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March 31, 2011

Your guide to some of the weekend's musical attractions

Just in case you're at a loss for what musical goodies to partake of this weekend, I thought I'd offer some more of my unsolicited advice.

The big item, of course, is the Baltimore Symphony's presentation featuring the debut of the young participants in OrchKids, the BSO's remarkable educational program. They'll be spotlighted in the premiere of a piece written for them by Dave Rimelis (a colleague of mine at the Sun has written an article about the kids getting ready for their big event).

The well-packed program also offers Corigliano's "Pied Piper Fantasy" (with BSO principal flutist Emily Skala and the Peabody Preparatory Flute and Drum Ensemble) and excerpts from Prokofiev's "Cinderella." Performances are Thursday night and Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff.

An die Musik is hopping just about every day of the week. Note this weekend, in addition to jazz artists, some classical attractions, starting with ...

the West Garden Trio. This resident ensemble of the National Gallery in D.C. will play works for violin, piano and cello by Mozart, Beethoven and Schoenberg.

And on Sunday, in collaboration with the Post-Classical Ensemble, which opens a major exploration of Stravinsky next week at Strathmore, An die Musik offers a recital by Russian pianist Genadi Zagor. He'll balance a Scherzo by Stravinsky with Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and an improvisation on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Alexandre Dossin, a well-regarded pianist and University of Oregon faculty member, will give a Liszt recital Saturday at the College of Notre Dame, commemorating the composer's bicentennial. 

I already mentioned on an earlier post a big choral concert on Sunday. Let me hasten to mention another:

The Bach Concert Series' presentation of the B minor Mass. For many of us, the Mass represents Bach's grandest achievement. T. Herbert Dimmock will lead the choir, soloists and orchestra in this performance at Christ Lutheran Church. Harvard University's Christoph Wolff, a leading Bach scholar, gives a free lecture on the work before the concert.

A couple more offerings to consider Sunday: A recital by the fine classical guitarist Ana Vidovic at Central Presbyterian Church, where she'll play works by Villa Lobos, Piazzolla and others; and a concert by the much-respected contemporary music ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players, at UMBC, performing pieces by Gabriela Lena Frank, Charles Wuorinen and more.  

Here's a little foretaste of some of the music on tap this weekend:




Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 30, 2011

Robert Tear, eloquent Welsh tenor, dies at 72

On Tuesday, quite by chance, I was looking for something to put on the CD player while hanging around the house (I'll be spending a lot of time at home until the first week of May -- no, I haven't been disciplined by the Sun; a company policy requires that I take a whole mess of unused vacation time now).

I spied the delectable recording of Victorian songs and ballads featuring tenor Robert Tear and baritone Benjamin Luxon, with Andre Previn at the piano. I found the CD re-release last year (my 1970s LP version was pretty much shot), but, for reasons unknown, I had never actually gotten around to slipping it into the machine for a spin.

So there I was Tuesday, getting into a Victorian mood and enjoying all over again those fine artists performing those great old tunes. I remember I stopped what I was doing to listen intently to Robert Tear singing ...

"Tom Bowling," the Charles Didbin ballad about "the darling of our crew" who died while at sea and whose "soul has gone aloft." The tenor's eloquent, warm-toned performance moved me all over again.

On Wednesday, I learned that Mr. Tear had died in a London hospice on Tuesday at the age of 72. The cause was cancer.

The much-recorded Mr. Tear was one of the first classically trained vocal artists I found myself drawn to back in the days when I was still quite wary of operatic singing. I think the first thing of his I discovered was a recording of Tchaikovsky songs that revealed how ardent and communicative he could be. I recall fondly, too, his recording of Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," a work not ordinarily undertaken by tenors.

I am so glad that I got to see Mr. Tear on the stage performing one of his most admired roles -- Aschenbach in Britten's "Death in Venice" at Glyndebourne. What a riveting, deeply affecting portrayal.

I'll always have a particular fondness for the wonderful charm and sincerity that Mr. Tear (and Mr. Luxon) brought to those Victorian pieces. Such vocal artistry makes these songs seem somehow far from dated.

Here's an audio clip of Mr. Tear singing "Tom Bowling," a performance that strikes me as perfect in every way:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Handel Choir to give benefit concert for Board of Child Care

The Handel Choir of Baltimore will carry on the work of its namesake this weekend.

In the 1750s, Handel famously arranged annual benefits to support a London hospital for orphans and other disadvantaged children.

The Handel Choir, led by Melinda O'Neal, will follow that example with a concert to raise funds for the Board of Child Care, a Baltimore County-based, nonprofit child welfare agency and outreach ministry of the United Methodist Church that serves the needy in Maryland, West Virginia and D.C.

Sunday's program will include Beethoven's colorful Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra -- a precursor, of sorts, to the finale of his Ninth Symphony.

The keyboard soloist will be Michael Sheppard, the dynamic musician whose playing in the excellent, Baltimore-based Monument Piano Trio I've often admired.

The concert also offers an a cappella portion for the choir, with works by the likes of Palestrina and Stanford, along with folk songs and more.

Also on the bill: Ralph M. Johnson’s ...

"This House of Peace," for strings, chorus, soprano and oboe soloists. In this 2008 work, commissioned by Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, Ore., the composer used texts written by patients and caregivers at the hospital, including a woman who found refuge there after giving birth to her child under a bridge.

The Handel Choir's concert to benefit the Board of Child Care will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday (April 3) at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. Tickets are $40, available through the Board's Web site or by calling 410-922-2100 ext. 5610.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 29, 2011

Music in the Great Hall announces 2011-2012 season

Music in the Great Hall has been around since 1974, which says a lot about the concert series. It says a lot, too, that, one of the co-founders, pianist Virginia Reinecke, who served as artistic director of the series for three decades, will perform in a chamber music program on April 10 celebrating her 90th birthday.

The current artistic director, pianist Lura Johnson, has been providing fresh energy to Music in the Great Hall, which has announced its 2011-2012 season.

That season opens in September with the Stern/Andrist Duo -- violinist James Stern, pianist Audrey Andrist -- in a program exploring Schubert, as well as the influences on him and his influence on other composers.

In October, violist Peter Minkler, with Johnson at the piano, will perform the ...

moving Viola Sonata by Shostakovich (the two musicians recently made an excellent recording of it) and a piece by remarkable Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff. With cellist Seth Low and violinist Victor Costanzi joining in, the concert also will offer a piano quartet by Brahms.

November brings the winner of the 2011 Yale Gordon Competition, pianist Yury Shadrin, a student of Leon Fleisher. I've attached a clip of Shadrin performing some Chopin Etudes to give you an idea of what's in store. 

In March 2012, adventurous percussionist Svet Stoyanov and flutist Claire Chase will be heard in a program of Reich, Xenakis and others.

In April 2012, the Apollo Trio, whose members include Peabody Institute’s director of chamber music, cellist Michael Kannen, will offer works by Beethoven, Dvorak and Kirchner’s powerful.

And now for those Chopin Etudes:


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 28, 2011

Weekend round-up: Concert Artists, Baltimore Concert Opera, Columbia Pro Cantare

After catching the Baltimore Symphony's performance Friday, my weekend continued musically Saturday night at Peabody, where Concert Artists of Baltimore offered an all-Beethoven program.

I could have done without the "Emperor" Concerto in the first half. Pianist Clinton Adams, a fine musician with a long tenure at Peabody and a strong connection to Concert Artists, didn't really have all the technical chops for the assignment; his tone was mostly loud, his phrasing mostly cold. More interesting was the colorful playing from the orchestra, guided by conductor Edward Polochick with his usual flair of expressive contour. The horns came through with particular suavity.

The Ninth Symphony received an intriguing performance. If I didn't know Polochick lives in Baltimore, I would have suspected he had a train to catch. His fast tempos left some of the mysterious power of the first movement untapped, though the dramatic punch he got out of the orchestra offered compensation. The rush through the Scherzo began to sound a little too frantic.

The conductor provided breadth in the Adagio, if not quite enough poetic molding. In the finale, Polochick's faithfulness to the score meant that the recitative-like passages for the cellos sounded too mechanical for my tastes. Later, he had singers and players scrambling to keep up with the propulsion. I enjoyed a lot of that momentum, but didn't just find the overall approach thoroughly persuasive.

The choral forces produced a sturdy sound. The soloists -- soprano Janice Chandler Eteme, mezzo Melissa Kornacki, tenor William Davenport, bass-baritone Robert Cantrell -- sang potently. The orchestra sounded a little thin, a little ragged at times, but basically came through strongly.

Sunday afternoon, I started off with the first half of ...

Baltimore Concert Opera's potpourri program at the Engineers Club, conducted with enthusiasm by Ronald Gretz and accompanied a the piano by James Harp. This was mostly greatest hits stuff, with a few too many finales in a not terribly well-organized mix.

I didn't hear quite enough distinction and technical refinement in the singing, although a few moments stood out: a charmingly delivered ensemble scene from "La Rondine" (what would Andrew Lloyd Webber have done without Puccini for inspiration?); a nicely shaped account of Macduff's aria from "Macbeth" by tenor Steven Sanders; and the end of Act 1 of "Turandot," which found soprano Emily Ezzie delivering "Signore ascolta" with a great deal of tonal warmth, and colorful work coming from the other soloists and chorus.

My last stop was for an off-beat program by the combined choruses of Columbia Pro Cantare and Church of the Redeemer, where the concert was held.

Janacek's setting of "Our Father" is filled with fascinating touches, melodic and instrumental (organ and harp provide the accompaniment). It's more than a prayer; it's a mini-drama, enriched by the composer's trademark harmonic spice and rhythmic pulse. Frances Motyca Dawson drew a generally polished, sensitive performance from her forces, singing in Czech.  For the most part, Devin Mercer handled the demanding tenor solo sturdily. Harpist Iraida Poberezhnaya and organist Henry Lowe were valuable assets.

Dvorak's Mass in D, Op. 86, is a very attractive work, with many eloquent melodies (and a few overused chord progressions at coda time). Dawson did an admirable job emphasizing the lyricism in the original, organ-accompanied score; Lowe provided that accompaniment expertly. The chorus again demonstrated a good deal of technical smoothness and expressive elegance.

The solo quartet did very class work -- soprano Emily Noel, alto Monica Reinagel and, no worse the wear from Beethoven's Ninth the night before, Davenport and Cantrell.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 27, 2011

And now for something completely different: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto on accordion

Just when you thought you'd seen everything.

Thanks to buddies in Florida for alerting me to this young Ukrainian (I originally thought Russian) accordionist, whose repertoire apparently knows no bounds. Here's the finale of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as you've never heard it before.

For comparison purposes, I've followed the kid's amazing playing with a performance by a pretty good Russian fiddler who probably never guessed the full extent of the concerto's possibilities:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 26, 2011

Your last-minute weekend musical suggestions

Having been out of town for several days, I quickly fell far, far behind when I got back to work on Friday. Among the many tasks left undone was a list of suggestions for your weekend listening pleasure.

However, this means that I can actually recommend one of the items from first-hand experience -- the Baltimore Symphony's program, which I heard Friday night at the Meyerhoff. There's a repeat at 8 on Saturday night at Strathmore, so, if you feel you can beat the onslaught of snow (oh, please, they've GOT to be kidding about that), the drive will be worth it.

For one thing, you'll get to hear a wonderfully refined, yet still passionate, account of the Grieg Piano Concerto from soloist Orion Weiss. There's something quite distinctively poetic in his tone and his phrasing; the evergreen music seemed to reveal lots of fresh growth as he played. The pianist enjoyed smooth rapport with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, who drew warm, dynamic playing from the BSO. Cello, flute and horn solos purred beautifully.

The program also offered terrifically animated, nuanced performances of two prismatic masterpieces: Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales" and Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra. The orchestra really does sound great these days. That sound would benefit from more strings (the BSO remains under ideal personnel size for budget reasons), but there's still an admirable richness, clarity, polish and, above all, expressive weight from these musicians on a regular basis.

If you're staying in Baltimore Saturday night, the Peabody Institute looks like the place to be at 8 p.m. There, Edward Polochick will lead his Concert Artists of Baltimore in a Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a work likely to bring out the best of this engaging conductor's gifts. The concert also includes the "Emperor" Concerto, with soloist Clinton Adams, so this means one big Beethoven blast.

Sunday's many options include two choral events in Baltimore churches that should be well worth checking out -- or Czeching out, in one case. At 4 p.m.,  Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor will be the site of a world premiere presented by  ...

Bach Concert Series: "Passion," by Annapolis-area composer Hollis Thoms. The work is based on the Gospel of John, the disputed Gospel of Nicodemus, and religious poetry. T. Herbert Dimmock conducts the score, which calls for vocal soloists, mixed chorus, oboe, horn, strings, marimba and amplified harpsichord. There's a lot of information about the new work on the Bach Concert Series Web site.

And at 5 p.m. Columbia Pro Cantare, augmented by the choir of the Church of the Redeemer in a program of works by two great Czech composers whose choral music is not encountered often enough in live performance. Frances Motyca Dawson will conduct the combined ensembles in Dvorak's Mass in D and Janacek's Our Father.

Also on Sunday, you'll find Baltimore Concert Opera and the Chamber Music by Candlelight series offering colorful programs.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

March 25, 2011

Lanford Wilson, playwright of 'The Hot L Baltimore,' 'Fifth of July,' dies at 73

On Friday night, theaters Off-Broadway will be dimming their marquee lights for a minute at curtain time in a sign of respect to the memory of Lanford Wilson, the prolific playwright who died March 24 at the age of 73 of pneumonia in New Jersey. Nearly 30 of his works were performed Off-Broadway during his career.

Among the Missouri-born Mr. Wilson's plays were "Talley's Folly," which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1980 and was part of a trilogy that also included the much-admired "Fifth of July."

The author's ability to shine a revealing light on the marginalized or down-and-out proved especially effective. And as a gay man who grew up at a time when the closet was the safest place, Mr. Wilson was especially telling in his exploration of gay characters, who defied the stereotypes more likely to be encountered onstage.

Mr. Wilson's knack for defying convention spiced a 1973 play that has extra resonance for folks here in Central Maryland. It's titled .....

"The Hot L Baltimore" and set in a seedy, about-to-be-demolished hostelry -- the "e" in the hotel sign had long since burned out. Filled with misfits, the work may not have been great for Baltimore's image, but it certainly captured the city's deliciously quirky side. (The playwright didn't have any deep connection to Baltimore that I'm aware of, but he sure seems to have had a keen sense of things Baltimore-like -- not that we're all misfits, mind you, just misfit-nurturing.)

Norman Lear decided to adapt the play for a TV sitcom that debuted on ABC in 1975. Prostitutes and gays were not typical TV comedy characters in those days, so the show was all the more daring. Short-lived, too. It ran for only half a season.

As New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote about the play in an appreciation of Mr. Wilson:

What was, and remains, wonderful about 'The Hot L Baltimore' [is] its creator’s immense love for every one of his wounded characters. And not just love but admiration for the human urge to persist, to go wild, to keep dancing even when the music has stopped. The empathy and respect ... that infuses 'Hot L' is highly seductive ... No wonder his work was, for so many years, catnip to actors.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

March 23, 2011

Remembering my few, valued moments in the presence of Elizabeth Taylor

Not to make this about me -- honest -- but I couldn't help get a flashback today after receiving the terrible news of Elizabeth Taylor's death.

Like her zillions of fans, I was struck by her beauty and her skills as an actress. As a kid, I wasn't allowed to see her in her steamier movies, but I sure remember adults talking about them.

Later on, I enjoyed exploring her film work and was particularly struck by her performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", an achievement I've come to appreciate more and more over the years. I also was enormously grateful to her early campaigning on behalf of people with HIV. Her brave stand, her passionate commitment meant so much to so many.

I never imagined I would ever be able to say that I once shook Miss Taylor's hand, started into those incredible violet eyes and received the most delicious greeting from her, but it happened. It's the sort of star-struck moment you don't forget easily.

This was in the mid 1970s, during my earliest years in the journalism biz, when I was a humble freelancer covering the arts for a chain of newspapers surrounding Washington, DC. In that capacity, I was invited to ... 

a press event for Wolf Trap. Miss Taylor had recently become involved with that wonderful arts park, having married Virginia Sen. John Warner.
She was involved with a gala night that kicked off the Wolf Trap season. This particularly press reception may have been to announce the gala program or the whole summer season; that detail is unclear now in my mind.

On a spring day -- late morning, I think -- we press types gathered in someone's lovely Georgetown home. It wasn't a terribly large place and the arts press crowd wasn't terribly numerous, as I recall, so it seemed an almost intimate gathering in the front room when I got there.

Shortly afterward, a car pulled up outside and Miss Taylor emerged. When she entered the house, the electricity was really something. She made a point of meeting and greeting everyone there, even this young, relatively green critic who couldn't think of a thing to say.

It was her graciousness, along with those penetrating, sparkling eyes that has stuck with me all these years since. The next year, the same event was held more formally; she walked out to a podium and addressed us and was gone.

So I'm doubly grateful that I was there on that more personal first occasion, and that I got to enjoy a small, indelible brush with with one of the most beautiful and gifted of all stars.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 22, 2011

Theatre Project, American Opera Theater cancels 'Lost in the Stars'

An American Opera Theater production of Kurt Weill's musical "Lost in the Stars" scheduled to open April 22 at the Theatre Project and involving the Baltimore School for the Arts has been canceled.

Director Tim Nelson mentioned to me a while back that there were issues with the Weill Foundation over the performance rights, especially having to do with orchestration of the score.

In the end, the company could not secure the rights, according to a statement released by the Theatre Project, a statement that also offered "sincere thanks to the wonderful faculty and students at the Baltimore School for the Arts who supported this project and gave so generously of their time and talent."

The on-again, off-again Weill production would have been the last enterprise by the adventurous American Opera Theater, which announced earlier that this would be its final season.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:42 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 21, 2011

Hilary Hahn to present benefit in Baltimore for Japanese relief efforts

When Hilary Hahn learned that her concert tour of Japan had been canceled due to the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, the violinist started planning a benefit in aid of those affected by the twin disaster. That benefit will be in Baltimore, where Hahn grew up.

She will be joined in the concert Thursday by singer/songwriter Caleb Stine, violinist Yuka Kubota, pianist Yoshie Kubota, Baltimore School for the Arts students Tariq Al- Sabir and Robert Pate, and Suzuki students from the Peabody Preparatory. There will also be appearances by author Lia Purpura and historian Constantine Vaporis.

All proceeds from the event, including the sale of art, jewelry and more by Baltimore area artisans, will benefit Direct Relief International’s Japan Relief and Recovery Fund.

More info on the event is at the end of this post. First, here are excerpts from Hahn's statement:

I had been looking forward to performing in Japan: the country is unlike any other, and the audiences are dedicated and love music so much, and it is always a pleasure to play for them ... I first went to Japan when I was a teenager and have returned nearly every year since. I truly believe that music and art can contribute to society – whether in the course of daily life or in the background of catastrophe.

My first thought, when I was trying to figure out what to do with the time I was supposed to spend in Japan, was to organize a fundraiser: instead of playing in Japan this month, I could play for Japan. I grew up in Baltimore so wanted to return to present a community-based benefit concert in this city. And Baltimore really came together for this event. It was so rewarding to hear, “yes, what can we do to help?” from everyone I called to ask to participate on March 24. I am grateful to Red Emma’s for donating their 2640 Space for this evening and to everyone involved for being so generous with their time and work. We hope to be able to make a difference and show our support to the recovery process ...

The benefit will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the 2640 Space - St. John’s of Baltimore, 2640 Saint Paul St. Tickets are $20-$50, available in advance at Red Emma's Bookstore, 800 St. Paul St. and with cash at the door.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:23 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 20, 2011

Baltimore Symphony welcomes conductor Mario Venzago, violinist Baiba Skride

Mario VenzagoWhen I got here nearly 11 years ago, one of the greatest musical rewards was experiencing the partnership of Yuri Temirkanov and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

One of the next greatest was hearing the BSO with a then-frequent podium guest, Mario Venzago, who had quite a magical way with him -- musically and personally.

Venzago was back over the weekend and, judging by Saturday night's performance at the Meyerhoff, he hasn't lost his knack with these players.

In Schubert's Symphony No. 5, the conductor coaxed a sound that truly danced, sang, sighed, floated -- just as he has done on previous occasions with works by Mozart (Schubert's Fifth could almost have been Mozart's Forty-Second).

How does Venzago do that? He gets a refinement of tone and dynamics from the BSO that no one else in my time here has quite matched. It really is a beautiful thing to hear. The poetic charms and lyrical warmth of the Schubert symphony emerged most tellingly under his fluent guidance.

For Beethoven's Fifth, Venzago had the strings going easy on the vibrato, an effective touch. He wasn't just after sonic nuance, though, but went for the score's famous drama in compelling fashion, too. The performance proved fresh and stirring.

In between came one of the glories of 20th century music ...

Berg's Violin Concerto. What a marvel it is, a fusion of Mahler-worthy late-romanticism with the revolutionary harmonic principals of the Second Viennese School. The music is so personal, intimate and -- yes, I know it's still tough going for some listeners today (I spotted a couple of mid-performance desertions Saturday) -- absolutely, profoundly beautiful in the deepest sense of that word.

I loved the calm technical assurance that the young soloist, Baiba Skride, brought to the concerto, along with her gorgeous tone and affinity for songful phrasing. And I loved the way Venzago sculpted the orchestral side of things, attentive to the most delicate orchestral colors, sensitive to the waltz tempos that so touchingly haunt the work. The orchestra responded with playing of subtle expressive power.

An addition was made to the program to acknowledge the disaster in Japan -- just before the Beethoven, Venzago led the ensemble in a lovely arrangement by BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen of an old Japanese song, "The Moon Over the Ruined Castle." The orchestra has performed this arrangement as an encore on tours to Japan, and it fit this somber occasion perfectly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

March 18, 2011

Another pileup of musical events competing for your attention on Sunday

Why, oh why do they keep doing this?

I know there are only so many Sundays, and I know everyone thinks that Sunday afternoon is the favorite going-out time for classical music lovers, but it really does get awfully frustrating to find so many concerts scheduled at roughly the same time, weekend after weekend. At least you're not likely to go wrong no matter which option you choose this Sunday.

For those with a yen for adventure, head to the Windup Space for the newest new music group in the area: the League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS).

The ensemble features an impressive list of seasoned experimental music performers: Tim Feeney (Cornell University); Michael Formanek (Peabody Conservatory); Michael Harley (University of South Carolina, Alarm Will Sound); Courtney Orlando (Peabody Conservatory, Alarm Will Sound, Signal); David Smooke (Peabody Conservatory); Wendy Richman (I.C.E., Syracuse Symphony); and Shirley Yoo (Mercyhurst College).

There will be two performances on Sunday. The 3 p.m. concert includes world premieres by Steve Gorbos and Michael Boyd; works by Smooke and fellow Baltimore-based composer Ruby Fulton; and pieces by two eminent contemporary composers, Sofia Gubaidulina and Augusta Read Thomas. A second performance at 5 p.m. will feature improvisation, with help from extra local players. Sounds like a great addition to Baltimore's edgier music side.

At 3 p.m. at Towson Unitarian Universalist, the always inviting ...

Music in the Great Hall series presents Duo Transatlantique -- classical guitarists Benjamin Beirs and Maud Laforest. The duo typically features music by French and American composers;  this concert includes pieces by Cesar Franck and Scott Joplin, with the likes of Scarlatti and Piazzolla also in the mix.

And at 3:30 p.m. at Towson University, you'll find Pro Musica Rara presenting a cool program of string quartets -- cool because it balances works by two big 18th century names, Haydn and Boccherini, with a piece by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the son of a French plantation owner and a slave on Guadeloupe. He earned the nickname "Mozart Noir" in pre-Revolution France for his prodigious musical gifts. He was a crack swordsman, too. (I've attached a sample of his work at the end of this post.)

The concert features the Pro Musica Rara Classical Quartet performing on period instruments: violinists Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Sharon Pineo Meyer, and cellist Allen Whear. As fans of Pro Musica know, the organization has taken great artistic strides with Whear at the helm. If you haven't checked them out recently, this program ought to make a great introduction.

Also at 3:30 on Sunday, at Second Presbyterian, the Monument Piano Trio -- violinist Igor Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, and pianist Michael Sheppard -- will be presented by Community Concerts at Second in a rich program of Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich. This is one of the best ensembles to come out of Baltimore in the past decade, so any chance to hear these guys in action is welcome.

And now for that sample of the remarkable Chevalier d Saint-Georges:


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Reviews: Center Stage's 'Snow,' Shakespeare Theatre Company's 'Husband'

Just so you never fall out of my precious loop, I wanted to alert you to a couple theater reviews running on the Sun's Web site and, in slightly abbreviated form, in Friday's paper.

Baltimore's Center Stage is offering "Snow Falling on Cedars," an adaptation of the David Guterson novel. I'm a little tired of shows with actors playing multiple roles, and with narrative taking over the drama, but this play does raise important issues.

We need to confront the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during WW II; that issue is woven through this work. And we always need to be reminded of our problems with prejudice and rushes to judgment; those issues, too, are at the heart of the murder/love/war plot.

Note that the Smithsonian's America Art Museum has loaned to Center Stage a striking collection of works from the exhibit "The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946." The items will be on display during the first part of the show's run.

If you're in need of some great laughs ...

some fun melodrama and some ever-pertinent points about hypocritical politicians, myopic spouses and high-society airheads, don't miss the lavish revival of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" at Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company.

I've always liked this play, but no other exposure to it, even Sir Peter Hall's wonderful staging in the 1990s, so thoroughly engaged me as this one. It positively sparkles.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

March 17, 2011

Your obligatory shots of Irish tenor John McCormack for St. Patrick's Day

OK, so I only have 25 percent Irish in me. That's still enough to make me enjoy those sweet, sentimental old Irish ballads on St. Patrick's Day, and, even more so, to make me love hearing them sung by John McCormack.

He was a superb vocal artist who left his mark on opera and, especially, lieder. But on St. Patrick's Day, it's fitting to remember his indelible delivery of good old Irish songs. Here are just two examples. The last, ethereal notes of "Macushla" -- recorded 100 years ago -- tell you everything you need to know about McCormack's artistry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 16, 2011

Peabody Opera presents double bill of fanciful Poulenc, Ravel works

Peabody Opera has been on a French kick this season. Judging by the fine production of Massenet's "Manon," things ought to be quite interesting when the company turns this week to a really great pair of unusual works -- Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges" (The Child and the Sorceries) and Poulenc's
"Les mamelles de Tiresias" (The Breasts of Tiresias). Performances are Wednesday through Saturday.

The 1944 Poulenc opera isn't quite as, um, titillating as it sounds, but is stacked with fabulous surrealist fancies. Based on a play by Apollinaire, the work tells of a wife who changes her gender and her husband, who gives birth to more than 40,000 children in one day. Amid all the nonsense, the music conveys a subtle eulogy to a France devastated by two world wars.

Ravel's prismatic opera, with a libretto by Colette, deals with a nasty kid prone to hurting animals and things. He gets his comeuppance when his victims, including a clock, a tea cup, a tree and a poor cat, come to life. In the end, the boy develops a conscience and a heart.

Here's a snippet of the Poulenc piece to get you in the mood for Peabody Opera's cool double bill:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

Shriver Hall Concert Series announces 2011-2012 season

With a typically starry flourish, the 46th Shriver Hall Concert Series will do its part to light up Baltimore's classical music scene.

Recitalists on the 2011-2012 lineup include eminent pianist Richard Goode performing Chopin and Schumann; top-notch violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the equally incisive pianist Lars Vogt in a program of Schumann, Brahms and Bartok; Steven Isserlis, a remarkably colorful cellist, whose program includes music of provocative contemporary British composer Thomas Ades; and the fine keyboard artist Angela Hewitt in a program that includes works of Bach, Faure and Ravel.

It's also great to see that, despite resistance from some Shriver Hall subscribers, there will be another vocal recital next season. And it promises to be a most absorbing one --

the excellent baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, accompanied by Russell Ryan, will sing Schubert’s profound "Winterreise." (The concert will be in bleakest February, which makes it even cooler.)

Chamber music is always part of the Shriver attractions. For 2011-12, that genre will be represented by such admirable ensembles as the St. Lawrence String Quartet, playing Haydn, Dvorak and Osvaldo Golijov; the Takacs Quartet, playing Beethoven, Debussy and Janacek; and the baroque group Les Violons du Roy offering Vivaldi, Bach and more.

Next season, Shriver's free "Discovery Series" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, devoted to up-and-coming artists, will feature the Johannes String Quartet, as well as pianists George Li (first-place winner in the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Auditions) and Yury Shadrin (winner of the 2011 Yale Gordon Competition).


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

Uncovered photo said to be of Chopin on deathbed in 1849

Wladyslaw Zuchowski of Gdansk recently reported the purchase of a daguerreotype from a private owner in Scotland. The image is dated 1849, the year Chopin died in Paris, and the head resting on the pillow sure looks like the great composer.

Experts are skeptical, as well they should be. Fraudulent things are always popping up. And in the case of Chopin, jokes have been known to be pulled, too -- years ago, a British record magazine announced with all due serious the discovery of a primitive recording device supposedly capturing Chopin at the piano. It was mostly hiss and pop and scratch, with a very dull performance of a mazurka or something, as I recall, but I know a few people who bought the idea for a while.

It will be interesting to see how this daguerreotype story develops (it probably won't be covered as painstakingly as the purported Ansel Adams negatives last year). Here's a video news clip about the alleged Chopin photo:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:36 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 15, 2011

Shriver Hall Concert Series presents Michael Lawrence documentary 'Bach and Friends'

If you haven't yet seen "Bach and Friends," the fine documentary by Baltimore filmmaker Michael Lawrence, there will be a showing Wednesday evening by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

The film, released last hear on DVD, has been getting more and more attention at film and music festivals. No wonder. It's an affecting tribute to the inspirational force of Bach, with fascinating comments and remarkable music-making by a rich cross-section of artists, from uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman to violinists Joshua Bell and Hillary Hahn and composer Philip Glass.

And if this film whets your appetite for more, the good news is that Lawrence is embarking on another; the next one will focus on Bach's vocal music.

Here's a clip from "Bach and Friends" to get you in the mood -- banjo ace Bela Fleck explaining and demonstrating his attraction to the heart and genius of the composer's music:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

March 14, 2011

Bryn Terfel, Placido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach and Olivier Messiaen create hot night in D.C.

Saturday night offered such tantalizing musical prospects in D.C. that I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all.

At 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera presented the stirring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert conducted by giga-star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo.

At 8 p.m., a few yards from the opera house, the National Symphony Orchestra offered Olivier Messiaen's monumental "Turangalila Symphony," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Thanks to the fact that the NSO devoted the first half of its program to a discussion of the Messiaen work, I managed to catch nearly all of Terfel's performance and then all of "Turangalila."

I left both events on a high.

Terfel remains one of the most compelling vocal artists of our time. If more opera singers had his combination of musicality and audience-embracing personality, the art form would be a lot more popular.

The program, part of WNO's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, contained the usual assortment of chestnuts, but the delivery was anything but routine. For one thing, Terfel started off with

a couple of appropriate props to sing Dulcamara's fake elixir-pushing aria from "L'elisir d'amore," and quaffed one of them midway through. "I've never drunk beer onstage before," the singer said afterward.

Assuming that's what he really did guzzle in a single gulp, you've got to hand it to him for chutzpah. You also had to admire the brilliant delivery of the aria, with plenty of ripe tone, colorful nuance and delicious humor.

Terfel had a wicked time in a showpiece from "Mefistofele," complete with piercing whistle. Excerpts from "Otello" and "Falstaff" reaffirmed what a fine Verdian Terfel is, while selections from "Porgy and Bess" underlined his effortless crossover ability.

He was joined in "Bess, You Is My Woman" by soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who stepped in on short notice to fill in for the indisposed Catherine Naglestad (the sopranos are currently alternating performances in WNO's "Madama Butterly" production). Martinez, I understand, learned the Gershwin music at the last possible moment, but she sang it beautifully. On her own, she also delivered an elegant account of "Vissi d'arte."

Domingo seemed to be having an awfully good time on the podium; the orchestra was in mostly strong, vivid form.

As for the NSO, that ensemble was operating on all cylinders for Messiaen's massive challenge. I was struck repeatedly by the richness of the sound, from the silken strings in the "Jardin" movement to the powerful brass in the score's most ecstatic outbursts. It was a great night for the percussion, too, not to mention the woodwinds (the clarinet solos had particular eloquence).

The guests soloists were terrific -- pianist Cedric Tiberghien, who was almost spookily unfazed by the wildest demands of the keyboard part and who summoned a great deal of color and expressive power; and ondes Martenot-player Tristan Murail, who made sure that crucial element registered tellingly.

Above all, there was Eschenbach's superb shaping of the sprawling, roughly 90-minute score. The love theme that runs through symphony was given an extra rhapsodic pulse; moments of serenity took on a remarkable glow. The explosion Eschenbach unleashed in the "Joie du sang" movement and again in the finale sounded truly rapturous.

"Turangalila" is not an everyday challenge (the NSO's only other performance of the work was 10 years ago; the Baltimore Symphony has never tackled it), and it's not everyday listening, either. But, man, is it wonderful to encounter once in a while. It puts you in a whole different place, mentally and emotionally -- almost physically, even. Eschenbach and company made this experience a peak of the season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

March 11, 2011

Opera Vivente presents rarely heard version of Handel's 'Rinaldo'

Among Handel's numerous operas, "Rinaldo" ranks rather high.

Never mind that the first version in 1711 contains recycled portions of earlier works; the main thing is that it provided the composer's sensational operatic debut in London. And never mind that his 1731 revision of the score also contains older material. It's still a good show, still filled with attractive melodies and vivid orchestration.

The earlier edition is the one that has received the bulk of attention from opera and record companies. The 1731 "Rinaldo," apparently, has never been staged in this country. At least Opera Vivente hasn't been able to determine otherwise, so its production, which wraps up Saturday, has the extra bonus of a little history-making.

The flair of Handel's music goes a long way toward making up for a convoluted plot about Crusaders, sorcerers and thwarted love. This is an opera where the parts are perhaps greater than the whole; each aria, each scene has its own power.

Opera Vivente, directed by John Bown and provided a vivid abstract set by Thomas Bumblauskas, offers a fanciful, futuristic take on the piece. We're in a post-apocalyptic world here, where the characters ...

grasp at tschotchkes and whatnot that, I guess, somehow weren't destroyed by whatever happened over the ages (my favorites are the Etch a Sketch, Magic 8 Ball and nesting dolls that turn up along the way).

The opera's original issue of the Crusades is sort of still there in this staging; you'll see as many signs of the cross made in this "Rinaldo" as you would in "Suor Angelica." But the emphasis is more on the emotions of the characters trying to deal with romantic desires and magical threats to those desires.

Every now and then, with its Flash- Gordon-meets-Mad-Max-look (Melanie Clark designed the costumes), the production takes a questionable, even silly turn, but little harm is done. Having an audience laugh periodically isn't the worst thing that could happen to a very long, ordinarily non-comic Handel opera.

On Thursday night at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, countertenor Daniel Bubeck gave an impressive performance in the title role. His voice had an appealing, mezzo-ish darkness. It could turn hooty and a little harsh under pressure, but otherwise filled the hall with a vibrant sound, backed by elegant phrasing.

Speaking of mezzo quality, Rebecca Ringle, as Armida, delivered that in abundance. Her rich timbre and supple coloratura filled out the music admirably, while her acting fleshed out the character of the evil sorcerer quite nicely (her fun outfit made me think Cat Woman from Mars).

Douglas Dodson brought a mostly warm, well-controlled countertenor voice and a fine sense of Handelian style to the role of Argante. At her best, Leah Inger sang sweetly as Almirena; her ornamentation in the opera's most famous aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga," was particularly elegant.

Frederic Rey, as Goffredo, provided the best articulation of the evening (the opera is sung in Bowen's English translation). Jason Epps used his promising bass-baritone effectively as the Magician.

The small period instrument orchestra had a rocky start, struggling with intonation during the first act, but gradually settled in and delivered steady, expressive work for conductor Joseph Gascho.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:43 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 10, 2011

Big musical draw in Washington this week: NSO performs Messiaen's 'Turangalila'

As usual, there's so much going on musically that it's hard to know where to turn. Well, let me nudge you ever so slightly to consider one particular offering from the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday, Friday or Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

Christoph Eschenbach leads the ensemble in Messiaen's fabulous "Turangalila" Symphony, which the NSO last performed a decade ago with Leonard Slatkin on the podium. In some places -- Hello, Baltimore! -- you might wait a lot longer to experience this masterwork. On the first half of each performance, Eschenbach will take part in a discussion of Messiaen and "Turangalila," joined by guest artists C├ędric Tiberghien (piano) and Tristan Murail (ondes martenot) and moderated by Joseph Horowitz.

There's nothing else quite like "Turangalila" in the repertoire. Messiaen created here something at once intensely sensual and intensely spiritual, a work filled with joy and wonder and incredible splashes of orchestral coloring. Here's a snippet:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

March 9, 2011

A Broadway song to fit my condition, from 'I Can Get It For You Wholesale'

After finally seeking medical advice and discovering, as I suspected all along, that I had something far more interesting than a mere common cold (common? moi?), I've started an antibiotic regimen that, I trust, will eventually render me physically flawless again (all right, all right -- I know they're just antibiotics, not miracle drugs).

Meanwhile, I've had a song running through my head these many sinus- and cough-filled days and nights, a song from the Broadway show that put Barbra Streisand on the map -- Harold Rome's "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." I figured you'd like to enjoy it, too, out of deep sympathy for my condition -- especially since I don't have anything more interesting to post right now.

The title says it all: "I'm Not a Well Man."

Singing the first verse (with a change of pronoun) is a 19-year-old Streisand, who, of course, got her chance to shine in the show-stopping number "Miss Marmelstein." Ever since I bought the original cast album for this now rather obscure musical, as part of my must-have-all-things-Streisand phase during my teens years, I've never forgotten this particular tune, with its delicious Jewish folk flavor. I've even been known to sing a few bars every time I've been under the weather (even though that can make other people feel sick).

Here, then, a flash of vintage Broadway. If you happen to be feeling lousy, too, I hope this perks you up a little:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:01 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 8, 2011

Kennedy Center's 2011-12 season features music of Vienna, Prague, Budapest; new 'Pal Joey'

The Kennedy Center's 2011-2012 season looks as packed as ever with activity in just about every genre.

Musically speaking, note a month-long festival celebrating the music of three great European cities: Budapest, Prague, and Vienna.

In addition to the National Symphony Orchestra's programs with music director Christoph Eschenbach (Dvorak's "Stabat Mater," concert versions of "Fidelio" and "Bluebeard's Castle," etc.), there will be performances by the Vienna Philharmonic, Prague Philharmonia and more.

On the theater side, there will be a new Kennedy Center production of Rodgers and Hart’s "Pal Joey" with a new book by Terrence McNally. That's bound to be quite an attention-getter. Same for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" starring Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving.

Touring productions playing at the center next season will include "Billy Elliot the Musical," "Memphis," "La Cage aux Folles," "The Addams Family" and "Les Misérables." Barbara Cook's Spotlight series of fresh vocal talent returns to the center for its fifth season; the incomparable singer will also be heard in concert.

Back to the NSO for a moment ...

Eschenbach, who will be heard as pianist in chamber music programs during the seasons (including a collaboration on Schubert's "Winterreise" with baritone Matthias Goerne), will spend a lot of time on Beethoven. In addition to "Fidelio," he'll offer five of the nine symphonies.

Big choral works dot the season, including Mendelssohn’s "Elijah" conducted by Helmuth Rilling and Orff’s "Carmina Burana" conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. New works by Bill Banfield and Osvaldo Golijov are slated to be heard. Guest conductors include Lorin Maazel, Hannu Lintu, Herbert Blomstedt and former NSO music director Leonard Slatkin. The orchestra also welcomes new principal pops conductor Steven Reineke next season.

Fans of ballet and contemporary dance will find the American Ballet Theatre, Bolshoi Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet (celebrating its 10th anniversary as resident at the center),Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mark Morris Dance Group, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Beijing Dance Theater, Jo Kanamori’s Noism, and more.

Next season will see a new project called Look Both Ways: Street Arts Across America, a free series of events at the center and beyond celebrating contemporary visual arts, street musicians, circus performers and even flash mobs.

With funding from Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein -- another $10 million gift, six months after his first $10 million gift to the center -- the venue will expand its outreach efforts. The Rubenstein Arts Access Program aims to increase accessibility to young people and those "who have little or limited ability to attend and enjoy the performing arts."

The 2011-12 season also marks Washington National Opera's first year of the affiliation with the center. The opera lineup, previously announced, includes "Tosca," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Così fan tutte," "Nabucco" and "Werther."

Jazz artists heading to the center next season include Ramsey Lewis, the Manhattan Transfer, Fountain of Youth Band, Django Reinhardt Festival All-Stars, and Jane Monheit.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

A couple ways to get your modern music groove on this week

You're just itching to hear something new and cool, aren't you? Well, you're in luck this week -- two of Baltimore's most ambitious organizations are offering programs on successive nights.

Tuesday finds the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik focusing on the solo instrument and chamber works of New York-based clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel. See below for a sampling of intriguing works that will be on the concert -- Bermel performing his clarinet piece “Thracian Sketches”; and a string sextet with violist Victoria Chiang, violinist Jennifer Herrera and others rehearsing Bermel's "Soul Garden" for the program.

Pianists Stephen Gosling and Lura Johnson and flutist Tara Helen O’Connor are among the other musicians participating in Tuesday's concert.

Wednesday brings another Mobtown Modern presentation at The Windup Space, this one featuring violinist Todd Reynolds and -- hold on --

a dozen robots. The mechanical instruments, including a GuitarBot, are the products of LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), an innovative group that has widened the playing field for Pat Metheny and others.

In this concert, Reynolds will perform some music interactively with his robotic friends and also turn the stage over to them to play works he wrote for this event. At least on a Wednesday night in Baltimore in March, you can't get too much cooler than that, can you?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 7, 2011

Weekend whirlwind, final round: Andre Watts at Shriver Hall

This being the Liszt bicentennial year, it's not surprising that pianists should devote recitals to his music, or that there would be two such recitals in the DC/Baltimore area over the weekend. It's also not surprising that Evgeny Kissin's performance Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center would be an awfully hard act to follow.

Stepping in for an indisposed Nelson Freire, Andre Watts offered his homage to Liszt Sunday evening for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. (It was my fourth concert in 48 hours; all of them involved pianists, as it turned out.)  

Maybe if I didn't still have Kissin's sound and style still so fresh in my head I would found Watts' playing more satisfying. But I still suspect I would have wished for a greater variety of tonal shading, more technical polish, more interesting approaches to phrasing.

That said, I was, as always, taken with ...

the visceral way Watts approached the music. He gave a big, hearty performance, especially in the B minor Sonata, which the pianist dove into as if determined to find every ounce of drama. He extracted it, all right, but left subtler aspects unexplored.

There wasn't quite enough shimmer to "Les Jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este" or sparkle in the "La Chasse" Paganini Etude, and too much clang in the F minor Transcendental Etude.

Far more effective to my ears was the pianist's delivery of some short, adventurous pieces from the 1880s, when the elderly Liszt was dipping into uncharted harmonic waters way ahead of his time. Watts shaped these gems, including "Nuages gris" and "La Lugubre Gondola," with great sensitivity and eloquence, giving poetic weight to the unexpected turns of phrase.

The pianist's affinity for Liszt famously launched his career at the age of 16. Today, at 64, Watts remains a formidable advocate for the composer, as his impassioned account of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 underlined. Whatever reservations I had about some aspects of the playing, the intensity and commitment behind could not have been more evident.

FILE PHOTO (by Steve J. Sherman)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

Weekend whirlwind, round 3: The multi-cultural music of Lou Harrison

The Post-Classical Ensemble has a great track record for creating vibrant programs and festivals that go beyond the surface and beyond the routine.

The most recent example, a venture with George Washington University that wrapped up over the weekend, was called "Sublime Confluence: The Music of Lou Harrison."

I'll well understand if you're wondering Lou who? -- Harrison's amazing music doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. This American composer's world-embracing style, greatly influenced by Indonesian gamelan music and concerned with opening up fresh vistas of tuning and structure, has an appeal that classical music organizations, ever hoping to attract younger and more diverse audiences, should be championing.

Saturday night's concert at GWU's Lisner Auditorium included tantalizing clips from the documentary film "Lou Harrison: A World of Music" by Eva Soltes, and a colorful prelude of traditional Javanese gamelan music from the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble.

The California-based Harrison, who died in 2003, found himself liberated, in a way, by exposure to those Javanese sounds and idioms. To very cool effect, he used musical elements from the East and West in several pieces that create remarkably satisfying effects.

Post-Classical's program included a movement from the Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan from the mid-1980s; soloist Lisa Moore, playing on a specially tuned grand, delivered the score in bright form with the Wesleyan group.

Chris Gekker, on piccolo trumpet, also artfully negotiated "Buraban Robert" with the gamelan ensemble, moving about the hall to deliver his contributions. And the GWU Chamber Singers did a fine job with the hypnotic Four Strict Songs from 1955.

But the main event was ...

the Piano Concert from 1985, a work scored for totally Western instruments and tuning, yet richly resonant of the gamelan world.

In remarks to the audiences, Joseph Horowitz, artistic director of Post-Classical, described this as "the most formidable concerto for any instrument written by an American," and I wouldn't argue with that. But it's got to be the most fun, too.

Messiaen-like, the concerto has an explosive joy at times, as in the startling, perpetual motion "Stampede" movement. There's also a spiritual element, as in the meditative Largo. Above all, there's that "sublime confluence" of multicultural elements coming together logically, brilliantly, meaningfully.

Benjamin Pasternack, one of the great talents on the Peabody Conservatory faculty, gave an awesome performance at the piano, as impressive for the sheer technical stamina and security as for the dynamic phrasing. He was well-matched by the Post-Classical Ensemble, fluently and sensitively conducted by the organization's music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez.

Baltimore ought to have the chance to experience this concerto and hear it so persuasively delivered. For that matter, Baltimore ought to make room, in a variety of ways and venues, for a lot of Harrison's fascinating music. I think we've got some catching up to do.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Weekend whirlwind, round 2: The one and only Evgeny Kissin

Saturday found me in DC for a pair of musical events, starting in the afternoon with Evgeny Kissin's all-Liszt recital at the Kennedy Center for the Washington Performing Arts Society.

There are a lot of gifted pianists today, and then there's Kissin. He was in a class by himself when he was 12, performing the Chopin concertos with a technique and sensitivity that elude many a musician twice or even three times that age.

He was in a class by himself when he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1990 -- I wasn't the only keyboard fan that traveled quite a distance to be there for what everyone in the place knew was going to be something out of the ordinary.

At 39, Kissin remains a breathtaking talent. You just don't come across such technical mastery every day.

And I do mean mastery. To borrow the Oscar Wilde line, anyone can play accurately, so I'm not talking about the fact that all the notes are there when Kissin plays.

It's what he does with the notes that counts, the seamless way he articulates the busiest of passages so that you don't hear individual bits and pieces, but waves of tone color in the most refined and telling of shades. 

Kissin clearly relished the opportunities Liszt provided to bring out from the piano a whole orchestra's worth of diverse and meaningful sound.

I know folks who ...

waste no opportunity to bash Liszt as a composer, and I'm sure there are pianists who won't waste their time with him (or Rachmaninoff). I don't get it. What you hear in Liszt is a churning intellectual mind and emotional heart, stretching the then-boundaries of a keyboard, not to mention harmony and thematic development.

Sure, Liszt could write some vapid or overly busy things, but what brilliance and character there is in his best work. The B minor Sonata, to mention a most obvious example, is a marvel of artistic ingenuity, and Kissin dove into it with wonderful expressive warmth and a keen sense of timing, creating great tension. The sprawling work seemed to pass by in an eventful, mesmerizing flash.

Throughout the afternoon, the pianist made Liszt's music sing and sigh and soar. Never a vulgar measure, never an obvious, playing-to-the-balcony effect. Just pure, involving musicality that carried him in style from the "Ricordanza" Transcendental Etude to the drama-rich "Funerailles" to the sparkling picture postcards from "Venezia e Napoli."

Kissin rewarded the persistent ovations with three encores, which included a sublime "Liebestraum" and deeply poetic account of the Schumann/Liszt "Widmung." Simply put, it was an honor to be in the presence of such supreme pianism.

Here's an example of what I mean -- a clip (from a different recital) of Kissin playing that evergreen "Liebestraum":


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 6, 2011

Weekend whirlwind, round 1: Baltimore Symphony's Russian richness

It has been a whirlwind weekend of concerts so far for me. I'll post reports as quickly as I can, despite being ever so annoyingly  under the weather -- imagine someone of my stature catching something as dead common as a common cold. Here's the first round:

Folks who, somehow, didn't get their fill of Russian music during Yuri Temirkanov's years with the Baltimore Symphony can't go hungry these days. Turns out that Marin Alsop has quite a pronounced interest in that repertoire, too.

The latest example is her program this weekend, which offers two Prokofiev symphonies, No. 1 and No. 6, along with Rachmaninoff's golden Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It's a rich, rewarding combination. (If you haven't heard it, there's another performance Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall.)

As I've noted before, the BSO sounds really fine these days. Alsop's emphasis on technical discipline has resulted in an ensemble that, time after time, sounds admirably cohesive and alert.

There's a lot to be said for polish and discipline, and those qualities shone brightly Friday night in the performance of Prokofiev's first symphony, the one called "Classical." The playing, especially by the violins, was wonderfully lithe; the whole orchestra exuded color as Alsop focused on the abundant character of the symphony, its whimsy, its buoyancy and, at least to my ears, what seems like a tinge of nostalgia.

Symphony No. 6 is from a whole different world of emotion. Because it has a finale containing a good deal of melodic drive, the score is sometimes considered ...

a cousin to the Haydn-esque-ness of No. 1. I don't buy that. The Sixth, imbued with the lingering pain of World War II, gives us a darker, deeper Prokofiev. There's irony and bitterness in this music. The finale, like that of Shostakovich's Fifth, is deceptively upbeat.

It's possible to draw out more of that inner conflict than came through on Friday, but this was still a sobering, absorbing performance that found the BSO operating in strong form and delivering considerable expressive weight. (The Prokofiev symphonies were to have been part of a recording project for Naxos, but I'm told the record company has had some second thoughts about live recordings of US orchestras -- something about rights. Anyway, there were no microphones Friday. Too bad.)

As for the Rachmaninoff chestnut, it received a most impressive performance. The soloist, Lukas Vondracek, produced a great deal of tone color at the piano and he phrased with a refreshing mix of poetry and panache.

I especially enjoyed his approach to the famous, ultra-lyrical 18th Variation. Instead of milking the big tune, Vondracek kept the music flowing naturally, but then lavished time and nuance on the quiet closing measures, creating a gorgeous, magical effect. His technique proved easily up to the bravura challenges elsewhere, and his classy, sparkling pianism was well-matched throughout by dynamic partnering from Alsop and the orchestra.

PHOTO (by Martina Cechova) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:27 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

March 4, 2011

A suggestion or two for making this a classical music weekend

Lots of promising fare on the classical music scene this weekend. Here are a few things worth considering:

Opera Vivente offers what is billed as the American stage debut of the 1731 version of Handel's "Rinaldo" (the work dates from 1711). In whatever version, the opera is a feast of melodic invention; the plot about Crusaders, an enchantress and a whole lot more may not be the easiest to follow, but it's certainly engaging. I've attached a clip of one of the hits from the score, "Lascia ch'io pianga" (I resisted the temptation to post Streisand's version, since I know I'm just about the only person in the world who actually likes her classical album).

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony are back in a Russian mode this weekend. In addition to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," there will be two Prokofiev symphonies, No. 1 and and the less often performed No. 6.

The Ravel Trio salutes Women's History Month with a program of works by women composers at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Organist Donald Sutherland will be joined by his wife, noted soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson (here as narrator), the C Street Brass Quintet and other artists in a program that includes works by Liszt, Ned Rorem, Samuel Adler, et al.

Pianist Andre Watts makes an overdue recital debut for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, playing an all-Liszt program.

The monthly Bach Concert Series features Cantata No. 170 and more.

And in Washington, Evgeny Kissin plays a recital (also all-Liszt) for Washington Performing Arts Society and the Post-Classical Ensemble explores the world of fascinating American composer Lou Harrison.

There's more, of course, but that should keep you busy enough. And now here's a gorgeous performance of that wonderful aria from Handel's "Rinaldo":

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

March 2, 2011

Eugene Fodor, the 'Mick Jagger of the violin,' dead at 60

Folks of a certain age will remember well the name of American violinist Eugene Fodor, who died over the weekend at the age of 60 in Northern Virginia.

When he shared a second place prize in the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow -- a year when no first prize was awarded -- he became quite the celebrity. With echoes of pianist Van Cliburn, Fodor was hailed not just for his musical talent, but for giving the U.S. a boost during the lingering Cold War.

And thanks to his physical attributes, Fodor attracted attention far outside the usual classical music boundaries. He became one of Johnny Carson's frequent guests on "The Tonight Show"; he performed at the White House; he posed shirtless on a horse for a publicity shot that got wide exposure. Someone dubbed him "the Mick Jagger of the violin," and, for a while, it looked like he would reach superstardom.

But Fodor, like many a sudden star in many a genre, encountered ...

some powerful personal demons. By the 1980s, he was into drugs; in 1989, he was arrested on Martha's Vineyard after breaking into a motel room and found with heroin and cocaine. Fodor went in and out of rehab, in and out of a career.

I interviewed him during one of his first comeback periods in the '90s, when he was booked to play for a large condo community in South Florida. He seemed genuinely interested in focusing on music again. That concert revealed worrisome signs of decline from earlier peaks, but still enough sparks to suggest that Fodor could turn things around.

I hadn't heard about him in years -- until Wednesday, when word came of his much-too-early death from liver disease. Here's a clip of Fodor in his charming prime, playing a bravura showpiece during a skit on the great SCTV show parodying the fabulous Joan Crawford-John Garfield film "Humoresque":

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Juan Diego Florez inaugurates WNO's Placido Domingo Celebrity Series

I've said before that the up-where-the-air-is-rare kind of arts need stars as much as TV and movies do. Stars generate excitement and interest; they raise, or at least solidify, standards (well, they're should).

The Washington National Opera's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series of vocal concerts was launched Sunday afternoon by a certified, irresistible star -- Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez -- and will continue with another, Bryn Terfel this season, Angela Gheorghiu and Deborah Voigt next season. Cool.

The concert Florez gave at the Kennedy Center with the WNO Orchestra, deftly conducted by Alessandro Vitiello, generated terrific sparks.

The tenor did not just settle for the coloratura pyrotechnics he's famous for, although that alone would have made the event memorable -- after all, you don't often hear such clean runs, as he effortlessly dispatched in

arias by Cimaroas and Rossini, or such brightly focused high Cs, as he popped out (all nine of 'em) in his calling card, "Ah! mes amis" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment."


What really impressed on Sunday was the colorful expression in the singing. I've heard some performances of his where the tone and volume level didn't change all that much, but here he produced plenty of variety. My favorite examples were the eloquent shading in "Ah leve-toi soleil" from "Romeo et Juliette" (repertoire not immediately associated with Florez) and the exquisite diminuendo in "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'elisir d'amore".

The general public has been used to a beefier tenor sound for a long time now, so the light, bright timbre of Florez stands out all the more. His sensible career choices, his innate musicality and his unmistakable enthusiasm for the art make him something of a marvel. And with all of those qualities in such abundance, Sunday's concert for WNO was quite the spirit-lifter.

Note, too, the contributions of WNO's orchestra. Aside from a few smudges and tonal thinness in the violin section, the ensemble did admirable work, both partnering Florez and on its own in an assortment of orchestral moments form opera. Concertmaster Oleg Rylatko played downright radiantly in the famous "Meditation" from Massenet's "Thais."

If you missed Sunday's concert or just want to relive some of it, here's a performance (taken from a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) of the vibrant "La flor de la canela" by Chabuca Granda, which Florez delivered as his final encore:

PHOTO (by Joseph Gallauer) COURTESY OF WNO

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 1, 2011

Baltimore Symphony to showcase 'revolutionary women' during 2011-12 season

"Revolutionary women," including Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman, will be showcased during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2011-2012 season, which also packs in music by some relatively revolutionary men, too.

BSO music director Marin Alsop, something of a revolutionary herself in a profession still dominated by males, will lead the orchestra in performances of Arthur Honegger’s rarely encountered 1935 oratorio “Jeanne d’Arc au Boucher” (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”) in November.

“The impetus for this is that 2012 is thought to be the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc,” Alsop said. “She fascinates me in a number of ways. It seemed to be the perfect time to program the Honegger work, which is such a cool piece.”

The oratorio, which will involve the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and Peabody Children’s Chorus, will also be presented at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Later in the season, the French visionary will again receive attention in a program that combines a showing of Carl Dreyer’s highly valued 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with the performance of a contemporary score by Richard Einhorn, “Voices of Light.”

That program will be featured on the BSO’s visit to Oregon and California in March 2012, the orchestra’s first domestic tour since 2000. The trip will include a three-day residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to promote the terrific orchestra we have,” Alsop said, “and to be ambassadors of our region to another part of the U.S.”

With Joan of Arc as a centerpiece for the season, “I then tried to build my programs from there, focusing not just on women’s issues, but issues of oppression and justice,” Alsop said, “and focusing on women in roles as creators or soloists.”

The struggles and aspirations of Harriet Tubman inspired “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan,” an orchestral work by Baltimore-based composer James Lee III that will receive its world premiere in September.

Next season will also see the BSO’s first performance of a 1990 work by Scottish composer James MacMillan, “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie,” which refers to a 17th-century Scottish woman who admitted to being a witch and was apparently burned at the stake (something of a subtext for the season).

Music composed by women is on the lineup, including Jennifer Higdon's 2010 Grammy Award-winning Percussion Concerto and a piece that could serve as the season’s motto: Joan Tower's “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”

Alsop will tackle several hefty works from the standard repertoire, including

Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which will open the season. She'll be on the podium for Prokofiev's Fifth, Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Sixth ("Pathetique") and Shostakovich's Seventh ("Leningrad"), as well as such evergreens as Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra," Ravel's "Bolero" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

Speaking of standards, Beethoven's Ninth will be back yet again, conducted by Mario Venzago on a program with Bruckner's "Te Deum." Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, which was played just a few weeks ago on a BSO program by Yuja Wang, will be back, too, this time with Andre Watts as soloist.

Other popular pieces resurfacing include Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and "La Mer," Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Balancing that hit parade will be such items as Symphony No. 4 ("From Mission San Juan Bautista") by Baltimore-based Kevin Puts.

Several names familiar to BSO audiences will be on the guest roster: violinists Hilary Hahn (for the annual gala), Itzhak Perlman (he'll conduct, too), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg; pianist Leon Fleisher (in Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand); conductors Gunther Herbig, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Jun Markl, Vasily Petrenko, Louis Langree. Among those making their BSO debuts next season will be pianist Olga Kern.

The BSO SuperPops season finds principal pops conductor Jack Everly leading programs devoted to, among other things, the music of Gershwin, Elton John (with vocalist Michael Cavanaugh),and the team of Schonberg-Boublil responsible for "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon."

The BSO's summer season for 2010 will offer a Beatles tribute band, music of John Williams and more Gershwin.

One thing missing from next season is the Holiday Spectacular with its popular tap-dancing Santas.

“We decided to take a break after six years,” said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. “We just weren’t getting the level of attendance we needed.”

Instead, the orchestra will present “Holiday Cirque de la Symphonie,” a version of the program with aerialists and jugglers that was a hit for the BSO last year.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:28 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
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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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