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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


I went to the Friday BSO performance and found it disappointing:

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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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