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April 29, 2011

German conductor Cornelius Meister makes impressive Baltimore Symphony debut

Wow. That sure was fun.

Thursday night's Baltimore Symphony concert at Meyerhoff Hall introduced the audience to Cornelius Mesiter, a barely-into-his-30s conductor from Germany. I hope he comes back soon.

I must confess that a tinge of skepticism came over me when I first saw the lithe, boyishly handsome Meister practically jog onto the stage, a big smile on his face. Oh no, thought I. Way too eager. But one measure into Smetana's Overture to "The Bartered Bride," such silly doubts vanished. It was clear this guy is for real.

Meister, whose various posts include chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony, drew an exceptionally polished and expressive response from the BSO.

It was cool to hear the strings flying through the fugal passages of the overture with such flair, to hear the woodwinds producing so much color and charm. There was a spark, I'm telling you, an honest-to-goodness spark. And it never dimmed.

At the end of the evening came a radiant account of  ...

Brahms' Second Symphony. Meister paid keen attention to such matters as dynamic contrasts and accents. He allowed for affectingly spacious phrasing when the score was at its most lyrical, but didn't hesitate to rev up the engines when the pace quickened -- the dancing outbursts in the Allegretto, the whirl of the finale.

The music came alive in ways that struck me as unusually fresh and absorbing. Even the way Meister held onto the very last, emphatic note -- just a few tiny seconds more than we typically get, but so, so satisfying -- made a big difference.

The orchestra sounded eager and inspired. Again, the strings poured on the tonal warmth; woodwinds and brass articulated with terrific character. Phil Munds delivered the horn solos with his usual, disarming eloquence.

I don't mean to slight the program's other attraction -- Max Bruch's terribly neglected Violin Concerto No. 2, which provided an amiable vehicle for BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The much-played Concerto No. 1 may contain more indelible melodies and may be more tightly constructed, but No. 2, fueled by equal splashes of drama and poetry, has a great deal to recommend it.

Aside from a little smudging in some bravura-bursting bits, Carney's playing was technically impressive throughout. Even more impressive was the vibrant richness of his phrasing, the way he had the music singing and purring. Meister partnered the violinist smoothly and kept the orchestral side of things flowing in style.

The program will be repeated Friday night at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

A tip of the hat to one-of-a-kind conductor Sir Thomas Beecham

Among the musical notables born on April 29 was Sir Thomas Beecham (in 1879), and 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his death. So that's reason a-plenty to give him a little salute here.

Beecham enjoyed nearly as much fame for his wit as for his incandescent music-making. Just a few examples of Beecham quips: “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between.” "A musicologist is a man who can read music but can't hear it." Addressed to a female cellist during an orchestral rehearsal: “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands - and all you can do is scratch it.”

Beecham's ability to shape a score with an ear for a singing line and refined instrumental coloring should not be forgotten. He had something, that's for sure, and it's always rewarding to spend some time exploring his legacy. Here's a taste -- newsreel footage of Beecham introducing the London Philharmonic with a dash of Tchaikovsky (from the absurdly under-appreciated Symphony No. 3); a radio broadcast (introduced by Lionel Barrymore) of a charming piece by Delius; and a segment from a documentary that includes interviews and a rehearsal of ballet music from Gounod's "Faust."

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (1)

April 28, 2011

Another weekend, spoiled for musical choice

As I took a break from eating bonbons during the final days of my exile (you may recall that I've been burning off five -- count 'em, five -- weeks of use-or-lose vacation time), I noticed that this weekend presents another large assortment of musical activity.

In addition to the usual suspects (there are noteworthy presentations from the BSO, NSO, Shriver Hall, An die Musik, Peabody etc.), I thought a few other things are worth worth a mention in case they might  otherwise slip beneath your radar.

The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society has a cool presentation at 8 p.m. Saturday at Towson University's Center for the Arts -- the Alturas Duo, a unique combination of instruments (guitar, charango, viola) and repertoire (classical and South American).

Also on Saturday, for those seeking something way different, there's the second annual "Vigil" -- an all-night, outdoor music festival at MICA's Cohen Plaza organized by cool dude Erik Spangler. Between 7 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday, dozens of performances, some of them improvised, will take place (the volume gets lowered at 10). Participants include the Purple City Players, composer Judah Adashi, Kid EXP, Soul Cannon, and many more. Video art will be projected on the side of the Brown Center. It's all free.

The Sunday lineup includes a recital by ...

one of the leading organists of the day, Paul Jacobs, head of the organ department at Juilliard. He'll perform works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Boulanger in this performance at 3 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, directed by Tom Hall, will be at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium for a concert at 5 p.m. Sunday. The program offers the local premieres of Eric Whitacre’s "Five Hebrew Lovesongs" and Gwyneth Walker’s "Dreams and Dances" (a work inspired by former Maryland poet-laureate Lucille Clifton). There's also room for a Handel’s "Dixit Dominus."

Speaking of choral music, the Towson University Chorale and McDonogh School Concert Choir will combine forces in a program presented by Community Concerts at Second -- but not at Second (Presbyterian). This event takes place at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Church of the Redeemer. The program includes works by such diverse composers as Vincent Persichetti, Morten Lauridsen and Stephen Sondheim.

One more Sunday attraction. Promising young conductor Lee Mills is completing his Graduate Performance Diploma at the Peabody Conservatory in high style -- leading a concert featuring Bernstein's "Candide" Overture, Wagner's "Wessendonck Lieder" (with soprano Amber Schwarzrock), and Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 (with organist Chris Keenan).

The orchestra for the event is comprised of Peabody students. (Earlier this season, Mills managed to bring together enough of his fellow students to enable him to conduct Beethoven's Ninth; he's clearly got the gift of persuasion.)

The public is invited at no charge to Sunday's concert, which is  at 3 p.m. in Peabody's Griswold Hall.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 27, 2011

Rep Stage explores teen secrets, sexual identity in provocative 'Speech & Debate'

This spring, plays with gay characters and issues have been sprouting up all over our area. Not that there’s anything wrong with that -- I’d say it's a case of fortuitous, even fabulous, serendipity.

Closing recently were stagings of Paula Vogel's bittersweet "The Long Christmas Ride Home" at Single Carrot Theatre and Adam Bock's offbeat comedy “Swimming in the Shallows” at Iron Crow Theatre. Still on the boards for another few weeks at the Vagabond Players is John Guare’s still-potent “Six Degrees of Separation.”

And Rep Stage is closing its season in provocative form with a dynamic and telling production of Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate,” which has much to say about what it means to be young and gay and alone.

Propelled by a darkly comic streak, Karam's fast-paced play concerns three high-school outsiders. What they have most in common is a deep-set need to know if anyone else out is out there like them -- and if anyone else out there might actually like them.

There’s Diwata (a name practically begging to be mangled by others, especially clueless adults). She’s a bit overweight and seriously over-eager. Determined to be an actress, despite the unwillingness of drama teachers to notice her vast talent, Diwata finds an ideal outlet online, unaware of just how out-there a blog can be. In short order, her life entwines with those of two others at her school in Salem, Ore.

Solomon is a 16-year-old would-be reporter fascinated with the local scandals involving anti-gay rights Republican politicians outed for relationships with young males. Solomon thinks this hypocrisy would make a great story for his student paper.

Things get much more complicated, though, when ...

the possibility of an inappropriate teacher-teen relationship turns up at the school. Enter Howie, the transfer student who’s openly gay, but not ready for everything about himself to be known.

Karam’s taut script, note-perfect in the way it captures the jagged speech patterns of the young, packs a lot of complex, sometimes uncomfortable matters into 90 minutes.

“Speech & Debate” -- the title refers to a school club that provides an outlet of sorts for the three misfits -- opens a window into how contemporary teens see themselves and adults; how they perceive and categorize dangers; how they recognize or compartmentalize sexual identity; how they keep and betray secrets.

These kids don’t really know as much as they think they do about the world,but they know something is not quite right, and they want to learn more. And, as Solomon does, they’ll just “google it” until something starts to make sense.

Karam doesn’t impose solutions or moral guidance on the story; questions are allowed to hang in the air. And he lets loose a wicked sense of humor at the right moments to generate an experience that is as entertaining as it is edgy.

The Rep Stage production has the benefit of a uniformly appealing, persuasive cast, directed by Eve Muson, who has the action flowing smoothly across James Fouchard’s sleek set.

Florrie Bagel gives a deliciously vibrant performance as Diwata, making the most of every opportunity to burst into painful ballads at her Casio keyboard (the occasional songs are comic highlights of the show), or recite speeches from “The Crucible” (frequent references to that tale of rumor and persecution carry extra significance here).

Bagel manages to convey the frantic, ready-for-her-“Glee”-close-up side of Diwata as winningly as the wounded, unsure woman-to-be inside.

As the nerdy-needy Solomon, Sam Ludwig likewise does multidimensional work (costume designer Melanie Clark gives him just the right touch of fashion obliviousness). In the scene when the protective covering is suddenly pulled off of Solomon’s inner life, Ludwig proves especially affecting.

Parker Drown captures the sureness and shyness of Howie in a nicely detailed, thoroughly natural performance. His contributions to the musical flourishes have an extra kick, too.

Karen Novack ably rounds out the cast in the play’s two, brief adult roles -- a teacher and a certain type of self-serving journalist we’ve all known (and have probably heard at least once on NPR).

Performances of “Speech & Debate” continue through Sunday at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College.

Note that a panel discussion, “Young and Gay in Howard County,” will be held at 12:30 p.m. Saturday before the matinee. Colette Roberts, founder of Howard County Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians will lead the session, addressing such topics as coming out and bullying.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

George Hamilton to star in 'La Cage aux Folles' at Hippodrome

The much-admired revival of the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical "La Cage aux Folles" heading to Baltimore's Hippodrome next season will star movie/TV veteran George Hamilton.

The actor, whose perpetually bronzed skin had no rival until the emergence of House Speaker John Boehner, will have the role of gay nightclub owner Georges. Hamilton is not known for having a great singing voice, but he's likely to bring other attributes to the show, a comic clash of sexual, social and political forces.

As for the role of Albin, Georges' longtime partner who appears as the drag queen Zaza at the club ...

that casting choice has yet to be announced.

This version of "La Cage aux Folles," which originated in 2007 at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, was imported to Broadway and won three 2010 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Director of a Musical (Terry Johnson). The show, now starring Fierstein and Christopher Sieber, closes in New York on May 1.

The national touring production is scheduled to be at the Hippodrome Nov. 1-6.



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

April 26, 2011

Peabody winding up the month with hefty musical attractions

As April winds down (my extended vacation ends this week, too), things are heating up at the Peabody Institute, where several musical attractions are on the calendar.

On Wednesday, Edward Polochick leads the Peabody Concert Orchestra in a program that balances the upbeat "Spring" Symphony by Schumann with the slightly less cheery Requiem by Mozart (featuring soloists from the conservatory, along with the Peabody Singers and the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus).

On Thursday and Friday, the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble, directed by Mark Cudek, explores the original music that inspired Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances." And on Saturday, Leon Fleisher will be in conducting mode to guide the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Walton's Partita and Beethoven's "Eroica."

Speaking of Fleisher, he'll be ...

in pianist mode on Sunday, joining the Tokyo String Quartet (and bassist Robert Barney) for the season finale of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, playing an arrangement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major. Music by Takemitsu will also be performed at this concert, which is being dedicated to the victims of the tsunami in Japan. 

And speaking of Peabody folks, note that a couple of successful conservatory alums will be featured this week at at An die Musik -- guitarist Alexander Milovanov on Tuesday, pianist Jenny Lin on Friday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:23 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 25, 2011

A salute to William Donald Schaefer from Maryland Citizens for the Arts

As last respects are being paid to William Donald Schaefer, the dynamo Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, it's a great time to remember what he did for the cause of culture.

The board of trustees of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, chaired by Douglas R. Mann, passed a resolution honoring that legacy. I think it's worth quoting the resolution in full:

We, the members of the MCA Board of Trustees, hereby resolve to commend and honor the extraordinary contributions made to the arts in Maryland by the Honorable William Donald Schaefer throughout his life and career.

Whereas, he recognized the vital role of the arts in the civic, cultural, educational, and economic life of the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland and the responsibility of government at all levels to nurture the arts and enable equitable access.

Whereas, as a member of the Baltimore City Council, the Honorable William Donald Schaefer, sponsored and secured passage in 1964 of ...

the Baltimore City Percent for Art Ordinance which was the second such legislation created in the United States.

Whereas, as Mayor of the City of Baltimore, he created the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture. Through his enhancement of municipal support for the arts Baltimore assumed national leadership based on per capita public funding of the arts. Under his leadership, the citywide arts festival, ArtScape was inaugurated and was recognized quickly as a national model.

Whereas, as Governor of Maryland, the Honorable William Donald Schaefer appointed the Governor’s Commission on the Future of the Arts in Maryland. A significant policy outcome of the 1992 report was the formal adoption of the goal of providing state funding of 10% of qualifying arts organizations’ budgets. In progress towards that goal, funding of the Maryland State Arts Council reached its historically highest level as a percentage of arts organization budgets during his administration.

Further, in 1994, under his leadership, the Maryland Arts Stabilization Bill was passed by the Maryland General Assembly and signed by him into law. This landmark legislation ensured ongoing protection of funding of the Maryland State Arts Council.

Whereas, as Comptroller of the State of Maryland, he championed and secured passage of Maryland State Public Art Program legislation in 2005, thus creating a public art program for the State of Maryland just as he had for the City of Baltimore.

Through all of these major initiatives and countless other arts programs and projects, the Honorable William Donald Schaefer greatly enhanced the quality of life of all of Maryland’s communities, neighborhoods, schools and citizens in myriad ways.

Therefore we celebrate and salute, on this 21st day of April, 2011, the magnificent legacy of the Honorable William Donald Schaefer has left to the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland, which will inspire and enrich the lives of generations of Marylanders to come.



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Temirkanov challenges legitimacy of 'Tchaikovsky' orchestra

Yuri Temirkanov, who left memories of great music-making in our area earlier this month on a tour with his superb St. Petersburg Philharmionic, is in the news. Dan Wakin reports in Monday's New York Times that Temirkanov has challenged the legitimacy and legality of something called the "Tchaikovsky" St. Petersburg State Orchestra.

Seems that a Web site for that ensemble contained misleading visual and audio. "The photograph was of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic," Wakin reports, "and the video showed the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Both were playing in the city’s Philharmonic Hall, where the Tchaikovsky orchestra does not perform."

Temirkanov, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony, is quoted as saying:

“I’m angry because I’m a musician. What they do a) is immoral, and b) is legally wrong.”

The conductor of the orchestra in question disputes Temirkanov's viewpoint, but, judging by the Times article, hard evidence of a fully viable musical institution with a solid past and a sturdy present is on the scanty side. Maybe more info will be revealed in time.

None of this will surprise anyone who has spotted questionable orchestras and ballet companies from Russia popping up on these shores over the decades, touted in ads that suggest great credentials ("Leading Stars of the Bolshoi!!!"), but turn out to be essentially freelance outfits put together to capitalize on the marketability of Russian culture.

Not that I'm passing judgment on the "Tchaikovsky" St. Petersburg State Orchestra, but, really, doesn't that name make you wonder?

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (1)

April 22, 2011

For Good Friday, a performance of 'Were You There' by the great Roland Hayes

Every Good Friday, I think of Marian Anderson's sublime performance of the haunting spiritual "Were You There." This year, I remembered another wonderful version by another great singer who fought the racial barrier in the classical music world during the 20th century, tenor Roland Hayes. He deserves to be much better known today, as this 1930s recording easily demonstrates:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Center Stage fills in remainder of 2011-2012 season

When Center Stage announced its 2011–12 season a few weeks ago, one slot was TBA. It has now been filled with "The Whipping Man," a play by Matthew Lopez that had a well-received run at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this season.

The production, scheduled for April 4–May 13, 2012, will be directed by incoming Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

"The Whipping Man" tells the story of three Jews in

Richmond -- a former Confederate soldier and two of his former slaves -- on the eve of Passover, 1865, just after the Civil War has ended.

Lopez, whose works include "Somewhere" and "Zoey’s Perfect Wedding," said in a statement that he is ...

"delighted that 'The Whipping Man's' first regional production after its New York premiere will take place at Center Stage, a theater where I have had wonderful experiences as an audience member in the past. I am also honored that Kwame has chosen it as the first play he will direct in his new role as artistic director ... 'The Whipping Man' is a play about new beginnings and how we define family. I cannot think of a more perfect time and place for it to find its next home than at Center Stage at this particular time in its history."

In case you missed the earlier announcement, the rest of the company's seasons offers "The Rivals," "American Buffalo," "Jazz" (premiere of an adaptation of Toni Morrison novel), "A Skull in Connemara," and "Into the Woods."

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

April 19, 2011

Wondering why the wow factor eludes 'West Side Story' revival

Since attending opening night of "West Side Story" at the Hippodrome last week, I've been wondering why there was so little of a wow factor in the performance.

(I don't usually mull over such things for so long, but, hey, I'm technically on vacation, which means I get easily distracted. It's actually the same when I'm not on vacation. I just have an excuse now.)

If you missed my review, make your life complete and catch up with it here.

First, let me hasten to say that "West Side Story" virgins would do well to catch this national touring production. Revivals of the brilliant musical don't come around every day, given how big a show it is in terms of personnel and technical requirements.

And this one, which started out in D.C. three years ago and had a respectable Broadway run thereafter, provides a welcome opportunity to reaffirm how much gold is in this work -- the sizzling Bernstein score, the brilliantly athletic Jerome Robbins choreography. There's certainly enough quality in the production to make for an entertaining experience. But it just doesn't pack the punch it should. For all of the high-flying dance routines, the show doesn't soar high enough.

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the musical, directed the original in 1957 and directed this revival, has a lot to say about revisiting "West Side Story" in his most recent book, "Mainly on Directing." He is especially proud of ...

the bilingual element in this version, which led some Anglos to send him hate mail.

Even though the use of Spanish was reduced after the revival opened on Broadway, it is apparently still too much for some. I've heard complaints about this since the Hippodrome run started.

I rather like the attempt to remind audiences of the separate and hardly equal worlds inhabited by the rival gangs who propel the plot of "West Side Story." The world is still divided into factions, after all.

Laurents also strove to make the musical more realistic by emphasizing the violent nature of the gangs and making sure that casting decisions were made as much, or even more, for acting ability than vocal and dance skills.

I'm all for fine acting in a musical, but I really, really want good singing, too. I didn't hear much of that. The Tony came to grief on many a top note; the Maria had a tight, brittle sound. It's kind of hard to get all the way into this show without having two thoroughly winning voices leading the way.

Then there's the contemporary angle in this staging. Rather than give everyone '50s duds, the costuming fudges the time period. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but, in practice, the gangs end up looking a little too neat and, well, un-gang-like (just as they do in the movie version of the musical). I'm not the first to notice that the guys in this show could be mistaken for models bounding in from a Gap photo shoot.

I wonder if it would have been smarter to embrace the original time-setting of the show head-on, to accept that it was a product of its time. There could still be grittier things added to underline points that had to be smoothed over onstage in 1957, but that gritty edge wouldn't have to get as vulgar and even sophomoric as it does here.

The messages in "West Side Story" (or, for that matter, it's source material, "Romeo and Juliet") don't really need to be punched up with so much contemporary behavior. I found the blatancy in this revival -- all those people giving the finger, all that humping -- only served to date the production, rather than underline the timeless quality of a great American musical.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

April 18, 2011

An afternoon with cool programs featuring American music

Sunday marked the start of the last two weeks of my use-or-lose leave-taking, a curious situation that feels more like limbo than vacation. For those of you who have said to me over the years "I don't know how you cover so many things," this is part of the answer -- I haven't been taking all my leave, which is how I ended up having to burn five weeks of it this spring.

As you may have noticed, I still keep popping in and out of music and theater performances during this hiatus -- call me a culture-user with a heavy habit. I felt I needed another fix on Sunday afternoon, so I checked out two cool programs happening within a short distance of each other in Towson.

(After that musical activity, I headed off to a theater performance in Columbia, but an accident on 695, the kind where they close all lanes, kept me pinned down so long I couldn't make curtain time, so I had to retreat sadly homeward.)

I started Sunday's concert-going at Goucher College, where the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra was offering a rare local performance of Symphony No. 3 by Charles Ives -- any symphony by Ives is a rarity here, for reasons I can't fathom.

The Third bears the title "The Camp Meeting." A better name might be "The Revival Meeting," since the score evolves almost entirely out of hymn tunes. That evolution is wonderfully achieved, as Ives weaves themes and bits and pieces of themes into a complex, often tenderly nostalgic fabric.

BCO music director Markand Thakar sensibly provided an introduction to the work for the audience, including the actual hymns (nicely sung by an orchestra member) and examples of their usage in the symphony, but the presentation went on much too long and could have used a lot more finesse. The performance, though, was mostly smooth; the richness of the musical invention came through.

Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony, which followed, had the benefit of Thakar's well-judged tempos and nuanced phrasing, as well as the poised, colorful playing by the orchestra. BCO audiences have, in the past, expressed a pronounced affinity for Mozart; I hope the elegance and wit of this performance will inspire them to ask for more Haydn.

I headed out at intermission to Towson University to hear the second half of ...

Pro Musica Rara's intriguing program devoted to music from the young years of our country.

I wish I could have heard the whole concert, especially since it featured the terrific soprano Julianne Baird, one of the finest vocal artists specializing in early music. But I still got to savor her bright tone and natural communicative skills, especially in a couple of drinking songs -- one, a humorous salute to Ben Franklin, with audience participation; the other, "To Anacreon in Heaven," the melodic source material for our national anthem.

Hearing the original John Stafford Smith tune and Ralph Tomlinson verses is unusual enough. Even more unusual was the chance to hear a different musical setting of "The Star Spangled Banner." This treatment by composer James Hewitt of the Francis Scott Key poem understandably never made the hit parade, but it's a fascinating item, especially with its juxtaposition of jaunty melody and mostly soft dynamics.

Baird sang the novelties with delectable spirit. The Pro Musica Rara ensemble -- flutist Sara Nichols, violinist Cunthia Roberts, cellist Allen Whear, fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch -- did a colorful job as well.

The concert's second half also included such offbeat fare as a keyboard sonata by Alexander Reinagle, part of a set considered the first sonatas composed in America. That Reinagle is buried in Baltimore added to the interest. Mengelkoch performed the genial music elegantly. She and Whear delivered a supple performance of a likewise pleasant, well-constructed cello sonata by Raynor Taylor.

Such pieces, needless to say, sound essentially like European classical music of the late-18th, early-19th centuries, which is no doubt why it gets routinely ignored here. So what if this stuff sounds European? How could it have sounded American when we were still a very new country founded by Europeans? More concerts like this one might help restore the integrity of our earliest musical heritage.

Finally, something from the strange-coincidence department. The after-intermission work that I missed on the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's program was Brahms' Double Concerto. When I turned on the car radio as I left the Pro Musica Rara concert, WETA-FM happened to be the station the radio was tuned to, and the work airing on said station just happened to be Brahms' Double Concerto. Spooky.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 15, 2011

Another little guide to weekend musical delights

Big surprise -- too many musical delights jammed into another weekend in Baltimore, especially on Sunday. Good luck choosing.

I'll say it again: Someone in this town should lead a can't-we-all-get-along-Kumbaya drive and develop a process that helps local musical organizations share scheduling ideas far in advance and help them avoid so many conflicts.

There aren't unlimited numbers of classical music fans out there. It makes no sense for everyone to compete so often for concert-goers on the same dates and at the same time slots. Sure, I'm being terribly unrealistic, but I'm entitled to kvetch, aren't I?

Anyway, back to this weekend. In case it helps, I thought I should point out a few items that seem particularly promising. (You may recall I'm still on an extended vacation. I'll be out of town part of the weekend, but may still try to catch some of the local musical action when I get back.)

If, like me, you love to experience silent films with live music, don't even hesitate about catching the Baltimore Symphony's presentation of Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush," with Marin Alsop conducting Chaplin's own score. You can catch it Saturday night at Meyerhoff, or head to Strathmore Friday night so you have more time Saturday and Sunday to catch other concerts.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, the remarkable young cellist Hans Kristian Goldstein will give a free recital with pianist Clinton Adams, presented by Shriver Hall Concert Series at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The program offers works by Boccherini, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, as well as unaccompanied cello pieces by Bach and Ligeti.

At the same hour farther uptown ...

violinist Hahn-Bin, who has one of the most distinctive hairstyles in the classical biz, will give a recital with pianist John Blacklow at the Evergreen Museum. The program covers a wide range of composers, from Chopin and Saint-Saens to Lutoslawski and John Cage.

Moving to Sunday, first up, at 2:30 p.m., the Concert Artists of Baltimore will be at the Engineers Club with a chamber music event focusing on classical and folk music from Greece. Clarinetist David Drosinos will be joined by members of the Greek/American band Zephyros. There's a belly dancer on the program, too, so this concert has a leg, or at least a stomach, up on the competition.

The 3 o'clock hour finds the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, where Markand Thakar conducts two great symphonies from very different worlds -- Haydn's 94th (the one known as "Surprise") and Charles Ives' Third (the one known as "Camp Meeting"). Also on the bill: Brahms' lush Double Concerto with violinist David Perry and cellist Michael Mermagen.

At 3:30 p.m. at Towson Center for the Arts, Pro Musica Rara welcomes one of the finest sopranos in the early music field, Julianne Baird. She'll be joined by Eva Mengelkoch at the fortepiano and others in an unusual program that explores the sort of music that could have been enjoyed by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Sunday at 7:30 p.m., it's time for Chamber Music by Candlelight at Second Presbyterian Church, where members of the BSO will offer a typically diverse program. Selections include a clarinet quintet by Weber, a string quartet by Mendelssohn and a violin sonata by William Bolcom.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 13, 2011

Temirkanov leads St. Petersburg Philharmonic in high-powered concert at Strathmore

It was one of those deja-vu-all-over-again moments when Yuri Temirkanov walked onstage at Strathmore Tuesday night.

Just seeing that aristocratic bearing and thin smile brought back memories of those few, downright glorious seasons filled with intensely involving music-making when he was at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. 

For Tuesday's event, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Temirkanov was appearing with the St. Petersburg  Philharmonic, his main artistic focus since 1988.

I still remember when he brought that orchestra to the BSO's home turf for a performance a Meyerhoff Hall fairly early into his Baltimore tenure. A lot of BSO players attended and, on the way out afterward, I bumped into one of them, who, looking almost shell-shocked, turned and said: "So that's how he wants us to play."

Temirkanov didn't really try fashioning the BSO into a copy of the St. Petersburg ensemble, but he did want to summon the richest possible tone and the deepest, most soulful phrasing he could. That he succeeded on many occasions is why a lot of us will always retain such fond recollections of his time here.

But enough of the sentiment. On with the review.

Tuesday's concert found Temirkanov in typically high-voltage form. He turned the curtain-raiser, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture into a real barn-burner, a one-act drama of terrific intensity and color. The orchestra gave him thunderous fortissimos that never turned vulgar and handled the fastest passages with remarkable finesse.

The Russian mood continued with ...

Shostakovich's eventful Cello Concerto No. 1, the sort of music Temirkanov knows intimately from the inside. His guiding hand on the podium ensured that each orchestral detail was carefully molded as he provided ever-supple partnering for the soloist, Ailsa Weilerstein.

She offered fierce intensity in the outer movements. In the heart of the concerto, the pensive Moderato and extended Cadenza, Weilerstein achieved richly eloquent results, burrowing far beneath the black and white of the score. It was an absorbing performance.

The Philharmonic's contributions, including vivid horn solos, likewise proved stellar.

The evening's second half was devoted to Brahms' Fourth. Temirkanov has a particular affinity for the muscular side of the composer's romanticism. He likes to rev up the engine and pump up the volume, as he did here in the last two movements to riveting effect.

Earlier, Temirkanov's distinctive way of adding a tiny pause between the first and second plaintive notes of the opening movement paid poetic dividends (it subtly accentuated the sighing quality of the main theme), while his ability to draw an extra layer of sonic darkness from the orchestra emphasized the dark clouds behind the Andante.

If you tried hard, you could detect a premature entrance from a string player here, a brass player there; maybe even a slightly smudgy patch of articulation within one section of the orchestra or another. But that would require some fierce nit-picking in light of so much technically polished, expressively vibrant playing from a clearly inspired Philharmonic.

I noticed several new faces, many of then young, in the ensemble since the last time I heard it. That may account for some of the vitality emanating from the stage, but the power source was clearly Temirkanov, whose baton-less hands continue to communicate in inimitable ways and whose ability to get musicians to deliver edge-of-their-seat music-making remains wonderful to behold.

The whole evening was vintage Temirkanov,right down to the sublime encore -- "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," which he used on BSO tours, too. This conductor may not surprise you often with repertoire choices, but, it seems, he is as capable as ever of shaking you up by giving familiar fare fresh impact.

Incidentally, in case you missed it, I did an interview with Temirkanov for last Sunday's Sun. He had some interesting things to say, I think. Prior to press time, I was not successful in getting anyone in the BSO to respond to a question about the chances of the orchestra's music director emeritus returning for a guest slot in the future. But I heard that a BSO official was at Tuesday's concert, so maybe the subject was raised backstage.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 11, 2011

Kronos Quartet's association with Clarice Smith Center includes two free events this week

The contemporary music scene would sure have been a lot less interesting over the years without the Kronos Quartet doing its high-level advocacy.

The brilliant, ever-inquisitive ensemble has developed close ties to the University of Maryland's School of Music and the Clarice Smith Center, where there was a Kronos concert Sunday night featuring Steve Reich's new, 9/11-based piece (I couldn't make it, so if any of you were there, please send me your thoughts).

This week, you can catch what are billed as "free engagement events" at the center.

On Tuesday at 8, the Kronos Quartet will give a ...

public reading of works by student composers, which has got to be awfully cool for the composers and should be fascinating for the audience.

And, as a kind of prelude to Tuesday's event, at 5:30, Kronos artistic director David Harrington will give a public "listening party" -- he'll share some of the works he's considering for the group and discuss the process of choosing repertoire.

Free admission to both presentations.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:19 AM | | Comments (0)

April 9, 2011

Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony

I know I should avoid such a cheesy adjective, but the word I keep thinking of to describe the National Symphony Orchestra's concert on Friday is "heavenly."

That covers the program itself -- Webern's subtly rapturous "Im sommerwind"; Golijov's radiant orchestration of four Schubert songs dealing with images of love, longing, peace, and a moonlit "holy night"; Mahler's gentle, nostalgic Symphony No. 4, with its final movement depicting a child's view of celestial pleasures. What an extraordinarily imaginative, absorbing combination of repertoire.

I must say there was also something really quite "heavenly" about this Kennedy Center performance, too. The NSO's compelling music director Christoph Eschenbach was in his element here. I haven't come across many conductors who care so much about soft dynamics, who can get an orchestra to go beyond the normal range of pianissimo to touch another whole realm of delicacy. And this program gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate that sensitivity.

The hushed opening and close of the Webern score, for example, proved magical as Eschenbach drew from the musicians exquisite nuances. The same sort of thing happened often during the concert -- a level of subtle expressiveness that communicated richly.

The fascinating Golijov-Schubert piece, titled "She Was Here," incorporates "Wandrers Nachtlied," "Nur wer di Sehnsucht kennt,""Dass sie hier gewesen," and "Nacht und Traume." Golijov has created a gorgeous orchestral song cycle. He preserves Schubert's original melodic lines while creating around them a shimmering orchestral fabric that connects the songs to our world in a new way.

The NSO enjoyed the distinct advantage of Dawn Upshaw as soloist. The soprano, a frequent collaborator with Golijov, gave the premiere of the work in 2008. Upshaw has long been one of the most incisive vocal artists on the scene (she has emerged quite triumphant from a bout with cancer a few years ago), and she  demonstrated great eloquence here, using her burnished low register to especially keen effect. Eschenbach had the NSO practically breathing with the singer.

In Mahler's Fourth, the violins occasionally lost tonal smoothness and a few brass and woodwind contributions could have used more finesse, but the orchestra's playing overall proved very impressive. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef took on the famous dual-instrument solos with elan.

In the finale, ...

Upshaw sang "Das Himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") with a true sense of childlike wonder, spinning out a gleaming tone.

I confess to a fondness for the startling tempo-stretching that Willem Mengelberg adopted in his historic 1930s recording of Mahler's Fourth, especially in the opening movement. Of course, it's an approach I don't really expect to encounter in a concert hall (although a performance I heard in in Florida years ago conducted by James Judd came amazingly close). For his part, Eschenbach kept things relatively straightforward, rubato-wise, in that opening movement, but there was still plenty of charm and color.

He effectively tapped into the rustic color of the second movement and dug into the sublime poetry of the third most persuasively. Eschenbach saved his most distinctive and inspiring touches for the finale, taking the last verse of the song at a slower pace than typically encountered. That was beautiful enough, allowing Upshaw to underline the point of the words -- "There is no music on earth that can compare with ours" -- more richly.

But Eschenbach also had the subdued orchestral coda slowing even more, getting the players to produce another remarkable pianissimo. The last, deep note was held onto for what seemed, quite appropriately, like an eternity, all the while dissipating ever so gradually.

I don't mind telling you that I got a little misty-eyed hearing that long, slow fade and the equally telling silence that followed. This sort of thing just doesn't happen every day of concert-going. Like I said at the beginning: Heavenly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (3)

April 8, 2011

Escher Quartet, fresh from surprise at NY emporium, to make Baltimore debut

The Escher String Quartet has been winning attention as an up-and-comer on the chamber music scene. It also got some fresh notice earlier this week at Zabar's, the up-market food emporium in New York City.

There, the ensemble played some serious Beethoven for unsuspecting shoppers near the fish counter. I must say I still get a kick out of this national trend of sneak attacks by classical musicians. I've posted video below.

Note that the Escher Quartet will make its Baltimore debut Saturday, courtesy of the Shriver Hall Concert Series. The 3 p.m. concert, part of the annual Discovery Series held at the Baltimore Museum of Art, offers works by Brahms and Zemlinsky, as well as the complete Op. 95 by Beethoven that the players served up the first movement of at Zabar's.

Admission is free; advance reservations recommended (and a $10 donation gladly accepted).

Now here's that nosh of Beethoven with smoked salmon:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

April 7, 2011

Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons to read Shakespeare in Castleton Festival concert with Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival seems to get classier every year. It's also spreading more often beyond the enveloping beauty of the conductor's estate in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

One of those stretches will find Maazel leading the Castelton Festival Orchestra -- made up of top-notch young professionals -- in "Music Inspired by Shakespeare" on June 30 at Strathmore.

In addition to "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," there will be ...

readings of Shakespeare by two of the most admired actors of our day: Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons.

Tickets are $25-$150 and will be available through Strathmore's Web site or by phone, 301-581-5100. Proceeds support the Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel’s Châteauville Foundation, which supports the festival and provides fellowships for participants from this country and abroad.

The Virginia portion of the festival, which runs June 25-July 24, includes productions of operas by Puccini, Ravel and Weill, among others, and several concerts.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:27 PM | | Comments (0)

Toronto classical radio station capitalizes on Twitter-driven movie title puns

In my usual, just-missed-the-trend way, I discovered late in the game this week that a classical music pun-fest has been whirling through the Twitter-sphere.

The object, as I understand it, is to rework a movie title so that a conductor's name is incorporated. (You can join in on Twitter by searching for the hash tag #conductormovies.)

First up: “Herbert von Carry On,” which is even funnier if you're a fan of those goofy old British "Carry On" films.

Soon came the likes of "Scary Muti 1, Scary Muti 2, Scary Muti 3, Scary Muti 4" (given Muti's bouts with illness this season, those titles hold an extra wry charge); "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Ashkenazy"; "The Wizard of Ozawa;" and "Much Abbado About Nothing."

The Baltimore Symphony's music director turned up, of course, starring in "Alsop Famous." 

Then along came New Classical 96.3FM, a radio station in ...

one of my favorite cities, Toronto (it's billed as the only all-classical radio station in English Canada). Seizing the opportunity to carry this running joke one step further, station personnel jumped into full photoshop mode and created a very clever series of posters for some of these films.

I've shared a few of my favorites here; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten" gave me a particular chuckle.

Check out the station's Web site for more.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 6, 2011

Baltimore Shakespeare Festival shuts down after 17 seasons

 The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, a significant force in the local theatrical community, is closing after 17 seasons.

"This is a very difficult decision that was made by our Board," marketing and development director Chris Pfingsten wrote in an email I received Wednesday. "Needless to say, [artistic director] Michael [Carleton] and I are very disappointed. ... Neither Michael nor I will be making any official statement regarding this decision other than to say we are very sad, but also extremely proud of the work that was created by our artists on the BSF stage."

In addition to presenting works by Shakespeare and others outdoors in the Meadow at the Evergreen Museum and Library, the company, one of three Equity theaters in Baltimore, staged works at St. Mary's in Roland Park, most recently an imaginative production of "Richard III" last November.

For an update on the company's financial problems, despite a $1 million anonymous donation in 2007, check out a story filed later in the day on the Sun's Web site.

In a press release, board president Peter Toran said: 

“The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has played a leading role in the growth and vitality of the local theater scene. The theater’s legacy will live on in the hundreds of careers that have been launched and nurtured on our stages, as well as in the literally thousands of area schoolchildren whose first exposure to theater and to Shakespeare came as a result of BSF’s educational programming.

I speak for the entire Board in expressing our gratitude to BSF’s generous supporters and loyal audience. We applaud the talented, dedicated theater artists who made the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival an enduring part of our cultural landscape.”

Pictured: Kim Schraf in Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of "Mrs. Kemble's Tempest"

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:44 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Drama Queens

April 5, 2011

The battle is just beginning if Detroit Symphony strike is really over

There's encouraging news, at last, from Michigan, where the six-month strike by musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra may be over. The players will return to work on Thursday, even before a final ratification vote on a contract ironed out over the weekend.

Details of the new deal are sketchy, but you can pretty much count on the players taking a hit. Hard to see any way around that. The issue all along has been how deep a pay cut would be imposed.

There's just too much financial pressure on the orchestra, which lost $19 million over the past three years or so and faces a $54 million debt involving its concert hall. One particularly sobering statistic I read: there were 25,000 donors to the Detroit Symphony in the 1990s, about 5,000 now.

We've been through some of this in Baltimore, when the deficits just got too big, the options too few. The upshot is that in our fair city, fans of the Baltimore Symphony enjoy an artistic quality, week by week, from musicians who are worth a lot more money than they get. That, I assume, will be the case in Detroit under a new contract.

It's a bitter lesson in contemporary values, but arts organizations everywhere (or mostly everywhere) are learning to live within tighter financial constraints. They're also learning to live with the beginnings, at least, of new business models.

One bone of contention in Detroit appears to have been the extent of ... 

community outreach projects the musicians would be expected to participate in. The Baltimore Symphony has been expanding that side of its operations substantially for a few years now, thanks in large measure to music director Marin Alsop's determination to open up the BSO experience to more people outside the doors of Meyerhoff Hall. There's no guarantee that new audiences, especially paying audiences, will materialize because of outreach efforts, but it's hard to argue that those efforts shouldn't be made.

I've heard it said here, and I can well imagine it being said elsewhere, that finely trained musicians want to concentrate on the music-making they trained for; that they find too much community service detrimental to the fundamental goal of sustaining artistic growth. But the movement toward embracing the world beyond the safe routine of the concert hall is surely going to gather momentum. It makes sense, short-term and long-term.

It will be interesting to see how that outreach issue and all the other disputed matters turn out in Detroit. An awful lot of effort will be required on both sides to make progress. And speaking of both sides, it's worth noting that the Baltimore crisis in middle of the last decade was really only brought under control with the departure of key personnel in management and on the board. I wonder if something similar will happen soon in Detroit.

Regardless, everyone involved with the present and future of the Detroit Symphony will start a whole set of fresh battles if the contract deal goes through -- battles for rebuilding the public's faith and support; for fostering mutual respect inside the institution; for ensuring the value of what happens onstage, no matter how much less will be in the pay checks ahead.

A tall order for any orchestra, but a struggle obviously worth waging. What happens next in Detroit will be of keen importance to many other places where budgets and artistic aspirations collide.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (2)

April 4, 2011

Baltimore School for the Arts alum Andrew Grams returns to conduct student concert

Among the successful alum of the Baltimore School for the Arts is conductorAndrew Grams.

His career has taken him to the podiums of the Cleveland Orchestra (he was assistant conductor there for three years), the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony and many more.

Grams, who graduated from the school in 1995 and went on to study at Curtis and Juilliard, is back in Baltimore to lead advanced orchestra students at the School for the Arts in a concert Tuesday evening.

The program includes Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, along with an overture by Mozart, a Slavonic Dance by Dvorak, a Romance by Bruch, Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite and more.

The performance is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the school, 712 Cathedral St. $5 for students; $10 for adults. Call 443-642-5167 or check out the school's Web site.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:40 PM | | Comments (0)

Bach Concert Series presents earnest performance of B Minor Mass

Bach's B Minor Mass stands as an awesome testament to the composer's genius and his faith.

In purely musical terms, it serves as a summation of the contrapuntal art. For those with spiritual leanings, it serves as keen reminder of humankind's search for truths and solace. As much as this Mass speaks to specific creeds, it is also universal in its reach, its embrace.

I stepped out of my long spring vacation Sunday afternoon (as I have done, and will continue to do, for select events) to catch a presentation of the Mass by the Bach Concert Series at the Inner Harbor's Christ Church, an inviting setting for such music.

There was a good turnout (most of the series is free, but this one had an admission charge). Not that it's important, but I must say ...

it was fascinating to see such a large, age-diverse crowd that looked quite unlike the usual symphony, chamber music or opera set. I guess Bach and the B Minor Mass exert a different pull.

Conductor T. Herbert Dimmock favored tempos on the propulsive side, much in line with contemporary thinking about baroque practice. I would not have minded more of an individualistic approach; the performance took on a generic quality.

The chorus made a valiant effort. Intonation and articulation were not entirely reliable; the men's voices lacked heft. Still, expressive feeling was there in abundance. On the solo front, countertenor Biraj Barkakaty was a disappointment; his voice lacked subtlety and warmth. The others -- soprano Karen Myers, tenor David Kellett, bass Ben Bloomfield -- proved generally effective.

In many ways, the orchestra was the concert's star. Even allowing for the occasional slip in pitch or smudge in phrasing, the playing had considerable stylistic flair.

Whatever the shortcomings, the performance still communicated strongly the lasting power of this monumental Mass.
Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 3, 2011

And now for something completely different: Bach in the woods

Mike Lawrence, the imaginative Baltimore filmmaker whose documentary "Bach and Friends" has attracted lots of fans, forwarded to me a commercial that has to be seen and heard to be believed.

Actually, I'm still not sure if I believe it; I'm suspicious enough to wonder if there's some trickery involved. But if someone really did rig a xylophone-like, no-hands contraption to play Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Many's Desiring" on a slope in the woods, more power to 'em. And even if the point of it all is merely to advertise a cell phone, this sure is cool approach.

Here it is:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 2, 2011

Belated look at YouTube Symphony finale yields Baltimore connections: Rivas, Jackiw

In the usual whirl that passes for my life, I managed to overlook this year's YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

This remarkable global initiative, launched in 2009, allows musicians from anywhere to audition via YouTube video uploads. The first orchestra gathered in New York to work with celebrated conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who also guided the 2011 crop of young talent, this time in Sydney.

I was reminded of the recently-concluded Australian program the other day when I ...

bumped into one of its participants at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert -- Ilyich Rivas, the remarkable Venezuelan teenager who is in the second year of his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Peabody Conservatory conducting fellowship. He was freshly back from Down Under and still glowing from the experience.

So I figured I should take a look at what the YouTube Symphony had been up to, and found myself one of more than a million folks who had already clicked on the two-hour-plus finale from the Sydney Opera House. If you haven't checked it out, do give it a look and listen. Some great stuff in there, including Renee Fleming singing from afar a Mozart canon with local kids in the Sydney Opera House -- the sort of digital artistic hookup that is such a cool possibility in today's music world.

Thomas does some typically classy conducting in this action-packed finale. There is no one more perfectly suited to mentoring such a 21st-century venture.

Of particular interest to those of us in dear old Baltimore is that Thomas also made room on the podium for Rivas, who does impressive work, too. And in one of his spots conducting the YouTube ensemble, Rivas collaborated with the ever-elegant young violinist Stefan Jackiw, who has been a much-admired guest artist in Baltimore during the past decade, starting with BSO gigs when he was teen.

Here are clips from that recent finale of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra's session in Sydney -- the last movement from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with Jackiw, Rivas conducting; and Rivas leading the orchestra in excerpts from Ginastera's irresistible "Estancia":

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:33 AM | | Comments (1)

April 1, 2011

Baltimore Symphony celebrates 'inner child' with OrchKids, Corigliano, Prokofiev

Everybody knows that classical music needs to attract the interest of the next generation, but that's a lot easier said than done.

Thanks in large measure to the startling success of the initiative known as El sistema in Venezuela, which has raised armies of youth orchestras and groomed the likes of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, there is a model for organizations in this country to emulate as they seek to reach the very young.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been out front in this effort with OrchKids, the nationally recognized after-school program that now has more than 250 elementary school students in West Baltimore learning to play instruments.

It's impossible to know how many will go on to master those instruments, or even to appreciate symphony orchestras, when they get older. But OrchKids has such noble goals that you can't help but root for the enterprise and every single one of the young people participating in it.

There was a chance to do actual rooting on Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, where dozens of OrchKids members took the stage with the BSO to kick off a program that was all about celebrating youth and, as conductor Marin Alsop put it, "the inner child in all of us." The program will be repeated there Sunday afternoon, when I hope the turnout will be a lot bigger than it was for the first performance.

On Thursday, Alsop, whose own seed money helped get OrchKids off the ground a few years ago, led the eager performers in the premiere of ...

"OrchKids Nation," a piece by New Jersey-based composer Dave Rimelis.

The score incorporates not only traditional strings and wind instruments, but buckets -- an economical, surprisingly versatile substitute for percussion (being in an OrchKids Bucket Band is a first step for many of students). Rimelis understandably keeps things fairly simple and straightforward, with a Latin rhythmic pulse providing a good deal of flavoring. "OrchKids Nation" may be of modest artistic value, but its use as a morale-building showcase is considerable.

The young instrumentalists held up their end of things admirably; the occasional outbursts of song from the students would have been more effective had the words been clearer. The BSO filled out the largely supporting role neatly.

Young people also played a role in the next item on the concert, John Corigliano's "Pied Piper Fantasy" for flute, orchestra and children's ensemble of flutes and drums. It's a vividly programmatic depiction of the old tale about the Village of Hamelin, with its rodent problem and the piper who can solve it, while also beguiling the local kids.  

Composed in 1980 to exploit the talents of James Galway on both the flute and its poor cousin, the tin whistle, the work puts extraordinary technical demands on the soloist. BSO principal flutist Emily Skala stepped up to the challenge with aplomb. I've heard her do a lot of notable solo work, but she outdid herself here, articulating even the wildest passages seamlessly and putting an expressive spin on every phrase.

Alsop, a major champion of Corigliano's music, had the piece flowing smoothly and eventfully. She drew out the deep, dark sounds of the opening and close, not to mention the delicious scratches and high-pitched mutterings meant to evoke the fast-multiplying rats.

No composer today is more brilliant at unleashing the sonic range of an orchestra than Corigliano. The BSO seemed to relish the opportunities he provided; the playing was consistently alive and involving. The Peabody Preparatory Flute and Drum Ensemble ably fulfilled its role as the Children of Hamelin, following the Pied Piper off into the sunset (or the lobby) with a cheery march.

The long concert concluded with a suite drawn from Prokofiev's ballet score, "Cinderella," music rich in atmosphere and bittersweet, ultimately transcendent, lyricism.

Alsop's sensitive conducting yielded a performance marked by a compelling rhythmic pulse and dynamic phrasing. She ensured great snap and sparkle in such sections as "Cinderella Goes to the Ball," and a telling tension in "Cinderella's Waltz."

The orchestra turned in an impressively disciplined, lushly colorful performance. Violinists Jonathan Carney and Madeline Adkins brought stylish bravura to their duet in the "Dancing Lesson."

On Friday night at Strathmore, Saturday night at Meyheroff, Alsop leads an "Off the Cuff" presentation devoted to the "Cinderella" Suite.



Here's some video of preparation for the OrchKids Nation premiere:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:54 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at 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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