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November 30, 2010

German tenor Peter Hofmann, as comfortable singing Wagner as Webber, dies at 66

Peter Hofmann, the German tenor whose handsome looks and vibrant vocalism made him one of the most sought-after Wagnerian artists of his day, died Tuesday in Bavaria at the age of 66. According to news reports, he had been in the hospital with pneumonia; he also had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Hofmann did not have a long operatic career, but his peak period, from the mid-'70s into the '80s, included triumphant performances of heroic roles in Wagner operas. The tenor's rugged good looks made him seem doubly effective in that repertoire. He was equally at home in rock music, an early love that he never abandoned. He also made his mark in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" in a German-language production during the early '90s.

Mr. Hofmann, whose much-too-early death follows a distressingly long list of musical obituaries in 2010, left an admirable mark on the opera world. Here's an example, from an acclaimed as Siegmund in a 1980 performance of "Die Walkure" at Bayreuth:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Elizabeth Futral donates performance to promote opera at the Lyric

Elizabeth Futral, the dynamic soprano who starred in several productions during the closing years of the Baltimore Opera Company, will donate a performance this month at that company's old home base, the Lyric (more properly known now as the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric).

Futral's free recital is being billed as an "intimate musicale" in support of "bringing grand opera back to Baltimore."

The soprano will be accompanied by pianist James Harp, the director of opera and education at the Lyric, where large-scale opera productions are set to return under the Lyric's own auspices next season.

The recital is "open to the public and free of charge, other than a cash bar," says Kathleen A. Grayson, the Lyric's director of external relations. "People should simply call 410-900-1163 to make reservations.

"One purpose of this event is to reach out to the former BOC subscribers and patrons who lost ticket money in the bankruptcy. This goodwill effort is an opportunity to wet the appetite of our opera loving community and announce our upcoming 2011-2012 season." Grayson says. "In March ’11 we will offer another similar event which will preview the upcoming season..."

The event begins at

6 p.m. Dec. 12 with the cash bar and complimentary hors d’oeuvres. The performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. A champagne reception will follow.

Lyric Opera Baltimore, launched by the Lyric Foundation, will debut in November 2011 in the substantially renovated opera house with Futral singing the lead role in Verdi's "La Traviata." Productions of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro" and Gounod's "Faust" are scheduled in 2012.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 29, 2010

Life imitates art; despondent soprano commits suicide

Just what you need as the holiday season is breaking out -- a sad story from Bucharest.

Over the weekend, Romanian soprano Roxana Briban died of an apparent suicide at the age of 39. Her husband found her body in a bathtub; her wrists were slit.

The AP reports that the singer, whose career included appearances at opera houses in Berlin, Amsterdam and Vienna, had been depressed since the the Bucharest National Opera canceled her contract last year.

In a decidedly operatic touch, the soprano posted a video clip on her Facebook page the day she died -- her own performance of Violetta's death scene in Verdi's "La Traviata." (Another of her roles was Cio-Cio San, the young Japanese woman who commits suicide in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly.")

Something about this story really stings, as did the horrible news of tenor Jerry Hadley's suicide a few years ago. I had not come across Roxana Briban before reading of her passing, but

the excerpts of her career that are preserved on YouTube reveal a passionate artist. Opera singers rarely have it easy, and any number of things can harm their physical and mental health. It seems that Roxana Briban reached some sort of crisis that she couldn't escape. I wish she had found a better way out.

Here's the soprano singing the poignant "Addio del passato" in the last act of "Traviata," when the heroine bids farewell to a happier past:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:12 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 26, 2010

Marin Alsop among volunteers serving meals to homeless on Thanksgiving

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop joined students, faculty, staff and friends of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the 21st annual "Project Feast" on Thanksgiving Day.

The event, held at Booker T. Washington Middle School, provided dinner for homeless and disadvantaged persons in West Baltimore. Clothing and non-perishable food items were also given out during the day. Free eye and blood pressure tests were offered as well. 

Alsop was joined by

her partner, Kristin, and their young son, Auden, who helped serve the pies. (UPDATE: Since posting this blog entry, I received an email from Marin about their experience on Thursday: "Kristin, Auden and I joined our friends, the Bishai family, at Booker T. Washington school to serve meals. Auden especially enjoyed teaming up with Graham Bishai on the pie cart. We were honored to be included and met many wonderful people there.")

The conductor's participation was not announced in advance. I learned about it from UM personnel who were also taking part and were greatly impressed by Alsop's dedication and spirit during the day. They have posted online a chronicle of the day's activities and posted several photos.

From the start of her tenure with the BSO, Alsop made it clear that she would be a part of the community, not a transient artist. She has demonstrated that commitment in many ways, including her generous seed money for the BSO's extraordinary OrchKids education project at a West Baltimore school. That was enough to qualify Alsop as a real mensch; her Thanksgiving donation of time and energy reconfirms this status.

PHOTO OF MARIN ALSOP; AND PHOTO OF GRAHAM (son of Dr. William Bishai, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Tuberculosis Research) AND AUDEN (son of BSO music director Marin Alsop) COURTESY OF ED FISHEL/UM OFFICE OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:45 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Everyman Theatre, Arena Stage extend runs of hit productions

Maybe the recession really is winding down. People aren't just storming department stores to grab bargains; they've also been rushing the box offices at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre and Washington's Arena Stage. Both companies have extended the runs of their hit shows to meet demand.

Everyman's staging of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," originally scheduled to close Dec. 12, will now go through Dec. 18.

Vincent Lancisi directs an exceptional cast in an illuminating production of this still-potent American play, providing quite a lesson in ensemble acting and subtly atmospheric scenic design. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Arena Stage is celebrating its appealingly renovated facility with a vibrant revival of the venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma." The production was to have closed Dec. 26, but

will now make it through more of the holidays, wrapping up Dec. 30.

Director Molly Smith may not have created a life-changing realization of the show, but her idea of emphasizing the diversity of the original Oklahoma territory pays strong dividends, with the help of an engaging cast that seizes on the familiar music with great enthusiasm.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

November 25, 2010

A bit of musical thanks for Thanksgiving, by way of Grieg

As Robert and I head to Northern Virginia to celebrate Thanksgiving with my parental units, sister, nephew, cousin and a couple of our treasured friends, I wanted to thank all of you for checking out this blog. I'm always grateful for your responses and, occasionally, even for some of your retorts.

To convey my thanks, I thought a little music would be appropriate, and I remembered a tender keyboard work that just happens to be called

"Thanks." I get the impression few pianists bother learning Grieg's "Lyric Pieces" these days, perhaps considering them too slight or sticky. Pity. There are wonderful things here. I particularly love this item, which I enjoy playing whenever I have a few minutes at the piano. It's far from the best known of the "Lyric Pieces," but one of the most endearing, IMHO, and extra appropriate for Thanksgiving.

So have a great holiday, and please accept, courtesy of Grieg, my thanks for visiting this site:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:46 AM | | Comments (1)

November 23, 2010

American Opera Theatre cancels December productions in Baltimore

Timothy Nelson, founding artistic director of the innovative American Opera Theatre, sent word from Amsterdam, where he currently lives, concerning two productions that were to open at Baltimore's Theatre Project next week -- a pared down version of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and a staged realisation of Messiaen's song cycle "Harawi":

It is with sadness that I announce the cancellation of AOT's upcoming productions, "Butterfly" and "Harawi". Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances these performances are no longer possible. All those who purchased tickets will receive a full refund. If you have any questions about this please phone 410-752-8558 or email

No word yet on the remainder of the company's Baltimore season. On the calendar in February is a dual bill at the Theatre Project in collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore -- a staged version of Melissa Dunphy's "Gonzales Cantata" from 2008, with a text from the congressional testimony of the Bush Administration's Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales; and a production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Later in the season, a production of Weill's "Lost in the Stars" is also scheduled.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 22, 2010

Weekend in review: From 'Zippy the Pinhead' to the BSO

After taking Friday night off to be just a regular member of an audience for a change (I joined the sold-out crowd for Bill Maher's often wickedly funny socio/political analysis at the Hippodrome), I checked out two decidedly different musical experiences over the weekend. On Saturday, I caught the penultimate performance of "Zippy the Pinhead: The Musical" at the Theatre Project; the next afternoon, a block away at the Meyerhoff, I heard the Baltimore Symphony perform an absorbing program of Ravel, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. From the "Zippy"-diculous to the sublime.

As for the slender new musical, which has a score by Baltimore-based composer Lorraine Whittlesey and a book she co-wrote with the creator of the Zippy comic strip, Bill Griffith, I imagine it would appeal more to longtime fans of the source material. Except for "Doonesbury," my comic-reading stopped quite a while ago, and I confess that I never did much warm to "Zippy" back in the day. 

That said, I can appreciate the strip's blend of the goofy, the ironic, the droll and the surreal, and those elements certainly do exist in the musical. Not, alas, in sufficient quantities to grab much interest, even with a very short running time -- an hour, including intermission. Not really much humor, either, although a few Baltimore references and the video projections throughout were fun.  

A more professional performance level would no doubt have helped sell the show; the singing, in particular, left a lot to be desired.

The best efforts came from

Ryan Patrick Brown in the title role. He seemed perfectly at home in Zippy's off-kilter, donut- and condiment-obsessed world.

Speaking of condiments, Whittlesey's song about those -- set to the model-major-general patter number from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" -- was a highlight of the score. The rest of the songs utilized primarily '50s and '60s rock idioms to apt effect. Jared Denhard's expert arrangements, which included unexpected colors from the ukulele, gave all the songs a lift, as did his well-matched colleagues in the band.

Sunday afternoon's BSO concert was richly satisfying. Gunther Herbig, one of the elder statesmen of the podium, demonstrated his customary depth of expression and sensitivity to detail.

Herbig had the orchestra producing the refined, transparent colors of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite with an enveloping glow, and he offered smooth support for soloist Tianwa Yang in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Yang did not produce an especially distinctive tone or reveal the most individualistic phrasing, but she met the technical challenges effortlessly in the scherzo and captured the ethereal lyricism of the outer movements effectively. 

The orchestra, which did subtle work in the concerto, moved into high gear for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, one of the most affecting works of 20th century orchestral music. Herbig, conducting from memory, seemed deeply connected to the composer's world of shadows, fears and unexpected relief; each movement was shaped with telling nuance.

The BSO always turns in strong performances when working with Herbig, and this concert was no exception. The musicians demonstrated as much technical discipline as searing emotional power, reaching the sort of soulful state that reminded me of the Temirkanov era here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 19, 2010

Peabody Opera Theatre offers persuasive production of Massenet's 'Manon'

Manon Lescaut was the original Material Girl, incapable of resisting glittery possessions or lovers. But, of course, she had a heart of gold, which is why she inspired at least three operas.

The ones we know today are by Massenet and Puccini, two totally different takes on the same basic story (by Abbe Prevost). Which do I prefer? Like Manon, I guess I just love the one I'm with, and that happened to be Massenet's Thursday night.

The score is delicious, sometimes frothy and sometimes exquisitely poetic. The characters are deftly drawn. Manon and boyfriend No. 1, Des Grieux, fall in love awfully fast even by romantic opera standards, but they do so with such charm that you can't help but believe in them.

Their love affair falls apart pretty fast, too, but, again, thanks to Massenet's deft touch, everything makes sense in its own sweet way. And the finale, with Manon and Des Grieux back together in time for her to die, is filled with exquisite nuances.

Puccini put more passion and soul into his version, but Massenet's still holds up sturdily.

The new production by Peabody Opera Theatre, nimbly directed by Roger Brunyate, might better be described as

fully costumed, rather than fully staged -- judging by the minimal set, I imagine budgets are tighter than usual these days. But, more importantly, it's fully sung.

Thursday's cast, which will perform again Saturday (another slate takes over Friday and Sunday), featured two promising artists I've enjoyed hearing before.

Soprano Jennifer Edwards met the challenging title role head on, using her bright, agile soprano vibrantly and sensitively. More warmth would have been welcome, but this still was singing of admirable quality. She was particularly impressive in the Gavotte, putting a nice gleam on her tone and a colorful spin on her phrases.  Edwards demonstrated effective acting skills as well, revealing the girlish, impulsive side of the character engagingly and putting across the transition to womanhood. 

The first time I encountered tenor William Davenport, I thought he had a lot of the right career-making stuff. I thought so again about his performance as Des Grieux. The voice seems to have become rounder and more flexible, with a nice top and a certain touch of honey in the tone. If he keeps developing these gifts, he ought to make a name for himself. The world is perpetually starved for stylish tenors, after all, and style is one thing Davenport definitely has going for him.

He took the Dream Aria a little fast for my tastes, but sculpted it elegantly, and he gave "Ah! fuyez" considerable expressive bite. The singer acted more animatedly than the last time I saw him, so count that as a plus, too.

Kangho Lee's low register needed more heft, but he was a dynamic presence as Manon's cousin Lescaut. Peter Tomaszewski revealed a sizable, attractive bass-baritone in his brief appearance as the Count des Grieux. Michael Maliakel did smooth singing as de Bretigny.  Danielle Edwards, Annie Laing and Kristina Lewis set off sparks as the trio of well-kept actresses who animate the opera periodically. The rest of the soloists and the chorus came through quite well.

Ken Lam conducted with a telling sweep, but allowed the gentlest side of the music to shimmer. Except for a loss of steadiness in the strings during soft, exposed passages, the orchestra turned in a rich, cohesive performance.

I'd rank this among the best Peabody Opera ventures, overall, of the past decade. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

BSO cellist denied entry to UK to perform free concert with chamber group

While we're all busy obsessing over aggressive pat downs (a.k.a. gropings) at American airports, consider another kind of hassle experienced by Kristin Ostling, a cellist with the Baltimore Symphony.

Ostling is on leave from the BSO this season and, among other pursuits away from her pals at Meyerhoff Hall, expected to play a free gig at the University of Leeds in England with the Carpe Diem Quartet. But last weekend, she didn't make it past UK Border Agency officials at Heathrow.

The Guardian's Tom Service reports that Ostling

was questioned for eight hours by officials at Terminal 3 ... refused entry to the country, forced to sign written statements, and sent back on a plane to Chicago. The reason? Her performance at the University of Leeds ... for which she was receiving no fee, and no expenses, either, was deemed to be 'work', and she was therefore not allowed in on her visa. The extraordinary thing is that

the three other members of the quartet were allowed through and are now in Leeds, so it seems that Ostling was unlucky only because of the size of her instrument. Violins or violas can slip under the beady eyes of our immigration officials, but cellists need to watch out.

Seems as if the university over there was supposed to first check around the UK and EU countries to see if another quartet would do the gig for free, before even asking the Americans. Bizarre. 

Here's hoping that Tom Service's blog post about the odd incident will lead to some sort of corrective action.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

A few suggestions for another musically overloaded weekend

Here we go again -- another weekend with too many musical goodies crammed into the same few hours. This happens so often that I've given up trying to provide recommendations every time I see such a pileup, but, since I've agonized myself over this particular one so much, I figured it was worth a shot.

Let's start with the Baltimore Symphony. Fresh back from a well-received Carnegie Hall visit last weekend (except for one out-of-town reviewer who allowed only that it sounded "pretty decent"), the orchestra has an extremely attractive program that is only being performed once at Strathmore, once at Meyerhoff.

The mysterious ways of BSO scheduling elude me sometimes, although I know lots of variables are in play when the calendar is planned. (This particular schedule is the main source of my own personal consternation over what to catch, and what will be missed as a consequence.)

Anyway, Gunther Herbig is back to conduct, always a reason in itself to attend, and he's tackling one of the greatest 20th-century symphonies, the Tenth by Shostakovich. The program also contains Ravel's "Mother Goose" and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Tianwa Yang).

Saturday night finds

Concert Artists of Baltimore presenting an unusual program that ought to be well worth checking out, as I've noted elsewhere.

Sunday afternoon at Towson U's Center for the Arts, Pro Musica Rara offers a colorful assortment of works for cello and piano by Beethoven and his little known contemporary Joseph Wolfl, along with keyboard pieces by Mozart and Clementi. Along with Pro Musica artistic director/cellist Allen Whear, the concert features Christopher Hammer at the fortepiano. If you haven't checked out this organization lately, you're missing some fine music-making on period instruments, a terrific way to shift aural gears.

Back to the BSO. Several of its players will be participating in a typically wide-ranging program as part of the Chamber Music by Candlelight series at Second Pres -- works by Beethoven, Poulenc, Piazzolla, Robert Muczynski (heard a lot of Muczynski lately?) and the orchestra's own Jonathan Jensen.Speaking of chamber music, go back to Saturday. That afternoon, in the gem of a theater at the Evergreen Museum, the Claremont Trio plays a 20th century program of Ravel, Shostakovich and more.

Now, the vocal side. I'll write a proper review of Peabody Opera Theatre's production of Massenet's romantic classic "Manon" as soon as I can, but let me hasten to say now that it's well worth considering. Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday afternoon.

And wouldn't you know -- there's more opera this weekend. UM's excellent Maryland Opera Studio presents the regional premiere of Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas," a work based on the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The opera, about a famed diva's boat ride down the Amazon, turned out to be the most popular of more than two dozen premieres by Houston Grand Opera (I was quite taken with it myself there back in 1996). The UM production, using a chamber orchestra reduction of the original score, opens Friday evening, repeats Sunday afternoon and Monday and Tuesday nights.

Also on the vocal front, consider a concert Sunday afternoon that will traverse several centuries of choral music, from Galuppi and Haydn to Howells and Hovhaness, featuring the choir of Grace and St. Peter’s Parish, led by organist/choirmaster John Martin Marks.

Not bad for one weekend, and that's just the classical side.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:41 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 17, 2010

Everyman Theatre offers compelling revival of Arthur Miller's 'All My Sons'

The truth, Oscar Wilde told us, is rarely pure and never simple. In Arthur Miller’s first hit play, “All My Sons,” successful businessman Joe Keller tortures the complicated truth about his wartime work and obscures it with a sticky web of self-justification.

Keller, grippingly portrayed by Carl Schurr in Everyman Theatre’s sterling production of this still-searing work from 1947, is supremely confident he can explain how defective aircraft parts left his factory and led to loss of life. Besides, he was officially exonerated.

He has lived his lie so boldly and thoroughly that it doesn’t really occur to him that the truth could ever emerge. Why should it? The war is over; so is the guilt. Everybody did things they shouldn’t have during those dark years, didn’t they?

Set in an unspecified American town, the play has hardly lost its relevance, certainly not in the age of Halliburton and BP, and its ability to touch the senses remains undiminished. Even those who know this work well may find themselves startled anew by how much of a gut-punch this tragedy can still deliver.

Miller keenly understood what brings families together, what drives them apart, and why it all matters. Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi Director is very much at home dealing with such familial issues, and his unforced, insightful directorial touch draws from the cast — most of them from the company's own family of resident artists — performances fully alive with nuance.

Schurr’s sureness as an actor enables him to reveal every facet of Keller’s volatile character as the center of gravity keeps shifting beneath him — the actor’s eyes convey as much as any of his lines. Most importantly, Schurr also finds in Keller the ruggedly appealing qualities that help to explain the loyalty of the man’s family, the affection of a neighborhood kid.

As Chris, the son who came back from the war and joined his father’s business, Clinton Brandhagen reveals

admirable scope. His eyes have much to say, too; behind them can be read the gnawing concern that he may be standing, like his father, on sand. And when the elusive truth hits Chris right between those eyes, Brandhagen registers the impact with a terrific intensity that generates an unnerving force onstage.

Deborah Hazlett shines as Keller’s wife, Kate, who accepts her husband as steadfastly as she refuses to accept the likelihood that their other son Larry, missing in action three years earlier, is dead. Hazlett taps deftly into Kate’s strange mix of weariness, superstition and confidence.

Beth Hylton brings a touching vulnerability to the role of Ann, who arrives at the Keller home as a double threat — she was Larry’s girlfriend and now the object of Chris’s affection; her father is still in prison for his part in the scandal over the aviation equipment. Adding to the tension is the appearance of Ann’s brother, George. That character's rapid jump from rage to jovial nostalgia and back again is not the most persuasive behavioral pattern in the play, but Tim Getman puts it across with considerable skill.

The Kellers’ colorful neighbors are vibrantly portrayed by Drew Kopas (Frank), Jjana Valentiner (Lydia), Bruce Randolph Nelsonm (Dr. Bayliss) and Megan Anderson (Sue).

Daniel Ettinger’s set design is richly atmospheric and gently lit by Andrew Griffin. David Burdick’s costumes provide another refined visual layer to the staging, often playing off the teal tones of the Keller home with complementing shades — red, orange, brown — that help to reflect the way that all the lives, even those of the neighbors, are connected to the central moral crisis. Only Joe does not fit neatly into the prevailing color scheme, and, in the final scene, his dark suit sets him starkly apart from the others, portending his isolated fate.

This season, Everyman celebrates its 20th year. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of patrons rank the affecting revival of “All My Sons” among the best efforts of those two decades. The production reminds you why you love theater, reconfirms what an involving and haunting art form it is -- and how a first-rate company can make it doubly so.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:41 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

November 16, 2010

Baltimore Symphony to offer second BSO Academy in June; free registration before Dec. 15

The first week-long BSO Academy -- the Baltimore Symphony's outreach to amateur musicians -- was a big hit with participants last June. Registration is now open for the second Academy, which will run June 12-18, 2011.

The schedule includes master classes, individual lessons and sectional and full orchestral rehearsals, culminating in a public concert at Meyerhoff Hall by Academy members and BSO musicians, conducted by Marin Alsop.

That concert will offer a hefty program: Bernstein’s "Candide" Overture; pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Hindemith; and nothing less than

the towering first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

Chamber ensembles, involving Academy participants and BSO musicians, will be formed; they'll give a concert at MICA.

The Academy is open to amateur players who are at least 25 years old. Applications are due by noon on Feb. 1. The $35 application fee will be waived before Dec. 15. Tuition is $1,650. More details can be found on the Academy's Web site

SUN STAFF PHOTO OF 2010 BSO ACADEMY (by Algerina Perna)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

A look at other reviews of Baltimore Symphony's Carnegie Hall visit

For any orchestra, a New York visit is a chance to shine (or, of course, bomb) in front of a different audience and different critics, as well as assorted industry bigwigs.

Not every ensemble gets more than one shot at this in a given season. It says something about the Baltimore Symphony's stature that it played two Carnegie Hall gigs over the weekend, offering more or less standard fare Saturday night, then a gospel version of Handel's "Messiah" Sunday afternoon.

The New York Times weighed in favorably on both. Allan Kozinn, covering Saturday's performance, said "The orchestra sounds terrific these days." In Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra, "the woodwinds played with uncommon richness and character, and the string sound was gracefully shaped." Kozinn described listeners "wrapped in the sheer beauty of the sound" during the BSO's account of Beethoven's "Eroica" in Mahler's arrangement ("a fascinating alternative view").

There were high marks, too, for Simon Trpceski's "galvanizing account" of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. As for Alsop, Kozinn found that

her approach tended to involve "patience slowly giving way to explosiveness."

Steve Smith, covering Sunday's "Too Hot to Handel" for the Times, sounded upbeat: "You could hardly have wished for a livelier performance or for a better leader than Ms. Alsop, the rare symphonic conductor entirely at ease in vernacular idioms."

The Washington Post's Anne Midgette, reviewing Saturday's concert, took aim first at a program that favored "music written mainly by dead white European men." Midgette thought the Beethoven symphony sounded "more driven than lush," but found the account of the Barber work successful and liked Trpceski's performance of the Prokofiev concerto. She concluded that "it was a solid evening from an orchestra that sounds, if not breathtaking, in pretty good shape."


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

Baltimore Symphony heats up Carnegie Hall with gospel version of 'Messiah'

Computer woes kept me from filing a report on the Baltimore Symphony's second concert in New York over the weekend, but I'm finally back in business (my review of the first concert ran earlier). So here's the story on Sunday's event: 

Baltimore audiences were introduced to the gospel-ized version of Handel's "Messiah" -- "Too Hot to Handel" -- a few seasons ago. The kinetic work, a brainchild of BSO music director Marin Alsop given life by arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson in 1992, received its Carnegie Hall debut Sunday afternoon. It may be a little early to hear any version of "Messiah," a work that will be omnipresent closer to the holidays, but this take on the venerable oratorio is awfully hard to resist. If you don't find yourself getting at least a little buzzed by the beat, there's probably no hope for your musical soul.

Alsop has an extraordinary flair for genre-crossing; she's totally at ease in jazz, rock, gospel, you name it. That ability ensured a persuasive performance on Sunday. Even the weaker portions of the score, when some stylistic devices get repetitive or seem a little forced, gained strength under Alsop's astute guidance.

The BSO had a tremendous advantage in putting the piece across -- more than

200 choristers from six area schools, including the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and Edward R. Murrow High School (I just love the idea that those two very different, very gifted men have educational facilities named after them in New York). Leslie Stifelman, a frequent collaborator with Alsop, was music supervisor for the project.

The sound made by these kids was, if you'll pardon the youthful expression, awesome. They produced a consistently smooth blend, admirable discipline of articulation, and a helluva of a lot of spirit in the phrasing. Just one of the many tingling highlights: The way that massed chorus nailed the funkadelic treatment "Surely, He hath borne our griefs." Man, was that cool.

Throughout the performance, there were soaring contributions from the soloists -- soprano Kecia Lewis-Evans, mezzo Vaneese Thomas (especially in her roof-raising account of "He shall feed His flock"), and tenor Darius de Haas. There was terrific playing from Christianson on the organ, Clifford Carter at the piano and sax men Dan Willis and Bob Malach. The BSO musicians, some of them sporting ear plugs, seemed to slip into the groove, too; percussionist Brian Prechtl really got down.

A Judy Garland song came to mind Sunday: "Handel and Haydn are facing the wall 'cause the joint is really jumpin' down at Carnegie Hall ... Beethoven's lucky he can't hear at all 'cause the joint is really jumpin' down at Carnegie Hall." By the time the rollicking "Hallelujah" hit, audience members were on their feet, swaying and clapping; the cheers afterward would have tumbled less solid walls.

Here's a video about Carnegie Hall's "Too Hot to Handel" project, which also included an opportunity for students to write their own music that will be performed later. This clip shows some of the initial rehearsal process and a preview performance in Harlem:



Posted by Tim Smith at 8:54 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

November 12, 2010

Baltimore Symphony shines in program of Barber, Prokofiev, Beethoven

It will be interesting to see how a New York audience reacts to the program that the Baltimore Symphony will perform in Carnegie Hall on Saturday. I thought it was terrific Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall (there's a repeat there Friday), and, from the sound of it, so did the rest of the hometown crowd.

Of course, we may all be too partial around here, but it really is heartening to hear the orchestra sounding so cohesive and dynamic week after week. And this particular concert offered unexpected pleasures at every turn.

To start, there was a dash of Samuel Barber, and one of his less frequently encountered works, the Essay No. 2, a taut score that packs a good deal of emotional material into a short frame. Marin Alsop conducted a bracing account of the piece. A little more nuance in phrasing and a little more polish in the playing wouldn't have hurt, but it was still an impressive curtain-raiser.

The vaguely Russian flavor of that Essay, in terms of dark lyricism and rich orchestration (I may have just imagined it) made the music a perfect segue into Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3.

This is Prokofiev at his most dazzling, imaginative and ingratiating, with memorable themes popping up continually to be brilliantly treated.

The fascinating thing about this performance was how the soloist, Simon Trpceski, seemed intent on

downplaying the athletic and glittery elements of the work in favor of subtlety and elegance. I love hearing the concerto played with a bigger, bolder touch at the keyboard, but I loved Trpceski's glistening articulation, too. He made the familiar music seem warmer than usual, and more personal, too. Alsop delivered her usual rock-solid support, and the BSO seemed to relish the coloristic score.

This being the Mahler anniversary season, orchestras everywhere are playing more of his music than usual. A few clever orchestras, including the BSO and London Philharmonic, are going one step farther and playing some of Mahler's controversial "re-touchings" of works by other composers, offering another way to get inside Mahler's creative thinking.

Alsop chose Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony for this program and did a memorable job with it. The conductor can come across as a little square with Beethoven's music, maintaining generally fast tempos and keeping phrases within tight boundaries.

Here, she seemed inspired not just by the extra sonic power from Mahler's tweaking of the orchestration, but also by the opportunity to savor Mahler's ideas about rhythmic pulse and the molding of a melodic line. Alsop took the funeral march movement, for example, at a true funereal pace, slower than when she led the pure-Beethoven version of the symphony a couple years ago. This is surely close to how Mahler conducted it.

And, come on, you've got to admit it's so cool to hear all those extra instruments Mahler puts into the score -- four flutes, four oboes, five clarinets (including E-flat clarinet, which hadn't even been invented in Beethoven's day), four bassoons, four trumpets and a whole gaggle of horns.

Mahler didn't just want more sound, but wanted more of Beethoven's themes to emerge clearly and with impact. He was hardly the first or last conductor to tamper with the Bard of Bonn's original intentions, and he certainly didn't do it just to show off or annoy the purists. There's an honesty and sincerity here, and Alsop's sensitive approach made it shine.

The performance had, in a word, gravitas. And the BSO's disciplined, vibrant response suggested that the musicians fully relished the novelty and the artistry of this "Mahler-oica."


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (2)

In today's Sun: reborn Arena Stage, cutting-edge Iron Crow Theatre

In case you haven't already spotted my sure-to-be-life-changing reviews elsewhere online or in print, I thought I'd better mention them here.

I weighed in on the much-awaited production of "Oklahoma" that inaugurates the impressively renovated complex that houses the venerable DC company Arena Stage. It's great to see the space so magically transformed, with the sweeping glass walls wrapping the three-theater venue into a most welcoming package.

It's also gratifying to see an iconic American musical treated with such respect and enthusiasm -- not to mention high-calibre choreography (Center Stage could sure have used something of this level in its otherwise highly effective recent revival of "The Wiz"). And I think the idea of

diversifying the cast, reflecting the actual history of the territory that became Oklahoma, pays off handsomely.

I've also got a review of another new cutting-edge troupe in Baltimore, Iron Crow Theatre, this one specializing in works with a connection to the LGBT community. The current production looks at the notorious, horrifying figure Jeffrey Dahmer. At a time when bullying of gays seems even worse than usual, it's compelling, if ever so uncomfortable, to come face to face with violence inflicted on gays by one of their own.

I admire the company for tackling such a subject and for giving this intriguing new play such a stylish production. I like, too, the way the set-up when you arrive for a performance. No programs are given out in advance, and no one is seated until the play is ready to start, so when audience members enter, they are put immediately into the terrible world inside "Apartment 213."


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:40 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Henryk Gorecki, composer of 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,' dies at 76

The remarkable Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, little known beyond his native country until the 1992 recording of his Symphony No. 3 caused a global sensation, died Friday at the age of 76. According to news reports, the end came in a hospital in Katowice after a long illness.

I like this phrase by Paul Griffiths describing Mr. Gorecki's work: "There was always a monumental simplicity about his music." This was especially true of that affecting Third Symphony from 1976, also known as the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." In three broadly paced movements, the composer creates a poignant sound-world, with a soprano soloist intoning a time-suspending chant; the texts, dealing with loss, include a message found scrawled on a Gestapo cell during World War II. (The Nonesuch recording that eventually sold over a million copies featured soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, and was conducted by former Baltimore Symphony music director David Zinman.)

To mark Mr. Gorecki's passing, here are two examples of his distinctively mystical style. First, the a cappella choral work from the 1980s, "Tutus Tuus," and then a movement from that well-known Symphony No. 3 in an extraordinary performance filmed at Auschwitz:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 11, 2010

Annapolis Chorale to present trim new version of 'Don Giovanni'

In all the talk about opera in Baltimore, some of us tend to forget about opera in Annapolis. So here's a reminder.

Mozart turns out to be a big focus this season in the state capital -- more precisely, at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. This weekend, the Annapolis Chorale presents a new, trimmed down version of "Don Giovanni" performed in English. And in March, Annapolis Opera offers "The Marriage of Figaro."

As for "Giovanni," the chorale's music director, J. Ernest Green, describes his project this way:

"I began to wonder what would happen if the orchestra became the orchestra that was playing in Don Giovanni’s villa. They would be part of the action. Then … what would happen to the story if we made some minor adjustments to Da Ponte’s libretto to compress the action into one day? When I figured out how to make these things work, the rest of the project began to fall into place."

Greene will conduct this presentation, which features the chorale, the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and a cast that includes Shouvik Mondle , Fatinah Tilfah and Jimi James.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:48 PM | | Comments (1)

Get your new music groove on Friday at Orion Sound Studios with Newspeak

For fans of the outer limits of the contemporary music scene, especially Mobtown Modern regulars, I think you'll want to check out Newspeak, an eight-piece ensemble making its Baltimore debut Friday as part of the Progressive Rock Showcases at Orion Sound Studios (2903 Whittington Ave # C; 410-206-1801).

Directed by composer David T. Little and clarinetist Eileen Mack, the group takes its name from a term in Orwell’s "1984" (didn't we just hear a lot of "newspeak" during the midterm elections?).

In a way that may remind you of Missy Mazzoli's group that appeared recently on the Mobtown series, Newspeak treads simultaneously through rock band and classical chamber ensemble waters. Little's own description has Newspeak "forged in the fires of Black Sabbath and Louis Andriessen, Dead Kennedys and Frederic Rzewski." That's rather evocative, wouldn't you say?

The group's Baltimore visit is part of a tour promoting its debut album from super-cool New Amsterdam Records, "On sweet light crude." Here's a video teaser:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

For Veterans Day, an excerpt from Britten's profound 'War Requiem'

On this Veterans Day, I wanted to share something from Benjamin Britten's profound "War Requiem." The composer interwove the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead with haunting poetry of Wilfred Owen to create a musical memorial to all those killed in all wars. The most affecting passage in the long, emotionally draining work comes at the end, when the tenor and baritone soloists sing a particularly powerful poem that imagines two soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict meeting after death:

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now . . . ."

Here is the finale, starting with that last line, in a moving performance conducted by

the late Mstislav Rostropovich in 2004, three years before his own death:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 10, 2010

Center Stage offers free tickets to veterans and active service members on Veterans Day

Center Stage is honoring Veterans Day by offering up to 100 free tickets to veterans and active service members for Thursday's preview performance of "ReEntry," a play by Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez that is based on interviews with veterans and their families. The cast includes Marine vet Joseph Harrell.

The tickets will be given away first come, first served; there's a limit of two per person. To request tickets, send an email to Lily Brown:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

November 9, 2010

Belated weekend report: BSO analyzes Mahler; Baltimore Chamber Orchestra plays Mozart

Your humble scribe has been over-extended lately.

In the space of about 48 hours last weekend, I squeezed in a play Friday night in Baltimore, concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Baltimore (OK, I only did half of the second concert); and a musical in D.C. Sunday night. Oh yes, and a panel discussion at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg Saturday afternoon devoted to the state of classical music in the U.S. (that sure was uplifting), and another speaking engagement at Emmanuel Episcopal back in Baltimore Sunday morning (even with the favorable time-change, a 9 a.m. gig to talk about sacred music was a bit formidable).

I mention all of this merely to plead for a little patience from those of you clamoring for fresh blog food. I'll deal with the theatrical events a little later on, but will get to the classical concerts now:

The  Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest Off the Cuff program was called "Analyze This," a specially created product that included a reenactment of the historic meeting 100 years ago in Holland where Mahler, afraid he might lose his wife to another man, consulted with Freud. (There is no actual transcript of the four-hour session, but a good deal of circumstantial evidence to work with.) Interwoven with the scene was music from the composer and his wife, and a tad from Beethoven, along with some visuals.

What looked like a sizable, fairly age-diverse crowd turned out Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall for the presentation and seemed to be genuinely taken with it. With good reason. Somehow, the limitations and pitfalls of mixing dialogue and orchestral excerpts were largely overcome. Didi Balle, who co-created the show with BSO music director Marin Alsop, wrote a colorful script that managed to impart a lot of information without ever getting talky, and she directed the action with a fine sense of pacing.

It helped that Balle had

two accomplished, sensitive actors in the key roles: Tony Tsendeas as Freud, Richard Pilcher as Mahler (he resembled a youngish Ned Beatty more than the Austrian composer, but you can't have everything). The two men conjured up three-dimensional characters in a flash.

Kristina Lewis, a Peabody grad student, handled the speaking part of her role as Alma admirably, but really shone when it came to the singing. She used her burnished tone to keen advantage in a powerful selection from Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" and an example of Alma's own talent as a composer, the bittersweet "Die stille Stadt."

Although only snippets of Mahler symphonies were played -- except for the indelible "Adagietto" from the Fifth, performed complete and quite beautifully -- I found the abridgement less frustrating than I expected. All things considered, with the musical selections neatly complementing the dialogue (and Alsop's own occasional commentary), "Analyze This" fulfilled its mission of shedding light on the personal side of Mahler, making him and his art seem all the more real and immediate.

Alsop is not the only conductor to spearhead and embrace non-traditional concert formats (Murry Sidlin, for one, has created many of these over the years, including a Mahler/Freud production), but she sure has remarkable gift for making them persuasive and engaging. There was a palpable sense of connection between stage and hall Saturday night, and you can't overestimate the value of that.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's season-opener Sunday afternoon at Goucher College opened in low-key fashion with the evergreen Andante Cantabile by Tchaikovsky (originally for string quartet). Conductor Markand Thakar shaped this gentle gem with an elegant touch and drew nicely nuanced playing from the ensemble.

Mozart's popular Violin Concerto No. 5 provided an effective vehicle for BCO concertmaster Madelin Adkins (she's also the BSO's associate concertmaster).

I would not have complained if the violinist had employed a wider range of dynamics, but the warmth of her tone and the stylish shape of her phrasing generated a satisfying performance. The cadenzas were particularly rich in character. Thakar provided supple support; the orchestra did mostly polished work.

Beethoven's Seventh followed the intermission, but I had to slip away; "Oklahoma" beckoned in Washington.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 8, 2010

Baltimore-born opera singer Matthew Morris organizes benefit for Trevor Project

Matthew Morris is a talented young Baltimorean who graduated from the Gilman School (class of 2003)and moved on to New York, where he earned a degree in voice from the Julliard School. He could be forgiven for concentrating solely on his career, which seems to be developing very nicely.

His credits include roles in in a premiere by ultra-hip composer Missy Mazzoli earlier this year at Bard College and in a Sante Fe Opera production of a work by Gluck last year while a member of that company's apprentice program. These days, Morris can be found in Paris, where he is singing Papageno in Peter Brook's adaptation of Mozart's "Magic Flute," which will go on a tour that includes New York next summer. In his spare time, the singer is also finishing up work on his master's degree at Bard College Conservatory, studying with stellar soprano Dawn Upshaw.

So, like I said, if Morris wanted to be a typically self-absorbed artist, who could blame him? But he found the time to produce a most worthy benefit concert for the Trevor Project, the national organization devoted to helping prevent suicides by gay teens. That cause has become more pressing than ever, in light of the recent deaths of several young men who had been bullied or harassed in one way or another and chose to end their lives.

The "You Are Not Alone" benefit on Nov. 22nd at St. Paul the Apostle Church (W. 60th and Columbus) will feature

the great singer/actress Betty Buckley, the remarkable composer Ricky Ian Gordon and many others.  

In an email from Morris, he says:

I know not everyone from Baltimore can attend, but I believe two things could happen:

1) People can donate online in the form of sponsoring a ticket for an LGBTQ youth. I hope the kids who need to see this community gathering to support them will be in attendance and I am donating tickets to the LGBTQ centers in New York City to assure that will happen.

2) I know from personal experience that reading about an event like this online or in the paper from afar a kid can think "Hey, there are other people like me. Some people out there support me." And that can make all the difference. If it does so for one kid in Baltimore or any where else, I think the concert will be a success.

Morris, who sang in the Children's Chorus of Maryland when he was growing up and returned to Gilman as its middle school music director for a year in between his college and graduate studies, obviously has what it takes to be not just an artist, but a mensch. And the Trevor Project could not be a more worthy project.

I hate the fact that kids in 2010 are still subject to the abuse of neanderthals, but I am grateful that help and hope is out there. And I couldn't be more impressed by what Matthew Morris is doing on behalf of that effort with this "You Are Not Alone concert."


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 6, 2010

Opera world loses another beloved star: Soprano Shirley Verrett dies at 79

The news of Shirley Verrett's death Friday at the age of 79 comes as the opera world is still mourning the loss of Joan Sutherland. Miss Verrett, ill for several months, died in her sleep in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she had lived and taught since 1996.

The singer gained fame first as a mezzo-soprano with an uncommonly lustrous tone, but she moved into the soprano realm with equal success, defying predictions that her voice would not survive the transition. Opera fans debated the matter anyway, of course, but no one could doubt Miss Verrett's commitment to anything she sang.

Beautiful, even regal, Miss Verrett delivered a combination of refined musicality and dramatic power that earned her comparisons with Maria Callas. Her contribution to the operatic art, and to the removal of barriers against African American singers, will long be honored and treasured.

I thought this live, richly expressive performance of

the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" would be an appropriate way to commemorate such a consummate artist:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:37 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 5, 2010

Baltimore Symphony performs music by Beethoven (sort of) and both Mahlers

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony tended to some unfinished business Thursday night -- the never-completed Tenth Symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler.

For good measure, there was also some new business, in the form of rarely heard songs by Mahler's wife and, just as rare, a Beethoven overture touched up by Mahler.

It added up to one of the BSO's most interesting programs of the season, yet it was performed only once at Meyerhoff Hall. Odd. All that effort for so little return. (Music by both Mahlers will turn up in this weekend's Off the Cuff program that includes a reenactment of Mahler's therapy session with Freud.)

Although I loved the novelty of Thursday's concert, I kept thinking of a more rewarding lineup. Instead of just the first movement of Mahler's Tenth, the movement he essentially finished, I wish we could have heard a version of the whole symphony as completed by Deryck Cooke (or one of the other musicologists who have taken the challenge), based on Mahler's substantial sketches.

Having a full Mahler Tenth as the main item on the bill would still have allowed room for Barry Cooper's conjectural attempt at fashioning the first movement of what might have been Beethoven's Tenth. Or, better yet, the companion piece could have been Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a fascinating work from 1989 that takes as its starting point sketches Schubert left behind for a Tenth Symphony. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Alsop got things started Thursday with

Mahler's version of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 -- which is to say, basically Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. The differences between Mahler's arrangement and the original don't call attention to themselves as much as his retouching of the orchestration in some Beethoven symphonies.

Mahler sure knew something about intensifying drama, though, and it was possible to hear in the BSO's performance a bolder level of contrasts than usual, as Alsop effectively molded and propelled the score.

Mahler's influence was also felt in the repositioning of the players onstage. It was great to see and hear the orchestra in the seating plan that he used (and several conductors still choose today) -- first and second violins sitting opposite each other (the original stereophonic effect); cellos inside, next to the firsts; violas inside, next to the seconds; basses on the left.   

Alma Mahler may well have developed into a major composer had she not accepted her husband's ban on such activity as a condition of their marriage (only after his time with Freud did Mahler realize the error of that requirement). Still, Alma's songs reveal a fine, if not thoroughly distinctive, sense of melody, harmony and atmosphere.

In the seven lieder included on the BSO program, the influence of Richard Strauss was evident throughout. This was especially true in those pieces, such as "Die Stille Stadt" and "Laue Sommernacht," with long instrumental codas. The Straussian connection sounded all the richer thanks to the orchestrations of the songs, deftly done by David and Colin Matthews.

Susanne Mentzer's warm, evenly produced mezzo tones filled out the melodic lines elegantly, achieving particularly beautiful results in "Waldseligkeit" and the disarmingly conversational "Bei dir ist es traut," with its sense of internalized rapture at the close.

Alsop provided attentive partnering from the podium and coaxed some lovely playing from her colleagues; the orchestra's final diminished chord in "Waldseligkeit" was, in itself, a gorgeous highlight of the evening.

No need to spend too much time with Cooper's attempt at filling in the blanks of Beethoven's Tenth. The music sounds like imitation Beethoven at best, imitation Schubert at worst. It has curiosity value, of course, and Alsop sure gave it a good shot.

The BSO's discipline slipped here and there in that would-be-Beethoven, but things came together quite effectively in the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth. Alsop showed great sensitivity to the searing lyrical theme that emerges from the opening mist, and she allowed the music to unfold with considerable eloquence.

But her approach to the pileup of dissonance near the end was disappointing. She didn't give quite enough time to, or summon enough orchestral power for, this extraordinary moment, when it seems as if Mahler peers into the future of the 20th century, shudders and retreats.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

In today's Sun: Reviewing high 'Hair' in DC, previewing BSO's Mahler/Freud program

For the benefit of my cherished readers who seek wisdom and solace only on this humble blog, I thought I should mention that you can find elsewhere in the Sun a couple of items that may be of interest.

The Baltimore Symphony's intriguing reenactment of Mahler's session in 1910 with a budding shrink named Sigmund Freud promises a lively look into the lives and minds of some very cool figures. I've got a preview in today's paper.

And, for something completely different, I've also got a review of "Hair," the iconic '60s musical that has the Kennedy Center Opera House jumping.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 4, 2010

Illness forces Leon Fleisher to cancel concert at Peabody Conservatory

Famed pianist Leon Fleisher, scheduled to perform in a wide-ranging program Saturday night at Peabody, has canceled due to illness. No word yet on if/when the concert will be rescheduled.

Fleisher was to have been joined by his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and several other Peabody artists in a program of Brahms, Ligeti and more.

Earlier this week, the BSO scrambled to replace an indisposed vocal soloist for tonight's program, while music director Marin Alsop was getting over her own bout with some flu-y bug.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 3, 2010

Blue Man Group rocks the Hippodrome

From the opening electronic ticker-tape messages, relaying birthday greetings and instructions on audience behavior (texting is banned, so older people “won’t feel inadequate”), to the deliriously multi-sensory finale, the Blue Man Group show at the Hippodrome Theatre packs a wallop.

The celebrated troupe, created by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, has entertained some 17 million people across the globe since debuting nearly 20 years ago. This Baltimore appearance -- performances run through Sunday -- marks the first national tour of the theatrical version that has been a fixture in New York, Las Vegas and other places. It’s a big, loud, funny, silly, visually arresting production.

Tuesday’s opening night crowd, which gave every indication of arriving fully prepared and stoked for the experience, enjoyed superbly timed performances by Kalen Allmandinger, Josh Elrod and General Fermon Judd as the blue men. (Four players, including Mark Frankel, take turns in the lead trio roles during the run.)

There’s no point in trying to classify what these performers, with their trademark blue faces and bald, ear-less heads, do onstage for the better part of 90 minutes. It’s much easier to go with the flow — and duck down in your seat when those guys start roaming the aisles in search of audience volunteers. (Late-comers may have a much harder time remaining incognito.)

In a way, you could say that Blue Man Group represents

the ultimate deconstruction of the dreaded genre known as mime. In this case, the wordless, expressionless protagonists, who can communicate richly with the smallest shift of the head, get to carry on with all manner of real, rather than imaginary, objects.

Looking awfully alien, yet ever so one-of-us at the same time, the blue men celebrate percussive effects and messy projectiles with the glee of a defiant teenager; splashing paint, vomited marshmallows and spewing Twinkies play notable roles here. These guys are animated by hard rock and the bossa nova to an almost equal degree. They just want to have fun, and they’re keen to share it.

The high-tech production includes many a brilliant effect, yet some of the most telling moments come from the simplest devices, such as PVC pipes, used to amusing rhythmic and melodic ends.

Periodic bursts of satiric wit are supplied by video and voice-over. One memorably sharp sequence is an ad for a “GiPad,” boasting three screens-worth of truncated literature — a “Synposize Me” version of “War and Peace” is down to seven sentences — that promise “to do for reading what texting has done for driving.”

You’ve just got to love a show that can mingle satire and regurgitation with such aplomb.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

Center Stage presents acting class taught by Rain Pryor

If you've been bitten by the theater bug, or maybe just looking to get bitten, Center Stage may have just the thing: "Mindful Acting with Rain Pryor: An introduction into the Art of Performance."

The Baltimore-based Pryor, daughter of the late comedian Richard Pryor, will teach a weekly class covering such topics as monologues, characterization and scene study.

She is the author of a bittersweet memoir, "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me," and a seasoned performer whose comedy and cabaret shows have enjoyed considerable popularity. 

The class meets Monday nights (7-9 p.m.), starting on Nov. 8, and goes through Dec. 13. The fee is $200.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

A little musical relief, thanks to a 'Random Act of Culture' in Philadelphia Macy's store

A little trend earlier this year had singers breaking into opera in the middle of public spaces, an unusual attention-grabber, to be sure. Young artists from Washington National Opera tried out the shtick at a grocery store in Baltimore to promote a concert with the BSO, for example; and members of the Opera Company of Philadelphia had similar fun drawing attention to its activity with a spontaneous vocal eruption at an Italian market. 

Last weekend, that same Opera Company of Philadelphia put together an even bigger musical surprise with the help of 28 other organizations. This event, one of the "Random Acts of Culture" being spearheaded by the Knight Foundation over the next few years, brought together more than 650 choristers who mingled with shoppers at the Macy's store in Center City Philadelphia (the grand building's ancestry goes back to the 1870s, when it opened as Wanamaker's original department store).

At noon on Saturday, the famous Wanamaker Organ could be heard breaking into the opening measures of

the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," and those hundreds of choristers located all over the place chimed in right on cue, startling the heck out of unsuspecting customers. A very cool, feel-good venture that I thought would be well worth sharing with you right about now:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:53 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 2, 2010

Indisposition season strikes early, affecting soloist for Baltimore Symphony program

Usually, illness-caused cancellations don't start hitting orchestras and opera companies until the winter, when flu bugs seem to target singers, instrumental soloists and conductors with particular vengeance. But the indisposition season has begun to affect our part of the world already.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday that mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has had to cancel her scheduled appearance with the ensemble and music director Marin Alsop on Thursday, when she was to have performed rarely encountered songs by Alma Mahler, wife of Gustav.

(Gustav famously made Alma give up composing when they married, but relented after a session with Sigmund Freud -- a topic that will be explored in greater detail over the weekend in a BSO program called "Analyze This").

Stepping in on short notice for Thursday's concert is

another excellent mezzo, Susanne Mentzer, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera (her many credits there include a role in the premiere of Tan Dun’s "The First Emperor" with Placido Domingo). Luckily, Alsop is still scheduled to be on the podium, even though the conductor is getting over her own bout with illness.

In addition to the Alma Mahler songs, Thursday's fascinating program includes the Adagio from Gustav's unfinished Symphony No. 10 and his arrangement of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. In keeping with the unfinished there, there will also be what you could call a conjectural performance -- the first movement of what would have been Beethoven's Symphony No. 10, reconstructed from fragments by Barry Cooper.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

November 1, 2010

Alex Ross, author of 'The Rest is Noise,' to visit Baltimore on book tour for 'Listen to This'

Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker for the past 14 years, is easily one of the most engaging, informative, thought-provoking writers in the business. The only thing I hate about him is that I don't feel like ever writing about music again after I read his work.

In a field crawling with condescension, Ross never writes down to anybody. And, while some critics seem to have never truly, deeply loved music, he never disguises his intense love for it.

His bestseller from 2007, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," was an instant classic, an analysis filled with sparks of info and insight. During his book tour promoting that work, Ross stopped by An die Musk in a presentation of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series.

On Tuesday, he returns to the same venue under the same auspices to discuss and sign copies of his latest book, "Listen to This," an arresting collection of pieces from the New Yorker (some of them revised) and some freshly written material.

You can open to any page of his book and

become instantly absorbed, whether Ross is dissecting a historically reverberant bass line or the reasons for Marian Anderson's lasting fame, delving into Bjork or Kurt Cobain, peering into the soul of Schubert or explaining the force of Verdi (and cogently pointing out how some deconstructionist stage directors have muted, rather than recharged, that force).

Complete with recommended recordings, "Listen to This" reconfirms just how valuable Alex Ross is to the musical discourse of our times. His previous appearance on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik Tuesday night was a standing-room-only affair; I imagine this one will be, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Weekend in Review: Chesapeake Chamber Opera performs 'Hansel and Gretel'

Neatly timed for Halloween, Chesapeake Chamber Opera offered a production of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," a work that features a delectable witch.

I caught Sunday's matinee at Memorial Episcopal Church, which drew a nice-sized audience, including quite a few kids (some in costume).

This marked the first venture into staged opera by the Chesapeake organization, which started last season with a concert format (albeit a decidedly dynamic version). "Hansel and Gretel" was a good choice for going the staging route, since its storybook flavor lends itself easily to basic costumes and the sort of simple, cartoon-like pieces of scenery (designed by John Seeley) employed here.

Having taken the step toward more traditional operatic presentation, 

company director Beth Stewart probably doesn't need to do any narration, even the relatively brief comments she offered here, but you already know I'm not a big fan of mixing speech and music.

I'm not a huge fan in opera with only piano accompaniment, either, but Patricia McKewen Amato provided a proficient job at the keyboard, attentive to conductor Simeone Tartaglione's elegant phrasing and sensible pacing of the score. (It was easy to tell he was hearing the riches of Humperdinck's orchestration in his head; I imagine he'd do a wonderful job conducting this opera with a full complement of instrumentalists.)

The competent cast provided consistently animated characterizations and lyrical style. In vocal terms, Gretchen Windt was the standout as Hansel with her mellow, evenly produced mezzo. Subtler tonal shading from Kathryn Guthrie Demos, as Gretel, would have been welcome, but the soprano's singing had a certain vibrant power. Heather Roberts had a good romp as the Witch, musically and theatrically.

Paul Corujo revealed a warm, ample baritone as the Father. An occasional intonation droop aside, Valerie Kopinski sang effectively as the Mother. Alexandra Boule-Buckley (Sandman) and Nola Richardson (Dew Fairy) sounded pretty, although, like most of the other women in the cast, their performances (and Humperdinck's golden music) could have benefited from softer, sweeter high notes. The Children's Chorus of Maryland bounded out for the final scene and sang charmingly.

None of the singing, alas, was helped by the heavily reverberant acoustics in the church. Although performed in English, there wewre a lot of times when the language might have been Sumarian and no one would have been the wiser.

Without orchestra and without the divine Overture, the "Hansel and Gretel" could only achieve so much in terms of sonic appeal, but the unforced charm of the production -- directed with a natural touch by Victoria Crutchfield (daughter of the noted opera conductor Will Crutchfield) -- allowed the opera's internal beauty to shine through nicely.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:42 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Weekend in review: Rachmaninoff's 'All Night Vigil' from Baltimore Choral Arts Society

The weekend's musical activity included a Baltimore Choral Arts Society presentation of a sublime a cappella work by Rachmaninoff, his "All-Night Vigil."

The last time the ensemble performed the score was in 2003, during the cool citywide Vivat! St. Petersburg festival initiated by Yuri Temirkanov (remember Vivat? remember Yuri Temirkanov?).

On that occasion, Choral Society music director Tom Hall talked all the way through it, providing a running commentary on nearly every one of the 15 movements in the piece. I never did understand his thinking then.

This time, for a concert Saturday night at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, Hall engaged actors Megan Anderson and Kyle Prue from Everyman Theatre to do readings chosen by Naomi Greenberg-Slovin. The readings were spaced out at intervals in the concert, allowing a few movements of music to be sung at a time.

All things considered, it represented

a great improvement over that last version, but Hall and I will continue to disagree over the need for, or appropriateness of, any spoken words in the "All-Night Vigil." (He's not likely to change his mind, given that he has added speech since the first time time he conducted a Choral Arts performance of the work years ago, when he commissioned poetry for the occasion.)

Saturday's dramatic readings included excerpts from Shakespeare, Chekhov and Gibran. Some of the introductory words setting up the readings seemed to take longer than the actual readings themselves, but the actors were pros, the pacing was good, the staging effective. If the words didn't add immeasurably to my enjoyment of the music, hey, maybe it's just me.

No question about the singing, though. That was really quite impressive. There's no place to hide in a cappella music, of course, especially in a piece as richly textured as the "All-Night Vigil." Hall's choristers articulated with admirable clarity, nuance and smoothness of blend (I'm not exactly fluent in Church Slavonic, the language of the texts, but the pronunciation sounded persuasive to me). Intonation was almost always spot-on; dynamic contrasts were effectively achieved.

Hall rounded up enough basses to move successfully into the subterranean realm Rachmaninoff called for in the fifth movement. At the other extreme, the sopranos made a particularly beautiful sound. Here and there, individual voices popped out where they shouldn't have, but the overall cohesiveness of the singing, not to mention Hall's sensitive shaping of the score, yielded consistent satisfaction. Tenor soloist Jim Kuang-Cheng Li produced a generally warm, sturdy tone.  

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Monica Lopossay)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 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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