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June 29, 2011

More details on the move of Kennedy Center's 'Follies' to Broadway

More details have emerged about the hot production of "Follies" that packed 'em into the Kennedy Center recently and is heading to the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.

Four of the stars from the Washington cast will reprise their roles: Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. Additional casting is to be announced.

The show starts previews Aug. 7 and opens Sept. 12. Tickets go on sale July 5.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:35 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

A fantasy ride toward death in 'Linus and Alora' at Single Carrot Theatre

Mortality is such a downer.

No wonder many of us live in a perpetual state of denial about death, which is the approach of a young woman given nine months to live at the start of "Linus and Alora," the recent Andrew Irons play running through July 10 at Single Carrot Theatre.

Alora takes it one step farther than denial, actually, all the way into fantasy land. Not a bad way to go.

Gradually and sometimes painfully, husband Linus agrees to join her there. In the process, he doesn't just humor Alora, but also finds a way to confront his own, long-suppressed issues about death.

Irons has approached a topic all too familiar from disease-movies-of-the-week and given it enough freshness, enough surprise to create quite an absorbing experience. "Linus and Alora" -- am I the only one who thinks that's an ineffectual title? -- makes a snug fit for the avant-garde-friendly Single Carrot troupe, which brings vibrant acting and stagecraft to the material.

The production, directed by Genevieve de Mahy, has ...

an effective rhythm, and not just because of the periodic live music and video episodes -- or the thump of a heartbeat (that sound is really too cliched to be effective). The flights of fancy take off with considerable expressive flair; tender and bittersweet scenes are nicely handled.

De Mahy also designed the set, which includes a pit filled with stuffed animals that seem ever on the verge of animation. Several artists contributed to the evocative film projections. Chelsey Schuler's costumes do the trick.  

Alora is an intriguing character, whose previous escapes into an imaginary world have given her a most creative impulse. The dark medical news she receives sets that impulse into overdrive, inspired initially by the ironic nine-month factor in her prognosis -- the first thing Alora invents is a pregnancy.

Susannah Edwards is telling in the role, deftly conveying the gentle soul behind the desperation. Nathan A. Cooper likewise does vivid work as the angst-ridden, vulnerable Linus.

One of the best moments in the play, one that will resonate with anyone who has lost (or is afraid of losing) a loved one, comes when Linus expresses his deep fear of losing Alora. Her simple response: "You won't be alone." Cooper and Edwards make that small exchange remarkably touching.

Alora's imaginary brothers -- she must have watched a lot of "The Three Stooges" as a kid -- are portrayed with vocal and physical flourish by Kaveh Haerian (Neal), Nathan Fulton (Owen), and Mike Zemarel (Arthur).

Jessica Garrett and Paul Wissman handle their dual assignments deftly. Melissa Wimbish and David Kellam, as a spectral Cuban couple, move stylishly through the play.

The finely matched musicians -- Madeline de Mahy, Paul Diem, Jeremy Durkin -- and the colorful, folksy score (a collaborative effort) add greatly to the atmospheric layering of the production.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:50 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

Midweek Madness: The divine Mari Lyn warbles 'Summertime'

Welcome to a new feature that will appear (if I remember to keep up with it) on this ever-so-refined blog each Wednesday. I've called it Midweek Madness, an excuse to post some crazy little diversion for those (like me) who invariably need a chuckle halfway through the week.

I can think of no one more deserving to launch this venture than the divine Mari Lyn.

I will never forget the first time I heard this coloratura soprano, courtesy of a cable access channel in the New York area. My ears have never been the same -- or my eyes. What a fashion sense the dear woman had. What great wigs. And how smoothly she could turn the music pages.

A direct descendant (so to speak) of Florence Foster Jenkins, Mari Lyn had tremendous nerve, or an amazing lack of self-awareness. Either way, the music world is so much richer for her intrepid performances, accompanied by some of the most expressive players she could round up through the local musicians union.

Since I happened to launch Midweek Madness in the summertime, I couldn't resist posting her version of ...

"Summertime," which pretty much closes the book on interpretations of that Gershwin classic. Whatever you do, don't skip the second verse, when she jazzes things up, and the final cadenza -- it's to die (laughing) for.

So fasten your seat belts and hit the 'Play' button:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:18 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

June 28, 2011

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opens with an effective 'La Boheme'

Some people wouldn't cross the street to hear an opera. And some opera lovers wouldn't cross the street to hear yet another "La Boheme."

Me, I'll drive nearly three hours for a "Boheme" and nearly three to get back home -- all in the same day, which is what I did on Saturday to catch that Puccini classic at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival deep into Rappahannock County Virginia.

The landed gentry turned out for the opening night, as did some pretty newsy folks -- I spotted Carter Administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bush/Clinton/Bush counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine and frequent MSNBC commentator David Corn. Hey, a little crowd-gazing is always fun.

(This opening gala was a fundrasier for the festival, which has a roughly $2 million budget. As Maazel, whose own money has been the main support for the enterprise, told me recently: "God helps those who help themselves, but there's a limit, obviously.")

The Castleton Festival proved its Puccini chops with last summer’s absorbing production of "Il Trittico." For "Boheme," Maazel had a freshly erected pavilion that offered a larger orchestra pit (and more cooperative air conditioning ) than the rented one used last year.

Although Maazel has praised the acoustics of the facility, I assume that was before a full audience was in the place. The sound on Saturday was a little dry and heavily favored the orchestra (except for the harp, which seemed to be in another room). Voices, at least from my perch about half way up the risers, couldn't always cut through. Still, the overall quality of the venture was easily savored.

The opera got an update to what looked like the 1930s. Nicholas Vaughan’s earth-tone set recalled expressionist films, with off-kilter angles of the looming Parisian rooftops.

Joyce El-Khoury, an endearing presence last summer in "Gianni Schicchi," was ...

again impressive as Mimi, producing a velvety tone shaded with abundant nuance. A very persuasive actress, too. Brian Jagde sang Rodolfo with a good deal of vocal flair. I would have welcomed more dynamic variety, but the ardent, well-focused vocalism paid off.

Suzanne Vinnik's Musetta, refreshingly, showed a more sophisticated side right from her entrance; this wasn't the usual sex-kitten shtick. The soprano matched that multi-layered portrayal with a vibrant voice and consistently animated phrasing. 

Corey Crider was a terrific Marcello, using his warm, supple baritone to colorful effect and inhabiting the role fully, whether cavorting with with his bohemian bros, comforting a distraught Mimi or getting into a no-holds-barred fight with the vibrantly sung Musetta.

That Act 3-closing fight, by the way, was the most distinctive touch in William Kerley's direction -- Musetta even drew some (stage) blood before the lovers kissed and made up, a cool and convincing twist on the original scenario.    

The rest of the ensemble made lively contributions, with Jonathan Beyer standing out for his sturdy, dynamic singing as Schuanard. The adult and children's choruses fulfilled their duties efficiently.

The orchestra hit some bumps, but generally met the challenges admirably. The brass made up for an unfortunate splatter in the last act with a gripping chord -- the one underlining Rodolfo's realization that Mimi has died -- played at a volume that must have been heard in West Virginia. The tragic intensity of it all proved truly stunning.

That chord's impact was one the most satisfying elements in Maazel's conducting. He seemed rather uninvolved during the first act; the music just unfolded. From Musetta's Waltz on, though, he revealed more distinctive phrasing and tempo-shaping, reaching a richly affecting peak of expressive music-making throughout the last act.

There will be three more performances: July 1, 10 and 16.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

June 27, 2011

Theatre Project's 40th season to feature local companies, pass-the-hat performances

Founded in 1971 as a free-admission venue, Theatre Project will give a nod to that practice during a typically diverse 40th anniversary season that features several local companies and new or new-to-Baltimore works.

A totally free policy wouldn't fly economically, of course, but "to celebrate our beginnings as a free theater, all of our productions this year will feature at least a rehearsal or performance where there is no admission and we’ll 'pass the hat' after the show," says producing director Anne Cantler Fulwiler.

Another element of the 2011-2012 season involves residencies by local companies, which will spend several weeks at Theatre Project. The Generous Company, for example, which made quite an impression there last year with "I Am The Machine Gunner," will be on hand most of January with a festival of new works.

In the fall, Iron Crow Theatre Company will offer "Parallel Lives" by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney (who performed the work at Theatre Project in 1986); in the spring, "The Soldier Dreams" by Daniel MacIvor.

In time for Halloween, Factory Edge Theatre Works will presents its version of ...

"The Rocky Horror Show."

Opera, which has been a significant component of Theatre Project seasons, will be back in a big way. Chesapeake Chamber Opera, which has been using local churches as performance spaces, will stage three productions at Theatre Project. One of them is still to be determined; the others are "Rigoletto" and Mark Adamo’s "Little Women" -- I'm pretty sure this will be the Baltimore premiere of Adamo's remarkably successful work from 1998.

Peabody Chamber Opera will present another successful contemporary work, "Postcard from Morocco, by Peabody alum Dominick Argento, and Vivaldi's "Griselda" (I'm assuming that's a Baltimore premiere, too).

The 40th anniversary season kicks off in September with Dance Box Theatre performing "Affectations," choreographed by Stephen Clapp and Laura Schandelmeier. The season's dance listing also include performances by VTDance, ClancyWorks Dance Company, the Kennedy Center Dance Showcase and Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company.

There's more: the High Zero Festival, QuestFest, Al Letson & Company's "Griot," and a new work from Dreams + Nightmares Aerial Theater by Kel Millionie.

Theatre Project is introducing a membership offer this season, instead of the usual subscription series. Memberships, starting at $40, will include steep ticket discounts (freebies at higher membership levels) and other incentives.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera, Peabody Institute

June 24, 2011

UK's Guardian provides first live-streaming from Glyndebourne

I've only managed one visit to Glyndebourne, the historic and magical opera festival in the East Sussex area of England, and I've been itching to return ever since. If only my lottery numbers would finally pay off.

Meanwhile, here's some great news:

Thanks to The Guardian, my favorite source of British news and views, folks anywhere can ...

tune in via the Internet to opera performances from Glyndebourne this summer.

The first-ever live streaming will be on Sunday -- "Die Meistersinger," in a production directed by David McVicar and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The cast includes Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs, Marco Jentzsch as Walther, Anna Gabler as Eva. It's Glyndeborune's first "Meistersinger" and only the second Wagner opera at the festival since it was founded in 1934.

The live stream starts at 9:45 a.m. EST. On-demand video of the performance will be available for seven days afterward.  Click here for more info.

There will be one more live-streaming this season on Aug. 21 -- "The Turn of the Screw."

Here's a Glyndebourne video preview of "Meistersinger":

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

In today's Sun: A preview of the 2011 Castleton Festival

If you haven't made the trip down to Rappahannock County to experience the Castleton festival, you ought to give it a try.

Yeah, the drive isn't all a lark from Baltimore, but once you're out on those rolling county roads, you'll leave your cares and troubles behind.

I've got a story about the 2011 festival in today's Sun, so I won't go on and on here. I'll just add that the cool factor of Castleton is considerable.

First of all, it means you get to be on the gorgeous estate of stellar conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife Dietlinde Turban Maazel. It really is a welcoming, calming place.

And most of the opera and orchestral performances are ...

conducted by Maazel, a very big draw in my book. I know some folks carp that his interpretations are "micro-managed" or other such nonsense, but I invariably find him a fascinating, compelling music-maker.

Then you have the caliber of the performances by fine young artists who are showcased in the festival.

So I'd say there's more than enough reason to take the drive. But, this summer, that drive doesn't have to be all the way into the hills. For the first time, there will be some Castleton events at Strathmore and the Hylton Center in Manassas, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 22, 2011

Adaptistration releases 2011 reports on pay for music directors, orchestra executives

Given all the discussion in this country about executive salaries and bonuses in the corporate world, it's a particularly good time to look at the situation in the symphony orchestra portion of the nonprofit sector.

Thanks to Drew McManus' invaulable orchestral watchdog site Adaptistration, which keeps tabs on such things so efficiently that some of us get too lazy to do the digging ourselves, you can see what the financial picture looks like here in Baltimore and across the country.

People on the podium are still doing quite well, regardless of the recession, according to ... 

the 2011 Compensation Reports: Music Directors, released Wednesday -- the data comes from the 2008-2009 season (it typically takes a couple years for public record information from orchestras to make it into the open).

From my quick glance, it looks like a lot of music directors of the biggest orchestras are getting more or less 10 times the base salary of the players. That includes the Baltimore Symphony's Marin Alsop, whose compensation was reported to be $711,626 (base pay for BSO players, $78,500).

At a time when private sector CEOs are bringing home 400 times the average wage of their workers, the symphony scene doesn't seem out of line -- not that rank-and-file musicians would necessarily agree, of course.

As for orchestra executives, that picture is quite varied. Given the sad state some orchestras are in financially, I well imagine that compensation on the management side is a particularly sore issue for players -- the Adaptistration report on executives, released Tuesday, shows those salaries rose on average about five percent over the previous year.

Baltimore Symphony CEO Paul Meecham's salary is reported at $294,481. The CEO's at the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics continue to lead the pack with $1 million-plus compensation packages.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:39 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Lee Mills receives BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship

Montana-born, 24-year-old Lee Mills, will be the third recipient of the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship, starting in September.

The fellowship, a unique project founded in 2007 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Peabody Institute, provides a full tuition scholarship to Peabody and mentoring from BSO music director Marin Alsop.

Mills, who just received a graduate performance diploma from Peabody, will earn an artist diploma after the one-year fellowship.

The young conductor has done fine work in the area in collaboration with various Peabody ensembles, including Peabody Opera Theatre. He also managed to assemble the necessary forces on campus to conduct Beethoven's Ninth and other big works last season, no small feat. 

Mill will make his public BSO conducting debut during ...

Artscape on July 16, conducting works by Mozart and Vaughan Williams.

The conducting fellowship has previously showcased two young talents: Joseph Young, who was recently named resident conductor of the Phoenix Symphony; and Ilyich Rivas, whose international career was in full swing before he arrived at the BSO and continues to flourish.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Thomas Hampson joins lineup for National Symphony/Kennedy Center season-opener

The National Symphony Orchestra already had a big name, violinist Joshua Bell, on the roster as guest artist for the concert on Sept. 25 that launches the ensemble's 80th season and the Kennedy Center's 40th. But one good star turn deserves another.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has been added to the lineup. He'll sing some of Copland's "Old American Songs" on the program, which also features Bell in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Rounding out the NSO concert, led by music director Christoph Eschenbach, will be Dvorak's "Carnival" and Ravel's "Bolero."

There's a reason for all those musical chestnuts -- the event is a prelude to NSO's annual ball, a major fundraiser.



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

Cabaret duo at An die Musik salutes 'The Women of Rodgers and Hammerstein'

The dames, I mean women, immortalized in classic show tunes by Rodgers and Hammerstein are the focus of a program that will be performed Wednesday and Thursday at An die Musik.

Soprano Amy Alvarez and pianist Jefferson Turner will work their way through 30 songs in this cabaret act.

The duo comes highly recommended by Baltimore's own cabaret gem, Jennifer Blades, and that's good enough for me.

Directed by Ricky Graham, "Nothing Like a Dame: The Women of Rodgers and Hammerstein" was a hit at Le Chat Noir in New Orleans in 2007 and is also being performed this month at New York's Metropolitan Room.

Alvarez and Turner, who were mentored by cabaret icon Andrea Marcovicci, have been building an impressive list of credits. I am particularly fascinated by something they did last year -- they were in the cast of a staged version of "Auntie Mame" in New Orleans with the fabulous drag performer Varla Jean Merman ("the love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine"). Nothing like a dame, indeed.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Rhymes with Opera premieres David Smooke's 'Criminal Element'

In 1991, composer Gian Carlo Menotti threw something of a tantrum at the Spoleto Festival USA, which he had founded and nourished in Charleston, S.C., with great care for 15 years. He was livid with the board for approving a contemporary art exhibit that he labeled a "sophomoric stunt."

I started remembering that controversy part-way through "Criminal Element," the work by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke that was given an admirable performance by the adventuresome group called Rhymes with Opera on Saturday at the Windup Space (the premiere was the night before in Brooklyn).

Wait, wait -- I'm not calling the new piece sophomoric or a stunt. Let me explain.

One of the works I still remember well at the Charleston art show that so enraged Menotti was a giant, intriguing egg-shaped piece of sculpture. According to a note posted next to it by the artist, there was another object (I forget now what it was supposed to be) inside the egg -- but you couldn't see it. You had to take it on faith.

By the same token, you have to take on faith Smooke's description of "Criminal Element," his not-exactly-an-opera that he says is based on the actual case of the guy in France whose fake trading nearly caused a financial markets meltdown a few years ago.

Smooke invented his own language for the singers -- it sounded to me like ... 

a dialectal cousin of the one Lucy and Ethel made up when they pretended to be Martians landing on the Empire State Building.

Although varying degrees of emotion were detectable in the articulation of the vocal lines, I can't say that a clear-cut scenario or any specific dramatic events could be discerned in the 45-minute piece.

So, in the end, I decided it was akin to that big egg in Charleston -- there may or may not have been something deep inside, but, either way, the surface was cool enough.

Smooke has acknowledged Philip Glass as an early influence, which could be traced in the pulsating patterns of "Criminal Element." I thought of Morton Feldman, too; there is a lot of soft and static music.

The singers -- sopranos Elisabeth Halliday and Bonnie Lander, baritone Robert Maril -- were at their most technically secure in reflective passages, but they handled more aggressive bits with plenty of spirit. Each vocalist also ably tackled the unusual instrumental assignments required along the way -- a micro-tuned ukulele, a melodica and what I think was a dulcimer (used with particularly haunting effect in the final portion of the work).

The primary instrumental complement in the score is a string quartet, called up to produce quite a variety of subtle sounds. The West End String Quartet performed this role admirably.

However "Criminal Element" is ultimately classified genre-wise, it adds up to a highly creative, absorbing experience.

There were two other short vocal works on the long program; composer George Lam conducted all three surely.

"Someone Anyone," a 20-minute opera with music by Lam and libretto by Martin Zimmerman, struck me as rather labored. The story of a prostitute being taken for a ride, so to speak, by a client didn't fulfill its ominous potential. And for all of the 'f' bombs thrown around in the text, the words didn't really ring true.

The vocal writing turned awkward from time to time, but the use of hummed notes for the baritone at the start had a striking effect.

Ryan Jesperson's "Orphee Redux," a short scene from a longer opera, also has an adult theme -- a woman is drawn into a sex club environment in early '80s New York; her husband tries to rescue her, a la Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades.

The music could use more color and inventiveness (tremulous string chords don't have that much dramatic weight anymore), but there are very effective passages, especially a lyrical duet for the husband and his sister-in-law. Maril's singing was particularly impressive, warm in tone, full of dynamic nuance (he sounded like he would be ideal for Britten operas).

During its opening set, the West End String Quartet encountered a few pitch discrepancies, and the acoustics of Windup Space did the players no favors, but the music-making had flair.

Schnittke's Quartet No. 3, haunted by ghosts of past composers, received a taut performance. Kyle Gann's jaunty/lyrical "Concord Spiral" curled its way nicely through the ensemble. And Ruby Fulton's "Being for the Breakdown" proved engaging, from the opening melody trying to break out over pizzicato patterns to the octave-obsessed reflections at the end.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 21, 2011

Latest flash mob perpetrators: Mormon Tabernacle Choir

With so much talk about Mormons these days, thanks to a giga-hit on Broadway and two presidential candidates, it seems like a better time than ever to hear from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And you'll never guess where the 360 choristers turned up on Tuesday -- right in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg.

They formed a flash mob at the end of a street theater presentation and, after singing something called "Free States" to the tune of "My Country ‘tis of Thee" (that's a new one on me), they invited the surprised tourists to chime in on "Yankee Doodle."

With Independence Day around the corner, I thought you might enjoy seeing the Mormon flash mobsters in action (the music starts to break in at about 3 min./25 sec. into the clip):

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:40 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

'Wicked' is back at the Kennedy Center with dynamic cast

Sometimes it’s better not to look behind the curtain.

"Wicked," the smash Broadway musical from 2003 that has returned to the Kennedy Center for a long summer run, doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of depth underneath the very diverting surface.

Inspired by the popular 1995 Gregory Maguire novel, "Wicked" provides a back story to what may be the best known, best loved of all fantasies, the one that found a Kansan girl whooshed off to Oz, where she was threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West.

Turns out that the witch, the one Margaret Hamilton played so deliciously in the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz," was named Elphaba and had some severe childhood issues, along with that off-putting green complexion. Glinda, the good witch, once had another ‘a’ in her name, along with way too much self-esteem.

The two witches developed a yen for the same cute, straw-for-brains guy, a conflict that has something to do with their respective fates. Oh yes, and the Wizard was a prototypical fascist. (Perhaps the musical set out to prove Oscar Wilde’s dictum that "wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." )

Those with firm allegiance to the movie may have the toughest time adjusting to "Wicked"; some things are so ingrained into our beings that any little change is terribly unsettling. But there is undeniable imagination in the musical’s plot (Winnie Holzman wrote the often witty book), and the whole thing is dusted with a layer of camp that has its distinct rewards.

Stephen Schwartz’s score aims to please, but many of the songs are ...

in the bland pop style that characterizes too many Broadway musicals of late, and his lyrics tend to get much too wordy to be supported by such slender melodic lines.

Issues of morality and repressive government are explored with a heavy-handed touch that doesn’t quite fit with the fantastical side of things. Although several themes have a good deal of potency, especially a chilling classroom scene right out of the Third Reich, there is little room left for development, let alone a strong emotional connection.

But if I think it’s a bit of a stretch to treat "Wicked" as profound, the way its most ardent fans do, it would also be, well, wicked, to dismiss it as "deeply shallow" (to borrow a wry line from the show).

At the very least, the musical entertains, thanks in large measure to a production that positively drips with green – not just Ozian emerald, but good old-fashioned greenbacks. This is modern stagecraft writ large. In this second national touring production, the original set design (Eugene Lee), costumes (Susan Hilferty) and lighting (Kenneth Posner) still create abundant dazzle. And Joe Mantello’s direction continues to have the action unfolding with cinematic fluidity.

Heading the cast as Elphaba is Dee Roscioli, whose long association with the role on Broadway and elsewhere shows at every turn -- she has performed it more often than anyone else. The actress manages to put sufficient life into a part that doesn’t have as much color (the green aside) as you would expect. And Roscioli’s rich voice, with a particularly lush low register, is used with great expressive power.

In many ways, Glinda is the central spark of "Wicked." She undergoes the most extensive transformation and accounts for the most infectious humor along the way. Glinda is also a close cousin to the perky, blissfully superficial heroine of "Legally Blonde" (instead of Harvard, Glinda's goal is a sorcery school), and Amanda Jane Cooper makes the most of that kinship with a performance that never runs out of bubbly charm. She gives a particularly effervescent account of "Popular," one of the most creative and satisfying items of Schwartz’s score.

Mark Jacoby uses keen acting skills and a subtly shaded voice to animate the role of the Orwellian Wizard; he delivers "Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful," Schwartz’s affectionate nods to song-and-dance numbers of yore, with great finesse.

Randy Danson does vivid work as Madame Morrible. Paul Slade Smith is endearing as Doctor Dillamond. Colin Hanlon’s Fiyero generates a good deal of spark. Stefanie Brown gets as much mileage as she can from the underwritten part of Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. Justin Brill is a charmer as Boq, and the rest of the ensemble adds dynamic punch to the finely polished production.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:03 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop offers 'random acts of arias and dinner'

The Cabaret Room at Germano’s Trattoria in Little Italy has developed into a very opera-friendly spot. The Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop returns to the venue for this second year, this time with "A Random Act of Arias and Dinner," presented on Wednesday and July 6 ($50 per person includes four-course meal, tax and tip).

The workshop, led by Vincent Dion Stringer, is a venture of Morgan State University's Department of Fine and Performing Arts.

Audience members get to play a small role in the concert of arias and show tunes at Germano's -- they'll draw the names of the musical selections from a hat to determine the random order of the program.

For reservations, call 410-752-4515.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Good news for Delaware Symphony Orchestra and departing exec Lucinda Williams

Longtime followers of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will fondly recall Lucinda Williams, who did a great job as vice president for artistic and education. She was among the departures during (I'd call them casualties of) the disastrous period when James Glicker was CEO.

Williams went on to become the executive director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, which seems to have been doing fine work. The ensemble, led by David Amado, made a recording with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet that was nominated last year for a Latin Grammy.

While things were progressing musically, life was taking some unfortunate turns for Williams, who was badly injured in ...

a 2010 car accident. Within six months of that incident, she had surgery for a collapsed spine. While recuperating from that, she started helping with the care of her mother, who was fighting breast cancer, and her two-year-old grandson, who was born with diabetes.

Understandably, Williams decided to step down from the symphony job. On Tuesday, at the orchestra's season-ending meeting, she was informed that the board and staff started a fund with the Delaware Juvenile Diabetes Foundation named for Williams and her grandson.

That surprise was topped by another -- a $1 million gift to the orchestra from patron Tatiana Copeland, who just happens to be Rachmaninoff's niece.

Given all that Williams has been through, that coda must have sounded extra sweet. I wish her well.

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

June 20, 2011

Buzz around young composer Nico Muhly gets louder by the minute

If you haven't heard the name Nico Muhly yet, you haven't been paying attention. He is not just the hot composer de jour; he may well be the hot composer de la decennie and beyond.

Even Baltimore, a place some people unfairly lump together with the provinces, has had exposure to Muhly's music, thanks in large measure to Mobtown Modern.

I am hoping that more local organizations will take note of this remarkable American composer, who is about to gain some amazing exposure this week, when English National Opera presents the premiere of "Two Boys." This work, inspired by a creepy event that happened in England some years ago, is also scheduled for a Metropolitan Opera debut during the 2013-14 season.

To quote Nadia Sirota (the fine violist and, incidentally, daughter of former Peabody Conservatory director Bob Sirota): "I'll pause for a minute to let the full awesomeness of that sentence sink in: A new opera by a composer under 30. A FIRST opera done by ENO and already slated to hit the Met."

Sirota's comments come from an entry she wrote on the Web site of ...

New York's WQXR, which has just launched a week-long Muhly festival to celebrate the composer. Should be fun tuning in (via streaming, for those of us out in the, um, provinces).

You can also check out recent recordings of Muhly's music, including a fascinating disc from Decca titled "Seeing is Believing" -- that's the name of a a concerto for electric violin included on the recording, which will be released Tuesday. The repertoire also includes Muhly's hauntingly beautiful arrangements of vocal pieces by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.

As for "Two Boys," the plot is based on the bizarre 2003 case of a 14-year-old in Manchester who, using fake personalities online and the promise of sex, gradually induced a 15-year-old boy to syab him him -- a kind of suicide wish (the kid survived). The issue of what can happen when people enter the largely uncontrollable online world of sex and fantasy seems even more timely in the wake of the Weiner scandal.

A lot is riding on "Two Boys." English National Opera is providing what looks like a major production, directed by Bartlett Sher. There has been heavy promotion, including via a cheeky video of a guy going up to strangers asking them to "friend" or "follow" him. When I first looked at the video a week or so ago, it had been seen by maybe 200 people; the number if over 800,000 now -- a viral video pegged to an opera premiere, how unusual is that? You can bet the British music press is chomping at the bit for Friday's premiere.

I've posted the WNO's Web trailer for the opera below, along with that offbeat can-I-be-your-friend promo.

Whatever the outcome of this particular venture, it seems likely that Muhly's star will only get brighter.




Posted by Tim Smith at 9:24 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 17, 2011

Wordbridge Playwrights Lab explores new works during Towson University residency

Presented by the Generous Company, the Wordbridge Playwrights Laboratory marks its 15th anniversary with a residence at Towson University, where all sorts of new and developing works will be explored.

A lot of activity at the workshop is open to the public, including a reading of new Russian play, Pavel Pryazhko’s "Panties," on Sunday; a storytelling performance on Tuesday by Crosby Hunt; and a the reading of new play by George Brant on Wednesday.

The Lab also offers a benefit concert by Bill Harley, the Grammy-winning storyteller and NPR commentator. The event is at 8 p.m. Friday at TU's Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Music and theater stories for your reading pleasure

For the benefit of those who do not automatically find every breathless bit of my prose, I just wanted you to mention two stories that appear elsewhere on the Sun site. Both happen to have string quartets in common.

Adventurous music lovers can read about the cool group called Rhymes with Opera, which performs an intriguing program titled "Criminal Intent" at 6 p.m. Saturday at Windup Space.

In addition to the regular members of the ensemble (two composers, three singers), the West Wend String Quartet will participate, backing some of the operas on the program and also playing a set of works by Kyle Gann, Alfred Schnittke and Rhymes with Opera founding member Ruby Fulton.

Theater and music fans would find it well worth a trip to ...

the Olney Theatre Center for a well-paced production of Michael Hollinger's "Opus." The play takes a no-holds-barred look at a (fictional) string quartet which is facing personal (or personnel) and artistic crises.

Classical music and musicians don't get a great deal of attention from playwrights. Hollinger succeeds quite well, I think, at capturing the milieu and the motivations of this world. (Even the little details ring true, as when a young violist auditioning for a vacancy in the quartet worries about dental insurance.)

Like Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata," "Opus" takes a questionable turn at the end, but, hey, I've known some classical compositions that do the same.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

June 15, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera revives rare work by Wolf-Ferrari and gives it a 'Mad Men' touch

If you want to stump your most smug opera-nut friends, just ask them to name more than two works by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

If they oblige, chances are their answers won't include "Le Donne Curiose," let alone a plot summation or the humming of a few bars.

This 1903 opera had a brief moment in the sun. Of particular note was the Met's production of 1911, which was brought back the following season.

In both cases, it had the advantage of being conducted by Arturo Toscanini and starring Geraldine Farrar, one of the most popular vocal artists of the day. A New York reviewer declared "Le Donne Curiose" to be "a treasury of brilliant delights, of musical inventions and fancies."

Well, times change, tastes change. Today, this particular example of Wolf-Ferrari's craftsmanship is about as obscure as can be. But that's going to change this weekend.

Putting the Ferrari into Wolf Trap, the indomitable Wolf Trap Opera has dusted off this curiosity and, judging from rehearsal photos (one is at the right, courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera), has given it what promises to be a very cool staging, a la "Mad Men."

Kim Witman, the ever-imaginative head of the company, knew ...

of a couple other Wolf-Ferrari pieces when she started thinking about "Le Donne Curiose" ("The Curious Women"). "But I had in my head that it would require too large of an orchestra for us, so I steered clear," she said.

When she found the score, she noticed that it called for more of a Mozart-size orchestra, a perfect fit for the Barns at Wolf Trap, where the company presents most of its work.

But what of the other components? Were they strong enough to merit reviving an opera that, as far as can be determined, has not had a professional production in this country for nearly 100 years?

The plot "feels a lot like 'Cosi', with just a touch of misogynistic attitudes," Witman said. Based on a Goldoni play, the story centers around, well, curious women. They want to know what their men are doing behind the doors of a no-females-allowed club. A pretty old device, but durable (there's a good "I Love Lucy" episode using the same setup).

Wolf Trap Opera has a great track record of updating works, and the approach for "Le Donne Curiose" seems ideal. "We've moved it to the '60s," Witman said, "pre-NOW. The idea of men retiring to one place with their cigars was still a feature of the '50s and early '60s. Women were just feeling emboldened enough to start asking what's going on."

The new time frame provided a great excuse to go all "Mad Men" with the costumes.

As for the music, Wolf-Ferrari attempted to capture something of an 18th century flavor. "And it has many echoes from the few decades prior to his writing the opera," Witman said. "Wolf-Ferrari's favorite opera was 'Falstaff" and there's much of that in the score. There are Wagnerian gestures in it as well, and, of course, verismo colors. It's a bit of a grab bag, but not in a bad way."

The chance to experience such a rarity ought to be awfully attractive to opera lovers. Performances are Friday, Sunday and June 25.

To give you further incentive, check out Kim Witman's wonderful blog, where I stole some cool videos to post here to give you a taste of both the music and the colorful staging:


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:47 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Kennedy Center's 'Follies' heading to Broadway for limited run

The Kennedy Center's terrific revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" is heading to Broadway. What is being called a "limited engagement" will open this summer at the Marquis Theatre (dates and casting TBA).

There was quite abuzz about this $7.3 million production before it opened, plenty more afterward. It wraps up a sold-out run in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Sunday.

I've got to assume that most of the stars will at least be asked to do the Broadway engagement. This team, which includes Bernadette Peters, Elaine Page, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Linda Lavin, does some very stylish work. UPDATE: It looks like Linda Lavin is out; she has accepted another tehter gig -- a bigger part. She sure makes the most of "Broadway Baby," her moment in the "Follies" sun.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:01 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

Summertime means a boon for Gilbert and Sullivan fans

Some of us would be happy to hear Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at any time of year. Some of us would even be happy to hear them performed by traditional, big-league opera companies.

If the Lyric Opera of Chicago has never turned up its nose at G&S -- the company had another hit this season with a production of "The Mikado" starring such great vocal artists as Stephanie Blythe and James Morris -- there's no excuse for others to be so limiting.

Most of the time, though, it seems we get bursts of G&S mainly in the summertime, when such supposedly lighter fare is more appropriate or marketable, and mostly from ensembles devoted solely to this repertoire.

That's how it is in Baltimore, where the Young Victorian Theatre Company has been fighting the good fight for 40 summers. For its 2011 production, YVT has chosen ...

one of the most beautiful items in the G&S canon, "The Yeomen of the Guard." Performances are July 9-17 at the Bryn Mawr School.

Area G&S fans should also note the second International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival taking place June 24-July 3 in Gettysburg, which puts it within easy distance for most of us. Billed as "the largest and most comprehensive event" of its kind in North America, this enterprise is affiliated with the three-week Gilbert & Sullivan Festival that has its 18th season this summer in Buxton, England.

The remarkable lineup at the Gettysburg fest lists no less than nine staged productions, including "Yeomen," "Pirates of Penzance," "Patience," "The Sorcerer" and "Ruddigore," performed by ensembles from several states and from England. Concerts and a youth production of "Mikado" are also on the schedule at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg. Various fringe festival events are also planned.

To get you in the mood for a G&S summer, here's one of my favorite examples of the magic this composer and and this librettist could generate -- the duet "I Have a Song to Sing, O" from "Yeoman." Gilbert made it tricky for Sullivan by writing verses that get longer with each stanza. The solution Sullivan devised is wonderful in its simplicity and eloquence:


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:27 AM | | Comments (0)

June 13, 2011

Taking the measure of National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach

I started my weekend Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in order to hear Christoph Eschenbach's last program of his inaugural season as National Symphony Orchestra music director.

It proved to be an extraordinary experience -- which is to say a typical Eschenbach concert.

Something about this man's musicianship, with its unapologetic individuality, first impressed me a long time ago, which is why I thought it was such great news when he got the NSO post.

I won't presume to speak with great authority (which is unusual for me), since I have not been able to catch all of Eschenbach's performances this season (if Baltimore and DC were connected, as they should be, by a high-speed, round-the-clock rail/metro system, you couldn't keep me away). But I will say that each encounter has made me feel that the NSO sounds better than ever.

It's not just a matter of technical improvements, although they have been noticeable -- greater clarity of articulation, smoother responses from sections, a more pronounced cohesiveness. It's also a sense of musicians zeroing in tightly on Eschenbach's distinctive wavelength and going along with him fully for the ride.

That ride was especially captivating on Friday during the Adagio of ...

Schumann's Symphony No. 2. You don't typically hear this movement taken so very slowly. Then again, you don't always hear it sound so moving, almost Mahler-like in its depth.

I was mesmerized both by the conductor's approach and the NSO's intensely beautifully response to it -- this was music-making that went way beyond the printed page to brush against what I took to be Schumann's soul. That sort of rush is what makes me look forward to Eschenbach's concerts. 

I hasten to add that I greatly enjoyed the Baltimore Symphony's performance of this same symphony and that same Adagio only last month, with Marin Alsop at her most engaging. But what I heard on Friday in Washington was more transporting still.

I wish I knew how long each of those Adagios lasted (I can understand why Harold Schonberg used to have a stopwatch at concerts to jot down varying durations). It seemed to me that Eschenbach's Adagio lasted almost twice the time, even though Alsop's wasn't at all rushed. There may have been only a couple minutes' difference, but what a difference it made.

Anyway, I don't want to belabor any of this -- yes, I know; it's too late for that -- but I do want to reiterate that the unusual, compelling nature of that Adagio alone would have been enough to make Friday's concert exceptional.

The whole of Schumann's Second benefited from Eschenbach's touch. There was a dark mystery to the opening; a superb dash through the Scherzo, with the strings nimbly and colorfully negotiating the busiest of passages; a finale with an expressive weight that seemed to point toward Bruckner (as that sublime Adagio hinted at Mahler).

Along the way, there were many marvelous dynamic nuances, subtle bends in the tempo, dramatic pauses or surges -- all the things I usually can thrill to only on very old recordings by long-ago musicians.

The program opened with more Schumann, his infrequently heard Overture to "Die Braut von Messina," which received a bold, taut performance. The strings again offered particularly admirable work.

The Schumann scores bookended the U.S. premiere of Violin Concerto No. 3, "Juggler in Paradise," by Augusta Read Thomas. This NSO co-commission represents a significant addition to the repertoire.

Structured in a single, 20-minute span, the vividly orchestrated score "juggles" ideas and rhythms to create an absorbing dialogue between soloist and orchestra. There's a lot of jaunty, pointillistic writing that gradually builds up to what suggests Bernstein's jazziest dances from "West Side Story" -- but on speed.

An enormous percussion battery is employed, with the bongos providing extra color, but the violin nonetheless holds its own, eventually taming the orchestra in a concluding section of rapt lyricism.

Jennifer Koh was the confident, communicative soloist. She enjoyed supple partnering from Eschenbach, vivid interaction from the NSO.

All things considered, a most rewarding concert that didn't just mix the old with the new, but also made the old sound new. That's not a bad way to sum up Eschenbach's first NSO season.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

Having a gay old time at the Tony Awards show

A colleague of mine at the Sun walked into the office the morning after last year’s Tony Awards saying, “Was that the gayest show ever?” He didn't exactly sound pleased, either.

I can’t imagine what the poor guy will think after Sunday’s fabulous ceremony, which started with that fabulous Broadway's-not-just-for-gays-anymore production number and went on to be peppered with many a gay reference or resonance. (I've attached a clip of that curtain-raiser below -- I hope YouTube doesn't pull it.)

Me, I thought it was terrific. Mind you, I don’t usually watch awards shows. Too many boring spots, too many commercials. But those three hours Sunday night, at least on TV, seemed to fly by and with far fewer hitches than “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has had. And, yes, it was awfully gay. That’s what gave it such a kick.

Neil Patrick Harris is too good to be true -- cute, funny, a very competent singer and dancer, and a host who actually makes you believe he is welcoming everybody into his world. From the way he nailed the hilarious opening song (I can’t remember any Academy Awards show starting with something so witty, succinct and just plain fun) to the way he delivered the rushing rap at the close, Harris demonstrated a remarkable cool factor. (That not-for-gays-anymore song was written by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, creators of “Cry Baby.”)

As for the actual awards, there didn’t seem to be too many surprises or strange choices. It was a glorious night for those of the Mormon persuasion -- nine Tonys for "The Book of Mormon" and some great references to a religion that is bound to come in for even more attention as the presidential race heats up.

I especially loved Trey Parker’s acceptance remarks, reminding folks who like the show that they will have to atone for it one day, and thanking “our co-writer who passed away, Joseph Smith.”

The “I Believe” number from the “The Book of Mormon” was ...

a great choice for the awards broadcast, letting everybody at home know what the fuss is all about. Ticket sales probably had an uptick during last night’s TV performance. (If my editors knew what was good for me -- I mean good for them -- they’d send me to New York on a Broadway round-up story so I could report back to my faithful readers on “The Book of Mormon” and all the other must-sees.)

It was, well, heartening, to see Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” receive a Tony for best revival of a play, 30 years after the world started keeping toll of deaths from a disease that seemed to be targeting gay men. Kramer’s acceptance speech must have driven some folks crazy, with its description of gays as “a special people” (I wondered if he added that as a riff on all the Mormon talk).

On a lighter note, there was cute little Daniel Radcliffe hoofing it up mightily in “The Brotherhood of Man” from “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (you gotta admire the guy for continuing to break out of his movie persona).

And we all got to hear a number from the cursed “Spider-Man,” the show that will finally open next week after, what, three years of previews? The song didn’t make me want to rush out and get a ticket, but it was nice to get a taste of what could still end up being one of Broadway’s monumental crashes.

The Tony show had an off-moment or two. Chris Rock was as needlessly vulgar as ever (couldn’t he learn by now that you don’t have to bend over a microphone to be heard?).

There were glitches, too, of course, including some professional actors who couldn’t read cue cards; the inevitably teary, over-the-top speeches (I’m still trying to understand Nikki M. James and the bumble bees -- she's pictured above in a Reuters photo); and some fashion oddities, including those from Whoopi Goldberg, wearing what looked like a cross between an 18th-century tricornered hat and a small building, and best actress winner Frances McDormand, who looked like she had just gotten out of bed and grabbed her previous day’s clothes off a chair before rushing to the Beacon Theatre.

In the end, though, I still say it was a great ceremony, celebrating the variety and considerable quality of this year’s theater scene. And, yes, it was the gayest show ever.

Fabulously so.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:03 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Drama Queens

June 10, 2011

Verdi's 'Requiem' brings Baltimore Symphony season to a memorable close

OK, so a requiem isn't the most obvious way to end a season. Something of a downer, all that singing in Latin about judgment day and eternal rest.

But when you're talking Verdi's "Requiem," you're talking one of the mightiest of masterworks, a fusion of solemnity and all-out operatic drama.

The alternately roaring and whispering score, Verdi's response to the death of his great hero, Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, hasn't lost a bit of its awesomeness since the premiere of 1874.

That point is being reinforced this week at the Baltimore Symphony's closing concerts of the 2011-12 season. The roughly 80-minute "Requiem" is the sole item on the program.

Verdi was not a religious man in any conventional sense. He may not have believed in a word of the ancient Mass for the Dead. But he turned those words into a music drama so vivid in its pictorial representation, so deep-felt in its examination of what it means to face death, that it could send a shiver through even the most intrepid atheist.   

Thursday night's performance at Meyerhoff Hall started off ...


a little blandly, but ended up producing some of the best thrills of the season. I imagine that the repeats Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore will be even more grabbing.

With her tendency to keep phrasing and tempos under tight control, conductor Marin Alsop may not be to the Verdi born. Still, she has a keen sense of the theatrical, and the "Requiem" has a pronounced theatrical streak -- it was attacked by some as positively irreverent when it was new. 

But Alsop missed the potential theatrical power right at the start on Thursday; the hushed opening measures didn't have enough mystery and subtlety of dynamics.

I still remember well the riveting, gradually audible effect Christoph Eschenbach achieved in that passage last year with the National Symphony -- what a fabulous way to draw listeners in.

By contrast, the BSO played the music routinely, a feeling that seemed to influence the superb Washington Chorus when it began to sing.

Even the first, famous outbursts of "Dies Irae" -- the part used, rather distressingly, in TV commercials -- sounded a few degrees short of teeth-rattling. It was as if Alsop had decided to keep the lid on the fury.

But then things started to click. The quadraphonic trumpet calls in the "Tuba Mirum" section, Verdi's depiction of the sound that would wake the dead, may have been the signal, too, for those onstage. Whatever the case, from that moment on, the performers started to unleash the emotional depth of the "Requiem" to an increasingly satisfying degree.

Each subsequent "Dies Irae" explosion from the chorus and orchestra moved up a half-point on the Richter scale. The reflective passages in between, featuring the solo vocalists, were shaped beautifully, too, by the conductor. She allowed the singers room to spin out their phrases and drew sensitive accompaniment for them from the orchestra.

The chorus shone more impressively with each entrance.

There was an intense lyricism from the ensemble in the "Lacrymosa" and "Agnus Dei," and the choristers articulated the surging "Sanctus," the closest thing to a cheery interlude in the whole work, with admirable clarity and a richly blended tone.

For all of the choral and orchestral challenges in the "Requiem," the heaviest burden is on the four vocal soloists. There are many times when the music sounds like "Aida: The Sequel," so it is up to those soloists to deliver a lot of operatic weight. They also have to be just as capable of nuance.

Heading the quartet assembled by the BSO is Angela Meade, who gave a sensational account of the pivotal soprano solo on Thursday. The way she floated the "Sed signifer" portion of the "Offertorio" matched perfectly the text's description of a "holy light."

She sounded a bit less magical on the soft high note in the concluding "Libera me," but that was a minor disappointment in such an affecting performance. Could Meade be the next great Verdian soprano? I might take that bet. 

Eve Gigliotti used her creamy, resonant mezzo in compelling fashion throughout; she blended poignantly with Meade in the "Agnus Dei." Could Gigliotti be the next great Verdian mezzo? I might take that bet, too. 

Alfred Walker's burnished bass-baritone in the "Confutatis" rang out with a terrific mix of strength and eloquence. Tenor Richard Clement lacked Italianate warmth of tone and had some trouble in the upper reaches. But he molded his lines, especially in the delicate "Hostias," incisively.

As for the BSO's effort on Thursday, there was much to savor. Yes, there were unsettled moments, as when the cellos, in slippery form, tackled the introduction to the "Offertorio." On the whole, though, the orchestra did sturdy and vibrant work, with fearless brass players leading the way.

The audience, alas, contained assorted distractions -- talkers, roamers (two women in different rows down front got up and left during delicate parts of the performance), at least one smart phone user (she interacted online during all of the sublime "Agnus Dei," the light from the device shining away), and a strange electronic beeping that lasted a good long while.

It's enough to make me question why I still love attending live performances so much.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:10 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Calling local Gleeks: BSO to hold competition for a cappella ensembles

If, like those so-uncool-they're-cool kids on "Glee," you just can't help breaking into nicely harmonized song, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wants to give you a chance to perform at Meyheroff Symphony.

So, OK, the winner of the BSO's "Orchapella" competition (yeah, go ahead and groan) only gets to do warm-up for the big attraction on July 7, Rockapella. But, hey, it's a foot in the door.

Here's the deal:

If you're a local a cappella ensemble -- defined as 2 to 10 members; all ages -- just ...

fill out the online registration form and include a link to a YouTube video of the group performing a song of your choosing. The registration deadline is June 21.

Three semi-finalists selected by the BSO will have their videos posted on the orchestra's Facebook site on June 28 at 10:00 a.m. People can then vote for their favorite; voting will close on July 5.

The winning ensemble will get to be the opener for the July 7 concert by Rockapella, the group that was founded nearly 25 years ago in New York and became a mainstay of the PBS "Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

PHOTO (by Rachel Rodriguez, SuperSixOne Media) COURTESY OF ROCKAPELLA.COM 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

June 9, 2011

Still the top: Cole Porter at 120

So, OK, 120 isn't the roundest of numbers, but in this heat, I'll do anything for a quick blog post. And spotting the 120th birthday of Cole Porter will have to do. Besides, why shouldn't we pause to reflect on one of the wittiest songwriters of all time?

Ah, the irresistible pull of the melodic lines, the sophistication of all those rhymes -- and the hint of naughtiness around every turn (imagine what this guy could have produced post-gay lib.).

So a tip of the top hat to Cole Porter, courtesy of a divine interpreter of his music, the supreme Ella Fitzgerald (words thoughtfully provided on this clip so you can easily sing along):

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

June 7, 2011

Voices rising to make the case for saving New York City Opera

There is a growing chorus of dismay and anger over the dire situation at New York City Opera.

That company has one of the most distinguished track records in the business, all the more remarkable given that it lived in the shadow of the better-funded, higher-profile Met.

Like many an arts group, NYCO has had its troubles raising money and selling tickets.

But a lot of the recent troubles there seem self-inflicted, which makes the matter all the more lamentable. 

The current plan calls for moving NCYO away from Lincoln Center to points as yet unknown, to perform repertoire as yet unannounced at a budget as yet undetermined, managed by an administration that was just drastically reduced.

There's something terribly wrong with this picture.

I heartily recommend that you read two eloquent pleas that appeared Tuesday.

One is in ...

the form of an op-ed in New York Times written by the wonderful conductor Julius Rudel, who spent decades at NYCO and contributed greatly to its artistic legacy.

The other is an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg written by music critic George Loomis and posted on


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:26 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Iron Crow Theatre Company digs into 'Love and Human Remains'

Iron Crow Theatre Company, Baltimore's ensemble troupe devoted to LGBT issues and perspectives, wraps up its first full season with a mostly persuasive production of "Love and Human Remains," the gritty and witty work by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser.

It's not an easy piece to embrace, what with the recurring spectre of a serial killer haunting a story about seven far-from-fully adjusted characters. But there's a lot of meaty, provocative stuff here about relationships -- friendly, abusive, sexual, romantic.

The play has something to say about fear, too. Everyone in this story shrinks from intimacy at one point and to one degree or another. Everyone is afraid not only of what might be outside the door, but also afraid of what might be inside the room, sitting alongside on a coach, lying alongside on a bed.

At the center of the piece are two roommates, David and Candy. He's gay, an actor who's back to waiting tables and more cynical than ever. She is David's former lover (he had a experimental phase), and she still believes in the possibility of genuine, soul-sharing mate. Candy ends up entangled with a man, an amiable bartender named Robert, and also a woman, Jerri, who fixates on Candy at the gym.

David, in between his preferred just-for-pleasure encounters, tries to make sense of his busboy, Kane, who has a puppy-dog attachment to him.

Then there's Bernie, David's longtime buddy, who seems to be awfully jumpy -- and curiously bloody. Rounding out this menagerie is Benita, a friend of David's who goes in for pleasure-and-pain diversions and apparently has psychic powers.

There is a long arc to the play, but ...

the power of individual vignettes proves a little greater than the whole. The playwright has an impressive, often remarkably succinct ability to cut to the heart of what drives people together and apart.

Fraser's way of having characters utter a single word at a time every now and then creates a certain poetic force, even if it becomes less telling after a while.   

And his humor spices things up, whether in groaning sitcom-style (David to Candy, returning from work: "Honey, I'm homo") or out-of-the-blue observational (Kane tosses out a particularly funny-wise line about the effect of puberty).

In the end, though, the darkness of the subject matter, punctuated by periodic (and sometimes gratuitous) crudity, dominates. It's an unsettling play.

Director Joseph Ritsch uses the space at the Swirnow Theater to emphasize the separate, hard-to-connect worlds of the characters.

The action has been transplanted from Edmonton -- Fraser placed the play in his hometown -- to Baltimore, a move primarily achieved by sprinkling the dialogue with local references.

A touch of formstone would, I imagine, have been too specific and distracting a touch for the minimal set designed by Ritsch and Daniel Ettinger. But the ratty sofa in David and Candy's spot sure does reek of atmosphere.

Steven J. Satta gets across David's glib, bitchy personality neatly. Michele Minnick offers a good deal of nuance as Candy, especially as the plot sickens. Ryan Airey does a winning job in the role of the naive, slowly awakening Kane.

There is vibrant work from Erin Gahan (Jerri) and Christopher H. Zargarbashi (Robert). Tim Elliot captures the manic personality of Bernie with sufficient flair. And Katie O. Solomon, decked out in Victoria's Secret-like regalia, makes a colorful Benita. She delivers the recurring folk song nicely, but its use does get a little annoying after awhile.

Conor Mulligan's lighting adds considerably to the visual effectiveness of the production, while Michael Perrie's music does the same for the aural.

The production runs through June 18.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

June 6, 2011

Looking ahead to 2011-12: Washington Performing Arts Society

In my usual rush and blur, I keep forgetting to post some news about next season that will be of interest to music lovers. Of course, you've probably already learned all of these details that I am so belatedly getting to, but just in case you're as behind as I perpetually am, here goes.

I'll start off with the Washington Performing Arts Society's 2011-12 lineup. But before I do, I must digress.

I know Baltimore is just the coolest place and just overflowing with cultural activity, but, come on, don't you wish we could hear the likes of the Vienna Philharmonic and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique right here, instead of having to schlep to DC? Wouldn't it be nice if the Philadelphia Orchestra stopped by, like it did ages ago, instead of whooshing right past us on the way to the Kennedy Center or Strathmore?

Music communities benefit from having visiting orchestras -- all that sonic and interpretive variety. It doesn't take away from the hometown ensemble(s); it intensifies the whole scene. End of sermon.

Next season, WPAS will import the ...

Budapest Festival Orchestra, a very hot ensemble directed by Ivan Fischer, performing Bartok (including the Piano Concerto No. 2 with András Schiff) and Schubert. John Eliot Gardiner leads the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in an all-Beethoven concert. If you've resisted the whole authenticity movement in music, Gardiner and his band may well make a convert of you. They know how to make Beethoven sound truly revolutionary.

The storied Vienna Philharmonic's appearance, presented in conjunction with the Kennedy Center, offers a program of Mozart, Sibelius and Strauss conducted by Lorin Maazel. And the excellent European Union Youth Orchestra, led by Vladimir Ashkenazy and featuring violin soloist Pinchas Zukerman.

Those ensembles will be at the Kennedy Center. The Philadelphia Orchestra, with conductor Charles Dutoit and violinist James Ehnes (in the Mendelssohn concerto), will perform at Strathmore -- and, hey, maybe the orchestra will be out of bankruptcy by then.

WPAS also has starry soloists lined up at the Kennedy Center, including mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; violinists Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman and Stefan Jackiw, among others; and such pianists as Till Fellner and Orion Weiss.

At Strathmore, the solo list looks stellar, too, with recitals by violinist Gil Shaham and Vadim Repin; pianists Leif Ove Andsnes, Yefim Bronfman, Simone Dinnerstein, Garrick Ohlsson and Murray Perahia. The Emerson String Quartet, with pianist Wu Han, is also scheduled there.

WPAS has a series at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue as well, featuring such top-flight artists as pianists Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss, and violinist Julia Fischer.

The jazz offerings next season by WPAS are just as impressive as the classical, including Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. You'll also find concerts by Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel performs and Sweet Honey In The Rock on action-packed 2011-12 WPAS calendar.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 5, 2011

Saluting the 70th birthday of sensational pianist Martha Argerich

If I had to name the greatest living pianist, I'd give the same answer many others would: Martha Argerich. Sunday, June 5, is her 70th birthday. I hope she's doing well (there have been some health issues over the years) and I hope she has a great party.

Sensational doesn't begin to describe Argerich's technique. Mesmerizing doesn't begin to describe her musicality. I think she's the only keyboard artist who can truly, fully be mentioned in the same breath as Horowitz. So there.

To mark her birthday, I've posted a few clips that demonstrate the Argerich magic. In keeping with the birthday mood, I've stuck to upbeat items. The first one offers ...

some fearless Bach. Then some sparkling Ravel. And then -- hold onto your hats -- the finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:31 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 3, 2011

Baltimore Symphony delivers colorful program of Golijov, Britten, Brahms

The penultimate program of the Baltimore Symphony's season balances feel-good orchestral pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Benjamin Britten against a piano concerto by Johannes Brahms packed with darkly emotional drama.

It makes for an engrossing combination.

The orchestra-only portion includes the local premiere of "Sidereus" by Golijov, the Argentine composer with Russian Jewish roots and a knack for writing music of uncommonly broad appeal.

The BSO was among nearly three dozen orchestras involved in commissioning the work, first performed in Memphis last fall (given the score's brevity, it presumably didn't strain the budgets of any of those ensembles).

The forbidding title comes from Galileo's "Sidereus Nuncius" of 1610, a treatise on the astronomer's telescopic observations of our moon and the moons of Jupiter. You might expect such source material to ...

inspire music along the lines of, say, Holst's "The Planets," but Golijov wouldn't be so obvious.

Yes, the opening brass chords evoke something vast and deep, very outer space. And, yes, the ensuing ripples from the strings suggest shards of starlight. But the piece soon settles into a more familiar, earthier groove. As conductor Marin Alsop joked in remarks to the audience Thursday night at Strathmore, "Sidereus" combines "minimalism with a tango lesson."

Golijov employs gently pulsating, repetitive patterns and sensual shifts of melody and harmony to develop an increasingly gorgeous sonic fabric. There's no grand statement here, just a kind of warming glow, the sort you might feel when you get a crisp view of a night sky with a full moon.

Alsop, who connects to minimalist idioms with second-nature assurance, shaped this modestly scaled tone poem sensitively and drew stylish playing from the orchestra.

"Sidereus" served as a nice warm-up for Britten's brilliant showpiece, "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Although composed for the purpose indicated by the title, this is way above Music 101.

Britten spins variations and a fugue out of a theme by Henry Purcell, creating in the process an imaginative, often witty exploration of what makes an orchestra tick. At the opening and close, everyone is on deck, digging gleefully into the material. In between, each section gets a chance to shine on its own or in dialogue with other sections.

The score provided a fine opportunity for the BSO to demonstrate its current state. Alsop's stewardship since 2007 has resulted in what you might call a lean, mean machine (some of the leanness stems from the fact that the orchestra can't afford an ideal strength of 100 or so members). There is a discipline and attentiveness to the playing, week after week.

Those qualities were much in evidence on Thursday as Alsop led the musicians through Britten's colorful workout. The brass players came through with particular vitality.

After intermission came the mood-shift. There is nothing quite so ominous as the opening of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1; the music doesn't so much start as erupt. For all of the lyricism that emerges subsequently, including in the sublime Adagio, a feeling of volatility is never far from the surface. This is very eventful stuff.

The titanic concerto requires, first of all, a soloist with a formidable technique and a fertile artistic mind. That the BSO has in Emanuel Ax. He's the thinking man's virtuoso, a pianist who doesn't mistake bravura for bravado. He uses his digital might solely in the service of the music, never himself.

Ax held his power in reserve on Thursday, so that each explosive passage registered all the more strikingly. And while the force was certainly impressive, especially in the urgent finale, the level of intimacy that the pianist achieved in the first two movements proved equally remarkable. Ax burrowed into the music, extracting poetic ore as he went.

Alsop was a committed partner on the podium. She took her time with the long orchestral opening of the concerto, allowing the main themes to be expressed with considerable weight, and she proceeded to maintain supple coordination between soloist and ensemble. The BSO again sounded firm and vibrant, with some beautifully molded contributions from the woodwinds along the way.

Other pianists, conductors and orchestras have been known to deliver this work with more visceral impact (the music can certainly handle a more aggressive approach), but this performance had an eloquent surge that generated its own highly satisfying rewards.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall. 

PHOTO (by Maurice Jerry Beznos) COURTESY OF OPUS 3 ARTISTS

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

June 2, 2011

Mobtown Modern presents vivid performance of Golijov's 'Ayre'

Mobtown Modern closed its 2010-11 season in typically imaginative, rewarding form with a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre" Wednesday night at the Windup Space.

This song cycle from 2004 is something of a cry in the wilderness, the composer's extraordinary plea for multi-cultural harmony.

That plea reverberates with voices and sounds from 15th-century Spain, a place where Christians, Arabs and Jews got a lot closer to coexistence than the three cultures can manage today.

Not that "Ayre" paints a rosy picture. We're still talking 15th century, after all. Some of the texts contain brutal images, some have a sardonic bite (one of the sweetest melodies is heard in a Sephardic song titled "A Mother Roaster Her Child").

Melancholy, fear and lamentation are addressed. Woven throughout the cycle is a sense of ...

yearning for answers from heaven, and from humankind.

Golijov's fusion of folk idioms and sounds creates a variety of arresting effects. The flavors of Arab and Jewish melodies, especially, blend together here, the common roots of both traditions somehow striking the same chords.

The composer surrounds a solo soprano with the distinctive tapestry of a chamber ensemble that includes a few winds and strings, accordion, guitar, harp -- and a laptop, for sampling sounds. The singer, too, is called on to create multiple aural colors.

Wednesday's performance featured soprano Lara Bruckman, who met the considerable challenges ably. She seemed as comfortable producing lullaby-sweet tones as guttural ones; she also recited the one non-musical passage -- a haunting poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish -- effectively.

There was admirable fluency and a telling sense of spontaneity from the instrumentalists: Marcia Kamper (flute), Matthew Sikes (clarinet), Timothy Huizenga (horn), Elizabeth Jaffe (villa), Todd Thiel (cello), Lynn Fleming (bass), Meng Su (guitar -- the playing in "Sueltate las Cintas" was especially eloquent), Jacqueline Pollauf (harp) and Ruby Fulton (accordion). Mobtown curator and co-founder Brian Sacawa tackled the computer duties with aplomb. Conductor Julien Benichou kept everything flowing smoothly.

"Ayre" is an eclectic piece, wide-ranging in its moods and meanings. For all of its pleasantly lyrical moments, it is not, in the end, an easy-listening piece. The music communicates on many, often very subtle levels, a point driven home in Mobtown Modern's stirring concert.

PHOTO (Festival de Saint-Denis – Sébastien Chambert) COURTESY OF OSVALDOGOLIJOV.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Baltimore Symphony board to be chaired by BGE president/CEO DeFontes

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's board of directors has elected a new chairman: Kenneth W. DeFontes, Jr., president and CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric Company and a senior vice president with Constellation Energy.

DeFontes, a BSO board member since 2005, will succeed Michael G. Bronfein for a two-year term effective Sept. 21.

In a statement released Thursday DeFontes said he was "honored and privileged to lead one of the nation's most admired orchestras, particularly now as we look forward to the BSO's centennial celebration in 2016."

Bronfein, chairman and CEO of Remedi SeniorCare, has been a major force in the orchestra. He and BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham helped to ...

heal financial and emotional scars left over from the previous board/management team.

Bronfein praised DeFontes' "tireless energy, keen financial insight and heartfelt devotion to the organization."

Meecham said that DeFontes "has been a highly involved board member, shepherding the BSO through the economic downturn as a member of the finance committee, and enabling the organization to balance its budget for three out of the past four years.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Los Angeles Philharmonic's latest simulcast at cinemas focuses on Brahms

The remarkable trend of beaming live performances of opera, symphony, ballet and theater to movie houses shows no sign of abating. It seems that a lot of people find the experience not just satisfying, but addictive.

The leader of the pack is the Metropolitan Opera; that company's cinema simulcasts have taken off like crazy, spreading from country to country.

I wonder if symphonic events -- the least interesting visually, compared with the other art forms -- will develop an equally large, loyal audience over time. If anyone can develop a following, it may well be the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has the super-photogenic, mega-watt personality of music director Gustavo Dudamel as an extra magnet.

The Philharmonic's three-concert cinema series this season, LA Phil Live, wraps up on Sunday with Dudamel conducting an ...

all-Brahms program -- the Double Concerto, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon (they've got star quality, too, in abundance); and Symphony No. 4. (The symphony is being recorded live and will be released on iTunes June 21.)

The live broadcast from Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles will be at 5 p.m. EST. John Lithgow will be the host. Movie houses participating in the Baltimore area: AMC Owings Mills 17, Cinemark Egyptian 24 at Arundel Mills, AMC Columbia Mall 14, Snowden Square in Columbia.

If you go, please let me know how you liked it. Just post your comments here.

Meanwhile, to get you in the mood for Sunday, here's a sample of Dudamel's beguiling way of conducting Brahms -- one of the Hungarian Dances (with the Gothenburg Symphony):


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

June 1, 2011

Mobtown Modern, Baltimore Symphony celebrate music of Osvaldo Golijov

Osvaldo Golijov is one of several compelling contemporary composers who do not get nearly enough attention in Baltimore, so this week's little Golijov confluence involving Mobtown Modern and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is all the more noteworthy.

Mobtown starts it off at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Windup Space with a performance of "Ayre," the Argentine composer's song cycle reflecting on the 15th-century mingling in Spain of three cultures: Jewish, Christian, Arab.

As Golijov has written, "With a little bend, a melody goes from ...

Jewish to Arab to Christian. How connected these cultures are and how terrible it is when they don't understand each other ... somehow harmony was [once] possible between these civilizations."

The 40-minute "Ayre" (the title is medieval Spanish for "melody") incorporates texts in several languages. It is scored for soprano voice, flute, clarinet, horn, violin, cello, double bass, harp, accordion, ronroco/guitar, percussion and laptop. The Mobtown performance will feature soprano Lara Bruckmann.

This concert is part of the "Synchronicity" project launched this season, an association between Mobtown Modern and the BSO.

The BSO's nod to Golijov comes in the form of "Sidereus," a work the orchestra co-commissioned through the Henry Fogel Consortium (the BSO is one of 35 ensembles participating in this project saluting Fogel, past president of the League of American Orchestras).

"Sidereus," which premiered last fall in Memphis, takes its name from "Sidereus Nuncius," Galileo's text about observing our moon and the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. In Golijov's work, a theme representing the moon undergoes both a telescopic and micropscopic examination, "so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality," the composer writes.

Marin Alsop conducts this BSO program, which also features music of Brahms and Britten. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday at Strathmore; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff.  

Here are two extremely different excerpts from Golijov's "Ayre" that give you an idea of the work's remarkable musical and emotional range:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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