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December 31, 2010

My Top 10 classical music events of 2010 in Baltimore and Washington

Since the performing arts world is more about seasons than the standard Jan-Dec calendar, I don't usually think about Top 10 lists at the end of the year.  But, hey, people love lists, so here goes: My favorite musical moments on the Baltimore/Washington classical music scene during 2010 -- in chronological, not qualitative, order. Please feel free to tell me yours (and to dispute mine to your heart's content.)

Jan. 17: The recital by Peabody student Hans Kristian Goldstein for Music in the Great Hall. It was fun hearing a cellist so young with the artistic and technical chops to launch a serious career. Great tone, great musical feeling.

Feb. 6: Recital by pianist Till Fellner presented by An die Musik at the BMA. First, it was cool that the event happened at all, since we were still all coping with the blizzard that ate Baltimore. Then, there was the enjoyment of hearing a very intellectually and technically gifted artist exploring Beethoven sonatas in such vivid, absorbing style.

Feb. 15: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Mariss Jansons and violinist Janine Jansen, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. There was an electrifying performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, filled with fascinating details and earthy emotion. I also loved Jansons' sumptuous, no holds-barred account of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. A magical night.

Feb. 21: Pianist Yefim Bronfman in a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. It's always rewarding to be in the presence of this keyboard tiger, but the extra fun this time was that he brought along the 30-minute, zillion-note Tchaikovsky sonata that hardly anyone ever plays in this country. He made as strong a case for it as you're likely to hear anytime soon. 

May 12: The Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern concert at Metro Gallery. Darryl Brenzel's jazz band version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" got beyond the expected snap to create a whole new way of appreciating the grit and power of the original score. And the Mobtown musicians were really smokin.'

June 4: Washington National Opera's production of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" at the Kennedy Center. Director/set designer Thaddeus Strassberger's Cold War-era setting was full of compelling visual touches. Liam Bonner looked the part of the Danish prince and acted the heck out of the role; the young baritone's beautifully nuanced singing proved just as expressively. Elizabeth Futral was the telling Ophelia.

Oct. 2, 15 (a tie): Two National Symphony Orchestra concerts with Christoph Eschenbach in his first weeks as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. On the 2nd, a gripping local premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s thorny "Herodiade-Fragmente" with the sensational soprano Marisol Montalvo; then, a freshly considered, deliciously romantic interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth. On the 15th, an intensely personal, affecting performance of 


Mahler's Fifth. The chemistry of conductor and orchestra was palpable.

Nov. 11: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by Marin Alsop at the Meyerhoff and, two nights later, at Carnegie Hall. This vivid program offered a striking affirmation of the steadily strengthening musical bond between music director and orchestra. There was a remarkably poetic version of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Simon Trpceski. To mark the Mahler anniversary season, Alsop dusted off the composer's arrangement of Beethoven's "Eroica." She seemed truly inspired by it and drew from the BSO considerable sonic richness. A cool performance.

Nov. 18: Peabody Opera Theatre's production of Massenet's "Manon." A lot of things clicked so tightly here that it was quite easy to forget that it was a student performance. The singers, especially soprano Jennifer Edwards and tenor William Davenport as the doomed lovers, got into their roles and sang with considerable style. I thought it was one of the best Peabody productions in my 10 years here, so it certainly deserved a spot on this Top 10.

Dec. 6: The Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik. Judah Adashi led a finely responsive vocal quartet in a mesmerizing account of David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion," winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. Lang added many layers to a Hans Christian Anderson tale of a poor girl left to die in the cold; both the words and the music touch a nerve. The performers brought out that subtle emotional power with remarkable skill. A most rewarding experience.





Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 30, 2010

Trying to excuse myself for another slow blog-posting week

Here I go again, begging your indulgence. I never did get all the vacation time I was supposed to have before Christmas, not even close. So much for rejuvenation. And this week has been spent toiling away on stories for Friday and Sunday's papers. What's a tired, distracted, depressed blogger supposed to do when he doesn't get around to putting up tons of posts every few hours for his eager readers to devour?

I know I shouldn't have taken time out for dinner with some wonderful folks last night. I know I shouldn't have bothered with the treadmill for a little while this morning. I know I should have been blogging away before dawn. Well, sue me. Right now I only have enough time and energy to recycle the explanation I submitted recently under the same circumstances, via the indelible voice of Marlene Dietrich. So, in case you missed it the last time, here it is again:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)

December 28, 2010

The downbeat side of 2010: Orchestras in peril

For a while, it looked like the worst of recession's effects had done their damage on arts organizations and 2010 would be the turnaround year.

But as the days on the calendar dwindle down to a precious few, the clouds have thickened considerably. Things are especially dark on the orchestral front.

The Detroit Symphony, an ensemble fully deserving of the term world-class, remains shut down by a musicians' strike that started Oct. 4, and the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever.

In early December, the Louisville Orchestra went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just shy of its 75th anniversary; the history of contemporary American music is tightly and richly connected to that orchestra.

Within a few days of the bad news from Kentucky, the Honolulu Symphony, having been in Chapter 11 for nearly a year, was heading into Chapter 7 liquidation after a remarkable 110 years of admirable service.

Compounding the loss for musicians and music lovers in those cities is the downright tragic realization that so few people seem to care about what has happened. No last-minute rescues, no sense of outrage. I guess we're all too used to this sort of thing by now.

I worry about an attitude that seems to be spreading inside some orchestra management and consultant circles, as well as among some music journalists -- an attitude that essentially dismisses professional musicians as

unrealistic. You want a 52-week contract and a good wage? Too extravagant. Go sell insurance or shoes on the side and be happy with 12 or 22 or 32 weeks. You think artistic standards will slip if we lower your pay and some of the best players leave to find greener fields? Who cares? There are young, hungry conservatory grads all over the place willing to take any wage. No one will know the difference.

(I wonder if full-time, nicely-compensated music journalists who buy into this argument would feel the same way if their publications pulled the plug on them, reasoning that there are a lot of young, eager writers willing to take any wage -- and, besides, no one will know the difference.)

The establishment of numerous full-time orchestras was a major achievement in this country during the past 50 years or so; the maintenance of dozens more was likewise a source of pride. If any more slip away in 2011, we will all be the poorer.

Henry Peyrebrune, writing on the Adaptistration site of Drew McManus, recently addressed the matter. After noting that people have long "raised questions about the sustainability" of the 52-week orchestra model, Peyreburne says

"We should keep in mind that we arrived where we are today as the result of a conscious long-term set of goals, shared by the leaders of business, government, arts and philanthropy. President Kennedy clearly articulated this philosophy in 1963:

'I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.'

Among the many challenges of the new year will be the one to find more leaders, political and otherwise, willing to stand up for the values Kennedy espoused. We need more forces to bolster endangered orchestras, to rekindle local pride in them. We need more people to acknowledge the value of music and all the arts to a community in the micro sense, to civilization in the macro.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:59 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 24, 2010

To wish my blog friends a Happy Christmas, my new favorite carol

Thanks to Bryn Terfel's wonderful Christmas album this year, I discovered a carol that had eluded me, lo, these many years -- "Still, Still, Still." To me, it's nearly as perfect as "Silent Night" in unaffected beauty of words and melody. Turns out both of these lullaby carols are Austrian. Not sure if that means anything, but I figured I should mention it.

What really put me over the edge for "Still, Still, Still" was the arrangement by Mack Wilberg used on Terfel's recording. I couldn't find a YouTube clip of that, but there was one of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so that will have to do. The harmonies in the accompaniment really are terrific, I think, giving a very simple melody an affecting depth.

The carol works just as well, unadorned, of course. I've posted such a version by the Vienna Choir Boys, followed by the rich Wilberg arrangement. I think you'll find both quite charming. With this gentle, tender music, I send Christmas greetings to one and all:


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:43 PM | | Comments (0)

December 23, 2010

Guest blog review: Bernstein's 'Candide' at DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company

As a one-man band, it can get tricky for me to cover all the good music and theater stuff out there (especially when, as is the case now, I'm also trying to get some days off), so I'm always grateful when someone offers to submit a guest blog post. Steve Kilar, who just finished up an internship in the Sun's newsroom, wrote this review of a very enticing show I haven't had a chance to catch in DC.:

An ornate but claustrophobic parlor, confined to center stage by black curtains, opens Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s fluid, timely production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. “Candide” is the first musical STC has produced since 1989.

Decorative curtains and a low-hanging chandelier squeeze the young, naïve Candide and his materialistic adoptive sister, Cunegonde, into the small space surrounding a drawing room table.

They alternately shoot up from their chairs and – in liberated bursts – sing that they live “in the best of all possible worlds,” a note from the book of their tutor, Pangloss, an optimist with a capital “O.”

No sooner do Cunegonde and Candide profess their love to each other than this insulated room simultaneously explodes and collapses. The decorative interior curtains fall to the floor while the black stage curtains pull away to reveal an empty, wood-paneled expanse that occupies the depth and breadth of the stage.

The parquet floor and each of the three monotone walls, as high as Sidney Harman Hall’s stage will allow, appear to be bonded so tightly together that

barely a sliver of light can enter the room Candide now occupies, alone. But in Zimmerman’s musical, a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, this room is the world.

And the space is not impenetrable. Hidden doors and windows swing from the walls, cracks split open between the panels, the rear wall partially slides away to show the sea, and people pop up from holes in the floor.

Our hero is suddenly not trapped in solitary. He sails around the globe in this space with new and old companions. The room becomes Europe and South America, a battlefield and a brothel, Hell and Eden.

Candide’s room and its shifting set accessories – by designer Daniel Ostling (who was Tony nominated in 2002 for “Metamorphoses,” the same show for which Zimmerman won her directing Tony) – are the glue that holds the enchanting Goodman/STC production together.

The set symbolizes the rigid, close-minded philosophies and religions that Voltaire satirized in the 18th-Century novel on which the musical is based, represents Candide’s own malleable worldview, and – perhaps most importantly – is critical in maintaining the production’s satisfying pace.

With a run time of 2 hours, 45 minutes the show risks plodding. Yet the ensemble effortlessly shapes their surroundings into the globe-jumping plot’s quickly changing locales with little more than brooms to sweep up the mess that the previous place left behind. And Candide often encounters – and causes – quite a mess.

Glue, of course, is worthless unless it holds valuable pieces together. Zimmerman’s production, which runs through Jan. 9, is made up of many valuable pieces.

Bernstein’s score, which he improved upon for decades, is bright, varied and well performed by conductor Doug Peck and the 11-person orchestra. If not for the show’s dark undercurrents, the music of Candide would surely have become as recognizable as West Side Story, the composer’s most popular musical.

The cast is also solid. Lauren Molina’s Conegunde is many things: Charming, pitiable, haughty, conniving, redeemed. Molina’s vocal control and acting prowess allow her to ably convey all of these characteristics and more. Geoff Packard acts and sings Candide convincingly – and with relish – but is occasionally overshadowed in duets with Molina.

The ensemble, many acting multiple roles and narrating transitions, delivers. There are moments – which mostly involve Erik Lochtefeld as Cunegonde’s pompous pedophile of a brother, Larry Yando as Pangloss and Jesse J. Perez as Candide’s sidekick Cacambo – where the show’s tone is uncertain and the characters’ behaviors border on slapstick. The Old Lady, played by the gifted Hollis Resnik, is also guilty of creating occasional off-balance moods, but she is also responsible for most of the laugh out loud moments.

The tableaus Zimmmerman creates with her actors are natural and their movements engaging: Candide and his companions roll in perfect unison about the hull of a ship on stormy seas; Candide, Cacambo and Cunegonde raptly listen to the Old Lady’s epic life history, like kindergarteners at story time, in a fast-paced abridgment of the crew’s crossing of the Atlantic.

All the while, however, Zimmerman’s characters are encased within the wood-paneled walls of their ideologies and biases. Only in the final scene, when the characters unite in dismantling some of society’s dysfunctional constructs, does the room open – finally – and reveal a new, empty horizon.



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:09 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

December 22, 2010

The ultimate performance of 'Feliz Navidad' from 'Bette Davis'

Among the longest, heartiest laughs I ever had around Christmas Time was when a Baltimore friend enlivened a holiday party with the ultimate interpretation of that rather annoying Jose Feliciano ditty "Feliz Navidad."

This version features none other than the immortal Bette Davis (OK, impersonator Jimmy James, if you want to be so damn technical), and just the mere idea of that woman singing this bouncy tune is hilarious. The sound of it is all the more so. I figured I owed it you, my treasured bloggies, to share it this Christmas.

(I should also add that, in addition to being a hoot, this recording has another interesting property. If you play it for a mixed crowd of unsuspecting folks, you'll find that it makes a pretty good test of who's gay -- or exceedingly gay-friendly -- in the room. They'll be the ones who really, really get it.)

I was delighted to find a YouTube clip of this incomparable classic. It's audio only, accompanied by shots of Davis films, so you'll have to imagine her (or Jimmy James) actually singing it, but that should be easy enough.

So brace yourself. Here comes Bette doing to "Feliz Navidad" what should be done to "Feliz Navidad":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 21, 2010

Signature Theater gives 'Sunset Boulevard' fresh close-up

Billy Wilder’s celebrated 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” seems perfect as it is, brilliantly spinning the tale of former silent screen goddess Norma Desmond pathetically fueling her dream of a comeback with the help of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter.

But some folks have seen in the material the stuff of a Broadway musical, starting with the movie’s iconic star, Gloria Swanson, who got far along into an adaptation in the 1950s before Paramount pulled the plug by denying the rights — life cruelly imitating art, you might say.

Andrew Lloyd Webber had better luck when he gave “Sunset Boulevard” the full musical treatment in 1993. The show didn’t achieve the blockbuster status of Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” but it boasts some of the composer’s most attractive songs and has the advantage of a strong book and often clever lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.

Signature Theatre, the Arlington, Va.-based company with an enviable track record of staging musicals with abundant style, has given “Sunset Boulevard” a handsome new production that is likely to be packing audiences in for the length of the run.

Florence Lacey doesn’t give off quite enough aura to dominate the stage completely as Norma, but she’s a vivid actress and singer nonetheless and she reveals the character’s fragile emotional state affectingly. D.B. Bonds is impressive, dramatically and musically, in the William Holden role of screenwriter Joe Gillis, who gets much more than he bargained for when he pulls into the driveway of an old Hollywood mansion.

Ed Dixon, as Norma’s rigid, devoted butler Max, does

a terrific job keeping the caricature from obscuring the character, and his big, mostly firm bass voice serves him well in the vocal numbers. Susan Derry brings snap to the role of Betty, Joe’s eventual love interest, but her singing could use more finesse.

Sean Thompson is sure and engaging as Joe’s pal Artie. Harry A. Winter is convincing as Cecil B. DeMille; his parting with Norma has a particular affecting touch. J. Fred Shiffman is more than believable as the oily studio bigwig Sheldrake.

The rest of the ensemble is finely honed and handles Karma Camp’s choreography with sufficient sizzle. The 20-piece orchestra, the largest ever used in a Signature production, makes a sturdy, expressive sound, deftly led by Jon Kalbfleisch. (This is high season in DC for productions featuring what qualifies as a hefty orchestra for a Broadway musical these days; the splendid Tony-winning revival of "South Pacific" is delivering a similar instrumental kick at the Kennedy Center.)

It’s probably impossible to avoid an element of camp in “Sunset Boulevard.” Director Eric Schaeffer lets quite a lot of it in; sometimes, he even seems determined to trigger memories of those delicious spoofs of the movie done by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. This is especially true of the ready-for-my-close-up finale, when otherwise spot-on costume designer Kathleen Geldard gives Norma a Bob Mackie-worthy outfit that may well have you tittering.

The periodic use of black and white film projections to set scenes and depict some of the action is neatly done, but it keeps reminding you of the superior Wilder movie, which, I assume, was not the intention.

There’s another questionable bit of business during the song “The Lady’s Paying,” when a men’s fashion contingent bounds onstage to do a makeover on Joe. We’re treated to a tired old mincing, lisping act that seems even more dated, unfunny and borderline-offensive than ever.

Those quibbles aside, Schaeffer guides the action breezily and often compellingly, aided by Daniel Conway’s classy, versatile scenic design. That design includes lots of wonderful little period details, right down to the colored aluminum glasses for the guests in the New Year’s party scene.

While it can’t eclipse the silver screen original — what could? — “Sunset Boulevard” represents some of Webber’s most polished work. Signature’s passionate, attractive production helps it shine all the more brightly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

December 20, 2010

More flash mob scenes to keep the Christmas spirit percolating

The "Hallelujah" flash mob trend continues across the land this Christmas season.

You may recall the very cool scene in the Philadelphia Macy's (the site of historic Wanamaker's department store) where a mob of high-spirited choristers broke into the most famous portion of Handel's "Messiah" in the midst of unsuspecting shoppers. That was part of the most worthy project called Random Acts of Culture.

Now it looks like other folks are picking up on the idea (just as several opera companies emulated a flash mob idea that started in Europe). Last weekend, for example, the Annapolis Chorale put together a "Hallelujah" flash mob at a local Nordstrom as a plug for the group's performances of "Messiah." Alas, the audio/video quality of that performance is rather primitive. (You can check it out here.)

One particularly hot "Hallelujah" that has gone super-viral on YouTube was organized by Alphabet Photography in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and took place in a typical food court. In case you haven't already seen it, I've posted it here to keep the holiday cheer percolating:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:26 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 17, 2010

Just a few more Christmas CDs to consider this year

During a couple days off, I found myself popping in some more new CDs of Christmas music while I caught up on some chores at home.

Lo and behold, I also found myself enjoying them, especially Bryn Terfel's -- thanks to his performance of one particular carol that just lit up my little world like crazy. More on that in a moment.

If you're looking for a big production sort of disc, I'd say you'd find it with "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the famed group's own label. Naturally, the choir makes a big, rich sound; the instrumental side of the performance is equally hefty and impressive; and pop singer Natalie Cole provides the starry solo work.

For an operatic burst of Christmas and sort-of-Christmas-y fare, you can't go wrong with "Santo," a Decca collection of sacred music sung with his usual technical brilliance and communicative power by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. He does an appealing job with such familiar items as "Every Valley" from "Messiah" and, of course, "O Holy Night."

He puts a dynamic spin on arias from Masses by Rossini and Bellini and Haydn's "Creation" that help fill out the recording. Florez also

sings one of his own compositions, the one that gives the album its title. It's a folksy, colorful charmer that sometimes sounds a little Eastern European as well as Latin.

Now back to the Terfel release, "Carols and Christmas Songs" (Deutsche Grammophon). Except for a version of "White Christmas" that sounds rather like a karaoke thing (it's a duet, in a manner of speaking, with the Bing Crosby' recording), the disc is thoroughly entertaining and often downright endearing.

Terfel, of course, possesses one of the major voices of our time, and it's enjoyable just hearing all those beautifully rounded tones. He phrases so naturally and so expressively that the most familiar items sound new, as in the case of "Silent Night," with a haunting arrangement by Chris Hazell.

The gem here, though, is "Still, still, still," an Austrian carol that I must confess is new to me. I can't believe what I've been missing all these years. This is such a hypnotically beautiful, touching melody, with sweet words to match. A perfect carol, in my book. Terfel sings it with an exquisite warmth, and the arrangement by Mack Wilberg is perfect at generating a sense of stillness and heavenly peace. Here's a taste:


There's a bonus disc of Terfel singing carols in his native Welsh language, one more reason to welcome this release, which now ranks among my favorite Christmas albums.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 16, 2010

By way of explaining the shortage of blog posts

I dared to take off a couple days this week (I'm supposed to take more next week), and I quickly fell behind in the blog department. Sorry about that. Just think of this brief lull as the perfect opportunity to catch up on all the brilliant previous posts you somehow missed.

I realize don't even have a good excuse for not posting something today. It's not 'cause I shouldn't, not 'cause I wouldn't, and you know it's not 'cause I couldn't, it's simply because -- well, I'll let the indelible Marlene Dietrich do the explaining for me:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:41 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 15, 2010

Center Stage production of 'ReEntry' to be streamed Thursday around the world

Center Stage will provide a free, live-streamed simulcast of "ReEntry," the sobering production that looks at US Marines returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday evening.

Among the places lined up to show the performance are Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, the Naval Center for Combat Stress in San Diego, the US Department of Defense in Australia, and Towson University.

The simulcast is being made possible with the support of the NEA; Center Stage received a Chairman’s Extraordinary Action Award from that agency.

Military bases and other organizations interested in the simulcast are asked to contact David Henderson ( for more information.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Some new Christmas albums worth a listen

Most years, I just can't bring myself to check out the latest batch of Christmas albums. Don't get me wrong -- I have a soft spot for Christmas music, but, really, how many holiday recordings can you have?

Me, I only need one, Streisand's first from the mid-1960s (there are some great gems on her more recent follow-up, but the first one will always be my favorite). But I thought I'd try out some of the CDs that have been stacking up this fall and see how they, well, stack up.

I'll start with a homegrown release: "Christmas at America's First Cathedral" by our very own Baltimore Choral Arts Society (Gothic Records). This is a souvenir of the 2009 concert at the Baltimore Basilica and comes complete with a DVD of the event. The recording, which captures the warm, reverberant acoustics of that historic space beautifully, offers a program that is generous in providing fresh material.

The imaginative and instantly appealing new works by Rosephayne Powell and James Lee III provide welcome additions to Christmas repertoire. And it's refreshing to have some less obvious, season-appropriate selections by

Handel (his other great "Hallelujah" Chorus, from "Judas Maccabeus") and Mendelssohn ("Rise Up" from "St. Paul" makes a cool curtain-raiser).

The chorus and orchestra, led by Tom Hall, sound admirably vibrant. So does soprano soloist Janice Chandler-Eteme.

Another appealing release is "A String Quartet Christmas," a three-disc set from ArkivMusic that features excellent performers, including violinist Arturo Delmoni and cellist Nathaniel Rosen, and a huge chunk of holiday fare. These recordings were available separately in years past, but are gathered together now in a neat package. (I must have ignored them back then, in my usual, not-in-the-mood-for-Christmas-CDs manner, so I'm glad I listened this time.)

This is a perfect product for anyone wanting to bring it down a little -- in this case, a whole lot, really -- and focus purely on the melodic beauty inspired by Christmas Time.

The arrangements are sensitive, the playing really first-class. To vary the sonic flavor of a string quartet, there are occasional appearances of harp and organ (the player of the latter happens to be named Timothy Smith -- no relation).

There are two dozen or so carols and other items per disc, covering many centuries and mixing the well-known with the rare and surprising. Among the surprises is an arrangement for violin and organ of the haunting Adagio from Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto, which, somehow, takes on a reverential, Christmas Eve-like feeling in this context.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 14, 2010

For the classical music lover on your holiday shopping list, Part 3

Jeffrey BiegelHere's an easy choice for music fans on your holiday shopping list -- assuming they like Bach, piano and Bach played on the piano.

A new CD titled "Bach on a Steinway" offers some nice novelty angles, too. It's the inaugural release of Steinway & Sons own label, which will be devoted to pianists of the past and present who favored this brand of keyboard instrument.

And this recording features Jeffrey Biegel, a musician who doesn't just play Bach with great technical and coloristic flair, but also adds more ornamentation than pianists typically do in this repertoire.

Biegel, you may recall, persuasively embellished Mozart sonatas on recordings for the E1 Entertainment label; that was one of my picks last year at this time. With Bach, Biegel is always tasteful, applying ornaments with an elegant, unfussy touch in a program that includes a couple of toccatas, two preludes and fugues, a partita and the French Suite No. 5.

To give you a taste of Biegel's embellishments, first listen to

another pianist playing the last measures of the D major Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a perfectly fine performance that sticks to the notes as written:



Now here's Biegel playing the end of this fugue with some delectable ornamentation (if you hear any static, that's not the disc, but some glitches I encountered while creating the audio clip and couldn't eliminate):


The sound quality is excellent on the disc and, of course, so is the piano -- a 1980 Steinway Model D that Biegel chose for its "warmth and wide dynamic range, but also the brightness and bite I was after for Bach." That pretty much describes the performances. I especially like the bite.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 13, 2010

Peabody Wind Ensemble dedicates concert to memory of bassoon student

On Nov. 15, Casey Butler lost consciousness during her weekly bassoon lesson on the campus of the Peabody Conservatory. The first-year undergrad never recovered.

She died that day at the age of 18. (No word yet on the cause of death.)

The promising student, who was born in Delaware and grew up in Maryland, will be commemorated in a concert Tuesday by the Peabody Wind Ensemble, a concert she would have played.

Her chair will be left empty.

Harlan D. Parker will conduct the program, which will include works by Gustav Holst, James Barnes and Eugene Bozza. An arrangement of "Amazing Grace" will also be performed.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:34 PM | | Comments (0)

Elizabeth Futral raises her voice in support of Lyric Opera Baltimore

It's really too early to know for sure how things will turn out for Lyric Opera Baltimore, the new company set to launch next November in the theater where the Baltimore Opera Company was a longtime tenant. Everyone connected with the venture says the fiscal and management mistakes that led to the demise of the old organization will not be repeated, that there will be sufficient money in the bank before anything goes onstage.

Meanwhile, a three-production season for 2011-2012 has been announced, complete with casting info, and, on Sunday night, Lyric Opera Baltimore offered a free concert featuring the soprano who will help inaugurate that season in "La Traviata" -- Elizabeth Futral.

The singer is well known to Baltimore Opera audiences; she starred in several productions in the company's final years. She donated her services for the recital and, at the conclusion, spoke of how "many hearts broke" across the country when Baltimore Opera folded. She encouraged the audience to support the new company. Earlier, her husband, Steven White, who will conduct that "Traviata," took the stage to urge the opening of pocketbooks to help with the "revitalization, rejuvenation and renaissance of opera in Baltimore."

Given the small turnout for this event, I wasn't sure how optimistic to get, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm in the place. No one sounds more upbeat or determined than James Harp, artistic director of the new company, who accompanied Futral with extraordinary sensitivity and flair at the piano.

For her part, the soprano, looking supremely elegant, offered a rich program featuring opera and holiday repertoire. I was especially taken with

her impassioned, eloquent performances of arias from Massenet's "Thais" and Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" and her disarming accounts of "Gesu Bambino" and "White Christmas."

The much-admired acoustics of the Lyric gave Futral's singing a terrific immediacy. I would have welcome some sweeter high notes along the way, but the vivid communicativeness of the singing consistently hit home.

As for Lyric Opera Baltimore's '11-'12 season: "Traviata," with Futral (Violetta), Eric Margiore (Alfredo) and Jason Stearns (Germont), sets from Lyric Opera of Chicago; "The Marriage of Figaro" with Daniel Mobbs (Figaro), Caitlyn Lynch (Countess), conducted by Joseph Rescigno, sets from Montreal Opera; "Faust with Stefania Dovhan (Marguerite) and Timothy Mix (Valentin), conducted by James Meena, sets from Opera Arizona.

Being back in the Lyric on Sunday reminded me all over again about what we all lost when Baltimore Opera folded. I realize that every time someone says they want to bring opera back to Baltimore, it can sound as grating as all that take-our-country-back nonsense heard so often during the midterm elections. Obviously, Baltimore still has opera; no one took it away. There was more than the Baltimore Opera back when that company was alive and well. It will continue to have various operatic entities if Lyric Opera Baltimore arrives and thrives.

But when there was -- for want of a better term (I know this term rankles some folks) -- a grand opera company in town, that put other efforts in perspective. They gained some of their strength and appeal from providing an alternative and a kind of complement to the larger organization. But for a couple years now, that contrast hasn't existed, so it shines a different and not always flattering light on the chamber-sized groups.

Call me old-fashioned, but I would much prefer living in a city that had a major opera company -- big budget, notable artists and scenery onstage, an appropriately scaled orchestra in the pit -- and as many smaller companies as the market will bear.

I wouldn't care if that major company were on the more intimate side of, say, the very classy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, housed in a modest-sized venue. (I have heard very well-reasoned arguments in favor of such an approach.) But I know that in Baltimore, a place where traditions are clutched as long as possible, you can't stop a lot of people from wanting to get something back in the Lyric. And the renovations going on there offer the possibility that opera will, in fact, look even grander (again, for want of a better term), than it could ever look there before.

If a new company does take hold (and, most importantly, if it offers high quality), it will fill a void, but it won't push all the other companies away. I can imagine all of them enjoying a new burst of creativity, taking a new look at repertoire choices, artists and, for those that don't use a concert format, staging concepts.

Anyway, Sunday's event provided a fresh reason to imagine that things will get very interesting around here next season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

December 11, 2010

Birthday greetings to Elliott Carter on his 102nd

Elliott Carter, the dean of contemporary American music celebrates his 102nd birthday on Saturday, Dec. 11. He has already composed several pieces since turning 100, so there's every hope he will keep producing more.

For some listeners, Carter represents all that is frightening, inexplicable and unacceptable in modern music; for others, he represents all that is challenging, brilliant and absorbing. There's no question about the difficulty of Carter's art. I'd say there's no question about its high value, too. The composer's atonal language, at once cerebral and vibrant, achieves an expressive power that can reach out and grab you in many surprising ways.

It remains absurd that so little of Carter's work turns up here in Baltimore, but maybe that will change. Meanwhile, let me offer you these

two short piano compositions from 1999 and 2006 by way of demonstrating Carter's uncommon imagination and saluting his 102th birthday:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:43 AM | | Comments (4)

December 10, 2010

Holiday concert in DC commemorates Battle of the Bulge

Photos and newsreel footage of the Battle of the Bulge, which began on Dec. 16, 1944 in Belgium, reveal horrid conditions for the troops in the cold; it makes you shiver just watching it. What began as a massive German counter-offensive became, by the end of January, a decisive victory for the Allies, hastening the end of the war.

Fifty survivors of the Battle of the Bulge will be special guests at a holiday concert on Monday at the Kennedy Center featuring the Choral Arts Society of Washington's 160-voice Chorus, led by Norman Scribner, and the Royal Symphonic Band of the Belgian Guides, conducted by Yves Segers. Belgian carols will be part of this Christmas program.

In a press statement, Belgium's Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Matthysen said: "The atmosphere of Christmas and the values of peace and understanding attached to it are the best way to remember those who have fought so hard to liberate our country during the famous Battle of the Bulge. I am convinced that there is no better way to invoke this atmosphere than by having the magnificent Choral Arts Chorus joined by the memorable Royal Symphonic Band of the Belgian Guides, to perform a tribute worthy of those men."

Also participating in the program will be the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:28 PM | | Comments (0)

For the theater lover on your holiday gift list, a double dose of Sondheim

There's no question what book every lover of theater -- musical theater, more specifically -- will want this year. That's Stephen Sondheim's own "Finishing the Hat" (Knopf), an irresistible collection of (to quote the book's subtitle) "Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes."

Isn't it rich?

The book would be invaluable if it only contained the lyrics, since Sondheim's are the most consistently brilliant in imagery, emotion and rhyme that have ever graced a Broadway show. But there's much more. Extensive chunks of dialogue are included, providing context for the song texts.

And, for the icing on this multi-layered cake, there's Sondheim's running commentary -- explanations of how he arrived at words and phrases; analyses of how each show came together, how and why the songs worked or didn't work in their respective scenes; tons of backstage stories; even descriptions of the pencils Sondheim uses when he's writing.

You come away understanding aspects of crafting a line that you may never have considered. You also come away, of course, with an understanding of what makes Sondheim Sondheim.

The most fun in the book -- wicked fun, really -- may well be had from the author's commentaries on fellow lyricists. You just have to love the brutal honesty, even if Sondheim deflates one of your favorites in the process.

It was LOL time for me when I read his take on Oscar Hammerstein and

"You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific":

...There's a fervent lack of surprise in Hammerstein's thoughts, made manifest by his need to spell things out with plodding insistence, as in : 'You've got to be taught before it's too late,/ Before you are six or seven or eight,' which always makes me want to ask, 'What about five or nine or 13?'

He takes deadly aim at a "bright canary yellow" sky and a lark "praying," too.

Then there's poor Lorenz Hart's "pervasive laziness," as when he makes a

sacrifice of meaning for rhyme: 'Your looks are laughable,/ Unphotographable.' Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic.' Only vampires are unphotographable.

Sondheim gets pretty rough, too, with Porter, Coward and W.S. Gilbert. Ira Gershwin hardly comes off unscathed, either. I can imagine some folks eager to debate the author on one or more of these evaluations, but I'd wager that Sondheim would emerge victorious each time. After all, every opinion in the "Finishing the Hat" is delivered by the voice of authority.

The perfect companion book for the treasury of lyrics is "Sondheim On Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions," by Mark Eden Horowitz (Scarecrow Press).

This second edition of the author's interviews with Sondheim builds on the original discussions of "Assassins," "Into the Woods," "Pacific Overtures," "Passion," "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Sweeny Todd." The new material offers discussions of several other shows and a whole chapter on "Bounce."

Horowitz, senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, asks exceptionally detailed, nitty-gritty questions about melodic lines, harmonies, time signatures, accompaniment, and more; he gets exceptionally detailed answers in return. The result may go over the heads of those who don't read music (there are lots of illustrations from the scores), but that still leaves plenty of easily digested insights to savor.

The book also includes a valuable song list and discography, as well as the fascinating "Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)" that Sondheim prepared as part of the Kennedy Center's celebration of his 70th birthday in 2000.   

If "Finishing the Hat" puts you deeply into the mind of the lyricist, "Sondheim on Music" puts you just as deeply into the mind of the composer. Putting it all together, you've got a provocative, illuminating portrait of a creative powerhouse.

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Jerry Jackson)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Holiday gifts

For the classical music lover on your holiday gift list, Part 2

Vittorio GrigoloIf you holiday gift list includes an opera fan, might as well jump on the Vittorio bandwagon. Vittorio Grigolo, that is, the young, handsome singer who has the potential to move into the fast track for superstardom. His new Sony Classical release, "Vittorio Grigolo -- The Italian Tenor" -- is a winner.

I remember well Grigolo's 2007 Washington National Opera debut in "La Boheme" and return in 2008 for "Lucrezia Borgia." In both cases, he proved an exciting performer, with abundant personality onstage and a voice that had considerable presence.

I noted both times a tendency to strain on top notes and to maintain a mostly loud volume, signs that the tenor could end up shortening his time in the spotlight.

But the recording, devoted to arias by Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, finds Grigolo sounding very comfortable (the microphone loves his voice). The vocal production is natural, the dynamic inflections numerous.

Anyone who can pass my favorite tenor test, at least on recording (I rarely hear anyone come close in live performance), is OK by me. That test comes in this line from

the "Tosca" aria "E luceven le stelle": "O dolci baci, o languide carezze, mentr'io fremente le belle forme disciogliea dai veli." When the melodic lines reaches its peak, a tenor who takes his time, softens his tone and makes this description of gently lifting the veil of his beloved truly beautiful is a tenor I'll cherish. (My all-time champion here is Franco Corelli.) Grigolo handles that passage very, very nicely, as you can judge for yourself right here:


He delivers the rest of that aria with plenty of style, too. For that matter, the tenor is really quite affecting and involving throughout the disc. He has a distinctive gift for communicating directly and intimately; he loves the language and, like Pavarotti, seems to relish every syllable of it. At full volume, some high notes turn harsh, but that's a minor matter here. What wins you over is the character of the singing; his way with arias from "Gianni Schicchi" and "Manon Lescaut" proves particularly disarming.

One small warning -- a truly horrid-sounding soprano turns up for a few measures in "Di quelle pira" from "Il Trovatore." It's quite a shock, but not severe enough to make you forget how admirably nuanced Grigolo's performance of the rousing aria is -- he doesn't just blast his way through it, but finds subtle ways of coloring it.

Decent support throughout from conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio in Parma completes the attractions of this showcase for a most engaging Italian tenor.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:44 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Opera

December 9, 2010

A satisfying night of Beethoven and Britten at Peabody

A music lover could venture no farther than the Peabody Institute in a given season and still get a substantive experience. The quantity and breadth of repertoire explored there is remarkable.

As for the quality, that can be considerable, as the recent production of Massenet's "Manon" reconfirmed. On balance, I'd put Wednesday night's performance by the Peabody Concert Orchestra in the plus column, too.

I've known some folks who look upon this ensemble as the conservatory's second-string orchestra; it's made up mostly of undergrads, while the Peabody Symphony Orchestra features mostly graduate and upper division students. Well, OK, maybe it tends to be a little less polished. But there was much to admire in this program of Beethoven and Britten, led by Edward Polochick, associate conductor and choral director at Peabody.

He has a knack for getting the best out of players -- and not just students, as he demonstrates each season with Concert Artists of Baltimore, which he founded in 1987. Polochick can be counted on to fire up the expressive side of musicians, making it much easier to overlook occasional technical shortcomings.

On Wednesday, there were

intonation and articulation slips, primarily among the woodwinds and brass, creating some ever so piquant chords every now and then, but there was also a commitment behind the notes that paid off handsomely.

Any occasion to hear Britten's Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes from his compelling opera "Peter Grimes" is welcome (there could never be enough Britten in Baltimore). Polochick brought out the tense mood of the Passacaglia (William Neri's viola solo proved quite effective) and unleashed much of the atmosphere in the Interludes, especially "Moonlight" and "Storm." At its best, the orchestra produced a disciplined, vibrant sound.

The concert concluded with Beethoven's C major Mass, another piece that doesn't come around often enough. A wealth of melodic and harmonic imagination is at work here. Beethoven's treatment of the most dramatic lines in the Latin text is particularly inspired, with many a deft example of word-painting (the descending lines for "et sepultus est," to note just one example).

Polochick, always a compelling interpreter of choral music, clearly relished the richness of the score. His well-chosen tempos and attention to dynamic contrasts assured a performance with abundant drama and lyricism.

Once past the opening note -- the men, unfortunately, landed on more than one -- the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and Peabody Singers produced a warm, mostly well-balanced tone. The orchestra took an uneven turn once in a while, but generally kept up its side of the music smoothly. The vocal quartet -- soprano Danielle Buonaiuoto, also Diana Cantrelle, tenor Peter Scott Drackley, bass Jisoo Kim -- offered admirably sensitive phrasing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 8, 2010

Mobtown Modern salutes avant-garde composer/vocalist Ken Ueno

From the sublime to the -- what's a trendy, early 21st century word for funky? Anyway, after Monday night's exquisite experience with David Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, Tuesday night's encounter with composer/vocalist Ken Ueno, presented by Mobtown Modern at Metro Gallery, proved ever so slightly different.

Winner of the Rome Prize and Berlin Prize, Ueno is an intriguing talent, capable of humor as well as depth. And Mobtown Modern's program, a salute to Ueno in his 40th year, provided an illuminating sample of his work.

There was the composer's cheeky side -- "Yellow 632," a piece from 1998 for three humans and six mechanical toys. In this case, the sound of Big Bird exclaiming "This is funny" and doing some weird electronic laugh became the basis of a bit of theater, with the "voices" overlapping in increasingly off-kilter ways and the performers ultimately "liberating" the internal mechanisms from the toy bodies. The presentation was assured, the end result mildly interesting.

Ueno's solo vocalizing -- he commands an almost frightening arsenal of unusual and difficult techniques -- left me cold. "Watt," which suggests a jazz improv on severe steroids, gave sax man Brian Sacawa and percussionist Doug Perkins a taut, often explosive workout.

Ueno's "Sabinium," with video animation by Harvey Goldman, turns soap bubbles into massive, threatening creatures and extracts from their movements a strange sonic symphony.

The finale showed the composer at his most

persuasive. "Talus" was written for violist Wendy Richman, who broke her ankle in a fall in 2006 -- during a rehearsal for a David Lang opera. Ueno essentially dramatizes that accident -- the piece starts with a scream from the soloist -- but he avoids gimmicky. It's quite a deep and involving work of exceptional lyrical power with long-sustained notes and the spaces in between. Richman was the impressive player. She had the tense harmonic language communicating vividly.

For those of you who missed the concert, here's a taste of Ueno's music, an a cappella work titled Shiroi Ishi:


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:41 PM | | Comments (0)

For the classical music lover on your holiday gift list, Part I

If you've got a classical music lover on your gift list this year, I've got some suggestions that might earn you an appreciative response. I'll be posting them over the next few days.

To start, how about something nice and local? There's a just-released recording by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

This one completes a Dvorak series for the Naxos label with a very appealing performance of the composer's Symphony No. 6.

Right from the start, it's a winner, as Alsop and the ensemble pull you gently, but firmly, into one of Dvorak's sunniest worlds.

This work doesn't get nearly the attention of the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, but it should. (Those pieces are on the BSO's first two Dvorak CDs.) The Sixth offers a feast of ingratiating melody and prismatic orchestration, qualities that Alsop brings out effectively.

Hallmarks of the music director's BSO tenure --

more disciplined articulation and keener rhythmic precision in the ensemble -- shine through here. The strings sound rich and lithe, the woodwinds beguiling, the brass rich and powerful.

In addition to the Sixth, the album includes a beautifully shaded account of the Nocturne in B major and a vibrantly delivered Scherzo Capriccioso.

The BSO/Alsop Dvorak cycle has been quite successful, with many a plaudit in the musical press. I'd call this release the best of the set, with an extra glow in the orchestra's sound and an extra degree of spontaneity in the playing.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:45 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

December 7, 2010

Pulitzer-winning work by David Lang superbly presented by Evolution Contemporary Music Series

David LangEvery now and then, you get lucky enough to be blown away by hearing a piece of music for the first time. I had that experience Monday night at An die Musik, where the Evolution Contemporary Music Series presented a performance of David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion," a work inspired by a sobering Hans Christian Anderson story.

Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music, this score does what great works of art always do -- it takes you outside of yourself into another place and brings you back to yourself, changed in some way.

The only disappointment, given the roughly 40-minute duration of the composition, was that it didn't get performed twice. I'm sure the sold-out crowd would have gladly stayed for a complete encore.

Chalk the event up as a major achievement of the Evolution enterprise, founded and directed by Judah Adashi. Along with Mobtown Modern, the wide-ranging series has elevated and enriched Baltimore's new music scene enormously, and this particular presentation strikes me as an extraordinarily substantive contribution.

"The Little Match Girl Passion" provides a contemporary take on the centuries-old form of the Passion, the retelling of Christ's final days. Bach's profound efforts in this field are, of course, the best known. Lang found much to consider in Anderson's story about the poor girl who is beaten by her father, tries to earn money selling matches on the street, and freezes to death. Imagery in this dark tale recalls the life and death of Christ, but Lang did not set out to do a religious work (as the composer says in his program note, "There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus").

This is a work about purity, poverty and suffering -- and, at least as I see it, a work about the

Judah Adashitragedy of an uncaring world, a place where too many people choose not to see the pain around them so they can concentrate on fattening themselves (and, these days, avoiding any extra taxes).

However you read the libretto -- Lang wrote his own, based on Anderson's story and also the writings of H. P. Paulli, Picander (librettist for Bach's St. Matthew Passion) and the gospel of Matthew -- it's a powerful statement.

Lang scored the work for four singers (the standard SABT); the performers also are called upon to play percussion instruments that add subtle dots of color to the soundscape. Much happens in 15 short movements. 

The musical style is spare, but lyrical, often resonant of chant. During the descriptive movements about the girl's plight -- roaming the street in bare feet, the visions she has when she strikes matches in hopes of some warmth -- the singers' lines often overlap, creating subtly shifting harmonies. A colorful, recurring device involves the repetition of syllables on the same note (I was reminded of Monteverdi).

The reflective passages, which play a role akin to that of the chorales in Bach's Passions, achieve remarkably poetic effects, nowhere more movingly than in the 13th movement: "When it is time for me to go, don't go from me; when it is time for me to leave, don't leave me; when it is time for me to die, stay with me; when I am most scared, stay with me."

The performance, effectively conducted by Adashi, featured soprano Elizabeth Hungerford, also Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Lee Mills and bass Michael Droettboom. These were not typical classical-sounding singers; they had a wonderfully natural sound and style, which enabled them to communicate the texts all the more compellingly.

No wonder the concert room was so still and quiet throughout the performance (save for the inevitable cell phone). "The Little Match Girl Passion" proved to be quite the spell-binder. It's still haunting me the morning after.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 6, 2010

Peabody salutes Leon Fleisher's new memoir with talk, book-signing

"My Nine Lives" makes an apt title for Leon Fleisher's just-published memoir, written with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette.

The brilliant pianist's career took many a turn, especially after he lost the use of his right hand in 1965. The Baltimore-based Fleisher, now 82, built a formidable career as a left-hand keyboard artist, conductor and teacher.

In recent years, he managed to resume two-hand performs, thanks largely to Botox therapy, and that return was warmly celebrated throughout the music world.

Fleisher is a formidable force, shaped by a fascinating and eventful life that is recounted in the new book from Doubleday. In addition to all the expected biographical matters, the chapters are interspersed with Fleisher's extensive, compelling insights into piano works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Ravel.

Fleisher, a longtime faculty member at the Peabody Institute, will be joined by Midgette for a talk about the book at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Bank of America Lounge on the Peabody campus. A book-signing follows.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

A night with 'Boheme' and thoughts of Baltimore's operatic future

Baltimore's operatic limbo continues. Since the pathetic demise of the Baltimore Opera Company, some fans of the art form have had to content themselves with a diverse group of smaller-scale companies, some already established, some brand new -- like Baltimore Concert Opera, which presented two sold-out performances of "La Boheme" over the weekend at the Engineers Club.

It has been interesting to see all the options available and the way the public has (or has not) embraced them. It will be even more interesting to see what happens when the most BOC-like prospect on the horizon -- Lyric Opera Baltimore -- makes its debut next fall. (I mean BOC-like in terms of production size, of course; if it turns out to be BOC-like in how it's run, heaven help 'em.)

I guess, for me (and it's always all about me, as you know), the important thing is not so much where opera is performed, or even what size the performing forces or the venues are. Sure, I do enjoy the full sets-costumes-and-orchestra approach, but what counts is, simply, the artistic quality. Easy to say, I know; not so easy to guarantee.

I understand well how Baltimore's opera entities must struggle for each dollar. And I appreciate how even pared down stagings, modified touring shows and just plain concert versions can all be expensive to present, challenging to cast. But I still desire -- all right, I guess I expect -- a solid musical experience every time. I want to hear singers who sound thoroughly at home in their roles, demonstrating a combination of tonal solidity (tonal beauty would be nice, too), technical security and enough personality to make you believe and feel what they're singing.

I've been to some bare-bones, minuscule-budget performances around here that featured a lot of singers who delivered these qualities. But I've also been to

nicely-appointed, decently funded productions that had major shortcomings in the vocal department.

I've heard performances with persuasive artists onstage, but strikingly inadequate ones in the pit. I've been to operas that measured up quite strongly in the case of principal roles, but fell off sharply with supporting ones or with the chorus.

I've heard concert performances with only piano accompaniment that sounded better than some orchestra-backed ones. I've also heard concert performances with only piano accompaniment when the pianist made you miss the orchestra terribly.

Needless to say, finding a thoroughly satisfying opera experience can be as elusive in New York or Milan or London as it is locally, all things being relative. There are always variables, always allowances to be made. I don't expect life-changers every night. But I wouldn't mind hearing from Baltimore's operatic enterprises more consistency, more talent.

Too often lately, I've detected whiffs of provincialism in the air, and no amount of applause and cheers from the audience can quite dissipate it.

It's not that I don't find anything to enjoy -- I almost always do -- but I usually walk out thinking more about what was missing. We get a lot of OK around here, not a lot of distinctiveness.

But I digress. You were wondering about Baltimore Concert Opera's "Boheme." To tell the truth, I almost bailed at intermission Friday night, given the uneven results up to that point. But the performance gained in effectiveness as it progressed, with an especially effective last act.

By then, soprano Suzanne Woods, as Mimi, was producing a warmer, slightly creamier tone; earlier, top notes were effortful (her offstage one at the end of Act 1 was especially problematic, as was Pickle's for that matter). The soprano's phrasing, which had been thoughtful from the start, gained in sensitively. John Pickle did very stylish work as Rodolfo, particularly at soft dynamics, when his voice revealed an affecting warmth.

As Marcello, Ron Lloyd, too, was at his most appealing when focusing on soft nuance; otherwise, there was little color or weight in the tone. Penelope Shumate, a stereotypically saucy Musetta, sounded rather brittle. David Cushing sang securely and expresisvely as Colline. Jason Widney (Schaunard) and Stephen Eisenhard (Alcindoro/Benoit) completed the cast. The chorus and Maryland Boy Choir made more or less solid efforts.

Anthony Barrese's conducting was notable for the breadth he allowed; nothing was hurried. James Harp was his usual reliable, dynamic self at the piano.

There was a lot of animated acting going on throughout the performance, so much so that it seemed a pity any of the singers ever needed to glance at a music stand.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (1)

Now is the time for all Marin Alsop fans to smack down the competition

Hey, I know it may sound silly to those of you past the age of 16, but another "Celebrity Smackdown" has begun here at the august Sun. And, just like last year, Marin Alsop, the kinetic and innovative music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is in the running, so attention must be paid.

As a bona fide celebrity here, Alsop doesn't get any say in this, of course. Our cyber planners choose Maryland celebs to throw into the fray, randomly select the pairings to kick off the contest, and then gleefully wait to see who's still standing when the dust settles.

(If you were to argue that this whole thing means absolutely nothing, I wouldn't mount much of a rebuttal, but it sure got a lot of people fired up and mouse-clicking away last year. I imagine it will do the same again.)

You may recall that Alsop came in second last year, which was pretty cool, considering all the sports and TV personalities the conductor was up against as the contest advanced. This year, the first round pits Alsop against  

Bryan Voltaggio, the Frederick-based restaurateur who was a big deal on "Top Chef."

So Round One is shaping up as a battle between the musical and culinary arts.

You only have until Wednesday to smack down one of these celebrities -- well, that's such a harsh word. Let's just say, you need to decide soon which celeb to advance, and which to gently let down. (The severe humiliation for the loser will fade in time, I'm sure.) 

So get your mouses ready, rush to the Celebrity Smackdown page and start voting like the crazed classical fan you are.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

December 3, 2010

Baltimore's Mobtown Modern receives national award for adventurous programming

As local folks with willing ears know well, Mobtown Modern, the ensemble launched a few years ago under the auspices of the Contemporary Museum, showcases a remarkable range of new music. People outside Baltimore have heard about it, too.

The Mobtown Modern concert series has received an Award for Adventurous Programming from

Chamber Music America and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) -- one of five new music presenters in the country so honored this year. The award will be given out at the 33rd annual Chamber Music America National Conference next month in New York.

Judges for the programming award single out professional ensembles and presenters for programming music composed in the past 25 years and attracting new audiences.

In a statement released Friday morning, Brian Sacawa, curator and co-founder of Mobtown Modern, said: "Receiving this national recognition is an affirmation that we have built a truly outstanding musical voice for the Contemporary Museum. I am particularly excited for the attention this award will bring to Baltimore as a vital center for cutting-edge contemporary music."

Mobtown's next presentation, on Tuesday at the Metro Gallery, is typically adventurous. Composer/vocalist Ken Ueno will mark his 40th year with a retrospective of his career. Selections range from a 1998 piece called "Yellow 632," for three percussionists with Big Bird toys (that's got to be some of the most unusual instrumentation ever), to his 2008 work "Reverse Swastikas Mark the Place of Buddhist Temples," for vocalist and live electronics.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

In today's Sun: 'Rock of Ages' rockin' the Hippodrome

This morning, I'm still recovering from a mortifying experience during last night's festive lighting of the Washington Monument.

For the benefit of any non-Baltimore readers of this humble little blog, I should point out that our fair city's monument to the first president pre-dates the one in DC by many a year and is located in one of Baltimore's most picturesque spots.

As for the mortification, let's just say that the best way to make an impression on one's editor when you're invited to his first holiday party -- his fabulous apartment overlooks the Mount Vernon Place and the Monument -- is not to spill half a large cocktail shaker's worth of Gimlets all over the place. (Robert and I brought said shaker, pre-filled, to the party; not one of my brighter ideas.)

Never did see the lights being turned on by the Mayor or the fireworks afterward, as we were too busy trying to clean up the spill -- how it managed to coat a wall, as well as the floor, I'll never know -- while all the other guests were glued to windows or out on the balcony.

Needless to say, the newsroom is already abuzz today with the story of my sensational faux pas. I'm just glad it's not on YouTube.

Anyway, I mention all of this by way of trying to divert you from the fact that I don't have a fresh blog post yet, as I've got to finish a story for Sunday's paper. Meanwhile, I can

direct you to my review of "Rock of Ages," the Broadway hit now on its first national tour.

I didn't expect an '80s jukebox musical with an emphasis on metal bands to be quite so much fun, since my pop music tastes tended in those days toward tunes with softer edges. (I always did like "Harden my Heart," though, and that gets a cool treatment in the song-packed show).

But the production, which boasts a strong and supple cast, delivers a surprisingly effective kick of nostalgia and old-fashioned (if sometimes ever so slightly raunchy) entertainment.

The engagement at the Hippodrome is only here through Sunday.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

December 2, 2010

Baltimore musicians organize benefit concert to support anti-bullying efforts

The issue of bullying in schools never seems to go away, and the consequences of unchecked bullying never seem to lessen. The much-publicized suicides earlier this year of several gay teens harassed by classmates drove this point home in a particularly powerful way.

In response to the persistent problem, Baltimore area musicians have put together a benefit concert on Sunday "to raise awareness about bullying in schools and abate the hate," says conductor Gordon Green, who co-organized the event with violist Robin Fay Massie.

Proceeds will benefit two national organizations dedicated to the cause: the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Youth Frontiers.

The program features Musicians of Mercy, an ensemble Massie co-founded last January to help raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Dozens of volunteers have stepped up to help with the event onstage and off.

In a cool touch, Green has chosen popular works by great composers who happened to be gay, including

Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Music by Handel (probably gay) and Brahms (didn't play for that team) will also be performed. There will be some jazz, too, from vocalist Integriti Reeves.

The concert, titled "Stand for Love," is scheduled fore 5 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 5) at Baltimore's First Unitarian Church. Although there is no admission fee, a suggested donation of $15 is requested.

If you can't attend, you can mail a contribution to: Abate the Hate Benefit, c/o First Unitarian Church, 1 W. Hamilton St., Baltimore, MD 21201 (make check payable to First Unitarian Church of Baltimore; write "benefit concert" on the memo line).

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:16 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 1, 2010

Music to mark World AIDS Day from the great Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet

On this World AIDS Day, there's an unusual amount of optimism that important corners are being turned in the search for preventative measures, but that is small comfort compared to the appalling toll the disease has taken across the global. Members of the young generation are, thankfully, growing up without knowing the pain of losing friends and family members in rapid succession. The rest of us will carry those scars for the rest of our lives.

I will never forget the shock of hearing John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 for the first time. In that work from 1989, subtitled "Of Rage and Remembrance," the composer found exceptionally inventive and moving ways to memorialize many of his own friends, weaving their lives literally into the score. A particularly close pianist friend inspired the most haunting reflection in the symphony. Corigliano made use of a venerable keyboard chestnut, the endearing Godowsky transcription of Albeniz's "Tango," a favorite of his friend; the piece is played off-stage in the outer movements.

If you have never heard that symphony, please check it out. We may live in a less rage-driven time when it comes to AIDS, but the symphony's way of capturing the raw emotions of the '80s has hardly lost its power. World AIDS Day got me thinking about that symphony again, but I found myself focusing specifically on that subtly sensual, wonderfully nostalgic "Tango." And, if you'll pardon the convoluted reasoning, that's the piece I'd like to offer here as a musical reflection on this solemn day.

I found a superb interpretation of the Albeniz/Godowsky "Tango" played by

Jorge Bolet, the patrician Cuban-born pianist who died 20 years ago at the age of 75. (Though never official, it was widely reported in the industry that his death was due to complications from HIV. UPDATE: See comment below that clarifies the issue.)

This performance, recorded in recital two years before he died, captures the essence of Bolet, one of my all-time favorite pianists, and the essence of this gentle "Tango." Since hearing it in the context of Corigliano's symphony, I'll always associate the piece with all the artists, from the just-budding to the most seasoned, lost to the disease over the decades.

It also has come to mean for me a way of remembering those I held dear in my own life. I hope you'll find that it does the same for you.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Drama Queens
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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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