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October 29, 2010

To celebrate record-breaking ticket sales for 'The Wiz,' a little quiz

Who knew a 1970s musical with a not exactly great reputation would become the runaway best-seller at Center Stage?

The company's vibrant revival of the "The Wiz" -- sensibly approached by director Irene Lewis for exactly what it is, rather than what it might have been -- has just become the best-selling production in Center Stage history.

The show surpassed the previous record-holder, "Ain’t Misbehavin' " (about $310,000), and "The Wiz" still has another week or so to ease on down the road to establish an even bigger record.

To celebrate the production's success, I thought it would be ever so fun to have a little theatrical quiz. I can't offer a great prize, other than cyber-immortality for the winner, but I hope that will be enough. Here goes:


One of the cool things about "The Wiz" is its long entertainment blood line.

There's the original book (by L. Frank Baum), which was turned into a movie musical ("The Wizard of Oz") and then a Broadway musical ("The Wiz") that was turned into another movie musical (that horrid flick with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson).

So, how many other musicals can you name that involve at least three different incarnations (literary, theatrical, cinematic, whatever)? I'll start:

"Anna and the King of Siam" was a book that became "Anna and the King of Siam" the movie, which inspired "The King and I," the Broadway musical, which was turned into "The King and I," the movie musical.

Now it's your turn. Whoever offers the most examples wins the fame: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

October 28, 2010

Another Halloween-inspired program of classical song to consider

Those of you with a musically active interest in Halloween may want to consider "Night Songs," a program of nocturnal, mystery-rich works by Schubert, Faure, Rachmaninoff and others. This presentation of the recently formed Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation features sopranos Jennifer Edwards and Natalie Conte, tenor Andrew Spady and baritone Michael Begley.

The concert won't be performed at nighttime -- you need to keep that free for trick-or-treating -- but there should still be enough atmospheric mood inside Old St. Paul's Church, where the concert will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available online or at the door. (Coincidentally, another Halloween-y treat -- a concert of songs inspired by Edgar Allan Poe -- will be sung in Bel Air at the same time.)

Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, which presented a rarely performed operetta by Pauline Viardot last summer, promises another dose of off-the-beaten-path repertoire later this season, including works of Pergolesi, Gasparini and Chaminade.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)

October 27, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra launches ambitious Center for Future Audiences with $20 million

There's enough bad news in the classical music business that any good news seems extra good. So it is with word from the Cleveland Orchestra, which has launched something called the Center for Future Audiences, an initiative that aims to put into real action what so many people just talk about -- getting new and younger audiences into the concert hall.

With a $20 million lead gift from the Maltz Family Foundation of the Jewish Federation (a $60 million fund for the project is the goal), the center will remove some of the most common obstacles to attending orchestra concerts -- ticket cost and access.

A sobering fact mentioned in the announcement of the initiative is that the average ticket price to a Cleveland Orchestra concert in the historic Severance Hall has

increased more than 300% since the mid-1980s (it's now $50). That's one way to keep young people out.

The Center for Future Audiences will attack that problem with heavily subsidized ticket prices, meaning deep discounts for the 18-34 set, free tickets to lots of events for children under 18. It's not just a youth thing. The orchestra will also arrange for free bus service from some suburbs to the concert hall, a terrific gesture.

Zack Lewis, in his story for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, includes this great quote from Ross Binnie, the chief marketing officer for the orchestra who was just named director of Center for Future Audiences: "We want to make sure there's no excuse about money, getting here or the welcome you get once you're here," Binnie said. "We're going to turn our plan on its head and say, 'You know what? Come check us out and then tell us you don't like it.' "

Other orchestra have been involved with some things like this. Here, for example, the Baltimore Symphony's $25 ticket initiative a few years ago set off a lot of buzz in the industry, as did its El sistema-inspired OrchKids project that is reaching the youngest generation with an extensive, in-school education program. The Boston Symphony recently announced a public school initiative along the OrchKids line. Every step that any orchestra makes to connect to the disconnected is obviously valuable, potentially invaluable. (A part of the Cleveland Orchestra's new ventures involves the ensemble going out more into the surrounding communities to perform.)

Orchestras that don't try new things, bold new things, are likely to find themselves not just out of touch, but out of business, in the years ahead. It's all well and good to have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, but what's more likely to count are deals that are hard to refuse. That's what I like about the Cleveland program -- the mix of free tickets and free transportation.

I don't know how it will work out. I realize not everybody likes a bus ride, even if it is free, so maybe there won't be enough takers. But it sure does make sense to try such an offer, to reach out in such a concrete way, breaking down as many of those barriers -- real and imaginary -- that keep a good many people from ever passing through a concert hall door.

Of course, you've got to make the experience awfully good for them once they get inside, which requires a lot of fresh thinking, too. Getting more diverse bodies into seats is bound to jump-start such thinking.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 26, 2010

Opera Vivente opens season with uneven "Lucy of Lammermoor"

In less than 24 hours over the weekend, I had two operatic experiences in Baltimore. Neither left me fully satisfied.

In the case of Baltimore Opera Theatre's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday night at the Hippodrome, a deficient orchestra caused considerable damage; there were some strong elements onstage, but not quite enough to outweigh the provincial ones.

On Sunday afternoon at Emmanuel Episcopal, Opera Vivente's "Lucy of Lammermoor" (Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" sung in English) had its assets, but was substantially hindered by a problematic tenor and a cramped, mostly static staging.

Both productions, though, offered an impressive soprano in the title role. Vivente's heroine, Michelle Seipel, demonstrated considerable vocal agility and style on Sunday. She added interesting embellishments in her Act 1 aria and negotiated the famous mad scene with apparent fearlessness. A little more tonal warmth and a little less vibrato would have been welcome, but this was still an admirable effort that met the bel canto challenges quite handsomely. Likewise, a little more dramatic nuance would have been welcome, but Seipel created a substantive portrayal nonetheless.

Frederic Rey was

a pale match for the role of Edgar, musically and dramatically. While I admired his effort to produce an Italianate ardor, what came through was the effort. The tenor simply lacked the solidity of tone and, except for a few welcome soft phrases, the ease of projection to carry off the assignment.

John Brandon, as Henry Ashton, sounded a bit dry at times, but, at his best, produced abundant heft and color. Christopher Austin, as Raymond, did generally solid work. Jennifer Blades was as reliable and stylish as ever in the small role of Alice. Yoni Rose revealed promise as Norman. Peter Drackley sang efficiently as Arthur, but needed much subtler acting skills. The chorus more or less got the job done. For the most part, the small orchestra held up firmly. The score (complete with the often, and understandably, cut Wolf Crag's scene) was conducted by Jed Gaylin with a good balance of propulsion and rhythmic elasticity.

Vivente founder/general director John Bowen often puts a vigorous new spin on an opera; unusual productions became something of a company trademark over the past dozen years. And when he takes an offbeat path, the results can be engaging. Here, he took a traditional route. No updating or deconstruction of the plot, no strange moves or costumes -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But even a conventional approach needs a shot of involving theatrical fire. 

Too often, singers just assumed the old-fashioned, stand-and-sing position for opera; the choristers, in particular, assembled in group formation, looking like they were waiting to have their picture taken.  Some stuffy costumes and thick wigs didn't help matters. Neither did a set design (Thomas Bumblauskas) that reduced an already small stage to a narrowly focused area, draped by ragged cloths. This might have been an attempt to emphasize the frayed, confined world that lovely, unlucky Lucy is trapped in, but it just restricted, even stifled the action.

I've lost track of how many Vivente productions made use of the aisles in the hall. Here was an occasion when such extra space could have come in handy, but it wasn't used. In the mad scene, for example, it might have added greatly to the theatricality to have Lucy wander in through the audience, rather than enter from the rear of a crowded stage and maneuver her way to the front.

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Gabe Dinsmoor)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:21 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Latest threat in conducting world comes from a three-year-old

In the world of athletic competition, there's always someone younger and faster just around the corner to challenge the current record. It's not much different in music. There always seems to be a younger prodigious instrumentalist every year, someone who can play louder and faster than the last sensation did.

Lately, it looks like the conducting field is the new breeding ground for early manifestations of talent. You've got Gustavo Dudamel taking the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest conducting all over the best places before he turns 30. Locally, we've got 17-year-old Ilyich Rivas, who just led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a subscription concert, a year or so after a gig with the Atlanta Symphony. Well, big deal.

Thanks to an NPR post by Tom Huizenga and the assistance of You Tube (how long did it take us to learn about talented kids before YouTube?), I now know about a three-year-old named Jonathan who has a pretty good handle on Beethoven's Fifth. And here I thought that the five-year-old on YouTube leading a recording of "Rite of Spring" was going to be impossible to beat in the kids-conduct-the-darnedest-things contest.

I love BSO music director Marin Alsop's comment to Tom Huizenga about

the Beethoven maestro-ini: "They're getting younger and younger all the time. Pretty soon even potty training will not be required for music director candidates."

I don't know what makes some kids so tuned into music so early. Sure, there's the imitation factor at work, but Jonathan really does seem to have gotten a good deal of the score into his ears, and seems to know what a conductor does besides keep time. And, hey, it takes a remarkable gift to deal with a runny nose and the finale of Beethoven's Fifth at the same time.

So, in case you haven't seen hi, heeeeeeeerrre's Jonathan:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:37 AM | | Comments (3)

In time for Halloween, an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired program of songs

Opera fans in the area know the name Madeleine Gray very well. The mezzo-soprano memorably sang several roles with the sadly expired Baltimore Opera Company. She has also done notable work locally with Washington National Opera, Opera Vivente and Young Victorian Theatre Company.

There's an enticing opportunity to hear her on Sunday in a program at Harford Community College tailor-made for Halloween, featuring songs inspired by life and words of Baltimore icon Edgar Allan Poe: "Telltale Hearts and Twilight Fancies."

Gray will be accompanied by pianist Bill Scanlan Murphy with what is bound to be great care -- he's her husband, not to mention music director of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, a composer for BBC shows and a naval historian on the side.

The singer got the idea for the recital from last season's vibrant Poe exhibit at the BMA, which stressed his widespread influence. The happy coincidence of a concert date on Oct. 31 sealed the deal -- it was a perfect time for some Poe-found music.

It looks like a very cool selection of repertoire, starting with

a song said to be Poe's own favorite. Settings of Poe poems by a favorite composer of the Victorians, Michael Balfe, will be included, along with recent examples of the author's words turned into music.

There's room, too, for pieces by Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Duparc and others that contain spooky, Poe-like texts. And, to show that Poe's brand of horror still has legs (or necks), Gray will also sing "Have a Little Priest" from Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."

The recital is at 3 p.m. Sunday, leaving plenty of time for trick-or-treating later on.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:24 AM | | Comments (1)

Baltimore Opera Theatre's 'Madama Butterfly' struggles to fly at the Hippodrome

As you know well by now, there's a lot of operatic activity in Baltimore these days, more than ever before, I imagine. (Quality, of course, is a whole other issue.)

Most of this activity is on an intimate level, very different in goals and resources from, say, the deceased Baltimore Opera Company. One organization does aim for something on a larger scale -- Baltimore Opera Theatre, an outgrowth of the much-traveled Teatro Lirico d'Europa. Its latest production, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was offered Saturday night at the Hippodrome and drew a very decent-sized turnout. This really is an opera town, it seems.

There is no mistaking the sincerity behind Baltimore Opera Theatre, or the value of its commitment to involve local young people in various capacities (supernumeraries, program book design, etc.). But, based on this "Butterfly" and last season's "Barber of Seville," there is also no mistaking the need for major upgrading. If Baltimore Opera Theatre is serious about establishing a presence here, there has to be a lot more than noble intentions.

To be sure, someone interested in getting the jist of Puccini's beloved opera would have done so on this occasion, thanks in large measure to Elena Razgylyaeva, who gave an accomplished performances as Butterfly. The soprano's top notes may have been uneven, but the rest of the voice had a consistently warm, well-centered sound, and she shaped her phrases with considerable eloquence. Her acting, too, was nuanced, especially in the Act 2 scene with Sharpless and the opera's finale.

Viara Zhelezova was a persuasive Suzuki, in voice and gesture. Orlin Goranov, as Pinkerton,

stayed on the surface of the role, musically and theatrically. He seemed to think he was singing Neapolitan songs, rather than Puccini, but, at his best, he produced a vibrant tone that filled out the melodic lines nicely. Gary Simpson was a sympathetic, somewhat dry-voiced Sharpless. Annie Gill sang Kate Pinkerton's few lines ably.

Guerogiu Dinev barely registered as Goro, one of the great character roles in opera. And I'm not sure what a baritone was doing singing the tenor role of Yamadori (or dressed more like a peasant than a prince, for that matter). The choristers got through their musical assignment more or less cohesively, but they didn't know what to do with themselves onstage.

Then again, it appeared that director Giorgio Lalov left most of the performers to their own devices. It was hard to detect much directorial guidance, let alone inspiration, in this production, which had serviceable scenery and costumes (credited to Lalov) and with occasionally subtle lighting.

As for the orchestra, better to draw a veil. I cannot remember the last time I heard such persistently wretched sounds coming from a brass section; intonation seemed to be a totally alien concept. The woodwinds were only marginally more reliable, leaving a thin string section to carry the weight. There's no use pretending this situation was acceptable by any professional standards. It wasn't. Under the circumstances, conductor Markand Thakar had his hands full just trying to keep things together in the pit, but he attempted more stylish sculpting here and there than he had during last season's "Barber" with the company. 

The use of amplification added an additional disappointment to the evening. As singers got closer to the microphones spread along the lip of the stage, their voices boomed absurdly (at least in the two locations I tried in the balcony). I'm no fan of any sonic enhancement in opera, but if it's going to be used, it can be -- and needs to be -- much more subly applied. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (4)

October 25, 2010

NEA Opera Honors

The 2010 recipients of the NEA Opera Honors were saluted for "their exceptional contributions to opera in America" Friday night at the Kennedy Center during a ceremony that was "called to order" by Supreme Court Justice and devoted opera fan Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Naturally, we in Baltimore are particularly pleased that native son Philip Glass was among the celebrated.


The composer has been shaking up operatic conventions for decades, both with his unmistakable brand of minimalism and his eclectic choice of subject matter.

The finale of his stunning "Satyagraha" was performed bytenor Sean Panikkar during Friday's ceremony, a cooperative production of the NEA, Washington National Opera and Opera America. Metropolitan Opera artistic manager Sarah Billinghurst presented the award to Glass.

Fans of opera singing had to be heartened to see soprano

Martina Arroyo in the select group as well; her sumptuous tone and vibrant personality made her one of the most exciting vocal artists of her time. And it's great to see that she's passing along her wisdom to new generations through the efforts of her Martina Arroyo Foundation. Notable jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera presented the award to Arroyo; soprano Tamara Wilson sang an aria from Verdi's Ernani.

Also on the honors was Eve Queler, who has championed many a neglected opera and many a rising vocal artist as music director of the Opera Orchestra of New York, and David DiChiera, whose imaginative direction of various companies, particularly Michigan Opera Theatre, has earned him industry-wide admiration.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (0)

October 23, 2010

Mikhail Simonyan, Gilbert Varga make impressive debuts with Baltimore Symphony

The guest artist roster for the Baltimore Symphony's 2010-11 season isn't exactly overloaded with celebrity names, so Midori's scheduled appearance this week stood out on the schedule.

But the celebrated violinist made a late-in-the-game cancelation, leaving the orchestra to scramble for someone to take her place in the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. What a cool replacement he turned out to be.

Mikhail Simonyan, Russian-born and New York-based, is the real deal, a young fiddler with remarkable technical aplomb and interpretive eloquence.

His memorable BSO debut coincides with that of Hungarian conductor Gilbert Varga, who's the real deal, too. There's one more performance of the all-Russian program Saturday night at the Meyerhoff; I'd say it's worth changing plans for.

The Shostakovich concerto is, like so much of the composer's output, very personal, almost uncomfortably so. You can sense the darkness and dread of the Stalin era hanging over the score; you can feel also the struggle of an artist intent on following his own path toward the light.

On Friday night, Simonyan

revealed the inner world of the score, using an extraordinarily pure, golden tone and richly nuanced phrasing. He produced some of the most beautiful pianissimi I've heard in ages. And I was impressed how he drew the audience into the quietest, most intimate portions of the work -- very little coughing in the hall, a great sign of how strongly Simonyan was connecting. When the music turned from introspection to outspoken bitterness and irony, the violinist made the switch naturally and affectingly, and with abundant bravura. He enjoyed attentive support from Varga and mostly smooth, always committed playing from the orchestra.

Glinka's familar, ever-welcome Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmilla" started the evening off vibrantly. Varga did not go for supsersonic speed here, but had the war horse galloping along nicely.

To close, there was a sparkling and absorbing performance of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." Conducting from memory, Varga went far beyond the surface appeal of this prismatic piece to conjure up its sweeping drama and often biting humor. Rapid shifts of tempo and mood were seamlessly made, and Varga ensured that the subtlest of instrumental details registered as tellingly as the most blazing outbursts of the full ensemble. It sounded to me like the musicians were having a ball. I got a kick out of the performance, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:26 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 22, 2010

Michael Ross returns to Center Stage as consultant during transition period

Michael Ross, former managing director of Center Stage, will return temporarily to the company in the capacity of management consultant on December 1 to help with the transition to new leadership.

Current managing director Debbie Chin is leaving in December; longtime artistic director Irene Lewis will step down at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Ross, who served at Center Stage 2002-2008 and enjoyed great popularity inside and outside the organization, is currently managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. He plans to stay with that company, but agreed to lend a hand at Center Stage.  

In a statement released late Thursday, the theater's board president Jay Smith said:

“Michael is a respected national arts leader who understands the inner workings of Center Stage ... We have a terrific and experienced staff in place and are highly confident about our ability to manage the organization after Debbie’s departure. However, Michael, as an additional resource who knows us well, will ensure a smooth transition to new leadership.”

A committee, headed by Center Stage trustee and Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz, is searching for a new artistic director.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

October 21, 2010

Orchestras, concert presenters need to learn from opera and add supertitles

Earlier this week, I had an all-too-common experience at a classical concert that involves the sung word.

In this particular case, the performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 by the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, there were no texts provided in the program book, and that's an awfully text-filled piece of music. A few days before that, when Concert Artists of Baltimore performed Schumann's Mass at the Gordon Center, the texts were thoughtfully provided, but the lighting was thoughtlessly kept down, so the effect was the same as if there had been no texts. In both situations, I guarantee you that a substantial portion of the audience was left in the dark.

I know my Mahler and I know my Latin Mass, but I still enjoy the opportunity to follow along with a text if I feel like it during a live performance. But I suspect

many people don't arrive knowing the score, as it were, and they may well leave the hall feeling less connected to the music simply because they couldn't relate.

I think about the poetic thickness of Goethe's "Faust" (Part II), which forms a big part of Mahler's Eighth. How many non-Germans memorize that? That Schumann Mass poses a little challenge, too, since the composer set some liturgical lines not typically included in used in a classical musical treatment. Even a text we all think we know very well -- the "Ode to Joy," for example, in Beethoven's Ninth, performed by the NSO a few weeks ago -- may not really be understood in much detail by everyone in the audience. (Kudos, by the way, to the NSO for not only having the Beethoven text, but also one for the contemporary vocal/orchestral work on the program, and for providing sufficient light.)

And don't even get me started on voice recitals, where the poor singer is wailing away -- songs in German by Schubert or in French by Faure -- while listeners are staring blankly back.

Now I know you can lead some audiences to water, but can't make them read. Many's the time I've noticed

people simply ignoring the opportunity to get more closely involved, even when texts are in the program book handed to them and the lights are left strong enough to read them easily. I wonder if some folks don't realize the stuff is there, and what's it for. Maybe someone should just make a friendly announcement before the performance.

But what I really think would do the trick -- I'm hardly the first to suggest this -- would be a version of the supertitles that caused such a sensation in the opera world back in the 1980s. I say it's way past time for orchestras -- or the halls they rent -- to invest in some version of this technology to be called into service whenever repertoire with words (especially in languages other than English) gets programmed. I hasten to add that I've seen this done on rare occasions, but it should be rule.

It's too much, perhaps, to ask of every concert presenter, chorus or vocal recitalist to have such a system, but I have seen it tried out by some modest-budget organizations with nothing more than a laptop and a screen. And I still think it would be money wisely spent.

The cool thing about using projected titles at a concert is that people can't drag out the complaint still occasionally heard about their use at the opera -- that it distracts people's attention from the action onstage. On most concert occasions, everyone just stands and sings anyway. So nothing would be lost, and so much gained, if audiences could effortlessly tune into the words just by glancing up or over, or wherever screens could be installed.

And once you can get the vast majority of a concert hall on the same wave length, the communal experience of performers and listeners has got to be more intense and fulfilling. Hey, using a supertitle-like system would even qualify as a green (at least green-ish) initiative -- saving money on paper to print translations.

Everyone says they're interested in attracting new audiences to classical music and energizing existing ones. Ensuring that they're in on anything being sung seems like an awfully obvious way to help.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:06 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 20, 2010

Midori cancels Baltimore Symphony engagement due to back injury

This week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert was to have included one of the starriest names on its lineup of 2010-11 guest artists -- Midori, the brilliant violinist who captured the attention of the music world before she reached her teens.

She was scheduled to perform the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich in the program led by guest conductor Gilbert Varga.

In a statement released Wednesday, Midori said: "I’m so disappointed to miss the opportunity to play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Varga. I have strained my back and have been strongly advised against physical exertion at this time. I greatly appreciate the graciousness and understanding of the BSO, and look forward to re-scheduling our collaboration at the earliest opportunity."

Filling in for the Shostakovich concerto will be Mikhail Simonyan, a 25-year-old Russian-Armenian violinist. The rest of the Russian program is also unchanged: Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture and Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." 

PHOTO (by Lisa Marie Mazzucco) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:58 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

A brisk, bracing Mahler 8 from Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra in Washington

In the midst of a substantial Mahler fest in New York, Valery Gergiev and his mighty Mariinsky Orchestra zipped into D.C. for a performance of the composer's Symphony No. 8 on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center.

There are never enough opportunities for live encounters with the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, so this was a must for any serious Mahler nut. It was more like Symphony of the Three Hundred in this presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society, but that number of performers provided more than enough vocal and orchestral fire power. J

oining the Mariinsky instrumentalists were singers from the Mariinsky Theatre, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, Orfeon Pamplones from Spain, and Children's Chorus of Washington, all packed tightly onto the stage and the balcony overhead. (The only thing missing was the text. Maybe the whole house knew the Latin hymn and the German words from Part II of Goethe's "Faust" by heart, but I rather doubt it.)

Although I had reservations about some of Gergiev's interpretive approach, the experience ended up reaching quite a peak of expressive force and sheer decibels. The last half hour or so were truly magical.

This was a brisk Mahler 8. Gergiev tore through

Part I, "Veni, Creator Spiritus," at a bracing clip. I wouldn't have minded more relaxation in places, but the primary message of this movement -- "Light the light of our senses, pour love into our hearts" -- emerged compellingly. The conductor also seemed in a hurry at the start of Part II. (I still vividly recall how Lorin Maazel, in his final concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic a few years ago, drew out this long orchestral passage to suspenseful and gripping effect, each tremolo from the violins, each pizzicato from the lower strings registering deeply.) Gergiev showed far more interest in the remainder of the symphony. In masterful form, he shaped the music's final rapturous ascent, slowly building toward Mahler's stunning depiction of the ecstatic loosening of earthy bonds.

There was some untidy playing by the orchestra, but also a lot of richly expressive work, including some shining violin and viola solos and warm-hued woodwinds. The choruses handled their demanding assignments with distinction; voice sections in the adult choirs were smoothly balanced, articulation clear, dynamic contrasts sensitively delineated. The children sounded charming (they cupped their hands over the mouths to produce a little more volume).

By and large, the solos singers came through in style. Lyudmila Dudinova sang with particular radiance; her fellow sopranos -- Anastasia Kalagina and Viktoria Yastrebova -- were not far behind in warmth of tone and phrase. Bass Yevgeny Nikitin and, especially, baritone Alexei Markov produced vivid phrasing. Olga Savova's burnished mezzo was another plus. Tenor Avgust Amonov was nearly defeated by the punishing high notes (like Strauss, Mahler expected the unlikely, if not the impossible, from tenors), but he regained his footing and delivered the stirring "Blicket auf" passage quite affectingly.

Mahler's Eighth, conjuring visions of redemption and the eternal life-force that might melt the most determined agnostic, remains one of the most impressive works of Western music. It felt great to be in its presence again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Revival of J.M. Barrie plays shines light again on songs of World War I

One of the many pleasures of the current Rep Stage double bill of J.M Bartie plays -- you ought to catch it -- is hearing snippets of World War I songs. They're used as background before each play and put to particularly effective service during "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," a poignant tale of two lives brought together under the most unlikely and mutually rewarding of circumstances.

Both world wars produced an awful lot of popular music, including patriotic tunes, comic ditties and the sweetest of ballads. Many songs associated with WW I may sound very dated and terribly sentimental to a lot of folks now, but there's some wonderful stuff there, in melody and lyrics. Hearing some of them at Rep Stage got me thinking about that whole genre and a piece of sheet music I bought at an antique store years ago called

"Dear Old Pal of Mine."

I had to buy this one because it said that it was sung by John McCormack, one of my favorite singers. At that point, I had not heard the tenor's recording of this particular item, but I figured the song must be at least decent (he did occasionally bother, I know, with inferior material). It turned out to be great, almost on par with the ultimate sad song of WW I, "My Buddy."

I enjoy digging the sheet music out and playing it at the piano every now and then -- with fabulous rubato, of course -- but the best way to experience it, I know, is through McCormack's golden voice, which conjures up the era so magically. I hope you find it as affecting as I do:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Rep Stage

October 18, 2010

Weekend musical pleasures: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Emerson Quartet

The weekend's musical pleasures included an all-Schumann program from the Concert Artists of Baltimore on Saturday and an all-powerful performance by the Emerson String Quartet on Sunday.

The quartet's appearance launched the 45th season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore's primary presenter of leading classical soloists and chamber ensembles. A large crowd was on hand for the occasion. Except for the student in front of me in the balcony who checked his cell phone for some sort of update every few minutes, and other students across the aisle who were much more intent on taking pictures during the concert, the audience seemed to hang on every note of the music. No wonder.

For more than 30 years, the Emerson players have demonstrated superb technical control, persuasive style and uncanny inter-communication skills. So it was on Sunday, as violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawence Dutton and cellist David Finckel focused on works rich in challenging ideas and emotional content.

From the famous opening of Mozart's K. 465, with those weird dissonances throwing the listener off balance, to the rushing end of Schubert's positively schizophrenic D. 887, with its constant shifting between major and minor, the concert yielded intense rewards. The performance of Shostakovich's devastating Quartet No. 8 at the center of the program proved

the most impressive of all, for the way the Emerson ensemble group made plain the whole, awful subtext of the score (the composer dedicated it "in memory of the victims of fascism and war").

Schumann has been receiving a good deal of attention as a 2010 bicentennial honoree. The Concert Artists of Baltimore, opening its 24th season, put both its orchestral and choral components into this commemoration Saturday at the Gordon Center.

The program offered a neat balance of familiar and rare repertoire. Representing the familiar was the Piano Concerto, which featured the exuberant Ann Schein. The veteran pianist and former Peabody faculty member demonstrated more than just the chops for the concerto; she had a way of enlivening well-worn phrases, of maintaining interest as well as momentum. I would have welcomed some softer, gentler articulation here and there, but Schein's playing was nonetheless filled with character throughout. The pianist was attentively partnered by conductor Edward Polochick, who had the orchestra responding in generally bright, cohesive fashion.  

For the rare part of the evening, Polochick dug up Schumann's Mass, Op. 147, one of the composer's last works. It is not quite a lost masterpiece, cruelly forgotten by time. It sounds too much like a composer dutifully writing sacred music, rather than being divinely inspired (so to speak).

Still, it's respectable in terms of construction and expressive intent, and Polochick certainly made a strong case for the score, ensuring that dramatic peaks were reached effectively and that the most reflective moments hit home. The chorus was in vibrant form and, for the most part, strongly supported by the orchestra. Soprano soloist Sara Berger sang very sweetly in the Offertorium, the most distinctive portion of this modest Mass.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

Chemistry between Christoph Eschenbach and National Symphony sizzles in Mahler's Fifth

Christoph Eschenbach wrapped up his first few weeks as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra with a terrific affirmation of how much he brings to the job. (My Sunday article on Eschenbach addresses some of those assets.)

The chemistry between conductor and ensemble Friday night at the Kennedy Center could be easily felt in a graceful, nimble account of Mozart's Symphony No. 34 and produced downright sizzling results in Mahler's Fifth.

It was one of the most emotionally fulfilling performances of that Mahler work I've heard live in a concert hall, one of the few that could measure up in interpretive depth to cherished recordings.

Eschenbach took delight in all of those things that some of us Mahler nuts crave, and some folks look down upon -- exaggerated rhythmic contrasts, from glacial to supersonic, and lots of rubato within tempos; enormous dynamic range, from mere whisper to cataclysmic; no end of expressive richness throughout, so that each melody, even each melodic fragment, can register as vital and revealing.

How affecting it was to hear the sad theme that weaves through the first two movements shaped with such breadth and depth. And how rewarding to hear

the famous Adagietto paced spaciously, rather than with the cool, detached propulsion now more widely favored.

No Mahler symphony, it seems to me, is an abstract musical puzzle to be put together methodically and purely intellectually. There should always be some element of the unexpected, the offbeat (so to speak), and maybe a little of the unnerving. Eschenbach's Mahler sounded wonderfully unsafe, volatile, very personal. Just the way I like it.  

The conductor drew some mighty impressive playing from the NSO. The few ragged edges (most significantly, fuzzy articulation in the last measures of the first movement) mattered little in light of so much vivid, communicative playing. It was a particularly great night for the strings, but strengths could be felt in each of the sections, notably the percussion. Excellent trumpet and horn solos also hit home.

During the ovations, the musicians insisted, as they had a couple weeks ago after performing Beethoven's Ninth with him, that Eschenbach enjoy a bow to himself, and they joined heartily in the applause. Such gestures may disappear, of course, over time, as the relationship between music director and orchestra develops (Eschenbach isn't due back in DC until January), but it sure looks to me like one more sign that things have started off awfully well.

PHOTO (by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman) COURTESY OF NSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 17, 2010

Teenage conductor Ilyich Rivas makes impressive subscription concert debut with BSO

No one knows what the future of classical music holds. There may well be fewer orchestras, fewer everything. Smaller audiences, too, of course. But there will be no lack of talent. Conservatories remain full and will be sending out into the world a remarkable diversity of gifted folks for a long time to come. One of them is Ilyich Rivas, the 17-year-old conductor from Venezuela who made his professional U.S. debut with the Atlanta Symphony in 2009 and is now in his second year with the Baltimore Symphony, as recipient of the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship.

Rivas just made his BSO subscription concert debut with a big program that yielded considerable rewards. On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, Rivas demonstrated, first of all, abundant self-confidence, an essential requirement. He offered every indication that he is to the podium born. More importantly, he didn’t just give efficient downbeats and cues; he made music.

The program was a clever riff on the whole youth thing – Brahms’ salute to college campus life, “Academic Festival Overture”; one of Beethoven’s early masterworks, Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually his first, but published late); the “Blumine” movement that was originally part of Mahler’s First Symphony; and the Symphony No. 1 penned by Shostakovich at the age of 18.

I was most impressed with how

Rivas handled the brilliant Shostakovich work. He brought out the snappy humor and rabble-rouser quality of the first two movements with considerable punch. Then, starting with the hammered piano chords toward the end of the scherzo, the conductor tapped effectively into the bittersweet, even ominous force that haunts the remainder of the symphony.

It was quite an arresting performance. Rivas enjoyed a committed response from the BSO, which, a smudge or two aside, played with great clarity and color. The most dramatic moments found the orchestra pouring on the tonal force. Solo efforts by concertmaster Jonathan Carney, principal oboist Katherine Needleman, and associate cellist Chang Woo Lee proved especially eloquent. (It’s unfortunate that the BSO lost its valued principal cellist to the Cincinnati Symphony last year, but the upside is that we’ve had several opportunities now to be reminded of what a sensitive player Lee is.)

Rivas had Mahler’s “Blumine” flowing a bit too fast and in a mostly metronomic fashion, but the moonlit beauty of the music came through. Andrew Balio’s trumpet solo had a serene radiance. The Brahms overture got a sturdy, spirited workout, aided by rich string tone.

The Beethoven concerto made a fine vehicle for the soloist Markus Groh. He made it easy to hear the lingering shadow of Mozart in the music, but the stamp of Beethoven as well. The German pianist’s delicate articulation in the first movement dialogue between keyboard and woodwinds was among the highlights; Groh’s phrasing of the Adagio’s astonishing coda, with its haunting suggestion of a trumpet’s nighttime call, was wonderfully sensitive. Rivas offered smooth, attentive partnering and drew fine playing from the BSO throughout the concerto.

Groh was enthusiastically recalled to the stage and obliged with an encore, Schumann’s “Traumerei,” delivered with admirable subtlety and warmth.

The evening affirmed validated the buzz that has been building around Rivas. He certainly has a lot in his favor, including top management and increasingly high-profile bookings. I look forward to hearing him in performance again. As his career advances, I hope he’ll correct a couple of little protocol slips that were observed on Thursday – taking too many bows himself before remembering the orchestra; and, at one point, walking ahead of the guest artist. Like I said, little things, but, as in so much of life, little things mean a lot.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:52 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 15, 2010

Playwright Terrence McNally to attend Bay Theatre performance, do Q&A

Celebrated playwright Terrence McNally will attend the matinee performance on Sunday of his 1991 work about couples and complications, "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," at the Bay Theatre in Annapolis, Anne Arundel's only professional theater company.

McNally will stay for a discussion with the audience afterward. Sounds like a cool opportunity.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:58 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

Mobtown Modern continues to make Baltimore cooler with concert by Victoire, Sirota

I finally caught up with Mobtown Modern's new season the other night (schedule conflicts of every kind have been plentiful lately). I'm not crazy about the organization's new home at Windup Space, mainly because that place has such an unwelcoming exterior on such an unwelcoming corner of Baltimore. But what counts is the scene inside, I know, and there was much to savor Wednesday as Mobtown continued its effort to make Baltimore a musically cooler city.

The program started with a solo set by violist Nadia Sirota, who brought a sterling technique and vividly communicative style to an intriguing sampling of early 21st century works (she's got the ideal DNA for this fare -- her father is composer Robert Sirota, former director of the Peabody Institute).

Among her selections were

Nico Muhly's "Period Instrument," with its gentle motor rhythms and increasingly lyrical streak; Missy Mazzoli's work-in-progress, "Tooth and Nail," a vibrantly pulsating, multi-colored work; and Caleb Burhans' "Unspeakable Truths," a sort of neo-baroque/new age fusion.

Mazzoli was the focus for the rest of the evening, performing her works with her well-matched ensemble Victoire. The composer's distinctive sound reveals a nod to what might called traditional minimalism and another nod to rock. There's energy and occasional grit, but, more than anything else, a beguiling subtlety and beauty.

Part of the appeal is in the instrumentation of Victoire -- violin (Olivia de Prato), clarinet (Eileen Mack), double bass (Eleonore Oppenheim) and electronic keyboards (Mazzoli and Lorna Krier). It's rather Brahmsian at heart, which may be one reason why the music is so damn hypnotic. Highlights included "Cathedral City," with its sampled sound bites of James Joyce, and the gently propulsive "A Song for Arthur Russell."

Victoire's debut album is just out on New Amsterdam Records. I want to get a copy -- I think you'd like it, too. Here's a live performance of the title cut, "Cathedral City":

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 14, 2010

A tribute to Leonard Bernstein from his son

For the 20th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death, his son wrote this tribute to his father for dot429, which offered me the text to reprint here:

By Alexander Bernstein

It seems impossible that twenty years have passed since my father 
(Leonard Bernstein) died. Or perhaps, I should write, I haven’t seen
 my father for twenty years! Sometimes I feel as though he is on tour 
again and will be back at any time now…

My father traveled a great deal. When he was home, though, he was 
really home. As a composer, he didn’t have an office to go to like 
the other dads. He would stay up very late working and then wake up 
very late. He would always be there when we came home from school, 
ready to play (or at least not minding if we played quietly in his
 studio while he worked). In the summertime we had him all day long for 
swimming, tennis, sailing, or just eating six ears of corn apiece.
 Sometimes he would play something for us as soon as he finished
 writing it and would ask our opinions. Undoubtedly, it was always 
“terrific” because he had such faith in his work and played with such
 joy and energy.

When he was conducting (which was most of the time), he would be home
 studying the scores or out at rehearsals. Occasionally he would take 
us kids along to the rehearsals. We would spend all day at the making 
of his televised “Young People’s Concerts,” running around Carnegie 
Hall or the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) as if we owned 
the place. It was sort of like “Eloise at the Plaza.”

Evenings were often festive times with relatives and friends from the 
New York arts world. I remember much laughter, noise and

a lot of word 
games. My mother was a wonderful hostess, making everyone feel 
comfortable. She would always add her own sense of fun and silliness
 to the occasion. 

Once in a while we got to travel with our father, and it was such a
 treat! Everything was first class with lots of attention. We would
 see all the sights, meet all the mucky-mucks, and stay up late
 ordering room service. Heaven.

We learned the music as we sat (and ran around) during rehearsals. We 
never really knew that we were getting an education in “Classical”
 music, but my father was a great teacher. Whether it be music, poetry, 
philosophy, or politics, my father’s greatest passion was to share and 
to communicate. My sister has said that his real ambition was to 
connect, in one way or another, with every person on the planet. For 
having lived only 72 years, he didn’t do a bad job of it. My father loved
 people and made love with multitudes. He never stopped learning. His 
appetite for knowledge and life was insatiable. Not only did he read
 constantly, but he would stay up all night with a group of students 
talking about music, love, and religion. He would drink them under the
 table and still be ready to rehearse at 10 a.m. 

I was a very bad music student. I rarely practiced piano and dreaded 
my lessons (given by a series of game, but ultimately frustrated 
teachers). I did listen to the music. I listened to my father talk
 about art, humanity, social justice and education. Eventually, not 
long before his death, I was a teacher with a Master’s Degree. My 
father was increasingly interested in education. We talked a lot about
 what exactly it was that made an engaged, life-long learner. The more 
and more we talked, it became clear that art and its processes could 
be the great connectors between disciplines. Learning itself is a 
creative act. Only by truly making knowledge one’s own can one deeply
 understand it and connect it with other knowledge. 

After his death, our family started The Leonard Bernstein Center for
 Learning. We developed The Artful Learning Model (tm), now being 
implemented in schools all over the country
. Teachers and students 
come to see themselves as creators as well as scholars. Not at all
 to diminish his composing and conducting, but it is Leonard
 Bernstein’s legacy as an educator that I hope will have the most

I guess he’s staying on tour after all – he is still communicating!


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:59 PM | | Comments (3)

Remembering 20th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's death

I've gone on and on and on about Leonard Bernstein before on this blog, most recently in August, so I really will keep it short this time. It's just that I couldn't let pass the 20th anniversary of the conductor/composer's death go unmentioned.

When word came on Oct. 14, 1990, that Bernstein had died, the loss seemed so enormous. There was no doubt his like would not be seen or heard again.

I couldn't decide on a musical sample to mark the occasion -- so many choices -- but then I came across this clip of a 1992 Richard Tucker Gala that closed with the finale to Bernstein's "Candide," introduced in her inimitable style by the divine Leontyne Price. The soloists are a pre-superstar Renee Fleming and a fine singer no longer with us, Jerry Hadley. Leontyne and a whole bunch of other notable vocal artists join in as the music unfolds, and something about the soaring sound suggested that it would be fit Thursday's anniversary.

It's not the tidiest performance, perhaps, but it sure does convey the Bernstein spirit:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:01 AM | | Comments (0)

Actors from 'The Wiz' at Center Stage add their voices to 'It Gets Better' campaign

Before the loss of promising violinist Tyler Clementi, whose recent suicide after a college roommate invaded his privacy caught the attention of the nation, a fresh effort was underway to provide encouragement to young gay people. The campaign, called "It Gets Better," was launched by columnist Dan Savage in the wake of another suicide, a 15-year-old who grew despondent over relentless bullying. Of course, that was but one such case of so many that occur every year. The toll from the hateful is vast.

This project, using a YouTube channel, features videos of men and women of all ages, places and backgrounds (celebreties are in the mix). They talk about their own experiences in the depths of teenage angst and their realization that it does, in fact, get better. One of these hope-filled message was just made here in Baltimore.

Last week, actors in the new production of "The Wiz" at Center Stage were given flip cameras and an invitation to film whatever they liked. Among the submissions this week was one by two members of that dynamic cast, Tym Byerz and MaShawn Morton, who decided to use the opportunity to create their own "It Gets Better" message. I thought you'd like to see it:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:10 AM | | Comments (0)

October 13, 2010

Latest 'Glee' episode hits high note with salute to legendary Judy/Barbra duet

It took me a while to get onto the "Glee" bandwagon, but I'm so glad I did. Sure, I'm still waiting for Will to teach these kids something at least sort of classical one day, just to stretch their eager little cords in another direction. But that's a minor disappointment.

This new season has already had some big peaks, including the "Grilled Cheesus" episode last week that led up, as I instinctively felt it would, to the strangely haunting Joan Osborne song, "One of Us."

That song always takes me back to 2002. It happened to be the first music I heard, inadvertently, after

staggering out of Messiaen's awesome "Saint Francoise d'Assise" at the San Francisco Opera. I walked into a restaurant totally dazed by that five-hour experience -- the incandescent music and the messages of what it means to believe, to doubt, to grow. What kept flashing in my mind was the scene at the end of Act 1, where St. Francis kisses a leper, one of the most riveting and goose bump-producing moments of music-theater I've ever experienced.

I was still reliving that incredible scene as I tried to focus on the menu in some nondescript diner when I suddenly realized what was coming through the speakers above me: "What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home." Talk about a sign.

So I loved how the "Glee" episode, having explored the diversity of faith and no faith among the singers, brought everything around at the end to "One of Us." I got chilled all over again.

And then along came this week's "Duets" episode, which couldn't have been more musically vibrant if it tried.

My favorite part about this series, I admit, is the way it works in so many great songs that are not likely to be on the average high-schooler's iPod. The covers of rock hits can certainly be cool, too (I thought Kurt's gentle version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" last week really clicked), but when the Broadway and movie music starts flying, well, so do I. And Monday's show delivered big time.

Kurt's deliciously extravagant take on "Le Jazz Hot" from "Victor/Victoria" was a highpoint. But when he teamed up at the end with Rachel to recreate, in extraordinarily sensitive style, one of the most iconic performances of pop music history, well, let's just say I got a little verklempt.

I love that "Glee" performers and audiences get so much exposure to so much great vintage popular music. That's got to be a good thing. Maybe uninitiated viewers will even get so intrigued by it they'll start exploring that heritage, discovering incomparable singers of earlier generations, expanding their musical horizons even more.

An ideal place to start (Rachel has been there all along, of course) is with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. In case you've never seen it, or just need a fresh lift from it, here's the amazing duet from Judy's TV show in 1963 -- Streisand's signature version of "Happy Days Are Here Again," slowed down from its intended snappy tempo and given an ironic edge; Garland's "Get Happy," here molded to fit the introspective mood. Like I said, Rachel and Kurt nailed this Monday night, but it's always worth reliving the original:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:08 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Rep Stage offers affecting revivals of World War I-vintage plays by J.M. Barrie

Although he’ll always be most famous for his endearing “Peter Pan,” the prolific J.M. Barrie deserves wider recognition for his other creations. Rep Stage is doing its part to provide that recognition with the revival of two World War I-vintage plays that reveal Barrie’s knack for generating subtle emotional power.

There is much more than mere curiosity value here. Issues and values reflected in these gems have hardly been dulled by time. Wars still break out; men (and, of course, women now) go off to fight them, leaving people at home to worry and adapt.

In “The New World” (1915) and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals” (1917), Barrie fashioned telling slices of English life during the Great War. He drew some of his inspiration from his own earlier life, and even more, it seems, from his concerns for the beloved boys who had been his surrogate sons since the late 1890s.

Deftly directed with evident affection by Michael Stebbins, the Rep Stage production of these one-acters makes for an absorbing theatrical experience.

“The New World” is the slenderer of the two pieces, but it still offers a good deal of substance, along with some sly wit. The action, confined to a London drawing room, involves

young “Rogie” Torrance on the eve of heading into the army. His mother wants him to have quality time alone with his father first, but this is a family with some major hang-ups about closeness. (That’s still very minable matter for a plot; a recent episode of the brilliant TV sitcom “Modern Family” touched on the same problem of a father unable to show affection.)

Bill Largess turns in a telling performance as the buttoned-up John Torrance, who dreads the prospect of a father-son chat, of ever letting on “that we care for one another.” Largess gets particularly effective mileage from a passage where Torrance confesses that he tried to prepare himself for enlistment, too, only to come face to face with an enemy he hadn’t expected – his own age.

Jason Odell Williams neatly captures Rogie’s mix of trepidation, long-suppressed tenderness and pride. Valerie Lash (Mrs. Torrance) and Christine Demuth (Emma) fill out the cast ably.

The full weight of the war seems far off in “The New World”; the foolish sense of romantic adventure still lingers in the air. By the time Barrie penned “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” no illusions were left. Well, almost none.

The central character, a charwoman named Mrs. Dowey, has no personal stake in the war. “It affected everybody but me,” she says. So she concocts a connection of her own, an imaginary loved one at the front, never expecting he could possibly materialize. Barrie cleverly sets up the most unlikely of scenarios, sprinkles it with humor and develops it with great poignancy.

Maureen Kerrigan shines as Mrs. Dowey. She’s a marvelous actress, so natural in voice and gesture, and she makes the character terribly affecting. The way she looks into a mirror, clutches a stack of letters tied with a ribbon, holds a champagne cork aloft like a trophy – all of these small details register deeply. In the extraordinary final scene, Kerrigan reaches a memorable height in the gentlest of ways.  

Williams, who has something of a young Aiden Quinn’s looks and intensity, gives an impressive, involving performance as the Scotsman, Private Dowey, making the transition from cocky and annoyed to bemused and melted with abundant nuance.

There are colorful characterizations from Lash (Mrs. Haggerty), Marilyn Bennett (Mrs. Twymley) and, especially, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler (Mrs. Haggerty) as the members of Mrs. Dowey’s tea klatch, who also learn something about themselves from the awful war. Largess handles his brief assignment (Mr. Willings) with flourish.

Daniel Ettinger’s straightforward sets evoke their time and place nicely; Mrs. Dowey’s humble kitchen table, with its mismatched chairs, is just right. Terry Cobb’s lighting is oddly harsh in “The New World,” more atmospheric in the second play. Some of Melanie Clark’s costumes suggest budget-mindedness, but they have the right flavor.

Music is effectively used throughout (Ann Warren did the sound design). “See the Conquering Hero Comes,” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus,” becomes an ironic melodic thread; vintage recordings of World War I songs set the mood for each play. (I’d quibble about including a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace,” though; that arrangement, so associated with the Vietnam era, sounds out of place.)

These unpretentious plays, devoid of melodrama and manipulation, provide fascinating snapshots of an era. The Rep Stage production brings them smartly into focus.

Performances continue through Oct. 24 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

October 12, 2010

More thoughts on Joan Sutherland, and more souvenirs of her art

For lovers of the vocal art, great opera singers are the equivalent of great movie stars. They've got the same larger-than-life aura. They make us look forward intently to their next performance, while we treasure each past one. They keep us interested in their private lives. We love to read about what they're doing and thinking, their views about themselves or others, about the business and the art.

We lost a major opera star Monday, when Dame Joan Sutherland, the astonishing Australian-born soprano, died at 83. Never mind that she stopped singing publicly a long time ago. Her presence was ever-fresh on recordings and video. And, having left an extremely high bar, Dame Joan was always still around, in a sense, whenever anyone, anywhere sang her repertoire -- "Not bad, but you should have heard Joan Sutherland."

Dame Joan, like Maria Callas, transformed the way people heard a big part of the opera repertoire, the bel canto genre that had mostly been the domain of songbird sopranos before they came along. Dame Joan did not have the earthy, emotional sound of Callas, but she nonetheless could flesh out coloratura filigree in a stunning way. The richness of the voice, from top to bottom, and the superb sense of style made all the difference. And Dame Joan proved just as compelling when she moved beyond bel canto, even way beyond, at least on one venerable recording, into the demanding title role of Puccini's "Turandot."

This much-loved soprano earned the affection of opera fans because she could make opera so exciting just with the brilliant sound she made. We crave fabulous voices the way early film fans craved fabulous faces. Dame Joan Sutherland satisfied and justified the need for opera stars. It's that simple.

We want our idols to stay with us; we don't care if they age, or stay mostly out of sight, as long as they're still around. It doesn't feel right, doesn't feel fair when they're gone. It hurts a little when a living legend passes on to legend.

I couldn't resist posting some more souvenirs of the Sutherland legacy. My thanks to a friend for alerting me to a rare, just-posted video of the soprano in never-broadcast footage from a '74 Met "Hoffmann," which I'm sharing here (I hope it doesn't get pulled before you get a chance to enjoy Dame Joan's Olympia). For fun, I've added an audio clip of the unlikely trio of Joan, Ella and Dinah singing Gilbert and Sullivan. And then the sublime combination of Joan Sutherland and her longtime friend Marilyn Horne in the "Norma" duet:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

October 11, 2010

The great Joan Sutherland is dead at 83

The death of Joan Sutherland -- Dame Joan -- Monday in Switzerland at the age of 83 after a long illness is being mourned by opera fans everywhere. She was one of the few vocal artists who truly deserved being hailed as "the voice of the century."

I didn't hear her live until the last chapter of her public career, but she still bowled me over with the distinctive timbre, the glittering phrasing. Her many recordings, especially of the bel canto repertoire, will always be treasurable. She set an awfully high standard. Critics carped about her diction, but only the coldest heart could fail to be won over by the purity and joy of her art.

I found this perfect little example of Sutherland in her prime -- the finale of Bellini's 'I Puritani.' I don't think she'd mind such a jaunty salute on the occasion of her death, since she was known for her humor and warmth, as much as for her musical brilliance.

Here, then, the Great Dame:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:11 AM | | Comments (5)

Musical rewards in intimate spaces, with an emphasis on Schumann

My past two Sundays were spent in the company of great music and classy musicians performing in intimate settings. Schumann, this year's bicentennial boy, provided a neat little bookend to the week's span of chamber concerts.

It all started on the 3rd at the Cylburn Arboretum, where baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Eva Mengelkoch collaborated on Schumann’s richly layered song cycle, "Dichterliebe."

This was by far the finest singing I've yet heard from de Ryke, a familiar presence on the Baltimore scene for several years.

He's always been a highly expressive interpreter, and he is very much to the lieder born. Here, he burrowed deep into the texts of the Schumann songs with terrific intensity.

What sounded different to me was

the tone quality. The voice had a smoother blend throughout the registers, the tone an extra degree of warmth, making the performance all the more rewarding. Mengelkoch provided attentive, if sometimes technically uneven, partnering at the keyboard.

The two artists balanced the Schumann cycle with exceptional rarities: selections from Hanns Eisler’s “Hollywood Songbook.” These often acerbic, inventive works found baritone and pianist in terrific form. It was back to Schumann for an encore, the exquisite “Mondnacht.”

On the numerically cool Sunday of 10-10-10, I caught two concert halves, starting with Music in the Great Hall at Towson Unitarian Universalist, where the artistic director of that long-running series, the admirable pianist Lura Johnson, collaborated with two remarkable artists: clarinetist Anthony McGill and cellist Amit Peled. It was heartening to see such a large turnout for the occasion – one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at this series.

The program opened with Schumann’s lyrical, sometimes bittersweet “Fantasiestucke” for clarinet and piano. McGill’s experience as a principal player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra could be felt at every turn – he phrased the melodic lines like a great singer.

Johnson, whose accompaniment was equally telling, then backed Peled in a soaring account of Chopin’s G minor Cello Sonata. Peled’s richness of tone and openhearted phrasing yielded memorable results, especially in the haunting lyricism at the center of the Scherzo and throughout the poetic Largo. The cellist enjoyed polished, dynamic support from Johnson.

I regretted ducking out before all three musicians got together for the Brahms Clarinet Trio after intermission, but I wanted to sample some of Pro Musica Rara’s season-opener over at Towson University.

I arrived in time to hear the second portion of that concert, which began with a nice juxtaposition of piano pieces by Robert and Clara Schumann, played by Edmund Battersby. He used a beautiful, mellow-toned fortepiano built about a decade ago in Maine by R. J. Regier, based on Viennese models circa 1830. Some technical cloudiness aside, Battersby proved a strong advocate for Clara’s Nocturne in F major and Robert’s Novellete in F-sharp minor, which quotes a portion of that Clara’s composition.

Battersby was joined by violinist Cynthia Roberts, violist Sharon Pineo Myer and cellist Allen Whear for Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet. It wasn’t the cleanest of performances, and the gorgeous third movement was taken at least twice as fast as I like to hear it, but the music’s wealth of melody and imaginative structuring came through strongly. Not a bad way to round off a Schumann-y week.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 8, 2010

Washington National Opera's 'Salome' needs sharper edge

Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" had a lot going for it Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, but just didn't heat up to a combustible degree. I recall the company's previous "Salome" eight years ago as a much more gripping musical and theatrical experience.

An unexpected drawback was Deborah Voigt in the title role, a role she sang wonderfully just down the hall from the opera house a few years ago in a concert version with the National Symphony.

This time, the soprano often sounded underpowered and, in the upper register, unsteady. To be sure, her phrasing was astute, and the essential musicality of the performance was never in doubt -- Voigt is a very classy artist. But, without being able to cut easily through the orchestra, without producing quite enough tonal lushness to enrich the most ecstatic passages, she wasn't able to make Salome a totally riveting, formidable presence.

I hasten to add that Voigt's acting had a lot of life; she effectively conveyed the petulant, manipulative, shameless nature of this hellion.

Perhaps the rest of the run will find Voigt in more consistent form. She'll still be stuck with

an unfortunate version of the famed "Dance of the Seven Veils," however (choreographed by Yael Levitin Saban). This one has several other dancers jumping into to sultry fray, a curious case of distraction and dilution. Except for a flash of nudity (Voigt uses a body stocking, surely), it looks like a production number from a low-budget movie musical.

Bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi sang vividly as Jokanaan, but needed a warmer, plusher tone on opening night to carry the full expressive weight of the Baptist's pronouncements. Although he lacked penetrating vocal power, Richard Berkeley-Steele made a colorful, dramatically telling Herod. Doris Soffel's darkly powerful mezzo served her well as Herodias; her phrasing was alive with color and bite.

Sean Panikkar had considerable impact as Narraboth, with an ample, beautifully rounded tenor -- and with a certain hunk factor that helped explain the adoration of the Page (mellow-toned Cynthia Hanna). The rest of the supporting cast did mostly persuasive work.

As in any Strauss opera, the orchestra is very much a major character in "Salome." The WNO ensemble met the score's challenges handsomely, ever-responsive to the company's newly appointed music director Philippe Auguin.

I admired the conductor's impassioned, attentive approach, but I wish he had offered greater contrasts of rhythm and dynamics along the way. Broader tempos and subtler sculpting for Jokanaan's lyrical reflections on the man from Galilee, for example, would have been especially welcome. Even the much-maligned Dance of the Seven Veils -- granted, not the finest passage in the score -- could have benefited from more elasticity and subtlety (check out vintage Fritz Reiner performances to get an idea of this music's potential). Auguin tended to move through almost everything at what seemed, after a while, like the same basic, taut clip.

Francesca Zambello can be counted on to direct an opera with conviction and flair, and much in this new production clicks, including a preoccupation with ropes that bind Jokanaan. I'm not crazy about seeing the Jews, fresh from their theological quarrel, grab chairs and ogle Salome's dance. But another use of a chair has a sizzling effect -- when the hormonally-active princess plops down on one to gaze for a while at the severed head of Jokanaan. Her subsequent wallowing in the blood on the silver charger has a compelling kick, too. (Earlier, Salome thoughtfully runs off to fetch that charger herself, a nice touch I don't recall seeing done before.)

Peter J. Davison's set is on the minimal side. The two main props are the crucial cistern where Jokanaan is kept, and a massive, semi-opaque curtain upstage (I've got a smaller version on my shower at home). Behind the curtain can be seen Herod's banquet; the shadowy figures add an air of mystery, but not a whole lot. Mark McCullough provides the often lurid lighting to flesh out the set (red for Narraboth's suicide, of course). Aided by Anita Yavitch vibrant costumes, the production certainly has a look.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:35 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

My picks for your weekend classical music fix

People occasional say to me that I need to clone myself.

I figure one of me is trouble enough (just ask my other half), but the thought does seem enticing whenever I'm spoiled for choice facing well-worth-checking-out performances scheduled on the same day, more or less at the same time.

Here comes another such occasion.

On Sunday afternoon, two events in Towson look awfully good. I recommend them both and leave it you to settle on just one.

Music in the Great Hall opens its season at 3 p.m. Sunday at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church with the fusion of three fine instrumentalists: clarinetist Anthony McGill, who holds a principal chair in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and teaches at Peabody; cellist Amit Peled, who has a busy concert career and also teaches at Peabody; and pianist Lura Johnson, who frequently has keyboard duty in Baltimore Symphony concerts and collaborates regularly with individual members of the orchestra in recitals and chamber music gigs.

The program includes


the Clarinet Trio by Brahms, the Cello Sonata by Chopin and more.

At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Pro Musica Rara opens its season at Towson University's Center for the Arts with a nod to Robert Schumann's bicentennial.

Pro Musica specializes in period instrument performances, which automatically makes the program interesting. The inclusion of Schumann's Piano Quartet makes it all the more notable -- at least to me, since I consider the slow movement from that quartet to be one of the most beautiful creations in all of music (so I'm prone to superlatives -- what's it to ya?).

The players are among Pro Musica's finest: fortepianist Edmund Battersby, a busy concert artist and longtime faculty member at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music; violinist Cynthia Roberts, a frequent concertmaster for leading period instrument ensembles, including Apollo's Fire; violist Sharon Pineo Myer, a 30-year-plus veteran of the BSO and Pro Musica; and cellist Allen Whear, Pro Musica's artistic director, who is also associate principal cellist of the noted Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

Rounding out the program will be additional works by Schumann and his wife, Clara, not to mention their mutual friend Brahms. Some Mendelssohn, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 7, 2010

Surprise marriage proposal goes according to plan at Hippodrome

The surprise onstage marriage proposal went off without a hitch Wednesday night during the performance of "Cirque Dreams Illumination" at the Hippodrome.

Although some readers fretted that I spoiled the surprise by reporting the event early on Wednesday (if only I were that widely read), the plot was not uncovered.

The solider, Sgt. Phillip Clark, an Army medic and Iraq War veteran now stationed at Ft. Meade, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Baggett, were called up to the stage as volunteers for a regular portion of the show, involving the making of a silent film. The couple played their parts perfectly -- they depicted illicit lovers being surprised by the woman's husband, who starts shooting. On cue, the soldier did his death scene and the girlfriend tried to revive him. Then he sprang into action on one knee.

Although un-amplified, the audience quickly realized what was happening and cheered. Here's a video clip (courtesy of the Hippodrome and Kit & Kaboodle Productions):


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

October 6, 2010

Iraq veteran will propose to girlfriend during Cirque Dreams performance at Hippodrome

UPDATE 10/7: The surprise worked like a charm (but thanks to all you snarky people who offered comments, thinking this blog was so darn powerful it would derail everything). You'll find video of the event elsewhere on the blog.  

Audience participation is a regular part of the Cirque Dreams Illumination show that opened at the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday. But Wednesday night's performance will add a twist.

Two of the people picked from the house to go up onstage this time will know each other -- a U.S. solider stationed at Ft. Meade, just back from his third tour of duty in Iraq, and his girlfriend.

The skit they will be involved in concerns the making of a silent film (assuming it's the same as Tuesday's performance, the 'plot' will be about illicit lovers being surprised by the woman's husband).

When the skit ends, the solider will assume the bended-knee position and propose to his girlfriend in front of the entire company and audience.

The idea of the very public proposal came about after Cirque Dreams creator and founder Neil Goldberg learned that a solider wanted to buy VIP seats to the show and was planning to pop the question while at the Hippodrome.

No point wasting such a momentous event out in the house, when everybody could get in on it. Goldberg invited the couple to Wednesday's performance as his guests (names are being withheld until showtime) and organized the onstage surprise.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

Single Carrot Theatre opens season with provocative 'Natural Selection'

Picture it: The time is somewhere in the future. People are addicted to blogging; posting pictures of every little event that occurs in their day-to-day lives, no matter how insignificant; communicating by email more than actual, mouth-moving conversation. Kids plug into virtual classrooms and can even take part in school plays without ever having to leave the comforting nest at home. Lots of folks confuse and accept simulation for reality.

Wait a minute. This can’t be the future. Isn't this, like, now?

Eric Coble’s “Natural Selection,” an often sharp-edged play that provides Single Carrot Theatre with an effective season-opener, mixes the world of today with an unnerving idea of a much-closer-than-you-think tomorrow. It’s a place where urban populations are denser and more isolated than ever, the countryside is truly wild, and “climate change” is an understatement.

The prolific Coble borrows an assortment of durable sitcom devices to construct a deft, if somewhat over-padded, satire. It revolves around operators of a Florida theme park called Culture Fiesta, where visitors can get a supposedly authentic taste of diverse peoples and their customs. (I picture a tacky fusion of EPCOT and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.)

There’s trouble in the Native American pavilion. One of the workers has died, and

finding another purebred won’t be easy, since “indigenous Native Americans are hard to find outside of casinos.” A harrowing trip into the wild to “bag” a replacement provides the plot-spinner.

All of this may sound too silly, but so many issues are raised, so many pathetic traits of contemporary human behavior neatly skewered, that the play ends up delivering a thoughtful little wallop.

And the way Coble gradually inserts Native American philosophy into the proceedings is quite inspired, helping to transform the entire story into something all the more intriguing, something at once evocative and provocative. (Speaking of intriguing, Coble’s own background is an eye-opener: Born in Scotland, brought up on Navajo and Ute reservations in Colorado and New Mexico. That's even cooler than Barbra Streisand’s fictional, early-career Playbill bio that had her “born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon.”)

“Natural Selection,” briskly directed by Nathan Fulton (he also did the set and lighting design), fits the Single Carrot troupe snugly.

Christopher Rutherford gives a sympathetic performance as Henry, the jittery Culture Fiesta employee who discovers his inner hunter, not to mention his inner husband and father. The actor reveals a knack for subtle comic nuances and for limning the character's emotional growth. (Rutherford's sound design for the production — the Single Carrot crowd is perpetually multi-tasking — adds effective dollops of atmosphere.)

As Zhao Martinez, the crudely captured, would-be savior of the theme park, Aldo Pantoja offers slyly amusing work; it's fun to watch him move from dazed to defiant. Lyndsay Webb handles various roles, including the wonderfully named Yolanda Pastiche, Henry’s supervisor, in vibrant, persuasive style. Elliott Rauh also nimbly plays more than one part. He really chews up the — well, there isn’t much scenery, but he tears up the place as the wacky, foul-mouthed hired gun, Ernie. Jessica Garrett does a vivid turn as Henry’s Web-crazed wife, Suzie.

“Natural Selection” entertains nicely as it issues its stern little warning to the teeming, texting masses hurling through an increasingly dehumanizing cyber universe. But there’s more. The play even manages to give you a whole new way of looking at Sloppy Joes (you have to be there).

Performances continue through Oct. 31.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

October 5, 2010

Philippe Auguin named music director of Washington National Opera

Philippe Auguin, one of the key ingredients in Washington National Opera's exceptional concert-version performance of "Gotterdammerung" last season, has been named music director of the company and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. He succeeds Heinz Fricke, who stepped down due to health issues.

The French-born Auguin jumps into the job this week, leading the WNO production of "Salome," which opens Thursday at the Kennedy Center. He'll also conduct most performances of the company's "Madama Butterfly" production later in the season.

Auguin's impressive resume includes engagements at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, La Scala and many other notable houses; his major mentors were Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan.

Members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra were informed Monday night and greeted the news warmly. In a statement released Tuesday, chairman of the orchestra Greg Drone said:

“From the very first downbeat of our first rehearsals with him last year, the orchestra felt an instant connection ..."

Auguin expressed the same feeling. "From the moment I stepped onto the podium, I felt a special rapport with the talented musicians of the orchestra," he said in a statement.

The WNO music director post involves a strong relationship with the Kennedy Center -- the two organizations share 61 orchestra musicians -- so if, as recent talk has it, the center will eventually bring the opera company under its umbrella, this synergy will be important. The enthusiasm for Auguin could help any future transition, too.

Outgoing WNO general director Placido Domingo praised the conductor's "stunning 'Gotterdammerung' concerts" and predicted "many exciting performances" to come.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)

Castleton Festival announces 2011 season of operas, concerts, new partnerships

One of the most pleasant surprises of the past decade was the arrival of the Castleton Festival down in Rappahannock County, Virginia. Held on the expansive estate of famed conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, the festival exerts a magnetic pull on summertime music lovers interested in experiencing young artists performing in an intimate, inviting country setting.

"We are rather proud of it," Maazel said Monday morning during a season-announcement press event at the Willard Hotel in Washington. "There's still a lot to do," he added, but the track record after only two seasons is awfully impressive.

The production of Puccini's "Il Trittico" -- amazingly, this marked the first time Maazel conducted a Puccini opera conducted in this country -- boasted super-promising singers, sensitive stage direction and, of course, superior guidance from the pit.

Given that success, it's tantalizing to see that the opening of the 2011 Castelton Festival on June 25 will offer a new production of

"La Boheme." And it's great to know that soprano Joyce El-Khoury will sing the role of Mimi; she was a major vocal attraction in "Trittico" last July.

She was on hand Monday to sing for the press/patron session, which was being streamed live. Her performance of Mimi's Act 1 aria was remarkably rich in tone color and expressive nuance. Same for her account of "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi." 

And Tyler Nelson, a fine young Castleton-groomed tenor, made quite a positive impression, too, in an aria from "Falstaff." Both singers were beautifully accompanied at a humble upright piano by Wilson Southerland. (Maazel, standing off to one side and behind the singers, kept a close eye on things; his right hand went into conducting mode every now and then, as if involuntarily.)   

There will also be new stagings of Ravel's "L'enfant et les Sortileges" and Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" during the 2011 season. The lineup includes a reprise of the previous Castleton stagings of Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" and de Falla's "Master Pedro's Puppet Show."

Concerts by the festival orchestra, which features young players from 20 countries, will again be part of the activity at the farm. Maazel will lead an all-Bizet program with mezzo Denyce Graves, an all-Gershwin program and more.

Folks disinclined or unable to make the trek to the hills will be especially pleased, I should think, to see that the festival is coming closer next summer.

Several Maazel-led events will be presented at the new Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, including an evening of "Porgy and Bess" selections; performances of "Il Tabarro" and "Gianni Schicchi" from the "Trittico" production; and a concert with Graves commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run.

Castelton is expanding its reach beyond Virginia, too -- performances are slated from Berkeley, Calif., to Beijing during 2011.

Back at Castleton, another new element will be introduced for 2011. "Dietlinde was disgruntled at the level of the cuisine," Maazel said. So French chef Gerard Pangaud is going to prepare upgraded selections for festival patrons. As the conductor put it, "For those of you who don't like the performances, you're sure going to love the food."


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:48 AM | | Comments (0)

October 4, 2010

Eschenbach, National Symphony in memorable program of Beethoven, Pintscher

I told you it was going to be cool having Christoph Eschenbach around here.

The first subscription series program of his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra provided an ideal introduction to the man and his artistry. Choosing Beethoven’s Ninth as a calling card is hardly outside-the-box, but the way Eschenbach saddled up and guided that war horse would have been enough to make the Saturday’s concert at the Kennedy Center memorable.

This was music-making you just don’t encounter every day, outside of discerning record collections. Not just another Ninth, with all the expected peaks, but an interpretation charged with extra power and personality -- an exhilarating ride.

Before saying a little more about that part of the evening, let me hasten to mention the first half of the program, devoted to

a large-scale, thorny work by contemporary German composer Matthias Pintscher.

You will recall Marin Alsop’s Beethoven-symphonies-paired-with-something-by-a-living-composer programming during her inaugural season with the Baltimore Symphony. In the same way, Eschenbach aimed to give audiences a fresh experience, one that could help them hear Beethoven in a new light. As he said to the packed house Saturday, this sort of juxtaposition only works if the modern piece is first rate. Pintscher’s “Herodiade-Fragmente,” premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999, when the composer was still in his 20s, is decidedly first-rate.

Scored for soprano and super-sized orchestra with a ton of exotic percussion instruments, the work produces quite a head and ear trip. The dense, richly evocative text by Mallarme is a kind of monodrama for Herodiade (Herodias), mother of the notorious Salome. Pintscher treats the poetry in exceedingly angular fashion, inserting many a wild leap and putting many an odd spin on a syllable, but the result is always coherent and strongly communicative.

Marisol Montalvo was the stunning soloist, giving much more than a vocal tour de force; she brought the disturbed and disturbing character to life in mesmerizing fashion. Eschenbach drew from the NSO some terrific playing, as much in the colossal outbursts as in the subtlest of effects, especially the eerie, on-the-verge-of-inaudible rumbles after Herodiade’s outburst, “Je meurs!” (I die).

With Beethoven Nine, the potency of Eschenbach’s approach could be felt through such things as the weighty fortissimos in the first movement, so full of import and tension; the taut propulsion of the Scherzo (punctuated superbly by timpanist Jauvon Dumaine); and, especially, the breadth and glow in the phrasing of the Adagio (where so many conductors today push this movement along, Eschenbach took time to savor the exquisite lyricism). The “Ode to Joy” finale held together firmly, yet had a wonderful air of spontaneity and, well, honest-to-goodness joy.

Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington sang sturdily (if with a little strain from the tenors), and the solo quartet – Montalvo, mezzo Yvonne Naef, tenor Nikolai Schukoff, bass-baritone John Relyea – also came through in style. A couple of slightly fuzzy moments aside, the orchestra again turned in a cohesive, impassioned performance.

As enjoyable as the evening was musically, I did have some issues with a couple of fellow audience members. There was the guy behind me who kept kicking my seat, and the woman farther away who coughed crudely and incredibly often. I felt like contacting New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino to ask if he could “take out” a couple more people while he’s at it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:41 AM | | Comments (0)

October 1, 2010

Check out review of Everyman Theatre's 'Shipwrecked!'

If you can't wait until Sunday's paper to know what I thought about "Shipwrecked!" -- Everyman Theatre's season-opener -- you're in luck. It's now posted.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Baltimore Symphony produces sparks with program of Adams, Mendelssohn, Dvorak

OK, now the season really has started.

I found last week's official start of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's subscription concert series ever so slightly below par; too many technical flubs for comfort in Mahler's Seventh, which also could have benefited from just a little more interpretive distinction from music director Marin Alsop.

But Thursday night at Strathmore, it was all systems go. Even the two chestnuts on the program -- Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony (the latter performed and recorded for Naxos only a few seasons ago) -- exuded freshness and interest.

The concert would have been worthwhile if only for the BSO's first performance of

the "Doctor Atomic" Symphony by John Adams. The score, drawn from the composer's 2005 opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, conveys a good deal of the stage work's dramatic weight. But the symphony easily stands on its own; it's not essential to know what the clanging, pounding passages depict in the opera to grasp the sense of foreboding, of closely watched clocks.

Laid out in three linked sections, the work speaks powerfully through its rhythmic tautness and dark lyricism. Waves of massed brass and percussion, which remind me of the most explosive sections in John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, are employed by Adams to compelling effect, yet manage to avoid melodramatic excess. Although the composer's minimalist roots are in evidence, the music falls more into what I'd call a neo-late-romanticism (Adams would object, I'm sure); this is not that far removed from the sound world of Mahler and Strauss.

Alsop led a fiery, involving account of the piece. The BSO responded with admirable technical precision, sonic richness and deeply connected phrasing. Acting principal trombone Mark Davidson, following the composer's instruction to stand for solos (the instrument is used to represent a character in the opera), played superbly; he gave each line a galvanizing impact. Principal trumpet Andrew Balio and principal horn Phil Munds were likewise in peak form for their telling solos.

After the unsettling Adams work, Mendelssohn's glowing concerto provided ideal balm. The soloist was a BSO favorite, Stefan Jackiw, who made his debut with the orchestra eight years ago at the age of 17. He struck me then as a violinist with a future, and I'm still impressed with the purity and sweetness of his tone -- he knows how to make a violin "sing" naturally, eloquently -- and his unaffected way of sculpting a phrase.

I think a little more dynamic shading in the slow movement could have been applied, but that's a minor point, really. The radiant quality of Jackiw's playing provided consistent pleasure throughout the work, and his exquisite performance enjoyed sensitive support from Alsop and the orchestra.

Dvorak's Ninth received a high-octane performance, with an extra dose of acceleration where it counted and considerable tenderness in the beloved Largo. Smoother entrances from the brass would not have gone unappreciated, but the BSO otherwise sounded in crack condition. A luminous English horn solo from Jane Marvine and sweetly molded tones from a guest flutist Cathy Peterson were among the notable solo efforts.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.

Jackiw, who received a huge ovation Thursday, did not give an encore. But I like very much the one he gave on another occasion in another part of the world:

PHOTO (by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:37 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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