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January 31, 2011

Aspen String Trio plays Beethoven for Community Concerts at Second

Nothing like Beethoven to lure people out of their snowy domains.

A spill-over crowd gathered to hear the Aspen String Trio play an all-Beethoven program Sunday afternoon for the Community Concerts series at Second Presbyterian Church (I guess the free admission may also help attract folks -- either way, it was great to see such a large house).

The string quartet genre, which has accounted for so many masterpieces over the centuries, rather overshadows the trio repertoire. But Beethoven's trios of Op. 9 are filled with deft themes and clever development passages; they're tightly constructed. If these efforts from 1798 do not reveal all the brilliance and depth he would unleash later on in his quartets, they are, at the very least, consistently engaging.

The Aspen players -- violinist David Perry, violist Victoria Chiang, cellist Michael Mermagen -- demonstrated tight ensemble playing, generally spot-on intonation and an effective way of digging into a phrase.

There was plenty of drama and warmth in the C minor Trio, Op. 9, No. 3. The mix of lyricism and muscle the musicians brought to the G major Trio, Op. 9, No. 1, proved even more impressive; the irresistible, whirling finale -- you can really sense Beethoven showing off here -- was delivered with particular panache.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:16 PM | | Comments (0)

A salute to Philip Glass on his 74th birthday

There have been so many notable obits in music the past few days -- Milton Babbitt, Margaret Price, John Barry -- that I thought it would be worth remembering someone who's still very much with us: Philip Glass. He marks his 74th birthday on Jan. 31.

I hope the celebrations surrounding his 75th next year will include lots of performances in his native Baltimore. I still think we don't hear enough of his music here, although Marin Alsop has sure been helping make up for the years of local neglect since becoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony (last month's presentation of "Icarus at the Edge of Time" was the most recent example).

Alsop mentioned to me that she is hoping to get a project going with the composer, a project that would bring him back to his hometown for a little bit. That would be cool.

Meanwhile, here's my salute to his 74th birthday -- one of my favorite Glass moments, the slow movement from his

Violin Concerto No. 1. This is minimalism at its most reflective and subtly seductive (to my ears, at least).

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Welsh soprano Margaret Price dies at 69

The vocally radiant soprano Margaret Price -- Dame Margaret Price since 1993 -- died Jan. 28 of heart failure. Her death at the age of 69 was in her native Wales, where she lived with her three dogs since her retirement a little more than a decade ago.

The singer's much-admired international career started with the Welsh National Opera in 1962. Price was especially loved for her interpretations of Mozart and lieder, but her range was considerable. One of her greatest achievements was the Carlos Kleiber-conducted recording of "Tristan und Isolde," an opera she never performed in the opera house.

Price was perhaps not as widely known as she should have been, but she touched many a vocal music fan with her exceedingly beautiful tone and unfailingly communicative phrasing, as you can hear on these examples of her remarkably artistry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Opera

On the death of Milton Babbitt at 94

Milton Babbitt, who wrote some of the most challenging, determinedly serial music of the past 100 years, died Saturday at the age of 94 in Princeton, N.J.

Like Elliott Carter (still going strong at 102), Babbitt composed music that was as notable for its intellectual brilliance as for its lack of acceptance by mainstream audiences. Most classical music fans outside of major cities probably have heard very little of Babbitt's work; that's not likely to change.

When I heard of the composer's death, I thought about how, when a major movie actor dies, Turner Classics will switch programming pretty quickly to slip in some movies by that star as an homage. How many classical radio stations in this country do you think grabbed some Babbitt off the library shelf and added it to the lineup since Saturday as a way of honoring this eminent figure in American music? Yes, I came up with the same answer: None.

Listeners today remain remarkably protected from the supposed horrors of atonality. You have to seek it out. It's not part of the common aural universe. (In Baltimore, I hasten to add, the likes of Peabody Conservatory and Mobtown Modern have been known to present Babbitt's music.)

I think it curious that people will step into a

modern art museum and refrain from screaming or fleeing at the sight of something terribly abstract and hard to fathom, but they will still go nuts at the drop of a dissonant sound. They'll walk out, even slamming the door behind them; they'll write letters complaining to anyone responsible for inflicting the damage.

The mantra is that composers like Babbitt deliberately set out to alienate the public. That's too easy of a reaction to anyone and anything you don't immediately understand. Babbitt called his language "advanced music" and argued that it was like advanced mathematics -- harder for people to digest, but not, as a result, unworthy of an attempt to understand it.

Babbitt's singular contribution to the 12-tone method launched by Arnold Schoenberg was to expand its application to other aspects of music besides pitch, so that everything in a composition, right down to matters of loudness and softness, would be determined serially. It takes considerable effort to comprehend the way such music is constructed, but it really isn't that difficult to zero in on the frequency, so to speak, and start to experience the music on various levels.

I love the good old tonal stuff as much as the next guy, but I'm grateful to live at a time when so many forms of musical expression are possibile -- and so often wonderfully rewarding. The music would is a better, more interesting place because of Milton Babbitt and those who were inspired by him to explore the farthest reaches of the atonal realm.

I've attached a couple examples of Babbitt's work. The 1957 "All Set" for jazz ensemble and "Post-Partitions" for piano from 1966 (you can follow along with the score on this video). I hope that those of you not normally inclined to listen to such fare will give it a try. Let me know what you think (without four-letter words, of course):

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 28, 2011

Opera superstar Renee Fleming to appear on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Just caught up with this earth-shattering news: Renee Fleming, the brilliant and enormously popular soprano, will make a guest appearance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

I'm assuming she'll be one of the victims, rather than a perp, but how cool it would be to see Renee as the heavy: Met diva does unthinkable things to thoughtless tenor!

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:40 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Baltimore Symphony offers hot program with Juanjo Mena, Augustin Hadelich

The intrepid folks who ventured out Thursday night to Meyerhoff Hall heard a most rewarding concert by the Baltimore Symphony. The repeats there Friday night or Saturday at Strathmore would be well worth braving the black ice for.

Every guest appearance by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena over the years has been notable; this one is no exception.

He's a wonderfully romantic interpreter -- in the best sense of that word (at least as I define it -- and, hey, making grand pronouncements is my hobby). Mena loves to put a singing quality into phrases, to find little bends and breaths within a tempo, to make as big an effort for delicious pianissimos as for thunderous explosions. 

To start, he offered a Haydn symphony -- No. 85 ("La Reine") -- and shaped it with great sensitivity. It's absurd how infrequently Haydn turns up at the BSO (at most orchestras, I suspect). There are so many attractive themes, so many clever ways of developing them, so many vivid touches of orchestration in nearly all of his many symphonies. The way Haydn explores every angle of the simple tune used in the second movement of this particular score, to mention one example, is simply a marvel. You can't help but smile. The BSO responded elegantly and cohesively to Mena's winning way with this work.

It was fun hearing the Haydn just before another four-movement piece filled with attractive melodies and a strong rhythmic pulse --

Roberto Sierra's Sinfonia No. 4, which the BSO helped to commission with 11 other orchestras. The composer's knack for creating both razzle-dazzle and subtle shimmering from essentially traditional instrumentation was evident at every turn.

The first movement's dark harmonies added a piquant flavor; the way the movement slowly ground to a halt, like an engine running out of fuel, produced an intriguing effect. The brassy, percussive punch of the second movement and the ultra-Latin dance band drive of the finale proved irresistible.

The ensemble seemed to share Mena's obvious enthusiasm and delivered considerable technical and expressive fire. Acknowledging the warm ovation afterward, the conductor picked up the score from the podium and gave it its own bow. 

The second half of the evening was devoted to the Brahms Violin Concerto, which introduced soloist Augustin Hadelich to the BSO guest artist roster.

The young German violinist has a startling back story. A dozen years ago, when he was 15, his upper body, including his bow arm, was badly burned in a fire. But he returned to the violin quickly and has been enjoying a fast-paced career. It's easy to hear why.

Hadelich's tone is exquisite, never losing its sweetness even when, as in the finale of the Brahms, it gets an infusion of sinew. His musicality is equally impressive. He had the familiar concerto sounding fresh and vital, not to mention intensely poetic, and he enjoyed supple support from Mena and the orchestra.

The performance had a downright heart-warming quality, which may explain why I didn't even notice the cold when I left the hall.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:54 AM | | Comments (1)

Weekend preview: Opera, operetta, choral music

Assuming no more weather pains, the weekend has some vocal fare on the schedule that might be just the thing to wipe away memories of horrendous commutes and digging out.

Poe Town Opera, a division of the Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, has come up with two novelties from the early comic repertoire: "Mirena e Floro," by Francesco Gasparini and Giovanni Bonocini, and the better-known "La Serva Padrona" by Pergolesi. Robyn Stevens, founder and artistic director of the foundation, directs a cast that includes soprano Laura Strickling and baritone Jason Buckwalter, accompanied by Erica Rome. 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Theatre Project.

Gilbert and Sullivan's surefire "Mikado" gets a production from Opera AACC at Anne Arundel Community College Friday and Sunday, as well as Feb. 4 and 5. Jennifer Blades directs a cast of professionals, students and others. The conductor is Douglas Brandt Byerly.

And the Handel Choir of Baltimore, led by Melinda O'Neal, gives a benefit concert for the Murphy Initiative for Justice & Peace on Sunday (4 p.m.) at St. Mary of the Assumption (5502 York Road). The program includes excerpts from Handel's "Messiah" and Mozart's "Requiem," as well as Ralph M. Johnson's "This House of Peace," featuring the BSO's principal oboist Katherine Needleman. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 27, 2011

A little more news leaks out about Baltimore Symphony's 2011-12 season

Earlier this month, Carnegie Hall's 2011-12 season release provided some enticing info about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season, too. Now comes news from California, where the Philharmonic Society of Orange County's '11-'12 announcement reveals a little more about the BSO's plans, also enticing.

It has been no secret that the orchestra will do its first beyond-New York tour with music director Marin Alsop next season -- not Europe or Asia, but the West Coast of the U.S., which isn't too shabby.

Now we know that the repertoire will include

Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. The concert in Costa Mesa will be March 28, 2012, so it can be assumed that audiences here will sample that program at some point earlier that month.

At this point, it seems silly to hold back on the full BSO season lineup, which surely can't have that many details left to finalize. But I know how orchestras love to, well, orchestrate, such announcements. I guess we'll have to wait until the marketing and PR stars are aligned just so over Baltimore. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:21 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Arena Stage presents Mary Zimmerman's evocative, provocative "Arabian Nights"

The centuries-old classic formally known as “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night” presents one of the great plot devices: Young maiden Scheherezade escapes murder at the hands of King Shahryar by telling him riveting, to-be-continued stories.

In 1992, Mary Zimmerman adapted this material into a colorful work, “The Arabian Nights,” which has settled into Arena Stage with a dynamic cast and a fabulous collection of rugs.

It’s a long show (you may start to feel as if you will have to spend 1,001 nights in the theater), but something absorbing or amusing pops up after every slow spot, and the cumulative effect of so many  characters and adventures is  substantial.

Whether you laugh hysterically at the ultimate flatulence tale depends on how suppressed your inner frat boy is, but stories and stories-within-stories addressing love, lust and loyalty deliver their lessons and morals effectively. And the account of a little lost bag with strange qualities, an account improvised at each performance, is

pretty cool.

Stacey Yen is a vivacious Scheherezade, David DeSantos a volatile King Shahryar. The large ensemble is filled with similarly astute and amiable actors.

Zimmerman directs the action with a sure, imaginative touch. The combination of Daniel Ostling’s set, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes and T.J. Gerchens’ lighting proves terrifically evocative. Music by Andre Pluess adds greatly to the atmosphere; that the cast lacks distinctive singers doesn’t really hurt too much.

It’s worth remembering that Zimmerman wrote “The Arabian Nights” when the First Gulf War was a very fresh memory. That explains a still-powerful undercurrent in the play that surfaces to compelling effect in a few key spots, as when the young woman known as Sympathy the Learned (nicely portrayed by Susaan Jamshidi) amazes her elders with her command of the principals of Islam.

In the last scene, after a brilliant passage that sends cast members to every corner of the stage reciting different tales frantically all at once, the faint sound of a siren is heard. That, and strikingly choreographed movements for the performers, then take all of us to a very different kind of night in Baghdad.

Note: Veteran CBS broadcaster Sam Litzinger and actor/musician Ronnie Malley of "The Arabian Nights" cast will discuss the history of Middle Eastern music at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (1/30) at Arena Stage/Mead Center for American Theater. Admission is free. To rsvp, call 202-488-3300.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

January 26, 2011

Elsewhere online: My latest theater review

I've been ever so feverishly trying to finish writing various other things today, but I didn't want you to think the blog had been turned off. So, while you're waiting for something brilliant to be posted here (no one has that much time, I know), feel free to check out my review of "Shooting Star" at Everyman Theatre.

If you happen to attend tonight's performance, you might well experience a rare case of nature imitating art -- snowfall is very much a part of the plot, and very much a visual element in this finely-acted production.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

January 24, 2011

Jonathan Biss offers bravura and poetry in piano recital at Shriver Hall

When Jonathan Biss made his Shriver Hall Concert Series debut in 2002, he sounded like a technically gifted pianist who needed to develop a little more subtlety and nuance.

The Jonathan Biss who returned to Shriver Hall Sunday evening revealed no shortage of variety in his touch and in his phrasing as he moved through a demanding program that he also performed Friday at Carnegie Hall.

The comparison with nine years ago was made all the clearer when the pianist turned to Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata. In '02, he tore into the score with plenty of digital fire power, but it all ended up sounding merely fast and loud.

This time, there was not just terrific drama and fire, but also finely shaded colors and wonderful rhythmic fluidity. The performance had the stamp of a keen musical intellect with a strongly communicative personality to match.

Biss opened the recital with the dark, rather haunting Sonata "1.X.1905" by Janacek. It's a kind of eulogy to a young man slain in Brno during a protest against the government's refusal to allow a local university to use the Czech language, rather than German. Biss, an ardent proponent of Janacek's music, delved beneath the notes to find considerable emotional weight.

Three Pieces for Piano by Bernard Rands, composed for the pianist, are

concise, brilliantly crafted etude-like works. They provide great opportunities for pure virtuosity, as in pointillistic flurries in the "Caprice" and the rapid, percussive repeated note motives that dart through the "Arabesque." Biss rose to those challenges with aplomb. He was just as impressive exploring the lyrical side, as in the "Aubade," which seems to be haunted by the harmonic turns of the Prelude to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

It wasn't always easy to concentrate on the music-making up in the balcony, where there were assorted distractions from concert-goers, but, like several other folks, I sought quieter ground for the second half, which was devoted to Schumann's richly layered Fantasy in C major.

One or two passages could have been cleaner, but the pianist's command of the keyboard and the music's noble sentiments was never in doubt. It was an engrossing account that seemed at once spontaneous and deeply considered. His phrasing of the poignant closing measures proved remarkably affecting.

No encore would have been necessary after such music, but Biss responded to the warm ovation with a perfect choice -- the slow movement from Mozart's C major Sonata, K. 545. The graceful, songful way he sculpted the phrases said a lot about the pianist and his considerable artistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:21 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

WPAS presents Amit Peled in impressive Kennedy Center recital debut

Amit Peled is one of Baltimore's best-kept musical secrets.

The Israeli-born cellist with the burnished tone, eloquent phrasing and great hair has been a Peabody Institute faculty member for nearly a decade and has been steadily building an international presence. He doesn't get all that much attention locally, though.

I think he might have played more concerts in Frederick at that cool Downtown Piano Works than within our city's limits (he will be back there on Wednesday for a Brahms program with violinist Ilya Kaler and pianist Alon Goldstein). There was that gig with the BSO for Beethoven's Triple Concerto last season, but I still feel like the cellist is still somewhat under-exposed here.

Meanwhile, Peled got some valuable attention in D.C. over the weekend, playing his Kennedy Center recital debut Sunday afternoon under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society. It was an impressive performance.

The afternoon would have been memorable if only for Peled's incisive account of

Britten's Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello. Composer for Rostropovich, the score has elements of some Russian folks songs running beneath the surface of its nine short, intricately woven movements. By the time those songs appear at the very end, the personal nature of the music is driven home in remarkable, affecting fashion.

The suite is not concerned so much with exploiting the instrument's technical elements as with digging into the cello's natural soulfulness. Peled's exceptional clarity of articulation allowed the work's brilliant construction to be easily savored, while his richness of expression uncovered layers of meaning beneath the notes. The audience in the Terrace Theater seemed unusually quiet throughout and held onto that quiet for quite a while after the last sound faded.

For the rest of the recital, the cellist had the fluent, sensitive collaboration of pianist Eli Kalman in sonatas by Beethoven (an eloquent account of No. 3 in A major) and Eccles; Schumann's "Fantasiestuke" (the playing from both men was alive with character); and the vivid "Five Pieces on Folk Themes" by Sulkhan Tsintsadze (the lullaby "Nana" emerged with particular warmth).

Peled has a lot going for him, including a disarming way of speaking to the audience. Not yet out of his 30s, the cellist surely has a long, successful career ahead of him.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:45 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 23, 2011

National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work

The 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration is the focus of much attention this month at the center in Washington that bears his name and carries on his belief in the value of the arts.

Last Thursday, during a big, starry, multi-genre program, the National Symphony Orchestra premiered "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)" by Peter Lieberson. On Saturday night, the NSO repeated the new work, commissioned for the anniversary, and rounded out the program with some favorites by Gershwin and Bernstein. (This program has another performance Monday night.)

I have never been a huge fan of orchestral music with narration. The combination certainly can pay off with heightened drama, as in Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw," or straightforward entertainment, as in Copland's plainspoken "Lincoln Portrait." Lieberson's effort struck me as, well, wordy.

The composer chose excerpts from three great Kennedy speeches -- a speech from early January 1961 in Massachusetts, the defining Inaugural Address, and the brave American University Commencement Address of 1963.

Lieberson surrounds the orations with a lot of vividly colored, atmospheric, emotionally telling material for the orchestra. As in film music, descriptive devices underline the mood or imagery of the text in ways we instinctively respond to; mention of war, needless to say, means outbursts of ominous harmony and menacing brass and/or percussion.

From a single hearing -- I'm glad I'll get a chance to revisit the piece when the NSO's recording comes out in a few months -- it seemed to me that the music

doesn't quite rise to the eloquence of the Kennedy's words. Not enough is added to, or expounded from, the intrinsic power of the speeches.

Still, the new score does what it set out to do -- remind us of the man we lost too young and the ideas that inspired so many, ideas that are only more worthy today. Saturday's performance was very effective, presented immediately the showing of a short, rather affecting film by Joseph Horowitz and Peter Bogdanoff that included footage from the NSO's 1961 inaugural concert and a wonderful interview with Ted Sorensen recorded just a few weeks before his death.

The narrator for the Lieberson piece on Saturday was Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss, who delivered Kennedy's lines masterfully, never overplaying any of them. (If he was unnerved by having the actual voice of the president booming in the hall minutes earlier from the film, it didn't show.) On the podium, NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach kept everything flowing smoothly and drew vivid playing from the orchestra.

The second half of the concert provided a welcome opportunity to hear Bernstein's minute-long, entertaining "Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK" for winds, brass and percussion. The composer's better known "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story" received a passionate, snappy workout. Eschenbach relished the lyrical passages, but did not stint on the flashes of cool jazz.

The orchestra sounded wonderfully robust in those dances. Other than a grainy trumpet solo in the slow movement, the NSO also made some impressive contributions to Gershwin's Concerto in F. The soloist's contributions in that piece were another matter.

Tzimon Barto (once upon a time, just plain Johnny Barto Smith, Jr., from a town near Orlando) is a body-building, multi-lingual, novel-writing keyboard artist who has a long association with Eschenbach in concert halls and recording studios. The conductor hears in the pianist more qualities than some of us do.

I found myself mostly frustrated on Saturday, first by the incredibly slow tempos that kept overriding Gershwin's own energetic pulse; and then by Barto's playing. There were flashes of bravura and of intriguing poetic nuances, but there wasn't quite enough technical dazzle or richness in tone to keep things fully interesting.  

The pianist apparently thinks of the concerto as Gershwin's attempt to out-do Rachmaninoff, an approach Eschenbach embraced with a conviction you had to admire. I'm far more open to extremes than many of my colleagues, and I really wanted to buy into this exercise in elongation, this search for profound depths amidst the Charleston rhythms, but I just kept missing the guy I recognize as Gershwin.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

January 21, 2011

Baltimore Symphony focuses on Russian repertoire with Marin Alsop, Kirill Gerstein

In the years since Yuri Temirkanov stepped down as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the orchestra has dipped sparingly into the Russian repertoire he favored and achieved so many memorable performances with during his tenure.

kirill gersteinHis successor, Marin Alsop, understandably thought it a good idea to re-balance the programs. This season, though, she clearly threw the gate wide open again, and the likes of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff came bounding back into the picture in a big way.

The latest program, which repeats in full on Sunday, finds Alsop addressing one of Temirkanov's specialties, the gripping Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich. Two Rachmaninoff items fill out the concert.

The Shostakovich work will also be the focus of Alsop's "Off the Cuff" presentation Friday at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- a discussion of the symphony's turbulent history will be followed by a complete performance of the score at these concerts.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff, the BSO did not always sound totally settled into the groove. There was occasional roughness of articulation and loss of tone quality, both within sections of the ensemble and from several solo players. Still, there was enough expressive fuel to generate an absorbing experience.

The opening Rachmaninoff half of the evening got off to a

gentle start with the composer's exquisitely reflective "Vocalise." It was shaped with admirable rhythmic elasticity by Mihaela Cesa-Goje, a participant in the Taki-Concordia Conducting Fellowship spearheaded by Alsop to help bring more women to orchestra podiums.

Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos are all exciting and imaginative, but the public only clamors for No. 2 and No. 3 (the Second is on a BSO program next month). So it was all the more enjoyable to find No. 1 on this program. Reminiscent of Grieg's Piano Concerto in structure and mood, Rachmaninoff's First packs in a lot of melodic and coloristic material; a bold energy bubbles all the while beneath the surface.

The BSO was fortunate to have as soloist the exceptionally accomplished Kirill Gerstein. Winner of the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award (this non-competition honor has become one of the most prestigious in the piano field), Gerstein has just what it takes to unleash the richness of Rachmaninoff's music -- rock-solid technique, prismatic tone, impeccable taste. 

Without the slightest ostentation (no pointlessly fluttering hands, no facial mugging), the Russian pianist simply played the heck out of the challenging work. And without a trace of sentimentality, he also tapped persuasively and elegantly into the music's lyrical vein. Alsop dovetailed the orchestral side of things neatly.

Shostakovich's Fifth, which the composer supposedly wrote to win back favor of Soviet authorities angered by his modernist tendencies, has come to be seen by many as a defiant, even wonderfully subversive gesture. Whatever subtext is at work, it's a masterpiece of form and content, providing an emotional journey of Mahler-like depth (and, quite often, Mahler-like idioms).

Some Russian conductors -- Temirkanov, especially Rostropovich -- have been known to create an almost unbearable intensity and deeply personal feeling with this symphony. Alsop, conducting from memory, took a somewhat more detached approach. But, once past a blandly shaped first movement, she gradually and effectively turned up the heat.

Through it all, she kept the score's architecture clear and telling. The Largo movement emerged with particular sensitivity; the finale was given a bold, un-hurried sweep that allowed the music's undercurrent of anxiety to be strongly felt. Though not quite at the peak of its game, the BSO did some impressive work. Phil Munds' gleaming horn solos proved particularly satisfying.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

January 20, 2011

Free winter concert series at Villa Assumpta begins Jan. 30

UPDATE: One more concert date has been confirmed since I posted this. I've added that information below. 

Here's some nice winter-warming news. A free, mostly classical concert series will begin Jan. 30 and run through March at Villa Assumpta, retirement home for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore.


If you'll pardon the personal aside, I have a soft spot for that place. It's where my Aunt Florence -- Sister Baptista -- spent her last years and where she introduced me to Sister Theresine, a musical dynamo who had a long association with the old Baltimore Opera Company before her retirement.

I had some memorable visits there and was always impressed with the atmosphere, the sense of caring, not to mention all the knowledge, experience and ongoing curiosity of the nuns who had devoted their lives to education. I think it's great that the residents will have this musical opportunity and that the public is being welcomed to share it, too.

The Sunday afternoon concert series, called "Hearts for Arts’ Sake," will take place in the Villa's chapel. Organizing the venture is


 pianist Ernest Ragogini, longtime faculty member of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and director of “Music at CND” concerts. He'll give the first concert on Jan. 30, and, like all the other artists on the lineup, he is donating his services.

Violinist Jose Miguel Cueto, concertmaster of the Concert Artists of Baltimore, will give a recital with pianist Nancy Roldan on Feb. 6.

The series continues Feb. 13 with the Ravel Trio: violinist Simon Maurer, cellist Nancy Baun, pianist Daniel Lau. Soprano Karen Myers and baritone Christopher Douglas Rhodovi, accompanied at the piano with Ragogini, will perform on Feb. 20; tenor Thomas Epps, also with Ragogini, on Feb. 27; the flute choir known as Flutopia Baltimore on March 6; Dundalk Star-Spangled Barbershop Chorus on March 13; readings of poetry by the late College of Notre Dame English teacher Sister Maura Eichner on March 20; and a recital with flutist Anna D’Agostino and pianist Suzanne Geyer on March 27.

All performances are at 2 p.m. Villa Assumpta is at 6401 N. Charles St. For more information call 410-532-5386.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Washington National Opera to affiliate with Kennedy Center in July

Ending months of speculation, Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center announced Thursday an affiliation of the two organizations, beginning July 1.

Talk of a possible union spread last year and intensified after Placido Domingo announced he would step down as general director at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Domingo is quoted in Thursday's press release saying that he supports "fully" this "important new direction for Washington National Opera."

WNO has had its share of difficulties raising money, and a merger with the Kennedy Center was widely viewed as a wise business move. Having Michael Kaiser as Kennedy Center president is seen as another bonus; he has a remarkable track record of helping to turn around arts organizations, including the Royal Opera in London.

The Kennedy Center already has the National Symphony Orchestra under its administrative wing. Having an opera company, too, makes the center

seem more than ever the cultural hub of the region.

Here are excerpts from statements in the press release:

"This affiliation will ensure that the Washington area will forever have a strong, vibrant and world-class opera, and that is a plus for the Kennedy Center, WNO, and lovers of opera everywhere." -- Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein.

"[By] formally affiliating, we and our audiences will reap the benefits. The Kennedy Center is a world-class arts institution, and WNO is thrilled at the endless possibilities that such an association will enable. WNO is particularly pleased to work with Michael Kaiser, a former trustee of the Opera, a long-time supporter and opera lover, and one of the most accomplished and respected arts managers of our day.” -- WNO president Kenneth R. Feinberg.

"This affiliation will allow greater possibilities for opera productions in multiple venues throughout the Center and I look forward to building on the Opera’s foundation of artistic excellence with diverse and energizing programming.” -- Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser.

There's no word yet on how much of the WNO staff will be retained. WNO will maintain its status as a separate nonprofit -- 501(c)3 -- organization and retain its board of trustees. The Kennedy Center will take over responsibility for the company's "administrative and business functions, including marketing, communications, finance, sales, and information technology operations," according to the release. Artistic programming will be "developed jointly" by opera staff and Kaiser and "will be approved by the WNO Board of Trustees." Fundraising operations will be combined.

Like the NSO, the opera company will be under the umbrella of a financially stable parent organization that enjoys significant backing from the government as well as private sources. That stability, along with the assorted advantages of being a major component in a thriving arts center, should allow the opera company to grow considerably in the future.

The opera's 2011-12 season is expected to be announced early next month. Meanwhile, the company has set up an FAQs page on its Web site for patrons wondering what the new affiliation means.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 19, 2011

Rebounding from deficit year, Baltimore Symphony announces balanced 2009-2010 budget

After posting a $5.6 million deficit for the 2008-2009 season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that a balanced budget was achieved for the 2009-2010 season. That fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, 2010, yielded an operating surplus of $4,116. This is the third balanced budget in the past four years.

"We're moving in a cautiously forward direction," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. "It feels very different from last year."

Although there were sufficient cash reserves to cover the '08-'09 deficit, the challenges of balancing the '09-'10 budget during the lingering recession proved considerable. Cost-reduction measures were taken across the board.

The budget was reduced to

$24.3 million from $28.3 million the previous year.

BSO musicians volunteered $1 million in reduced pay and benefits and spearheaded a productive fundraising campaign called Music Matters. Music director Marin Alsop contributed $50,000 to that campaign and also donated back $100,000 in conducting fees. Administration staffers also absorbed cuts.

On the other side of the ledger during FY2010, the orchestra received more than 10,000 contributions, the highest number in BSO history, up from 7,000 four years earlier.

"The great thing is that the institution's infrastructure is now strong and sustainable," Alsop said. "This is not smoke and mirrors. There's a real investment in building the Baltimore Symphony so that the city can continue to have a great orchestra."

The BSO remains one of only 17 orchestras in the country with 52-week contracts for its players, but salaries for those players have been essentially stagnant for a decade. Each ratified contract containing pay increases had to be changed over the years due to budget constraints.

Getting to a point where musician salaries and benefits can be increased "is our goal, of course," Alsop said. "It's at the top of the list. It will probably be a slower path than we would wish for."

Violinist Greg Mulligan, head of the BSO players committee, said that the musicians are "very happy that the financial situation has stabilized. This is due to everyone's sacrifices, including Marin's, which we salute her for, and the sacrifices of the staff and the musicians. We hope that this will ensure that, in the future, we won't need to continue having pay cuts. We need now to refocus not just on maintaining, but improving, the artistic quality. It has got to be about the art." 

Meecham said the orchestra is “focusing very much on how we can grow our audiences and grow our endowment.” That endowment, now about $47 million (it reached a low of $33 million in 2009), is “one of the smaller endowments by major orchestra standards,” Meecham said. “We will be talking to consultants about how to mount an effective capital campaign.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony returning to Carnegie Hall for Honegger work

Carnegie Hall announces its season before the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra does, which means I can now report a little something about the 2011-12 lineup:

In November, Marin Alsop and the BSO will perform Arthur Honegger's extraordinary oratorio from the 1930s, "Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher" ("Joan of Arc at the Stake").

This enticing news is contained in the Carnegie season announcement, released Wednesday. Local fans of the orchestra will, I assume, hear the oratorio a few days before the New York date. The BSO's most recent Carnegie appearances were last November, when Alsop led the orchestra in two well-received concerts. 

It's obvious that a few details about the 2011 program have yet to be settled at the BSO, since the Carnegie calendar listing looks like this:


Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage

Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop, Music Director and Conductor

Tenor to be announced

Tenor to be announced

Bass to be announced

Soprano to be announced

Alto to be announced

Chorus to be announced

Children's chorus to be announced

Additional artists to be announced

Stay tuned for the filling in of the blanks when the BSO reveals its full 2011-12 lineup in the weeks ahead.

UPDATE: I have since learned that Alsop will first conduct "Jeanne d'Arc" in July at the Oregon Bach Festival in a semi-staged version directed by James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of Sant Louis. That version will be re-created in Baltimore and NY. Among the soloists slated for the  Oregon presentation is soprano Tamara Wilson, who has done notable work for Washington National Opera. 


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

National Symphony returns to recording arena with Eschenbach, American program

Yes, I know the classical music recording industry died, like, 10 or 20 years ago. But tell that to all the companies that keep releasing products . Or the orchestras that keep getting back into the act after a hiatus.

Latest case in point: the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its new music director Christoph Eschenbach, is about to make its first recording in a decade, launching a relationship with the Finnish Ondine label.

The recording will be done during live concerts at the Kennedy Center commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration; the NSO performances are Saturday through Monday. The release date for the CD is already set: May 31.

The program includes Peter Lieberson’s "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)," with Richard Dreyfuss as narrator. The first performance of this NSO commission will be given Thursday with Morgan Freeman narrating, part of a multi-genre, long-sold-out celebration of Kennedy's presidency.

 Filling out the Ondine disc will be Leonard Bernstein's

"Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK" and Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," and Gershwin's Concerto in F major, with pianist Tzimon Barto, a frequent Eschenbach collaborator.

Eschenbach has been a featured artist on the Ondine label for some time; his nearly 20 releases include performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestre de Paris, among others. The conductor's first NSO recording project is partly supported by the NEA.

Giving this new product extra appeal is a bonus disc that will contain excerpts from the NSO's concert on Jan.19, 1961, in Constitution Hall given in honor of the president-to-be. The program, at the request of the Kennedys, offered a good deal of American fare. Howard Mitchell led the orchestra in such works as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (with the fabulous Earl Wild as soloist), a choral piece by Randall Thompson and an NSO commission for the Inaugural Concert, John La Montaine’s Overture "From Sea to Shining Sea."

As longtime Washingtonians are fond of recalling in detail, the city was hit with a whopper snowstorm on Jan. 19, 1961. Naturally, that caused a lot of problems for the concert -- latecomers, including the Kennedys; various no-shows (the concertmaster never made it, nor did now legendary violinist Mischa Elman, who was to have been a soloist) -- but the old on-with-the-show spirit prevailed.

The concert was aired by the Mutual Broadcasting Network, and it will be very cool, thanks to the NSO/Ondine partnership, to hear some of that historic broadcast 50 years later.

PHOTO (by Margot Schulman) COURTESY OF NSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

January 18, 2011

Music in the Great Hall spotlights promising clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich

Each year, the long-running concert series Music in the Great Hall shines a spotlight on a recent winner of the Peabody Conservatory's Yale Gordon Concerto Competition. It's a good way to keep up with some of the talent being honed at that school.

Last season, cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein's MIGH recital easily revealed what had caught the favor of the competition judges. And last Sunday, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich likewise made it very clear why he received a Yale Gordon award.

Not surprisingly, Kanasevich demonstrated considerable technical strengths in the concert, which he shared with some Peabody colleagues. He offered plenty of expressive nuance as well, especially in the one standard repertoire item on his program, the F minor Sonata by Brahms.

The most impressive aspect to the program, though, was

the program itself. Daring to close with a ruminative, often glacial 40-minute score by the late Henryk Gorecki was a particularly daring touch (I hope the concert series doesn't get complaints from audience members). The first half, which included the Brahms piece, also had its contemporary side, thanks to a work by Peabody undergrad Viet Cuong. 

Cuong's "Zanelle" for unaccompanied clarinet provided Kanasevich a great curtain-raiser for the afternoon. It's a jaunty, jazzy score with concise melodic riffs that provide abundant material to develop. Kanasevich played it with admirable control and color.

The clarinetist, who studies with Peabody faculty member Anthony McGill, shaped the Brahms sonata elegantly. I would have liked even more warmth in the tone and, here and there, more breadth in the phrasing, but this was solid music-making, vividly supported by pianist Hui-Chuan Chen.

Cellist Dorotea Racs joined Chen and Kanasevich in an arresting account of Gorecki's "Recitatives and Ariosos (Lerchenmusik)." This work from the mid-1980s finds the composer in his familiar meditative mode, perhaps with an extra degree of brooding -- many somber, toll-like chords from the piano; many plaintive, long-held notes on the cello.

The clarinet is the primary mood-changer here, setting off ecstatic, Messiaen-like bursts in the first movement, and joining the cello in the second for tightly meshed lines that rock back and forth over the keyboard's determined sobriety. Though there's an almost "Rite of Spring" energy in the first portion of the finale, the pious chant, gentle harmony and unhurried pacing return to close the score as it began -- in some deep, personal, spiritual place.

Kanasevich and his collaborators made a persuasive case for this fascinating work.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:00 PM | | Comments (0)

January 17, 2011

A musical reminder of the message behind MLK Day

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been impressed with the strides made in civil rights since 1968. But he would not be surprised that there's still more work to be done, more struggles to be won on many fronts in many places. That's why the song so associated with King, "We Shall Overcome," still has the power to move. It's worth being reminded on that song, that message on this MLK Day.

I came across an unusual performance of "We Shall Overcome" that I thought I'd share here. It features a pop music icon as soloist --

Diana Ross -- in an orchestra/choral arrangement that expands effectively on the old spiritual. (If the Baltimore Symphony ever resumes its tradition of giving MLK concerts, this arrangement would be a nice addition, even without such an exalted soloist.) This particular performance comes from a 1996 concert in Budapest, nicely illustrating how the music easily crosses boundaries.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 15, 2011

Baltimore Symphony explores the inner child and outer space in fun program

When people in the classical music industry say -- and they do -- that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra does cool stuff, the sort invariably tagged outside-the-box, they're talking about programs like the one this weekend.

Music director Marin Alsop put together a mix of repertoire inspired by thoughts of outer space, a mix that could have turned into something just a little, well, spacey. But it all held together Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall and seemed to connect strongly with the sizable audience. (There are repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.)

On paper, it looked like the sort of thing saved for outdoor summer concerts -- the Suite from "Star Wars" by John Williams; a multi-media work based on a children's book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time" by popular science guy Brian Greene, with a score by Philip Glass and a high-tech film by the British team of Al and Al; and, as a curtain-raiser, a recent work by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage that conjures up imagery of a menacing asteroid.

But this is a regular subscription program, and Alsop treats it as seriously as an evening of Brahms. As for "Star Wars," the conductor takes

 the same view as Leonard Slatkin; they don't see film music as second-class material to be scorned by of-so-proper classical types. Alsop gave the familiar Williams work the respect it deserves and had the BSO digging into it with a good deal of technical flair and expressive fire.

It was a good opportunity to be reminded again of how masterful Williams is at melody and orchestration, with an endless supply of hues and nuances. The only thing missing from his uplifting "Star Wars" soundtrack material, of course, is a little note somewhere that says something like: "Gustav Holst, William Walton and few other composers contributed to the making of this score."

The Turnage work, "Ceres," billed as an "Asteroid for Orchestra," packs plenty of action and atmosphere into a few minutes. It's got terrifically potent dissonances, eerie sound effects and a very effective sense of mass. The bold performance made me hope that Alsop will get some more of Turnage's challenging music into future seasons.

"Icarus" is an entertaining piece. I found Al and Al's the film the most impressive component, a finely crafted bit of live action and digital animation that richly conveys Greene's clever updating of the ancient myth. Here, a young Icarus leaves the spacecraft he was born on and heads off in a solo vehicle he designed to investigate the edge of a black hole, despite his father's warning. Icarus, forgetting about the slowing of time at near a black hole, returns to discover thousands of years have passed.

The story provides a neat introduction to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which Greene explained in entertaining fashion during remarks from the stage. With playwright David Henry Hwang, the author adapted his book for concert format, with a narrator woven into the musical and and cinematic framework.

I think it might be more effective if the narrative text were projected, subtitle-style, on the film, rather than recited; balances between spoken word and live orchestra are invariably tricky. But most of the text emerged cleanly Saturday night (NPR's Scott Simon was the narrator), and Alsop had the music churning along nicely.

Although there isn't a whole lot of freshness to the score, Glass employs his trademark idioms with typical deftness, especially in the passage where Icarus enters a slower time (low notes in the strings move a glacial pace), while the world back on the mother ship Icarus left behind continues at normal speed (woodwinds are abuzz with activity).

In remarks at the start of the evening, Alsop spoke about the program as a way of releasing the inner child in all of us, the desire to explore and seek adventure. Worked for me.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:24 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

January 14, 2011

Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh: Another (musical) side to the rivalry

Sorry, but I’m having a little trouble getting all anti-Pittsburgh this week, even if the rest of Baltimore has turned into a nest of evil-wishers. I can’t help it. I kind of like Pittsburgh. It’s got such a cool location on the rivers, such interesting neighborhoods, such friendly people. Just because they have a football team that isn’t worthy to stand in the same arena as the noble Ravens, there’s no reason to hate all Pittsburghians (Pittsburgh-ites? Pitts-ters?).

But with this football rivalry thing in high gear, I figured it was a good time to see how the two cities’ major classical music teams stack up against each other.

I think it would be neat if the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra could have a real battle of the bands at halftime during Saturday’s big game. That way we’d really find out who can kick Beethoven down the field with the biggest fortissimo. Meanwhile, let’s see how some of the stats measure up.

The BSO and PSO both have music directors with two-syllable first names beginning with ‘Ma-’ – Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh, Marin Alsop in Baltimore. Spooky. They are both good talkers about music, and they both can generate exciting concerts, but the edge clearly goes to Alsop because – well, ‘A’ comes before ‘H.’ And, besides, at 56, she’s four years older than Manfred, and everyone knows conductors get more distinguished and eminent as they age, so we’re talking a 4-point advantage: Baltimore.

Let’s look at some finances. The PSO has a budget of about

$32 million; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s is around $25 million. They’ve got 90-something players; we’ve got closer to 80. They pay a base salary of around $100,000; the base at the BSO is closer to $75,000.

So, maybe we’re a little smaller and cheaper. But we’ve still got plenty of strength onstage. When these guys get hold of a big score by Tchaikovsky or Adams, we’re talking Touch Down City.

Remember, the BSO has been in business – uninterruptedly – longer. The PSO got started in 1896, but those guys couldn’t keep their orchestra up. It disbanded in 1910 and didn’t resurface until 1926, a whole decade after the BSO was launched. So there. Take that, Pittsburgh. Advantage: Baltimore.

OK, I know what die-hard Pittsburgh Symphony fans are saying: “Look at our history of music directors, the great names who have graced the podium. What a legacy!” Oh, please. Name one.

Otto Klemperer? Oh, yeah. Well, sure he was a legend. I dare you to name another. Fritz Reiner? Um, OK. Granted, he was a huge, huge deal. William Steinberg? Shut up, already. It's so not-cool to brag.

Besides, back in those supposedly oh-so-glorious Pittsburgh days, the BSO was being led by some amazing luminaries, like Gustav Strube, George Siemonn, Ernest Schelling, Werner Janssen and Massimo Freccia. Never heard of them? Well, no one else has either, outside of Baltimore, but they were every bit the musical equivalents of Joe Flacco. Trust me. When you add in this illustrious past, there's just no contest. Final advantage: Baltimore.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO AND IMG ARTISTS (Manfred Honeck photo by Toshiyuki Urano)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:59 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

January 13, 2011

Mobtown Modern demonstrates enduring appeal of Philip Glass

Think about this for a moment -- a 30-year-old work by a composer currently in his 70s is still popular enough to draw a standing-room-only crowd heavily populated with 20-somethings.

Such was the case on a bitterly cold Wednesday night at Baltimore's Windup Space, where the Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern Music Series presented a complete performance of "Glassworks" by Baltimore's own Philip Glass.

I imagine the first audiences to hear this piece back in 1981 looked a lot like this one (right down to some of the hairstyles) and were just as enthusiastic. This is Glass at his most instantly likable, I think -- assuming you can tolerate at all the fundamental minimalist concepts of repetition, rhythmic pulsation and narrow harmonic and melodic range.

In "Glassworks," the composer takes those components and gives them

an extra dash of expressive character, along with a beguiling instrumental shimmer. The music is alive not just with motion, but emotion.

Those qualities came through effectively in the Mobtown Modern performance, despite occasional roughness around the edges. The 11-member ensemble, conducted by Julien Benichou, reached a peak of kinetic power in the "Rubric" movement. Guy Werner's accompanying video projections (rising or setting suns, urban traffic, home movies, etc.) didn't add much to the experience, but I may have well been in a minority.

This concert marked the beginning of "Synchronicity," a collaborative venture between Mobtown and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. A couple of BSO members were in the ensemble for "Glassworks, and BSO music director Marin Alsop, a sterling champion of contemporary music, was on hand for a pre-concert discussion with Mobtown curator and top-drawer sax man Brian Sacawa. Some BSO staffers were in the packed house, mingling with the kind of folks they don't typically see at Meyerhoff Hall.

It's a great idea, this mixing of what, in New York, would be considered uptown and downtown musical camps. In Baltimore, we're only talking a few blocks, but the coming together means a lot.

The BSO continues the focus on Glass works this weekend with performances of  "Icarus at the Edge of Time."


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 12, 2011

Tiny sign of movement toward resuming negotiations in Detroit Symphony strike

I don't pretend to be able to read the tea leaves left in the cup of any labor dispute, but a press release issued late Wednesday from the management of the Detroit Symphony made me think there might be a glimmer of hope toward -- well, toward resuming serious negotiations.

No idea if that would lead to a settlement to a strike by the musicians that has silenced the 2010-11 season, but it would be nice to know everyone was heading back into discussions.

Unfortunately, it sounds like tempers remain frayed, since the management statement opens with this loaded line: "This afternoon, while striking DSO players were continuing their agenda of misguided and impulsive communications, the DSO negotiating team was finalizing a new offer aimed at ending the current work stoppage."

The players, of course, have been sounding off as well, as in this statement also posted today in conjunction with a press conference:

"It is time for DSO executives to put an end to the pain they are causing the community and accept the compromise proposal ... senior executives should not be drawing one, thin dime of money donated by generous individuals and corporations to fund the production of music. Without any shows, they are essentially getting money for nothing and that’s not good business in anybody’s book."

In management's statement today, there's a slap at that press conference, too, described as "an indicator that DSO musicians may be more interested in their own PR machine than achieving a workable agreement."

Not pretty.

Anyway, the faint sign of a crack in the ice I thought I might possibly have seen was the bit of news contained in the press release: Management "is prepared to submit to [a federal mediator]  an offer detailing how it would spend $36 million over three years once it secures additional, sustainable funding that would both close the gap between its position and the union's and support the enhanced communal and educational activities that are now even more important for the orchestra to revive and thrive."

That $36 million figure is significant. As the Free Press reports: "The strike began Oct. 4 in response to implemented pay cuts of about 30 percent and work rule changes. The two sides remain $2 million apart. In December, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and then Gov. Jennifer Granholm publicly outlined a compromise that split the financial difference between the parties with a $36-million package over three years."

The players liked that idea, but management balked. Now, I guess, the situation has changed a bit.

I don't know where any of this will end. I only know that both sides, as usual in these labor disputes, have made choices of language and judgment that they will regret in the long run. But everyone needs to let go of something if there's going to be any chance of rescuing one of the country's finest orchestras.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 PM | | Comments (2)

Margaret Whiting, one of pop music's finest vocalists, dies at 86

Margaret Whiting, one of the finest American pop singers, died Tuesday at the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home in Englewood, N.J. She was 86. News reports quote her daughter and sole survivor, Deborah Whiting, saying that her mother died of natural causes.

Margaret Whiting's legacy included hit records and many TV appearances from the late-1940s into the 1960s, followed by a successful career that focuses mostly on musicals and cabaret. Recordings from her prime -- she's perhaps best known for "Moonlight in Vermont" -- reveal a voice of remarkable purity and a disarming, unaffected approach to phrasing. She didn't achieve the fame of, say, Rosemary Clooney, but she had something of that artist's ever-classy style.

I confess I hadn't heard of Margaret Whiting until seeing her on TV chat shows -- I guess it was in the 1980s -- with her latest boyfriend and eventual husband, gay porn star Jack Wrangler. (Of course, I had never heard of Jack Wrangler, either. Honest. Really. No idea who he was. No, not me.)

It was a fascinating sight, the two of them -- the veteran pop singer and a man 22 years her junior who played for the other team. But they were so obviously, genuinely a couple, enjoying their own specially-defined love that you couldn't help but admire them. The story goes that when Wrangler, trying to explain why they couldn't really get together, said, "But I'm gay!," Whiting said: "Only around the edges, dear."

Wrangler, who died in 2009, produced many of the singer's cabaret shows. He also helped put her on Broadway for the first and only time, starring in a 1997 tribute to Whiting's lifelong friend, famed songwriter Johnny Mercer. In 1949, Whiting and Mercer recorded a big hit together that comes around ever winter: "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

I was glad I got to learn about Whiting's artistry, even if it happened because of all the publicity surrounding her unlikely, autumnal romance. I always enjoy hearing her records, which offer a worthy model for aspiring singers of the Great American Songbook.

To mark her passing, here are a couple examples of her legacy. The first is

a contemporary Francesca Blumenthal ballad that suits Whiting superbly: "The Lies of Handsome Men." Then, a wonderful '50s version of the standard "My Foolish Heart."

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 11, 2011

Death of 'Breaking Away' director Peter Yates brings back memories of tenor aria

The news that British film director Peter Yates died over the weekend at the age of 81 stirred fond memories of his 1979 hit "Breaking Away" (and less fond memories of "For Pete's Sake," the Barbra Streisand comic vehicle from 1974 that delivers maybe six or seven good laughs).

My favorite part about "Breaking Away" is the young hero's obsession with all things Italian. Dennis Christopher was great in the role of Dave, who takes his Italian phase to the ultimate step of pretending to be an exchange student, hoping to impress a college girl.

Dave's musical weapon of charm in the movie is "M'appari" from Friedrich Flotow's 1847 opera "Martha." It's easy to understand Dave's choice. This is a wonderfully lyrical aria that seems to gain in sensual appeal by being sung in Italian (that's how it used to be most often heard), although it also hits the spot, to be sure, in its original German as "Ach, so fromm." Either way, it's the only reason anyone remembers the name Flotow today.

If you've never seen "Breaking Away," it's well worth seeking out; I've attached the trailer. But first, check out these two performances of Flotow's lovely aria. You'll hear one of the great singers of the past, Tito Schipa, giving a superbly elegant account in Italian. Then, the current big buzz-generator in tenordom, Jonas Kaufmann, delivering it very expressively in German:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Sunday round-up: Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Pro Musica Rara

Sunday afternoon offered some pleasant listening.

I started out at Goucher College, where the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra presented one of those Viennese New Year's Day-type programs of froth and mirth. I happen to be rather partial to such things myself, although I sort of understand how the "light" classics of Johann Strauss, et al., might leave some folks unmoved.

Personally, I think Strauss' "Emperor Waltz," to mention only one example, deserves a place right alongside any of the "heavy" classics. It's a masterpiece of melody and also of mood, tinged with nostalgia and bathed in a kind of autumnal glow. Hardly mere dance music. Conductor Markand Thakar shaped that score nicely on Sunday, attentive to rubato and dynamic contrasts. The orchestra encountered occasional roughness, but conveyed the spirit of the work effectively, even getting in some of the distinctive off-beat rhythm of the authentic Viennese waltz.

The first half of the program included more Strauss -- a colorful, straightforward breeze through the "Fledermaus" Overture and a somewhat rocky, but energetic, "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka."

Interspersed with the schlag were a couple of

popular Italian opera arias featuring soprano Rachel Inselman. She gave a rather faceless account of "Una voce poco fa" (coordination between soloist and ensemble could have been tighter), but caressed "Musetta's Waltz" charmingly.

The highlight of this portion of the concert was Mozart's Rondo from the "Haffner" Serenade. The violin soloist was Elisabeth Adkins, the excellent associate concertmaster of the National Symphony. She was substituting on this occasion as BCO concertmaster for her honeymooning sister Madeline, who is also associate concertmaster of the BSO. Got that? Anyway, Elisabeth Adkins delivered the Mozart solo with a sweet tone and consistently elegant phrasing, and she enjoyed attentive support from Thakar and the BCO players.

At intermission, I headed over the Towson University to catch the second half of Pro Musica Rara's annual SuperBach Sunday concert.

Bach's great Double Concerto received a dynamic performance, with soloists Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic darting through the outer movements quite nimbly and giving the gorgeous Largo an eloquent touch. Their colleagues onstage also played with a good deal of flair.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan, whose work I've admired in recent years with American Opera Theater, employed his warm, supple voice to keen effect in a couple of infrequently encountered arias by Bach and Buxtehude. The latter's "Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab" was phrased with particular expressive finesse.

One little oddity of the performance: The musicians seemed uncertain about when to enter or leave the stage and when to take a bow. I guess even the pros can use a little staging rehearsal once in a while.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 10, 2011

It's an unofficial Philip Glass week in Baltimore, thanks to BSO, Mobtown Modern

Nothing like a little synergy.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has one of its cool programs of the season on the schedule for the weekend at Meyerhoff and Strathmore, featuring the multi-media work "Icarus at the Edge of Time," based on the popular children's book by science-demystifier Brian Greene.

Glass composed the score for the 2010 piece, which has a narrative devised by Greene and celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang and a film created by the imaginative British team known as Al and Al. Marin Alsop conducts. NPR's Scott Simon will narrate.

You can read more about "Icarus" elsewhere on the Sun's Web site.

To help you get in the mood for that program, Mobtown Modern will offer some cool Glass, too, Wednesday night at the Windup Space. The program is devoted to a complete performance of

"Glassworks," a 1981 chamber work for woodwinds, brass, strings, piano and synthesizer. Joining Mobtown players will be members of the BSO in the first collaboration between the two organizations. Alsop is expected to drop by for a pre-concert talk with Mobtown curator Brian Sacawa.

"Glassworks" helped increase the composer's popularity at a time when mainstream critics were still prone to dismiss, if not revile, him. I've always been partial to the piece myself, especially the first movement, "Opening." I hear in it a sort of connective tissue stretching back through the centuries to the famous C major Prelude by Bach.

OK, maybe that's way too much stretching, since Glass doesn't travel as far harmonically, but I still think there's something in the rhythmic pattern and the basic outline that links the two items. And I also think they share a subtle emotional power.

A lot of the criticism aimed at Glass when he first arrived on the scene was that he was too far outside classical music norms to be taken seriously. Every time I hear "Opening," I think of him being right there in the continuum. To make my point (well, I hope so), I've attached clips of the Bach Prelude and the Glass work here:

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:21 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

Good vibes at Philadelphia Orchestra with music director designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Yannick Nezet-SeguinOn Saturday evening, I zipped up to Philadelphia (the rail gods were smiling benignly) in time to sample the buzz being generated by a 35-year-old French-Canadian conductor.

He's Yannick Nezet-Seguin -- or just plain Yannick, as he apparently prefers to be called -- and he was recently named the next music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This being the era of the unusually young music director (see: Dudamel, Gustavo), it's also the era of skepticism. I understand the tendency to doubt, to be wary of each fresh new face touted as the next savior of one institution or another, if not all of classical music. But, if a single live encounter is a valid measuring stick, I'd say that Nezet-Seguin has what it takes to  light quite a fire in Philadelphia (he officially starts in the 2012-13 season, with a few weeks of concerts each season beforehand). It should be just the thing to help everyone get past various administrative and financial bumps at the orchestra in recent years. 

I'd also say that Nezet-Seguin is going to deliver a lot more than surface appeal, for Saturday's performance provided strong evidence of a keen musical mind, a distinctive flair for interpretation and an ability to inspire an orchestra.

The concert was intriguing in content -- Debussy's "Nocturnes" on the first half and

Mozart's Requiem on the second (only the fourth time in the orchestra's 110-year-history the Requiem has been programmed). I'm not sure how those two pieces would be considered complementary -- not that they have to be -- but it gave Nezet-Seguin a chance to let audiences hear his approach to two very different parts of the repertoire.

The public clearly wants to get better acquainted with the conductor; a fourth performance of the program had to be added to the originally scheduled three to meet the demand. On Saturday, the audience's enthusiasm was palpable, and it looked like hundreds were staying on for a post-performance Q&A with Nezet-Seguin as I was heading back to the train station. And, although reading body language of orchestral players can be a fool's game, the personnel onstage during the concert sure looked happy. They also sounded wonderful.

The famed Philadelphia string tone purred at the start of the Debussy score and that silken quality largely prevailed all evening. Some beautifully shaded efforts in the woodwinds and generally suave brass work likewise reaffirmed the fundamental strengths of the ensemble. 

What really impressed, though, was the attentive, nuanced way the musicians responded to the conductor's graceful guidance on the podium. And Nezet-Seguin is a very stylish baton-wielder. I especially like the fact that he doesn't go in for much mirror-beating -- the widespread habit of keeping the beat with both hands moving exactly the same way all the time. There are exceptional conductors who do this, I hasten to add, but it's nice to see someone so artfully using one hand for tempo, the other for continual sculpting and refining. 

The impressionistic brilliance of "Nocturnes" emerged in often gorgeous, sensual detail; the closing "Sirens" movement, in particular, emitted wonderful hues. The women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale sang their wordless part of that finale with a fine blend, but softer dynamics would have been welcome.

Nezet-Seguin's very effective way of prolonging the silence at the end of the piece reminded me of his predecessor, Christoph Eschenbach, who also loves to hold off applause as long as he can after a sublime coda. (Speaking of Eschenbach, I still think he got a raw deal in Philadelphia, but no use in going over that territory now. Besides, it's great having him in Washington, leading the National Symphony.)

Mozart's Requiem found Nezet-Seguin striking a balance between terrific propulsion and highly effective breadth (the "Lacrimosa," for example, was allowed a good deal of breathing room and emotional weight). The solo quartet did admirable work, as did the Chorale.  I wouldn't have minded a few more instruments for the performance, though. Nezet-Seguin followed the common practice of reducing the orchestra to historical appropriate size, but the choristers were at full-strength. 

Once again, the conductor ensured a long pause at the end, after a particularly haunting final chord that was slowly drained of life, as it were -- a perfect sonic metaphor for a Requiem.

I noticed the players putting another score on their stands during the curtain calls and figured there could only be one possible encore after this work. Sure enough, more Mozart -- his "Ave Verum Corpus." Molding the choral and orchestra forces with a deft touch, Nezet-Seguin ensured that the music spoke eloquently.

The whole concert spoke eloquently for the conductor's potential in Philadelphia.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:16 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 8, 2011

Los Angeles Philharmonic launches live-to-movie-theater concerts

Move over, Metropolitan Opera.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has also gotten into the act of beaming live performances to movie theaters around the country.

It's not as ambitious a venture (yet), with only three concert in the series this season, but if the idea catches on, I imagine we'll see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, and not just from the LA Phil.

That orchestra's selling point, of course, is its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, he of the hair and the vitality. He'll conduct a program of Adams, Bernstein and Beethoven in Sunday's concert, which will be at 5 p.m. EST.

Several cineplexes in our area will offer the event, including Bel Air Cinema in Abingdon, AMC Columbia Mall, REG Snowden Square, and AMC Owings Mills. (It would be nice to see a movie theater or two inside Baltimore get into the act.)

I know I'm obstinately old-fashioned, but I just can't get overly excited about attending a virtual concert (or opera, for that matter). That said, I'm all for anything that will bring people together for music, and I hope this venture is a success.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:03 AM | | Comments (2)

January 7, 2011

A couple more thoughts about 'Second City Does Baltimore,' and more SCTV

By now, surely you have your tickets to "The Second City Does Baltimore" (all right, I'll stop calling you Shirley), because you're obviously cool (evidence: you read this blog) and all the cool people are going to want to see this show. You can find  my review of this Center State presentation elsewhere on the site.

Note that most Wednesdays during the run will feature a bonus -- a walk-on by a local celeb. The first was Ed Norris, which, to tell the truth, made me ever so uncomfortable.

I'm all for rehabilitation, but you'd never have guessed during his jaunty time onstage -- being interviewed by cast members -- that he had ever done a different kind of time for tax-cheating and misusing a police fund to help pay for his extra-marital affairs. I mean, we're talking New Jersey-level corruption here, and he's now a great Baltimore celeb because he's got a sports radio show? Hon (imagine Trademark symbol here), I guess this city really is quirky.

Anyway, other guests for the "Walk-On Wednesdays" include Poe the Raven Jan. 19, Marin Alsop Jan. 26, Cindy Wolf Feb. 2, Dan Deacon Feb. 9 and Patrice Harris Feb. 16. I hope those segments will go more smoothly than the Norris one; it just didn't turn out very funny. And I still think it's a mistake to place the walk-on celeb thing after the regular show. That's just asking for an anti-climax.

Anyway, the production does have a lot of offer in the way of laughs. It would be hard not to like the Second City troupers and the way they "do" Baltimore.

As I mentioned the other day, anytime I hear the words Second City, I start thinking about SCTV, a fabulous invention from the Canadian branch of the Chicago-born comic franchise. I couldn't resist posting another little gem from that little network -- a TV commercial for the ages:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

January 6, 2011

Second City doing Baltimore stirs memories of SCTV

Ever since "The Second City Does Baltimore" opened at Center Stage (press night was Wednesday and I'll have my review in a bit), I've been remembering one of the greatest achievements of the celebrated Second City comedy franchise -- SCTV.

That was a product of the Toronto branch of the original Second City in Chicago. At its frequent best, this parody of a television network and its increasingly desperate programming was about as funny as it got back in the day (late '70s, early '80s).

For those of you who may have missed out on the SCTV fun, or could use a refresher, I thought I'd post a taste. (Hey, I need to buy a little time while I finish all my other work.)

Here's the wonderful Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara):

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

January 4, 2011

Single Carrot Theatre presents fourth annual 'Murder Ink' reading

Baltimore's homicide rate may have fallen, but, as in any city, it could never be low enough.

Each year, Single Carrot Theatre offers a live reading of "Murder Ink," the weekly column by the City Paper's Anna Ditkoff. The presentation is a way of humanizing the statistics.

As the theater company's press release puts it, "There’s no pretending that reading about these desperate, often [grisly] crimes will bring back any of the victims, but it does bring a little perspective to what is clearly an epidemic."

The fourth annual "Murder Ink" reading by members of the Single Carrot ensemble and the public will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday outside in front of the theater at 120 W. North Ave. It's free, and hot beverages will be served.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:33 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

Innovation rewarded: Post-Classical Ensemble receives $200,000 Mellon grant

The Post-Classical Ensemble has done some very interesting work in the area, trying out innovative ways of re-packaging familiar works and dusting off lesser known fare, often in multi-media formats. The D.C-based organization just received $200,000 to help keep the innovation flowing.

The grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation "feels like a big imprimatur for an organization with a budget of under $500,000," says artistic director Joseph Horowitz, who co-founded Post-Classical with music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez in 2003.

The money will support programming, touring, and the making of a DVD on the Naxos label (the group's third).

Post-Classical is "establishing a triangulated relationship," Horowitz says, with the Music Center at Strathmore "as 'Artistic Partner,' Georgetown University as 'Educational Partner,' and

the film department of the National Gallery of Art. Mellon sees this as a template with national implications for humanities-infused thematic programing, linking a major presenter (not campus-based) with a major university (sans major on-campus presenter)."

Horowitz also notes: "Obviously, our new relationship with Strathmore moves us closer to the Baltimore arts scene. And we expect to move into Baltimore itself." Getting Post-Classical up here -- I think it could fit neatly into one or more local concert series -- would be good news.

Among the ventures in store for the ensemble from this season through 2012-13 include:

The Stravinsky Porject, exploring the composer's Russian side.

A touring production of Manuel De Falla's "El Amor Brujo" choreographed by Igal Perry;

Celebrating Ives, a festival with the extraordinary pianist Jeremy Denk;

Interpreting Shostakovich, a festival featuring controversial author Solomon Volkov;

A Mexican festival that will yield a restoration of the 1930s film "Redes" with a newly recorded performance of Silvestre Revueltas' score.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

American Opera Theater's next, typically provocative production may be its last

One of the more interesting stories on what might be called Baltimore's alternative opera scene has been the innovative little company that arrived earlier in the past decade with an emphasis on the baroque. Initially called Ignoti Dei Opera, the ensemble, founded by Timothy Nelson, eventually changed its name to American Opera Theater and moved well beyond the baroque as it tackled off-the-beaten-path fare and provocative interpretations of more standard works.

The 2010-11 season will apparently be the company's last.

December's production, a re-imagining of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was canceled. Now, the February venture, a collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory, is being billed as a swan song. 

Press releases received Tuesday from Nelson and the Theatre Project both announce that American Opera Theater is "finally hanging up its hat," but "going out with a bang"; the company's own Web site uses the word "goodbye."

However, Nelson sent me a subsequent email saying there is "some possibility of saving" a spring production of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," if money can be found. UPDATE: Heard again from Nelson, who says "the needed resources for 'Lost' were just confirmed, so we are going forward with it."

Meanwhile, next month's "bang" is a most intriguing double bill Feb. 4-13 at the Theatre Project: Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (the work that launched AOT eight years ago) and the local premiere of

Melissa Dunphy's "The Gonzales Cantata." The latter work, from 2009, gives a Handelian treatment to the congressional testimony of former Attorney General Alberto ("I don't recall") Gonzales. Characters include Senators Ben Cardin, Arlen Specter and Diane Feinstein (she's portrayed by a he in the cantata). Sounds like fun.

If the double bill does turn out to be AOT's finale, Nelson and company can certainly feel good about the way they shook things up over the years. I recall some very cool productions of works by Cavalli, Charpentier (the rarely encountered "David and Jonathan," played out on a stage filled with sand), Handel (the literally high-flying, circus version of "Acis and Galatea") and Weill (the intriguing "Songspiel" with the fabulous Sylvia McNair).

That AOT should be reaching the folding-up-the-tent phase is not surprising. Nelson hasn't lived in the area, or even the country, for some time; it's harder to maintain or develop a company's profile and support from afar. And Nelson is more interested in directing than the day-to-day running of a company, with the endless fundraising that entails. So, even if "Lost in the Stars" materializes later this season, the company is not likely to go on as it has. Instead, we might get periodic Nelson-directed ventures  in the future, rather than a regular season. 

It's impressive how much Nelson managed to achieve, despite the financial and logistical odds. Baltimore has benefited considerably from his creative spark.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:33 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

A tough battle for 2011: Fighting the anti-cultural crowd

If you want to keep your blood pressure under control, better to skip the comment sections on stories and opinion columns on most newspaper Web sites.

Comments posted on personal blogs (even this friendly little one) certainly can turn rude, crude and mean-spirited, too, but nothing, it seems, brings out the venom like a regular news story or an op-ed piece. (The few times I've been tempted to see how readers are reacting to something my favorite political writers have written, I end up getting depressed.)

One topic guaranteed to ignite angry, suspicious, resentful, spiteful types is an article about problems faced in the arts world. Just the mere reporting of an orchestra struggling with budget woes, for example, is blood in the water to the anti-cultural sharks in any community.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I checked out a news report in a Kentucky paper about the troubled Louisville Orchestra, which has been sadly sliding into bankruptcy.

Here is a sample of opinions proudly posted by Louisville citizens:

An unpopular music genre doesn't make a city 'world class' ... The phrase 'world class' is

a propaganda technique used by those who want to shove things down our throats.

Get rid of them, the Ballet and any other useless tax funded 'entertainment' that isnt self supporting.

Face it, this isn't about the music. It is about Louisville being able to say, 'We have an orchestra.' Then all the old stuffed shirts go to the concerts to be seen by other old stuffed shirts. Boring. Hire some clowns to spice things up.

Pack up your fiddles and go home boys and girls. Maybe find real jobs. Go to Nashville and vie for some sessions work. If you are worth your salt you'll survive there, maybe even flourish.

Sale all of assets to pay these people off, fire them all and get rid of the Orchestra. It isnt popular with the residents or they would have packed crowds and not have to worry about $$$.

This whole thing is stupid. The orchestra creates a product. That product has lost public appeal. Just like any business, this one needs to shut down. If your product isn't selling there is no reason to continue in business.

It makes no difference whether these are widely shared views or held only by a few (it makes no difference if they're expressed without regard to spelling or grammar, either). This attitude can be extremely powerful, extremely dangerous.

You can detect something similar to the tone of those Louisville comment writers in the current wave of anti-public servant sentiment all over the country -- the belief that government workers are all shirkers, unworthy of a decent wage or benefits (but they had better respond immediately whenever the citizenry demands a service like, say, snow removal).

Vilifying people who perform or listen to classical music, or participate in any other of the arts, is such a cheap and thoughtless practice, but it seems to enjoy amazing traction in this country. I suspect this contempt will only grow, especially since it so easily dovetails with the attitudes of those now heading into Washington to "take back their government" from, among other horrors, "the elitists."

The cultural community is going to need more fortitude and imagination than ever to combat this sort of thinking in 2011 and beyond.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 1, 2011

A New Year's toast via the incomparbale Judy Garland

Some friends in Baltimore, where Robert and I have spent several New Year's Eves, mark the occasion by playing a recording of the song "Here's To Us" from the 1962 musical "Little Me." There's something about the melody and the slightly bittersweet words that just seems so right:

Here's to us ... Not for what might happen next year, for it might not be nearly as bright. But here's to us, for better or worse. And for thanks to a merciful star, skies of blue, and muddling through. And for me and for you as we are."

This morning I had the song still running through my head and I thought I'd see if I could find a way to share it with my faithful blog readers as a way of extending my best wishes for the New Year. Lo and behold, there appeared a version by the incomparable Judy Garland -- a clip from her brilliant, if ill-fated, CBS TV show. It's got champagne and all. So -- a little belatedly, I confess (I should have thought of this last night, but I was too busy figuring out what to wear) -- here's to you and here's to us:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 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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