« June 2011 | Main | August 2011 »

July 29, 2011

On the Record: Latest releases from Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja

You've all heard the lament of music lovers with an ear fixated on the past: "They just don't make 'em like that anymore."

The 'em in question might be pianists one day, conductors the next. But I'd bet that, most days, the moaner-groaner set is referring to singers.

People are forever carping about the dearth of good voices. From what I've read, this was true even during those periods of the past that are now widely considered worthy of a "golden age of singing" tag.

I get in on this game from time to time, especially after wallowing in historic recordings, which seem to prove conclusively that we have been going downhill for decades.

But then, lo and behold, reality gives me a slap, and things don't sound so dearth-y after all. Even though we will not hear the likes of (fill in the blanks with your own personal favorites of yesteryear) again, we'll do OK, because we've got some pretty gifted vocal artists right now.

Two of those artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja, have new (or relatively new) CDs out. I recommend both releases heartily, especially to those who think that quality tenor voices are as unlikely to find today as willing-to-compromise Tea Party members.

What I love first about Kaufmann and Calleja is that ...

they possess such individualistic voices; they don't sound like anyone else on the current scene. Kaufmann's baritonal timbre is especially distinctive. I can't even think of a tenor from the old days who had anything like his sound (you'll tell me if I've overlooked someone). Calleja's sound does remind me a little of past eras, because he has a fast vibrato that was not so unusual long ago, but it is quite uncommon now.

Even more important than how these two tenors produce tone, of course, is what they do with their vocal equipment in the service of music. And what they do can be awfully impressive.

Kaufmann's recording, "Verismo Arias" from Decca, is quite a knock-out. He generates equal levels of macho and poetic sensitivity in a hefty sampling of the repertoire that includes familiar and off-the-beaten-path fare.

Highlights include an enthralling account of an aria from Zandonai's "Giulietta e Romeo"; a full-throated "Vesti la giubba"; melting tones and exquisite phrasing in arias from "Mefistofele"; and a performance of the finale from "Andrea Chenier" with soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek that generates abundant vocal passion and genuine theatricality.

Time and again, the tenor does gorgeous things with dynamic nuance, softening the tone in ways that can be as thrilling as his all-out, super-verismo moments.

There's one non-opera track here, and it is a gem -- "Ombra di nube" by Licinio Refice. This haunting song, which Claudia Muzio recorded so wonderfully in the '30s, inspires some of Kaufmann's most luminous vocalism on the disc. It's the track I found myself returning to most often.

KaufmannOmbra (mp3)

Throughout, the tenor is beautifully supported by conductor Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazioanale di Santa Cecilia.

Calleja's new recording, also from Decca, is called "The Maltese Tenor." Unlike "The Maltese Falcon," there's no confusion over what makes the product worth seeking.

There's something direct and disarming about this singer's approach. The timbre, as I said, has a great deal of character; there's something of sunlight in that vibrato. And Calleja can get to the heart of a text tellingly. He does consistently persuasive work here in a sampling of greatest hits from lyric tenordom. Occasionally, one may wish for just a little more personality, maybe a bit more oomph in spots, or extra lingering over a note. But the recording nonetheless exudes conviction and style.

A great example of the tenor's artistic instincts occurs in "Salut! demeure" from "Faust." Calleja takes the high note head-on, with a big, solid tone, but then tapers that sound beautifully to make a most elegant effect.

Callejasalut (mp3)

Calleja also passes my "Tosca" test handsomely. Tenors who rush and/or belt through the words "disciogliea dai veli" in "E lucevan le stelle" aren't fit to wipe Puccini's boots, IMHO. Calleja caresses that line very tenderly.

He's effective, too, in other Puccini items, as well as some Verdi pieces. Like Kaufmann, he includes the two gentle arias from "Mefistofele" and delivers both of them endearingly. The disc concludes with the gentle duet for Nadir and Leila in Act 2 of "The Pearl Fishers." Calleja is joined here by the very expressive soprano Aleksandra Kurzak; their performance ends with an especially delicious pianissimo.

Marco Armiliato efficiently conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in this attractive recording.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, On the Record

July 28, 2011

Israel Philharmonic concert to be shown in movie theaters Thursday

This has turned into a newsy week for Israeli orchestras.

On Tuesday, the Israel Chamber Orchestra made history performing music of Wagner in Germany.

On Thursday, a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will be beamed from Jerusalem into nearly 500 movie theaters, including several in the Baltimore area.

The Philharmonic event, conducted by Zubin Mehta, is devoted to romantic opera repertoire. The guest artists are super-stellar soprano Renée Fleming and one of the most distinctive and appealing tenors of the day, Joseph Calleja. The concert is also a tribute to the notable tenor of the last century, Richard Tucker.  

Of particular interest for Fleming fans may be her performance with Calleja of ...

the love duet from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"; as far as I know, this is not music she has performed often. The concert also offers a duet from "La Traviata," along with a variety of arias for each singer.

On its own, the orchestra will perform selections by Verdi, Puccini and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The broadcast, presented by NCM Fathom and Mod 3 Live, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at AMC Owings Mills 17, Cinemark Egyptian 24 at Arundel Mills, AMC Columbia Mall 14, Snowden Square in Columbia, and Bel Air Cinema 14 in Abingdon.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

July 27, 2011

Confronting history and emotion, Israel Chamber Orchestra plays Wagner in Germany

UPDATE (8/17): For a different view on the issue of Wagner and Israel, see this article by David Goldman in Tablet. 

It is worth pausing to reflect on what happened this week in Bayreuth, Germany, at the famed festival founded by Richard Wagner as a showcase for his music.

An instrumental work of his, the "Siegfried Idyll," was performed Tuesday night for an audience that included two of Wagner's great-granddaughters sitting in the first row.

In a daring and unavoidably controversial move, the Israel Chamber Orchestra played this short, sweet composition by Wagner, the first time an Israeli orchestra performed a note of Wagner's in Germany.

This was a performance that could not have been given in the ensemble's homeland. An unofficial, but very successful, ban on the music of the notoriously anti-Semitic Wagner has been in effect since the creation of the state.

Daniel Barenboim famously skirted that ban in ...

2001, conducting a bit of "Tristan und Isolde" with a visiting German orchestra as an encore, after inviting anyone who objected to leave the hall (most stayed). But the situation for Wagner has not really changed since in Israel, where memories have not faded of how the Nazis turned the composer's music into a kind of official soundtrack to the Holocaust.

Roberto Paternostro, conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, approached the remarkable Bayreuth concert with great seriousness and preparation. His musicians held ample discussions, weighed the sensitive issues carefully. And, significantly, the Bayreuth program also included works by Mendelssohn and Mahler -- Jewish composers whose music had been banned by the Nazis.

Paternostro and many of the orchestra members have relatives who perished in the death camps. Deciding to playing Wagner in Germany was no cavalier act for any of these musicians. As the conductor said, it's time  "to divide the man from his art."

I know that some people will never be able to do that. It doesn't matter that Wagner died 50 years before Hitler emerged as a political force in Germany.

Wagner's own writings make it pretty clear that, had he been alive in the 1930s, he would have leapt onto the Nazi bandwagon. Still, I find it hard to lay responsibility for the Third Reich at his feet.

I end up wondering why he let Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi, conduct the premiere of "Parsifal." And why another Jewish conductor, Mahler, would devote so much of his podium time to champion of Wagner's music. It's not like such men had no idea how Wagner felt about Jews. I guess they just divided the man from his art.

Personally, I find Wagner repugnant, but I can never keep that feeling going past the first two measures of "Tristan." The composer was not the first creative genius to be a disgrace as a human being; he won't be last.

I think what the Israel Chamber Orchestra did yesterday in Bayreuth, the most venerated of Wagnerian shrines, was a brave and valuable thing, reaffirming that the composer's art is too great to be restricted or silenced.

I'd also like to think that, throughout the playing of the lovely "Siegfried Idyll" by those Israeli visitors, Wagner's body was spinning uncontrollably and very, very painfully in its nearby grave.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Cast change coming to Arena Stage's 'Oklahoma' as E. Faye Butler prepares next role

E. Faye Butler, one of the region's most popular and respected actresses, will soon hand over the role of Aunt Eller in the Arena Stage revival of "Oklahoma," which is back at the venue for a summer-into-fall run after its much-praised premiere last season.

Terry Burrell, whose credits "Show Boat" at Signature Theatre and "The Women of Brewster Place" at Arena Stage, steps into Aunt Eller's shoes on Aug. 9.

Butler will then head into rehearsals for "Trouble in Mind," a 1950s play-within-a-play by Alice Childress about a cast preparing to perform an anti-lynching drama on Broadway.

This production, which will ...

open the 2011-12 season at Arena Stage in September, will be familiar to Baltimore theater-goers; it was performed in 2007 at Center Stage and directed by the company's then artistic director, who will direct the Arena Stage production as well.

Meanwhile, "Oklahoma" continues its remarkable reprise. The revelatory revival directed by Molly Smith proved to be quite the sensation when it opened the marvelously renovated Arena Stage in November and quickly sold out, so the company brought it back this summer.

I wouldn't be surprised if this incisive version of "Oklahoma" eventually makes its way to that big city in the north where they say the neon lights are bright.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: Divas French and Saunders 'so lucky' to be singing Kylie Minogue

I'm a confessed Brit com junkie. Give me a dose of "Are You Being Served?", "Keeping Up Appearances," "Fawlty Towers," "'Allo, 'Allo," "Thin Blue Line," "Brittas Empire," etc., etc., and I'm a happy camper.

One of my biggest kicks came from being introduced to "Absolutely Fabulous" back in the '90s. Thanks to that, um, absolutely fabulous show, I became a devoted follower of its co-creators, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (her own Brit com, "The Vicar of Dibley," became another favorite).

The skits done by French and Saunders over the years on various shows include brilliant parodies of movies, TV, the music industry and all sorts of other things.

For my latest Midweek Madness entry, I thought I'd hit you with French and Saunders portraying ...

two ever so slightly washed-up opera singers engaged to record a crossover cover of Kylie Minogue's "I Should be So Lucky" with the fine British mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker and conductor Carl Davis.

For those of you who have precious little time to spend on such frivolity, just click on the first clip, which is the music performance only. For those who want to get the full impact of the divas arriving and preparing for a take in the recording studio, click on the second clip:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:43 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 26, 2011

Dariusz Skoraczewski appointed principal cellist of Baltimore Symphony

Dariusz Skoraczewski, whose lush tone, expressive style and solid technique have earned him admiration in a career that encompasses solo, chamber and orchestral music-making, has been named principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

During the past season, he played several BSO concerts in the principal chair, as did a few other finalists for the post.

Skoraczewski has been assistant principal with the BSO since 2001, a year after he joined the ensemble. His appointment to the top post was made by music director Marin Alsop and an audition committee.

The Warsaw-born cellist completed his studies at the Peabody Conservatory. In addition to his BSO work over the past decade, he has been a member of the excellent Monument Piano Trio, formerly artists-in-residence at the retail/concert venue An Die Musik.

Last year, Skoraczewski’s solo recording, "Cello Populus," on the Analog Arts label showcased his impressive command of challenging works by the likes of ...

George Crumb and Krzysztof Penderecki.

In a statement released Tuesday, Skoraczewski said: “It has  been an honor to perform with this fantastic orchestra over the past 11 years. Baltimore has become a beloved home for my family and me and I could not be happier about continuing with the BSO in this new role.”

Skoraczewski succeeds Ilya Finkelshteyn, who left the BSO to become principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony in 2009.

PHOTO (by Christian Colberg) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

July 25, 2011

Monday Musings: The slow movements of Mozart and Schubert piano sonatas

Welcome to a blog feature that I have decided to launch today, despite an inexcusable lack of popular demand. I'm calling it Monday Musings, for want of a better title, and I'll be using this space to bore the heck out of you with some of my most intimate, revealing and downright shuddering thoughts on musical topics. Set your automatic reminder devices now.

About a week ago, in the privacy of my living room and seated at my beloved Steinway, I started working my way through the piano sonatas of Mozart -- not the whole sonatas, mind you, just the easier -- I mean slower -- movements.

There was no great forethought to this. The Mozart sonatas book just happened to looking up at me from the periodically re-stocked stack of scores I keep, not very tidily, next to the piano (much to my partner's annoyance, I'm sure).

Anyway, I picked up the book and just decided to start at the beginning, looking for the slow, or at least slower, movements, possibly because I was feeling a bit melancholy (working in journalism these days can leave one quite moody).

Besides, I don't have the technical suavity to handle the faster stuff without frightening the cats. Not that I can guarantee that every note of the slow stuff will be immaculate, either. Like Algernon in "The Importance of Being Earnest," "I don't play accurately. Anyone can play accurately. But I play with wonderful expression."

So there I was, starting with the Andante from K. 279 and then the Adagio from K. 280, and so on (I confess that my Andantes are usually closer to Adagios, but that's just so I can slip in more of that wonderful expression.)

I remember thinking how much ...

fun it was to trace Mozart's genius slow movement by slow movement, and I couldn't wait to have another free moment and get to the next one. Some I had never played, or hadn't played in ages. Each brought rewards that became, after a while, almost spiritual.

I don't rhapsodize about Mozart as much or as often I do about, say, Mahler (although I'm always mindful that Mahler's last word on his deathbed reportedly was "Mozart!"). I confess that I don't listen to many recordings of Mozart. Maybe I just take him for granted.

I think my odd exercise at the piano was my way of reminding myself why Mozart is right alongside Bach and Beethoven as the holy trinity of classical music, and that the richness of his genius will help to light the world as long as people still care about art and beauty (sometimes I fear that won't be very long). Sometimes, it's just the way Mozart resolves a dissonance that can just blow you away; sometimes, it's the particular way a melodic line curves that gets under your skin.

By the time I finished my Mozart marathon, I was almost able to forget all my cares and woes. So when, putting the book back on the pile, I spied the Schubert sonata collection resting there, how could I resist?

This time, I was prone to some truly messy playing, since Schubert, bless his heart, made some heavy demands for amateur players even in every movement of every sonata. Still, it was cool to take such a specialized look at these keyboard masterpieces, concentrating only on those movements that were, at least predominately, on the slow side.

As was the case with my Mozart experience, I ended up feeling closer to Schubert than I had in a long time. It felt like he was confiding in me, revealing through his often dark lyricism some really intense, even painful thoughts and memories. It was privilege to be in on it.

I finished up the Schubert exploration Sunday night, while fighting a most annoying summer cold. In between sniffles and sneezes, I managed an approximation of the first two movements of the B-flat major Sonata, each movement moderately paced, each one incredibly profound. Playing, however unevenly, those bittersweet chords and aching themes -- that was something I really needed, I guess. I actually felt a little better physically afterward, if only for a few minutes before the cold reasserted itself.

I think -- here, at long last, the point of my Monday Musing -- all of us need to find any way we can to get truly personal every once in a while with the music we know and love (or should know and love), even if it just means listening with extra care and concentration and curiosity. There's much to be said for rediscovery. For me, this Mozart and Schubert fixation for a few days meant spending quality time with two immortal composers who died too young, but who left us the means to get more out of our own lives.

I thought you might like to hear a couple of the movements that left me especially awed and grateful all over again when I was exploring them at the piano. Don't worry, I wouldn't subject you to my playing. Rather, listen to the eloquent Christoph Eschenbach perform the Adagio from Mozart's E-flat Sonata, K. 282, and the noble Sviatoslav Richter perform the Andante from Schubert's B-flat Sonata:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:49 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Monday Musings

July 21, 2011

Baltimore Symphony's 'Rusty Musicians' outreach coming back to Meyerhoff Hall

Time to get those instruments out of attics and basements and start tuning up for the second annual "Rusty Musicians" night with the Baltimore Symphony at Meyerhoff Hall.

Amateur players age 25 or older who can read music and play any standard orchestra instrument are welcome -- after going through the official application process, of course.

They will join BSO members and music director Marin Alsop in a rehearsal and performance of Tchaikovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet" and a couple of numbers from Bizet’s "Carmen" Suite No. 2.

The event will be held on ...

Sept. 20 in two hour-long sessions, beginning at 7 p.m. and 8:20 p.m.

If you haven't yet experienced this community outreach program, or didn't get your fill in last year's presentation, go for it. The participants I've chatted with couldn't have been more enthusiastic about this immersion into the orchestral environment.

The number of participants is limited to the first 136 applications. Online registration is open now. Successful applicants will be notified by email by Aug. 10 and will then have until noon on Aug. 26 to pay a nonrefundable registration fee of $50.

The public is invited to attend the Rusty Musicians sessions at no charge.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Benefit concert at Loyola Thursday to raise money for band instruments in Uganda

Please excuse the late notice (my fault, I fear), but there is a most worthy benefit concert planned for 7:30 tonight -- July 21 -- in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at Loyola University Maryland. This "United for Uganda" concert is free, but donations are requested to help provide musical instruments and other assistance for the a community band in Kikajjo, Uganda.

"United for Uganda" was launched by pianist Amy Klosterman, a Peabody grad and former faculty member at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Musicians from both schools have been recruited for the benefit concert, which was organized by Matt Dykeman, a BSFA alum currently in his junior year at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

The goal is to assist the ...

TORUWU Community Brass Band -- the acronym stands for Training of Rural Women in Uganda.

In a press release, that aim of the project is to promote "women's and children's issues in the historically male-dominated African country. A major outreach of the organization is the youth band for local children seeking to establish musical skills, enhance personal identity and earn a small income through the band performances in the community."

Klosterman has made several trips to Uganda to distribute instruments and money, as well as provide musical instruction.

Joining Dykeman and Klosterman for tonight's program of classical and jazz music will be violist Jessica Sharkey, saxophonists Rachel Winder and David Diongue, guitarist Michael Gary, flutist Faith Peeler, drummer Dewayne Gamble, pianist Patrick Merrill, and vocalists Tariq al-Sabir and Charity Peeler. Loyola’s Alumni Chapel is on campus at 4501 N. Charles Street.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 20, 2011

Midweek Madness: The ultimate performance of a Chopin "Share-zoe"

After some thrilling and/or chilling vocals during the first weeks of Midweek Madness, my humble little blog feature that has already become a global sensation of such proportions that only the Murdoch scandal is keeping it from being covered by major press outlets, I thought it was time for a little change.

So here is a pianistic oldie-but-goodie from the talent portion of the 2000 Miss Texas Pageant. Even if you have thrilled to this audio before, you will surely want to relive the experience of hearing Cindy Elizondo, bless her heart, delivering an incomparable performance of Chopin's B minor Scherzo -- or as they say down Texas way, "Share-zoe."

Now I know what some of you are thinking, that I am being terribly insensitive and unkind and unfair. Well, I can't help it. Like Dame Edna, I was given a precious gift -- the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.

So fasten your seat belts. It's "Share-zoe" Time:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

July 19, 2011

An unappetizing sample of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival

You don’t approach at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival expecting to discover pieces that will soon be drawing crowds off-Broadway, let alone on. The festival, now celebrating its 30th season, is primarily about giving local writers a chance to see their plays reach the stage.

Such nurturing is a worthy goal, and the idea of area community theaters taking part by staging fresh work every year is just as laudable. That said, it’s not unreasonable to hope for plays that reveal more quality of writing and structure than those I sampled over the weekend. A more advanced level of acting would have been welcome, too.

Theatrical Mining Company offers J-F Bibeau’s "Self, Inc.," a mix of sci-fi and satire, in a spirited, bare-bones production directed by Da’Monique Williams.

Set in 2061 at the headquarters of a trash-processing company, the plot involves ...

a timid worker whose time-travel machine produces his more aggressive future self. The two men then get caught in the crossfire of weird corporate policies and a takeover bid from, yes, Chick-fil-A.

There are some witty, refreshingly absurd moments here. But the playwright doesn’t create a solid enough framework for all the ideas he bounces around, from the Canadian culinary treat poutine to sexual orientation (the gay material is often borderline offensive).

The actors reveal varying level of theatrical skill. Bibeau is well into the groove as Lemuel, a devout follower of an oddball religion (“Forgive us our audits” he prays). Tamika B. Roland, as a soft-spoken, off-the-wall custodian/security guard, and Dale Henderson, Jr., as the flamboyant Shock, offer the most assured work.

The production runs through July 31 in Theatrical Mining Company's super-intimate black box space in Le Clerc Hall at the College of Notre Dame..

The story of Camille Claudel, an exceptional artist who was a mistress of Rodin and was committed for life to an asylum by her myopic mother and brother, might make a great play. "The Sculptress" isn’t it.

Marilyn Millstone’s overly long script, with short scene after short scene, still leaves the surface of the subject only scratched. Too much time line and incident, not enough insight into the characters or motivations behind this sad tale. And the language never soars (among the thudding cliches: “Madness or genius, call it what you will”).

Two long letter-reading scenes in the second act only reinforce the stilted nature of the piece. One other textual problem -- the periodic insertion of a "oui," "si," and the like, a terribly clumsy, unnecessary way to remind the audience of a character's nationality.

The cast in this Fells Point Corner Theatre staging makes a valiant effort, but lacks the sort of nuance and flair that might lift the material.

Karin Rosnizeck has effective moments as Camille, suggesting that she would be capable of doing much more with the role if it were richly fleshed out. As Remedios, the young Spanish artist who visits the asylum and tries to rekindle Camille’s own creativity, Yagmur Muftuoglu shows some spark, but her delivery sounds more like line-reading than line-living.

Stefan Aleksander is generally efficient as Paul, Camille's alternately arrogant and guilt-laden brother. Ellie Nicoll strikes some sympathetic notes as the director of the asylum.

Director Juliana Avery keeps the pace sluggish; surely some dead spots, as when Paul prepares drinks, could be avoided. Darla Luke's simple, black-and-white set gets the job done. 

The costuming needs a small upgrade for the character of the nun who works at the asylum -- no woman of the cloth in those days would be caught dead in a habit that didn't provide coverage all the way up to the neck.

"The Sculptress" runs through July 31 at Fells Point Corner Theatre.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

July 18, 2011

Remembering Loretta Dranoff and her tireless effort to promote two piano music

Loretta Dranoff died earlier this month in New York at the age of 89, leaving behind a remarkable legacy. She had been in declining health for several years.

An intense dedication to an under-appreciated genre of classical music led Loretta to create the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Foundation in Miami, named for her husband -- the Dranoffs had been a successful two piano duo, performing throughout the world from the 1940s until the 1970s.

When Murray Dranoff became too ill to continue performing, the couple moved to Miami. After his death there, Loretta sought to honor his memory and to rekindle what she lamented as decline in interest for two piano music.

Petite and funny and feisty, Loretta was an extraordinary woman. She ruffled some feathers along the way, but her passions and convictions invariably carried the day. It was easy to understand why she earned widespread respect, admiration and love.

I was working for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale back when Loretta started the foundation and I wrote about her and her work quite often. I always enjoyed spending time with her, hearing great stories of her days as a performer, learning more about the repertoire (and, off the record, discussing politics and society). I found her irresistible.

Through her foundation, she organized an ...

international competition that, from its first year in 1987, attracted highly talented keyboard duos from many countries. Just as Loretta had hoped, audiences responded enthusiastically to the rich repertoire that emerged at each biennial competition, including vibrant new works commissioned for event by the likes of Morton Gould, John Corigliano and William Bolcom.

During non-competition years, there were notable symposiums and concerts. Thanks to Loretta, South Florida has heard more music for two pianos than probably any other portion of the country.

(By the way, the 1991 competition played an unexpected role in propelling a solo career. The Russian team of Valentina Lisitsa and Alexei Kuznetsoff received a prize that year, but the extra buzz around Lisitsa's prodigious talents quickly earned her solo recitals and recordings. She remains a formidable solo artist.)

Loretta's health failed in 2005 and she had to leave the foundation. I haven't heard much about the organization lately. The last competition was in 2008. I hope that there will be enough money and dedication to keep her dream alive. Loretta started something big and beautiful in Miami all those years ago. It deserves to continue, to grow.

And the goal of getting more attention paid to double-keyboard music still needs a push. Audiences in lots of places continue to miss out on some great music. Two piano teams should be regular features of recital/chamber music series; concertos for two pianos should likewise turn up much more often on orchestral programs.

In Loretta's memory, here is the haunting second movement of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, performed by the duo of Silivanova and Puryzhinskiy, winners of the 2008 Dranoff Competition:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 15, 2011

For your streaming pleasure: Verbier Festival 2011

Excuse the late notice, but Friday marks the start of live performances being streamed from the high-profile Verbier Festival in Switzerland, via

This is an amazing site any time of the year for lovers of classical music. You need to buy a subscription to watch some of the items in the treasure trove, but a great deal of material is available for free viewing, including 24 events from Verbier.

I just tuned into the opening concert of this year's festival (the orchestra is warming up onstage as I write this); Charles Dutoit conducts Stravinsky's "Petrushka" and, with the marvelous Nelson Freire as soloist, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. (Glad to know that Freire, who canceled performances last season, including a recital in Baltimore, is now doing well.)

Other stellar artists on the Verbier schedule include ...

Martha Argerich, Bryn Terfel, and Valery Gergiev -- more than enough reason to be near a computer around 1 p.m. EST for the live streams on I think video of the performance swill be archived and available for calling up on the Web site afterward for several days. Here's the remaining schedule:

July 16: Lars Vogt: recital of Janacek, Schubert and Beethoven

July 16: David Garrett / Gábor Takács-Nagy: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

July 17: Béjart Ballet Lausanne: Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"

July 18: Khatia Buniatishvilli / Dutoit: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3

July 19: Angelika Kirchschlager / Takács-Nagy: Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas"

July 20: Bryn Terfel: recital of Schubert, Schumann, Ibert, Quilter

July 21: Stephen Hough: recital of Beethoven, Hough, Scriabin and Liszt

July 21: Kirchschlager / Thomas Quasthoff / Manfred Honeck: Mendelssohn's "Elijah"

July 22: Jan Lisiecki: recital of Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Bach and Chopin

July 22: Martha Argerich / Renaud Capuçon / Yuri Bashmet /Nelson Goerner: Chamber music

July 23: Martin Helmchen: recital of Bach, Liszt and Beethoven

July 23: Evgeny Kissin: recital of Liszt (not streamed live)

July 24: Terfel / Barbara Frittoli /Aleksander Antonenko / Gianandrea Noseda: Puccini's "Tosca"

July 25: Joshua Bell / Renaud Capuçon / Daniel Harding: Violin Night

July 26: Khatia Buniatshvili recital of Schumann, Chopin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky

July 26: Verbier Festival Celebrates — Argerich / Bell / Kissin / Bashmet / Quastoff / Gidon Kremer / Mischa Maisky / Ivry Gitlis

July 27: Yuja Wang / Yuri Temirkanov: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

July 28: Arabella Steinbacher: recital of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms

July 28: Wang/ Leonidas Kavakos/ Gautier Capuçon: Chamber music

July 29: Quatuor Ebène plays Borodin Quartet No. 2 and Brahms Quartet No. 2

July 29: Bell / Repin / Arabella Steinbacher /Julian Rachlin: Violin Night 2

July 30: Valery Gergiev: Dutilleux, Strauss, Wagner ("Die Walküre" Act 1)

July 31: A Crazy Night in Verbier: Vadim Repin @ 40

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:50 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 14, 2011

Sumptuous 'Rigoletto' from Mantua with Domingo in title role airs on PBS

The novelty factor of Placido Domingo's singing "Rigoletto" for the first time -- the baritone title role, that is -- makes watching the PBS special airing Friday night on WMPT-Ch. 22/67 a must-see.

(It's also scheduled, oddly in the middle of the night, on WETA-Ch. 26, at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.)

Never mind that the eminent tenor doesn't always seem all that comfortable in the lower range (I think he sounded more persuasive vocally when he tackled the role of Simon Boccanegra). Domingo's Rigoletto is still a fascinating portrayal by a great and brave vocal artist, one of the most accomplished in the history of opera.

The visual quality of this film, shot on the locations of the opera's actual setting and at the time of day indicated in the libretto, is a big attraction in its own right, quite the feast for the eyes. Produced by Andrea Andermann, who first revealed a flair for on-location opera with his filmed "Tosca" in 1992, and directed by Marco Bellocchio, this is very much a cinematic "Rigoletto."

The immediacy of a stage performance is lost, of course, but the cast seems energized by the surroundings. They aren't just having a romp through pretty, historic surroundings; genuine characterizations are revealed.

And, with ...

Zubin Mehta conducting the RAI National Symphony Orchestra from a remote location, the score is quite well served. Whether it all adds up to the most musically compelling "Rigoletto" is beside the point, really. This is, from every angle, an unusually beautiful presentation of a great Verdi opera.

Domingo, with his weathered looks and communicative eyes, brings out Rigoletto's pride, fear and hatred as tellingly as the jester's sustaining love for his daughter, Gilda.

Despite some patchy tones, he infuses phrases with considerable passion and eloquence -- as the supreme Verdian tenor of our age, Domingo easily transfers that intuitive style to this unexpected assignment.

(I was surprised, though, that Domingo didn't add the high note some baritones go for at the end of the opera. Perhaps he didn't want to remind everyone that he is, at heart, still a tenor.)

Julia Novikova looks and sings quite fetchingly as Gilda. Her final duet with Domingo is one the production's most memorable scenes. Vittorio Grigolo exudes sensuality as the wanton Duke. He is especially impressive at the start of the marvelous Act 3 quartet, spinning the phrases with a good deal of color. Veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi sounds a bit worn as Sparafucile, but he's still an authoritative presence.

All in all, this "Rigoletto" exudes atmosphere, making the story seem remarkably real and involving, and serves up the music with a great deal of good old-fashioned heart.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:06 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Run of the Mill Theater to close at end of the month

Run of the Mill Theater, an innovative company that has helped to enliven the Baltimore scene since 2003, will close at the end of the month. (The phone number has already been disconnected.) 

The final productions, scheduled for this weekend, are typically adventurous.

First, a followup to "The North Avenue Plays," a concept introduced last year -- six playwrights and six directors will ride the North Avenue bus on Thursday, writing new plays as they go. (The picture here was taken during the 2010 bus ride.)

Overnight and throughout the day Friday, the plays will be rehearsed. The new works will be premiered at 8 p.m. Friday at Load of Fun Theater, 120 W. North Ave. $15.

Run of the Mill Theater will also present, as part of Artscape, a free performance of ...

"Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story" by Max Garner at 8 p.m. Saturday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

In a press release, artistic director Dave Mitchell and Garner (the company's marketing director) wrote:

Run of the Mill Theater truly was anything but for a long, long time. A broad and diverse ensemble of creative, technical, and administrative talents strove to create powerful work, reach out to the local community. and nurture a rebuilding small theater movement in Baltimore. Most of us, individually, will be staying put here, doing good work, fighting the good fight. Watch for us.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

Young Vic puts dark spin on 'Yeomen of the Guard'

You probably know Puccini lovers who still only have time for "Boheme," "Butterfly" and "Tosca," and keep their distance from such wonderful pieces as "La Rondine" and "La Fanciulla del West."

Likwise, there are self-proclaimed Verdi champions who skip "Falstaff," even "Otello" (outside of a few major opera houses, those masterworks always seem to be hard sells, at least without super-starry casts).

And so it is that some people who say they love Gilbert and Sullivan actually mean only "Pinafore," "Pirates" and "Mikado," considering the rest of the operettas not quite up to par. Pity.

True-blue devotees know that there is valuable stuff in all of the works, and that "The Yeomen of the Guard," despite its comparative lack of popularity, represents the very pinnacle of the brilliant duo's art. The score, in particular, is consistently delicious. Sullivan never exceeded the level of melodic inventiveness and sophistication achieved in "Yeomen." Gilbert’s libretto, too, has much going for it.

You can get a good sense of "Yeomen’s" worth in a new production from the Young Victorian Theatre Company, Baltimore’s indomitable keeper of the G&S flame. Performances continue through Sunday at the Bryn Mawr School.

The music is especially well-served in this staging, which features traditional costumes and a pleasant, economical set. But there is a little matter of the directorial concept, which might as well be addressed first.

Jim Harp takes the serious side of "Yeomen" very, well, seriously. The director has ...

invented a back story to explain the remarkable ending of the operetta, where, according to Gilbert’s original instructions, the character of jester Jack Point falls "insensible" to the ground, realizing that he will never win the heart and hand of the woman he loves.

This insertion of a tragic note into the general rejoicing of the final scene is one of the most fascinating things about "Yeomen."

Whether you interpret "insensible" as a fainting spell or an actual death from lovesickness, it’s still a pretty jarring conclusion to an operetta that is otherwise hardly Wagnerian.

The piece is not all sunshine, to be sure; set in the shadow of the Tower of London, the plot opens with an imminent execution. But just how much to push the dark side is a debatable issue.

Seizing on some lines spoken by, or to, Tower housekeeper Dame Carruthers in the libretto, Harp has turned her into a full-fledged witch who casts a fatal spell on Jack Point – an incident mimed, rather awkwardly, during the overture.

When a director needs so much time and effort to set up a concept, said concept is probably not as strong as it may have seemed in the planning stage. It should be possible to make Jack’s sad fate understandable and affecting without resorting to so much invented, often heavy-handed stuff.

The cast includes the very likable Jeffrey Williams as the jester. He sings with a ripe tone and phrases everything stylishly. His acting, though, could use refining. Too much skipping across the stage, too much time stuck with fool’s baubles in both hands (one of them should suffice).

And Williams doesn’t convey Jack's longing for his sidekick Elsie with quite enough depth, so it’s harder to buy into the dramatic death, accompanied by heavy sobs and rending of garments.

I think Gilbert and Sullivan had something much subtler and, thus, more poignant, in mind here. This treatment is just a little too Leoncavallo for me.

Nicholas Houhoulis sings with color and elegance as Colonel Fairfax. Jimi James has a good romp, musically and theatrically, as the unsavory Shadbolt. Catrin Rowenna Davies sings charmingly as Phoebe. Sara Kate Walston is a bright-voiced Elsie. Madeleine Gray, with her robust mezzo, makes a suitably formidable Dame Carruthers.

Samuel Helper brings vocal weight and sensitivity to the role of Sergeant Meryll. Adam Caughey makes the most of his brief appearance as Leonard. Jason Buckwalter does vigorous work as Sir Richard. For the most part, the chorus meets its challenges smoothly. Same for the orchestra, conducted with a good deal of expressive contour by Phillip Collister.

Young Vic casts, however much improved over the years, still are hampered by the acoustical imbalance of the pit-less theater. This ensemble needs to work even harder on clarity of diction during the vocal numbers.

The spoken dialogue could use some improvement, too, namely in terms of pacing. If all the little pauses between lines could have been eliminated from the performance I attended, the final curtain would have come down 10 minutes earlier.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:01 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

July 13, 2011

NEA grant to support MICA project in Station North

The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) has received a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the arts.

The NEA reportts that the money will be used for a MICA "initiative that will expand art and design programming, public art, and improvements to underutilized indoor and outdoor spaces in Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District."

A national symposium on "the policy, economic development, and cultural impacts of arts and entertainment districts" will also be a part of the project.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:47 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Ken Lam appointed music director of Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras

Ken Lam is the new music director of the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras, succeeding Jason Love, who served in the post for a dozen years.

Lam, who earned a graduate degree in conducting at Peabody, was selected out of more than 100 applicants. He is currently resident conductor of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina and will also start in the fall as orchestra director at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Lam should be a great fit for the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras. This past season, he revealed a flair for inspiring student musicians when he conducted Peabody Opera Theatre's production of Massenet's "Manon."

Lam's podium posts have included assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra. Also among his credits are fellowships at the National Symphony's conducting institute with Leonard Slatkin and assistant conducting gigs at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival.



Posted by Tim Smith at 4:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: Dusty Springfield sings refrain from Wagner's 'Tannhauser'

I've always had a soft spot for Dusty Springfield. She had such a distinctive voice, with a tinge of melancholy to it, and she could phrase a ballad with the best of them.

Not that you asked -- heck, you never need to ask; I just give and give, because I am naturally so giving -- my favorite Dusty recording was "Windmills of Your Mind," a version that I still hold in high esteem, even though I have now heard Barbra's superb interpretation from her soon-to-be-released album.

Truth be told, I never became a big Dusty fan, to the point of collecting her records. I just enjoyed hearing her when the opportunity arose. But I live with a major Dusty devotee, and Robert routinely breaks out her recordings, enabling me to appreciate much more of her oeuvre over the years.

I still recall the shock when, on one of Robert's Dusty days, he slipped into the player a little-known record of a song called "Don't Speak of Love." The first bars sounded like generic vintage pop, and I almost tuned it out when, holy cow, the refrain hit -- and I heard nothing less than the big tune of the Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's "Tannhauser," complete with ...

all the accompanying flurries from the violins, right out of the opera score.

Quite wild and hard to resist -- perfect for my Midweek Madness featurette. Wagner would have been appalled, of course, which is all the more reason to enjoy it:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

July 12, 2011

Summer concert options: Soprano and lute, bevy of bassoons, Plumeri and Willis

As the heat continues its grip, don't overlook opportunities to find comfort at various indoor musical oases -- if you can get there without wilting. Here are some classical and jazz examples on the horizon:

The silvery-voiced soprano Ah Young Hong joins lutenist Kevin Payne at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at An die Musik for a program called "Love, Death, and Betrayal."

So, OK, maybe that's not necessarily the most summery, drinks-with-umbrellas title you could imagine, but it does promise some exceedingly eloquent and subtle music.

In addition to works by Monteverdi and John Dowland, the two Peabody-trained artists (Hong went on to join the faculty there) will offer pieces by some less well-known composers from the 16th-17th centuries, including Barbara Strozzi, a rare example of a woman who succeeded in what was very much a man's world.

For a completely different sound, how about a bunch of bassoons? Sunday marks the start of ...

the first Peabody Bassoon Week, a program for intermediate and advanced high schoolers and college undergrads that provides intensive study and coaching.

To kick things off, there will be a free public concert at 5 p.m. Sunday in Peabody's Griswold Hall featuring Peabody faculty artist Phillip Kolker, who retired as Baltimore Symphony last year after nearly four decades of distinguished work as principal bassoonist.

He will be joined in Sunday's bassoon bash by Robert Sirois, Lynn Monciliovich and Anna Claire Ayoub, with Marc Irwin providing support at the piano.

Their program offers music of Telemann, Mozart, Eugene Bozza and Alec Wilder. (Students participating in Bassoon Week will give a concert at 7 p.m. July 22, also in Griswold Hall.)

Back at An die Musik on Sunday, the beat will switch to jazz. It's an opportunity to catch some major jazz artists.

Terry Plumeri, whose connection to our area includes a stint directing the Port City Jazz Ensemble in the late 1970s and playing in the National Symphony, has enjoyed a multiple career -- bassist, composer, conductor.

On the classical side, his credits include conducting and recording with the Moscow Philharmonic, including Tchaikovsky symphonies and one of Plumeri's own large-scale orchestral piece, "The Pride of Baltimore" (in the golden era when the Sun still had foreign bureaus, one of our correspondents covered the premiere in Moscow in 1994).

Plumeri is probably best known for his bass work, especially his bowed solos. He has performed with any number of notable artists, from Cannonball Adderley and Quincy Jones to Frank Sinatra and Roberta Flack (his playing can be heard on her "Killing Me Softly" album).

Pianist Larry Willis, who will be joining Plumeri, has worked with an equally stellar roster of jazz artists -- Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Carmen McRae, to name a few -- during a career that started in the 1960s. His artistry is documented on hundreds of records.

Willis and Plumeri will be joined by Billy Williams, a drummer who, only in his 20s, has been making some serious waves in the jazz world.

There will be two shows at An die Musik, 5 and 7 p.m. Sunday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 11, 2011

For something completely different, a Mahler-ized 'Happy Birthday'

Thanks to the ever-provocative Norman Lebrecht for bringing this to my attention via his blog -- a Mahler-ized version of "Happy Birthday."

I wish I had known about this on Mahler's birthday last week, but better late than never, I guess. It would be appropriate for other musical birthdays, of course, so don't be surprised if I drag it out on occasion.

So here's this amusing little take on the venerable old tune, courtesy of a dozen cellists from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 10, 2011

A supplement to the k.d. lang story, with the help of Dame Edna

You know by now that I do not have narrowly defined musical tastes -- unlike some folks who call me limited because I don't know their favorite pop music performers or "American Idol" finalists, even though they have zero acquaintance with anything or anyone from the classical arena. Me, bitter? Ah, but I digress.

Among the many pop artists I admire, k.d. lang ranks way up there, which is one reason I was delighted to interview her for an article in today's Sun. She's appearing at Meyerhoff Hall this week with her band Siss Boom Bang (you gotta love that name), and I look forward to attending.

I just discovered a k.d. experience that I had to share, in case, like me, you missed it a few years ago -- her appearance with one of my longtime idols, Dame Edna (bless you, YouTube). I nearly fell on the floor laughing a couple times watching this interview, and I figured you might do the same, so here it is:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:30 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 8, 2011

Young Victorian Theatre Company to put verismo spin on 'Yeomen of the Guard'

It's that time of year again for the Young Victorian Theatre Company to give Baltimore a dose of Gilbert and Sullivan. The ensemble's 41st season gets underway Saturday at the Bryn Mawr School.

The description "topsy-turvy" is routinely applied to the plots of G & S operettas — save one. The exception to the rule: "The Yeomen of the Guard."

Set in Elizabethan times within the confines of the Tower of London, it tells what Sullivan called a "pretty story … very human, and funny also." It's a tale of love, luck and loss.

"The characters in this piece are the most real people Gilbert gave us, each with many dimensions," says Jim Harp, stage director of Young Vic's new production. "And the music is rich, warm, opulent and plangent."

Harp promises an extra dash of drama. "We’re playing it like a verismo opera," he said. "There will still be a lot of fun and froth, but the ending will be unlike any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta you’ll ever see."

That ending involves a ...

jester named Jack Point, who fails to win the woman of his dreams. At the close of the operetta, the libretto indicates that a broken-hearted Point "falls insensible." Whether that means he faints or dies has long been debated; either way, his very unhappy state clouds an otherwise cheery, tuneful denouement.

"There won’t be a dry eye in the house," said Young Vic’s general manager Brian Goodman. "At least that’s the goal."

Harp also says he is doing "a twist" on the character of Dame Carruthers, housekeeper at the Tower. "I'm evil-ing her up a bit," the director says. "But it's all found in the libretto."

It should certainly be interesting to see if this "Yeomen" gets an all-out Mascagni makeover. Any directorial tweaking won't affect Sullivan's glorious music, of course, and the humor that's an original part of the operetta isn't being removed.

Longtime Young Vic fans can even take comfort that there will be "some updates, for which we are known," Harp says -- the company routinely inserts contemporary and local references into productions. "But they will be used more sparingly than in the past," the director adds.

The cast includes Catrin Rowenna Davies as Phoebe (pictured), Jeffrey Williams as Jack Point (pictured), Madeleine Gray as Dame Carruthers, and Nicholas Houhoulis as Colonel Fairfax. Phillip Collister conducts.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 7, 2011

A few thoughts on a dual birthday: Mahler, Menotti

One of my persistent 19th-century habits is the use of a handy-dandy Boosey & Hawkes Music Diary, in lieu of a calendar attached to my computer, phone or pad. Something with real, honest-to-goodness pages made of paper, with neat little lines, divided into days of the year. And there, beneath each numeral of the week are the notable birthdays from the world of music.

Of course, it's fun seeing who shares one's own birthday -- I can't tell you what a kick I get out of seeing Puccini's name on the anniversary of my own humble entry into our overburdened little world (some sources assign Puccini to Dec. 22, but dear old Boosey & Hawkes says the 23rd and that's good enough for me).

One of the coolest things about the diary is to see important people who were born on the same day. Take July 7. As we dyed-in-the-Mahler fans know, that's a very important date -- even more important last year, when it marked the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth. But July 7 is also Menotti's birth (and Michaela Petri, but let's not clutter this up).

And, as you can so easily see with a quick glance at the diary, Gian Carlo Menotti was born 100 years ago -- just a few months after Mahler died.

Had Menotti decided to pour his romantic style into symphonic music, maybe he would have become a kind of musical descendant of Mahler's. OK, probably not. As it is, Menotti turned to the one area that Mahler refused to consider -- opera. Conducting operas was more than enough for Mahler; he didn't feel the urge to write them, too.

Menotti had a natural gift for the theater. His detractors -- they seem to have lowered their voices in recent decades -- thought him capable of no more than warmed-over Puccini, at best. Menotti's admirers thought he managed to give fresh life to old-fashioned Italian opera values, while using them in the service of 20th-century theater.

I think the finest Menotti operas will live a long time, precisely because they work so well as music and drama. I'd go so far to say that if Mahler popped out of a time capsule, he'd gladly conduct "The Medium," "The Consul" and "The Saint of Bleecker Street."

I count my few personal encounters with Menotti among my fondest memories. What a sparkle could flash in those eyes. Unfraid to speak his mind on any subject, he could be provocative and wickedly funny. His battles with various folks, the artistic unevennes of his later works -- they are easily forgotten now. The Menotti magic is what lingers.

To mark the Menotti centennial, here's a lesser-known example of that magic, an eloquent movement from ...

his under-appreciated Piano Concerto No.1 from 1945:


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:29 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

July 6, 2011

'Next to Normal': Exploring love, loss and the boundaries of the Broadway musical

Diana, the troubled wife and mother at the heart of the Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical "Next to Normal," sees things a little, well, on the dark side. "Most people who are happy," she says, "just haven't thought about it enough."

You can't help but laugh when Alice Ripley delivers that line -- she originated the role of Diana and is reprising her brilliant portrayal in the national touring production that is at the Kennedy Center through July 10.

But you're likely to feel an uncomfortable, too-close-to-home twinge at those words, too. After all, most of us aren't lucky enough to avoid loss and longing of one kind or another, some disappointment and disillusionment, and it really doesn't take much to remind us.

Ripley has an extraordinary ability not only to convey Diana's cynicism and pain, but to make some sense of it (or at least next to sense), to communicate the tangible and intangible causes for the inner turmoil with such nuance that you will know and care deeply for this well-medicated character ("Pfizer woman of the year") by the end.

That connectivity factor helps to explain the success of this path-breaking work. "Next to Normal," which had a pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage in 2009, ventures into ...

territory that would have been considered next to impossible as material for a Broadway musical until recently. Mental illness just doesn't lend itself to show-stoppers.

Brian Yorkey's artfully constructed book and concise, often witty lyrics hit the mark. Same for most of the rock/pop songs by Tom Kitt, who, unlike so many Broadway-focused composers these days, sensibly skipped Sondheim 101 to fashion his own style.

A touch of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" runs through "Next to Normal," adding to the tension and power. Melodrama is effectively avoided, despite many an opportunity to fall into it; the tone remains natural, even as things turn more complicated and emotionally raw.

The story concerns a family haunted by a death in the past, a death that clings stubbornly to Diana's present. Her husband, Dan, tries to maintain a steady course through the wake caused by her bipolar disorder.

Their daughter, Natalie, has her own problems just being a teen, let alone having a mother with a habit of doing embarrassing things. (Natalie likes to play Mozart at the piano, because "everything else goes away.") Henry, the good-hearted stoner determined to be Natalie's boyfriend, adds an unexpected dynamic to the situation.

And then there's another young man, Gabe, whose presence provides a crucial thread to the drama.

Ripley is the riveting anchor for the production, directed by Michael Greif. At the performance I attended, her singing did not match her acting -- problems with tone and pitch suggested a cold -- but that was a minor disappointment in light of so many other plusses.

Curt Hansen is the compelling Gabe. Asa Somers brings out affecting dimensions of Dan's character. Emma Hunton (Natalie) and Preston Sadleir (Henry) make vivid contributions. Jeremy Kushnier rounds things off effectively portraying two of the doctors in Diana's life; he also reveals an especially warm, flexible voice.

The production works as well visually as it does dramatically, thanks to Mark Wendland's multi-tiered set and the refined lighting by Kevin Adams. A tight band, led from the keyboard by Bryan Perri and integrated into the scenic design, adds the finishing touch.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: A refresher course on the alphabet from The Three Stooges

For my next jolt of Midweek Madness (the irresistible new feature of this rarefied blog), I couldn't resist a little remedial education, courtesy of The Three Stooges.

If you know anyone stuck in summer school (do they still have summer school?), this refresher might be particularly useful.

Or, for those of a certain age, it's an opportunity to learn an alternative to "The Name Game" (you know, "banana-fana-fo-fana" -- what were they thinking in the '60s?).

Then again, maybe, like me, you just need a few minutes of mindless entertainment to get through the day. So here are the professorial Stooges providing a unique guide to learning the alphabet (remember to sit down first):

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

July 5, 2011

More Shakespearean opportunities this summer

One inevitable result of writing a story about music or theater groups is that I will quickly hear from those who weren't mentioned.

That's what happened after last Sunday's article about outdoor Shakespeare productions in the Baltimore metro area.

So let me hasten to tell you about  opportunities for more Bard yard and indoor experiences on the horizon.

Turns out that the Maryland Shakespeare Festival is not the only ensemble focusing on "As You Like It" this summer. The ...

Shakespeare Factory is presenting the work, too, in an updated setting that finds the play's complex web of couples cavorting to "the fee love vibe of the '60s." The troupe is promising a "fun, fast paced, and family friendly-style" approach, along with a folk song sing-along.

Performances (free, but a donation of $10 is suggested) are scheduled Aug. 26 in Mt. Airy; Aug. 27 in Baltimore's Patterson Park; Sept. 3 and 4 at Westminster City Park; Sept. 5 at Baltimore's Wyman Park; Sept. 10 Millard Cooper Park in Sykesville and Baltimore's Emmanuel Episcopal Church; Sept. 11 Federal Hill Park; Sept. 16 at St. John’s Episcopal in Greenbelt; Sept. 17 at Baltimore's Sumpter Park; and Sept. 18 at South Branch Park in Sykesville.

For more information: or 410-218-1479.

Also for your consideration, a "subversive" version of "The Taming of the Shrew," presented by Unruly Women and the Strand Theater Company. This feminist adaptation, "Shrewing of the Tamed," is by Francesca Chilcote and Laurie Wolf, founders of Unruly Women, a collective of William and Mary grads.

Their approach is described as subverting "the traditional conceits of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, challenging gender norms and power structures by flipping the show on its head." Chilcote, who worked on this adaptation as part of her thesis on women and comedy at the College of William and Mary, is also producing a documentary about the project.

After a run at the Capital Fringe Festival in DC (July 13-24), performances will be held July 29-31 at the Strand Theater on N. Charles St.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

July 1, 2011

A captivating night with Shakespeare, Mirren, Irons, Maazel

For lovers of Shakespeare, great actors and exceptional music-makers, the Castleton Festival offered an ideal package Thursday night at Strathmore.

You could call it an early-summer night's dream.

No less than Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons were on hand to recite excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," as Lorin Maazel conducted the Castleton Festival Orchestra in brilliantly atmospheric incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for a 19th century production of that play.

Rounding out the program, Maazel and the orchestra offered "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired music by Russian composers.

We hear Mendelssohn's music quite often in concert and on recordings (innumerable couples get an earful of the Wedding March every year, of course), but a taste of the text in conjunction with the sonic embellishment is much rarer. Rarer still is the chance to hear Shakespeare's poetic words delivered by such luminaries of the stage and screen.

A new narration written for this presentation by J. D. McClatchy (he collaborated on the libretto for Maazel's opera "1984") proved quite entertaining as well and gave the actors extra opportunities to shine. The net result was that, in about 90 minutes or so, the performance conveyed so much of the play's magic that it was easy to picture a full-fledgedproduction.

Located stage left on a small platform and looking quite chic, Mirren and Irons ...

cavorted verbally and sometimes physically as they portrayed several characters. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves up there.

Irons, in particular, had a field day, trying out various voices and accents with terrific vibrancy, hitting a peak as the temporarily donkey-fied Bottom. With an abundance of color and inflection in their speech, Mirren and Irons produced as much music, in a way, as the orchestra players.

This is not to slight the performance that Maazel was shaping. Even allowing for an occasional slip of intonation or articulation, the ensemble of young professionals and advanced students did admirably sensitive work, responding to the conductor's finely detailed phrase-molding. The vocal portions of the score were elegantly sung by sopranos Joyce El-Khoury and Tharanga Goonetilleke and the women of the Castleton Festival Chorus.

During the orchestra-only half of the concert, I was disappointed that Maazel kept the lid on in selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet score. Those chilling dissonant chords that emerge at the start of "Montagues and Capulets," for example, never quite registered on the seismograph. (I was sure they would, given the brass-fueled power displayed in the "La Boheme" performance at Castleton's home base deep in the Virginia countryside last weekend.)

But Maazel did ensure that pathos and incisive power emerged in the passages depicting "The Death of Tybalt" and "Romeo at Juliet's Tomb." There was much to admire in the playing, especially from the strings.

Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" received a remarkably taut, vivid performance. Maazel's attention to small shifts in dynamics helped to freshen many well-worn phrases, and what he did with the final portion of the score was sensational -- very spaciously paced, compelling expressive weight in each measure. Tragedy writ large. 

The Castleton Festival, founded by Lorin Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, has put itself on the map in just a few short years. This year's how-can-you-keep-'em-down-on-the-farm schedule brings the organization to a wider audience in the D.C. area (three presentations will be held in July at the Hyton Center in Manassas), as well as Toronto (where the Shakespeare program was presented Wednesday) and Beijing (at the end of the month).

I hope the increased exposure will help draw more support to this remarkable enterprise, which has had such a fresh spark from the start and seems to have such great potential. The Shakespeare night certainly showed off the Castleton brand in a most captivating light.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
Keep reading
Recent entries
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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected