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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

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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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