professionals jumps into the action with admirable force. As is typical with Wolf Trap productions, this "Zaide" delivers a vital, visceral experience. (The company's director, Kim Pensinger Witman, notes on her blog that she has "had more honest and provocative conversations with our patrons than I’ve had in years.  Some are intrigued and others are outraged.")   

Nathaniel Peake uses his mostly firm tenor to vivid effect as Soliman. As Gomatz, Paul Appleby, another promising tenor, maintains an elegance of style even in the music's most tormented passages. Hana Park, in the title role, could use more tonal creaminess in the upper register, but her phrasing is always sensitive. Daniel Billings reveals a robust baritone and lots of musical personality as Allazim. Michael Sumuel is a vibrant presence as Osmin, the Sultan's nasty slave dealer. The slave chorus (a quartet, in this case) adds vocal and theatrical flair to the performance.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow keeps the score moving very effectively (too quickly, for my taste, though, in the sublime soprano aria "Ruhe zanft"), and he gets an agile response from the orchestra.

"Zaide" contains a lot of wonderful music. A lack of completion (was a third act in the plans?) does not make it less worthy of being staged. Wolf Trap Opera has certainly made a provocative case for the piece. One thing's for sure: You won't feel neutral about it.

Photo by Kim Pensinger Witman courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)

June 16, 2010

Midweek musical moment from Mozart's 'Zaide' (and a way for me to buy time)

I got back from Toronto Tuesday just in time to trek to Virginia for a rare production of Mozart's "Zaide" by Wolf Trap Opera. I'll have more to say about this imaginative venture as soon as I catch my breath, but I've got to head out today to do some footwork on a story I'm writing for Sunday's paper.

I don't want you to feel blog post-deprived, though, so I figured I could try to buy your indulgence (and some time) by offering a clip of the exquisite "Ruhe sanft" aria from "Zaide," which I think may be one of the most exquisite of Mozart's many exquisite creations. And this performance, well, it's pretty darn exquisite, too -- Beverly Sills at her peak, luxuriating in a spacious tempo that would never be sanctioned in today's opera world.

This is not to say the aria has to be sung like this, or even that it should be (I'm not immune to historical authenticity). And I hasten to add that soprano Hana Park does a lovely job with it at a brisker pace in the Wolf Trap production. Anyway, I'll get back to that staging as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this midweek musical interlude from the divine Bubbles Silverman:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (4)

June 15, 2010

Rufus Wainwright's valiant 'Prima Donna' takes a bow in Toronto

I've only caught three of the more than 150 events packed into 40 venues and 10 days that make up this year's Luminato Festival in Toronto, so I'd never dare to make any rash generalizations about this really cool enterprise. But If I were so inclined, I'd say a theme of the 2010 fest seems to be: Sometimes the best part of a work turns out to be the performance of it.

There was "Dark Star Requiem," which didn't quite have enough memorable material inside it, but was presented with terrific skill and sensitivity. There was "The Infernal Comedy," which was as distasteful and annoying as it was brilliantly rendered.

And now there's "Prima Donna," the much discussed and dismissed first opera by Canadian-American pop star Rufus Wainwright, which received its North American premiere Monday night in Toronto's historic, opera house-like Elgin Theatre. It’s one of the big attractions of the Luminato lineup (the festival was one of the original co-commissioners of the work), but there’s not much to write home about, except the quality of the production – a vibrant cast, especially soprano Janis Kelly, who gives a finely acted, warmly sung interpretation of the title role; the pretty scenic design by Antony McDonald; the highly atmospheric lighting by Thomas Hase; the smooth conducting by Robert Houssart; the fine playing of the orchestra; the deft directing by Tim Albery.

After that, things get a little more problematic.

To begin with, there’s the awful, frequently insipid libretto by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine (in French, by the way – that language choice is ostensibly the reason why the Metropolitan Opera decided to opt out as original commissioner of the piece). We’re talking Cliché City here. “Prima Donna” has got plenty of company when it comes to operas with weak plots, of course. It’s just that great composers have a way of transcending them. Wainwright actually seems to believe in this trite tale that, dramatically speaking, is anything but convincing.

In brief, here’s the set-up: Regine Saint Laurent, a near-legendary soprano, gave up

singing and, it seems, retired from life in 1964, secluding herself in a Paris apartment. Six years later, on Bastille Day, she’s ready to announce her return to the stage to perform the opera that had been her triumphant swan song, a work based on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. “Like a bird with a broken wing, I need to fly again,” she sings. But deep down, Regine isn’t really so sure of herself or her voice. It’s major angst time. When Andre, a journalist-tenor (what a combination), arrives to interview her, the soprano’s emotional state gets quite a jolt.

The story evokes, to some extent, the last years of Maria Callas, right down to the Paris apartment, without being nearly as compelling. What’s worse is the hint of “Sunset Boulevard,” complete with a doting, fussy butler who is determined that Madame should sing again and throws a fit when she changes her mind. In the last scene, things turn downright silly.

Regine has fallen for Andre after their brief meeting and, it appears, he has fallen for her. But when he comes back that night, Regine sees someone else out in the hall (her inquiry “Who is that woman” is, of course, right out of “Madama Butterfly”). Somehow, Andre forgot that he had a date with his fiancée that night, so he has only stopped by with her to explain that to Regine and, oh yeah, ask for an autograph. Regine is left alone as the holiday fireworks light up the sky and strains of the French national anthem rise from the orchestra.

In the immortal words of a venerable Canadian, Anna Russell, I’m not making this up, you know.

As for Wainwright’s music, I couldn’t possibly stomp all over the music, as some of my critical brethren across the Pond did after the world premiere last year (I’m told the opera has been revised since then). There really is a lot of decent, thoughtful, attractive material in the score, including tenderly soaring melodic lines and effective instrumental coloring (Bryan Senti is credited as orchestration assistant).

Wainwright has proven that he’s comfortable departing from his regular musical turf. He just hasn’t yet proven that he has a distinctive stylistic voice for opera. He uses a whole bunch of voices, instead – touches of Massenet and Puccini (think “La Rondine”), a dash of John Adams, a hint of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and quite a bit more. (One application of Puccini isn’t derivative, by the way, but an actual quote – a couple notes from “Boheme,” cutely and subtly used during the first Regine-Andre exchange.)

Given how tonal, lyrical and just plain old-fashioned Wainwright’s music is (and I think there’s still room for tonality and lyricism today), “Prima Donna” might be better off if the libretto were refashioned to take place in a much more distant past than 1970, some time back when all the romanticism being reworked here would fit the story line.

In the end, it’s a valiant effort, to be sure, and Wainwright should try another. After all, it’s not easy to create an operatic masterwork the first time out.

It was fun to see the big crowd that turned out to cheer Rufus on. The encouragement started even before the curtain call. As Wainwright and his significant other walked hand-in-hand toward the theater from across the street, with a whole retinue of friends and relatives in tow (including a strikingly tall drag queen), a guy sitting near the intersection called out “Break a leg.” And a crowd at the lobby entrance greeted Wainright with applause as he walked in, like at a movie premiere.

You don’t see that sort of thing every day on your way to an opera. The large number of young people attending the performance was a rare sight, too. So, in terms of attracting interest, “Prima Donna” is certainly a star.


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Posted by Tim Smith at 7:09 AM | | Comments (3)

June 14, 2010

Young conductor gets major post: Yannick Nezet-Seguin to Philadelphia Orchestra

Audiences for classical music may be getting older and older, but the trend for major conducting jobs continues to take a youthful curve. On the heels of Gustavo Dudamel's appointment at the Los Angeles Philharmonic before the age of 30 and Alan Gilbert's at the New York Philharmonic barely out of his 30s, the 35-year-old Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been named music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He'll formally start in 2012 with a five-year contract.

There has been a lot of buzz about Nézet-Séguin for some time, and it's cool to see the grand old Philadelphia Orchestra take a chance on someone not only still quite youthful in conductor years, but relatively unknown. He got the nod after just two guest-conducting stints with the ensemble.

If there's anything to the idea that young, energetic musicians can attract fresh audiences and re-energize seasoned ones, Nézet-Séguin should fit the bill nicely in Philadelphia. The orchestra needs a boost, after a prolonged music director search and worrisome deficits and declines in attendance. This great, noble orchestra has been having a rough patch for too long. My guess is that things are going to perk up well before the new guy is fully in place at the helm.

Here's a video clip that reveals Nézet-Séguin's engaging personality as he chats about music and his approach to conducting, followed by a clip of him at work on the podium:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:14 AM | | Comments (3)

June 13, 2010

Infernal is the word for music-theater piece starring John Malkovich as serial killer

The Luminato Festival in Toronto, where I'm spending a few diverting days, has not opened with the cheeriest subject matter imaginable.

Among the festival's initial productions: The world premiere of the oratorio "Dark Star Requiem," which addresses the toll of AIDS, and the North American premiere of a music-theater piece called "The Infernal Comedy, “ which bears the subtitle "Confessions of a Serial Killer."

I caught the latter on an appropriately drizzly Saturday night; the atmosphere was even gloomier inside Massey Hall, despite the occasional laughs generated by John Malkovich in a typically intense, extraordinarily creepy performance as Austrian Jack Unterweger. This real-life murderer preyed on women, especially prostitutes. Most of his killings were committed after being paroled in 1990 from a 15-year sentence for a 1976 murder and being lionized as a reformed criminal. He committed suicide before facing trial again in Austria.

You can admire the daring of the concept for this show, created and directed by Michael Sturminger, but it would take considerable effort, I imagine, to like it. The Unterweger character is introduced as if at a lecture/reading, part of a book tour (he's actually already dead, which puts a new spin on "ghost writer").

Interspersed with his monologues are

soprano arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn and Weber -- all with texts on scorned lovers, cruelty, deceit, murderous thoughts, etc. The vocal soloists stand in for the Unterweger's victims, at one point being strangled (well, simulated) with bras, one of the killer's methods.

I'm all for edgy subject matter and toying with convention, but there's always a thin line between simply portraying and somehow celebrating or sympathizing with evildoers when they are put onstage or into films as the main focus. "The Infernal Comedy" keeps going over the line, making Unteweger too much the ingratiating fellow, crude but fun, like some stand-up comedian who gets foul-mouthed every now and then for a cheap laugh, but is still just such an entertaining guy. The murders are treated partly as entertainment, too, in a way, and the net effect is simply distasteful, rather than insightful.

That said, Malkovich couldn't have given it a better shot, with a scrupulous Austrian accent (he should, however, have given "California" the full Schwarzenegger pronunciation) and an ability to convey the character’s ever-simmering mania and pathetic self-justification.

The musical end of things was excellent, thanks to a nimble, expressive period instrument ensemble, the Vienna Academy Orchestra, led with assurance and style by Martin Haselbock; and two eloquent sopranos, Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet. In the end, it felt like a very long, uncomfortable evening.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:16 PM | | Comments (1)

Toronto's Luminato Festival serves up provocative music-theater

Two things have impressed me each time I've visited Toronto -- how cool and inviting a city it is, and how the locals seem to delight in putting it down.

It still impresses me as a great place, what with the excellent Canadian Opera Company in its subtly splendid Four Seasons Centre (the 2006 opening of that house, with an imaginative production of Wagner's "Ring," is one among my fondest cultural memories of the past decade); the fine Toronto Symphony and its breath-of-fresh-air music director, city native Peter Oundjian; great museums designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and David Liebeskind; and the Luminato Festival, which drew me here this weekend.

This is the fourth annual festival, a 10-day adventure into creative ideas, encompassing world music, theater, visual art, dance, pop and classical. I confess the big Luminato draw for me this year is the chance to experience Rufus Wainwright's first and much-dismissed opera, "Prima Donna," which I'll see Monday night. I just couldn't resist.

Meanwhile, I've caught a couple of other music-theater pieces in the festival, both of them with

provocative content, both of them powerfully performed, and both of them problematic.

"Dark Star Requiem" is an ambitious work with a noble aim -- a theatrical oratorio recounting the awful chapter in the history of the human condition caused by the spread of AIDS. The work, with a libretto by Jill Battson and music by Andrew Staniland, traces the history of the disease through cultures and continents, referring along the way to specific persons and events, attitudes and controversies. The score calls for solo singers, chorus, percussion and three instruments -- a spare, but colorful, combination.

I expected to -- wanted to, even -- respond more deeply to the material. The subject matter is so important and so personal for so many of us who have lost friends or family to the disease over the decades. And given how little attention has been paid lately to the continued threat of the HIV infection, how much it seems to have faded from the public consciousness, the oratorio provides a valuable jolt out of complacency. But much of the text seems self-conscious, with attempts at humor thrown in awkwardly along the way. Much of the music struck me as rather remote, and some of it as a little too predictable (lots of percussive underlining of sung or spoken lines). It's all very deftly written, to be sure, just a little short on personality. 

There certainly were exceptional passages during Friday night's preformance, however. I especially admired the ironically lyrical movement titled "Beauty Mark," where a soprano (silvery-voiced Neema Bickersteth), trailing a long red fabric and slowly encircling another singer, symbolized advancing lesions on the body. And the writing for the string instruments got very colorful at times, with particularly telling wisps of sound for the cello that suggested vanishing lives and hopes.

The Gryphon Trio -- violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys, pianist Jamie Parker -- offered superb playing throughout, as did percussionists Ryan Scott and Mark Duggan. The vocal soloists, notably baritone Peter McGillivray, did admirable work. The Elmer Isler Singers handled the choral side of things with remarkable technical and expressive skill. Conductor Wayne Strongman held the preformance together masterfully.

The visual presentation of "Dark Star Requiem" was a bit heavy-handed here and there. but ultimately effective, from the sobering sight of the ensemble dressed in medical lab coats to the use of projections on long, thin scrolls at either side of the stage. The venue was a star of the evening it itself -- the Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall, a recent addition to Toronto's performance sites created by KPMB Architects, Sound Space Design and Anne Minors Performance Consultants. This oaken beauty, seating 1,100, boasts excellent site-lines and acoustics. It's a class act from all directions.

I headed to one of the city's old theaters the next night for a curious work about a serial killer starring John Malkovich. More on that anon.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)

June 11, 2010

Works by Brahms, Barber bring Baltimore Symphony season to gentle close

In some circles of the marketing-conscious classical world, a season-closing program that contained just two contemplative works would be overruled. Only a big-bang finale would do.

If any objections were made in-house when Marin Alsop decided to close the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-2010 with the poignant, understated “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by Samuel Barber and “A German Requiem,” the predominantly low-keyed choral masterpiece by Brahms, I’m glad they were ignored.

The cumulative effect of all the gentle lyricism proved quite affecting Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. The remaining performances this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall ought to be just as satisfying, if not more so. (There probably won’t be another fainting chorister at the very end of the Brahms score – poor dear – or an ill-tuned woodwind chord in the same spot.)

I hope someone will remember to provide lighting at Meyerhoff so the audience, unlike that at Strathmore, has a chance to follow the words in the text-filled program, to be more directly connected to the music. I’m tired of making this complaint, but, until the BSO starts using supertitles as opera companies do (that would be my preference), there just has to be light.

I overheard complaints Thursday by patrons who didn’t enjoy being left in the dark, and I can’t blame them. Not everybody at these performances is

going to arrive fully acquainted with the poetically nuanced James Agee text that Barber used, or the highly personal selection of biblical passages that Brahms chose for his anti-fire-and-brimstone Requiem.

That said, most folks would surely have caught the gist of both works, for the performances were communicative and absorbing.

In “Knoxville,” soprano soloist Janice Chandler-Eteme sang with an exquisite warmth of tone and a sensitivity of phrasing that deftly conveyed the essence of this memory of childhood, family and internal uncertainty. The singer’s diction turned mushier the higher the vocal line rose, but the payoff was in the sweet sound she maintained. Alsop sculpted the orchestral side of things with admirable care; the playing had a consistently lovely glow.

The conductor was likewise attentive to subtleties of instrumental shading in the Requiem. Her tempos were a little businesslike at times, but she summoned considerable beauty of expression – and plenty of power for the score’s few heated moments – from the BSO and the Washington Chorus (the tenor section could have used more weight at times). Chandler-Eteme did shining work in her brief contribution. The bass solos were sung with a stirring richness of tone and phrase by Stephen Powell.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (5)

June 10, 2010

After Albee play, Schubert's song "Who is Sylvia?" seems lovelier than ever

Last Sunday, I was on double duty as music and theater critic, taking in a Beethoven recital in the afternoon and a play at night, both at Howard Community College, as it happened.

The theatrical portion of the day was devoted to the superb Rep State production of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" (My review is online now; it will be in print Friday.) Needless to say, Albee entered some very touchy territory with this 2002 play, asking audiences to consider a most unsettling connotation of the phrase "animal lover."   

Since the performance, I couldn't stop thinking about the Schubert song based on the same bit of Shakespeare that Albee alludes to in the title of his work: "Who is Sylvia?" I was a little worried that I couldn't listen again to the sweetly flowing strains of that song without any goat-ly images popping up in my head, so I figured I should put myself to the test. I think I'm OK now, thanks to the loveliness of such performances as these:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:29 AM | | Comments (0)

June 8, 2010

Saluting Robert Schumann's birthday with one of his most exquisite creations

Came up for air from several writing assignments and noticed that Tuesday is Robert Schumann's 200th birthday. I felt I just had to do something to acknowledge that.

I've always had a soft spot for Schumann's music, especially the songs and piano music. His brand of romanticism, so personal and distinctive, always strikes me as extraordinarily powerful. If I had to choose one example of that power, it would be the third movement from his Piano Quartet, one of my favorite moments in all of music.

His Piano Quintet gets much more attention, and it's a masterpiece, to be sure. But the Quartet deserves to be heard more often, if only for Schumann's musical poetry in that third movement, the Andante cantabile, a kind of exquisite song without words that invariably burrows under my skin.

This is especially so when performers take their time with it, a practice that was more common decades ago than in our faster-paced world. I found an old-style performance and a newer, brisker one to help illustrate my point. I'm putting my preferred version first -- a very spacious eight minutes. The second example is a couple minutes faster and, IMHO, nowhere near as affecting as a result. Let me know which tempo you prefer.

At any speed, I hope you'll agree with me that this really is a disarmingly sublime example of Schumann's melodic gift:

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

Epilogue to the story of Leonard Slatkin's unfortunate night at the Metropolitan Opera

Back in early April, the opera world went into gossipy overdrive over the opening night of "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Leonard Slatkin, who withdrew from remaining performances.

The reviews were scathing, and more than one critic noticed of an entry that appeared on (and was subsequently removed from) the conductor's blog, discussing how he had originally turned down "Traviata" (a consolation offer from the Met after the company scrapped plans for a Slaktin-led revival of Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles). In his blog, the conductor wrote that "Traviata was

"... an opera I had never conducted and the first real repertoire standard for me at the Met ... I concluded that since everyone else in the house knew it, I would learn a great deal from the masters. There was a lot of digging for me to do. I consumed books about the composer and the work's history. Listening to a few recordings was helpful but confusing. What constituted tradition and why? This was a question I would ask often during rehearsals."

The conclusion that a lot of folks made was that Slatkin was not fully prepared and thus caused the many problems heard on that opening night. I only heard (via satellite radio) the last act of that performance, which did not reveal anything horribly amiss. I didn't think the conducting was all that special, however; I like more breathing room in the Act 3 Prelude, for example, than Slatkin allowed.

When the tempest erupted afterward in print and, especially, online, the conductor stayed mum, but he just did some talking this week to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press, laying out his side of the story. First, he

denies that he he didn't know the score: "I was maybe even too prepared. I knew this opera inside out; I could have almost conducted from memory."

Then, Slatkin points a finger at diva Angela Gheorghiu, who sang the role of Violetta:

Slatkin did not completely absolve himself from blame and admitted he made mistakes opening night. But what he called Gheorghiu's 'unprofessional behavior' -- blocking his view of other singers, taking outrageous liberties that went beyond liberal notions of expressive phrasing, entering early and ignoring cut-offs -- so unnerved him that he lost his cool in the second act.

"It rarely happens to me, but I got thrown," said Slatkin. "All of a sudden, I was saying, 'What the hell is going on?' and there were places where I knew I was wrong, but I didn't know what to do. I was pretty much up in the air.

Needless to say, this interview had opera folks debating the whole affair all over again in the usual places, notably the ever-provocative Parterre Box. I still don't know what to make of it all. I don't even know for sure if I should care that much. But it was one of the more interesting episodes from the wild world of opera this season, and I felt I should alert you to Slatkin's defense, in case you missed it.

If Gheorghiu decides to jump in with her version, this story may keep on giving right through the summer.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (4)

June 7, 2010

Anne Koscielny concludes Beethoven piano sonata cycle at HCC

There's a Mt. Everest element to Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas. Some pianists feel they have to scale them because they're there; others because they find the music irresistible -- all of it, not just the real popular sonatas or the most physically demanding ones or the philosophically deepest ones.

I'm pretty sure that Anne Koscielny is one of those keyboard artists who truly finds abundant interest in the whole canon, a passion that accounts for the fact that she has performed the complete cycle several times in her career, most recently -- and possible for the last time -- in a season-long series presented by Howard Community College. I didn't get to catch up with this series until the last installment at Smith Theatre on Sunday afternoon, a make-up date for a concert originally scheduled back in January and called on account of snow (remember snow?). I confess that I had never heard of this pianist until receiving news of her Beethoven cycle at HCC back in the fall (I'm sure she's never heard of me, either), but I'm grateful for Sunday's introduction.

It's easy to forget that there are all sorts of gifted musicians in the world who don't have mighty PR machines behind them, wise and well-seasoned artists who don't produce lots of flash. The Massachusetts-based Koscielny has paid her dues in a variety of ways over a long career that has combined concertizing with teaching. She struck me on Sunday as a

sober, no-nonsense pianist who has considered the Beethoven sonatas for a long time and from every angle. Her performance had a lived-in quality. Not that anything was taken for granted; there was a lot of spontaneity to go with an almost always rock-solid technique.

Beethoven didn't necessarily write LOL music, but he could be very amusing, and Koscielny conveyed that element delectably in Sonata No. 16 in G and, especially, Sonata No. 22 in F, which inspired crisp, colorful playing. The composer's most serious, darkly lyrical side found extraordinary release in the Largo from Sonata No. 7, and the pianist tapped into that music with affecting eloquence. Koscielny's account of the "Waldstein" Sonata also proved effective. She took her time -- she's the opposite of the speed demons who tear out of conservatories today -- and made the music speak poetically, not just dramatically. The way she eased into the finale's main theme was particularly beautiful.

There was abundant power as required throughout the recital, but the thoughtful musicality behind the pianism that left the greatest impression.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)

June 4, 2010

Baltimore Symphony and the three Bs: Beethoven, Bartok, Barber

There's an old expression in classical music circles, "The Three Bs," standing for the pillars of Western music (well, the Germanic variety, at any rate): Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. One of those guys figures in the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- Beethoven -- along with two other significant Bs: Barber and Bartok. This particular alliterative set constitutes a cool trio.

On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, the Bartok contribution, "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," proved especially welcome -- the BSO has programmed it only once, 31 years ago. It's a fascinating score from every angle, brilliantly fashioned out of unifying thematic ideas and strengthened by structural integrity (the arch shape of the first and third movements never fails to impress, intellectually and emotionally).

The piece, which is being recorded for the next BSO project with the Naxos label, is finely suited to music director Marin Alsop's skills; she seems to thrive on works that contain complex rhythms and intricate meshing of instrumental forces. There were a few spots on Thursday that could have been tighter and tauter in execution (and a few that were marred by audience noises, despite reminders of the recording going on), but this was an engrossing and impressive performance just the same.

The atmospheric Adagio, a night-scape punctuated by mysterious repeated notes from the xylophone at the beginning and end, emerged compellingly. And, except for a slight deflation of energy in the closing measures, the dancing finale generated great verve. For the most part,  the strings offered impressive precision and color. The percussion section did shining work, as did Lura Johnson at the piano and Michael Sheppard at the celesta.

(By the way, as she often does with music that isn't widely familiar, Alsop gave the audience a little guide to the Bartok score that included excerpts from the piece and examples of some others to illustrate the composer's sound-world and techniques. Alsop invariably makes these demonstrations entertaining. I only wish she would come up with

a better line than "Something like that," which the conductor has a habit of saying after the orchestra finishes playing a snippet during such pre-performance presentations. Maybe it's just me, but that off-hand remark always seems out of place.)

The program opened with one of the most beloved works in the American repertoire, Barber's Adagio for Strings, written around the same time as the Bartok score, but inhabiting an entirely different aesthetic. Bartok had both feet firmly planted in the 20th century; Barber kept a few toes comfortably dug into the 19th.

Alsop drew from the BSO strings a gorgeous sound. I would not have minded a more spacious tempo (you knew I'd say that, didn't you?), but the poignancy of this ultra-lyrical work hit home.

The Beethoven portion of the program, wisely placed last, was devoted to his Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor." Andre Watts, who gave a spectacular account of a Brahms concerto with Alsop and the BSO a couple years ago, was back to deliver another memorable performance. This time, the dynamic range of his tone wasn't quite as wide, but he still produced a good deal of nuance along the way. There was an awful lot of energy, too.

The outer movements found the soloist churning out great power, but also a kind of twinkle-in-the-eye exuberance. He seemed to have so much fun bounding through the music that you couldn't help but be caught up in the high spirits. The Adagio's introspective poetry went unexpressed by the pianist initially; the way he struck many of the notes sounded, well, struck, rather than caressed or sung. But Watts eventually added more sensitivity in that movement to match the warmth coming from the orchestra, which was in sturdy form throughout the concerto. Alsop provided rock-solid partnering.

Sitting in a box seat quite near the stage Thursday night was another great American pianist, one who taught Watts at the Peabody Conservatory many years ago. Leon Fleisher could be seen adding heartily to the applause for his former student.

The concert repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:14 AM | | Comments (6)

June 3, 2010

Reminder to animal lovers: Leon Fleisher, Katherine Jacobson to give BARCS benefit

Leon Fleisher drolly dubs the program “duets for pets” -- a concert to benefit Baltimore Animal and Rescue Care Shelter Inc. The celebrated pianist will be joined by his wife, Katherine Jacobson, an accomplished keyboard artist in her own right, for Friday's fundraiser at the Peabody Institute. 

The two musicians are longtime supporters of BARCS. “We're very impressed with the staff and their deep commitment to giving animals a chance at a new lease on life,” Jacobson says. “The proceeds from this concert will go to medical care for the animals, to help them get ready for adoption.”

Fleisher and Jacobson share their Roland Park house with two dogs and two cats. “In a sense, we recycle,” Fleisher says. “These are rescued animals.”

For their BARCS benefit, the pianists will perform colorful four-hand works, including

Ravel's "La Valse" and a sampling of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, along with “some golden oldies that will be announced from the stage,” Fleisher says.

Adds Jacobson: “We'll take a detour from the predictable concert format. There will be some commentary and even a bit of theatricality. We tried to get our dogs to come onstage, but there will be some lifelike re-creations instead.”

Both pianists will take solo turns during the program. In recent years, new treatments have enabled Fleisher to resume limited playing with both hands; his right has been affected by a focal dystonia for more than 40 years. One of his solo pieces for the benefit is by Bach. “It's what could be titled the environmental anthem,” Fleisher says with a laugh: “Sheep May Safely Graze.”

The concert is at 8 p.m. Friday at Peabody. Ticket info is available here. Fleisher notes that student rush tickets will be available one hour before the event.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)

June 1, 2010

Composer and former Peabody faculty member Benjamin Lees dies at 86

Just heard that Benjamin Lees, an American composer of powerfully constructed and vividly expressive music, died Monday at the age of 86 in Glen Cove, NY. The cause was heart failure, according to a release from Boosey & Hawkes, publisher of his music.

Mr. Lees taught composition in the early 1960s at the Peabody Institute and later served on the faculties of Juilliard and Manhattan schools of music. His works have been performed by major orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists. Born to Russian parents in Manchuria in 1924, Mr. Lees was raised in California. One of his composition teachers was the iconoclastic George Antheil.

I was impressed whenever I encountered Mr. Lees' music live or on recording. The statement from Boosey includes this wonderful quote by the composer summing up his style:

"There are two kinds of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn't tighten at an idea, then it's not the right idea."

Visceral is a great word for the kind of music Mr. Lees created, as this clip from his Piano Concerto No. 2 makes plain:


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:28 PM | | Comments (0)

New Baltimore Symphony/Marin Alsop recordings focus on Dvorak, Gershwin

Despite what you've heard -- for years and years and years -- about the death of the classical music recording biz, the releases just keep coming, most of them in the supposedly obsolete CD format. Go figure.

Never mind that sales figures are rarely worth mentioning (you have to be a Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel to light up the charts). If a few hundred discs are sold, most folks are happy. A few thousand, and they're ecstatic. Of course, things were much better in the old days, when record companies could afford to devote a small portion of their budgets to producing a lot of classical material while making tons off of pop and rock products. But it's still possible to find outlets, or, like a lot of orchestras have done lately, create your own label.

The Baltimore Symphony, which went just about unrecorded for nearly a decade (missing the Temirkanov years entirely, except for one in-house promo CD), benefited considerably with the arrival of music director Marin Alsop. She brought a valuable Naxos connection with her, and that company quickly added BSO products to their inventory -- a Dvorak symphony cycle (the initial entry, the "New World," earned great reviews) and Bernstein's "Mass" (nominated for a Grammy). The newest release in the Dvorak project, devoted to Symphonies No. 7 and 8, is another attractive recording that reconfirms the solid shape of the BSO with Alsop at the helm.

At the same time, Alsop and the BSO can also be found on a new release by another label, Decca, this one devoted to the Gershwin works for piano and orchestra recorded last fall at Meyerhoff Hall with starry soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. This hot recording should provide a nice boost for the orchestra's beyond-Baltimore profile, the way the Sony CD of Corigliano's "Red Violin" Concerto did back at the start of Alsop's tenure, when she and the BSO backed another of today's classical biggies, Joshua Bell.

My guess is that the "Thibaudet Plays Gershwin" CD will do especially well, sales-wise. The composer is still very popular internationally, and so is Thibaudet (he's the only who gets a photo -- a cool one with shades -- on the CD). What should really help move this item off of shelves and download sites is

the quality of the music-making and the novelty factor of the scores used for this recording. We get the jazziest side of Gershwin's concert works -- the original jazz band arrangement by Ferde Grofe of "Rhapsody in Blue" and, controversially, perhaps, the jazz band version of Concerto in F that Paul Whiteman prepared, much to the composer's annoyance (I think it makes a fascinating contrast with, and welcome companion to, Gershwin's own superb orchestration). For good measure, the original manuscript version of the "I Got Rhythm" Variations fills out the disc.

The results are engaging across the board. Thibaudet is one of the rare classical pianists who can swing naturally; his playing has a spontaneous edge, an abundance of color and, of course, superb virtuosity. By the same token, Alsop is one of the rare classical conductors who can swing naturally. She gets this music innately, knows how to pace it, bend it, push it. And the BSO responds with an impressive mix of fluency and character. It's a fun recording that stands up well in a crowded field.

There are, of course, lots and lots of Dvorak recordings, too. Making a major mark in this repertoire isn't the easiest thing for any conductor to do, not with so many distinctive performances already on disc. But Alsop has a genuine affinity for the composer's music and, as the "New World" recording made clear, can deliver the goods.

A side-by-side comparison with some vintage gems from the vaults might not always be favorable to her interpretation. Listen, for example, to the opening of Symphony No. 7 led in the 1960s by Istvan Kertesz with the London Symphony (the Kertesz Dvorak cycle has long been a benchmark) and you'll hear some compelling dynamic accents that add extra tension; Alsop's approach is more even-tempered and, well, a little duller.

That sort of contrast can be heard in other spots as well, but Alsop holds her own in terms of the big picture, leading a performance that ultimately carries substantial expressive weight. Same for Symphony No. 8, which emerges with lots of character and warmth. In both works, the BSO produces a vivid, disciplined sound.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:09 AM | | Comments (3)
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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