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July 30, 2010

Report suggests Washington National Opera will be folded into Kennedy Center

A Wall Street Journal article indicates that an intriguing scenario is being explored in D.C. -- the absorption of the Washington National Opera into the Kennedy Center, along the lines the National Symphony Orchestra followed some years back.

Gee, this could make Ken Cen prez Michael Kaiser King of the (Washington Art) World. I have no prob with that, by the way.

It would, presumably, also mean that Placido Domingo would depart as general director of the opera company, something that might be greeted with great enthusiasm in some corners but great dismay and disappointment in others.

WNO has a rental agreement with the center that

expires in 2013, so this is, obviously, a good time for everyone to be exploring options. 

I can see the benefits for WNO, a welcome taste of financial security. Recent budgets have been balanced, but nagging debt remains. Federal funding gives the center a solid base, and Kaiser's track record for raising private and corporate money has been re-enforcing it.

I can also see plenty of ruffled feathers, staff changes (and layoffs), tricky diplomacy and lots and lots of questions. But something about this idea makes sense to me, at least on first glance. It will be fascinating to see what happens.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:25 AM | | Comments (10)

July 29, 2010

Another major orchestra feels the pain; deep cuts proposed for Detroit Symphony

Not that there really is much comfort in knowing that other people are suffering the same fate, but news from the musicians of the Detroit Symphony speaks to the continuing stress of the economic downturn and its effect here in Baltimore.

Of course, the city of Detroit has been in trouble for a long time, so a lot of folks have wondered how the resident orchestra could maintain its position for the long haul. Musicians' salaries have been among the top in the country -- base pay of $95,000, almost $21,000 more than at the BSO. Leonard Slatkin is music director of the DSO.

Negotiations for a new contract in Detroit are going on, and not terribly well, judging by a press release from the players' side. (Similarities with the BSO's situation will easily be spotted -- and I'm sure it's only coincidental that the e-business that sent out the Detroit Symphony Musicians release is located in Baltimore.) The other side is sure to be heard from, but, for now, here are some highlights of the DSO musicians' release:

Salary cuts upwards of 28 percent, drastic cuts in their health insurance, elimination of contributions to their retirement benefits, and a sharp reduction in the size of the orchestra - those are key provisions of management's demands from the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as contract negotiations continue.

The musicians believe that this may be the beginning of a trend that will see managers of other symphony orchestras make similar demands from their musicians.

According to DSO cellist Haden McKay, one of the musicians' negotiators, the demands by management, in addition to imposing drastic cuts in salary and benefits, would drop the DSO out of the top ten, the majors, in the ranking of American symphony orchestras, with no opportunity to reclaim its position.

"The fall from the top ten would make it that much more difficult to attract internationally famous guest conductors and artists, as well as the best musicians," he said ...

"...a number of DSO musicians have already started to audition for open positions in other major orchestras. We've lost six musicians in the past two years alone ... [This] acclaimed orchestra has been reduced from 95 onstage musicians in 2001 to 84 currently, with further reductions called for by management. The continued use of substitutes places at risk the sense of ensemble and the tradition of sound and style that distinguish premier orchestras. However, management appears to believe that audiences won't perceive the difference ... [After] our making $3.4 million in concessions to 'save' the orchestra the past two contracts, once again, the musicians of the DSO are being asked to swallow still more severe cuts in salary and benefits to, once more, 'save' the orchestra."

...The musicians placed on the table a proposal agreeing to more than $9 million in cuts in salary and benefits, including cuts of 22 percent in next year's annual scale, 14 percent in 2012, and eight percent in 2013. "The musicians' proposal was rejected and management flatly refuses to negotiate when we meet," McKay said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:16 AM | | Comments (3)

July 28, 2010

Dramatic evidence arrives in time for Rosenberg, Cleveland Orchestra, Plain Dealer trial

The extraordinary trial that pits former Cleveland Plain Dealer Don Rosenberg against his employer and the Cleveland Orchestra is now in its third week. At about this point, if this were an episode of the classic "Perry Mason" TV series, Paul Drake would be entering the courtroom and approaching Perry with a discreet little package.

Perry would take a brief look inside and the faintest of smiles would cross his face as he turned to the judge and said, "Your honor, new evidence has just been brought to my attention, and, if it please the court, I think we should all listen to it now."

He'd pull a Deutsche Grammophon CD out of the envelope, put it onto a player, hit the "play" button, and, before Hamilton Burger could get a huffy objection out, the court would hear the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" contained on a just-released recording by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most.

Fifteen-and-a-half minutes later, Rosenberg would win his case.

OK, back to reality. The decidedly pedestrian performance of that glorious music from "Tristan" underlines what I think this sad trial is all about. Seems to me that Rosenberg simply expects more of a conductor, especially one given the reins of one of the world's greatest orchestras. But Welser-Most and his supporters think he's just fine all the time, and shouldn't have to read so many negative reviews. A newspaper editor agreed and reassigned Rosenberg. Hence, the law suit.

People can argue all the want -- and they will -- about an employer's jurisdiction over employees and about an arts organization's right to challenge a critic. But the issue of musical standards is not so easily dismissed.

I played through the new all-Wagner recording curious to hear Welser-Most and the Clevelanders in music that ought to easily inspire compelling results. I wasn't so compelled. What really stopped me cold was

the conductor's metronomic, bloodless account of those "Tristan" selections. The "Liebestod," in particular, stays earthbound in his hands, thanks to a brisk tempo so rigid for long stretches that it sounds closer to a march than a "love death."

This morning, I wanted to try another recording of the "Tristan" music for comparison. I thought I should try to find one I didn't know well or hadn't heard, so it would be even fairer (no point in stacking anyone today up against, say, Furtwangler, for example). I settled on a disc containing Berlin Philharmonic recordings from 1939 conducted by Victor de Sabata, a CD I didn't even remember owning.

The "Tristan" Prelude and "Liebestod" happened to be included. To begin with, de Sabata takes at least three minutes longer with the music. But it isn't the added spaciousness alone that makes the difference. (I don't always have to hear this bit of Wagner slow; I can be very happy with faster tempos that still offer expressive nuance.) What de Sabata does is amazing, allowing the music to expand and contract in subtle ways that make everything sound fresh and involving. The "love death" is imbued with such emotional force that you can sense every breath and torment of Isolde's plight.

In short, the performance spoke to me. Welser-Most's didn't. It was the same on track after track until, I hasten to add, I reached the "Wesendonck Lieder" included on this new release, with soprano Measha Brueggergosman as the radiant soloist. Here, Welser-Most reveals admirable sensitivity and breadth, and the ensemble ensemble responds very beautifully. For that matter, the orchestra is in strong shape throughout.

The rest of the disc, though, just leaves me cold or lukewarm. Being underwhelmed by Welser-Most's talent is not such an uncommon reaction in the larger music world, by the way. But I guess expressing it too often can get you into a lot of trouble in Ohio.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (6)

Baltimore Symphony to offer 2010-11 season preview at Strathmore

One of the smart ideas to have emerged in orchestral circles in recent years is the season preview concert -- a program designed to provide prospective concert-goers (and subscription-buyers) a taste of what will be in store on the series ahead. The Baltimore Symphony will offer such a program in September, although not in Baltimore.

This preview of the 2010-2011 season will be performed Sept. 10 at Strathmore, conducted by BSO music director Marin Alsop and, making his public debut, the teenage Ilyich Rivas, the BSO-Peabody Bruno Walter Assistant Conductor who is about to start the second year of his fellowship with the orchestra. He makes his subscription-series debut in October. 

BSO fans in Baltimore who already harbor suspicions about the ensemble's home-away-from-home in Montgomery County may take umbrage at the fact that there is no such preview scheduled for Meyerhoff Hall. It's largely a matter of scheduling, I'm told. And it doesn't mean Baltimore is losing out on something permanently. 

The BSO's wildly popular Rusty Musicians project was presented at Strathmore first last winter, but will make it to Baltimore in September. "Our aim is to have annual Rusty events and a season preview concert at both venues," says Eileen Andrews Jackson, BSO v.p. for marketing and communications.

Meanwhile, there's no reason why Baltimore-area folks can't check out the Strathmore preview, too -- the price is right ($10 in advance, $15 at the door) and, for those who have yet to compare the aural and ambiance differences between Meyerhoff and Strathmore, this is a great opportunity.

Alsop will conduct the bulk of the program, which includes

movements from symphonies by Schumann, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; an overture by Mozart and an Essay by Barber; and selections from the world of ballet (Prokofiev's "Cinderella") and film (Williams' "Star Wars" main title music).

Mahler, who is a substantial focus of the '10-'11 lineup (the season coincides with the 150th anniversary of his birth and the centennial of his death), will be also represented. Alsop will conduct his arrangement of the famous "Air" from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3. Rivas will lead the BSO in the exquisite "Blumine" movement from the original version of Mahler's Symphony No. 1.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:21 AM | | Comments (0)

July 27, 2010

Update on trial of Cleveland music critic v. Cleveland Plain Deal, Cleveland Orchestra

Fresh details have emerged about the trial of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's former classical music critic, Don Rosenberg, who sued his employer and the management of the Cleveland Orchestra for interfering with his work and damaging his reputation.

Last week, the editor, Susan Goldberg, "testified last week that she made the decision to reassign Rosenberg based on her own independent journalistic - not musical - considerations," according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer blog post.

The story goes on to report that Rosenberg, in testimony that lasted for more than five hours Monday, said

"that Goldberg had used several distinct phrases about his reviews on the day she reassigned him. He said they mirrored those used by arts association officials who were critical of his coverage of Music Director Franz Welser-Most. "This was not an independent decision," Rosenberg said. "It was based on what Susan Goldberg heard from [Cleveland Orchestra management]."

This extraordinary trial is in its third week. For more details, check out Michael Scott's blog post.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:33 PM | | Comments (0)

Signature Theatre commissions new work from 'Shrek' composer Jeanine Tesori

Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the scores for "Shrek the Musical" and "Caroline, or Change," has received a commissioned from the Signature Theatre through the company's extraordinary "American Music Voices Project."

That project, the largest program of its kind in the country ($780,000 has been awarded so far), has commissioned full-length musicals from Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon and Joseph Thalken. The latter's musical version of "Giant" was staged by the Signature Theatre last year. Gordon's "Sycamore Trees" premiered a couple months ago (I found it an uneven, but affecting, piece).

Thalken’s "Wheatley’s Folly" is due next March 2011; the new musicals by Guettel and Tesori will be unveiled in subsequent years.

Also announced as part of the

American Music Voices Project are commissions for composers in the early stages of their music-theater careers to create works for the Signature Theatre.

The latest "Next Generation" recipients of commissions are Chris Miller and Scott Davenport Richards; "special honoree grants" have been awarded to Josh Schmidt and Josh Rosenblum.

The American Music Voices Project, launched in 2006, is funded by the Shen Family Foundation.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)

Musing about the Baltimore Symphony's summer season

I’ve never quite understood why people seem to change their music habits when summertime hits. Outside of some long-running festival sites – Tanglewood springs (or summers) to mind – it seems that many places struggle to keep classical fare going after the regular subscription concert series is wrapped up. Baltimore is such a place.

The BSO has yet to devise a sure-fire summer formula that can generate consistently large crowds year after year. There has been a lot of experimenting in the past decade. Remember the food and dancing out in front of Meyerhoff Hall before and/or after the orchestra concerts inside? Remember the chamber music preludes to those orchestra concerts? Remember Mario Venzago?

Maybe there is no way to guarantee strong turnouts. Maybe the nature of summer, with people coming and going from vacations and generally being in a more laid-back frame of mind, makes it impossible to create an entertainment package that will ever click with enough people to fill concert halls.

But one of the responsibilities that comes with having a full-time orchestra with a 52-week contract is finding marketable activity in the off-season months. I wish the BSO could figure out a more reliable summer lineup, one that would provide substantive fare for the classical base and classical-curious, and really cool stuff for the non- or rarely-classical.

In short, I’d like to see more things along the lines of

what the BSO offered last week for its closing events at Meyerhoff for the summer – a vivid jolt of “Porgy and Bess” and other Gershwin favorites before a large and happy audience; a Glass/Zappa/Shodekeh concert that enticed a fresh, energized crowd of 1,400 (far from a sell-out, but damn good considering how offbeat the program was).

I know how hard it is to duplicate success. You can never take for granted that what works one time, one year will work another. And I readily admit that finding something else as bankable as “Porgy” is just as tricky as finding something else as cool as the Glass and Zappa selections. But I have to believe great combinations of repertoire are out there, waiting to be molded into a summer season that lights a real fire at the box office.

I think one of the best models is the New York Philharmonic’s “Summertime Classics” with the charming conductor Bramwell Tovey, who leads the orchestra in performances of colorful classics – popular overtures and tone poems, music from ballet and the opera, etc. It’s not really so much warhorses on parade, but, rather, a sampling of the fun music that typically is only heard now on radio stations, not concert halls.

Reviewing one of these Philharmonic concerts earlier this month in the New York Times, Steve Smith noted that the selections by Rossini, Gounod, Massenet, Puccini, et al., were “lighter fare than the Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler works that make up the orchestra’s core programming. But when you hear such pieces played with the expressiveness and effervescence they had [at this performance], you could only wonder why these works don’t play a bigger role in the Philharmonic’s standard routine.” Tovey’s choices each year for the New York series include the kind of wonderful stuff that hooks a lot of people on classical music in the first place.

I think the BSO could do a lot worse than emulate that approach – a rediscover-the-fun-of-classical music series. (Something like that could be woven into the regular season, too, of course.) And if the base of the BSO’s summer season were established along these lines, there’d still be plenty of room for a follow-up to the Glass/Zappa stuff, a program or two that would show off the wild side of classical music and appeal to a different, under-served audience, one that, even in the doldrums of summer, is open to some edgy fare.

Finally, since I’m in a wishful mood, I wish the BSO could magically find a way to turn Oregon Ridge into a Baltimore version of Northern Virginia's Wolf Trap – a place with a permanent structure that has a roof over the stage and a large number of seats, but open-air on the sides and in the rear (the BSO has to cancel concerts now if rain gets in the way; the show can go on at places like Wolf Trap). I was told that no less than Frank Gehry submitted a design for such a venue at Oregon Ridge many years ago. Wouldn’t it be neat if those plans could be dug out and acted upon? The beauty of such an enhanced space would be that it could handle all sorts of entertainment, could provide a real summertime atmosphere and even turn into a real summertime destination for a lot of people.

Not a very likely prospect here, I know. It would take mega-bucks from mega-donors, for a start. I also know that experience elsewhere demonstrates that you can build an enticing summer concert place and people still might not come. But it’s always fun to dream.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:25 AM | | Comments (9)

July 24, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's Zappa, Glass, Shodekeh concert generates great vibes

The tattoos offered the first clue. The congregation of smokers outside at intermission – at least four times the usual number – provided another strong signal: That wasn’t the routine Baltimore Symphony crowd Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

I hope the BSO is already hard at work on figuring out how to lure them back in the future with more of the left-field programming that drew such an age-, race- and everything else-diverse group of engaged, enthusiastic people. The vibes were great in that house.

Music director Marin Alsop devised this summer concert as a Baltimore-centric exploration of stylistic cross-pollination – works by two major innovators born here, Frank Zappa and Philip Glass; and a guest appearance by Baltimore’s favorite beatboxer, Shodekeh. (I loved encountering a senior citizen during the interval on his cell phone – he was one of the few who did look every bit the traditional symphony-goer – telling someone that he had just heard the most “amazing,” “unbelievable” performance by a person called a beatboxer.)

Zappa’s orchestral works are surprising in many ways, sometimes almost Second Viennese School-ish in the application of brief, dense clusters of harmony and instrumentation; sometimes unmistakably infused with the idioms of pop music. Alsop, who set off a surprising, sustained ovation from the audience when she praised her musicians for charging into this material with such spirit, drew crisp and colorful performances of “Dupree’s Paradise”; “Be-Bop Tango” (complete with yelps from the players and the audience); “Outrage at Valdez” (rather mild outrage, but making haunting use of an Alpine horn); and a particularly rollicking “G-Spot Tornado.”

Glass was represented by four of the six movements from

his Symphony No. 4, titled “Heroes,” a work based on the Brain Eno/David Bowie album of that name. This is not necessarily Glass’ strongest stuff. There are absorbing passages -- the “Neukoln” movement, with its moody descending theme and shimmering instrumental background, is wonderful – but also moments when the music seems curiously earthbound and constricted. And what’s up with the Tchaikovsky-like, big unison ending for the otherwise Glass-y last movement? It comes off as awfully tacky.

That said, it was great to hear this music in the concert hall, and to hear the BSO spinning out the composer’s trademark reiterative patterns with such a warm and beautifully nuanced sound.

As for Shodekeh, well, he brought the house down with his virtuoso vocal acrobatics, applied first in a modest little concerto for beatboxer and strings called “Fujiko’s Fairy Tale,” by Finnish composer Jan Mikael Vainio, who was on hand to take a bow.

What Shodekeh does is quite brilliant. On one level, the technique constitutes a human percussion-generator and is plenty impressive for that alone. But it’s the array of character that Shodekeh brings to the device -- all the subtlety, surprise and humor in his propulsive and evocative sounds (my favorite suggested an approaching plane) -- that turns it into a more personal kind of music-making. He had a field day in the concerto, providing so much texture and action that Vainio’s score began to sound more interesting.

Shodekeh returned to the stage after intermission to provide a lead-in to the Glass symphony with a solo improv. Taking a leaf from Bobby McFerrin, he tried added some group participation stuff along the way, starting with the BSO players, who gamely tried emitting various vocal noises, then bringing in the audience. It went on a little too long, but certainly had its moments, especially those involving Alsop’s baton, which Shodekeh commandeered.

After the BSO concert, I headed to the Windup Space to catch Mobtown Modern’s presentation of some cutting-edge UK artists – composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei), pianist GeNIA and percussionist Joby Burgess (leader of the ensemble Powerplant).

I particularly enjoyed the kinetic performances Burgess gave of the “Fanta” movement from Prokofiev’s “Import/Export” (who knew a Fanta soda bottle could be so versatile?) and of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” on a “xylosynth.” Late in the evening, Shodekeh dropped by and did a bracing, anything-you-can-beat-I-can-beat-faster-and-louder jam with Burgess (now on drum set).

For all I know, the session went on until dawn, but, with midnight approaching, I slipped away, nearly overloaded from more than four hours of cool sounds.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:16 PM | | Comments (2)

July 23, 2010

More thoughts on the Rosenberg-Cleveland Orchestra-Plain Dealer trial

It’s the end of week two of the trial pitting music critic Don Rosenberg against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the management of the Cleveland Orchestra. How this case will be decided is anyone’s guess, but, needless to say, I have a preference.

As you will recall, Rosenberg was taken off his longtime beat covering that orchestra, accused of being too rough on music director Franz Welser-Most. From the beginning, this case struck me as critical – no pun intended – to the future of our endangered profession. (Hey, never miss an opportunity to theatricalize, as the Maria Callas of “Master Class” says).

For the last few decades, newspapers all over the country have been devaluing criticism. calling for more feature stories, trend pieces, news briefs, etc., and less actual critical thinking. Even before the Internet and the blogosphere it spawned, where anyone can take on the appearance of a critic, the place of the independent reviewer with actual credentials of education, experience and a clearly defined artistic value system has been on shaky ground in many papers.

I think some of this may have factored into what happened in Cleveland. If editors get the idea that critics are just glorified consumer reporters – you can trust this concert; don’t waste your money on that one – then what difference does it matter what "product" they cover? And if a “manufacturer” (especially one who buys ads in the paper) doesn’t like what the critic is saying, heck, just move him off the beat.

Likewise, music organizations have increasingly picked up on this notion that a critic is primarily a marketing tool, not a judge of artistic quality. My colleagues and I have heard all too often the line: “We need help selling tickets. Can’t you do a story?”

Maybe I’m crazy or naive, but

I just can’t believe any of this was going on, at least to such an extent, in, say, the 1950s. There have doubtless always been disgruntled orchestras or opera companies, praying for someone to rid them of a meddlesome critic, and they may well have complained loudly to newspaper editors. But how many papers would have rolled over in the old days?

Judging by the kind of comments you can find on Web sites where the Rosenberg story has been reported or analyzed, there are plenty of folks who see him as a villain, a spoiled elitist who finally got his comeuppance for being so unappreciative of a conductor’s superb talents or for having an unfair agenda. I have a hard time seeing it that way, if only because I’ve known this critic too long, have discussed music with him too often to believe he’s a crazed, one-track-mind conductor-killer.

I guess what also bothers me about this case so much is that it reminds me of things that happened to me (everything is about me, haven't you noticed?), and makes me wonder where I’d be today if I had worked for editors with a different mindset.

My first full-time critic job, after several freelancing years, was in Fort Lauderdale, a community that had read nary a discouraging word in the local paper about the hometown orchestra and its longtime conductor. When I offered such a word, the campaigns against me started quickly. I’m talking about leaflets on seats in the concert hall asking symphony-goers to contact the paper and demand that I be fired. The publisher was on the board of the orchestra, so he had already heard plenty of complaining (he told me that it made for some uncomfortable cocktail parties, but he never once suggested I change my tune).

Then came the delegation to the chief editor, where I had to sit quietly and listen to symphony board members explain how I had written too many negative reviews of the orchestra and its nationally respected maestro. I was, in short, a heartless menace bent on destroying everything they had built there. The editor listened politely, thanked them for coming in and said that I had just been doing my job, which I would continue doing.

That’s what critics everywhere hope to hear, not because we’re so damn high and mighty, let alone right all the time, but because we’ve devoted ourselves to a profession that is about passing artistic judgment as we see and hear it, not boosting community pride, placating rich donors, stroking musicians’ egos. (Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I had to attend a similar meeting at this paper, requested by management officials of a certain orchestra upset with the negative things I had been writing about their leadership. The result of that session turned out the same.)

If critics can be tossed aside for making someone unhappy, something’s wrong somewhere. If a newspaper bows to the pressure of arts organizations mad about coverage, why not cave in to politicians or developers or sports team owners who get peeved for the same reason?

I’m not saying critics are invariably pure and faultless. Far from it. I’ve read my share of reviews by writers whose evaluations not only differ from mine, but reveal attitudes or conclusions I find highly questionable. I’ve suspected some critics of unfairness, hidden agendas, biases that prevent them from seeing what I consider a bigger, better picture. (Some of these folks may well have entertained similar thoughts about me.) But I’d never want to see any one of them cut loose by their publications solely because a conductor or a board president got annoyed.

I’ve said before that I wish the situation in Cleveland had never reached this point. It all seems a little surreal. But maybe a trial is a good thing, and maybe, when this matter gets into the hands of a jury, the outcome will reaffirm the lines between criticism and coddling, integrity and expediency.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore Symphony serves up Gershwin favorites with flair

George Gershwin worked his enduring box office magic Thursday night for the Baltimore Symphony, which played to a good-sized, enthusiastic house at Meyerhoff Hall. The composer worked his magic on the orchestra, too, not to mention the guest artists. This was exactly the sort of feel-good night you want -- and need -- during the summer.

The occasion also meant that we got a chance to hear what February's nasty old snow prevented -- an extensive concert suite from "Porgy and Bess." Most of the soloists who had been booked for the performances that had to be canceled back then were available for this gig, too. The dynamic Heritage Signature Chorale was available for this occasion (the winter concerts would have featured the Morgan State Choir). And, perhaps most importantly, BSO music director Marin Alsop was still able to be here for podium duty (she typically has a busy summer schedule elsewhere). She's a wonderful Gershwin conductor, as was her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov -- this composer sure does well by the BSO.

I kept thinking Thursday how great it would be if somebody could put a full production of "Porgy and Bess" onstage at the Lyric -- one of the works the Baltimore Opera had been scheduled to present before its untimely death -- and have it conducted by Alsop. She has a natural affinity not just for the rhythmic snap of Gershwin's music, but for the expressive shape of the indelible melodic lines. She led a very impressive performance at Meyerhoff, one that had spontaneity and emotional depth.

Alsop had help, of course, starting with

the orchestra, which, in crackling form, provided a vivid foundation.

Derrick Parker was a commanding Porgy in terms of vocal resources and communicative phrasing. Indira Mahajan's Bess exuded sensuality and vulnerability, and, except for a few steely moments in the upper register, the soprano's tone revealed a compelling warmth. Alison Buchanan unleashed terrific power in "My Man's Gone Now," capped in the closing measures by singing of exceptional technical finesse and interpretive incisiveness. Larry Hylton had a field day as Sportin' Life (is there a more lovable bad guy in opera?), putting an extra dash of cynicism into "It Ain't Necessarily So" and seductiveness into "There's a Boat That's Leavin'." Easily compensating for some strain in the top range was the abundance of nuance in his singing.

The Heritage choristers produced a spirited, mostly well-focused sound; soloists within the chorale handled their assignments vibrantly. I wasn't crazy about the amplification used for the chorus; it threw balances off at times, and I really don't think it was ever necessary (no one else was miked).

By the way, a very sizable amount of "Porgy" was included in this concert version, even the full opening sequence, with the "Jasbo Brown Blues" sequence that is sometimes cut in opera houses. The sense of a real drama unfolding, not just a progression of great tunes, was achieved.

The first half of the program held rewards, too. Alsop led the BSO in a colorful, sensitive accounts of the "Girl Crazy" Overture (not actually by Gershwin, but in Robert McBride's idiomatic arrangement) and "An American in Paris." The latter featured a first-rate trumpet solo by Rene Hernandez, who sculpted the famous bluesy theme with great style. I've never heard the taxi horns in the piece sound as raw as they did here. Maybe they were from gypsy cabs.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:55 AM | | Comments (0)

July 22, 2010

Guest blog post: Towson University's Carl B. Schmidt on Randall Thompson's 'Allelulia'

My thanks to Carl B. Schmidt, professor of music history and literature at Towson University, for submitting this guest blog post about his recent visit to the famed Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts and his new book about a great choral composition long associated with that festival. -- TIM

For young musicians a "Rite of Summer" is the opportunity to compete for admission to great music programs such as those at Aspen, Interlocken, Meadowmount, or Tanglewood. The latter, originally called the Berkshire Music Center at the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the inspiration of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

Koussevitzky founded the Center in 1940, and, only a few weeks before the opening ceremonies on 8 July, he asked Randall Thompson (1899-1984) to write a short work to be sung by the entire student body of nearly three hundred including, among others, Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss.

His insistence on an American work by an American composer set the tone for numerous future commissions premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.

Thompson wrote his celebrated "Alleluia" — a five and a half minute a cappella work that has now sold more than three million copies world-wide — in just five days, and copies arrived for the singers at Tanglewood less than three hours before the opening ceremony was history!

To bring scholarly attention to a composer whose choral works including "Testament of Freedom," "Last Words of David, "and "Frostiana" are favorites, Betsey and Carl Schmidt have embarked on a multi-year project to create a catalogue of Thompson’s music, plus other articles and books including a biography. Carl, a former student of Thompson, was invited to present

the first lecture for Tanglewood’s 70th anniversary season on 5 July, immediately preceding the opening exercises presided over by Tanglewood Music Center Director Ellen Highstein.

Inspirational talks by John Harbison (Composition Program Chairman) and Michael Tilson Thomas (Conducting Faculty Member) were given, between which mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, accompanied by Alan Louis Smith, performed three songs from Aaron Copland’s "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson."

Thompson’s "Alleluia," as is tradition, was then sung by all the assembled students under John Oliver’s direction, concluding the exercises. It was absolutely thrilling to hear the students' enthusiasm and to realize that they all know a summer at Tanglewood will be, as it has been for generations of students, a life-changing experience.

Among the guests at Schmidt’s lecture were twenty-five members of Randall Thompson’s family, including six great-grandchildren, and longtime Baltimore-area resident Ellery Woodworth, whose father conducted the first performance of "Alleluia." At the conclusion of his lecture, Schmidt signed copies of his new book "The Story of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia Revisited: A Facsimile Edition with Commentary" (Boston: ECS Publishing, 2010) for those attending.

Last year Schmidt had lectured on Thompson at Towson University, where Director of Choirs Karen Kennedy led students in singing "Alleluia." And this past season, Melinda O’Neal conducted three Thompson works, including "Alleluia," with the Handel Choir of Baltimore, celebrating Board Member associations with Thompson.

Readers may hear Thompson’s "Alleluia" on YouTube (though these versions are sung too fast). Excellent available commercial CD recordings include those by the American Repertory Singers, Leo Nestor conductor (Arsis CD 103) and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Craig Jessop conductor (MTC 0005). There's also an interesting jazz piano trio arrangement by Canadian Andrew Gilpin.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:31 PM | | Comments (0)

July 21, 2010

British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson dies at 69

Sad news today from London, where the British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson died at the age of 69. He had been battling Alzheimer's for several years.

It has been a long while since I heard this remarkable singer in person, but I've never forgotten his eloquent artistry.

Here's a sample:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:10 PM | | Comments (3)

Guest blog post: Enjoy the Proms concerts from London online via BBC

My thanks to Mike, a terribly astute commentator on this blog, for submitting this guest post about the famed Proms. I'm so glad he reminded me about listening online, which I'm already doing (I clicked on 'Meistersinger' while plugging away at my desk at the Sun -- 40 minutes down, five hours to go.) -TIM   

Royal Albert HallOne of the happiest summer time traditions in London is the series of concerts sponsored by the British Broadcasting System (BBC) known as the Promenade Concerts or, more usually the “Proms”. And, thanks to BBC and the Internet, people around the world can share in this musical feast.

The Proms were started in 1895 by Robert Newman (manager of Queen’s Hall, where the first Proms took place), George Cathcart (a philanthropist who funded the first Proms) and the composer/conductor/arranger Sir Henry Wood. It is Wood whose name is most closely associated with the venture, and for a time the Proms were known as the “Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”.

The Proms concerts were held at Queen’s Hall until 1941, when the building was destroyed by German bombs in an air raid where 1,436 lives were lost. The main Proms concerts are now held at the massive Royal Albert Hall, which seats over 5,000. However, for the Proms concerts the floor level seating is removed , and the “Prommers” walk about (promenade), stand or, for less popular concerts, sit or lie on the floor to enjoy a panoply of music from mid-July until early September.

The programs feature some of the world’s greatest classical soloists and orchestras in programs that can range from Sondheim to Mahler, Mozart, Wagner and Brahms, to world premieres and works by composers such as Part, Cage and Messiaen.

The Proms kicked off on Friday, July 16 with

a performance of Mahler’s massive Symphony #8 (The Symphony of a Thousand) with over 600 performers under the baton of Jiri Belohlavek. Saturday the 17th brought a complete concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg by the Welsh National Opera featuring superstar bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Sachs, and tenor Raymond Very (who local music lovers may remember from performances with Washington National Opera and Washington Summer Opera) as Walther.

Two semi-staged concerts of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (half the opera was performed each night), featuring the company of the Royal Opera House and starring tenor Placido Domingo in the title role (the first baritone role Domingo has undertaken onstage since the very beginning of his career) where up next.

Then on July 19th, Vasily Petrenko led the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a program that included Tchaikovsky’s oft-neglected “Manfred” Symphony, while on the 20th Symon Bychkov led the West German Radio Symphony (Cologne) in a program featuring music by Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss, plus the UK premiere of American composer Gunther Schuller’s “Where the World Ends”.

But if a trip to London is not in your plans, have no fear. For seven days after each Proms concert, the BBC makes streaming audio available (free!) over the internet. The concerts are also webcast live. 

The coming days feature the start of a cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concerts, featuring the English pianist Paul Lewis, whose recent recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas have met with widespread critical acclaim, and performances of works by Scriabin (the rarely-heard piano concerto), Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. A 10 pm (London time) concert will feature pianist Maria Joao Pires playing a selection of the Chopin Nocturnes.

The concert of July 25th was due to be conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who passed away last week in London ; Vassily Siniasky will lead that concert where, one assumes, some sort of tribute to Sir Charles will be offered.

If there is any interest, I can preview some of the more exciting Proms concerts still to come.

Acknowledgements: Gramophone, July 2010; BBC Music Magazine, July 2010

-- MIKE 



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (6)

Kennedy Center's 'American Playlist' mixes National Symphony, John Mayer, Smokey Robinson, more

John Mayer
Well, that was different. And fun, too.

Tuesday's finale of "An American Playlist," the Kennedy Center's three-night celebration of the arts, brought together different generations and genres for one quirky, sometimes awkward, always entertaining concert.

Outside of awards shows, how often do Smokey Robinson and John Mayer appear on the same stage, let alone with the National Symphony Orchestra as backup band? And, outside of radio channel-surfing, when was the last time you heard Puccini's "O mio babbino caro," Darius Milhaud's "Scaramouche" for saxophone and orchestra, and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" within minutes of each other?

The three free concerts -- music and poetry were the focus Sunday, dance and jazz Monday -- were put together as a celebration of the performing arts, pegged to the conclusion of Kennedy Center president a nonprofit guru in excelsis Michael Kaiser's 50-state (plus Puerto Rico) tour to help promote ways for arts groups to survive the crippling recession. In remarks to the crowd on Tuesday, Kaiser also put in a plug for the Center's valuable program to hone the skills of arts managers around the country.

Later, the stars took time to tout the value of arts education. Mayer got a great laugh recalling

how he "attended the Berklee College of Music" -- effective pause -- "for one year." But, hey, that still made him "a product of arts education." All young people, he added, should have a chance to find out where their artistic talents might be. Robinson urged everyone to help "get the arts back into our schools."

The audience, which responded enthusiastically to all the preaching to the choir, also ate up the music. There's no way this "Evening of Classical Works and Popular Song" (do you think a committee came up with that title?) could make perfect aesthetic sense. And there was also no way the democratically apportioned program could have left anyone feeling sated. In the end, you just had to go with the flow.

Robinson, sounding a little grainy on the high notes, still produced vintage vocal magic, and not just in his own classic, "Tracks of My Tears." He also offered a richly expressive cover of the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why."

Mayer, accompanying himself on guitar, charged into "Waiting on the World to Change" with his strong, earthy voice. Then, with the NSO discreetly filling out the harmonies, Mayer delivered a grittily expressive account of "Don't Think Twice." (Mayer joked about the novelty of being "surrounded by people who can truly read music.")

The elegant soprano Harolyn Blackwell was in mostly radiant (and, regrettably, amplified) voice for "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the Puccini aria. There was room, too, on the bill for the NEWorks Tribute Singers, a hearty ensemble of high school and college students, who generated some "Glee"-like enthusiasm to redeem an otherwise sappy number called "Life's Inspired by a Song."

The NSO was nimbly led by Sarah Hicks in the pop songs, and by Hugh Wolff in the classical bits, including the Milhaud work, with the typically suave Branford Marsalis as soloist. The orchestra-only items, clearly and sensibly geared to the kind of mixed turnout for something like this, were all rhythmically punchy: John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine," "Michael Daugherty's "Route 66" and the "Hoe-down" from Copland's "Rodeo."

Given that an off-stage announcer provided some introductions of artists, it would have been nice for the same voice to alert listeners to the music on the program, especially the orchestral pieces that, surely, were new to many folks in the hall. (The printed program for this American Playlist lacked a playlist.)

A little more rehearsal would no doubt have helped the event, too, and not just artistically. The final curtain call for the performers didn't come off as intended (Wolff had to yell out to the audience that it was time to give the assembled forces another hand). But, like I said, it was better to go with the flow.

Pictured: John Mayer, photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:44 AM | | Comments (1)

Friday will be Cool Music Night in Baltimore, with BSO, Shodekeh, GeNIA, Gabriel Prokofiev

The stars have aligned to make Friday the coolest night, musically speaking, for Baltimore in quite a while.

The BSO will start things off at the Meyerhoff with a program that includes works by two of the most famous musicians born in this city. Marin Alsop will conduct the orchestra in Philip Glass' Symphony No. 4 ("Heroes"), which was inspired by a David Bowie/Brian Eno album, and several pieces by Frank Zappa. That would be enough to qualify as pretty darn cool, but there's more.

Shodekeh, the popular beatboxer based here, will collaborate with the BSO in a concerto for, yes, beatboxer and strings by Jan Mikael Vainio called "Fujiko’s Fairy Tale." This has got to be the, well, coolest thing the orchestra has presented during summertime. I wouldn't miss it. (UPDATE 7/22: I added a video clip of Shodekeh in rehearsal with the BSO.)

Shodekeh will head from the Meyerhoff over to

the Windup Space for a concert presented by the ever-hip Mobtown Modern.

This event also features the local debut of Gabriel Prokofiev, London-based grandson of that Prokofiev; he's an innovative composer, turntablist and record producer. Performing some of this super-cool guy's music will be another super-cool Londoner, the pianist who goes by the single name GeNIA.

Also participating in the program will be the British percussion/sound design ensemble Powerplant. Oh yeah, Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" is on the program, too, so that pretty much seals the deal. We're talking a way-downtown night in Baltimore. Assuming they don't bar over-30s at the door, I'll be there.

Here's a taste of Gabriel Prokofiev's "Import/Export," performed by Powerplant, followed by a clip of GeNIA performing "John Richards Suite for Piano & Electronics --Prelude" (which is also available on a release by the beyond-cool Nonclassical label). And a clip of Shodekeh in rehearsal with the BSO:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:26 AM | | Comments (0)

July 20, 2010

Naxos founder Klaus Heymann upbeat about classical recording industry

Klaus HeymannBack in the early days of compact discs, when there still were a fair number of retail music stores (anyone else remember them?), some classical music shoppers were a little wary of the unfamiliar record labels that started popping up in the bins, especially the ones with rock-bottom prices. One budget label, in particular, stood out for its eye-catching, straightforward look and abundance of titles: Naxos.

The names of the performers back when the label was launched in 1987 did not necessarily ring many bells on these shores (lots of Eastern Europeans), but the performances could be taken very seriously. And the product just kept growing and improving. These days, no sensible person sneers at a Naxos release. And, as more and more artists and ensembles lost their recording outlets with other companies over the years, more and more of them have turned up under the Naxos banner.

This is easily one of the biggest success stories in a business that was supposed to be dead and buried long ago. With more than 2,500 digital releases (none devoted to tawdry crossover projects, by the way), Naxos is now the world's dominant classical music label.

Here in dear old Baltimore, Naxos has been a particularly significant force. The label prominently features the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director Marin Alsop. There have also been Naxos recordings by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble.

I caught up with Klaus Heymann, the German-born, Hong Kong-based founder of Naxos, by phone when he was in New York the other day. He didn't sound at all like a man on the verge of a collapsing industry.

"In the U.S., our figures are

up for the first six months this year," he said, "six percent up on CDs. DVDs are down three percent. But the general outlook is stable worldwide." And while download sales are flat, online usage of the Naxos Music Library is growing, Heymann said.

This is not a heady era of mega-sellers for classical labels. A few superstars will always chalk up strong figures, but "the big numbers aren’t there," Heymann said. "Major companies are not doing so well with classical, and they are not putting out a lot of new titles. I don’t see huge sales of individual CDs anywhere. There are exceptions, of course, such as the blind pianist [Nobuyuki Tsujii, a winner of] the Cliburn Competition; his CD sold 100,000 copies in Japan. Sales of 10,000 is very good; 15,000, and I’m almost deliriously happy. That’s very rare now. And I’m talking lifetime sales."

The BSO has been helping maintain Heymann's disposition. One of the Naxos best-sellers is Bernstein's "Mass," a hit with critics, too. "It has sold about 20,000 [two-disc] sets," Heymann said, "which is pretty good in this kind of market." The BSO/Alsop recording of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony "has sold extremely well, about 10,000 units," Heymann said. "I’ve been surprised by how good the recording is. I remember driving [in New Zealand] and listening to the radio playing the 'New World' and wondering who the hell is that? It was Marin’s recording. That they were playing that recording in far-away New Zealand is a good sign for the orchestra."

The BSO's recent recording of Dvorak's 7th and 8th symphonies is about to get a second incarnation; it will be among the first group of Blue Ray audio releases from Naxos this fall.

Although seeing a profit from recordings is never a sure thing (the "Mass" release will need to sell a lot more copies to make up for copyright fees), Naxos seems well-positioned to withstand whatever the next chapter in the industry may be.

"We started as a budget label, but we are now a mixed service provider to the industry," Heymann said. "We provide logistical services for DVD labels. We distribute many independent labels. Warner will come to us in September. The last thing I wanted was to be a distributor. It’s a headache, but it allows us to do other things."

There's been a lot of talk about the obsolescence of compacts discs, that downloading is all that counts now. Heymann begs to differ. "I don’t see downloads replacing CDs sales at all," he said. "Maybe a 20- or 25-year-old doesn’t own a CD player anymore, but the audience for classical music recordings is older." Naxos certainly tries to keep up with the times. "When we offered an iPhone ap for Naxos Music Library, the usage shot up," Heymann said.

As for the long-range future of the business, "no one knows what the mix [of products] will look like," he said. "The trend will be to some kind of subscription system, with one payment a month or a year made to your electric company or cable company. Somehow, we’re all going to get our music on a subscription basis. It's like in the newspaper business -- the jury is still out on what will prevail."

Meanwhile, Naxos will keep churning out recordings. "I have a curious mind," Heymann said. That's reflected in a product line that covers what is, by any measure, a remarkable range of repertoire, from the earliest to the ink-almost-still-wet-on-the-page variety.

"We release 30 a month, quite a few digital only," Heymann said. "There are 149 orchestral recordings in the pipeline now; 174 chamber music, 148 instrumental, 85 vocal/choral. More than 700 in all. I told my staff not to take on new projects for a year, maybe a year and a half."

Among the projects that will be put on hold is a Mahler symphony cycle with Alsop and the BSO that had been discussed. A Prokofiev series is still on track to begin next season. "Most people think an orchestra should still have a recorded presence," Heymann said. "A recording is not just a physical product. You get airplay all over the world. Every generation wants to leave recordings for posterity."

Looks like a lot of classical musicians will be gaining their posterity with a Naxos label attached. "We will still produce recordings and we will have a very good business," Heymann said. "And classical music will survive."


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (5)

July 19, 2010

Free tickets to BSO's Gershwin concert available here


Your favorite blog (it is, isn't it?) is once again ready to buy, I mean, reward your loyalty with free concert tickets.

Thanks to the marketing folks at Baltimore Sun Media Group, I've got pairs of tickets to give away to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Hall. It's an all-Gershwin program, including the Overture to "Girl Crazy," "An American in Paris," and selections from "Porgy and Bess."

The "Porgy" excerpts, you will recall, were to have been performed back in the dead of winter, when a most annoying blizzard caused the solidly-sold performances to be canceled.

Fortunately, the BSO was able to create a kind of make-up concert as part of its summer season. Music director Marin Alsop, who was to have led the February program, will conduct on Thursday. Most of the originally slated guest soloists were also available for this better-late-than-never event, including soprano Indira Mahajan, a stellar interpreter of the role of Bess. Filling in for the Morgan State Choir will be the fine DC-based Heritage Signature Chorale. 

To get your freebies,

just be among the first six readers to post your request. I'll let you know if you've got the tickets, which will be left for you at the Meyerhoff box office.

On your mark, get set, Gershwin! 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:59 AM | | Comments (7)

Clef Notes will give away tickets to BSO's Gershwin concert

Check back at noon (Monday, July 19) for a chance to snare some free tickets to Thursday's all-Gershwin blast by the Baltimore Symphony, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun Media Group.

This concert at Meyerhoff Hall is, in a way, a make-up date for the Gershwin program that had to be canceled back in February due to the snow -- remember the snow? Marin Alsop will conduct selections from "Porgy and Bess" and other favorites.

Stay tuned for this life-transforming Clef Notes ticket give-away.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:09 AM | | Comments (0)

July 16, 2010

Free piano concerts at Peabody feature duo of Stephanie and Saar


The music students are off on summer break, but the music continues at the Peabody Conservatory.

As part of the Elderhostel program now dubbed Road Scholars, there's a piano workshop that will include free concerts featuring two excellent Peabody alum who have been enjoying a busy career as duo-pianists -- Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia. Widely known simply as Stephanie and Saar, the duo will perform works by Schubert and Brahms at 7 p.m. Tuesday. (I mistakenly wrote Monday initially for this duo concert. Please forgive.)

On her own, Stephanie will give an all-Chopin recital the day before (7 p.m. Sunday). Both performances are in Peabody's Goodwin Hall.

Here's a brief sample Stephanie & Saar in pianistic action:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:57 PM | | Comments (1)

Suggestions for the classical music-inclined Artscape-goer

Artscape is not best known for its classical music component, but there's always something going on to entertain folks seeking a hcnage from the festival's prominent pop beat.

This year, the Baltimore Symphony once again offers a free concert at Meyerhoff Hall (and a chance to find a breath of air-conditioning after roaming the fair in the heat).

Christian Colberg, a longtime and, alas, soon to depart violist in the BSO, will conduct his colleagues in a program that includes two colorful travelogues-in-music: Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol." Popular arias from Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" and Bernstein's "Candide" will also be performed, featuring soprano Rachele Gilmore (she had a big success last year in the Metropolitan Opera's "Hoffmann" production.) The BSO concert is at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Speaking of operatic voices, they'll be heard during several other Artscape doings. Baltimore Concert Opera will focus on one composer and one voice type. The singing in the company's presentation of "The Verdi Baritone" will be done by

Jonathan Carle, accompanied by James Harp on the piano. There will be narration by Victor DeRenzi, the longtime artistic director of the Sarasota Opera who has made a speciality of Verdi's works -- by 2013, the company will have staged every one of them, an enviable record (I'm glad I got to attend several of them during the "Florida Years" chapter of my breathtaking life). "The Verdi Baritone" will be performed at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in MICA's Brown Center.

Opera Vivente will present a program of favorite operas scenes covering a wide ranging of repertoire. from Moneteverdi to Britten, and performed by students. This event is at 1 p.m. Sunday at MICA's Brown Center, where, at 4 p.m. that day, members of the Lyric Opera of Baltimore (a group associated with the Lyric Opera House and a potential successor to the lamented Baltimore Opera Company) will perform works addressing the theme of "Women in Love."

Corpus Christi Church will be the site of at least nine classical mini-concerts over the weekend, starting at 4 p.m. Friday with the Dahlia Flute Duo and wrapping up at 4 p.m. Sunday, when the Bach Concert Series presents a performance of Bach's motet "Jesu Meine Freude," led by T. Herbert Dimmock.

Remember, all of these events are free, so it will be easy and painless to class up your Artscape adventure.

PHOTO OF RACHELE GILMORE (by Kristen Hoebermann) AND VICTOR DeRENZI (Salvatore Brancifort)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:49 AM | | Comments (2)

July 15, 2010

Charles Mackerras, eminent Australian conductor, dies at 84

The classical music world has lost yet another gleaming light, Australian conductor Charles Mackerras. His extraordinary grasp of style and ability to generate richly expressive performances earned him worldwide admiration. He died Wednesday in London from cancer at the age of 84.

His legacy, preserved on many recordings, is especially notable for the deep insights he revealed in the works of two very different composers, Mozart and Janacek. Mackerras was just as persuasive and engaging in a wide range of repertoire, from Handel to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Mackerras, born in Schenectady, N.Y., to Australian parents in 1925, was also a champion of period instrument performance, without ever becoming pedantic about it. He held posts with the Sydney Symphony (he opened the iconic Sydney Opera House), BBC Symphony, and Orchestra of St. Luke's, among others. He was a most welcome guest at the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera.

Knighted in 1979 and given numerous other honors during his long career, Sir Charles Mackerras leaves a considerable void. I've attached a video shot a year ago during a Mozart symphony recording session with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (he was conductor laureate of that ensemble); this brief glimpse captures the conductor's magic quite well, in conversation and on the podium. I follow that with "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," from Holst's "The Planets," filmed during a Proms concert last year:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (5)

July 14, 2010

Midweek musical relief: Bette Davis 'sings'

If your week is going as well as mine, you could use a lift right about now, and this aghast-from-the-past ought to provide a nice bit of humorous distraction.

It's the otherwise great Bette Davis on an Andy Williams show from the 1960s "singing" a cheesy rock-ish song titled after the hit movie she shared with Joan Crawford at the time, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" The real question is what ever was Bette thinking? Talk about a horror.

It sure is funny, though. Don't blame me if you find yourself humming this fabulous tune for weeks on end. Enjoy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:59 PM | | Comments (2)

Tenor Placido Domingo to add Rigoletto to his new baritone repertoire

Placido Domingo, who enjoyed considerable success this past season moving back into his original baritone range to sing the title role in Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," is about to take on another of the composer's great baritone challenges.

The superstar tenor and general director of two opera companies (seen in this photo celebrating with Spain's World Cup winners) will sing the iconic role of Rigoletto Aug. 2 month in Beijing. He'll be joined onstage for this concert version of the opera by members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. In September, Domingo is slated to sing that role in a performance of "Rigoletto" that will be broadcast live on Italian TV from Mantua, where the opera is set.

Clearly, Domingo is destined to enjoy bigger and bigger chapters all to himself in future histories of opera singing.

The Beijing cast includes

Micaëla Oeste as Gilda, Yingxi Zhang as the Duke, Grigory Soloviov as Sparafucile and Cynthia Hanna as Maddalena. Eugene Kohn will conduct the Chinese National Opera House Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The performance will be at the Reignwood Theater, where, wouldn't you know, Domingo is artistic director, too (this guy makes most workaholics look like slackers), and where the WNO's young artists first performed in 2009 as part of a three-year venture.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:44 PM | | Comments (7)

A couple of signs that classical music is gaining ground

Those of us devoted to classical music can use any positive trend we can find. It's rough out there, battling for attention in a world of pathetic Idol-ization, but every now and then it looks like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and the rest of gang may be gaining some ground. These two things have me a bit of a boost:

Eminent music critic Alex Ross recently spotted a trend in late-night TV viewing -- the declining and aging audiences -- and drew a deliciously upbeat comparison with classical music. At the very least, Alex has given us a way to hold our heads just a teeny bit higher the next time we confront stereotypical attitudes about how the arts are doomed. 

And the other day, my partner Robert noticed a new ad for an Audi that he thought I might like (we're rather partial to Audis, I should say up front). It's a great little commercial, and not just because it sells a cool car. I've decided it sends a fabulous subliminal message about how classical music can transport you far above whatever din and destructiveness may surround you, that you can really go farther, and in better style, with classical.

Oh, all right, maybe it doesn't do any such thing, but I still like the fact that a good guy -- or car -- is associated with a classical tune, which I initially didn't recognize -- happily, a reader soon informed me that it's from Handel's glorious "Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne." Anyway, here's the ad: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:16 AM | | Comments (3)

July 13, 2010

Case of music critic vs. Cleveland Orchestra and Plain Dealer goes to trial

Nearly two years ago, longtime music critic Don Rosenberg was reassigned by his newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and prohibited from covering the Cleveland Orchestra becasue he was considered too negative in his reviews of that ensemble's music director, Franz Welser-Most. Rosenberg subsequently sued the paper and the orchestra, an extraordinary action that sent quite a ripple through the arts and journalism worlds.

The case finally went to court this week; jury selection began Monday. One estimate I've seen suggests the trial could last at least two weeks.

I've written a good deal about this matter and have been intervewed about it (most recently for an in-depth story written by Michael Gill for the Cleveland Scene), so I don't need to pontificate here again. Suffice it to say that all of us who believe in criticism (music or otherwise) as a serious and valuable profession should be concerned with the outcome of this trial.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (2)

Baltimore Symphony's 'Rusty Musicians' outreach comes to Meyerhoff Hall in September

One of the biggest hits the Baltimore Symphony had last season wasn't part of the regular subscription series, classical or pops. It was a new outreach project dubbed "Rusty Musicians with the BSO," offered over two nights in February. It drew more than 600 amateur instrumentalists to Strathmore, where they sat alongside BSO members and dug into some hearty repertoire with conductor Marin Alsop.

The response was so great in numbers and enthusiasm that the orchestra soon began planning a similar offering at at Meyerhoff Hall. The Baltimore area "Rusty Musicians" adventure has just been announced. It will be held

on Sept. 21. Anticipating the same sort of turnout experienced at Strathmore, the BSO has divided the evening into four sessions, each beginning on the hour (6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m.), in order to accommodate everyone. During each session, Alsop will guide the combined pro and amateur forces through Brahms’ "Academic Festival" Overture and the finale of Stravinsky’s "Firebird" Suite.

Participation is open to anyone from the age of 25 on who can play a string, woodwind, brass or percussion instrument. There's a $10 registration fee. If you're interested in breaking out that old fiddle or clarinet and playing a fun gig with the BSO, registration is open online. Acceptance notices will be sent out by Aug. 2. The public is invited to attend the sessions; tickets will be $10.

To give you a taste of what's in store, here's a video plug the BSO put together during the Strathmore event last winter:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)

Young Victorian Theatre Company marks 40th season with cheeky staging of 'Iolanthe'

The Young Victorian Theatre Company, devoted to the indelible oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan, has managed an impressive run in Baltimore, reaching its 40th anniversary season of summertime diversion this month.

To mark the occasion, there's a new production of the work that started the organization on its successful path -- "Iolanthe," the 1882 operetta that gets considerable mileage out of a plot that pits a bunch of supernatural Fairies against an all-too-mortal House of Lords.

Although the idea of switching the action to the 1920s doesn't entirely click, the overall effect is quite refreshing. Just the opening sight of all the Fairy ladies decked out in colorful flapper dresses, flitting about on a cute and simple set (by Daniel Ettinger), is enough to signal diverting times ahead.

The updating, alas, goes only half way. Stage director James Harp, who devised the concept, may have had some deep philosophical reason why the Lords, when they appear, are in velvet knee breeches and other accoutrements suggesting much older times (and a more conventional production of "Iolanthe"). But this odd juxtaposition merely gives the appearance that the costume supply company didn't have enough male outfits with Roaring Twenties styling.

At least the character of Strephon, half-fairy and half-mortal (from the waist down), gets to fit into the time-change, toting around a ukulele for good measure. The updating routine really doesn't need all the underlining that Harp throws in here and there, as when the cast shouts out assorted '20s-era sayings or, more unfortunately, when the orchestra breaks into a jazzy beat. And most of the inevitable contemporary allusions added to the text for comic effect (a determined Young Vic tradition) fell rather flat. But these are, ultimately,

mere quibbles in light of the pretty consistent fun quotient. And, to be sure, there are many clever bits in Harp's staging, as well as Jeffrey Nolt's choreography.  

"Iolanthe" boasts a particularly fine score -- some would argue it's the best of the G&S operettas -- and the music was well served Sunday afternoon at the Bryn Mawr School, where conductor Phillip Collister had things percolating effectively. The mostly tidy, often quite colorful response from the orchestra was a major plus throughout the performance.

So was the sweet, nimble singing and deft acting of Sara Kate Walston, as Phyllis, the ward in chancery who wins Strephon's heart. Jeffrey Williams cavorted amusingly as Strephon and, except for a tendency to stay just the slightest bit under pitch early on, the baritone sang sturdily and warmly. As the Lord Chancellor, Troy Clark did his usual spry turn for the company, but his voice seemed to have lost several watts of power since I last heard him. No shortage of volume or tone color from Jimi James, though, as the Earl of Mountararat.

Nicholas Houhoulis did vibrant work as Earl Tolloller. Brendan Cooke, a very tipsy Private Willis, sang with a solid tone and admirable articulation. Alexis Tantau, done up quite stylishly as Queen of the Fairies, revealed a hearty voice to match. Madelyn Wanner, in the title role, sang sensitively, but could have used a more tonal body. Among the other soloists, Fatima Petersen's Lelia stood out for vocal and theatrical color. The chorus generally held firm.

All in all, one of the best Young Vic ventures I've seen over the past decade, one that preserved something of the original let's-put-on-a-show community enthusiasm that launched the company, with a nice layer of professionalism on top.

Remaining performances are July 15, 17 and 18.



Posted by Tim Smith at 7:11 AM | | Comments (2)

July 12, 2010

Weekend in Review (Part 2): Baltimore Symphony's all-Tchaikovsky night

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's typically eclectic summer season continued over the weekend with an all-Tchaikovsky program Saturday night delivered at the Meyerhoff before a far-from-sizable audience. The concert, which will be repeated July 17 at Strathmore, featured two teenage musicians from the pre-college division of the Juilliard School being groomed for solo careers.

The conductor was from the ranks of the BSO -- Christian Colberg, a 17-year veteran and current assistant principal of the viola section who is leaving the ensemble shortly to become principal violist of the Cincinnati Symphony (the BSO's former principal cellist, Ilya Finkelshteyn, joined that orchestra last year). Colberg, whose podium interests have been been encouraged by Marin Alsop, is going to missed, and not just for his quality music-making. He's also a fine photographer; his portrait shots of his colleagues (you can find them in the Meyerhoff lobby and on the BSO's Web site) are exceptional.

The conductor got things started Saturday with a brisk, straight-ahead account of "Caprciccio Italien" that really caught fire in the coda; the playing was crisp and tidy. The rest of the evening was devoted to Tchaikovsky's most popular concertos.

The one for violin found Sirena Huang producing a substantial tone, a mostly impeccable technique and a remarkable amount of deeply expressive phrasing. Despite her youth, she sounded like

someone who has lived quite a while with the score, long enough to feel confident putting her own stamp on it. There are always, of course, more nuances to be found, even in music as familiar as this, but Huang's performance revealed considerable personality and poetic weight. It would be interesting to check on her progress a few years from now.

Conrad Tao, who tackled the Piano Concerto No. 1, was less of a surprise. The world never lacks for keyboard virtuosos, even ones who aren't yet old enough to order a beer. Tao's digital command was established quickly, and the most daunting octave passages in the first movement were dispatched fearlessly at the supersonic speed expected today. In a welcome departure from many a budding pianist jumping on this war horse, Tao did not try a lot of tempo manipulation and elongated expressiveness. But he also missed chances to explore the softer end of the dynamic range and the more coloristic possibilities of articulation, especially in the Andante, which he pushed his way through rather inelegantly. In the end, I found it a relatively routine, though certainly entertaining, performance.

Colberg proved attentive to both soloists and drew from the orchestra a good deal of warm-hearted playing in each work.

Tao, by the way, bounded back onstage for an encore after his concerto spot. He offered a brisk, muscular account of  Rachmaninoff' B-flat major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 2. Here's a video clip of the pianist playing this same piece on another occasion, when he shaped the music with a little more variety of phrase than he did Saturday:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:31 AM | | Comments (0)

Weekend in Review (Part 1): Wolf Trap Opera's 'Il Turco in Italia'

Rossini has a friend in Wolf Trap Opera. I fondly recall a clever, funny, vobrantly sung production the company gave of the composer's "L'Italiana in Algeri" ("The Italian Girl in Algiers") some years ago. Now comes a similarly inventive staging of Rossini's flip side view of clashing cultures, "Il Turco in Italia" ("The Turk in Italy").

The latter, directed with panache and some cheeky PG-13 shtick by Gregory Keller and featuring a vivid look from Erhard Rom (scenery) and Alejo Vietti (costumes), has the characters living "La Dolce Vita." The opera's story, with its messy collision of egos and hormones, makes quite a smooth transition to the 1960s world of Fellini, and the company has assembled a cast capable of truly running with the concept.

Friday's opening night offered a good deal of vocal flair to match the theatrical one (Wolf Trap Opera has a terrific track record of finding budding young professionals who can truly act, especially in comic works). Michael Sumuel, a very promising bass-baritone, gave

a robust performance in the role of Selim, the Turkish nobleman who lands in Naples and finds himself in trouble over two women -- Fiorilla, a vivacious and married Italian; and Zaida, an escapee from Turkey, where she had loved Selim and had been condemned to death by him. (It's all perfectly normal for an opera plot.)

Angela Mannino's light, agile soprano fit Fiorilla's music like a glove. There are more colors and inflections possible in this music (see Callas, Maria), but this was very effective vocalism just the same. Michael Anthony McGee, as Fiorilla's unhappy husband Geronio, revealed a sturdy baritone capable of considerable warmth and subtlety. In the role of Narcisco, Fiorilla's agitated lover, David Portillo used his warm and flexible tenor to elegant effect. A few shaky top notes took away little from what was his stylish delivery. Catherine Martin (Zaida) and Nathaniel Peake (Zaida's pal Albazar) made dynamic contributions.

The show-stealer was Chad Sloan in the role of the writer Prosdocimo -- here given a bit of Mastroianni treatment -- whose attempt to find fresh subject matter for a comic work pushes the opera's plot along. Sloan molded his bright baritone to extract the gold in Rossini's music, and he handled the theatrical side of the assignment with considerable charm.

The chorus of Wolf Trap Opera Studio participants rose to the occasion, as did the orchestra. Conductor Eric Melear kept the score bubbling, bouncing and bounding along neatly.

There's one more performance left -- Tuesday evening.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:37 AM | | Comments (2)

July 9, 2010

Baltimore Symphony explores 'Planet Earth'; Wolf Trap Opera about to launch Rossini comedy

In case you missed this elsewhere in Friday's Sun, I have an interview with the excellent film composer George Fenton tied to his concert tonight with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra containing passages from his atmospheric score to the mega-hit TV series "Planet Earth." Awesome video from the show will accompany the performance (the one at left is courtesy of the BBC). Should be fun.

I had planned to catch Thursday night's presentation of the program at Strathmore so I could report on it this morning, but a combination of debilitating factors (computer glitches at the paper, lingering fatigue from my DC trip Wednesday for the opening of "Mary Poppins," anxiety over the US/Russia spy trade) kept me from making the trek.

If any of you were there and care to share your experience, please chime in.

Likewise, if anyone attends the Friday concert at Meyerhoff Hall, please feel free to offer your opinions here afterward.

I'll miss the event, as I'm heading to Northern Virginia to celebrate my mother's birthday with the family and then take her to opening night of Wolf Trap Opera's new production of Rossini's comic gem "Il Turco in Italia." (Too much information, I know, but, since you're kind enough to read my drivel, I feel you're entitled to the fullest possible explanations.)

Meanwhile, here's a delectable taste of "Turco," sung by Maria Callas, who had a lot to do with reviving appreciation of this opera during the 1950s:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)

July 8, 2010

Conductor Watch: Juanjo Mena is up, Kent Nagano is out, Mikhail Pletnev is in deep trouble

This has been a busy few days in terms of conductor chat. In case you missed these bulletins elsewhere, here's the good, the not-so-good and the ugly:

GOOD: Juanjo Mena, the dynamic Spanish conductor who has been a favorite podium guest at the Baltimore Symphony over the past several years, has been winning admirers in many other places, too. He just landed a great gig in the UK as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, succeeding Gianandrea Noseda in September 2011.

Mena will also make his Boston Symphony debut July 31, stepping in for an indisposed James Levine.

NOT-SO-GOOD: American conductor Kent Nagano, who once seemed destined to play a big role in this country's musical life (there was a time when he was often discussed in the New York press as a perfect choice for that city's Philharmonic), has been most active elsewhere.

But his current, well-regarded tenure as music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich has hit a bump. Nagano announced he won't seek a renewal of his contract, which expires in 2013. His decision 

speaks to internal troubles of the cultural-political variety, sadly not an uncommon problem in Europe. (Here, where government support is so minuscule, arts organizations usually experience their internal troubles without any political types getting involved.) 

UGLY: Gifted conductor and pianist Mikhail Pletnev, founder and artistic director of the much-touted Russian National Orchestra, was charged this week in Thailand with raping a 14-year-old male at a beach resort. According to the AP, Pletnev, who has long had property in Thailand, called this "a misunderstanding," adding, "I have no idea how the charges came about, but I more or less know where they came from." If convicted, he faces a a long prison term.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (2)

July 7, 2010

Belated reminder of Maria Piccinini's concert with Brasil Duo at Peabody

Forgive the short notice -- I meant to post something about this ages ago -- but there's musical relief from the heat to be found this evening at Peabody.

The excellent flutist Marina Piccinini, who enjoys a busy international performance career when she isn't teaching at the conservatory, will kick off her International Flute Master Classes with a public concert also featuring the Brasil Guitar Duo (João Luiz and Douglas Lora).

The program, at 7:00 p.m. today (July 7), offers works by Bach, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla and Milhaud.

Several participants in the master classes -- about 20 flutists from all over are taking part in the five-day sessions -- will give a free recital at 7 p.m. Monday at Peabody.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:49 PM | | Comments (1)

How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer's 150th birthday

I know I do too many posts on this blog about notable musical dates, but you'll just have to forgive another, 'cause this one means more to me than all the other important anniversaries put together. And I know the title of this post is a wee bit melodramatic, but you'll have to indulge me on that, too. It's really not too much of an exaggeration anyway, since my life would probably be completely different had I not discovered the music of Gustav Mahler, who was born 150 years ago -- July 7, 1860.

I'm still as hooked on Mahler as ever. I never "outgrew" my passion for his symphonies, my fascination with his all-too-short life (next year marks the centennial of his death). I had a basic appreciation for classical music before I first heard a note of Mahler's, but I had no thought of making it a substantial part of my life. I was more into pop and jazz. And any thoughts of a career were of the political variety (I was sure I would run for some sort of office one day -- and be fabulous at it, of course).

But then I happened to see "Death in Venice," the film by Luchino Visconti based on the Thomas Mann novella. I frequently bore people by describing the extraordinary sensation I felt as the movie opened. There was no discernable image on the screen at first, only the sound of harp and strings playing the Adagietto (as I subsequently learned) from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Gradually, the sight of gentle waves appeared and, as the music swelled, I felt myself drawn as forcibly into that sound-world as into the gorgeous film.

When I read Mahler’s name in the credits, I set out to learn more about him. I found a recording of that Adagietto, then decided I had to hear all of the Fifth Symphony. I was blown away. I did not know music could do that, could go where Mahler took it, could hit me in some deep emotional place that hadn’t been awakened before.

I had barely begun to digest that symphony when, by coincidence, I tuned to a classical music station in DC on my car radio one evening on the way home and heard a wildly dramatic bit of music that I sensed must be by Mahler. When I got home, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the car, lest I miss a note, so I stayed outside listening (and wearing down the battery) for more than an hour, until the shattering conclusion of what I found out was the Sixth Symphony. That did it.

I soon had to buy all the Mahler symphonies, then all his other works. And in this process of getting Mahlerized, I realized that

classical music really meant something to me, so I forgot about the political science courses I had planned to take in college and kept adding electives in music until that became my major. And that’s how I got into the critic racket – a couple of my teachers encouraged me to think about reviewing music for a living. So, you see, Mahler really did save my life, or at least redirect it.

The 150th anniversary of the composer's birth makes me want to pause and acknowledge my debt. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said about Mahler’s works. I can only repeat that they move me, involve me, transform me. Lots of other music does, too – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Poulenc, Shostakovich, lots of the usual suspects. But, to this day, Mahler simply touches me in a different way. I feel as if he’s talking to me, living my life, not just his. I feel like I can see what he sees, the darkest and brightest elements of this life, the glimmers and shadows and promises of the next one.

I’m hardly alone in this, of course. Mahler fans inevitably react along these lines. If you’re one, too, I’d love flor you to share your feelings about the man and his music.

It’s impossible for me to settle on what my favorite Mahler work is. Naturally, I still hold the Fifth and Sixth in great regard, since they pushed me into Mahlerian fever. The Second, Third and Eighth put me in an exalted space. The Ninth and “Das Lied von der Erde” shatter me. I love the colorful journeys of the First, Fourth and Seventh, and the drama of the much-neglected “Das Klagende Lied.” And then the songs – how rich they are, too.

I decided that I should settle on only one musical clip to end this post, and I was surprised at how quickly I made a choice. It’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – “I am Lost to the World” -- from the “Ruckert Lieder.” If these were the only six or seven minutes of Mahler I could ever hear again, I’d still be content, for they capture everything I love about his art. (This song has the added appeal to me of being a kind of companion piece to the Adagietto, with a very similar sound and melodic arc.)

Here’s the text:

I am lost to the world, where I used to waste so much time. It has heard nothing from me for so long that it may very well believe that I am dead. That is of no consequence to me ... for I really am dead to the world, dead to the world’s tumult. I rest in a quiet realm. I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song.

This performance with mezzo Magdalena Kozena and conductor Claudio Abbado beautifully communicates the subtle power of the words and music:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:45 AM | | Comments (42)

July 6, 2010

A reminder of Young Victorian Theatre Company's 40th anniversary season

If you were not diligently checking the august Sun over the July Fourth weekend, you may have missed a little article by moi about Baltimore's Young Victorian Theatre Company, so I thought I'd better make mention of it here. I'd hate for anyone to be deprived.

This weekend, Young Vic opens its 40th anniversary season of producing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with a staging of "Iolanthe," the same work that launched the company. Back in that day, it was a mostly student-run operation. Things have gotten steadily more professional over the decades. The cast for the 2010 "Iolanthe" looks very promising (and sounded so during a brief bit of rehearsal I heard last week), and the team of stage director Jim Harp and conductor Phillip Collister is likely to produce notable results.

"Iolanthe" may be overshadowed, especially in this country, by "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Mikado" and "The Pirates of Penzance," but it's packed with clever ideas and brilliant music. There are good reasons why lots of G&S aficionados rank it very high. Here's a little taste -- the opening chorus of ever-not-so-dainty fairies from a Stratford Festival production:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:03 AM | | Comments (0)

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opens with potent Puccini production

It got pretty hot inside the Castleton Festival's big tent on the grounds of Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate Sunday afternoon.

For one thing, there was a fairly long stretch when the air-conditioning failed; even when it was restored, the temperature wasn't exactly refreshing. But that didn't turn out to be such a horrible inconvenience in the end.

There also appeared to be some heat, as in hot around the collar, down in the orchestra pit. Maazel, one of the greatest conductors of our time, did not look like he was  having a good time. This was especially the case during "Suor Angelica," the last third of Puccini's "Il Trittico," when he could be heard stomping on the podium and (if my ears didn't deceive me) expressing verbal annoyance with the response of the players. Significantly, Maazel did not take a bow, as custom dictates, at the end of the production; that meant the orchestra got no bow, either. I can't say I noticed anything terribly awry in the playing, just little things that might have been smoother or more expressive, but Maazel certainly gave every impression of being displeased.

In the end, the heat that mattered most was

onstage, where the festival's troupe of young professionals sang with admirable commitment and style.

In an intriguing departure from tradition, the Castleton presentation of "Trittico" changes the order of the one-act operas. Instead of the two tragedies, "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica" followed by the comedy "Gianni Schicchi," the latter is placed in the middle. (On some days, the festival will also present one or two works at a time, rather than all three).

I rather liked the dark-light-dark progression Sunday afternoon, although it meant heading out of the tent all shook up and teary-eyed, rather than with a chuckle. What I didn't like was the time it took to change sets between each piece; there should be a way to handle that more efficiently. No complaints, though, about the performances.

It was gratifying to encounter young singers who got so fully into their roles and who served the music with such care. Castleton's resident stage director, William Kerley, approached each opera with considerable freshness and an eye for telling detail. Maazel's tempos reflected nearly equal concern for momentum and breadth of expression.

"Il Tabarro," a steamy story of love on the rocks and the docks, benefited from particularly powerful singing by tenor Noah Stewart as Luigi, the stevedore who falls for the barge owner's wife, Giorgetta. His top notes didn't always cooperate, but the rest hit home impressively, and Stewart's acting proved just as impassioned and persuasive. As Giorgetta, Jessica Klein sang vividly (her anguished reaction to the murder of her lover registered with shattering impact), although some more cream would have been welcome in the tone here and there. 

Nicholas Pallesen did sturdy work as the unfortunate spouse, Michele, and there were fine contributions from the supporting cast, especially Zach Borichevsky as Tinca and Margaret Gawyrisiak as Frugola.

The two tragedies featured basically conventional sets and costumes (by Nicholas Vaughan); "Gianni Schicchi," a tale of greedy folks in 13th-century Florence trying to get back into a deceased relative's will, got a delicious update to our own time. There were clever ways around what would have been major anachronisms; the most problematic, a mule that the medieval Florentines especially coveted, was turned here into a Damien Hirst-like,  animal-in-formaldehyde sculpture. Kerley drew from the sparkling cast a true ensemble effort. A strained high note or two aside, Corey Crider sang the title role in robust voice and acted up a storm. Joyce El-Khoury made a lovely sound as Lauretta, shaping the opera's hit aria, "O mio babbino caro," with a refreshing naturalness and producing a sweet tone in the process. (Having her give the thumbs-up sign to her boyfriend midway through the aria, as she sensed her father caving into her request, was a fun touch). Gawyrisiak was again in great form, this time as Zita. Borichevsky sounded taxed in the upper reaches, but otherwise shone as Rinuccio. Tharanga Goonetilleke, as Nella, stood out for her sweet, pure tone.

"Suor Angelica," the story of a woman who entered a convent after having an illegitimate child, is a tricky piece that mixes heavy drama and sentimentality, then reaches the very edge of kitsch in its closing moments. I admired the way that Kerley accepted the opera as it is, treated it with the utmost respect and, in the finale, delivered the intended emotional jolt without overdoing a thing.

Rebekah Camm, who had to cancel Friday's opening night performance in the title role, was still under the weather Sunday afternoon, but agreed to sing. I'm glad she did. The few times when she sounded indisposed were very brief and did not take away at all from that fact that this is a soprano with "major career potential" written all over her vocal cords. Her tone filled out the space easily and revealed an Italianate warmth; her phrasing was deeply communicative. Maria Isabel Vera, as Angelica's icy aunt, revealed a sizable voice with a burnished timbre and gave a compelling portrayal of a most unpleasant character. The rest of cast did colorful, engaging work.

If you haven't yet made the trip into the pretty hill country of Rappahannock County to sample the Castleton Festival, which was launched last summer, the Puccini triptych would be a great excuse for a first visit. (And, presumably, Maazel will find a way to make right whatever may have bothered him on Saturday.) The lineup also offers a reprise of an arresting production of Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," presented in the permanent Theatre House on the grounds. There will also be a new de Falla/Stravinsky double bill and some orchestral concerts before the festival wraps up July 25.

PHOTOS OF 'SUOR ANGELICA' (by E. Raymond Boc), 'IL TABARRO' (by Victoria Aschheim), GIANNI SCHICCHI' (by Nicholas Vaughan) COURTESY OF CASTLETON FESTIVAL 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:30 AM | | Comments (3)

July 4, 2010

My favorite Stephen Foster songs on his Fourth of July birthday

There's something cool about Stephen Foster, the first great American songwriter, being born on the Fourth of July (in 1826). When I was a kid, I remember the enjoyment of playing through a Foster songbook at the piano, a wonderful hardbound book with evocative, super-nostalgic drawings for each piece. And I remember being especially drawn to a couple of ballads that weren't as much a part of the Foster hit parade as "Beautiful Dreamer" and "I Dream of Jeannie."

These two, "Gentle Annie" and "Hard Times Come Again No More," struck me so strongly, I guess, because they were so darn sad, so haunting. They seemed to me terribly personal and real; they still do.

I found some video clips of both songs featuring Anna McGarrigle and her sister, the late Kate McGarrigle, along with friends and family (including Kate's son, Rufus Wainwright, in "Hard Times"). These are remarkably touching, truthful performances that demonstrate just how richly Foster's music continues to speak to us.

I know these are downers, not the usual bright Independence Day fare, but there sure are some hard times going on right now, so I don't think the songs are out of place at all. I hope you like them. (The "Gentle Annie" clip cuts off about two seconds too soon, alas, but the damage is slight.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:06 AM | | Comments (3)

July 3, 2010

Another thought or two on the need for an American '1812 Overture'

The vast reach and untold influence of this humble blog was driven home today by the New York Times, which, in a New York Philharmonic review by Jim Oestreich, mentioned my call for an Americanized "1812 Overture."

In case anyone thought I was totally serious with that idea, let me reassure you that I haven't lost my mind completely (yet). And let me hasten to add that I still like that darn Tchaikovsky war horse, as long as it isn't trotted out too often around me. My main point remains firm, though -- we Americans really ought to find something else to listen to at the finale of Fourth of July concerts.

There may not be anything already in the repertoire that hits the same wonderfully noisy spot as the "1812 Overture," but, assuming no one takes up my awesome challenge to re-do Tchaikovsky's score with a twist of American tunes, I readily admit there are a few pieces out there that deserve the spotlight, or the fireworks. You can start with one being loudly championed by my distinguished Sun colleague, John McIntyre, who has used his own ever-entertaining blog to tout a work by Dudley Buck (1839-1909) -- "Concert Variations of The Star-Spangled Banner."

I hate to say it (because I didn't think of it first), but I think John may have something there. Originally composed for organ, the score makes a suitably rousing impression in its orchestrated guise (maybe a few cannon could be added as needed for concert performances so audiences won't feel deprived should the "Concert Variations" ever be used in lieu of the "1812"). Here's a recording of this ready-for-the-Fourth, all-American music. Let me know what you think. 

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

July 2, 2010

Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate opens this weekend

For those of us who can't afford to dash off to Salzburg or Bayreuth or Lucerne or Glyndebourne or any other tony summer opera mecca, the Castleton Festival on the grounds of the expansive Virginia estate of Lorin Maazel makes an awfully satisfying alternative.

All right, you hear budding singers, rather than certified big-name artists. But, hey, Castleton is still pretty starry, what with Maazel conducting many of the performances.

The productions can be very compelling, and they certainly guarantee more intimate experiences than you would find in most places. (The tent seats about 400; at the jewel box Theater House on the grounds, you share operas with only 130 folks.)

And you don't have to think about lugging formal wear with you.

Oh yeah, there's also

the lovely drive into the hills of Rappahannock County and the idyllic Castleton Farms itself, where some llamas roam to picturesque effect.

I've got more details in today's paper about the 2010 festival, which opens this weekend. I plan to head down on the Fourth for "Il Trittico." Maybe I'll see you there.

PHOTOS BY LESLIE MAAZEL (above -- a rehearsal in the tent, a performance of "The Beggar's Opera" in the Theater House) and VICTORIA ASCHHEIM (below -- the tent being set up on the grounds)


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:58 AM | | Comments (0)

July 1, 2010

Another dose of the Swingle Singers for good measure

The other day, while ranting about the need for an American version of the "1812 Overture" to perform on the Fourth of July, I appended the ultimate interpretation of the Tchaikovsky original -- by the Swingle Singers, the incomparable ensemble that has been exploring the possibilities of tight harmony for decades.

I've been on a Swingle kick since belatedly plunging into Season One of "Glee" (bless you, Netflix), and hearing that group's unmistakable style on the soundtrack. I only wish the Glee-kids would try something that sophisticated. I mean, enough with the Beyonce and that ilk already. Let's have some Bach, at least Swingle-style Bach.

Not that I expect any such thing on the show, which I'm enjoying greatly for a variety of reasons, but it sure would be cool if the Glee-fuls could slip in a little something sort of classical, or even a great jazz number, just to broaden their tender horizons. (Hey, I'm only about halfway through the season; maybe surprises await -- if so, don't spoil them for me.)

Anyway, like I said, I've been thinking about the Swingles, and, since some of you really liked that wild version of "1812," I thought I'd drop a fun morsel of Swingle-ized Bach, along with a great clip of an interview with Ward Swingle from Baltimore filmmaker Mike Lawrence's uplifting new documentary "Bach and Friends."

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:23 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.
View the Artsmash blog

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