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February 28, 2011

Center Stage names new artistic director

Interesting new from Center Stage. My story is elsewhere online.
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Washington National Opera delivers affecting production of 'Madama Butterfly'

Opera is the sum of many parts. A performance of an opera is too, which is why careful assembly is required.

Too often, one or more of the components comes up short -- the singing or the characterizations, the stage direction or maybe the scenery, the conducting or the orchestral playing.

The result is that you might start to feel you'll never find a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients.

Well, say hello to a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients: Washington National Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly."

I'm not saying its perfect -- is any production perfect? -- or that it'll erase all memories of previously indelible performances you've known, live or on recording. Believe me, I haven't gone all soft in the head. But on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the company delivered a cohesive result from consistently strong assets -- expressive vocal power, affectingly detailed acting, abundant visual interest, deeply involved conducting, and a lot of lush sounds from the orchestra.

Sure, you can tick off the occasional note that wasn't firmly centered or didn't have enough stamina, not to mention the occasional slip of coordination between stage and pit (or inside the pit).

But throughout the evening, I was repeatedly struck by

the intense degree of good old-fashioned operatic passion in the house, and how often passages in the work took on fresh urgency or poignancy or both -- a rapt "Un bel di" from Catherine Naglestad in the title role, for example; the naked honesty she revealed the Act 2 scene with the Michael Chioldi, a most sympathetic, if soft-toned, Sharpless; the cries of the sailors in the distance during the orchestral prelude to the last act (I don't think I've ever heard that passage sound so haunting, not just atmospheric, in a live performance).

Naglestad produced neither the creamiest nor the most penetrating of tones, but the voice met the challenges with wonderful nuance. She articulated every word with care, shaped every phrase with a refined sense of line.

The soprano also astutely revealed, as effectively as the sliding paper walls of Michael Yeargan's sleekly atmospheric set, the layer's beneath Butterfly's personality -- from cute, coy, calculating child-bride to hopeful, fearful, stoic, proud woman. A knowing, touching performance.

Alexey Dolgov's Pinkerton was a cad, but with a faint heartbeat detectable from the start, which made the remorse at the end palatable. The tenor's gentle shading of the line "Bimba, bimba, non piangere" was a highlight of the evening. Margaret Thompson was a subtle, eloquent Suzuki. Robert Baker's Goro was colorfully, fully sung. The rest of the soloists proved admirable. The chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, sang beautifully.

Philippe Auguin conducted with a deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of the music and, especially, its climactic peaks.

Musically speaking, this really was a gorgeous performance. Theatrically speaking, it had much going for it, too. Even within the large dimensions of Yeargan's scenic concept -- no quaint little cottage for Butterfly, but a stage-wide expanse -- director Ron Daniels kept everything on an intimate level and drew unaffected performances from the singers.

The look (Yeargan designed the costumes as well) was traditional, without turning postcard-ish. Several stage images, aided by Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design, left lasting impressions, among them the nocturnal close of Act 1 and the looming naval vessel and fluttering blossoms in Act 2.

All in all, a most involving night at the opera.

Several performances, some with alternate principals, remain through March 19. WNO general director Placido Domingo will conduct on four occasions. Members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program will move front and center for their own performance on March 15.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Peabody Chamber Opera returns to the '50s via works by Bernstein, Hoiby

There was quite an operatic outbreak over the weekend in Baltimore and D.C. It started Friday night (for me) with Peabody Chamber Opera's double bill at the Theatre Project.

The focus of this production was on the '50s -- a work written during that era, Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti"; and a work evoking it, Lee Hoiby's "This is the Rill Speaking." (Talk of movies and movie-going pops up in both items, a little connective thread that adds to the aptness of pairing them.)

The Hoiby opera from 1992, inspired by a Lanford Wilson play, provides a slice of '50s Americana, with quick-moving vignettes introducing assorted rural characters. The piece sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary (a four-letter word gets tossed around; there are references to masturbation), but stylistically it's firmly in conservative, mid-century idioms -- the shadows of Copland and Barber are in the air.

Hoiby is best known for his songs, which have been championed by some great American classical vocal artists. The opera reflects the composer's melodic gifts, especially in the wistful closing moments. It isn't quite a seamless package, the net effect is quite effective.

The Peabody staging, directed with a mostly light touch by Jennifer Blades, featured

Katelyn Jackman (Mother/Allison), Joseph Harrell (Willy), Marie Marquis (Judy), Sonya Knussen (Maybelle/Peggy), David Diehl (Tommy/Manny), Jorge Ramirez-Sanchez (Keith/Earl/Father). The singing didn't always have a finished quality, but everyone was in the groove. Lee Mills conducted with clarity and contour, drawing a sensitive performance from the orchestral ensemble.

Whether Hoiby's opera enters the mainstream remains to be seen. Bernstein's is a certified classic, a masterpiece of music theater, wonderfully concise and telling. This look at a suburban couple with issues and communication problems seems as fresh today as it must have been in 1952.

Jackman, as Dinah, and Peter Tomaszewski, as Sam, got firmly into their characters and sang with considerable nuance and communicative weight. Jackman's otherwise admirable diction slipped in Dinah's big aria, but she acted out this tale of a seeing "terrible movie" with elan.

Harrell, who got a chance to reveal his abdominal "Situation" as well as his smooth vocal styling, joined Diehl and Stephanie Miller to form the jazzy Trio that moves in Greek Chorus fashion though the opera with the kind of snap and wit that only Bernstein could have devised. Blair Skinner's conducting proved to be remarkably fluid and expressive; the orchestra responded in kind.

Blades kept things flowing with a subtle theatrical spark. Thom Bumblauskas designed the set that served both operas efficiently and evocatively.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

February 25, 2011

Chesapeake Chamber Opera presents Gounod's 'Romeo et Juliette'

This weekend's pileup of operatic activity means that you're bound to find something you like. It also means that I can't get to all of it. And that explains why I slipped out of the office Thursday to catch a little of the dress rehearsal for Chesapeake Chamber Opera's presentation of "Romeo et Juliette," one of the things I'll be missing. Performances are Saturday and Sunday.

Gounod's take on the Shakespeare tragedy has much to offer (I rather like it more than "Faust," but there's no accounting for taste). The determined Chesapeake organization has rounded up some good talent from the area and beyond.

Judging by the rehearsal, the essential roles of the doomed lovers have been ably cast. Jennifer Edwards and William Davenport have demonstrated their vibrant voices on other occasions around town, and they sound like they've got plenty of vibrancy on tap for this production (directed by Jacob Feldman).

What I found missing on Thursday was tonal subtlety; I wanted to hear gentler, sweet sounds from both young artists. Still, the lyrical intensity they summoned was quite impressive, and it was matched by their colleagues.

I especially admired the beefy bass voices of Jeffrey Tarr (as Frere Laurent) and Terrance Brown (as Juliette's father). From my brief visit, I was also noted the flexible conducting of Rolando Sanz and the colorful playing of pianist Matthew Ganong.

Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill makes a fitting venue for the work; the church's pulpit fills in neatly for Juliette's balcony and the altar does nicely as, well, an altar for the marriage ceremony.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 PM | | Comments (2)

Baltimore Symphony presents lively concert version of 'The Magic Flute'

There is some risk involved when orchestras present opera in a concert format. They've got to keep the operatically inclined portion of the audience from feeling short-changed by the lack of scenery and costumes, but they also have to keep the operatically-averse portion of the same audience from feeling threatened or bored.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra strikes a pretty neat balance with its semi-staged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which has generated strong interest at the box office. (Final performances are Saturday and Sunday.)

It helps, of course, that this is a very popular opera by a very popular composer. By the same token, such familiar fare still needs some freshness, even when performed concert-style. There's a good deal of flair in the BSO's version, which features engaging, vocally reliable singers, a few props and atmospheric lighting.

This is no stand-and-sing affair, but includes lots of effective stage business (bits involving rope are particularly amusing), directed by Michael Ehrman, a veteran of many a staged opera production.

A key asset in this venture is

BSO music director Marin Alsop. On Thursday night at Strathmore, she conducted the nearly complete score with admirable attention to contour and nuance.

It wasn't necessarily the most individualistic take on the music, but Alsop's tempos always felt right and her phrasing had a consistently communicative quality. She can always be counted on to offer the big view of a work, to take in the overall architecture; here she ensured that the organizational solidity, not just the incredible melodic invention, of the opera registered beautifully.

The cast contained the sort of talent that would be encountered in fully staged productions at some very respectable opera houses today. Jonathan Boyd, as Tamino, sang with a good deal of tonal warmth (some strained top notes aside), not to mention eloquence of line and sensitivity to dynamic shading. Emily Albrink was an endearing Pamina. Occasional edginess in the singing was easily forgotten amid all the expressive richness and charm.

Stepping into the role of Papageno on short notice, Daniel Cilli proved to be a very amiable actor and vocalist. If his baritone seemed a little underpowered, the subtle beauty of his tone and his lieder singer-like phrasing came through handsomely. Danielle Talamantes chirped sweetly in her brief appearance as Papagena.

Morris Robinson poured out mighty bass sounds as Sarastro. More gradations of volume would have added to the impact, but it was hard to argue with the sheer nobility of the singing. Mari Moriya negotiated the treacherous vocal domain of the Queen of the Night's arias in intrepid fashion. Peter Burroughs had a mostly persuasive romp as Monostatos.

Members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program helped round out the presentation stylishly -- Jegjung Yang, Sarah Mesko and Cynthia Hanna as the Three Ladies; Aleksey Bogdanov and Jeffrey Gwaltney as the Armed Men. (UPDATE 2/28: A cast change made late in the game and not passed on to the press or the public Thursday night led to an incorrect name among the Three Ladies in my original review.) 

There were sweet sounds from Danielle Buonaiuto, Elizabeth Merrill and Julianne McCarthy as the Three Spirits.The Baltimore Choral Arts Society did vibrant work and, with few exceptions, produced a finely graded blend.

The orchestra seemed to relish the opportunity to dig into this much Mozart at one sitting (the running time of just under three hours, with one intermission). There was graceful playing from the strings, a good deal of warmth from the woodwinds and brass.

The opera's original spoken dialogue is omitted in favor of periodic narration -- delivered with flair by veteran actor Tony Tsendeas, who also gets into the act here and there -- but the script seems rather redundant most of time. No matter. All things considered, this version of "Magic Flute" produces more than a little magic of its own.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Opera

A new Clef Notes contest invites you to find my best typos and other flubs

After discovering yet another haste-makes-stupidity problem in something I wrote, I figured it was time to turn this problem into a game.

I now invite you to be the first to spot the next howler in my blog entries and stories for the paper (in print or online). Feel free to dig back into the past and yank out oldie-but-moldy errors and rev up the humiliation all the more. Just post them in the comments section.

I'll keep updating and periodically award prizes of inestimable value (probably a CD you won't want) to the person who spots the most appalling or most unintentionally funny mistake, maybe also to the person who uncovers the highest number of examples.

I might even give a prize to the person who comes up with the most creative excuse for how I might have made the pathetic blunder.

This week alone,

I reviewed the wonderful flutist Marina Piccinini and called her Maria -- note that I was just fine with spelling that ever so slightly trickier last name. (In case you hadn't noticed it before, I've left a long trail of incorrect first names over the years; don't ask me why. Some folks never forgave me for rechristening Zemlinsky "Anton" -- at least it started with an 'A,' like his real first name.)

Within hours of having to fix "Marina," I stumbled again. I was writing about a Bartok opera that the Baltimore Symphony performed a few years ago in concert form. I know it's "Bluebeard's Caste." I was thinking "Bluebeard's Castle" when I typed it. Too bad it came out "Bluebird's Castle" -- in print, as well as online (the latter has since been fixed). Of course, I wouldn't expect editors to catch something like that (they think I know what I'm talking about, bless their hearts).

That Bartok example doesn't even have the potential justification of being a Freudian slip -- at least I don't think so. Hmmm, maybe I need an analyst, not crash courses in typing (I'm still a two-finger moron) and proof-reading.

Anyway, have at it. Pile on the embarrassment with every dumb mistake of mine you can find (in the case of already corrected stuff online, just mention the glaring error you remember reading first). In addition to misspelling, don't forget glitches in dates, times, venues, basic math -- you name it, I've botched it.

I'm sure that, like me and Dame Edna, many of you are blessed with the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others, so please chortle and guffaw away and do it publicly right here for all to see. And I'll try harder to give you a little less ammunition in the future.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:28 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

February 24, 2011

Priceless stories by moi elsewhere on the Sun site

I'd hate for you to be deprived of my journalistic labors, so, in case you haven't already stumbled on these, allow me to direct your hungry eyes to these stories about "Les Mis," BSO's "Magic Flute," and Hilary Hahn.
Posted by Tim Smith at 4:47 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

A quick look at weekend's classical music attractions

The weekend has another massive pileup of activity in it. Here are some highlights that caught my eye:

Opera lovers will find that art form in particular abundance -- "Madama Butterfly" at Washington National Opera; "Magic Flute" (semi-staged) at the BSO; "Romeo et Juliette" at Chesapeake Chamber Opera; and, for something completely different, a 1950s double bill of Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" and Hoiby's "This Is the Rill Speaking" from Peabody Chamber Opera.

Concert Artists of Baltimore has an especially enticing chamber program that includes Schubert's sublime

Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, along with Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata and Faure's C minor Piano Quartet in C minor.

There's more on the calendar, of course, including the Brass Roots Trio, performing for Community Concerts at Second; Hilary Hahn in recital for WPASJuan Diego Florez in a concert for WNO (finding a ticket to that one might require major bribery); the City Choir of Washington performing a 9/11 tribute featuring Haydn's "Mass in Time of War" and an equally communicative piece by Peabody faculty member Joel Puckett, "This Mourning."

I'm sure there's more (I'll hear from those I left out soon enough), but you get the idea -- lots of good stuff out there.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

This just in from the Sun's entertainment editor

To help you with your weekend planning, a word from one of my bosses (the one with hair). For much, much, check out our Weekend Watch.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:05 AM | | Comments (0)

February 23, 2011

Peabody Symphony showcases Marina Piccinini, Kevin Puts

I checked out the Peabody Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday night to hear the artistry of two faculty members -- flutist Marina Piccinini and composer Kevin Puts.

I didn't have the energy to hang on for the rest of the program, devoted to selections from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, but I imagine that portion found the talents of Peabody's director of orchestral activities, Hajime Teri Murai, and the students in the ensemble on impressive display.

The orchestra certainly had much to offer at the start of the evening in "Hymn to the Sun," a 2008 work by Puts that reveals, above all, his sterling command of instrumental coloring and knack for creating rhythmic energy.

Inspired by images of ancient Egyptians in a sacred dance to coax the sun's arrival, the music is filled with brilliant sonic bursts. Some of the melodic and harmonic action has the familiar ring of

an epic Hollywood film score (not that there's anything wrong with that), and the pounding coda veers ever so close to the cheesy, but who cares?

"Hymn to the Sun" is an awful lot of fun and it received a decidedly energetic, mostly solid performance.

Piccinini was showcased in Ibert's sparkly Flute Concerto. It has its fluffy side (not that there's anything wrong with that, either), but the work packs in considerable melodic vitality.   

The soloist went far beyond the notes, which she articulated with remarkable technical purity, and created a wealth of tonal and dynamic nuances that enlivened every phrase. A very classy demonstration of musicality.

Murai kept the orchestral side of things perking along nicely and, a few cloudy spots aside, the orchestra responded with cohesion and sensitivity.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:09 PM | | Comments (0)

February 22, 2011

Theatrical tidbits: 'Oklahoma' reprise, Anna Deavere Smith, 'Two Men Talking'

If you missed the Arena Stage box office record-setting production of "Oklahoma" earlier this season, lighten your hearts with this news: It's coming back to the Mead Center for American Theater for a nice long run, July 8–Oct. 9.

This staging, directed by Arena's artistic director Molly Smith, breathed fresh life into the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Diversity in casting choices allowed the historically accurate situation in pre-statehood Oklahoma to be reflected. Many of the same cast members will reprise their roles in the return engagement.

Ticket sales to the general public start March 4; for the first 24 hours -- 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. -- there will be $50 tickets on sale at the box office, by phone (202-488-3300, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.), and online.

"Oklahoma" was so successful back in the fall, with audiences and critics alike, that there was a good deal of Broadway buzz. That buzz seems to be humming again.

There's other Arena Stage-related news. One of the other hits there this season was

Anna Deavere Smith's "Let Me Down Easy," her fascinating look at the quest for physical strength and endurance, the limits of that quest, the inevitability of death, and the ever-challenging issue of our health care system.

On March 8 and 9, the Clarice Smith Center will present "A Performance & Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith." In this Smith at the Smith show, the Baltimore-born actress/playwright will perform excerpts from "Let Me Down Easy." She'll also discuss the creation of the that work, which involved interviewing hundreds of people, including quite a few celebrities, and then bringing those subjects to life onstage.

A Q&A will be moderated Murray Nossel, the writer/actor of "Two Men Talking," a provocative piece that will be presented at the center March 3-5.

Nossel and Paul Browde were adversarial schoolboys in South Africa. Their experiences generated the unscripted "Two Men Talking," which covers such loaded topics as bullying, homophobia and racism -- from the vantage point of two men who grew up "white, Jewish, gay, and privileged under apartheid." 

Now there's a perspective you don't encounter every day.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Buying some time by remembering the birthday of Benno Moiseiwitsch

It's another of those days (weeks, really) when I'm already behind on everything. Hey, I'm only human (I know -- only, just). While I concentrate on doing phone interviews for print stories (I do still write for a newspaper, you know), I thought I'd beg your indulgence by just posting some music.

Today happens to be the birthday of one of the greatest pianists, Benno Moiseiwitsch, born Feb. 22, 1890 (he died in 1963). If you have to ask who he is, you really need this reminder.

Here's his indelible account of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as transcribed by Rachmaninoff. What Moiseiwitsch accomplishes here in terms of color and charm is simply amazing, even heard on a scratchy old recording. It doesn't get better than this:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:44 PM | | Comments (0)

February 21, 2011

The virtue of musical comfort food, tastefully served up by Baltimore Symphony

Last weekend's Baltimore Symphony program was the sort some folks might dismiss as too populist, not really worth the attention of sophisticated classical music lovers. If you run into anyone of that ilk, feel free to give 'em a slap for me.

I thought it was terrific to get such a greatest hit as Rossini's "William Tell" Overture served as an appetizer for still more musical comfort food -- Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2. This kind of program is good for the soul every now and then.

"William Tell" is a splendid overture from any angle, and would still be a classic if it's final section had never ended up being borrowed to give "The Lone Ranger" a theme song.

I was thinking Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall that the music's long-ago radio/TV association probably doesn't even register with most of today's text-me generation. So, before too long, orchestras will be able to program the overture without the slightest worry that titters and chit-chat might break out during a performance when the famous trumpet fanfare erupts.

In the age-diverse crowd sitting around me on Friday, I noticed only a few older concertgoers nudge each other and break into smiles. The high school/college guys showed no change of posture or expression. But I digress.

Rossini poured some wonderful stuff into this score, and guest conductor

Hans Graf brought out the moments of lyrical richness as keenly as the rhythmic drive. The opening solo for five cellos, with Chang Woo Lee leading the way in tonal warmth, emerged compellingly. Later on, there was nicely phrased work, too, from Jane Marvine (English horn) and Emily Skala (flute). And the strings articulated the galloping bits at the end with admirable clarity.

The Chopin concerto provided an effective vehicle for Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter, a recipient of the highly valued Gilmore Award. She took a refreshingly brisk approach to the music that, even for all of its vitality, managed to honor the poetic side quite winningly. Fliter summoned abundant variety of tone and phrasing along the way, and she enjoyed attentive partnering from Graf and the ensemble.

For an encore, the pianist delivered Chopin's "Minute" Waltz in what seemed like only a minute, but with delectable tonal and rhythmic nuances along the way.

Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony had some notable advocates way back when -- Mahler conducted it, Stravinsky adored it -- but, like the First and Third, it gets rather short-changed in our day. Too bad. The Second is quite the tune-fest, bubbling over the Russian folk song, and it offers a lesson in sparkling orchestration. Above all, it's fun.

Graf shaped a taut, dynamic performance that featured a typically glowing horn solo by Phil Munds and plush sounds from the strings. The rest of the ensemble, too, jumped in with a vibrant flair. All in all, a filling meal.

PHOTO (FLITER by Sussie Ahlburg, GRAF by Christian Steiner) COURTESY OF CM ARTISTS

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:36 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Marking the 100th anniversary of Mahler's final concert

Exactly 100 years ago -- Feb. 21, 1911 (it was a Tuesday) -- Gustav Mahler conducted for the last time.

Against his doctor's advice, he decided to go ahead with the scheduled performance by the New York Philharmonic at 8:15 p.m. in Carnegie Hall. Mahler did not know, of course, that the fever and chill he experienced that day were indicative of something more serious. He would be dead three months later.

As Henri-Louis de la Grange writes in the final volume of his definitive biography of the composer/conductor, "Given that this was to be Mahler's last concert, it is both sad and ironic that there was so little music of lasting value in the program" -- a program designed to celebrate Italian orchestral music.

As it turned out, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony was put into the mix, replacing a symphony by Giovanni Sgambati that Mahler apparently decided, after the first rehearsal, wasn't quite worth the effort.

That still left room for

works by several living Italian composers -- an overture by Leone Sinigaglia, Giuseppe Martucci's Piano Concerto No. 2, the "Intermezzi Goldoniani" for strings by Marco Enrico Bossi, and, prophetically, the "Berceuse Elegiaque" by Ferruccio Busoni. The latter was a world premiere, and the composer was in the hall, sharing a box with Arturo Toscanini.

None of the Italian pieces went on to enjoy any kind of popularity. I've never heard any of them live. The Busoni item seems worthy of attention, especially this year for the centennial of Mahler's death. I found a couple performances of it the "Berceuse Elegiaque" on YouTube, both recorded live, one of them conducted by Toscanini. I almost decided to post his version here, but, in the end, I just couldn't do it. Toscanini was so creepy to Mahler during their few seasons in the New York spotlight that I didn't think it quite right to let him get any attention today.

So here's a more recent account (the Royal Concertgebouw, led by Ed Spanjaard) of this moody elegy by Busoni, a reminder of music Mahler made during his final night on a podium:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 18, 2011

Placido Domingo featured in Gluck's 'Iphigenie en Tauride' at the Met

Throughout the history of music, you can find composers who enjoyed enormous fame and admiration, only to slip into widespread neglect. Usually, it means that someone more famous and more admired happened along, transforming the style and scope of the art form and changing public tastes in the process.

Christoph Willibald Gluck suffered such a fate. He was, in his own way, a revolutionary, carving out a fresh path for opera, away from the ornamental excess of the late baroque and laying the groundwork for others to take the genre yet another big step. For a while, Gluck's stature was considered equal to that of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner (if memory serves, his visage is among those of eminent composers adorning the interior of the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore).

Gluck once said his goal was to create

"beautiful simplicity" in opera, and that's what he achieved -- lots of recitative, no showy arias. In a way, he just reaffirmed opera's Renaissance roots and, for a time, a lot of people thought it was a splendid idea.

But these days, Gluck operas are pretty hard to come by. All the more reason, then, to cheer the Metropolitan Opera's revival of "Iphigenie en Tauride" in 2007, a production now back onstage, and Washington National Opera's presentation of the same work from 1779 later this season in a different production. Both of these ventures happen to star Placido Domingo, which has to help Gluck's marketability.

I caught the Met's version this week on a night when the other stellar attraction, mezzo Susan Graham, was down and out with a cold. Domingo had one, too, but he decided to go on anyway and didn't seem at all the worse for it.

Stepping in for Graham in the title role was Elizabeth Bishop, who gave a very respectable performance, vocally and theatrically. She persuasively conveyed the torment of Iphigenie, daughter of Agamemnon and sister of Oreste, whose life she ends up holding in her hands.

Domingo threw himself into the role of Oreste and shaped the music with a certain nobility of tone and phrase. I should mention that the tenor turned 70 last month. Somewhere, perhaps, there's a portrait of his vocal cords looking all worn out, while Domingo's voice retains a remarkable degree of its earlier power and vibrancy. 

Paul Groves, as Oreste's dearest friend, Pylade, sang compellingly. Deep-voiced Gordon Hawkins did admirable work as the Scythian king Thoas. The women of the Met Chorus produced a consistently beautiful sound that became exquisite in their Act 4 passages. Patrick Summers conducted elegantly, drawing stylistically sensitive playing from the orchestra.

The big, handsome production, with a flame-lit set by Thomas Lynch and Renaissance-flavored costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, effectively matches and intensifies the dark issues of this ancient Greek tale, and the deus ex machina moments are handled in a disarming, unabashedly literal fashion.

All in all, a worthy reminder of how subtle and refined and genuine Gluck's music is, how potent "Iphigenie en Tauride" remains.

If you can't catch this production live, it's part of 'The Met: Live in HD' series - 1 p.m. (ET) Feb. 26.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 16, 2011

A New York indulgence: Charles Busch's 'The Divine Sister'

I've slipped away to New York with the other half for a couple of days (terribly irresponsible of me, I know, but I have to use up some accumulated leave in the next few months). My blogging may be a little more sporadic than usual until I get back. Please forgive.

Tuesday night, we caught a show I had seen last November while here for the Baltimore Symphony's Carnegie Hall gigs -- "The Divine Sister," written by and starring the, well, divine, Charles Busch at the SoHo Playhouse. I thought at the time Robert should see it, too, since he's the world's most devoted fan of vintage Hollywood and this play resounds with references to the good olds days, with particularly emphasis on the irresistible Rosalind Russell.

So there we were Tuesday with other folks who braved the cold and blustery night to drink in the antics of a Mother Superior (think Roz Russell in "Trouble With Angels" and its sequel), and her heroic efforts to save St. Veronica's with her brash sidekick, Sister Acacius (the Mary Wickes role, of course).

It's an awfully clever show, right down to the send-up of "The Da Vinci Code" and any number of other twists, turns and treats -- a splash of "His Girl Friday," complete with overlapping dialogue; a quick nod to "Gypsy." And, since we're talking nuns, we're talking singing nuns, and that, too, results in some amusing moments in the production.

Busch makes

a superlative Mother Superior, just as you would expect; his ready-for-my-close-up reactions shots are terrifically funny just by themselves.

The rest of the cast matches the creator for energy and distinctive tics. Julie Halston is a hoot as Acacius. With a high-pitched, nearly impenetrable German accent, Alison Fraser's mysterious Sister Walburga is a riot. Jennifer Van Dyck's monologue as the rich, defiantly atheistic Mrs. Levinson is a little tour de force all its own.

Colorful work comes as well from Jonathan Walker in a couple of plot-thickening roles and Marcy McGuigan as the oddball novitiate Agnes (she's actually the standby for that part, normally played by Amy Rutberg, but McGuigan happened to play it both times I caught the show).

Delivering a 90-minute jolt of of humor, silliness, satire and, yes, even affection, "The Divine Sister" is, to paraphrase from "Auntie Mame," an old-fashioned, campy miracle, that's what it is.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 15, 2011

Measha Brueggergosman explores nocturnal themes in Shriver Hall recital

In addition to having one of the longest names in the business, soprano Measha Brueggergosman has one of most engaging personalities around.

It comes through the moment you see her walk onstage barefoot -- her trademark -- and it shines quite brightly even though she tends to stand quite rigid, hands at her side, when she sings.

At her best, she produces a warm, vibrant sound and articulates with admirable clarity. Her phrasing tends to be straightforward, unfussy, but never indifferent. She can communicate a text in telling fashion. If there are times when one might wish for a little more tonal and dynamic nuance, such moments tend to be fleeting.

So it was during Brueggergosman's appearance Sunday evening on the Shriver Hall Concert Series as she explored repertoire centered, more or less, around nocturnal themes, the subject of her recent Deutsche Grammophon recording "Night and Dreams." The program included some selections from that disc and was accompanied by the same remarkably sensitive pianist heard on the recording, Justus Zeyen.

In Schubert's "Nachstuck,"

Brueggergosman soared wonderfully in the verse about the "holy night" that brings the comfort of death. Her long-breathed shaping of the lines about the earth's embrace in the same composer's "Die Mutter Erde" likewise hit home, as did Zeyen's eloquent playing of the piano coda.

A group of Duparc songs and Strauss' "Die Nacht" inspired some of the most radiant, absorbing vocalism of the evening. The singer's lighthearted side was given a chance to break free quite charmingly in Turina's "Tres Sonetos." Her encore, Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night," provided an exquisite close to the evening.

Earlier, Zeyen was featured in a couple of solo pieces by Schumann and Chopin that contributed to the night idea in telling fashion.

Naturally, the hall was far from full; Shriver subscribers are notoriously immune to the appeal of vocal recitals. But compliments to the management not just for printing all the texts, but arranging them to avoid mid-song page-turns. As the old song goes, little things mean a lot.

Here's a video clip of Measha Brueggergosman and Justus Zeyen performing a Chausson song that's on their DG recording, "Night and Dreams":


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

February 14, 2011

Jonathan Carney leads Baltimore School for the Arts orchestra in free concert

Jonathan Carney, the Baltimore Symphony's concertmaster and occasional conductor, will lead the Baltimore School for the Arts Chamber Orchestra in a free concert on Tuesday (Feb. 15).

The colorful program includes Mendelssohn's "Hebrides," Mozart's "Paris” Symphony and Grieg's "Holberg Suite." Pieces by Enesco and Hovhaness will also be performed.

The concert is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the historic, newly renovated First and Franklin Street Church (210 W. Madison St.). Free admission. A reception will be held after the performance.

For more information, call 443-642-5167.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:15 PM | | Comments (1)

Marin Alsop named principal conductor of Sao Paulo orchestra, will remain with BSO

Marin Alsop, who is used to holding down more than one job at a time, has been named principal conductor of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Her five-year contract starts with the 2012-13 season and calls for 10 weeks of conducting each season.

Alsop, who succeeds Yan Pascal Tortelier in the Sao Paulo post, plans to remain as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which she joined in 2007.

She is slated to remain in the BSO post until 2015 and has been spending 14-16 weeks with the BSO per season. (During her first few years here, she was concurrently principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England.)

In a press conference in Sao Paulo on Saturday (photo above), Alsop said her goal is

to make the Brazilian ensemble "the best orchestra in the world. That is always my goal." She guest-conducted the orchestra for the first time last September in performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 7.

Here's a statement from BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham:

We are elated and proud that Marin's commitment to artistic excellence, passion for engaging the community and spirit of innovation are in increasing demand worldwide ... Sao Paulo's artistic community is thriving and provides another fertile home for Marin's dynamic vision. And the wonderful thing is that, being in the Southern Hemisphere, [the orchestra's] winter/spring season is totally complementary to the BSO's schedule.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:21 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Play at Clarice Smith Center looks at trauma of Marine returning from Iraq

The physical and psychological effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be felt for a long time and in many places, including theaters.

Locally this season alone, we've had "Black Watch," a searing look at a Scottish regiment deployed to the Afghan conflict, presented at the Harmon Center by the Shakespeare Theatre Company; and, at Center Stage, "ReEntry," a drama built out of interviews with Marines adjusting to the return from war.

Now comes "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," a work by Julie Marie Myatt focusing on a Marine who comes back, minus a leg, from serving in Iraq. The character of Jenny Sutter finds herself in a spot called Slab City, a former Marines barracks in California.

Myatt's play, produced by the University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, is

being presented at the Clarice Smith Center through Feb. 19.

"Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," directed by Leslie Felbain, was first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For the UM production, the cast was put through some drills by a Marine sergeant during the rehearsal period (the "ReEntry" project likewise involved similar efforts at putting actors deeper into the world of veterans).

The audience is invited to stay for discussions with the director and cast members after the performances on Wednesday and Thursday this week.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:13 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 13, 2011

Nelson Freire cancels U.S. tour; Andre Watts steps in for Shriver Hall recital

Due to a recurrence of tendonitis, superlative pianist Nelson Freire has canceled his U.S. tour that was to have included a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series on March 6.

That was one of the events I was most looking forward to this season. As it turns out, there will still be a piano recital March 6 at Shriver Hall, performed by a fine artist. Andre Watts was available to step in and will bring an all-Liszt program with him.

Since 2011 marks Liszt's bicentennial year and since the composer has been associated with Watts from the beginning of the pianist's long career, that program looks all the more enticing. The B minor Sonata will be on the bill, along with several etudes and a Hungarian Rhapsody. Remarkably, this will be Watts' Shriver Hall debut.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

A few more words about the Baltimore Symphony's Rachmaninoff/Bruckner program

If you're reading this before 3 p.m. Sunday and you haven't caught the Baltimore Symphony's latest program, go for it. (The final performance will be at that hour at the Meyerhoff.) For one thing, who knows when we'll get more Bruckner around here?

The opportunity to hear a finely considered, powerfully delivered account of that composer's Sixth Symphony conducted by Juanjo Mena is reason enough to consider this a major winter gift from the BSO. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, which rounds out the bill, isn't nearly so uncommon, but it receives a worthy outing from soloist Yuja Wang.

Or at least that was how it all sounded Friday night at the Meyerhoff. I must say I wasn't expecting such a big crowd there -- not after intermission, at any rate, when the Bruckner was slated. Maybe audiences aren't as afraid of his music as some programmers seem to think. The symphony was heard, for the most part, with

rapt attention, another favorable sign. So, hey, BSO management: Bring on the Bruckner.

The Sixth is filled with great themes, vivid colors, gripping rhythms. True, it doesn't end as fabulously as it should. Bruckner, it seems to me, sometimes had a problem with finales. He would essentially compose an extra first movement, with all the breadth and weightiness that implies, and call it a finale, which I think happens here -- great stuff, to be sure, but it just misses the mark in terms of a totally, emotionally satisfying wrap-up.

Still, I love this symphony and it felt wonderful to wallow in the majestic Brucknerian wash of sound in the great acoustics of the Meyerhoff. And Mena, conducting from memory, shaped the score with a loving hand. All sorts of inner details emerged clearly within the big picture -- and Bruckner is all about big pictures. Mena offered terrific sweep, tension, potency and unending lyrical warmth.

Although a few individual sounds were a little shaky, the overall level of the orchestra's playing was as good as it gets here -- burnished string tone, elegant woodwinds, dynamite brass. The musicians sounded like they played Bruckner all the time, which is one more reason I wish they did.

The Rachmaninoff chestnut was perhaps not the most logical choice for a companion piece, but it provided a welcome opportunity to hear Wang's classy approach to the concerto.

Hers wasn't the biggest, boldest kind of pianism; she was easily swamped by the orchestra in places, although it seemed more by design, as if the pianist wanted to bore into the orchestral fabric. But Wang offered a steady expressive force in her phrasing and delivered abundant bravura when needed. Mena was fully in sync with his soloist and coaxed some nicely shaded playing from the ensemble.

As if to make sure that everyone understood she could do anything she wanted at the keyboard, Wang gave in to the sustained ovation and threw in an over-the-top encore -- the Horowitz arrangement of the Gypsy Song from Bizet's "Carmen." She didn't erase memories of Horowitz (who could?), but she sure played the heck out it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:52 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

February 12, 2011

BSO's program of Rachmaninoff and Bruckner is a winner

I'll post a proper review as soon as I can, but I just wanted to say that Friday night's Baltimore Symphony concert at Meyerhoff Hall led by Juanjo Mena was awfully rewarding, especially the account of Bruckner's Sixth.

With Rachmaninoff's perennially popular Piano Concerto No. 2 on the bill (the dynamic Yuja Wang is the soloist), it all adds up to quite a feast of musical romanticism. One more performance is left on Sunday afternoon.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (1)

February 10, 2011

Birthday greetings to stellar soprano Leontyne Price

I couldn't let Thursday pass without a birthday shout-out to the divine Leontyne Price, who turns 84.

I've written before about the impact this great American soprano made on me, just by the way she walked onstage the first time I experienced her magic live. It was only for a recital, but it felt like the grandest night at the opera. Talk about a regal bearing. Add in the radiant smile and you're talking super-majestic. And that was before she sang a note.

Once the concert began, the effect was electric, for there was in her tone the stuff of gold and steel, and in her phrasing the warmth of a genuine artist who seemed to gather everyone into a personal embrace. It was the same whenever I was fortunate enough to hear her sing. (Just a few years ago, I heard her deliver an a cappella account of "America the Beautiful" that could have melted monuments.)

Fortunately, many fabulous performances by Miss Price were preserved. I had a very tough time choosing one to offer here as a way of wishing her a happy birthday -- and saying thanks. I finally settled on

a sizzling excerpt from Strauss' "The Egyptian Helen" -- all the more amazing considering that the soprano was 64 when she sang this in 1991. Almost as much fun as the performance is the ovation afterward -- and the reaction of the late, great Beverly Sills, who was co-hosting the broadcast with the late Peter Jennings:


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 9, 2011

Washington National Opera Chorus to perform benefit for AGMA Relief Fund

In between preparing for the next production ("Madama Butterfly," opening Feb. 26 at the Kennedy Center), members of the Washington National Opera Chorus are taking time out to lend their voices in support of musicians who are struggling financially during these recessionary times, when there have been so many cutbacks in the performing arts world.

The chorus, led by Steven Gathman, will give a benefit concert for the AGMA Relief Fund at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Ann Catholic Church, 4001 Yuma Street, NW, in Washington. No tickets are required; donations will be accepted.

The program looks remarkably eventful. The first half lists

traditional spirituals and the great folk song "Shenandoah" alongside such contemporary fare as Nico Muhly's "Set Me as a Seal."

The second half features the chorus in its operatic mode, with scenes from such works as "Fidelio," "Hamlet" and "La Rondine."

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 PM | | Comments (0)

February 8, 2011

Scott Tennant plays elegant recital for Baltimore Classical Guitar Society

Sorry to be late with this, but I did want to make note of the recital by Scott Tennant presented over the weekend by the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society, one of the region's most productive cultural resources. It was nice to see a good turnout at the BMA for the event, even nicer to hear such elegant playing.

Tennant, a founding member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, offered a wide-ranging program. Highlights included a

gracefully articulated, subtly embellished Sylvius Leopold Weiss sonata, and colorful accounts of pieces by Moreno-Torroba and Leo Brouwer. Tennant also achieved considerable eloquence in the Lamento by Johan Jakob Froberger.

Throughout, the guitarist's lyrical, rhythmically nuanced style produced engaging results, nowhere more so than in his encore, which, thanks to good ol' reliable YouTube, I can give you a taste of here:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Critical silence ends: NY Times pans expensive, unlucky 'Spider-Man' musical

In the no-big-surprise department, the New York Times finally decided enough already with the postponed openings and reviewed "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," even though the costly musical remains officially in previews. I doubt he'll be the only mainstream critic to break the 'rule.'

Also in the no-big-surprise department, Ben Brantley dismissed this ill-fated show as "not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway," but one that "may also rank among the worst."

I can already hear Glenn Beck, an ardent champion of the production, sharpening his claws for use against the elite press. But, really, was it ever possible that a $65 million musical could turn out to be fabulous when it couldn't open remotely on time, when it kept being plagued by accidents, and when the only real buzz it generated was about those two attributes?

Hey, maybe Brantley 

is way off base. Maybe other critics will swear that this is a great, noble, hugely entertaining effort. But I've always suspected that "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" was destined to take its place of dishonor on the walls of Joe Allen Restaurant on W. 46th St., where failed Broadway shows are immortalized. I guess my skepticism comes from reading about too many other things that were just too grand for their own good -- unsinkable ships, banks too big to fail.

I also think our obsession with techno gadgetry has gone way overboard. A musical that needs so much visual stuff crammed into it is bound to prove hollow on the inside. As Brantley points out, even the flying stuff isn't so special in "Spider-Man" -- "Aren't they doing that just across the street in 'Mary Poppins'?"

It will be interesting to see what happens next with this unlucky production.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 7, 2011

Music fans can choose from opposite ends of the spectrum on Tuesday

Usually, the most frustrating convergence of hard-to-choose musical activity occurs on Sundays around here. But this week, it's Tuesday that poses a particularly tough choice.

It turns out that concert-goers can are being faced with opposite ends of the spectrum -- baroque fare from a top-drawer, Philadelphia-based period instrument ensemble; works of our own time from a top-drawer, New York-based contemporary music ensemble.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Peabody Institute, Tempesta di Mare will present a program called "Roman Nights," focusing on vocal and instrumental pieces by Handel and Scarlatti.

The soprano soloist is Clara Rottsolk. The ensemble includes Gwyn Roberts (recorder, flute), Emlyn Ngai and Karina Fox (violins), Eve Miller (cello) and Richard Stone (archlute, theorbo), with Adam Pearl at the harpsichord (he's also performing with American Opera Theater's Purcell/Dunphy double bill at Theatre Project).

Also on Tuesday night at An die Musik (discussion at 7, concert at 8), the

Evolution Contemporary Music Series presents the Baltimore debut of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). The program includes world premieres by Phyllis Chen and Du Yun, along with works by Elliott Carter, Steve Reich and others.

As for me, your humble scribe is daring to take a couple days off (not completely off, since I'm writing this on the first of those 'off' days),  so I won't hear either of these most enticing events. But I hope one or more of you will let me know what you think of the concerts.


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

American Opera Theater's double bill of 'Gonzales Cantata,' 'Dido and Aeneas'

The reason a lot of folks turned out over the weekend for American Opera Theater over the weekend was probably because of the first work on the double bill, Melissa Dunphy’s “The Gonzales Cantata.”

I’d say the better reason to catch the presentation -- an extra performance has been added to the two already scheduled next weekend at the Theatre Project to meet demand -- is the second piece, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”

If this turns out to be AOT’s swan song (there may be a spring venture, but this has been announced as the final season regardless), the company will have departed true to form.

Founder Timothy Nelson put an emphasis on baroque repertoire from the start, so the Purcell opera -- the same work he launched AOT with seven years ago -- makes an apt choice. And Nelson has shown a flair for stretching the envelope in a variety of ways, so Dunphy’s satirical item, based on congressional testimony by former Attorney General Albert Gonzales, fits that bill nicely. Another element in AOT's development was the embrace of collaborations; the double bill has been co-produced with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory.

Too bad “The Gonzales Cantata” is

such a weak composition. The basic idea looks a lot more interesting on paper than it turns out to be in the theater. The text finds senators, including our own Ben Cardin, grilling Gonzales over the controversial firings of Justice Department personnel; his famous inability to recollect anything becomes the basis of an extended aria.

Dunphy essentially imitates, to a degree, 18th century oratorio idioms. If she had done so a la Peter Schickele’s fictional P.D.Q. Bach, the results might have been a lot funnier. Instead, she treats the voices mostly in period style, but tosses a lot of dissonance into the orchestration as if to make sure everyone knows this is a contemporary piece. It’s not one thing or another, and none of it is very persuasive.

(On opening night, one of the violinists broke a string midway through the performance, but I don’t think my impression of the score would have changed much had that not occurred.)

One concept is clever and oddly effective, though -- Dunphy gives the role of Gonzales and all of the male senators to female soloists, but Sen. Diane Feinstein is written for a male singer. The latter assignment found Brady DelVecchio done up with bits of drag and hamming it up nicely on Friday night. The singing by Molly Young as Gonzales could have used more bite, but had a certain flair. Elizabeth Merrill as Sen. Leahy and Julie Bosworth as Sen. Cardin sounded proved especially vivid. Melinda O’Neal conducted.

Nelson’s barebones staging of the cantata has its witty touches, but is mostly too cutesy for its own good. The amateurish elements in the execution evident on Friday may smooth over as the run continues. In “Dido,” Nelson gets carried away with chairs as props; things look silly and forced a lot of the time, rather than illuminating. Still, the director focuses strongly enough on the central, very human tragedy in this brief opera, and the final, slow-fade moments register strongly.

On Friday, Emily Noel sang with considerable expressive warmth as Dido. Merrill was again a vibrant presence as Belinda. Jason Buckwalter sang sensitively as Aeneas. The Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir of Baltimore fulfilled its role handsomely; the blend, articulation and phrasing were all quite polished.

O’Neal shaped the score beautifully and drew nuanced playing from the period instrument ensemble. The remarkable eloquence of Purcell’s score could be savored at nearly every turn, and that’s reason enough to catch one of the remaining performances of this unusual double bill.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 6, 2011

Great musical idea for encouraging people to take the stairs

In case you've missed this cool commercial (I assume it didn't make it into a Super Bowl ad slot), check it out. I can think of lots of places where this new approach to staircases could be useful. And just imagine what some clever composers could do with a device like this:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:45 PM | | Comments (0)

February 5, 2011

Remembering this weekend's other notable centennial: tenor Jussi Bjorling

OK, so he didn’t lead a country or challenge anyone to “tear down that wall.” But, in his own realm, Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling is every bit as loved and lionized as Ronald Reagan is in his.

Saturday marks Bjorling’s centennial, an event that will not get as much attention as Reagan’s on Sunday, but I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to the singer I’d happily defend as the greatest lyric tenor of the 20th century.

Caruso enjoyed more fame and made a bigger impact historically, and the Italian tenor's fabulous vocal resources remain overwhelming, even through the limited sonic means of early recordings. But Bjorling had something that I find even more appealing, more thrilling.

His is a voice I could listen to for hours on end without growing weary. Part of that is the eloquent style behind the singing, the avoidance of anything manipulative or tacky (he was not the type to add sobs to the big aria in “Pagliacci”). But the main thing is the exquisite purity of the tone, with a hint of sweetness making it ever more personal and inviting. There's something of the sun in his voice, and it's that radiance that gets me every time.

Bjorling died, absurdly young, at 49 in 1960 (he had heart trouble and a weakness for drink), but what a legacy he left behind. If you haven’t yet explored that legacy, please seek his out recordings (there are a few video souvenirs, too) and see if you don’t fall quickly under the vocal spell. I’ll help get you started by

sharing these few favorites of mine -- Puccini, Strauss and a haunting Swedish song -- to celebrate the Bjorling centennial:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

February 3, 2011

Center Stage salutes Irene Lewis after opening night of 'The Homecoming'

The opening night audience for Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" Wednesday night at Center Stage was invited to stay put after the house lights came on.

Cast member Larry O'Dwyer then came out to start a tribute to the company's artistic director, Irene Lewis.

Although she will see this season through, the Pinter play is her last directing assignment of her two-decade tenure.

O'Dwyer singled out many qualities that he admired in Lewis, including "her insanity, with a tendency to anarchy." It was a warm-hearted, charming speech, concluding with Puck's curtain speech from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Lewis then took a spot in front of the stage, standing next to a

large vase that was brought out (at first, I thought it was a big old urn -- maybe a dark touch to reflect the Pinter work, or the feelings of those sad to see Lewis go).

A procession that included current and past performers and staffers started from the back steps of the house; each person was bearing a single white rose. They presented Lewis with the flowers, slowly filling the vase as a voice-over listed all the productions she directed for the company.

Even folks long dismissive of Lewis and her work here must have been at least a little impressed by the gesture of her admirers.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Peabody Symphony tackles daunting scores by Mahler, Hersch

In what must be among the most ambitious programs ever tackled at the Peabody Conservatory, the student orchestra dug into the thorny, emotionally complex, large-scale Symphony No. 2 by faculty member Michael Hersch and the thorny, emotionally complex, large-scale Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler on Tuesday night.

One or the other would be a pretty tall order for a single concert; having both seemed like a bit of derring-do on the part of the players and conductor Hajime Teri Murai. But things turned out surprisingly well.

If the Peabody Symphony felt worn out by the experience, it didn't show much. The conservatory may have the heartiest pool of musicians on campus in years -- at least I don't recall symphonic performances at Peabody that boasted quite so much in the way of tonal consistency and depth, not to mention well-aimed fire power. On balance, slips of intonation or cohesiveness were minor.

I'm sure if there could have been a repeat or two of the program, things would really have been smoking onstage. And this was a program worth repeating, certainly worth being heard by more people.

Hersch is a startling talent. He writes music that contains

great complexity, but is remarkably lucid; music that is essentially abstract, yet positively neo-romantic in its expressive quality. The composer is so shy and soft-spoken that the amount of angst churning through his scores seems all the more remarkable. And it would be hard to get more angst-driven than his Symphony No. 2.

The dense harmonic blocks and mazes of percussive assaults seem to speak from a world of trouble, fear and doubt. But shards of light penetrate the music in ways that prove just as powerful. The superb orchestration ensures that each tormented peak and each moment of reflection registers clearly.

Murai's clear-cut conducting and the ensemble's committed response yielded an arresting account of this eventful work.

As he did in a 2003 Peabody concert, Murai offered a sturdy interpretation of Mahler's Fifth that balanced momentum with lyrical heat.

I again particularly admired the Viennese lilt he achieved in the Scherzo and the spacious shaping of the Adagietto. There were places in the first two movements when I would have preferred more subtlety of phrasing, tempo and dynamics, but the overall energy proved quite effective. The finale, too, had a terrific sweep.

At its best, the orchestra played with unity and tonal warmth; most of the solo contributions within the woodwind and brass sections hit the spot.

In a way, the darkness of the Hersch symphony provided an ideal lead-in to the funeral march that begins the Mahler score, making the eventual sunburst in the latter all the more cathartic.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 2, 2011

'Black Watch' provides gripping reminder of Iraq War

The much-acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production of "Black Watch" has arrived in Washington at what seems like an ideal time.

This examination of the famed Scottish regiment's experiences provides a startling reminder of a war many Americans seem to have forgotten, along with the continually challenging one in Afghanistan.

Except for the memoriam segment at the end of ABC's "This Week," when names, ages and hometowns of slain U.S. service personnel are briefly shone on the screen, TV viewers are largely spared reports from the nearly decade-long conflict. You can listen to political talking-head shows for hours on end and not hear a substantive mention of those wars.

"Black Watch," presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center through Sunday, practically slaps the audience out of this comfort zone and draws everyone smack into the battle zone, theater-shattering explosions and all (seating has been arranged on both sides of the stage).

Gregory Burke's 2006 play also focuses to visceral effect on the lives of soldiers after they get back home; the work was generated by interviews the playwright conducted. ("ReEntry," produced earlier this season at Center Stage, provides something of an American take on this concept.)  

In a little under two uninterrupted hours, "Black Watch" raises a lot of questions and issues, but it doesn't settle for tired, war-is-hell answers -- or resort to heavy anti-war subtexts. About the only thing we know for sure when the shows ends is

that young men still can learn to believe in the power of regimental loyalty, that they can still willingly  risk their lives with and for their buddies, even if they don't fully know why.

The production, brilliantly directed by John Tiffany, moves at a taut pace across the spare, versatile set by Laura Hopkins.

The viewer is transported from a Scottish poolroom to a beleaguered outpost in Iraq and back again at a remarkable clip as the soldiers reluctantly discuss their experiences with an interviewer (a pool table proves a very diverse prop). That straightforward concept keeps everything tightly, sometimes uncomfortably focused.

Bit by bit, details of the fighting and the waiting for fighting emerge, filling in initial blanks about these ultimately likable, determinedly profane chums (I hadn't realized that Scots use the 'f' word more often than American teens pepper sentences with 'like').

There is very little manipulation in the material, and a great deal of shading between the black and white outlines. At one point, asked about the soldiers' dealings with the indigenous people, one of the guys explodes: "What have the f----ing Iraqis got to do with this?" It's a truly chilling response that seems as explosive as the mortar shells that get so vividly and so often re-created in the production.

There are some poetic moments along the way-- a mail-call scene that turns into strangely touching choreography, for example, and even a suicide bombing that also takes a startling balletic turn. Music, pop and traditional, is employed with great impact; of course, the simultaneously mournful and upliftying drone of bagpipes figures tellingly into the aural picture.

The cast is tightly meshed. The night I saw it, understudy Paul Tinto stepped into the central role of Cammy on short notice and did a compelling, thoroughly natural job. Jamie Quinn was terrifically engaging as the class-clown Fraz. But it seems wrong to single out the players; like a top regiment, everyone contributes equally to the success of the whole.

"Black Watch" is an important work. It won't lose its relevance or its sting anytime soon.

PHOTOS (top, by Rhuary Grant; above, by Manuel Harlan) COURTESY OF SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY
Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 1, 2011

Washington National Opera announces mostly-Italian 2011-12 season

Washington National Opera's 2011-12 season -- the last one prepared by outgoing general director Placido Domingo -- will be heavy on the Italian flavor.

Puccini's "Tosca," conducted by Domingo, opens the season in September, followed by Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in November. Verdi's "Nabucco" and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" (in this case, of course, it's the libretto that's Italian, not the composer) will follow. A great French opera will be bring a change of language and style to close the season: Massenet's "Werther."

Domingo called the season announcement "bittersweet" in the press release. "I am proud that I and my team have crafted a powerful season with quality and artistic integrity as our number-one goals," he said. Although this is his last major stamp on the company, the tenor went on to say that "WNO will forever be in my heart, and I do plan to stay involved with the company." WNO will be absorbed into the Kennedy Center starting in July.

All five productions for '11-'12 will be new to WNO. One of them, "Cosi," is being touched up by

director/designer Jonathan Miller with "costuming inspired by Washington, DC."

"Tosca" will star Patricia Racette (alternating in the title role with Natalia Ushakova) , Frank Porretta (alternating with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi) and Alan Held (alternating with Scott Hendricks as Scarpia). Israel Gursky will share podium duties with Domingo. The director is David Kneuss.

"Lucia" is also double-cast: Sarah Coburn and Lyubov Petrova (Lucia), Saimir Pirgu and Alexey Dolgov (Edgardo). WNO music director Philippe Auguin conducts. The director is David Alden.

The Jonathan Miller "Cosi" staging features Elizabeth Futral, Renata Pokupic, Joel Prieto, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, William Shimell and Ketevan Kemoklidze. Auguin conducts.

WNO's first production of "Nabucco" will be directed and designed by Thaddeus Strassberger and conducted by Auguin. The cast includes Franco Vassallo and Csilla Boross.

"Werther" offers Francesco Meli in the title role, with Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Emmanuel Villaume conducts. The director is TBA.

The season will also see the continuation for the Placido Domingo Celebrity Series with concerts by Deborah Voigt (in a Broadway program) and Angela Gheorghiu.

PHOTO (by Robert Workman for English National Opera) COURTESY OF WNO

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
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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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