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July 23, 2010

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)

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

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

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