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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)


I am utterly amazed that in a 422-word review of a concert dominated by a choral masterpiece, you can barely muster 12 in discussion of the chorus that performed this work (and two of those words were naming the chorus). To say no more than you found fault with the tenors "at times", you do a tremendous injustice to the choristers who worked long hours to create this work; not to mention exposing an enormous lack of respect for choruses in general. I've noted your dismissal of choral concerts, not only in your lack of interest in reviewing them, but even your lack of interest in promoting them as well, in the past. You seem to find no shortage of space to write about anything and everything opera-related, even going as far as attending and reviewing an opera performance in D.C. instead of a local choral concert. I would hope that at some point you would grant our area choruses some measure of grudging respect and perhaps write a few words about us (more than 12, at least). Somehow, I expect that hope will have to go unfulfilled, as I have yet to see any movement on that front.

Dear Tim,

I think this is fair review. I think the soprano prepared this piece to pay special attention to the text but as is often the case the diction in the upper register requires some sacrifices.

And, like I said (or tried to), the sacrifice was fine with me, given the loveliness of the result. TIM

Wow, who gave Mr. Wright the Cup O' Grumpy for morning coffee?

How much can you possibly expect Tim to fawn over choral contributions? I think "...She summoned considerable beauty of expression -- and plenty of power... from the BSO and the Washington Chorus" counts as a pretty decent evaluation (with one minor, non-acidic critique) and is downright complimentary, to boot!

Likewise, when he reviewed the NSO and the same chorus in Verdi's "Requiem" back in March, he wrote: "Not that [Eschenbach] didn't unleash brute force as well, and draw from the NSO and superb Washington Chorus an equally involved response in the process." His chief complaint concerned the quality of the soloists, whereas the chorus is qualified collectively as being "superb." And the problem is???......

Tim may be brief in these evaluatuions, but he certainly isn't hurling invectives and spittle at any choral forces. Quite the opposite!

I'm expecting neither fawning nor invective, simply analysis beyond "beauty of expression" and "superb". Perhaps my complaint lies not as much with the evaluation of the chorus as much as with the respect due to a major choral work. Compare Mr. Smith's reviews of just about any symphonic work with any review of a choral work to get my meaning: in the former he discusses the music, and specifically the degree to which the performing forces convey that music. In the latter he throws off a couple of adjectives and calls it a day.
Compare any soloist he reviews with a chorus (why can't a chorus be considered the "soloist" of a concert?): analysis vs. adjectives. I would like to see a bit more depth in the discussion, not fawning (truth be told, there were a number of problems I had with the chorus in this concert).

I must agree with those who would like more coverage of the choral pieces. but I have noticed that Mr. Smith is a symphonic person to the expense of vocal work (as Ms. Alsop is an symphonic person almost to the expense of opera). Perhaps we need a different music critic for choral works.

I also find rather uninteresting the comments about the darkness of the hall. Why in the world would anyone be following a text during the concert? It is much better to read beforehand and listen during. And why devote so many lines in a review about music to text reading?

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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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