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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.

MAHLER/FREUD ILLUSTRATION (by Elisa Watson) AND MADELINE ADKINS PHOTO (by Christian Colberg) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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