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September 29, 2010

Towson University's Weill Festival shines light on composer's classical side

The biggest draw of Towson University's ambitious and enticing Kurt Weill Festival is no doubt the production of "The Threepenny Opera" that runs Thursday through Saturday. But there was quite an attraction Tuesday evening at the Center for the Fine Arts, where the spotlight focused on Weill's classical side.

His rarely encountered Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra from 1924 received a remarkable performance, featuring Baltimore Symphony concertmaster Jonathan Carney as soloist and a well-matched ensemble led by Concert Artists of Baltimore's artistic director Edward Polochick.

The score bristles with dissonance in that very 1920s way, and, though a glimmer of jazz influence pops up here and there, the overall abstractness seems at times light years away from the more familiar Weill. The concerto is constructed in a clear-cut fashion, and its thematic ideas move in ever-interesting directions, creating a most eventful experience. The central movement, itself divided into three sections with hints of nocturnal imagery, recalls the three inner movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony (recently played by the BSO).

Tension, drama, elusive resolution -- they're all part of the work's expressive force. And the stark aural contrast of solo violin against a mass of wind instruments, percussion and double bass allows Weill to create a distinctive sound-world.

Carney has done some marvelous work over the years; this

may well be the most impressive yet. His tone had a kind of radiance, even in the wildest passages, and he negotiated fiendish passage-work with aplomb. Above all, his phrasing communicated and engaged on a deep level. Polochick was a sterling partner, gaining an admirable response from the dozen-member ensemble.

Music for winds written during those same Roaring '20s by other composers filled out the program: Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik (a work that may have influenced Weill's concerto) and an earthy quintet by Villa-Lobos. The Quintigre Wind Quintet -- Sara Nichols, flute; Fatma Daglar, oboe; Marguerite Levin, clarinet; Gabrielle Finck, horn; Terry Ewell, bassoon -- delivered both works with considerable technical and interpretive flair.

These taut, vivid performances affirmed that the school is fortunate to have these players on the faculty.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

How to say goodbye: some farewells from Placido Domingo

This week's news that Placido Domingo will wind up his tenure as general director of Washington National Opera at the end of this season took some folks by surprise, inside and outside the organization. It will be, as they say, the end of an era.

Domingo will have had 15 seasons with the company, a period that saw considerable growth and, OK, some frustration, too. All in all, though, I still think it's been a pretty good run. (People who loudly carp about this performance or that production in Washington seem to forget that every night isn't exactly a winner at the Met, either.) Domingo brought a certain excitement and class to WNO, even if his over-extended life -- two opera companies to run, any number of operas to sing and/or conduct all over the world -- meant that DC sometimes felt slighted in one way or another.

Domingo's last day has officially been announced as June 30, 2011, which gives folks plenty of time to adjust to the fact that he'll be saying "addio." And, boy, does this guy know how to bid farewell, as you can hear in these vintage gems from his glory-filled career:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:42 AM | | Comments (0)

September 28, 2010

Stephen Sondheim, Kennedy Center collaborate on awards program for 'inspirational teachers'

With a national debate going on about how to improve education in this country and how to evaluate teacher performance, the news from along the Potomac seems mighty timely, not to mention welcome:

The launch of the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards, which will be given annually to "a handful of teachers, kindergarten through college."

The awards, created to honor this year's 80th birthday of the famed Broadway composer, "were initiated and funded through the generous support of [entertainment lawyer and author] Freddie Gershon and his wife Myrna," according to a Kennedy Center press release.

In that release, Sondheim says that

"teachers define us. In our early years, when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see and, as a result, help us to evolve into what we ultimately become. Good teachers are touchstones to paths of achieving more than we might have otherwise accomplished, in directions we might not have gone."

The first awards will be given out each year on March 22, Sondheim's birthday. Teachers winning the award will receive $10,00. Nominations for the inaugural awards are due by Dec. 15. A page on the Kennedy Center's Web site includes instructions on who is eligible to make the nominations, which can be submitted in written, audio or video formats. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:06 AM | | Comments (1)

September 27, 2010

Placido Domingo will end his tenure as general director Washington National Opera in 2011

For months now, Washington National Opera has been the source of tantalizing reports and rumors. Late Monday, official word came about one of the matters being widely discussed: Placido Domingo will conclude his long tenure as general director June 30, 2011. Still up in the air is whether the company will be folded into the Kennedy Center in the future, as has been widely surmised. (Such a move would no doubt lead to  rethinking of the general director post.)

Domingo, the stellar tenor (and, lately, baritone), has been associated with the administration of WNO since 1996, when he was named artistic director. His title was upgraded to general director in 2003.

A statement released by WNO includes Domingo's remarks to the company's board of trustees on Monday: "For the last 14 seasons, I have had the great pleasure of leading the Washington National Opera. It has been a long and fruitful collaboration, and although I will continue to help the company artistically in any way possible, the current season — my fifteenth season with Washington National Opera — will be my last as General Director."

The fact that Domingo has spent several years as a bi-coastal administrator, serving concurrently as general director of the Los Angeles Opera, raised

concerns on both coasts. Although he never lacked for detractors when it came to running either opera company, his commitment, energy and imagination certainly won admirers as well. And, at least early on, he managed to make both communities feel he was part of them. Audiences routinely greeted him with affection.

Earlier this month, he extended his contract in L.A., where he just performed the world premiere of Daniel Catan's "Il Postino." (The more conservative WNO board has not show much interest in launching new operas.)

It is beyond doubt that Domingo gave WNO an artistic boost, attracting major vocal artists, including soprano Renee Fleming; expanding the company's repertoire; and developing a fine development program for young singers. During his tenure, the company started annual outdoor simulcasts on the National Mall and, recently, D.C.'s new baseball stadium.

In a press release, WNO president Kenneth R. Feinberg said: “We appreciate all that Plácido Domingo has done for our great company. He will be missed, but all good things must come to an end." ... While today’s news may mark the end of the formal marriage, we are looking forward to artistic collaborations in the future.”

Domingo is still scheduled to perform with the company this spring, singing in a production of Gluck's "Iphigénie en Tauride" and conducting performances of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and Donizetti's "Don Pasquale."


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:10 PM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Concert Opera opens season with 'Barber of Seville'

The opera-in-concert-format genre appears to have taken hold around here.

The demise of the Baltimore Opera Company provided an extra opening for the more economical, un-staged approach, and some singers associated with that former institution stepped through it. They formed Baltimore Concert Opera an outlet for musicians from the area and beyond. It was launched in the spring of 2009 and has found a comfortable home in the elegant domain of the Engineers Club at the Garret-Jacobs Mansion. 

I stopped by Sunday afternoon's performance of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" -- just the first half, actually; I had a play to review later that day. (Please don't tell anyone, but I like Act 1 of this opera a whole lot better than Act 2, so it worked out fine for me. And all the principals get something substantive to sing in that first act anyway.)

The company, which uses only piano accompaniment, wisely dispensed with the overture and also cut out the recitative. I could understand the latter decision, but it seemed a pity not to include at least the charming recit passage where Figaro ends up amusingly spelling out Rosina's name; that would have been more fun to hear than company general director Brendan Cooke's description of it.

Cooke spiced his narration throughout with cheeky lines, and several of those set off rim-shot jokes delivered solely by surtitle. I'm not sure so much shtick added greatly to the presentation, but the audience seemed to have a good time with it.

As for the actual opera portion, that was

in exceedingly energetic hands and voices. Given the fairly loose situation of the concert format, the singers could indulge to their hearts content, and so they did, as much musically as theatrically (lack of sets and props hardly hindered them).

In the title role, David Krohn offered remarkably vivid phrasing that needed only a little more tonal weight behind it.

Tim Augustin, as Almaviva, sounded like he he has spent valuable time studying legendary tenor Tito Schipa; I sure can't imagine a better role model. It was gratifying to hear such elegant shaping of melodic lines, complete with gentle gradations of dynamics. Augustin wasn't always able to sustain tonal smoothness (top notes could be effortful), but the musicality was consistently impressive.

Heather Johnson, an engaging Rosina, used her solid, colorful mezzo tellingly.

Stephen Eisenhard animated Bartolo's music with genuine buffo flair, if not always quite enough vocal heft. Jeffrey Tarr's Basilio was likewise vibrant in style and just a bit short on tonal punch at climactic points. The rest of the participants rounded things out effecitvely.

Gary Casity conducted with a flair for rubato, and Jim Harp delivered the accompaniment with abundant flourish.

Next up for Baltimore Concert Opera: "La Boheme" in December.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:18 PM | | Comments (0)

Christoph Eschenbach begins National Symphony tenure with help of Renee Fleming, Lang Lang

Saturday night at the Kennedy Center was my idea of a truly festive gala concert. It marked the official start of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the opening of the ensemble's 80th season; he's also now the music director of the Kennedy Center itself, which expands his potential impact. While not perhaps as high-profile a news item as Riccardo Muti's taking of the Chicago Symphony's helm this season, Eschenbach's arrival in D.C. is, in my book, a huge deal.

This German-born pianist and conductor is, to begin with, a first-rate musician. Some folks (in Philadelphia, especially, where Eschenbach had a relatively short time leading that city's famed orchestra) never seem to notice -- or give sufficient credit for -- this fact. I've never understood how you can possibly miss it. The thing that really counts is that he's also a provocative musician -- in the best sense of the word. His ideas about interpretation command attention and, quite often, debate, which strikes me as an awfully healthy thing.

Saturday's program managed to be at once entertaining and substantive. Gala occasions for arts organizations are often mostly concerned with surface diversion for the people who cough up lots of money (they're not necessarily devout music lovers). In this case, the total raised from the event was about $1.7 million, a record for the NSO, said Kennedy Center chairman and Baltimore native David Rubenstein. For their efforts, these patrons were rewarded with two superstar guests, the radiant soprano Renee Fleming and the flashy, splashy pianist Lang Lang.

That guaranteed a certain crowd-pleasing quotient in itself, but Eschenbach raised the evening an extra notch by his choice of programming and his approach to everything on that program.

In two evergreens by Johann Strauss, the "Fldermaus" Overture and the "Emperor Waltz," the conductor brushed aside all evidence of the routine and made both sound fantastically fresh. He did so partly by

applying delicious use of rubato, partly by even more delicious, ever-so-gentle changes of dynamics. Above all, he treated this music as he would Brahms or Mahler, and that respect paid off handsomely. The NSO did some very classy playing in these items -- disciplined, yet with a spontaneous air and lots of personality.

Fleming appeared on the first half of the concert and almost walked back off before singing a note – all in jest. What happened was that the soprano got to the center of the stage only to discover that concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was wearing a gown of almost the same green shade. To great laughter in the house, Fleming mimed full diva outrage. Once that cute shtick was over, she settled into a captivating performance of the "Four Last Songs" by Richard Strauss, long a specialty; she and Eschenbach recorded the songs some years ago.

Profoundly beautiful reflections on approaching mortality aren't necessarily the most obvious gala fare, but these songs fit this occasion perfectly. The performance was notable for spacious tempos and abundant nuance of phrasing.

Fleming's voice didn't always cut easily through the sumptuous orchestration, but she nonetheless managed to communicate richly. The conductor drew admirable sensitivity from his ensemble, with many a finely shaped phrase and carefully calibrated dynamic shading. Some details might have been even cleaner, but it was impossible to miss an orchestra connecting to the artistic pulse of its music director. Fleming followed the “Four Last Songs” with an encore, also by Strauss, "Cacilie," and delivered it elegantly; cConductor and orchestra again provided full support.

Lang Lang's showpiece came on the second half of the program -- Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. The soloist was in a wildly individualistic mood, as usual, this time pushing extremes of adagio and pianissimo, rather than taking a more predictable, keyboard-bashing path. I'm sure some people thought its was all hideously mannered, self-indulgent tripe – Lang Lang always rubs certain types the wrong way -- but I found myself enjoying the delicate articulation, the dreamy lingering over the sweetest melodic lines. This is, after all, a concerto of the most romantic sort, and the pianist simply relished every opportunity to milk that element. It worked for me, at least in that time and space.

Eschenbach took nothing for granted with the orchestral role, ensuring an ever-eventful contribution from the players. There was a sense of a total collaborative effort, never mere background to the soloist.

Lang Lang's encores were done in the form of piano duets with Eschenbach -- two movements from Debussy's Petite Suite, performed with infectious charm and  punctuated by enough bouncing and weaving from Lang Lang to add an dose, for better or worse, of comedy.

Eschenbach then asked Fleming -- now in a black gown -- to return for one more encore and sat back down at the keyboard to accompany her in the sublime "Morgen" by Richard Strauss. She sculpted the vocal line most exquisitely, while Eschenbach provided a model of pianistic refinement and subtle expressive power. 

The evening clearly signaled that there will be many attractions to come in what promises to be a most interesting and rewarding musical adventure in Washington.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:10 AM | | Comments (1)

September 26, 2010

Baltimore Symphony opens season with Mahler and Mahler-ized Bach

Let the Mahler season roll.

Friday night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra fired the first shot in its commemoration of the composer's dual anniversary -- the 150th of his birth, the 100th of his death -- with a demanding program that made up in expressive energy for what it lacked in technical discipline.

The main item was Mahler's sprawling, quirky Symphony No. 7. This is the supposed problem child among his symphonies, the one that doesn't get much loving.

Part of the difficulty, perhaps, is that Mahler infused this score with layers of humor and even satire that aren't easily grasped. Some of the big, brassy gestures in the finale, for example, have a streak of parody in them; played too straight, they can just seem pretentious or hollow.

How seriously do we take the first movement's funeral march? And what's the relationship between a central scherzo, where things keep going bump in the night, and its surrounding movements labeled "night music" -- one sparked by odd marches, the other by the unexpected piquancy of mandolin and guitar?

It all adds up to quite a journey of the aural senses, and, for those of us easily drunk on Mahler, it all makes perfect sense, too.

BSO music director Marin Alsop has developed admirable chops for Mahler. Although she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein, she doesn't go in for quite the same sort of deep-emotion, soul-on-sleeve approach he developed. She tends to

make her points a little more objectively. That doesn't necessarily mean coolly, as evidenced by her richly satisfying performance of Mahler's Ninth last season.

For the Seventh, Alsop stressed propulsion above all. Although the first movement felt a little fast to me, the sense of tension and momentum proved effective. More in subtle gradations of dynamics and coloring would have been welcome in the three middle movements, but plenty of beauty and meaning nonetheless emerged through the conductor's shaping of phrases.

The finale suggests a crazy mash-up of Mozart's Overture to "Abduction from the Seraglio," Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger," Viennese operetta and any number of other Mahler symphonies. It's a fun, brilliant ride, and Alsop captured the music's spirit and drive with great panache.

Happily, by the time the BSO, expanded for the occasion with extra players, reached that bracing finale, it was sounding like a major orchestra and really rocking the place. Earlier, especially in the opening movement, things weren't always polished; assorted mishaps in the brass were particularly dreadful. Still, lots of the music-making had an impressive strength and character, especially from the strings, and several solo efforts, including from the tenor horn in the first movement, hit the spot.

The evening opened with a novelty -- Mahler's arrangement of movements from Bach's Orchestral Suites. When he prepared this material in 1909, Mahler didn't have to fear the historical authenticity police (we're closer now to true Bach performance practice than Mahler was a century ago). He freely used the full complement of strings, for example, and reinforced musical lines here and there. It's romanticized Bach, just as the transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski and others prepared in the decades after Mahler are romanticized, but entirely respectful and highly effective all the same.

Alsop fashioned an eloquent account of the suite and coaxed warm, cohesive playing from the BSO. There will be more of Mahler's intriguing arrangements later in the BSO's season. I can't wait.

PHOTO (by Dave Hoffmann) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:58 PM | | Comments (4)

September 23, 2010

Why 'Rusty Musicians' and other outreach projects matter

A couple of images have stayed with me since the "Rusty Musicians" event offered by the Baltimore Symphony the other night at Meyerhoff Hall:

Phil Munds, the orchestra's first-rate principal horn player, sharing the daunting solo in the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird" with his "rusty" stand-mate and giving her a hearty pat on the back when they were through it; BSO principal percussionist Chris Williams keeping a close eye on the "rusty" timpanist, helping him with cues and giving a thumbs up after a big, forceful moment in Brahms' "Academic Festival" Overture.

That's what this unusual project is all about -- inspiring amateur players to take a stab at playing onstage with the pros, and encouraging the pros to reach out and encourage them. (If you missed it, you might want to see my story about the "Rusty Musicians" at Meyerhoff; you'll find a photo gallery and video, too.)  

This is not what musicians sign on to when they join a big-time orchestra; they expect to be spending their time in the oh-so-professional realm of high art. They might do some teaching, and, yes, they'll usually go along with some annual side-by-side performance with local students, in the sacred name of education (and the grants that can generate). But four hours of sitting with "rusty musicians"? Or spending a whole week doing that sort of thing and much more during a summer camp for amateurs? Isn't that, well, demeaning, or, at the very least, distracting?

I have heard a couple BSO players suggest that

Rusty Musicians and the BSO Academy (it debuted last June), cornerstones of music director Marin Alsop's tenure so far, are certainly worthy, but have the danger of causing the orchestra to shift its primary, essential focus on achieving and maintaining the finest artistic quality. I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of BSO musicians share that concern, but I also suspect that most have come to embrace the point of trying fresh ways to connect with more and more folks in the community.

Orchestra industry studies have indicated that a considerable majority of audiences for classical concerts have studied an instrument at some point. Maybe they haven't played in years; maybe they're members of community bands or amateur chamber ensembles. Whatever the case, maybe they'd just love to see, hear and feel what it's like to be onstage with a major orchestra, if only once in their lives. And maybe that experience will make them care more about music-making and music-makers than they had before. And maybe their families and friends will pick up on that re-charged enthusiasm. A pretty cool scenario, I'd say, and not really far-fetched.

All the angst over the audiences classical music doesn't reach should not keep orchestras from trying to fire up the audiences classical music has. (If you said the same thing about newspapers and their readers, I'd be inclined to agree with you, but wouldn't dare say so here.)

In my usual skeptical way, I would have thought that only 45 minutes onstage with Alsop zipping through a little Brahms and Stravinsky might be more frustrating than satisfying. But one look at the faces on the "rusties" pouring into the green room at the Meyerhoff after the first session spoke volumes -- I'm talking super-smiling faces, the kind of cheeriness that, if harnessed, could power the night lights at Camden Yards. (With more than 250 amateurs turning out for the event, they were divided into four groups; the ensemble for each session with Alsop was about 60 percent rusties, 40 percent BSO players.)

It's such a simple idea, really, this get-out-your-old-instruments-and-jam-with-us offer. And so uplifting. It's precisely the kind of thing that more and more professional orchestras will need to consider doing if they want to be -- in the catchword of the arts world today -- relevant.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (4)

Donations to Baltimore's Lyric, DC's Kennedy Center set standard worth emulating

A lot rich folks out there are sitting tight on their gazzilions, relishing the fact that they're part of a small aristocracy, American-style, that gets to hoard a huge percentage of the nation's wealth (I imagine several of them really do believe they can take it with 'em), and deeply dreading the prospect that they might soon have to pay a tiny bit more in taxes. But it's great to see that other members of the well-off set are still engaged in sharing their gains through the noble, priceless practice of philanthropy.

On Tuesday, movers and shakers from the Baltimore area gathered at the old Lyric Opera House to honor Patricia and Arthur Modell for their $3.5 million donation toward the renovation of the venue, which now bears their name. And on Wednesday, the Kennedy Center announced a remarkable $10 million gift from its own chairman, David M. Rubenstein, in support of the National Symphony Orchestra, new programming initiatives and more.

Such acts of kindness mean more these days than ever, since all cultural organizations and endeavors face extra financial pressure in recessionary times. (I know, the recession officially ended some time ago, according to great experts, but what do those policy wonks know about real life?) If we're lucky, more people from the upper echelon will be motivated to emulate Rubenstein or the Modells -- after all, there's something of a

movement going on, thanks to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, to get the super-rich to donate a substantial portion of their wealth, so the peer pressure is already on.

And, in case any of you upper-crusties need a little inspiration, I'd like to suggest that someone step up with another big gift to the Lyric -- I mean, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. A total of $12.5 million is going into the badly needed upgrading of the Lyric's stage area, so we'll end up with a much more versatile house inside next year, but the outside will, alas, still look dreadful. I wish we could go all out an improve the whole place.

Somewhere along the line, a heavy, oh-so-20th-century-in-the-wrong-way exterior was stuck onto this 1894 theater. I know there were good reasons at the time, and I know that the addition proved valuable in several ways -- a proper lobby, for one. But next time you're on the Maryland Avenue side of the Lyric, where scaffolding now indicates the renovation work in progress, look up and see the original red brick rear wall of the opera house. Imagine if something architecturally similar could be seen on the sides and front of the space, providing a truly elegant and distinctive look. Right now, the heavy bulk of the edifice resembles a 1960s office building with an almost brutalist streak. Yuk.

I think of what the Peabody Institute managed to achieve a few years ago during renovation and expansion there -- an effective fusion of the new, the retro and the original. That's my lil' ol' dream for the Lyric. Now all I need is a big-hearted billionaire to fulfill it.

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:57 AM | | Comments (2)

September 22, 2010

Kennedy Center receives $10 million gift from its chairman, Baltimore-born David Rubenstein

The Kennedy Center announced Wednesday that it has received $10 million from David Rubenstein, who was named chairman of that cultural institution in May.

The gift, spread over five years, includes $5 million for the National Symphony Orchestra "in celebration of the arrival of music director Christoph Eschenbach," to quote the press release.

Eschenbach's much-anticipated, long-awaited tenure begins Saturday with a starry gala featuring soprano Renee Fleming and pianist Lang Lang and continues next week with performances of Beethoven's Ninth.

Rubenstein, a Baltimore-born billionaire and major philanthropist, is co-founder and managing director of the private equity firm called the Carlyle Group. Among recipients of his generosity are

Johns Hopkins' Children's Center, the National Book Festival and Baltimore City College.

The latest grant to the Kennedy Center, which has received millions from him before, provides $2.5 million for artistic programming; "a significant production each season at the Kennedy Center called The Rubenstein Program" will be the result. Another $1.5 million will support the center's educational activities. Additional beneficiaries include the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Kennedy Center Honors.

Rubenstein "gives in ways that support programs in which he truly believes, and that inspire others to do likewise,” Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser said in a statement.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:14 AM | | Comments (1)

September 21, 2010

Sunday in review: Keng-Yuen Tseng and Maggini violin; guitarist Ana Vidovic

I spent my Sunday afternoon in a Peabody frame of mind.

The 390-year-old Maggini instrument recently donated to the Peabody Institute lived up to its advance publicity in a lively program performed in Goodwin Hall by the excellent violinist Keng-Yuen Tseng, chair of the string department at the conservatory.

Afterward, I headed down the street to An die Musik, where first-rate guitarist Ana Vidovic, who studied at Peabody with Manuel Barrueco, gave a recital.

Tseng's concert marked the public debut of the Maggini fiddle, donated by Karl Kostoff, an 85-year-old Montgomery County resident who left the orchestral world in the early 1950s (he played for a time in the BSO and NSO) to pursue a career in the scientific arena. 

He acquired the violin without knowing its value, paying $9,000 40 years ago for a bit of history recently appraised -- conservatively, some would say -- at $350,000. It's now the most valuable instrument in Peabody's collection.

A packed house turned out for the Maggini's first appearance in public. Tseng devised a sensibly short, colorful cross-section of repertoire to show off the fiddle, especially its darkly beautiful tone, which registered to keen effect in

pieces by de Falla and the Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."

The violin's quality was matched by the violinist's. Tseng sculpted Dvorak's "Romance" with particular warmth and brought abundant charm to some of Kreisler's less-often encountered bon-bons ("La Gitana" and "Toy Soldier's March"). In "Bess," Tseng had the fiddle "singing" wonderfully. His accompanist, Sheng-Yuan Kuan, a grad student at Peabody, provided admirable technical finesse and expressive flair at the piano. The crowd coaxed two encores from the players, including, appropriately, the Bach piece popularly known as "Air on a G String." As Tseng noted, the Maggini has a very nice G string.

Ana Vidovic has become a major artist in the classical guitar world. Her appearance at An die Musik reconfirmed why. She has a finely honed technique and a remarkable stylistic sensitivity that allows her to communicate eloquently.

I caught the first half of her sold-out recital, which included two of the greatest hits from the guitar repertoire, Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" and Albeniz's "Asturias," both delivered with a deliciously subtle range of expressive coloring. A sampling of Piazzolla's seductive work inspired sensual playing. Vidovic brought a spontaneous touch to three of Toru Takemitsu's disarming arrangements of pop songs, including the Doris Day classic "Secret Love."

It was also great to hear Stanley Myers' "Cavatina," the bittersweet gem used as the main theme in the riveting film "The Deer Hunter," played so tenderly. Here's a video of Vidovic performing that exquisite "Cavatina." The video was taped at another place on another occasion, but it captures the same authority and artistry the guitarist demonstrated Sunday in Baltimore:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

September 20, 2010

Placido Domingo re-ups as general director of Los Angeles Opera

Famed tenor and workaholic Placido Domingo has extended his contract as general director of the Los Angeles Opera through 2013. The contract will renew automatically after that by mutual consent.

Domingo is about to sing the role of Pablo Neruda in the world premiere of Daniel Catán's "Il Postino" with the company, which is marking its 25th anniversary. He has been general director of LA Opera since 2003, having served as artistic director since 2000.

He is also general director of Washington National Opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:21 PM | | Comments (0)

New opera house in London latest attempt to bring high art to the masses

I'm of two minds (well, more like a mind and a half) when it comes to the whole let's-bring-high-art-to-the-masses thing. I'm all for breaking down barriers, especially economic ones, but I wonder sometimes if there's a price (so to speak) for altruism.

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to afford a good seat to any first-class presentation of an opera, orchestra concert or play. Not too likely, though, is it? What is possible is setting aside low-cost tickets, which many organizations do, from our own Baltimore Symphony to the mighty Metropolitan Opera. There ought to be more and more of this sort of thing -- underwriting by the wealthiest patrons and corporations that opens doors to more people.

The other side of this coin has to do with smaller venues and smaller budgets -- being able to put on performances at a fraction of production and ticket costs associated with big venues. There's a reach-the-masses element to this as well.

In London, a new "opera house" is set to open next month with an updated version of "The Barber of Seville" in a combo pub-theater called The Kings Head. Top price for performances will be about $24. After "Barber" will come a "Madame Butterfly" set in Thailand instead of Japan, with the heroine a "Ladyboy" (whatever that is -- I live such a sheltered life) and Pinkerton as an American Airlines pilot. For the masses, indeed.

A very impressive roster of backers for the venture includes director Jonathan Miller, playwright Tom Stoppard and actress Joanna Lumley (sorry, but I'm envisioning Pats, of "Ab Fab" fame, getting down with the common folk at an opera).

This is another earnest attempt to reach people who, it is presumed, would otherwise never attend an opera, certainly not at Covent Garden. In a Guardian article, Miller goes so far as to say it's positively "immoral"

to have "huge ornamental opera productions being staged" at the traditional houses at a times of such economic difficulty for so many people.

So the Little Opera House, as it apparently will be called, will provide affordable performances in a setting that promises intimate, vivid experiences for audiences -- audiences who aren't, in Miller's words, all about "luxuriating in displays of their wealth" (Miller, who has made a good living directing in opera houses where rich people are known to congregate, is obviously capable of singing very different tunes).

You can find other, mostly predictable comments in the article from those involved in launching this opera house -- how social barriers will be erased, how young singers will gain valuable experience, that sort of thing. All perfectly reasonable. But if you scroll through the comments posted, you'll find a very lively debate. Seems like some people aren't buying the concept. "It is okay for some areas of entertainment to have a niche appeal," writes one reader. Others are supportive: "To all those refined souls who can't bear the thought of Puccini in a pub I say, go and boil your stupid heads." My favorite comment is the most succinct: "Oh, dear."

I think it's worth asking if opera can ever appeal to the masses? Should it? Why? How much is lost when the original size and scope of an opera is substantially reduced in the name of accessibility, or just plain budget limitations? Given stiff entry fees for so many sports and pop music events, why is it that opera is the one still stuck with the only-for-the-rich tag? 

Here in our fair city, several groups now present opera, staged or in concert form, at reasonable prices in small venues (no pubs, yet, as far as I know). Whether the "masses" check out the action is another story, but at least the opera-tunities are there. We can debate their merits all season long.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (2)

September 19, 2010

In Sunday's print edition: A look at the Mahler season

To ensure fulfillment in your life, I thought I should mention -- in case you missed it -- the story in Sunday's print edition about the Mahler season ahead locally.

I think it's pretty cool that, in the Baltikmore/DC area alone, you can hear six of the symphonies, plus "Das Lied," "Kindertotenlieder" and "Ruckert Lieder." And that's just for starters. With the BSO's Mahler-as-arranger additions to the lineup, the commemoration of the composer's birth/death years looks awfully enticing.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (0)

September 16, 2010

Washington National Opera opens season with generally effective 'Masked Ball'

Washington National Opera enters the 2010-11 season amid lots of questions about the future – Will the company be absorbed into the Kennedy Center in an effort to improve the financial picture? If so, will that cause great angst among the donor class? Will the ever-over-extended Placido Domingo remain at the helm for much longer? Who will the new music director be, now that Heinz Fricke has given up the post due to ill health?

While breathless souls await outcomes to these and other burning issues, audiences can take in a production of “Un Ballo in Maschera,” one of Verdi’s greatest works. There are so many things about this opera that never fail to floor me. I’m particularly fascinated by the deep coloring of the orchestration, the way that key dramatic moments can generate such unnerving force (as in the Ulrica scene) and the way intimate moments in the plot are so deftly crafted – all pointing the way toward “Aida.” And no one has ever captured in music the sound and impact of derisive laughter more perfectly than Verdi does in Act 2. Genius. 

So, OK, there is that little matter of the libretto. For the longest time, opera companies were stuck with the hard-to-swallow version the censors allowed Verdi to use, where the action takes place in colonial America. I never could buy totally into that one. These days, you’re more likely to encounter “Ballo” placed into the setting the composer envisioned – late 18th-century Sweden, where the target of conspirators is King Gustavus III (not the "Governor of Boston"). That’s how WNO is presenting it.

This still leaves the problem of character names. I don’t care what the program book says. You might be able to think of the tenor as Gustavus, rather than Riccardo, but Ulrica will always be Ulrica, never Mam’zelle Arvidson. Renato will never be Count Anckarstrom.

Anyway, I caught up with the WNO production on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. All things considered, a decent night in the opera house.

The standout in the cast was

Tamara Wilson as Amelia. Her soprano possesses considerable warmth, not to mention agility and sureness throughout the registers. The high pianissimo she produced at the start of the line “Ah, miserere di me, Signor” in her Act 2 aria was but one admirable example of the technical caliber of Wilson’s singing. The affecting emotion she imparted subsequently in “Morro, ma prima in grazia” was but one example of her communicative skill.

Salvatore Licitra is a problematic singer. He was hailed as the next big thing in tenorhood some years ago, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype. As Gustavus, he produced a big sound, but also a rather dry one. I hoped for more richness and nuance. Still, there was a dynamic styling in his phrases and a certain engaging quality to his characterization.

Luca Salsi was pretty much a one-volume-fits-all baritone as Renato, and that volume was loud. He always sounded pushed to the limit, with no more to give. Still, he had a good deal of dramatic impact in the third act. Elena Manistina’s mezzo was on the light side for Ulrica, yet secure and always expressive. Micaela Oeste’s Oscar had sufficient vocal brightness and abundant physical energy. With his burnished baritone and sensitive dynamic shading, Aleksey Bogdanov made a strong impression in his brief appearance as Christian (known as Silvano in the Boston version). Kenneth Kellogg (Count Ribbing) and Julien Robbins (Count Horn) got the job done sturdily enough.

The chorus was in cohesive, responsive form. The orchestra, too, excelled. Conductor Daniele Callegari drove the music along. More rhythmic expansion would have been welcome here and there, but the tension he achieved paid dividends all evening.

Allen Moyer’s economical set design was a little drab and, in the first act, relied heavily on chairs – now one of the oldest and most tired of contemporary stage props. The ball scene, in particular, lacked elegance, especially since James Schuette costumed the choristers in the same colorless fashion and gave them identical, hand-held masks. It was a look, just not a terribly interesting one.

Director James Robinson kept the action flowing effectively and added some telling bits along the way, such as Gustavus miming a heart attack after Ulrica made her doom-filled prediction of his fate. But I wasn’t persuaded by the sight of Oscar trying to go for a piggyback ride on Count Ribbing, and I sure could have done without the puppets that were dragged out during the ball.

Performances continue through Sept. 25. Sunday's matinee will be simulcast at Nationals Park, where admission is free and 20,000 opera fans are expected.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Cylburn, Clarice Smith Center to commemorate Schumann bicentennial

This being the Mahler season -- his dual anniversary (150th of birth in 2010, 100th of death in 2011) has understandably become a major focus of programming around the music world -- it's nice to see that there's still room to acknowledge other milestones. The bicentennial of Schumann's birth in 2010, for example.

I mentioned in an earlier post the rare performance of the composer's Mass, courtesy of the Concert Artists of Baltimore on Oct. 16. That month will also see two other notable commemorations of Schumann's genius.

On Oct. 3, the Cylburn Chamber Music Series opens its sixth season at the historic Cylburn Arboretum with a lieder recital by baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Eva Mengelkoch. The featured work will be Schumann's absorbing song cycle "Dichterliebe." That would be reason enough to catch the program -- the work is one of Schumann's finest, and the duo of de Ryke and Mengelkoch has a track record of refined music-making -- but there's more. Selections from the "Hollywood Songbook" by fascinating 20th century composer Hanns Eisler will also be performed. (Space is limited at Cylburn. To reserve a seat -- admission is free -- email or call 410-367-2217.)

Later in the month, the University of Maryland School of Music presents the Schumann Bicentennial Festival and Conference at the Clarice Smith Center. Highlights: a concert of chamber works performed by faculty on Oct. 19; eminent musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen will accompany tenor Christoph Genz in what is billed as a "seldom-heard version" of "Dichterliebe" on Oct. 20 and give a lecture on the morning of Oct. 21; also on the 21st, UM faculty artists, including mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, will explore the storied romance of Robert and Clara Schumann and their pal Brahms.

The festival closes Oct. 22 with quite an attraction:

Schumann's "Paradise and the Peri," a work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra that once enjoyed favor with the public, but has long since been relegated to the shelf for obscurities. Paul Goodwin will conduct the UM Symphony and Concert Choir. Soloists include soprano Linda Mabbs and tenor Gran Wilson.

Much later in the season, the Baltimore Symphony will offer its Schumann celebration, taking a close look at the man and the mania (the composer was ever so bipolar).

Meanwhile, October turns out to be Schumann Month around here, and that's worth noting. To get you in the mood, here's the sublime voice of Fritz Wunderlich to give you just a sampling from "Dichterliebe":

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (0)

September 15, 2010

Post-Classical Ensemble spotlights Gershwin at Clarice Smith Center

Has every angle of Gershwin been covered? Not likely. That most American of composers continues to fascinate scholars, just as he continues to engage audiences. The DC-based Post-Classical Ensemble, which can be counted on to devise programs that offer abundant context and fresh perspective, offers "The Gershwin Project: Russian Gershwin" next week at the Clarice Smith Center.

The composer, born in New York to Russian immigrants, has long been more unabashedly admired by non-American musicians than his own countrymen. I still remember the way former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov used to talk about Gershwin, always with the word "genius" said several times and with a sense of puzzlement over why some American orchestras seemed to think Gershwin was primarily for pops concerts.

As Joseph Horowitz, Post-Classical's artistic director, points out in program notes for next week's presentation, "eminent European-born musicians admired Gershwin without the qualms typically expressed by eminent Americans ... And so we should not be amazed that, behind the Iron Curtain, jazz and Gershwin were embraced with enthusiasm even when Soviet cultural propagandists looked askance."

To drive this point home, Post-Classical has engaged

Russians pianists for the concert on Sept. 24 -- Genadi Zagor and Vakhtang Kodanashvili, "products of Russian training [who] grew up in a musical culture that was never ambivalent about Gershwin."

Zagor will offer an improvisation on a Gershwin prelude and will improvise the solos in "Rhapsody in Blue," an unusual, but certainly Gershwin-esque, touch. Also on the concert will be the "Cuban Overture" and the Concerto in F. Angel Gil-Ordóñez, Post-Classical's music director, will conduct.

During a free concert on Sept. 21, Kodanashvili will play Gershwin songs and Zagor will improvise on the composer's music and take suggestions for more improvising from the audience. There will also be a free concert on Sept. 21 by the UM School of Music Faculty Jazz Ensemble featuring further takes on the great Gershwin songbook. Discussions are also part of the schedule. It should all make for interesting time in College Park. 


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

September 14, 2010

Baltimore Symphony staffer among those heading to Australia courtesy of Oprah

Sarah Haller, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's PR and publications coordinator, might not think about asking for leave from her job in December, what with the rush of the annual Holiday Spectacular and all. But, heck, how often do you get invited by Oprah Winfrey to take an expenses-paid trip to Australia for 10 days -- with John Travolta flying the plane?

Haller and her mom were in Oprah's TV studio last week, expecting a fun time to be sure at the taping of the super-host's show (it aired Monday), but not something of this magnitude. "My mom was selected as one of Oprah's 'ultimate viewers' and I went with her to Chicago," says Haller, 27, a highly effective member of the BSO's staff, as we press-types can attest. "We were just members of the audience, and we got this awesome prize."

As you've no doubt heard, all 300 people in attendance that day will receive the trip, just another of Oprah's simple little gestures of appreciation for her lucky fans. "Everyone started flipping out when we realized what was happening," Haller says. "I really didn't hear too much of what was being said. I was too busy screaming."

The lucky folks will

leave Dec. 5 from Los Angeles, returning on the 15th. "I promised [the BSO] that I''ll do everything I need to before leaving so they won't be stuck. It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Free airfare from Baltimore for Haller and her mother is included in the prize. "And Oprah's even going to help everyone pay the difference on the taxes for the trip so that won't be a burden on us," says Haller, a Baltimore native.

Although Haller's mother earned the attention of Oprah's people with her "ultimate viewer" entry (she has been watching since Oprah's Baltimore TV days), Haller and her older sister are big fans, too. "My mom raised us on Oprah, for better or worse," she says with a laugh.

When she got back from Chicago, Haller passed along the second prize last week's audience won -- a Motorola smart phone -- to her sister and, as an extra placation, offered to do a lot of babysitting in the future.

Haller did have one tiny qualm about the Australian adventure -- getting into a plane piloted by Travolta. She felt a lot better when she heard that the actor is a part-time flier for Qantas and has made the trip before.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:30 PM | | Comments (3)

September 13, 2010

Baltimore Symphony jumps into the new season

Judging by the Baltimore Symphony's concerts over the weekend, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that this is going to be a very successful new season with houses full of extremely enthusiastic people.

Saturday night's at Meyerhoff Hall gala took in nearly $800,000, a sum in line with recent years, and certainly respectable given the lingering nightmare of the Great Recession. The gussied-up and casually attired folks seemed equally entertained by a Latin-theme program (anticipating National Hispanic Heritage Month, which, I'm sure, everyone appreciated), and no wonder. It was an entertaining program.

First came the speeches, of course. There was a particularly hearty ovation when gala chair Lou Cestello spoke of how the BSO musicians had been "selfless giving back in the short term" so the organization could improve its long-term outlook. Another burst of applause greeted Cestello's announcement that PNC Bank would donate $500,000 to the BSO to help underwrite reduced ticket prices for the season. A couple of videos, including the BSO-related excerpt from a recent "60 Minutes" show, were effectively woven into the evening to remind people of the orchestra's commitment to education.

As for the actual concert, there may have been

a couple of less-than-stellar moments in the playing, but the ensemble was basically in sturdy and, certainly, dynamic shape. Music director Marin Alsop was, as usual, a continual source of rhythmic energy, charging through the irresistible "Malambo" from Ginastera's "Estancia" and finding welcome nuance in popular selections by Bizet and de Falla (the latter were accompanied by flamenco dancers Anna Menendez and Edwin Aparicio).

It's always refreshing to hear the bittersweet aria from Villa-Lobos' "Bachiana Brasileira" No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos; Jennifer Edwards was the elegant soloist. And it was a cool idea to add a movement from Rodrigo's "Concierto Andaluz," a composition worthy of more exposure; four guitarists from Peabody took the collective solo role with aplomb.

The gala's star attraction was violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who can be counted on to generate sparks. She did so here in Leonid Desyatnikov's imaginative arrangement of Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," which turns the tango-infused music into a violin concerto-like answer to Vivaldi's universally popular "Four Seasons." 

It's a clever, vibrant score filled with sultry tunes and a wealth of string-generated sound effects, including percussive ones. The wild disintegration at the end of the "Summer" movement is one of the most enjoyable bits. Salerno-Sonnenberg dug into the material mightily and enjoyed tight partnering from Alsop and the ensemble. The long, moody cello solo in the "Autumn" was eloquently played by Chang Woo Lee.

On Friday night, the BSO drew a capacity crowd to Strathmore -- the snaking Will Call line reminded me of the scene in front of Disney World rides -- for a season preview program. The turnout sent a pretty clear sign that the BSO's second home in Montgomery County was a wise investment.

I caught the first half of the program, which found Alsop leading the orchestra in movements from symphonies by Schumann and Prokofiev, as well as a taste of the fascinating Mahler arrangements that will be part of the season. Ilyich Rivas, the 17-year-old BSO/Peabody Conducting Fellow, took the podium for a sampling of his October subscription concert debut. He coaxed a gently shaded performance of the "Blumine" movement Mahler originally intended for his first symphony.

The high point for me, I confess, was John Williams' indelible music from "Star Wars," and I'm not even that much of a "Star Wars" fan. Alsop treated the score like it was top-drawer Wagner or Holst (instead of just imitation Wagner and Holst), and it really was great fun to hear the orchestra deliver it with such gusto.

The idea of a season preview program makes a lot of sense. I'm told that Baltimore BSO fans will probably get to attend one next year for the first time at the Meyheroff (they've only been done at Strathmore so far).


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (1)

September 12, 2010

Marking the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand'

"Imagine the whole universe begins to vibrate and resound." That was Gustav Mahler describing his Symphony No. 8 in a letter to conductor Willem Mengelberg. It seems that the universe vibrates at some point in every Mahler symphony, but the Eighth clearly is in a class by itself when it comes to majestic power.

On Sept. 12, 1910, a large audience gathered in Munich to hear the premiere of the work, with Mahler conducting. It was one of the few complete successes he had with the public as a composer, and no wonder. This is heavy, heady stuff, and terribly touching in its embracing scope, from the opening, soaring treatment of the ancient Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus," to the sublime closing minutes, when the text from Part II of Goethe's "Faust" inspires Mahler to a truly mystical height.

The forces needed to summon a persuasive performance of the Eighth -- it didn't pick up the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" for nothing -- keep it from being performed frequently. I'm already salivating at the prospect of hearing Valery Gergiev conduct the work next month with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Choral Arts Society of Washington and more at the Kennedy Center, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

On this, the centennial of the Eighth Symphony, I couldn't resist posting the score's finale in a particularly moving account by the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Leonard Bernstein at his Mahler-channeling best:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:24 AM | | Comments (2)

September 11, 2010

A musical reflection on 9/11: Arvo Part's 'De Profundis'

When a so-called pastor in Florida threatened to desecrate the memory of 9/11 with the burning of the Koran, a book holy to millions, I figured we had reached the lowest possible point as a nation. But I never underestimate the potential for evil and ignorance in this world. (Strange how people who throw the word 'Nazi' around these days without any justification don't seem as eager to use it when confronting a case of someone anxious to imitate genuine Nazi behavior).

People of all faiths and all nations should have pulled closer together after 9/11; for a nano-second, I think maybe a lot of them did. But, nine years later, we're as messed up and fired up as ever. With so-called patriots poisoning debates on politics and social issues every day, repeating lies and distorting facts with abandon, this doesn't seem like a very hopeful time. I shudder to think where we'll all be when the 10th anniversary of the tragedy rolls around.

On this ninth anniversary of that shattering September day, I find myself thinking how far we still have to go in the struggle for understanding, civility, peace. Seems to me we're still very much in darkness, which is why I thought of this music to mark the occasion: Avro Part's "De Profundis," a work from 1980 that gives fresh weight, poignant beauty and, perhaps, a tinge of hopefulness to the ancient prayer:

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord ... My soul waits for the Lord, more than sentinels wait for the dawn ... For with the Lord is kindness and with him is redemption."

This music may not be enough to blot out all the noise from that self-righteous, delusional Terry Jones or other mindless chatter, but I hope you find that it helps focus the mind more clearly on the loss and the lessons of 9/11:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (5)

September 10, 2010

Concert Artists of Baltimore season offers welcome rarities

Baltimore's music season gets officially underway -- well, as official as such things can be -- this weekend, with the BSO's annual gala on Saturday and a recital by Russian organist Daniel Zaretsky at Peabody on Sunday. Things will really get rolling from the 19th on. It will be easy, in the ensuing blur, to overlook a lot things, so it's wise to start planning now for your musical thrills and chills.

I know I'll miss quite a few great things -- I can't be everywhere, despite my best efforts -- but I plan to catch as much as I can. One event I'm determined to make is the Oct. 16 season-opener of Concert Artists of Baltimore, an all-Schumann program in honor of the composer's bicentennial. His Piano Concerto may not lack for attention, but it should be rewarding to hear the solo role taken by Ann Schein, the distinguished pianist who retired from the Peabody faculty a few years ago. (I found a remarkable souvenir from her past, posted below.)

Filling out the program is a real rarity, Schumann's

"Missa Sacra." Concert Artists' founding artistic director Ed Polochick suspects this will be the work's Baltimore premiere. The neat thing about an organization that has both a professional orchestra and chorus is the possibility for digging into such diverse repertoire. And the neat thing about an organization with Polochick at the helm is that you can count on some very expressive music-making.

The remainder of Concert Artists' 24th season looks enticing, too: Well-off-the-beaten-path works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Leonard Bernstein in a November program that also holds a Mozart piano concerto and a choral piece by Randall Thompson; a performance of Beethoven's Ninth in March; a celebration of Rossini in May. As usual, there's also a separate chamber series.

Now, here's that blast from Ann Schein's past -- an impressive Chopin recording made early in her career: 

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:51 PM | | Comments (0)

September 9, 2010

Celebrated soprano Leona Mitchell, long out of the limelight, to sing in Baltimore

If you thought Leona Mitchell had retired from singing, you wouldn't be alone. I haven't heard the soprano's name mentioned in ages. But I recall well the great work she did in recoridngs and on the stage, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a major draw in the 1970s and '80s, especially valued in Verdi and Puccini roles.

Mitchell moved back to her native Oklahoma in the '90s to care for her ailing mother and has been pretty much out of the public eye since. But the soprano, who turns 61 next month, never really abandoned her voice, which, I hear tell from sources I invariably trust, is in very good shape these days. All the more reason, then, to note "An Evening with Leona Mitchell" being presented by Faith Christian Fellowship Church in Owings Mills at 6 p.m. Sept. 19. In addition to a concert, there will be a multimedia look back at her career. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

Here's a sample of the soprano in her limelight years:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (1)

Another Latin Grammy nomination for Baltimore's Tonar Music

Tonar Music, the Baltimore-based record company that specializes in guitar music, has an impressive track record for attracting Grammy attention.

Tonar's first release, Manuel Barrueco's “Solo Piazzolla,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Soloist in 2008. In 2009, “Inca Dances,” a work by Gabriela Lena Frank included on a Tonar release called “Sounds of the Americas” featuring Barrueco and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, won a Latin Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

And now, Tonar has just earned another Latin Grammy nomination for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, this time for “Maracaípe” by Sergio Assad, a piece written for, dedicated to and performed by the Beijing Guitar Duo of Meng Su and Yameng Wang. They teamed up while studying at the Peabody Conservatory, where they were mentored by Barrueco. You can hear a clip of “Maracaípe” on the Duo's Web site.

Meanwhile, here's a sample of the elegant guitarists playing some Scarlatti: 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:16 AM | | Comments (0)

September 8, 2010

Feel-good story: 95-year-old amateur composer hears his work for first time

Here's a little something to brighten the day and maybe just warm the heart.

Robert “Dick” Smith, a 95-year-old, longtime resident of the Oak Crest retirement community in Parkville, Md., is an amateur composer whose love of music was triggered by an encounter with none other than Rachmaninoff.

As a teen during the Depression, Smith held four jobs, one of them as usher at Washington's Constitution Hall. It was there, in 1931, that he got to hear a Rachmaninoff recital that included, among the encores, the enormously popular Prelude in C-sharp minor. That piece, in particular, got Smith's creative ideas flowing.

Without musical training, he had to keep a sizable piano composition in his head for many years, but, eventually, with the help of his grandson's piano teacher, was able to get it put down on paper. He gave the piece it a title in 1998 -- "Life: An Impromptu" -- and, just last week, finally got to hear it played by a professional pianist (Elizabeth Borowsky) before an audience of friends and neighbors at Oak Crest. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop sent congratulations on the occasion, thanking Smith "for sharing your love of music in such a meaningful way.”

Not surprisingly, "Life: An Impromptu" reveals quite a romantic streak stylistically. I imagine Rachmaninoff would have approved. Here's a video of the premiere (and snaps to Oak Crest for making it available; a YouTube-savvy retirement community -- how cool is that?):

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:56 PM | | Comments (5)

September 7, 2010

Lyric Opera House to get new name after Modell donation

One of Baltimore's cultural landmarks is about to get a new name. The Lyric -- also known locally as the Lyric Opera House and, originally, the Music Hall when it opened in 1894 -- will become the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric on Sept. 21. (YPDATE: My story for Wednesday's paper contains mor information, quotes, etc.)

The change acknowledges a $3.5 million gift from Arthur Modell, former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, and his wife.

The donation completes a $12.5 million capital campaign by the Lyric Foundation to fund extensive renovations of the theater, which presents a wide range of entertainment events each year.

The renovations, already underway, are expected to be completed in

the fall of 2011. "With a larger stage and modern stage technology, we will be able to bring to Baltimore bigger, more sophisticated productions in a safer and more economically efficient manner,” said Lyric Foundation board president Edward J. Brody in a press release.

For decades, the Lyric was home to the Baltimore Opera Company, which folded a couple of years ago. A renovated house that could accommodate larger scenic designs was long a dream of that company. Opera still is in the plans for the renamed facility; a production of Verdi's "La Traviata," presented by the Lyric, is slated for fall 2011 to mark the completion of improvements to the interior.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:22 PM | | Comments (13)

Stories you may have missed over the weekend

Nothing like a holiday weekend to provide a good excuse for getting away from routine. Me, I defied the rules of the cyber road and forgot all about blogging and twittering and Facebooking (for shame!). I'll soon get right back into the fray, I promise.

Meanwhile, here are some things you might have missed if your holiday included a break from reading the paper -- my reviews of "Chess" in a new, highly entertaining revision from Signature Theatre (this may be the best chance the not-so-charmed musical has had yet to reclaim the limelight); the play "Travels with My Aunt" in a delectable new production from Rep Stage; and a look ahead to the Baltimore Symphony's new -- emphasis on new -- season.

There. That should keep you occupied until I can think of something fresh and brilliant. Well, maybe not that long -- no one has that much time.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:12 AM | | Comments (0)

September 3, 2010

Friday musical relief: Streisand's 'Minute Waltz'

It's Friday and I'd like to be ducking out early for the Labor Day weekend like so many others, but I have to finish a story for Sunday's paper.

I've got only about a minute left before the editors get really peeved, so, naturally, I'm procrastinating.

I figured, hey, I've got to slip in a blog post real fast before getting back to my other task (I don't want my devoted cyber fans to think I've forgotten them), and that started me thinking about someone else facing similar time constraints -- Marie Antoinette (OK, my idol Barbra Streisand, from her fab TV special "Color Me Barbra") trying to sing a version of the "Minute Waltz" before the Chopin turned to chopping:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)

September 2, 2010

Pianist Joel Fan to launch 24th season of Community Concerts at Second

Joel FanThe music season will be here in a flash. The weekend after Labor Day will see the BSO presenting opening gala; the Peabody Conservatory launching its concert series with a pair of recitals; Washington National Opera opening its production of "A Masked Ball," and more. By the 19th, things will really be in full swing.

On that Sunday afternoon, Community Concerts at Second (as in Second Presbyterian Church) will kick off its 24th season of performances with a recital by Joel Fan. This extraordinary pianist studied with Leon Fleisher at Peabody, where he earned his master's degree, and has quickly established a name for himself in the business, especially in the area of contemporary music.

I was lucky to hear Fan play a hefty program of Carter, Bolcom and Kirchner with startling command last December at An die Musik (I do mean lucky -- given the ever so modest turnout, it's remarkable that he didn't cancel), and I hope to catch the pianist's return to the area.

For his Community Concerts at Second appearance, he's chosen a wide range of repertoire. There will be sonatas by Beethoven (Op. 110), Chopin ("Funeral March") and Scriabin, along with works much less exposed works around here by the likes of

Scriabin, Schoenberg, Margaret Bonds, Ernesto Nazareth, Villa-Lobos and Dia Succari -- my kind of program.

The rest of the Community Concerts season looks as varied and appealing as ever. The Aspen String Trio, Monument Piano Trio and Brass Roots Trio (an unusual fusion of brass instruments, piano and voice) are on the lineup. Pianist Lura Johnson, BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney and former BSO principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn (now principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony) will collaborate on a program.

In addition to the Sunday afternoon concerts, there will again be the Chamber Music by Candlelight series on Sunday evenings featuring members of the BSO in all sorts of instrumental combinations. And, as usual, those programs will cover a lot of territory -- from Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms to Szymanowski, Honegger, Harbison,Takemitsu and Gubaidulina.

One new thing this season will be the performance space. While renovations are being made in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian, concerts will be held in a hall at the church.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:29 AM | | Comments (0)

September 1, 2010

Heinz Fricke retires as music director of Washington National Opera after 18 years

Heinz Fricke, widely credited with major artistic strides during his tenure as music director of Washington National Opera, has retired from that position after 18 years.

The German-born Fricke achieved notable success in the works of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, but he was a versatile, sensitive musician with a broad repertoire. In declining health for some time, he had to cancel several performances in recent seasons. He was expected to return to the podium for WNO's "Salome" production next month and the company had planned to  announce his retirement plans then, but word came last June that he would not be able to make it.

Fricke will hold the title of music director emeritus of both WNO and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestras.

Placido Domingo, WNO's general director, said

in a statement that Fricke "took a group of dedicated and gifted musicians and shaped them into a world-class opera orchestra befitting the nation’s capital. As Washington National Opera grew, Maestro Fricke ensured that the quality of music-making grew as well."

Greg Drone, principal horn player and chair of the orchestra committee, credited Fricke with raising the orchestra "to a level that was unimaginable before his arrival ... Having selected more than two-thirds of the orchestra’s musicians, his legacy will continue for years."

A new music director for Washington National Opera is expected during the company's 2010-11 season, which opens next week with Verdi's "A Masked Ball."

Here are some snippets from WNO's production of "Elektra" that Fricke conducted in 2008:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:27 PM | | 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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