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August 31, 2010

A greeting to Seiji Ozawa on the conductor's 75th birthday

Seiji Ozawa, who turns 75 today -- Wednesday, Sept. 1 -- has been slowly returning to the limelight since being sidelined by esophageal cancer in January and, lately, by sciatica.

Although it appears that he still has a way to go toward full recovery, it's great to see that he has concert dates on his calendar again. He's scheduled to be on the podium next week to lead a movement from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings at a festival next week in Japan, and he's still expected at Carnegie Hall's JapanNYC festival in December.

Ozawa, the former, longtime music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is one of the world's most respected music-makers; the chorus of well-wishers has been large and loud since news of his illness broke.

The Boston Symphony is gathering birthday greetings on the orchestra's Facebook page, and, over the weekend at the Tanglewood Festival, musicians and staffers of the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and audience members sang "Happy Birthday" to Ozawa (see photo).

I've put together a birthday salute of videos below, starting with

a terrific drive through the finale of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra," and moving on to a little frivolity appropriate to a celebratory occasion -- the conductor's "pretty great performance" with the Muppets, and a young Ozawa as a contestant on "What's My Line" in 1963:




Posted by Tim Smith at 7:10 PM | | Comments (0)

Memorial service to be held Sunday for Baltimore voice teacher Frederick Petrich

The legacy of Baltimore-born and -based voice teacher Frederick Petrich, who died on July 14 at the age of 84, will be honored on Sunday with a memorial service.

In an email, one of his former students, Lisa Jarosinski, writes: "Mr. Petrich requested that his students sing the Faure 'Requiem' and the 'Inflammatus' from Rossini's 'Stabat Mater.' Both of those works, as well as two lovely organ pieces, will be performed at the service."

Mr. Petrich, the son of German immigrants, was a student and later teacher at the Peabody Institute. He also studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and, in Germany, with the notable tenor Franz Volker. Many singers active in the Baltimore area, including members of the chorus of the former Baltimore Opera Company, were among his students over the years.

Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, who also studied with Mr. Petrich, wrote recently about how the popular teacher "had

an almost mystical way of helping people of all talent levels visualize their vocalizations, a way of conveying the physical concepts of singing so that the entire body, and not just the throat, was involved in making music."

The memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:01 AM | | Comments (0)

August 30, 2010

Potential strike at Detroit Symphony sends warning throughout orchestral world

Not surprisingly, given how apart far both sides have been and how testy the tone during negotiations, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra voted over the weekend to authorize a strike. That decision doesn't mean there will be a strike, but it sure increases the odds. The season is scheduled to open in early October. (Because of a technicality involving labor laws -- from what I understand, orchestra management didn't file required paperwork in time -- the players have to be paid through the Sept. 23 under the terms of the old contract, which expired Sunday.)

The threat of a strike isn't merely of interest to folks in Michigan. The Detroit Symphony is a major ensemble in every way -- artistic quality, widespread reputation, historic legacy -- but it has been plagued by debt. From management's perspective, nothing less than a new economic model will do, and that model includes a large cut in salaries for the players.

The numbers are sobering: One management proposal calls for a drop from

the current $104,650 to about $75,000 in the first year of a new contract and back up to almost $80,000 in the third year. The other management proposal is worse, going down to $70,200 in the first year, close to $74,000 in the third, with still less for any new players who might be hired -- they'd start at $61,200.

The players countered with an immediate 22% cut to $80,000, but raises thereafter bringing base salaries up to more than $96,000 by the end of a new contract.

Like I said, the gap between the two sides is great. And none of these proposals would magically erase all the orchestra's financial woes. Much more fundraising and cost-saving would be required. (Detroit Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin agreed earlier to take a cut in pay.) 

As the Detroit musicians see it, deep reductions will destroy the orchestra, making it a less appealing choice for current and perspective members and leading to the inevitable erosion of the musical product. Sound familiar? The financial problems at the root of the trouble there are the same that affect many orchestras, including our own Baltimore Symphony, where the players made substantial concessions on wages and benefits to help the organization stabilize, but warned about losing good players (a few have, in fact, left) and not being able to attract the best talent.

In Detroit, Baltimore and many other places there has been a lot of talk about the approaching expiration date of the existing business plan for orchestras, how things will have to change fundamentally if long-term survival is to be possible. Behind closed doors and, increasingly, out in the open, a lot of folks are questioning whether orchestras with big budgets, 52-week contracts, handsome benefits packages -- not to mention music directors and CEOs with hefty salaries -- are viable any more. What ends up happening in Detroit will be closely watched and debated everywhere.

One thing you can always count on in cases like this is a good deal of public apathy or disdain. You'll hear people using the words "elitist" and "luxury," and you'll find little sympathy for the notion that classical artists deserve to make money, or that governments and corporations and wealthy individuals should step up to the plate to help out in every way they can.

As Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson has written about attitudes in his city, "otherwise reputable opinion leaders" are not rallying to "the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a world-class institution some five generations of Detroiters have labored to build into one of the world's most esteemed musical ensembles.

"Some sneer that Detroit's unwashed masses can no longer discern the difference between a great orchestra and a mediocre one, in much the same way that Detroit car makers once snorted at suggestions U.S. consumers would notice a modest slippage in vehicle quality."

Dickerson goes on to say:

The musicians' assertion that the salary concessions being sought by management would cripple the DSO's ability to attract top talent is unassailable. So is management's contention that anything more generous threatens to drive the orchestra out of business.

What's incredible, and ineffably sad, is the complacency with which Detroiters are shrugging off the disintegration of a cultural infrastructure our predecessors spent the entire 20th Century putting in place. And even that legacy is not as threadbare as our dwindling sense of obligation to the next generation, which stands to inherit a city whose music flows mainly from slot machines.

There are eerie similarities between Detroit and Baltimore (where some folks are now salivating over the ca-ching of slot machines). The BSO may have dodged a lot of bullets in recent seasons, but there's no guarantee of anything anymore, certainly not with this endless recession hanging overhead. That's why it matters what happens at other orchestras, and why it's essential for those who care about our city's cultural life to remain informed, involved and inspired. There are bound to be rough years ahead.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)

August 27, 2010

New silent film 'Louis' brings welcome attention to composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk

For something completely different, consider zipping to Strathmore Saturday night for the presentation of the new, fascinating silent film "Louis" with live musical soundtrack provided by Wynton Marsalis and his jazz ensemble, and classical pianist Cecile Licad.

The movie, directed by Dan Pritzker and shot be legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, offers a fanciful take on the boyhood experiences of Louis Armstrong. It's a wonderful homage to the art of silent film, for starters, and an entertaining story, too. (I confess I found the many brothel scenes -- with all that underwear from what looks like the 1910 edition of a Victoria's Secret catalog -- a little tiresome, but that's just me).

I saw the movie with a pre-recorded soundtrack by Marsalis and friends; the live version is likely to be even more fun. One of the coolest things about the project is the choice of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's music for the scenes where Licad plays, providing an atmospheric counterpoint to the jazz from Marsalis. Gottschalk, a composer with New Orleans roots, was one of America's first classical superstars in the mid-19th century. His music went way out of favor, but enjoyed a revival in the 1970s; a recording by the brilliant pianist Ivan Davis gave Gottschalk a particularly strong boost. Maybe "Louis" will start another renewal of appreciation for this colorful composer.

Here's a taste of Davis playing Gottschalk; I also thought you might like to see the trailer for "Louis":

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

August 26, 2010

Mobtown Modern's 2010-11 season to include BSO collaborations, eclectic repertoire

Mobtown Modern, Baltimore’s most aggressive champion of contemporary music (I mean that in the best possible way), has devised a startling lineup for the 2010-11 season.

The big news is that Mobtown will team up with the Baltimore Symphony for some music-making. BSO music director Marin Alsop has been looking around for ways to connect with the edgier things going in the city and is always open to collaborations; Mobtown’s curator Brian Sacawa has been seeking ways to spread his organization’s wings – so this looks like a natural and very promising match-up.

I’ve liked Mobtown’s approach and its programming from the start a few years ago. The new season looks like the most ambitious and tempting yet, with a hearty helping of Ligeti, including “Poeme Symphonique” for 100 metronomes, to launch the 10-concert series on Sept. 14, and a big work by Golijov – “Ayre” from 2004 -- to wrap things up on June 1. The latter event is one of two presentations involving BSO players; the first, on Jan. 12, will be devoted to the 1981 piece “Glassworks” by Baltimore’s own Philip Glass.

This season finds Mobtown moving uptown again. The series started out based at the Contemporary Museum, which remains the organization’s parent, then headed a few blocks north to Metro Gallery; it now will migrate a few more blocks

to take up residence at the Windup Space.

Other highlights of the Mobtown schedule: music by much-in-the-limelight young composer Nico Muhly; “chamber rock” from Missy Mazzoli and her ensemble, Victoire, and violist Nadia Sirota; music theater by Corey Dargel; an evening of Ken Ueno’s distinctive work; a program of pieces by John Cage, Earle Brown and others that use non-traditional notation; a concert by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots; and a performance of the multiple genre-spanning “O Death” by Peabody faculty member Oscar Bettison.

Here's a sample of Victoire performing Missy Mazzoli's "A Song for Arthur Russell," which will be featured on ensemble's Mobtown Modern concert Oct. 13:


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (1)

August 25, 2010

Celebrating the lasting impact of Leonard Bernstein on his birthday

It’s Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, an occasion of gratitude and melancholy for me each year on Aug. 25.

He would have turned 92 on this date. His death 20 years ago robbed the music world – heck, the world at large – of an awesome talent, a riveting personality, a provocative thinker and advocate for so many valuable causes.

I’m thankful for every encounter I had with Bernstein’s music-making in person, and I’ll always treasure the few hours I spent in his company one night in his suite at the old Watergate Hotel (get your mind out of the gutter – it wasn’t that kind of night). But I always feel a little sad when Aug. 25 rolls around because it reminds me that I didn’t attend more of his concerts, and that he didn’t live to give us all more of his distinctive, profound approaches to music.

Most of today’s conductors, even the most wildly gifted and most wildly promoted, don’t reach anywhere near Bernstein's level. I miss his delicious daring, his ability to treat the notes on a page as a starting point, not a straight-jacket. I’ve attached a Bernstein the Bold example – his controversially slow account of

the “Nimrod” passage in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” I know it must drive some folks crazy to hear it dragged out like this, but I find his shaping of this noble music irresistible and incredibly touching.

Bernstein was never just about being different. He was simply true to himself. Too often these days, the mantra of serving the composer gets turned into a kind of facelessness, a fussiness about staying within the lines. I’ve always believed music was soft clay, ever pliant, every willing to be molded in a fresh way, not a concrete form that must sound the same, be paced the same, be just as loud or soft in the same degree, time after time. Bernstein was a fabulously imaginative sculptor.

It wasn’t always a matter of stretching boundaries that made him so riveting. Check out the excerpt I’ve also attached of a movement from a Haydn symphony. Bernstein’s knack for emotion-gushing repertoire may be his most famous attribute, but he could be just as wonderfully communicative with elegant fare like this.

Here, then, two sides to the artistry of Bernstein that I’ll always treasure:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:57 AM | | Comments (3)

August 24, 2010

19th century card game offers glimpse into classical music tastes and values

No stay-cation would be complete without tackling a long-delayed, most likely odious project at home. What fun. For me, that means a double closet from hell, one essentially untouched since moving to Baltimore 10 years ago.

Most of the space inside has been taken up with tons of LPs (remember them?), still stored in tightly sealed boxes. I always meant to unpack them, but it was just a lot easier to deal with the thousands of CDs and forget all about those so-last-century vinyl artifacts. Part of me would like to get the whole LP collection out of the house -- a donation, maybe; better yet, sold to the highest bidder for such a princely sum that I could take a real, far-away vacation on the profits. (I can dream, can't I?) For now, I'm just trying to get the records properly shelved at long last, and back in their once-neat, by-composer order.

To get to the LPs, though, has meant sorting through other boxes of assorted debris from the past also crammed into that closet space -- clippings of my peerless prose, keepsakes from my winsome youth, photos, letters, old financial papers, forgotten Christmas wrapping, blah, blah. How nice it must be to have no pack-rat inclinations at all.

Anyway, while taking care of all that extraneous material I came across an item I had long forgotten: "The Great Composers, An Entertaining, Educational 68-piece Musical Card Game." As the cover of the little box proclaims, this is

"an exact replica of the antique original." I no longer remember when or where I picked this up (it may well have been a thoughtful gift, in which case I am ever so grateful to whoever you are), but I did enjoy uncovering it again and having a fresh look.

Inside are 17 four-card sets. "Each card bears the portrait and name of the composer, the dates of his birth and death, and the titles of four of his most important works." How cool is that? The game itself doesn't sound too thrilling -- the object is to collect as many of the same set as possible -- but I do find it fascinating that folks once upon a time may have entertained themselves trying to get all four Gluck cards before any other players did.

What really intrigues me is the choice of composers and compositions for the game, which says a lot about 19th century tastes and values. Today, we all think we know exactly who the great composers are, and exactly what their "most important" works are. We would hardly include Anton Rubinstein in a card game today, but there he is in my cute "exact replica," along with his four greatest achievements: "Nero," "Feramors," the "Ocean" Symphony, and "Paradise Lost." (The only Rubinstein music I really know is the adorable E-flat Prelude that was one of the first things I really loved playing on the piano way back when. I still love it.)

The card game is full of surprises. Although I don’t know when it originally appeared, the evidence suggests the early 1900s (thanks to a commentor -- see below -- for pointing that out; I had stupidly overlooked some key evidence on the cards themselves.) Even by then, I guess Brahms still wasn’t accepted as great by some folks; he’s among the missing. The other composers included may all be familiar (well, Meyerbeer more by reputation than regular encounters with his operas), but not necessarily all the compositions that are attached. Liszt's "Christus" and "Elizabeth," anybody? Schumann's "Paradise and the Peri" and "Genoveva" may be appreciated by connoisseurs now, but these pieces hardly enjoy mainstream status.

When you think of Beethoven’s creative peaks, you’ll surely think of the Ninth Symphony, but would your other three picks be “Fidelio,” “Missa Solemnis” and “Egmont”? Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto isn’t on his game card, but “St. Paul” and the “Hymn of Praise” Symphony are. None of Haydn’s symphonies make the cut. When was the last time you heard Weber’s “Preciosa”? Gounod’s “Redemption”?

I wonder what a Great Composers card game of today would be like, and how dated it would seem 150 years from now.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:22 AM | | Comments (5)

August 23, 2010

New recording captures James Levine, Boston Symphony in fine form

This is week two of my stay-cation, so please forgive me if I’m not up to my usual earth-shaking form as a blogologist. I’ve still got the occasional thought, even in my mentally reduced state, and I’ll start off this Monday with a word or two about a recording that, for several reasons,  caught my fancy as a listening choice during my time off.

It’s from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s own label, BSO Classics – an all-Mozart, two-CD release conducted by music director James Levine. Remember James Levine? Assorted physical problems have kept him absent from duty so often and for such long periods of time – lately for back surgery – that he’s frequently the source of speculation and consternation. A recent editorial in the Boston Globe more or less suggested that Levine and the orchestra should be prepared to part ways soon if his nagging medical problems continue.

The Metropolitan Opera has to be a little nervous these days, too, since Levine holds a key musical post there as well, and another season spotted with his canceled podium appearances would likely cause considerable gnashing of teeth in that august house. I can’t recall seeing any updates in quite a while about the conductor’s progress, health-wise. I imagine word will be coming soon enough, though, since

the orchestra and opera company will have to be given enough time before their season-openers to scramble for replacements should Levine need more mending time.

This summer, he was to have been a significant presence at Tanglewood, the idyllic spot in the Berkshires where the Boston Symphony makes its off-season home, but he had to scrap those plans along with so many others. This new Mozart recording provides a reminder of how this orchestra can shine with Levine, and why so many people have been so heartily wishing this guy a speedy recovery.

These live performances, taped in Boston’s iconic Symphony Hall in February 2009, balance  symphonies from Mozart’s teen years – Nos. 14, 18 and 20 – with two of his last three symphonic efforts, Nos. 39 and 41. It’s good to be reminded of the many qualities in those early symphonies, and it’s rewarding to hear the two war horses given such refreshing, stylish treatment. Levine taps into the lyrical beauty of each score with satisfying results, while never slighting propulsion or clarity of texture. The music is alive with nuance, energy, character.

Levine’s affection for Mozart shines through in every measure of what are essentially old-fashioned performances – the kind that orchestras gave before the historical authenticity movement swung into high gear – and he inspires in the Bostonians seemingly effortless refinement of tone and articulation, considerable expressive richness of phrasing.  

If all goes well, conductor and orchestra will soon be back on the same productive path together.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:08 AM | | Comments (1)

August 20, 2010

Guest blog post: The BBC Proms from London's Royal Albert Hall, Part 2

My thanks to Mike for submitting Part 2 of his guest blog post about the great Proms Concerts presented by the BBC at London's Royal Albert Hall. For those of us who can't be there in person, the cool thing is the free streaming of the performances. I got quite addicted to them while at work (I'm on vacation now and less inclined to hang around computers), so I can heartily recommend the experience. It's almost -- I said almost -- like being there. Unfortunately, the video versions of the concerts provided on the BBC site aren't accessible online in this country; maybe next year. I've attached a video clip from the first night of the Proms to give you an idea of what the whole picture is like; it's the closing minutes from Part 1 of Mahler's Symphony No. 8, with Jiri Belohlavek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Cheerio. --TIM

I thought a reminder might not be amiss that this year’s BBC Proms continue. The history of the Proms was given in my earlier blog, so I’ll just summarize some of the musical treats still available for listening, free of charge, via the BBC Proms site, and some upcoming highlights.

For only the next day, 2 concerts from the Proms smaller venue, Cadogan Hall, are available featuring Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists in the six Brandenburg Concertos by Bach - concert one features the Concertos 1, 4 & 6, while the second presents Concertos 3, 5 and 2. In addition to the bracing performances, the programs feature some entertaining conversations with Gardiner.

Also available for one day more are an organ recital from the Royal Albert Hall featuring David Briggs in works by Bach (some written for organ, some organ arrangements of Bach’s music). The fourth concert of this “Bach Day” at the Proms is just what one would expect from the Proms -- a program of Bach Transcriptions for orchestra that will leave purists sputtering with rage, but vastly entertains the public. Andrew Litton leads the Royal Philharmonic in

arrangements by Stokowski (the great Prelude and Fugue in D minor, featured in the film Fantasia), Walton (The Wise Virgins Suite), Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Henry Wood, Percy Grainger, Sir Granville Bantock, and Ottorino Respighi plus newly commissioned pieces based on Bach’s music by composers Tarik O'Regan and Alissa Firsova.

Available for another 2 days are a concert of Russian music by the London Philharmonic led by Vladimir Jurowski, featuring violinist Julia Fischer in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto # 1, and one has 3 days left to catch another all-Russian program with Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Scriabin’s First Symphony and Stravinsky’s ballet, the Firebird.

Further concerts available for listening now include Edward Gardner leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, a performance of Avro Part’s St. John Passion (don’t hold your breath waiting to hear this at the Meyerhoff), pianist Nicolai Lugansky in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (a piece premiered at our own Lyric Theatre), Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular Sheherazade, and violinist Julia Fischer in recital.

Future concerts feature the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director designate of The Philadelphia Orchestra; a Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein; Helene Grimaud playing the Ravel G major Piano Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Gil Shaham playing Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Violin Concerto; the Minnesota Orchestra playing (in separate concerts) the Bruckner 4th Symphony and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony under music director Osmo Vänskã (a too little known conductor of the absolute top-rank), the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir John Eliot Gardiner (I imagine this concert was planned for the late Sir Charles Mackerras, with a program including music of Janacek, Martinu and Dvorak), a concert performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Beethoven and Mahler played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

Happy Listening!

-- Mike

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:37 PM | | Comments (1)

August 19, 2010

Guest blog post: composer Joel Puckett on Christopher Rouse's 'Odna Zhizn'

Last winter, a major new work by Christopher Rouse was premiered by the New York Philharmonic. Titled "Odna Zhizn (A Life)," it's an "homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me," the extraordinary Baltimore-born composer wrote. The score, which Rouse called "a public portrait" and "a private love letter," was generated in part by a personal code, with letters of the alphabet given specific pitches and time-durations. I'm hoping that the Baltimore Symphony, an ardent champion of the composer's music, will soon program the piece. Meanwhile, here's a guest blog post by composer Joel Puckett, a good friend of Rouse's who was in New York for the premiere and who recently sent me some recollections of the event that he agreed to share on this space -- it's a wee bit after the fact, I know, but the fact that he's still so enthusiastic about a February premiere says a lot. (I'd like to see the BSO program some of Puckett's powerful music soon, too, by the way.) -- TIM 

I met up with a trio of composers before the concert and the four of us had dinner across the street from the hall. We traded our favorite Rouse stories and wondered what kind of piece Chris might have cooked up given the very cryptic program note that had been published.

Our individual expectations for the piece were probably more revealing about our own music than our 'expert' predictions. One of us thought that it might be similar to the flute concerto, given the focus on a loved one. Another thought that it might be similar to the second symphony, given the line from the program note, "Her life has not been an easy one." And I thought (hoped?) that it would be more like the sound world of the Requiem.

We were all stunned in hearing the piece. I was reminded of the line sometimes credited to Beethoven, “Music must surprise and satisfy at every turn”. It turns out each of us were right and, at the same time, all of us were wrong. In "Odna Zhizn," Chris manages

to sound very much like himself while at the same time pushing his harmonies and textures in completely new directions by simplifying them. I don’t think any of us were expecting the incredibly straightforward and STAGGERINGLY beautiful opening of the piece. To my ears, this is Chris boldly allowing himself to speak simply and directly with devastating effect.

As we walked down 65th street, we were collectively inspired by Rouse's willingness to push his expression. It would be very easy for him to sit back and write the same piece over and over for the rest of his life. Not that any of us were surprised that he is still a growing and restless artist, it was just dazzling to come face to face with such powerful evidence.

Joel Puckett

Composer-In-Residence, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras

Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (1)

August 18, 2010

More critics weigh in on the Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra/Plain Dealer case

You're all tired of my ranting about the trial of music critic Don Rosenberg versus the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Plain Dealer -- he sued his paper and the orchestra after being reassigned and forbidden to write about the orchestra, which had objected to his reviews of music director Franz Welser-Most; Rosenberg lost his case in court. So I thought I'd direct you to some commentary from a couple of other critics -- one from music, Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Bernheimer; one from film, the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. (Posting their perspectives also makes it a little easier on me, since I'm technically on vacation.)

The indelible Bernheimer, one of all-time favorite writers and thinkers, makes wonderful points in his column for the Financial Times, which begins boldly: "Donald Rosenberg lost. So did Cleveland. And so did journalism in general and the precarious practice of music criticism in particular."

The writer, who won his Pulitzer while at the Los Angeles Times, offers a particularly compelling anecdote about his tenure there:

The young music director of the local philharmonic was a photogenic extrovert named Zubin Mehta. He made a mighty splash in heart-on-sleeve challenges but seemed insensitive to works requiring elegance, subtlety or introspection. My reviews offended the orchestral establishment. More important, they offended Dorothy Buffum Chandler ... the mother of Otis Chandler, publisher of the LA Times.

Mrs. Chandler wanted me fired. Her son,

bless him, had other ideas. He ran a full-page 'house advertisement' in the paper, featuring my beleaguered mug and bearing a blush-inducing headline: 'He faces the music even when it hurts.' Otis sent me this message: 'Keep the faith, baby, ’cause your publisher boss (your only boss) is with you all the way.' The editors, bless them, seconded the motion. 'You protect Beethoven,' they declared, 'and we’ll protect Bernheimer.'

Who, one wonders, is protecting Beethoven in Cleveland?

Phillips brings a most welcome viewpoint in his column for the Tribune (parent company to the Baltimore Sun), if only because he's not another classical music critic. I was particularly struck by these lines:

For years Rosenberg had the support of his editor-in-chief, Doug Clifton, which, as any daily newspaper critic can tell you, is a good thing to have when angry arts administrators come calling to complain that a critic doesn't 'get it.'

...'We must tread lightly on the independence of our critic,' Clifton once said. 'To overrule him in the face of protest would make a mockery of the critical process.' Which is exactly what his successor did.

Phillips goes on to write:

You can smell the caution and paranoia in too many reviews weighed down by generalities and a stenographer's devotion to 'objectivity,' which isn't what this endeavor is about at all. It's about informed, vividly argued subjectivity.

Criticism is a way of writing about life, and the world, and a symphony's place in it, or a performer's, or a photograph's. Or a demagogue's. The other day Fox commentator Glenn Beck went after funding for the arts and public libraries, likening both to a society gorging itself on 'Mountain Dew and Cheetos' while riots raged in streets, a society unable to afford police protection because of all the money going to 'stupid, snotty' opera houses. Opinions like that call for a counter-opinion or two.

(Which, I hasten to remind everyone, is what I did in response to Beck -- hey, this is a blog, just a four-letter word for ego.)

Obviously, the Cleveland case will continue to be argued for a long while. That people are thinking about it and writing about it is all to the good. I like how Phillips sums things up: 

... no critic has a 'right' to a compensated opinion. We serve at the pleasure of our employers. And yet we're only worth reading when we push our luck and ourselves, and remember that without a sense of freedom, coupled with a sense that we cannot squander it, we're just filler.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (3)

August 17, 2010

A potential role model for Jackie Evancho: 'Bubbles' Silverman

The current enthusiasm for a talented young American -- I mean a young American who's got talent -- made me think about another little girl who surprised people with her vocal ability. More on that in a moment.

I only wish the best for 10-year-old Jackie Evancho (despite what some commentors on this blog seemed to think, in response to last week's post), and I don't mean only the best in whatever other competitive ventures await for her on TV. I'm hoping that she will be guided sensibly and sensitively toward

the maximum refinement of her musical abilities. And, naturally (hey, I've got to do my part to keep classical music going), I hope Jackie will aim for the gold: I'd like to think she'll take the ultimate path into opera and art song when she gets older, rather than the commercially more enticing road.

I worry about young people exposed to so much glitz and fame at a tender point in their development, getting into the fickle clutches of the whole Idol-ization franchise. It's cool for someone with real talent to get wide recognition; it may be less cool if it all goes to the head, or into the pockets of folks with less-than-noble interests.

Anyway, as I mentioned last week, the Jackie phenomenon isn't entirely new. Unusually young voices with operatic potential occasionally appear, startling everybody. Here's an eight-year-old who could serve as a fine role model for Jackie. She was known to family and friends as "Bubbles" Silverman when this film was made. She went on to study very seriously, to develop an exceptional technique and a keen sense of style. She grew up to be Beverly Sills, one of the most famous -- and, IMHO, one of the finest -- opera singers of the 20th century:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (12)

August 16, 2010

New Brian Wilson album puts a Beach Boys stamp on music of George Gershwin

It doesn't carry quite as much of a surprise factor as it might have some years back, before so many pop/rock stars felt the urge to sing standards from the great American Songbook, but the album by the near-legendary Brian Wilson due out on Tuesday certainly commands attention.

A Disney Pearl release, "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin" -- it could have been called "Gershwin Goes Surfin' " -- puts the iconic leader of the Beach Boys and a great deal of that group's vintage sound into a blender with some of the 20th century's best loved songs. It's very much a time-travel kind of recording; it would have had no trouble soaring to the top of the charts in, say, 1966. "I Got Rhythm," for example, sounds so idiomatically and infectiously Beach Boys that it's hard to believe it's not some long-lost flip side of a single from the old days.

The newsiest aspect of the release has to do with

two songs freshly written by Wilson, based on fragments Gershwin never got around to finishing -- the Gershwin estate approved this unusual project. "The Like in I Love You" (with an arrangement that sounds a bit like the Carpenters trying to imitate the Beach Boys) and "Nothing But Love" both rock along amiably, but don't quite rise to a particularly high level, melodically or poetically.

Wilson, in sturdy voice, is backed by a tight group of instrumentalists and backup vocalists on the album. He also did the dynamic arrangements. The rich a cappella treatment of the lyrical theme from "Rhapsody in Blue," used as bookends for the recording, sounds even more fun in our "Glee"-ful day. A touch of Sergio Mendes-worthy styling gives "S' Wonderful" an effective lilt. The string intro to "Someone to Watch Over Me" suggests a wry reference to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby."

One of the coolest achievements here is Wilson's approach to "I've Got a Crush on You," which moves the clock back even further to poodle-skirt time -- this is a great spin on stereotypical '50s devices. There's also an effective sampling from "Porgy and Bess," including a bouncy "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' " and a smoky "I Loves You, Porgy" (it's neat to hear Wilson singing that song without concern for the gender references in the lyrics -- that, too, is a kind of throwback to earlier days of popular music).

Wilson doesn't seem interested in making strong interpretive statements; his phrasing tends to stay within the lines. He's not trying to channel his inner Sinatra here. If the tracks vary in their persuasiveness, there's something fun about the whole recording. It's a testament to Wilson's considerable talent -- and, of course, the timeless, generation- and genre-spanning allure of George Gershwin.

Here's a taste of the new disc, the Gershwin/Wilson song, "The Like in I Love You":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:47 AM | | Comments (4)

August 13, 2010

To welcome Friday, something 'Absolutely Fabulous'

A nice surprise last night: Robert and I got tagged on Facebook (whatever the heck that means -- we're still trying to get cool with that thing) by our Florida buddies Oline and Bill. It was a Pet Shop Boys music video we had never seen (unlike 761,000 others, just on YouTube alone) saluting one of our all-time favorite Britcoms, "Absolutely Fabulous."

Brought back many a fond memory. So I figured, hey, maybe y'all could use a touch of fun to welcome Friday (and a little break from all the ranting that has been filling up my humble blog space this week). Get out your dancing shoes and have an ab-fab day (as for me, I'm chanting as I type):

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:07 AM | | Comments (4)

August 12, 2010

For better or worse, 10-year-old 'opera singer' Jackie Evancho's got talent

I'm not sure what to make of the latest phenom from the America's Got Talented Idols or whatever it is, but 10-year-old Jackie Evancho of Pittsburgh certainly caught my attention with her curiously mature-sounding account of "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi."

(Not that I watch shows like "America's Got Talent"  -- I'm far too elitist for that, as you know, more likely to be found at snotty opera houses munching on Cheetos and guzzling Mountain Dew, as Glenn Beck would have it. I simply couldn't avoid all the references to the amazing Jackie whenever I came across any half-newsy Web page, so I finally clicked on a link to see what the fuss was all about.)

I hear that some folks have been accusing the soprano-in-training of lip-syncing, and I've got to say that was my first impression, too, both from the sound coming out and what seemed like very little movement in her mouth and throat as she sang. But everyone swears this is for real -- I've attached the clip below -- so I'll happily go along and give her snaps. (Besides, didn't we all just read that American girls are reaching puberty earlier than ever? Maybe this is just a powerful affirmation of that.)

I'll give snaps as well to

"The Phantom of the Opera," which, Jackie says, was the inspiration for her to start singing opera (I always thought that show was more likely to drive people away from opera). What I did find curious during the video lead-in to her performance for the judges was the brief snippet of her singing scales -- that was not quite the same sort of focused sound that subsequently emerged from her during the aria (I don't know how old those clips are, though).

Oh well. I don't want to let my cynical gene dominate. If that was, indeed, all Jackie Evancho delivering one of Puccini's best loved tunes (abbreviated, of course, to fit the ADD of today's TV audience), great for her. And great for a TV show to have made room for a little operatic detour from all those dreadful, wailing, crowd-rousing imitators of real pop/rock/soul/etc. singers.

I liked the way Jackie demonstrated that she had learned something about sensitive phrasing, including little touches of rubato, and I liked the way she carefully rolled each 'r' in the Italian text. A bit of wavering on the low notes made her sound like a little girl, after all (the aria was transposed down); the top register was quite pretty, and nicely on pitch. The singer could use some new facial expressions and might want to cut back on the head-shaking and rote gestures.

But this assumes she wants to go the distance and be a fully, classically trained vocal artist someday. Maybe she just wants to have fun and entertain people, maybe even become the American version of Charlotte Church. That's OK, too. (I'm trying to suppress a shudder.) Jackie's got plenty of time to figure things out, if TV fame doesn't rush in with a vengeance. The exploitation possibilities for this kid are frightening.

It's worth remembering that the late Beverly Sills was wowing 'em when she was 10, so this is not a totally unknown kind of talent. It still stands out, though, maybe more so in a world as generally uncouth as ours.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:19 AM | | Comments (59)

August 11, 2010

Wolf Trap Opera to close season with Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Wolf Trap Opera’s final offering of the season is nicely timed: Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” August makes a great month to plunge into the triple-layered world – fairies, lovers and rustics -- of this Shakespeare-inspired opera and the extra enchantment added to it by Britten’s brilliantly crafted music.

On top of the calendar alignment, the production, which opens Friday, promises what might be called a literal angle. Stage director Patrick Diamond’s approach to the work, based on his own experiences in northern places, “takes the idea of midsummer and dream literally. It’s mostly about the idea of how we go outside during the summer and lose track of time,” he says, “how the sun goes down, and it doesn’t really register. That’s the kind of world I feel these characters are in.”

Not surprisingly, Diamond has done some updating of the opera – contemporary settings are a common feature of Wolf Trap stagings. “I’ve taken things that are familiar – feather dusters, curtains, martini glasses – and de-familiarized them,” the director says. “I wanted to play off the idea of what’s real, how things are not always what you expect them to be, and the way we can’t always think beyond our own parameters.”

The scenic designer is Erhard Rom, who designed the striking sets for the company's engaging productions of Mozart’s ”Zaide” and Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” earlier this summer. To go along with the likely visual fun, you can expect dynamic performances by the participants in the company’s 2010 Filene Young Artists. The season so far has been most enjoyable, providing a combination of fresh vocal talent and strong production values, housed in an inviting ambiance – operas are given in the 375-seat Barns at Wolf Trap. I’ve found the company remarkably consistent during 10 years of attending; all that quality and imagination onstage make up for the drive from Baltimore.

The four-decade-old company has a strong track record of

finding and nurturing singers who have finished their schooling and are in the early stages of a career. After each year’s crop of young artists is assembled – hundreds audition, 15-20 are chosen -- the repertoire for the summer season is tailored to the singers. Another group of younger singers who are still undergrads or heading into grad school is chosen for the Studio Artists program that fills out the company (they typically form the chorus for the productions).

During their residency (host families provide lodging), participants plunge into vocal coaching, classes on language and character development, and sessions on career development throughout the summer. The Young Artists take the leads in the operas, and also do recitals and family programs; this year, they also took part in a concert with National Symphony at Wolf Trap’s big house, the Filene Center. The company has an enviable track record of alumni who have gone on to perform at major venues around this country and beyond.

Wolf Trap Opera director Kim Pensinger Witman says there’s an “increasingly large pool” of talent to hear each year. “But that’s not a good sign,” she says. “It was easier before for singers just starting to go professional to find work.” A familiar story -- more good musicians, fewer opportunities.

“It’s really an opera job for the summer,” says Texas-born tenor David Portillo, 30, who plays one of the rustics in “Midsummer,” the bellows-mender named Flute. “You get a chance to do a major role and work with conductors with credibility and stature.”

Portillo has relished the experience of “Midsummer.” “Flute is a role I want to do again,” he says. Ashlyn Rust, a 28-year-old also from Texas, is having a good time, too, with Britten’s opera. “I couldn’t love it more,” says the soprano, who will sing the role of Titania, Queen of the Fairies.

The score can be challenging enough; the Wolf Trap performers have to handle it while maneuvering on a sharply raked stage – “The biggest rake I’ve ever seen,” Portillo says. Adds Catherine Martin with a laugh: “When we first caught sight of it, our hearts started pounding.” But this 25-year-old mezzo, who sings the role of Hermia, is taking the incline in stride. (She’s another Texan, by the way -- fertile ground for opera singers, it seems.)

Martin also sounds assured about what happens down the road, long after this midsummer dream ends, when she and her colleagues will try to make their way in a daunting opera world. “It’s frightening, but kind of exciting,” she says. Besides, it's not like she or her colleagues want to do anything else but sing. As Portillo puts it: “This is what makes us happy.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” conducted by Steven Osgood, will be performed Aug. 13, 15 and 17. Wolf Trap Opera also will offer an interactive event called “Behind the Curtain” on the morning of Aug. 16, geared to families with children ages 5-13. Participants will watch makeup and costume teams transform the “Midsummer” cast members into opera characters; take backstage tours; and even spend some time onstage under the lights.

REHEARSAL PHOTOS BY KIM PENSINGER WITMAN (from top: Director Pat Diamond with soprano Ashlyn Rust as Titania; mezzo Catherine Martin as Hermia; tenors David Portillo as Flute and Nathaniel Peake as Snout) 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:47 PM | | Comments (0)

August 10, 2010

Follow-up to the Rosenberg, Cleveland Orchestra, Plain Dealer case

Please excuse the delay in posting, cherished cyberites. Today was moving day here at the Sun, when a lot of us had to change desks, relocating to another spot on the newsroom floor (cynics may call this a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but, hey, we'll have none of that downer talk here today).

Amid the distraction -- how could I have ever accumulated so many things in 10 years here? -- I just never had a chance to get all blog-y. But I did want to mention Monday night's Twitter-chat I had with novelist and former Cleveland Plain Dealer book editor Janice Harayda and law professor Peter Friedman about the much-debated trial involving the Plain Dealer's former, longtime classical music critic Don Rosenberg. They had great points to make, which sparked more reactions from the Twitterati. If you've got a Twitter account, do a search for the hashtag #DonR and you can read all the comments. Thanks to all of you who chimed in.

Today, my colleague Anne Midgette of the Washington Post added a great point to the discussion, noting that

the orchestra's top guy had posted a comment on my blog back when the Rosenberg affair broke open, denying any contact with the Plain Dealer, but the trial revealed that the orchestra had actively sought to "defend the interest of the orchestra and its conductor" and was "entitled to ask for fair coverage from the newspaper."

I really don't think anyone believes that the orchestra management campaigned for Rosenberg's removal. And I really don't believe that's what a classy orchestra does. Or that a classy newspaper gives in to that pressure. But I've already said enough about that.

In hindsight, as I've also often said, I wish another way out had been found. The legendary Post music critic Paul Hume -- he was a mentor to me and Don Rosenberg -- once told me that he reached a point where he was so routinely disappointed with National Symphony music director Howard Mitchell and so tired of writing the same negative reviews that he asked his editor to find another reviewer for Mitchell's concerts. Maybe if Rosenberg had reached the same sort of thinking before the Cleveland Orchestra pounced, he could have kept his old job. Maybe not.

Anyway, this was an unfortunate case from every angle. I still admire the strength of Rosenberg's convictions, though, and I wish him well.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:57 PM | | Comments (4)

August 9, 2010

Glenn Beck attacks funding for Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, cultural spending elsewhere

glenn beckThe bizarre spectacle that passes for national political discourse reached out and slapped Baltimore the other day, courtesy of Glenn Beck. I didn't think this guy could get sillier -- he's long been thoughtless to a fault -- but he did, and since he picked on something near and dear, I just couldn't let it go without comment.

In one of his by now terribly familiar, predictable tirades against -- well, against everybody not like him and everything that doesn't conform to his ideas of what the world should be -- Beck singled out cities with budget crises where they're cutting back on police, but not slashing the funding for such things as libraries, museums and, in Baltimore, the Lyric Opera House -- a.k.a. the "stupid, snotty opera house."

Beck claimed that $750,000 was in the budget for that historic venue in our fair city, while "cops are on the chopping block. This is like my wife saying we are broke, we have to cut down our expenses on food. I turn around and say, OK, when you grocery shop, no more meats, organics, milk — we're cutting that out. Just get

Mountain Dew and Cheetos ... How about we get the rich who never pay their fair share to buy their stupid snotty opera house? Would you cut the opera house or the cops? ... What does your gut tell you? That everybody involved in this is moron?"

Memo to Beck: Be careful when you throw around the word "moron."

For starters, the figure is not $750,000, but $1 million. (That should really put a tear in poor Glenn's eye.) Perhaps the crack researchers for Beck's show misread the 2008 bond issue through which Baltimore's citizens voted to approve a bond issue to borrow $1 million for the Lyric Opera House, $750,000 for the Baltimore Museum of Art, and lots of other money for lots of other cultural institutions. Sixty-five percent of the vote was in favor of the opera house bond issue, by the way. Are all of those affirmative voters morons?

Here's another inconvenient fact: Baltimore has not been cutting cops. The mayor has even proposed adding 450 of them by 2011.

Given Beck's cavalier treatment of Baltimore's reality, I wonder how much credence should be given to his rant against other cities:

It's like the damn planet of the apes. Nothing makes sense! ... The cops have to go, yet in Oakland [Calif.] they keep $7 million in costs for museums. You will lose the art in the riots anyway ... Newark has $39,608,662 set aside for Neighborhood and Recreational Services ... I think we can cut back on all the good times in Newark before slashing the cops. Philadelphia can save a couple cops right off the bat by cutting the $1 million set aside for mural arts — they already do that for free: It's called graffiti — or the $32 million for 'free libraries' — now, I love to read as much as the next guy, but you can't read when blood is pouring down your face.

Maybe if Beck spent more serious time in libraries, he'd get his facts straight and, maybe, notice what an essential role they play in the a city's life. Maybe -- this is too much to hope for, I know -- he'll find time to visit a museum or an opera house or a concert hall and come to see how important they are, too. (Mocking people who cherish the arts is one of the oldest, not to mention stupidest and snottiest, tricks in the demagogic business.)

Tough choices in tough times mean that lots of public services will be threatened in lots of places, but it's possible -- I would say necessary -- to cope with economic pressures without sacrificing the things that help make us civilized.

As for that "rich who never pay their fair share" part of Beck's nonsensical tirade, maybe he was trying some sarcastic humor. The rich obviously give plenty to the arts on a yearly basis; without them, most nonprofits couldn't exist. I doubt Beck had any idea what he was saying when he threw in that phrase.

One more thing. The Lyric Opera House is not an opera-only place. Never has been. In its 100-plus years (it sounds like Beck actually thought this was a new building, rather than a long-established one -- like I said, a little research before shooting from the lip wouldn't hurt), the Lyric has been home to orchestra concerts, dance, pop music, theater, comedy, lectures, just about everything. It strives to reach a broad part of the community, just like our music organizations and museums do.  

The money voters approved will go to badly needed renovations, so the Lyric can offer even more entertainment, bigger and better productions. And a thriving Lyric would help area businesses, from parking garages to restaurants. And that would help the city's economy. And, gee, wouldn't that be sort of, kind of, I don't know, maybe, like, a good thing? (I almost said a "progressive" thing, but I know how that word gets the veins pumping dangerously on Beck's neck.)

Call me stupid, call me snotty, but I say that Baltimore is better off for having the Lyric Opera House. On the other hand, I can't see how the country is better off for having issues of substance and importance discussed by the likes of Glenn Beck.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:38 AM | | Comments (46)

August 6, 2010

Music critic loses case against Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland Orchestra

Don Rosenberg lost his legal battle against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the management of the Cleveland Orchestra. The jury rendered its verdict this morning.

As you will recall, Rosenberg was reassigned by the paper, taken off the beat of covering the orchestra, accused of being too negative on its music director, Franz Welser-Most.

I can't say I'm surprised, but I still say it was a brave and worthy battle to fight on behalf of those who were hired to offer our opinions about artistic quality.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:41 AM | | Comments (9)

A Mozart musical interlude to help Friday along

Your humble scribe is behind on a story, late for a film screening (there's a musical connection) and just generally in a foul mood -- it's going to be a tough Friday. So I felt I needed to calm down a bit first, and thought, hey, maybe you need to, too. So this should do the trick -- the exquisite "Laudate" from Mozart's "Vespers." Two versions featuring Cecilia Bartoli. One in the studio and another live (bumpy sound -- but I couldn't resist it, 'cause it looks like Roger Sterling from "Mad Men" playing in the first violin stand):

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:26 AM | | Comments (0)

August 4, 2010

William Schuman's centennial a reminder of music we're missing

William Schuman was born 100 years ago, Aug. 4, 1910. I hate to say it, but my guess is that an awful lot of American concert-goers would not know his name, even though he was among this country's most gifted composers of the 20th century.

Although his "New England Triptych" turns up once in a while -- and I always love hearing that vibrant work -- there is so much more from his pen that we're missing in our musical diet. Maybe the pendulum will swing his way again someday.

Meanwhile, here are two fun clips to mark the centennial -- a brief interview with good sound bites; and an appearance on "What's My Line" when Schuman was president of the newly opened Lincoln Center. (Sad how we'll never go back to the days when TV could sustain a program as classy -- and entertaining -- as "What's My Line." I wish I could find reruns again -- here, the Game Show Network stopped airing it, in favor of recent-vintage crap.):

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:38 PM | | Comments (1)

Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls music incompatible with Islam

The last thing I want to do is step into the thicket of religion, politics and all that (well, actually, I love nothing more than discussing religion, politics and all that, but this blog probably isn't the best forum). Still, an article in the Guardian really got me a bit annoyed, and I felt I just had to say a word or two, even if it does mean stepping into testy waters.

A couple days ago, Iran's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke about music, and, since he enjoys something equivalent to the Pope's infallibility, I worry about how these views may reverberate throughout Iran.

According to the story, Khamenei declared

"that music is 'not compatible' with the values of the Islamic republic, and should not be practised or taught in the country ... Khamenei said: 'Although music is halal, promoting and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.' "

It gets worse. Asked by a follower if it was OK to take music lessons, Khamenei said: "It's better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music."

I know that many of the values of Islam and the West have long clashed, and I fully expect them to clash in the future. I know and respect the fact that we can't all agree on everything. But I find it depressing to think that in any country, of any faith or tradition, anywhere on this planet, someone of authority would try to discourage the natural instinct for musical expression -- folk, pop, classical, whatever.

If Khamenei meant only that he wanted to warn young Iranians away from rock or hip hop or even smooth jazz, well, I guess I could at least understand where that's coming from. But it seems he and others take a broad view that music -- except select religious and nationalistic material, of course -- is suspect, not "healthy" enough.

This strikes me as truly radical thinking, and, try as I might to understand other cultures, I don't think I could ever be persuaded that there's any justification for suppressing the basic human need for music.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (11)

Baltimore Symphony assistant conductor Mei-Ann Chen gets Chicago post

Mei-Ann Chen, we hardly knew ye.

Although she was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's assistant conductor for the past year year, most concert-goers never got a chance to experience her music-making here. Chen was largely confined to children's programs and serving as cover conductor; she never led a subscription program. But she has definitely caught the attention of the music world.

Chen, 37, has just been named music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, a dynamic ensemble known for the extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity of its personnel, programming and guest artists. She succeeds Paul Freeman, who founded the Sinfonietta in 1987 and will step down after the 2010-2011 season. Freeman describes Chen as "an amazing talent and a real presence on the podium."

The Taiwan-born Chen, the first woman to win the Malko International Conductors Competition in 2005 and the 2007 recipient of the Taki Concordia Fellowship (founded by BSO music director Marin Alsop), will be kept busy beyond Chicago. In September, she begins her initial three-year tenure as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (1)

August 3, 2010

Update on case of Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic who sued newspaper, orchestra

The trial in Cleveland being watched closely by those of us in the business of writing opinions about artistic activity is heading toward a conclusion. Final arguments were expected to be made Tuesday. My guess is the jury will have a verdict in short order.

One of the two complaints in the suit brought by longtime music critic Don Rosenberg against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was thrown out by the judge. That involved a claim of retaliation, when the paper, having taken Rosenberg off the Cleveland Orchestra beat, prohibited from ever using the words "Cleveland Orchestra" in another story. The paper argued that Rosenberg's suit made that necessary. The writer's age discrimination charge remains.

An interesting passage from the latest news report by Plain Dealer staffer Michael Scott (I've learned that his coverage has been in print as well as online) involves testimony of editors of the paper, past and present. They all admitted

"they had nearly no expertise in classical music. The three current newspaper editors, however, each responded that the decision to reassign Rosenberg was a journalism decision, not a music decision."

Former executive editor Doug Clifton, who also testified that Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most "wasn't getting a fair break from The Plain Dealer," was asked "why he hadn't consulted other classical music critics or experts regarding Rosenberg's opinions about Welser-Most. "This wasn't a judgment about music, but a judgment about journalism -- and about what constitutes fair journalism," Clifton said.

Sounds to me like the editors didn't care whether Rosenberg's artistic judgment might be valid, only that a lot of people were tired of reading it. A journalistic decision?

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:21 PM | | Comments (7)

August 2, 2010

Midsummer reading: Books on Robert Schumann and Baltimore's jazz legacy

Two intriguing new music books crossed my desk in recent days. If you're looking for something to dig into during these midsummer days -- assuming you've finished all those trashy novels you set aside for beach-side reading -- I think these would be wroth a gander.

On the classical side, a "new and expanded edition" of "Schumann, The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius," by Peter Ostwald (Northeastern University Press).

The original version of the book appeared in 1985; the author died in 1996. His wife, Lise Deschamps Ostwald, has prepared this edition and  contirbuted a chapter based on material that wasn't available when the book first came out.

As eminent conductor Kurt Masur notes in his foreword to this edition, the new information about the composer's life in the mental asylum at Endenich "is both devastating and enlightening ... we can now enter Schumann's world as we read the doctors' reports and journals on his health and daily activities."

The closing chapter by Lise Deschamps Ostwald takes us closer than ever before into the composer's sad decline.

This fuller portrait of those last years caps a still-extraordinary account of the rest of Schumann's life (including the bisexuality that other writers downplayed or never noticed). This book was an important contribution to music scholarship in 1985; it's even more valuable in 2010.

For something completely different,

check out "Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz" (Apprentice House/Loyola University Maryland -- "the country's only campus-based, student-staffed book publishing company").

This is a cool product on many levels, not the least of which is that it was put together largely by current and former Loyola University Maryland students as part of an English course taught by Mark Osteen (he and Loyola alum Frank J. Graziano edited the book).

This may not be the last word on jazz artists with ties to Baltimore, but it's a welcome addition to a subject well worth exploring.

The book covers a lot of nostalgic ground -- Eubie Blake and his teenage days in Baltimore's bordellos; Chick Webb's funeral at Waters AME Church, where Ella Fitzgerald sang "My Buddy"; Billie Holiday's ups and downs; Hank Levy's energizing days developing great jazz bands at what was then Towson State College. There are chapters on Ellis Larkin, Ethel Ennis, Cyrus Chestnut, the Left Bank Jazz Society and more, as well as a look at the much-too-small jazz scene in the city today.

The informative collection of essays largely avoids term-paper dryness as the authors explore a rich history of jazz and how Baltimore has fitted into it. The book's got a good beat.

FILE ART OF SCHUMANN; SUN PHOTO OF CHICK WEBB FUNERAL IN BALTIMORE, 1939 (Ella Fitzgerald is seen fanning Mrs. Webb)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:38 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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