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October 11, 2010

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

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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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