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November 16, 2010

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

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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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