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May 31, 2011

Single Carrot Theatre names new artistic director

Nathan Cooper has been named artistic director of Single Carrot Theatre, the ensemble company that has been shaking up Baltimore's arts scene since 2007.

Cooper has acted in several Single Carrot productions since 2008, including "Killer Joe," "The Wild Duck," "Playing Dead" and "The Other Shore." His edgy performance in the doomsday satire "Tragedy" last season was particularly effective.

He's in the cast of "Linus & Alora," which opens next week, wrapping up Single Carrot's fourth season, and he will direct a production of "MilkMilkLemonade" next season for the company.

Cooper has also served as director of finance for the company. He succeeds founding artistic director J. Buck Jabaily, who left the organization last year take the helm of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

"My focus first and foremost is the ensemble," Cooper said in a statement released Tuesday, "but I want to ensure that we collaborate with the greater theater community to develop artistry on a larger scale in Baltimore ... I’m excited to further these relationships, and recognize that collaboration is at the heart of continued sustainability."

Jabaily said he felt it was important "for the next artistic leader of Single Carrot to ...

come from within the ensemble, and to be both simultaneously artistically fearless, and personally generous. Nathan Cooper is exactly that, and I'm excited to mentor him in his new role over the next twelve months."

Single Carrot Theatre's fifth season will open in September with "Church," an examination of faith by Young Jean Lee. Also due for 2011-12: Joshua Conkel's dark comedy, "MilkMilkLemonade," about an 11 year-old having "a crisis of sexual identity"; "Hotel Cassiopeia," by Charles Mee, inspired by the intriguing boxes made by artist Joseph Cornell from found objects; and a work freshly created by the Single Carrot ensemble.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Shriver Hall

Ellicott City doctor wins Van Cliburn Competition for amateur pianists

Christopher Shih, a gastroenterologist in Ellicott City, won the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs presented by the Van Cliburn Foundation on Sunday in Fort Worth. He competed in a field of 70 amateur pianists from 10 countries. The first prize is $2,000, but the high profile of the competition is worth a good deal more. Dr. Shih also won the Audience Award and Best Performance of a Work from the Romantic Era.

Dr. Shih, who has degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, is a partner with the Maryland Digestive Disease Center, a division of Capital Digestive Care. He has won prizes at several other amateur competitions. Before embarking on a medical career, he competed in the tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The doctor recently gave a pre-competition recital for the Candlelight Concert Society at Howard Community College.

The International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was established in 1999. It is open to pianists age 35 and older who do not make their living from playing or teaching the piano. Those competing in 2011 represented a wide variety of professions, from lawyer and architect to retired dancer and Formula One race car designer.

Here's an example of Dr. Shih's remarkable musicianship, filmed at another event for amateur pianists:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 28, 2011

Baltimore Symphony gives dynamic concert with Carlos Kalmar, Karen Gomyo

Now that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra no longer automatically offers multiple performances of every program -- a matter of scheduling, cost-consciousness, marketing, etc. -- you could easily miss something very cool.

A case in point: Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall was the only chance in Baltimore to catch an unusual combination of repertoire and exceptional music-making. (The program does have one more outing, Saturday at the BSO’s second home in Bethesda.)

Back on the podium was one of the BSO’s most frequent guest conductors, Carlos Kalmar, who has been doing great work with the Oregon Symphony for the past eight years (he led the ensemble in a highly-praised Carnegie Hall debut earlier this month).

He enjoys an obvious chemistry with the Baltimore players, and that was evident at the start Friday in a lovingly shaped account of the second movement from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Typically, a portion of a Mahler symphony is not heard out of context; the public expects to hear Mahler complete these days. But Benjamin Britten, having developed a taste for the composer’s work at a time and place -- the UK, 1930s -- when Mahler got little respect or attention, decided to arrange a movement from the Third Symphony for reduced orchestra. Britten hoped this would help more people experience Mahler.

This particular movement -- Britten used Mahler’s original title for it, “What the Wild Flowers Tell Me” -- offers an endearing episode of gentle, even folksy lyricism, qualities that Kalmar’s rhythmic elasticity enhanced. The BSO didn’t look or sound all that reduced, but played with admirable transparency. The woodwinds articulated with particular warmth and charm.

If the Mahler item suggests something akin to a pretty postcard view of nature, the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius gives you ...

the rougher, more unsettled side, where mists may cloud the view, craggy heights may suddenly loom. But this is irresistible stuff, right from the opening measures, which seem to emerge out of a thick fog, the solo violin serving as a torch light that beckons and transfixes.

Karen Gomyo tackled the challenging concerto with remarkable technical ease and, more impressive still, a kind of radiant phrasing. Her tone was sweet, but never saccharine. She spun out melodic lines with the beauty and insight of a poet; her pianissimos in the Adagio were ravishing. The rougher side of the music did not go short-changed; she dug in mightily and grittily as needed.

The violinist’s stirring work was matched by Kalmar and the BSO; the performance clicked tightly.

A vociferous response from the audience drew an encore from Gomyo -- a little more than one, actually. She started playing one of the Tango-Etudes by Astor Piazzolla (the energetic No. 3, I think), then suddenly stopped, laughed and said, “I didn’t practice that. I’m sorry.” No harm done, for she quickly switched to the bittersweet Etude No. 4 and delivered it most eloquently.

The concert closed with the BSO’s first-ever performance of the powerhouse Symphony No. 1 from 1935 by William Walton, a composer whose music ought to be much more frequently played around here (how about bringing Gomyo back for his Violin Concerto?).

The playing was not always stop-on. Some of the trickier bits, especially in the scherzo, and a few brass entrances could have used polishing. But the orchestra charged into the eventful score with palpable enthusiasm and summoned a deep, vivid tone.

Kalmar ensured an exhilarating sweep to the performance, which reaffirmed Walton’s genius --and, incidentally, reminded everyone how, in “Star Wars,” John Williams just might have paid the sincerest form of flattery to the composer.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 27, 2011

Maryland Shakespeare Festival to fill void at Evergreen Museum

The sudden folding of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival earlier this year does not mean that the Bard's work will not return to the grounds of the Evergreen Museum and Library, where that company under-the-stars productions for 17 years.

The Frederick-based Maryland Shakespeare Festival, an organization founded in 1999, will fill the void this summer, bringing to Evergreen its staging of "As You Like It." Performances will be at 8 p.m. June 29-July 2 and July 6-10.

A pre-show, aimed at making Shakespeare more accessible, especially to children, will be offered each evening at 7:20. Tickets are $10 to $20; four-ticket family packages are $55.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

May 26, 2011

Protest to 'Save Live Music on Broadway' merits support

If you're in New York City Thursday night in the vicinity of the Palace Theater (Broadway, between 46th and 47th), you'll find some interesting action outside.

The Save Live Music on Broadway campaign -- described as "a coalition of Broadway composers, lyricists, musicians, performers and top professionals from the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and The Julliard School" --- will protest the producers of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Those producers, you may have heard, recently cut the size of the orchestra for that show at the Palace, and reinforced the remaining players with a recording.

The half-hour demonstration, starting at 7 p.m., may do little to change the situation in "Priscilla" or any other Broadway show where live music is threatened. But I think it's ...

an important gesture, one well worth making.

I still haven't forgotten the experience of seeing the celebrated revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, where the audience burst into rapturous applause partway through the overture simply because a cover over the pit opened to reveal the sight of an honest-to-goodness, Broadway-sized orchestra -- an experience as rare for most of us as obtaining a $500,000 revolving charge account at Tiffany's.

That "South Pacific" crowd knew what a treat that orchestra was, and just how much difference it made to the overall experience.

It's pathetic how persistently the number of players has been whittled away in one musical after another over the decades, so that the impersonal sound of heavily amplified synthesizers now is expected and tolerated. Thus holds true beyond Manhattan, of course; touring shows cut corners in the pit all the time.

Something about this "Priscilla" protest seems all the more fitting at a time when musicians in the symphonic and operatic arenas are confronting threats of reductions in force, too. Each time someone decides that a human being, trained and eager to serve the art, is disposable in an effort to increase profit margins, we all lose. Each time someone chips away at even a little of the visceral quality of live music-making, the damage is great.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Arena Stage premieres adaptation of John Grisham novel 'A Time to Kill'

Arena Stage has had an awfully eventful inaugural season in its vibrant new facility, starting last fall with an "Oklahoma" revival so widely acclaimed and box office-boosting that it's coming back for a summer run.

The company now has yet another high-profile production on the boards, the premiere of "A Time to Kill," adapted by Rupert Holmes from John Grisham's first novel.

This marks the first theatrical treatment of a book by the prolific, hugely popular writer, so the venture has newsiness built into it. And the Arena folks have lavished care on the work, assembling a large cast that does it justice and a design team that provides an efficient, atmospheric staging.

The final verdict on this highly-charged courtroom drama is mixed. It is impossible to miss the craftsmanship of the writing, acting and direction. It would take considerable effort not to be caught up in the story of Carl Lee Hailey, a black man in Mississippi who shoots dead the two men accused of raping his 10-year-old daughter as they are being led from a courtroom; he then faces a murder trial.

But it's also possible to feel shortchanged. The play stays largely on the surface of a plot that pushes just about every emotional, political, racial, social and economic button, but doesn't go very deep into any of the issues.

The piece cannot help but bring to mind images of "To Kill a Mockingbird," with smidgens of "Inherit the Wind," "The Verdict" and, it seems, even some "Matlock" episodes thrown in. With its revolving set allowing for a quick flow, "A Time to Kill" starts to resemble a TV show being filmed before a live audience.

Stereotypes abound among the characters. Some of the plot twists creak loudly and obviously. Some of the writing bumps head-on into ...

cliche-ville, nowhere more cheaply than when flirtatious law student Ellen Roark tells Hailey's heroic defense attorney, Jake Brigance, he really should see her "briefs." And some of the humor seems awfully awkward, given the subject matter at the heart of the play.

But, just when you are about to raise an objection, the show scores telling points, engages your senses, and really does surprise (scenes involving two "expert" medical witnesses take particularly cool turns).

The two and a half hours pass rapidly. There's no chance for boredom to be sustained.

Sebastian Arcelus is a convincing Jake, with quite a few layers of nuance fleshing out the character. He delivers the final summation to the jury, a speech that could easily go over the top emotionally, with a subtle, affecting power. Dion Graham, too, creates a richly realized portrayal of Carl Lee, making it possible to understand the man's naive faith in the system -- and his sense of right and wrong -- all the way through.

As Rufus Buckley, the insufferably smug prosecutor with an eye on a political career, Brennan Brown nearly walks off with the show. It's a terribly blatant role, but the actor manages to deepen it just enough to avoid caricature. Rosie Benton does assured work as Ellen. Evan Thompson, sporting eyebrows for days, makes a vivid Judge Omar Noose (Hailey's comment about that jurist -- "Not too crazy about his name" -- gets one of the bigger laughs in the play).

Erin Davie, as Jake's wife, and John C. Vennema, as the disbarred, but undeterred, lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, make colorful contributions. The rest of the cast, which includes Everyman Theatre veteran Deborah Hazlett taking on two roles with her usual finesse, proves consistently persuasive.

Ethan McSweeny's propulsive direction takes full advantage of James Noone's nicely detailed, revolving set, expertly lit by York Kennedy.

In the end, "A Time to Kill" might not be a landmark case of stage adaption, but it does have an appeal.

The production runs through June 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

May 25, 2011

Remembering the legendary Rosa Ponselle on the 30th anniversary of her death

Rosa Ponselle died 30 years ago, May 25, 1981, at the age of 84 in her Baltimore home, Villa Pace.

The beauty and power of the soprano's voice remain unsurpassed. To say that does not diminish the greatness of other wonderful singers of the past 100 years, but merely confirms that they would surely also acknowledge -- Ponselle had it all.

To mark the anniversary of her death, I've posted a couple examples of her artistry, including a recording of ...

my all-time favorite aria, recorded at Villa Pace in 1954, long after her official retirement; and a (sadly abridged) performance of the "Habanera" captured on film:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (1)

May 24, 2011

Kennedy Center presents sizzling revival of Sondheim's 'Follies'

There’s something almost subversive about Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."

The 1971 musical, which has been given a sizzling revival by the Kennedy Center, is held together by only the slenderest threads of a plot, as bare-bones as the scene for the action –- a run-down, empty theater, where an assortment of performers from the venue’s glory days gather for one last reunion before the place is demolished.

Most of that plot gets packed into the second act, throwing off the structure. Several numbers in the show seem almost arbitrarily tossed into the mix, spotlighting characters we don’t really know anything about and who then disappear.

So why the heck does “Follies” work so well, touch so deep?

A big part of the reason, of course, is Sondheim’s score, with its ingenious mix of pure-Sondheim and homage to other songwriters. That mix produces a constant aural rush, heightened by each telling melodic and harmonic twist.  

There’s a strange power, too, in James Goldman’s book, which convinces us that we don’t really need a lot of story, a lot of details. All of the characters who stop by to toast bygone days in that dilapidated theater are types firmly embedded in the collective consciousness of every devoted follower of theater and movies.

We know these people, or wish we did. We grew to love show business because of people like them. We want them all to be happy, because they made us happy so many times. We’re fascinated by their pain, their hollow marriages; we’re touched by their perseverance. Even those who get only five minutes or so of stage time in "Follies" reveal a lot, and leave a lot behind.

This new, potentially Broadway-bound staging looks ...

terrific, with a richly atmospheric set by Derek McLane and often sumptuous costume designs by Gregg Barnes (it’s easy to see the money in a production with a reported $7 million price tag).

The vibrant cast, directed with a generally effective touch by Eric Schaeffer, can really dig into the material. Many of the participants seem to convey rich chapters of autobiography just by the way they make their entrances at the start of the show, how they go about taking “one more glimpse of the past.”

“Follies” is, at heart, a ghost story. Spectral, sumptuously dressed chorines wander about, not always to interesting effect (would ghosts have to bend to fit their massive headdresses through tight spaces up on the catwalks, as they do here?). And all of the veteran entertainers sipping champagne in the theater where Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) started his “Follies” in 1918 can’t help but feel like ghosts of themselves, confronting memories of past triumphs and backstage romances.

The primary focus is on Sally and Phyllis, who were appearing in a 1941 Follies when they were courted by Ben and Buddy. Sally married Buddy, but never stopped carrying a torch for Ben, who married Phyllis and no longer seems to know why.

All four go through what Sondheim describes as “a group nervous breakdown” during what may be the show’s most daring segment -- “Loveland,” an extended fantasy scene where the old magic of the Weismann Follies springs to prismatic life in costume and song. (The money in the Kennedy Center production drips marvelously throughout “Loveland.”)

As Sally, Bernadette Peters is, as always, an arresting presence. Her acting is tellingly nuanced, especially during the most emotionally naked scenes. The Gershwin-esque ballad “Losing My Mind” puts a strain on her light voice, but Peters knows how to milk every line for its lyric power (on opening night, tears in her eyes added to the effectiveness).

Jan Maxwell gives an inspired performance as Phyllis, offering many a rich detail, dramatically and musically. She produces an incendiary peak of intensity in the bitter song hurled at Ben, “Could I Leave You?”

Ron Raines uses his golden baritone to often exquisite effect as Ben. He’s first and foremost a singer; his warm, ripe tone and eloquent phrase-shaping count for a lot. His acting may not go deep, but Raines still reveals the character’s conscience-challenged nature. Danny Burstein’s dynamic, incisive portrayal fleshes out vulnerable, confused Buddy.

In nearly every case, the great vignettes in “Follies” find compelling protagonists. As Carlotta, Elaine Paige gets what is probably the musical’s best-known song, “I’m Still Here,” the ultimate anthem of show-biz longevity.

She has a field day with it, riding the melodic line with an infectious energy and producing loads of vocal shading. The sly way she puts a bluesy spin on her tone for the line about having “sung the blues" is but one example of the interpretive flair. (Paige’s performance earned the longest, heartiest ovation on opening night – talk about a crowd-pleaser.)

Linda Lavin, as Hattie, knocks one nearly as far out of the park with a delectably colorful account of “Broadway Baby.” She’s still quite the dynamo.

Terri White also has energy to spare as Stella, leading the way in the amusing "Who's That Woman?" number. There are effective contributions from Christian Delcroix (Young Buddy), Lora Lee Gayer (Young Sally), Kirsten Scott (Young Phyllis) and Nick Verina (Young Ben).

In the operetta-style “One More Kiss,” seasoned mezzo Rosalind Elias, as Heidi, may encounter some unsteady intonation, but the vocalism has expressive weight and the wistful look on her face speaks volumes. Leah Horowitz sings sweetly as Young Heidi in that number.

Another longtime singer, Régine, is not exactly in peak vocal form as Solange; she pretty much makes a mess of “Ah, Paris,” but there's something oddly endearing about her determination. Susan Watson and Terrence Currier do a nice turn as an elderly, sprightly vaudevillian duo.

James Moore conducts the prismatic score with obvious affection and draws bright, sure playing from the orchestra – the finishing touch on this loving revival of Sondheim’s brilliant contribution to musical theater.

"Follies" runs through June 19 at the Kennedy Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

A brisk 'Pygmalion' wraps up Everyman Theatre's 20th anniversary season

The idea of any intermingling between the social classes so alarmed Plato that he thought it "may be justly termed evil-doing."

Funny how that notion was still so ingrained centuries later that George Bernard Shaw could have a gleefully evil time skewering it in his 1912 play "Pygmalion."

Here, the clash of classes creates a collision that shatters egos as brusquely as social barriers, all the while generating zingers, a la Oscar Wilde. This venerable comedy gets a brisk workout in a handsome production that brings down the curtain on Everyman Theatre's 20th anniversary season.

With a dash of Cinderella and a smidgen of Svengali, the plot of "Pygmalion" works on one level merely as an imaginative take-off on the ancient Greek tale of a sculptor falling in love with a statue that comes to life.

But there's also quite an undercoating to the play, where Shaw's socialist leanings can be detected, along with what might be thought of as at least almost-feminist viewpoints.

A lot gets said in "Pygmalion"; a lot is left unsaid. Most famously, there's the question of how much romantic spark, if any, is generated over the course of the action between phonetics professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he turns into a faux-princess on a whim and a bet.

Thanks to "My Fair Lady," the decidedly romanticized musical version of the play, many folks ...

understandably expect marriage (or a major affair) to be an inevitable step for this complicated couple at the final curtain. Shaw detested what he called that "silly and vulgar" interpretation, but it's hard to suppress.

The Everyman staging, smartly paced by director Eleanor Holdridge, strikes an effective balance of all-out antagonism and simmering attraction between the protagonists.

Kyle Prue emphatically reinforces what we all know: Humbleness hardly ever happens to this guy.

The actor can be a little stiff and a little too loud at times, but he knows how to put an awfully icy sting into the smug lines aimed at Jenna Sokolowski's rather endearing Eliza. And the look of perpetual displeasure on his face has an effective power.

Prue manages to convey that this Higgins is capable of minor sensitivity at the end, so those who want to believe that the professor will eventually woo Eliza may find sufficient evidence. Those convinced he'll never do any such thing will end up feeling just as vindicated.

Sokolowski is adept at conveying Eliza's own character flaws; the proud, stubborn streak in the poor creature boils over vividly whenever Higgins pushes the right buttons. Her lower-class accent could use a bit more color, but her comic timing and physical gestures in the early scenes of the play are spot-on.

Where Sokolowski really shines is later in the action, as the re-fashioned Eliza, capable of getting into a level of society previously unimaginable -- and getting further under Higgins' skin. 

She extracts great mileage out of each ultra-King's English articulation of "How do you do." And, scene by scene, she affectingly uncovers the woman beneath the "guttersnipe." 

Stan Weiman does expressive work as Col. Pickering, who helps set Eliza's makeover in motion and grasps its consequences.

Wil Love gives a delicious, scenery-chewing performance as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, the member of the "undeserving poor" who lives up fully to his surname and "can't afford" morals.

Love nails the accent and the mannerisms with terrific flair, accounting for the most deeply realized characterization and heartiest laughs in the production.

In the pivotal party scene, he takes on another supporting role with equal panache (that party could use a few more guests to fill out the stage).

Lynn Steinmetz does equally dynamic work as Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper who tries to tame Higgins as much as Eliza; and as the tipsy hostess of the grand event where Eliza has her triumph of deception. Helen Hedman astutely conveys both the upper-crust and down-to-earth qualities of Mrs. Higgins.

Drew Kopas comes off a little too goofy as Freddy, the gentleman who develops a crush on Eliza, but he hams it up wonderfully as Nepommuck, the emphatically Hungarian alumnus of Higgins' linguistic training. Anne Grier and Barbara Pinolini round out the cast nicely.

Daniel Ettinger's imaginative set, enhanced by a few well-chosen projections and pieces of furniture, not to mention a burst of atmospheric rainfall, allows for an easy flow of the action -- a flow aided by whirling servants who execute scene changes. Except for one curiously short skirt for Eliza, Kathleen Geldard's costumes conjure early-1900s fashion in rich detail.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

May 23, 2011

Everyman Theatre plans diverse last season before moving to new venue

Everyman Theatre, which is currently wrapping up its 20th anniversary season with the G.B. Shaw classic "Pygmalion" (more on that anon), has announced the lineup for 2011-2012 -- the company's last in its N. Charles Street venue.

Fittingly, that farewell to the old building will come in May/June 2012 with a staging of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart comic classic of family, society and politics,"You Can't Take It With You."

The season will open in September with a classic that strikes a very different note ...

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," a powerful look at an African American family carving out a future in 1950s Chicago. Yet another classic will follow in November: Noel Coward's terribly droll examination of a divorced couple colliding with past memories in "Private Lives."

Another couple, this one still married, but even more tensely so than the one in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", is the focus of a recent, much-praised work by Michael Weller, "Fifty Words," opening in January.

Another well-received contemporary play rounds out the season. "The Brothers Size" by Tarell Alvin McCraney examines a pair of siblings in the bayou country. Myth and music play a part in this work about dreams and choices.

Everyman will round out next season with it annual winter cabaret (details on that to be announced later).


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

May 20, 2011

Some totally non-Preakness musical activities to consider over the weekend

What with the rapture coming Saturday and Heaven knows what horrors afterward, there's not that much point in telling you about some cool musical events this weekend. But, on the off chance that everything proceeds normally, and if you'd like to have some totally Preakness-free experiences, consider these:

-- Baltimore Concerto Opera's presentation of "The Marriage of Figaro" Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Engineer's Club. The company has some appealing artists lined up for this season finale, including Trevor Scheuneman as Almaviva and Jason Hardy as Figaro.

-- A recital Saturday night presented by Candlelight Concerts at Howard Community College by Christopher Shih, gastroenterologist by day and ...

amateur pianist by night (or other times of the day). He's not just any amateur, though. He has won several prizes at major competitions for amateurs, including the one given by the Van Cliburn Foundation.

-- A performance of Haydn's marvelous oratorio "The Creation" Sunday afternoon at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian. John Walker will conduct the church’s chancel choir and soloists; performing a reduction of the orchestral score will be David Enlow, organist at the Church of the Resurrection in New York.

-- And Sunday afternoon at An die Musik, a rare recital of songs by the unjustly neglected French composer Reynaldo Hahn. Mezzo-soprano Alexis Tantau, a member of the Maryland Opera Studio and with Young Victorian Theatre Company, will be joined by pianist Elizabeth Brown in this program, which includes Hahn's settings of poetry by the likes of Heine, Hugo and Verlaine.

To give you a taste of Hayn's exceedingly elegant music, here's Susan Graham singing one of the composer's most beautiful songs, "A Chloris":


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:57 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

The perfect music to accompany the Rapture, in case the world ends on May 21

OK, folks. Stop that cowering and whimpering. Stop crowding the confessionals. It's too late for any of that, so buck up, sit back and just take the rapture (if you're among the chosen) or the icky alternative (if you're not) on May 21.

Meanwhile, to help you handle the suspense as the minutes tick away, click below on the perfect music to underscore such a momentous occasion, Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." Since the power could go out on all of us at any minute as the process of shutting down the universe gets underway, I figured I might as well ...

cut to the final movement of this sublime work, the movement titled "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus."

Don't worry. You can be of any or no religion to get the point and beauty of this transfixing music. And if, by some miracle, we're all still here on the 22nd, do go back and listen to the complete Quartet. It really is out of this world.

Here's that finale. Ready, get set, get raptured:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 18, 2011

Colin Vallon Trio to make Baltimore debut

Although my life revolves around classical music (and, as of 2009, theater), I've always been fond of other genres. Jazz is one of them. (Some of the others you might be too shocked to hear about.)

The other day, I received a copy of a new CD from ECM, a label more associated with contemporary classical music. It's easy to hear why the company wanted to showcase the jazz artistry of a trio from Switzerland: pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer. Their moody, sophisticated, colorful music -- they write their own stuff -- grabbed me from the first track.

Turns out the trio will make its Baltimore debut this week at (where else?) ...

An die Musik. The concert is at ... 8 p.m. Thursday. Here's a sample -- the title track from the hot ECM release, "Rruga":



Posted by Tim Smith at 4:57 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

BSO receives $100,000 grant from NEA to support next season's tours

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of two domestic tours next season. Although the BSO has received NEA grants in the past, the only other one this large came in 1999.

The money will help fund the orchestra’s visits to New York’s Carnegie Hall in November, and to the West Coast in March and April, the BSO’s first visit to that region of the country since 1988 and the first with music director Marin Alsop.

“The NEA grant will also assist the efforts of the BSO to bring our programming and the innovation that characterizes Marin Alsop’s vision for the orchestra to a wider audience on both the East and West coasts,” said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham.

The tours will feature works related to ...

the main theme of the 2011-2012 season, “Women as Leaders.” Woven through the programming for that season will be works by female composers. There will also be music inspired by the lives of notable women, such as Arthur Honegger’s oratorio “Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher” (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), which will be performed at Carnegie Hall after its presentation in Baltimore.

The West Coast tour in March/April 2012 includes two California stops: the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and the University of California in Berkeley. The orchestra then travels to the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon.

Repertoire for the West Coast trip will include works by Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon. Music related to Joan of Arc will also be featured; Alsop will lead the BSO in performances of Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” as a live soundtrack to the showing of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s acclaimed 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

A reflection on the death of Gustav Mahler, 100 years ago

One hundred years ago today -- May 18, 1911-- Gustav Mahler died. He was only 50.

Back in July, the 150th anniversary of his birth, I went on and on about how much this man and his music has influenced my own life, so I'll spare you that. I just wanted to acknowledge the anniversary in an aural and visual musical way.

The visual is a photo of Mahler's grave at the Grinzing Cemetery in Vienna.

I got there once, a long time ago in the early stages of my Mahler mania, on a very cold, gray January day. The sight of the large, unadorned stone left an indelible impression.

This picture (by Chris Lee) comes courtesy of the New York Philharmonic, which is currently on tour with music director Alan Gilbert. In between performances (including an all-Mahler program) in Vienna earlier this week, musicians and patrons of the orchestra stopped by the cemetery to lay a wreath. Mahler was music director of the Philharmonic at the time of his death.

Choosing music to mark this day was tough. I finally settled on ...

the "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") movement from the "Resurrection" Symphony, in a poignant performance with the divine Janet Baker and the London Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Mahler's most illustrious successor at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.

I think these five minutes easily reveal the soul of Mahler and the extraordinary, magnetic pull of his music. Here's the text:

O red rose! Man lies in greatest need. Man lies in greatest pain. I would rather be in heaven. I came I upon a broad path where an angel came and wanted to turn me back. But I would not be turned away!.I am from God and want to return to God. The dear God will grant me a little light, will light my way to that eternal, blissful life.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:31 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 17, 2011

A memorable performance of Mozart's Requiem from Handel Choir of Baltimore

Since Melinda O'Neal took the artistic helm at the Handel Choir of Baltimore seven seasons ago, the ensemble has made consistent and substantial growth.

The latest proof came Sunday afternoon with a concert that filled the elegant space of St. Ignatius Church -- one of my favorite spots in Baltimore -- with a rich, cohesive sound. The event filled the place with listeners, too. It was good to see such a big turnout.

Before that sound emerged fully in the program's main item, Mozart's Requiem, there was a welcome dose of Bach.

The excellent early music group Harmonious Blacksmith offered subtly nuanced excerpts from "Art of the Fugue," each contrapuntal line floating eloquently in the nicely reverberant space.

That instrumental prelude provided an ideal lead-in to the cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," featuring the Chandos Singers (a subset of the choir) and sturdy solo artists.

O'Neal drew a smooth response from the choristers, whose voices blended warmly with the accompanying period instrument ensemble.

It was great to hear ...

tenor Aaron Sheehan again; his appearances in this area invariably impress for the warmth of his tone, the communicative reach of his phrasing. Monica Reinagel is another singer who invariably does appealing work; the contralto did so again on this occasion. Soprano Emily Noel and bass Jason Hardy completed the solo quartet effectively.

After intermission, the focus was on Mozart. The full-strength Handel Choir took the stage (or altar), joined by an expanded period instrument orchestra.

The delivery of "Ave verum Corpus," just about the most sublime four or five minutes of music ever composed by anyone, prompted the one disappointment for me.

O'Neal's devotion to historically informed performance practice guaranteed that the piece would be taken at a good clip. I think the faster pace of the authenticity-minded can sometimes obscure subtleties, can pass by opportunities to savor the shape of a line or the impact of a harmonic shift. I would have loved to hear these forces take just a little more time with the "Ave verum Corpus."

But even at O'Neal's tempo, softer dynamics from chorus and instrumentalists alike would have helped. I craved a real pianissimo.

In the Requiem, though, everything lined up persuasively. The conductor's overall sense of momentum helped to maintain tension and a strong sense of the music's deep-set drama (O'Neal used the 2005 Franz Beyer edition of Mozart's unfinished score).

The chorus produced hefty waves of well-focused tone, while always articulating cleanly. The solo quartet again made vibrant contributions, with some especially sweet tones from Noel. And the orchestra sealed the deal with the kind of playing that could win over period instrument skeptics -- good intonation, abundant color in tone and phrasing.

In the end, the music sounded bracingly fresh and quite moving. Can't ask for much more than that.

The 2011-12 season -- the Handel Choir's 77th -- will include performances of Handel's "Messiah" and "Semele," as well as a a program of works by Brahms, Britten and others.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 16, 2011

Puccini meets 'Night of the Living Dead' in Opera Vivente production

Opera Vivente is wrapping up its 13th season -- and its residency at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon -- with an imaginative production of Puccini's first work for the stage.

Performed in English as "The Will-o-the-Wisps" (in Italian, it was first called "Le Willis," then "Le Villi"), this opera has never gained a foothold in the repertoire, understandably.

For one thing, it has a weak-as-water libretto -- the sweet Anna dies of a broken heart while waiting for boyfriend Robert to come back from a journey to claim an inheritance; by the time he does return, she's one of the will-o-the-wisps (a pack of other un-dead, jilted, angry women) and lures him to his death.

There's no character development to speak of, and not really much of what you'd call action. At about 60 minutes in length, the piece just doesn't develop enough musical or theatrical steam.

But, hey, no opera is perfect (well, maybe a couple). And the shortcomings clearly don't bother Opera Vivente general director John Bowen; this is his second staging of the work in less than a decade. Besides, even the not-yet-mature Puccini knew how to compose some wonderfully soaring melodies and to construct some vivid orchestral passages. So this is definitely an opera worth exploring.

In 2002, Bowen gave the piece a Scottish setting. This time, he offers a more effective angle, transplanting the paltry plot to ...

contemporary bayou country, where the appearance of vampire-like ladies in white night gowns somehow fits right in (Thomas Bumblauskas designed the atmospheric set, Melanie Clark the costumes).

By the last scene, when belatedly repentant Robert comes back to the sticks, it seems that all the characters, including Anna's father and the local townsfolk, have gone over to to dark side -- we're talking "Night of the Living Dead," the swamp edition. Cool.

An especially telling bit of stage business comes during an orchestral interlude. Rather than a funeral procession revealing Anna's death (as was done when the opera was new in 1884), Bowen has neighbors coming and going from the house, paying their respects to Anna's father. 

Friday night's performance found the cast in uniformly ardent form (I wish diction had been as consistent). Lisa Eden conveyed Anna's anguish persuasively. The soprano's tone tended to turn edgy under pressure, but her phrasing hit home.

Kenneth Gayle brought his familiar impassioned style (and limited dynamic range) to the tole of Robert, digging vividly into the prolonged Act 2 solo, one of Puccini's most striking touches in the score.

Nathan Wentworth didn't always produce a smooth sound, but the baritone offered an effective portrayal of Anna'a father, William.

The chorus was in more or less steady form. As the will-o-the-wisps, members of the Baltimore School for the Arts, choreographed by Anton T. Wilson's choreography, writhed spookily.

The full richness of Puccini's orchestration requires large forces to unleash, but conductor JoAnn Kulesza drew quite a lot of sound out of the small, efficient ensemble, and she shaped the music with admirable sensitivity.

Opera Vivente heads next season to the Maryland State Boychoir's venue on Norman Ave. The season will include "The Marriage of Figaro," "Ariodante" and "The Bartered Bride" (done in Bawl'mor-ese).


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 15, 2011

Last-minute Sunday music suggestions

Castigate me if you like, but I took Saturday off so completely that I never once touched a computer. How shamelessly 19th-century of me, I know. I may not do much today, either, so get over it.

However, I felt I should jump online to mention a couple of events on the Sunday calendar in case you're hankering for a break from the cloudy, droopy weather.

Opera Vivente's production of ...

Puccini's first work for the stage, "Le Villi" (performed in English as "The Will-o-the-Wisps"), is well worth catching this afternoon at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. I'll have a review eventually posted, but not likely before the 3 p.m. curtain, so suffice it to say that the company serves up this unfamiliar work with considerable imagination and a heap of passion. The next performances of the Puccini piece will be May 19 and 21.

By the way, this is the last production Opera Vivente will present at its longtime home; next season, the operation relocates to a new location across town.

Sunday afternoon also finds the Handel Choir of Baltimore offering a very attractive program that includes Mozart's sublime "Ave verum corpus" and stirring "Requiem."

Melinda O'Neal has done wonders for this ensemble over the past several years. Her idea of using a period instrument orchestra for concerts is just one of her distinctive touches. In this concert, the first-rate early music group Harmonious Blacksmith will also participate, performing some of Bach's "Art of the Fugue."

The concert is at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Ignatius.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 14, 2011

Impassioned evening with Schumann, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony

Robert Schumann could have been the perfect poster child for musical romanticism.

He was intensely passionate about everything; capable of composing exceedingly beautiful and turbulent music; and prone to severe mood swings. That he also ended up certifiably insane seals the deal.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is peering into Schumann’s troubled mind with two programs — one all-music, the other a music-and-talk presentation complete with guest psychiatrist. The first was performed Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and will be repeated Sunday afternoon; the second will be given there Saturday night.

Even without any detailed discussion on Thursday, conductor Marin Alsop’s few words to the audience at the start of the concert neatly set the stage for considering Schumann in light of his mental illness. As she pointed out, knowing the composer’s fate — he died at the age of 46 in an asylum — makes it difficult to hear his music without sensing his bipolar personality.

It was quite fun on Thursday to wallow in Schumann’s anxieties, staring with the “Manfred” Overture, a piece inspired by the guilt-ridden hero — and celebrated romantic symbol — of Byron’s epic poem. This is wonderfully tense, unsettled music, and Alsop had the orchestra digging into that character effectively.

Schumann dubbed his Symphony No. 1 “Spring.” On the surface, it is all about the happy little buds and bees of May. But the slow introduction to the first movement suggests a bigger, deeper view of nature and its power, the sort of view that Gustav Mahler would explore decades later in his profound symphonies.

Speaking of Mahler, ...

his re-orchestration of the overture and Symphony No. 1 — he deemed Schumann’s own orchestration ineffectual — was chosen for this program. There should have been at least a brief before-and-after demonstration for the audience to drive home the point of Mahler’s arrangements.

Alsop did not extract all the mystery at the symphony’s start, but she generated great vitality in the rest of the movement and kept the expressive fire going thereafter. Telling, subtle points were made as well, including Emily Skala’s sweetly-phrased flute solo in the finale. The first violins sounded a bit wiry and a brass chord or two lacked smoothness, but, overall, the orchestra was in typically poised form.

Symphony No. 2, composed as Schumann came out of a severe depression, opens with another slow introduction. Alsop took a little more time with phrasing and dynamics here; the result proved quite absorbing.

The conductor pushed the scherzo along with a very effective thrust, and her spacious, sensitive molding of the slow movement, one of Schumann’s most poignant utterances, paid compelling dividends. The BSO responded with a consistently warm, balanced sound and vivid phrasing.

All in all, a well-balanced program devoted to a great, if ever so slightly imbalanced, mind.

By the way, my luck was true to form Thursday. I have a way of attracting annoying people to the rows around me in any performance venue. This time, it was the guy behind me. It sounded as if he were ripping pages of the program book through the whole of the first half. So I decided to stand in the back of the hall for the rest. Peace, at last.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:05 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

May 13, 2011

The pop version of opera arias to end all pop versions of opera arias

Move over, Il Divo. Move over anyone who ever tried to put a pop music spin on great opera arias.

This, folks, is the ultimate performance by the greatest male ensemble with the best hair.

Listen, laugh and weep:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 12, 2011

Singer-pianist Eric Comstock to perform at An die Musik

Eric Comstock, a singer-pianist known for his interpretations of the what everyone likes to call the Great American Songbook, will give two solo shows Friday at An die Musik.

Comstock, often in collaboration with his wife, vocalist Barbara Fasano, performs in such storied venues as the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York cabaret theaters. Baltimore's An die Musik may be ever so slightly humbler, but the intimate space ought to be an ideal environment for Comstock's music-making. (You can always imagine you're sipping gimlets while listening.)

The shows will be at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday.

Here's a sample of Comstock's styling in a gig with Barbara Fasano:

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

Washington National Opera offers 'Iphigenie en Tauride'

If you aren't in the habit of excavating the Sun's Web site, you may have missed this: my review of "Iphigenie en Tauride" at Washington National Opera. And we wouldn't want you to be out of that loop, would we?

I didn't expect to attend two productions of this masterwork by Gluck in the same season, both starring Placido Domingo.

I found the Metropolitan Opera's version to be quite compelling back in February; I found WNO's very different approach equally absorbing.

And in both cases, Domingo's singing proved remarkably satisfying. He really is an amazing artist. 

Like a lot of opera lovers, I spend a fair amount of time bemoaning the fact that we don't have as many fabulous singers as previous generations enjoyed. Then I remember Domingo.

End of lamentation. 

In my interview with the tenor earlier this month, he noted that Gluck was ripe for more attention.

"The public is very much in love with Handel now," Domingo said. "I think, little by little, it is going to be the same with Gluck." I hope he's right.

PHOTO (by Scott Suchman) COURTESY OF WNO

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

May 11, 2011

Signature Theatre delivers first-rate revival of 'Side by Side by Sondheim'

If Stephen Sondheim isn't God, he's at least among the alternate definitions of "omnipotent."

In terms of individuality, creativity, erudition and insight, no one else in the music theater world can touch him. It's that simple.

And it explains why an entire show could be built around the man, the words, the music  -- and why said show, "Side by Side by Sondheim," is so enduring. This combination cabaret and homage (maybe veneration says it better) has been around since 1976, when it debuted in London; fans tend to treat the piece almost as reverentially as a full-fledged Sondheim musical.

Signature Theatre, which established itself some time ago as a major Sondheim shrine, brings the curtain down on its 2010-11 season with a thoroughly winning production of "Side by Side" that runs through June 12. (Perhaps the company will help develop a sequel someday soon -- Sondheim has written an awfully lot of great material since the 1970s, so "Son of Side by Side by Sondheim" is just begging to be created.)

Constructed in two acts, the show breezes through nearly three dozen songs, revealing various angles of Sondheim's artistic development, from his early lyricist days collaborating with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne, to his first all-Sondheim masterworks. Periodic bursts of narration serve up biographical material and backstage anecdotes along the way.

It would be easy for all of this to turn stuffy and puffy, but "Side by Side" manages to avoid the trap. And the Signature staging manages to make just about every verse, melody and harmonic turn sound remarkably fresh. Even if you know the rhyme and reason of all the songs, you're likely to feel a fresh tingle.

The three exceedingly engaging singers in this cast have been put through their paces in imaginative, fluid fashion by director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner, who capitalizes on each performer's strengths. The production -- designed by Misha Kachman, lit by Colin K. Bills, subtly costumed by Kathleen Geldard -- looks and fels both polished and spontaneous.

Sherri L. Edelen brings consistently warm, colorful singing to the show. She also demonstrates ...

a particularly striking way of getting beneath a lyric; she nails the anthem "I'm Still Here" not so much with vocal cords as with a palpable connection to each phrase. Edelen can be very funny, too, extracting the sexy (and campy) value of "I Never Do Anything Twice" and, with Nancy Anderson, the naughty duet "Can That Boy Foxtrot!"

Anderson reveals delicious comic timing herself in the breathless "Getting Married Today" and, especially, the "A Boy From." The latter is the brilliant (and campy) send-up of "The Girl from Impanema" Sondheim penned to a tune by Mary Rodgers. Hearing Anderson, in her best Castilian, sing the hometown of her would-be boyfriend, "La Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz," puts you in genuine LOL territory.

On the serious side, Anderson does some powerful work, nowhere more so than in "Losing My Mind," which she sculpts with masterful nuance. Vocally, she's not always as sturdy and persuasive when she moves into operatic soprano voice, as in a duet from "West Side Story" with Edelen, but that's a minor matter in light of her invariably insightful phrasing.

Matthew Scott delivers the show's most affecting highs -- at pianissimo levels. In "Something's Coming," he offers wonderfully soft dynamic shading to reveal the rich deep-set longing that fuels the song. Scott phrases two of Sondheim's most sublime ballads, "I Remember" and "Anyone Can Whistle," with disarming tenderness of tone and sensitivity of phrase.

Scott is no less successful at full-throttle, hamming it up in "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," for example. And he works beautifully with Anderson to create a vivid scene out of the wry "Barcelona" number from "Company."

At one piano, music director Jon Kalbfleisch does stylish playing and the lion's share of the narrating; at the second piano, Gabriel Mangiante provides equally refined work and gets in a few words as well.

But both men -- and the singers -- deserve better keyboard instruments. Tinny baby grands just don't cut it for such a rich show.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

May 10, 2011

To announce or not to announce an indisposition before a performance

Over the weekend, the Baltimore Symphony orchestra performed Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," one of the most profound works in the repertoire. It depends as much on the two vocal soloists as on the orchestra and conductor to make its full musical and emotional impact.

I had high hopes for the tenor, Simon O'Neill, considering his strong track record in hefty operatic roles, including Wagnerian, and impressive places where he has sung them, including Bayreuth. On Friday night, he didn't sound so good.

I remember thinking that he must have been indisposed, especially when he reached the final high A and, unless my ears deceived me, took it an octave lower.

However, no announcement was made concerning his health, so I chalked it up to just another tenor strained by Mahler's cruel demands (I've heard my share). But then I learned something very interesting from a treasured reader of this blog (y'all are treasured, of course, in this era of obsessive page-view-click-counters).

The comment-poster attended that same performance and stayed for the post-concert chat with BSO music director Marin Alsop. He says Alsop disclosed that O'Neill ...

had been in the hospital Friday with kidney stones.

I think an announcement should have been made before the singer walked onstage -- the audience didn't need to know the intimate details, just that he was a bit under the weather, but had agreed to go ahead.

Many's the time singers do perform after such a revelation, only to sound so good that people wonder why the issue was raised. But better to be safe, I say, to set up a sympathetic environment, than risk having a performance judged harshly for what might be the wrong reasons.

I remember attending a vocal recital in Washington early on in my writing days. The baritone sounded little more than adequate. As I was heading to the door after the performance, a woman rushed up to me (not sure how she knew who I was -- I didn't wear a name tag) and said, "You should know that my husband has been very sick, but decided to sing anyway." I replied -- and wrote in the review -- that the audience should have been told that, not just the critic.

I know this sort of thing can be a difficult decision for artists and for everyone else involved in a concert, but I still think no harm is done simply letting listeners in on the possibility that the performance might not be totally up to par because of an unforeseen indisposition. (I draw the line on announcing: "So-and-so begs you indulgence because he/she can't stand the color of the hall, or was still upset by the outcome of last night's game or 'American Idol' episode, but will try to do his/her best anyway.")

Sure, the actual performance might not sound any different if the artist in question were in the pink of health. And, sure, an artist might over-use the excuse announcement. Still, it seems to me that it's wiser to err on the side of sympathy than risk having any notes leave an unpleasant taste in the ear.

Do you agree?

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 9, 2011

Concert Artists of Baltimore will return to its namesake city for 2011-12

In time to celebrate its 25th season, 2011-2012, Concert Artists of Baltimore will put the Baltimore back into its name.

For about a decade or so now, this combination orchestra/chorus has been based at the acoustically splendid Gordon Center in Owings Mills. Next season, it will play three concerts at Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall (Oct. 9, Jan. 14, March 24) and another at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric (May 5). Programming details haven't been announced.

The organization, founded and directed by conductor Edward Polochick, has not always been able to generate a strong turnout at the Gordon Center, despite the venue's easy access and acoustical advantage. It will be interesting to see the response to the idea of a downtown location next season.

As for the current Concert Artists season, it wrapped up Saturday night at the Gordon Center with another in its periodic series of musical portrait concerts, this one devoted to ... 

Rossini. A good-sized audience was on hand to hear some highly spirited music-making and a lot of commentary by Jonathan Palevsky of WBJC-FM. (I was probably in the minority, but I found the ratio of talk to music out of whack.)

The performance highlight was a terrific account of the "William Tell" Overture; it would been better placed at the end of the concert, rather than the start of the second half. Polochick lavished care on the cello-rich opening and the players, led by Evelyn Elsing, responded in glowing style. Each unfolding segment of the overture finale seemed to inspire the ensemble as the conductor kept the expressive engines firing.

I've heard a good deal of disciplined, dynamic work from this orchestra, but this may well have delivered the most visceral impact yet.

The chorus strutted its generally impressive stuff in an excerpt from the "Petite Messe Solennelle" and, especially, a couple of selections from "Sins of My Old Age."

Several chorus members stepped into the solo spotlight. Christine Kavanagh was quite the stand-out in the "Inflammatus est" from the "Stabat Mater." The soprano let loose with a bright, well-controlled tone and added full operatic weight to the phrasing. William Davenport offered an ardent "Ecco Ridente" from "The Barber of Seville."

Sarah Berger and Annabel Wherley meowed and purred amusingly through the "Cat Duet," with Polochick providing colorful accompaniment at the keyboard. Melissa Kornacki and Timothy Kjer had fun with a duet from "I'Italiana in Algeri," and they were joined by other likewise energetic colleagues for the Act 1 finale from that opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 8, 2011

Baltimore Symphony continues Mahler-centric season with 'Das Lied'

For Gustav Mahler, even before he learned of his own life-threatening heart condition when he was in his 40s, death was always a lurking presence. Funeral marches haunt his earliest symphonies.

But the composer saw in the earth's continual renewal a way of confronting mortality. For Mahler, there was something in the distance, in the deepest blue of the sky, that suggested a destination point -- and another beginning.

In "Das Lied von der Erde," a collection of ancient Chinese poems about the transitory nature of life, Mahler opened up a window into his deepest thinking. Along with Mahler’s profoundly moving Symphony No. 9, the cycle of six songs that makes up “Das Lied” serves as a kind of self-eulogy for the composer. If this were the only work we had by this extraordinary man, it would be enough to earn him a place among the greatest of creative artists.

During his lifetime, only a fraction of the music world acknowledged him as a major composer. It was his conducting talent that earned him international fame, not his epic symphonies. Today, Mahler, who famously said “my time will come,” is as much a standard part of the orchestral repertoire as Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

Mahler’s legacy has been receiving extra attention during the 2010-11 season, which coincides with the anniversaries of his birth in Bohemia 150 years ago, and of his death 100 years ago in Vienna -- on May 18, 1911.

For its part, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has made a Mahler a major theme of its programming. The latest example, which has one more presentation Sunday afternoon, strikes both biographical and elegiac themes.

The major item is the hour-plus “Das Lied von der Erde." BSO music director Marin Alsop has paired it with what, at first glance, may seem an unlikely companion for the concert’s first half ....

-- Mendelssohn’s sun-dappled Symphony No.4, known as the “Italian.” But that work’s evocation of someone rapturously drinking in beauty finds a haunting counterpart in the alternately exuberant, sardonic and mystical views of nature in the songs of “Das Lied.”

There’s another point to be made from the presence of the “Italian” Symphony here; it was one of the pieces on the last concert Mahler ever conducted (with the New York Philharmonic). Hearing it on the same program with Mahler’s symphony about taking leave of earthly life provides a bittersweet tinge.

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, Alsop drew from the BSO a polished, energetic account of the Mendelssohn symphony, with particularly colorful contributions from the woodwinds (the flutes could have used more presence, though).

Alsop offered an often beautifully detailed account of “Das Lied.” If the performance sounded somewhat detached at times, there still was considerable expressive warmth. The gentle phrasing of the closing measures of “Von der Schonheit” was but one example.

The orchestra met the score’s daunting challenges firmly. Solo contributions by oboist Katherine Needleman and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski proved quite eloquent.

“Das Lied” requires two singers of unusual technical and interpretive skill. The BSO’s guest artists did not come through entirely unscathed on Friday.

Simon O’Neill, like many a tenor in this music, found most of the high notes a struggle (it sounded like he bailed on the last one in “Der Trunkene im Fruhling”). Still, his phrasing often had an effective vibrancy.

Mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe needed more tonal heft in places; she was easily overwhelmed when the orchestra let loose. (Meyerhoff's acoustics aren't terribly helpful to voices, I know.) But she brought a disarming tenderness to “Der Einsame im Herbst” and she tapped into the sublime emotional depth of the hushed, time-suspending lines that close “Der Abschied,” Mahler’s transfixing glimpse of an eternally blooming spring.

A few more words about Friday's experience. "Das Lied" is obviously still a struggle for some folks; there were deserters during the performance. Worse were the two folks sitting across the aisle from me who, at various points, strolled out of the hall and back in (they were way too young to have incontinence troubles.) Worse still were the coughers, who left almost no pianissimo undisturbed. Geesh.

Also, as I've said before, the BSO really should try to get a supertitle system in place for vocal/orchestral repertoire. Maybe a generous soul would underwrite it. I'm convinced that audiences would find it easier and more rewarding to see the words projected in sync with the performance, rather than try to read handout texts. It might even hold their attention so strongly that they'll forget to cough.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 6, 2011

In today's Sun: Hear the Stradivarius that inspired Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

In case you missed this elsewhere in the Sun, I've got a story about violinist Vadim Gluzman, who will be the soloist for the Tchaikovsky concerto this weekend with the Annapolis Symphony, performing on the Stradivarius the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece.

The instrument's owner at the time, Leopold Auer, famously rejected the concerto, which Tchaikovsky intended to dedicate to him. Auer dismissed it as unplayable. The joke was on Auer, of course, but he did recant later on and championed the work to great effect.

More importantly, perhaps, he passed along his late-blooming enthusiasm to his students, who happened to include some of the greatest fiddlers of the 20th century.

Gluzman, who has been able to play the Strad on loan for 13 years, told me a fascinating thing about the deep-toned instrument (so deep he sometimes thinks, "Oh my God, that sounds like a viola") -- it also inspired ...

Glazunov's concerto. "Both begin on the same low string (G) and on the same note (A)," the violinist said. "I don't think it is a coincidence."

That got me to thinking about how rare it is to hear the Glazunov concerto (Gluzman calls it "an absolutely brilliant piece in every way, but rather difficult for both the soloist and the conductor"), or any of his music, for that matter, in concert halls these days. Outside of Russia, it seems he isn't considered serious enough. Too bad.

Anyway, it should be very cool to hear in person the sound Tchaikovsky imagined while composing his Violin Concerto. Maybe someone in the area will invite Gluzman back soon to perform Glazunov's. I couldn't find a video sample of him playing either concerto, but here he is demonstrating his artistry -- and the dark warmth of the Auer Strad -- in music by Brahms:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Baltimore Symphony disputes info in much-linked Web story about struggling orchestras

A story making its way through cyberspace this week (it started at and was quickly picked up by other sitesd) offers a snapshot of the "most cash-strapped classical music organizations."

But the writer, Jonathan Berr, used outdated and misleading information, at least when it came to including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on that list.  

In case you've come across that article (I rather hate to fuel the buzz, but I guess I should provide a link to it), there are a few details you may want to consider.

The BSO is shown with a deficit of $5.3 million. But, as BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham points out, "that's two-year-old information. We balanced the budget for 2009-2010 and we are on track to balance the budget for '10-'11. We have no accumulated debt. It's unfortunate that the article was written by a journalist who did not make an effort to check the information. A quick call from the writer would have clarified things, but he didn't do that. It's very frustrating."

(Berr could also have checked out my January blog post on the BSO's financial status -- doesn't everybody hang on my every word?)

The story claimed the the BSO "is faced with ...

the unenviable problem of competing for corporate patrons and ticket sales with National Symphony Orchestra in neighboring Washington, D.C." I don't think that holds up to scrutiny. The two cities are hardly neighboring, a la Minneapolis and St. Paul. They have always had very distinct markets, donors, etc.

Even the BSO's move into Strathmore (located in Bethesda, which really is "neighboring" to DC) did not make it a major competitor to the NSO. I'm told that the NSO has seen no discernible drop in ticket sales or donations since the BSO began playing at Strathmore. And the BSO has been developing a substantive support base there.  

The story goes on to say that the BSO "has a negative net asset value of $3.3 million." Meecham says that this is "purely a balance sheet item related to the musician's pension. We have to list all liabilities, and that figure is for the musicians' defined benefit plan. We have to fund that plan, but not in any one year. It does not have an impact on the operating budget."

Like most nonprofits these days, the BSO is hardly coasting on tidal waves of cash. But tough cost-cutting measures taken during the 2008-2009 season paid off. That year's deficit was eliminated using. Things have been in the black since. No wonder the unexpected flurry of bad cyber-press did not sit well.

"We've had strong ticket sales for the second half of the season," Meecham said. "Donations have never been higher. It's particularly galling to read stuff like this."


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 5, 2011

Center Stage postpones Josh Kornbluth's 'Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?'

This just in from Center Stage:

"Due to scheduling conflicts, we’re saddened to have to postpone our performances of Josh Kornbluth’s 'Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?' "

Actor/comedian Kornbluth was to have performed his play about "art, identity, Judaism, and culture," directed by David Dower, May 10-15 at the theater. Tickets will be refunded.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

May 3, 2011

Why I admire Daniel Barenboim's 'peace concert' in Gaza Strip

It turns out that the raid on Osama bin Laden wasn't the only secret operation being painstakingly planned on recent days.

A rare concert, also planned in secret a few weeks ago, took place Tuesday in the Gaza Strip.

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, with musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Berlin, Vienna Philharmonic,Orchestre de Paris and La Scala of Milan, crossed into the Hamas-controlled territory from Egypt to give an hour-long, all-Mozart performance at a beachfront center.

The Argentinian-born Barenboim, who holds Israeli and, as of 2008, Palestinian citizenship, has long championed Middle East peace and Palestinian rights. He has previously given concerts in the West Bank. A few years ago, he formed the remarkable East-West Divan, a youth orchestra containing players from Arab countries and Israel.

Needless to say, Barenboim is extremely popular in some corners, loathed in others. I'd say he is surely one of the bravest musicians of our time.

The Gaza concert, organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, was attended by about 700 people, including schoolchildren. According to press reports, Barenboim spoke to the audience about his dual status, saying ...

"So you see it is possible to be both." He described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one "of two peoples who are convinced they have the right to live in the same little piece of land. Therefore, our destinies are linked."

In words likely to enrage his critics again, Barenboim also said: "No people should be expected to live under occupation."

I can't help but admire this brilliant artist for his commitment to the cause of reconciliation. Where others keep trotting out the same arguments, keep digging deeper into the same entrenchments, Barenboim keeps trying to reach out, to show the common humanity of all people in the region, to remind them how much better things could be if peace could be achieved.

I also admire the compelling way he chooses to communicate and advocate through great music. He truly believes, as we're all taught, that music is a universal language. Some people still need it to be translated into their own narrow dialect; others would rather clamp noise-blocking devices on their ears so they can't hear it at all. But Barenboim seems as confident as ever in music's potential as a unifying, redemptive force. 

The Gaza concert is probably too small of a gesture, in the grand scheme of things, to make much of an impact on the region. Still, it's a useful reminder of how crucial it is to secure a Middle East peace.

Seems to me this is the best possible time to rev up negotiations, to turn all of the events of recent weeks and months -- the movement for change in many Arab states, the elimination in Abbotabad of a hideous international terrorist -- into a reason to heal long-festering wounds.

Imagine the wide-reaching seismic shift if Israel and the Palestinians actually forged a comprehensive accord now. Many a terror organization would lose its rallying point. Cultures that have spent decades denying their common ground would have a chance to explore and celebrate it.

Sure, this is a wildly idealistic dream. But that doesn't make it impossible. That's the message Barenboim has reiterated for a long while. The sounds of Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and Symphony No. 40, peformed Tuesday in Gaza, will not bring down walls or diffuse rockets, but they can't hurt or exclude anyone.

I hope Barenboim will keep stirring things up with his concerts, will continue to use the beauty and depth of classical music in his quest to help change the world.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:41 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

Pianists Leon Fleisher, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher to give benefit for Japan

In 2005, celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher stepped up quickly to help raise money for Americans hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

He was joined by his gifted wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, in memorable performances of solo and four-hand piano works at Central Presbyterian Church during a concert that featured other Baltimore area artists who likewise donated their services to the cause.

The Fleishers are heading back to Central Pres soon, this time for a concert "to benefit human and animal victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear devastation in Japan."

The performance will be at ...

7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 20. The church is located at 7308 York Road in Towson. Admission is free; cash and check donations will be accepted.

All proceeds from the concert will be donated. Donors can specify which of four organizations they want to receive their contributions: The Japan Society (Japan Earthquake Relief Fund), World Relief (Japan Disaster Relief), PETA, Inc. (PETA Asia, Animal Emergency Fund), Global Animal Foundation (Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support).

Speaking of benefits for Japan, that cause stands to reap a good deal of needed cash next month. The Nippon Music Foundation has decided to sell a much-prized Stradivarius violin in its collection.

Known as the "Lady Blunt" (great violins often bear the name of a previous owner, in this case, Lord Byron's granddaughter, Lady Anne Blunt), the 1721 instrument was last sold for $10 million, the BBC News reports. It's likely to sell for even more on June 20. All proceeds will go to the Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 2, 2011

Shriver Hall Concert Series ends season with Tokyo Quartet, Leon Fleisher

The Tokyo String Quartet is a strong enough draw on its own, but the additional presence of veteran pianist Leon Fleisher guaranteed a large turnout to Sunday's season finale of the Shriver Hall Concert Series. Extra seats were added onstage.

The program underwent a change due to the slow recovery from right-hand thumb surgery Fleisher has been experiencing since last year.

Out went the hefty Brahms F minor Piano Quintet; in came a chamber version of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 (with the participation of Baltimore Symphony principal bassist Robert Barney).

Offering an "explication" to the audience before the performance, the ever-droll Fleisher said that his surgeon told him ...

the thumb "was not quite ready for professional use. I hesitate to follow that train of thought," the pianist added, playing on similar remarks he made at a New York concert last December.

Fleisher, who famously resumed a limited amount of two-hand playing in the 1990s after new treatment for the longtime focal dystonia in his right, was not in pristine form for the Mozart work. But, like Horowitz, the pianist has earned the right to make mistakes. The smudges did not detract from the overall, elegant authority of the phrasing, especially in the second movement. Except for a premature entrance, the string players did cohesive work and spun eloquent phrases.

On its own, the Tokyo ensemble demonstrated exceptional technical refinement, interpretive richness and a glowing tone in Haydn's witty, brilliantly crafted Op. 77, No. 2, as well as in Szymanowski's sumptuous, atmospheric Op. 37.

The program also had room for Toru Takemitsu's darkly beautiful "A Way A Lone," delivered with considerable intensity of expression. In this context -- the concert was dedicated to the victims of the tsunami in Japan -- surges of dissonance couldn't help but suggest nature's wrath.

(Just a reminder to folks who prepare program notes: Attribution to other sources is still a good and proper idea. The Shriver Hall audience was given notes to the Takemitsu piece that included liberal, uncredited borrowing from an analysis readily found on the Web.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall
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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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