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August 31, 2011

Midweek Madness: An operatic episode from 'What's My Line?'

It's almost too late for my Midweek Madness featurette -- sorry for the delay. I have visions of you clicking endlessly, pitifully, perhaps even tearfully onto the site in hopes of receiving this little weekly jolt of diversion.

Dry those tears. Here, at last, is the entertainment you seek.

I decided on the mystery guest portion from an episode of the vintage TV show "What's My Line?" It's great to see ...

Leontyne Price facing the panel and having so much fun.

This aired just after the now famous disaster of Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra" that opened the Metropolitan Opera's Lincoln Center home. Not that Miss Price was a disaster -- this goddess could never disappoint -- but the opera was deemed a massive flop. (That verdict has shifted over the years, at least to a degree.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Kennedy Center celebrates 40th year with free ticket giveaway

The Kennedy Center turns 40 in September (I'm always happy to bore anyone with my memories of attending the very first public performance there -- at an impossibly young age, needless to say).

To mark the birthday, two free tickets will be offered to every Kennedy Center– presented performance during the 2011–2012 season.

This generous gesture coincides with the launch of something called MyTix, a project aimed at helping more of the 18-to-30-year-old set, active duty armed services personnel and other under-served members of the community gain access to Kennedy Center events.

MyTix is part of the broader Rubenstein Arts Access Program, funded by Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and his wife Alice Rubenstein.

The good news for those who don't meet the target demographics of MyTix is that the birthday blast ticket giveaway is "open to all," according to the press release out today. So go for it.

(If they threw in the $20 parking garage fee, it would be an even better prize, but freebie recipients can't be greedy.)

Here's what you have to do for a chance at winning some tickets:

Starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 1, register for the ticket giveaway at (I would provide a link, but it's not active yet.) Alternatively, you can stop by the Kennedy Center's box office or call 202-467-4600.

The fine print: You can indicate the arts genre you are most interested in, but you are not guaranteed tickets in that genre if you win.

The add-on: All entrants will be eligible for one of three Grand Prizes: free tickets to the Kennedy Center Honors, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, or the National Symphony Orchestra's Season Opening Ball.

Registration closes Sept. 19. Winners will be selected at random and notified via email by Sept. 22.

As for the MyTix project, which will offer assorted discounts, free ticket offers and more throughout the year to participants who meet the age or military status requirements, registration opens at 10 a.m. Sept. 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, NSO

August 29, 2011

Monday Musings: What should classical musicians wear onstage?

The music season is getting closer, which seems as good an occasion as any for addressing the issue of dressing -- what classical musicians wear onstage.

It's an old, old issue, of course, but one that never loses its ability to generate different, often very strong views.

There was a flurry of chatter on the subject a few weeks ago after the gifted young pianist Yuja Wang performed at the Hollywood Bowl.

Audiences don't always get so much -- or, in this case, so little -- of a fashion statement when they hear a Rachmaninoff concerto. The pianist's red mini-mini-mini-dress had eyes bugging out like crazy, from all reports.

Soloists typically are granted considerable leeway when it comes to attire. Same for conductors. Individuality is quite common, and is likely to remain that way.

Time was when male soloists and conductors didn't look much different from each other, fashion-wise, or from men who played in orchestras. White tie and tails ruled.

Now, lots of variety is seen, from the untucked, open-neck black shirts of Joshua Bell to the snazzy, specially designed suits sported by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Women have long had more freedom. A woman dressed in a conservative black dress to give a recital or perform a concerto would, I think, be a decided anomaly now. A woman changing at intermission into a second take-notice outfit for the rest of a concert isn't uncommon at all.

The public probably ...

wants and expects classical soloists to have a touch of glamour. I think that can add a fun little extra to the concert experience, most of the time. Seems like common sense should rule, though. If an outfit -- whether worn by a man or woman -- is so in-your-face that the audience is likely to talk about it more than your music-making, don't wear it. Save it for the post-concert reception.

The art, not the artist, is still supposed to be numero uno.

But what of orchestra members? Isn't it about time they got out of those 19th century clothes and into something that screams "today"? Maybe.

Not that orchestras haven't tried before. An article early this year by Judith Kogan in Symphony Magazine, listed quite a few attempts by orchestras to look hip. Most, like "the blue crushed velour and with ruffled shirts" sported by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the '70s, faded away -- fortunately.

But, as Kogan notes, "in our increasingly visual world, where young people -- whom orchestras are avid to attract -- find formal dress off-putting; where less formal entertainment options have exploded; and where the very future of orchestras is in question, a reconsideration of orchestra 'dress code' seems necessary."

Personally, I don't mind the old white tie look, especially if the programming is likewise dated or super-serious. I don't mind seeing just plain business attire, either.

Switching to less formal wear for less formal music makes a certain sense -- and I don't just mean pops or casual concerts, where that is already done, but, say, a program heavy on the Gershwin, Copland, or Glass. Matching the attire to the music at hand might be gimmicky, but it could hit the right visual note, too.

Given how many conductors eschew the conventional look, it seems kind of unfair that the orchestra members have to stick with the old-fashioned duds. (Conversely, I'm always rather bugged by the sight of conductors who insist on wearing white tie and tails while their orchestras are in regular suits. I don't get that at all.)

I hasten to add that the assorted physical shapes of the typical orchestra need to be taken into account when any new fashion decision is made. Sorry, but a lot of players are simply not going to be a good match for, say, T shirts (let alone mini-dresses) "in our increasingly visual world."

If the traditional look of orchestra musicians is off-putting to newbies (or seasoned concertgoers, for that matter), the matter should be seriously and sensibly considered. If the more people would truly find concerts more inviting just by changing what players wear, orchestras would be crazy not to try. The problem is that no one can know for sure. And there isn't loads of money to spend on experimenting.

Maybe one of those fashion designer "reality" shows could make the contestants figure out great new outfits for symphony members and clothing companies could be talked into manufacturing them for free, as a test run. Not too likely, though. And, as the Saint Paul example reminds us, what is with-it one year can come across as terribly dated the next.

There's a reason some folks look at white-tie-tails for men, black and conservative attire for women as a timeless look. It has endured.

If the old look should go, what would you like to see take its place?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:21 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes, Monday Musings

As 2011-12 approaches, some music and theater events that have my attention

While lending a hand with the compilation of the Sun's annual Fall Arts Guide, which will be out Sept. 9 (that's still officially summer, but who bothers with such picky details?), I kept making mental notes of music and theater offerings that I particularly want to catch. Here are five of them:


1) Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the "Resurrection"; Baltimore Symphony, Sept.15-17.

You knew I was going to pick this, didn't you?

As the Mahler anniversary draws down -- he died 100 years ago -- it's great to have the Second performed, especially in such  proximity to the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. This symphony is all about life and death and life again, providing one of the most absorbing and rewarding journeys possible in music.

It will be interesting to hear Marin Alsop's approach to the work, which has been so associated in Baltimore with her predecessor at the BSO, Yuri Temirkanov, who chose it as his tenure-opener and tenure-closer.

2) "A Raisin in the Sun"; Everyman Theatre, Sept. 7-Oct. 9.

The company opens its season -- the last at its current location -- with a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s venerable work, which offers a slice of African-American life in 1950s Chicago. Given Everyman's brilliant production last season of another classic, "All My Sons," the odds favor a memorable theatrical experience.

3) "The Rake's Progress"; Peabody Opera Theater, Nov. 18, 20.

The big news of the fall season is the debut of Lyric Opera Baltimore, but another company making use of our city's newly renovated opera house has my attention, too.

The Peabody troupe is moving into the historic theater to present Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," a work with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman inspired by the Hogarth print series of that name. This neoclassical masterpiece from 1951 does not come around every year  (has it ever been staged here?).

4) "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher"; BSO, Nov. 17-18.

One of the best things about Marin Alsop's tenure with the BSO is her adventurous programming. A case in point this season is a theatrical presentation of Arthur Honegger's 1935 oratorio about Joan of Arc, a fascinating, prismatic work.

The Morgan State University Choir and other choral ensembles join Alsop and the orchestra for  performances of the piece in Baltimore and then Carnegie Hall.

5) "La Cage aux Folles"; Hippodrome, Nov. 1-6.

File this under guilty pleasures. So it's not be the greatest musical of all time, but the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein confection sure does have its charms. And this revival, which originated at London's innovative Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007, has been widely heralded as revelatory.

The touring production stars George Hamilton, so that should add to the fun.

SUN FILE PHOTOS (Mahler portrait by David Goldberg) 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:30 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

August 26, 2011

Boosey & Hawkes challenges Leonard Bernstein fans with contest

If you're still in a celebratory, good-vibe mood after marking Leonard Bernstein's birthday this week -- and who isn't? (especially if you viewed the look-ma-no-hands clip I posted of him) -- you should consider a little challenge from the eminent music publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

The company is giving you a chance ...

to test your knowledge of the composer/conductor. There are six multiple choice questions (three of them using audio) on the online quiz.

The prizes are pretty cool, especially for lovers of Bernstein's "Mass" -- and who isn't? Oops. I went one who-isn't too many.

Check out the contest and win one for the Lenny.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 25, 2011

Live stream of concert with Marin Alsop conducting Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop, recently named principal conductor of Brazil's Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, will lead that ensemble's first live-via-Internet concert this weekend.

The performance, from the Sala Sao Paulo, will feature Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush Violin Concerto, with Renaud Capucon as soloist, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

The live stream is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. EST. (Fans of Alsop in Baltimore, where she is music director of the BSO, may have their hands full with a certain hurricane that day.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Pro Musica Rara's 37th season to feature Julianne Baird, baroque dance

These have been tough times for arts groups; they can be even tougher on niche groups.

So it's good news that Pro Musica Rara, Baltimore's long-running period instrument ensemble, has mustered the resources for a 37th season. A very attractive season, too.

As I've mentioned before, Pro Musica has made great strides over the past decade or so. The playing, technically and expressively, is on a classy level as a rule. Programming is consistently thoughtful, with lots of intriguing twists. 

The one nagging problem has been financiual support. A few more angels would come in handy.  

Back to Pro Musica Rara's 2011-2012 lineup. Of particular note is the return of ...

soprano Julianne Baird, a major star in early music circles. She made a memorable appearance with Pro Musica last season.

On Nov. 6 at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Baird will be featured in a program called "Jane Austen's Songbook" with cellist Allen Whear (Pro Musica's artistic director) and fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch. The concert promises vocal and instrumental works from Austen's own collection. Cool. 

The season opens Oct. 9 with a focus on the dance forms that are such an integral part of Bach's music. Whear will offer excerpts from the solo cello suites; violinist Cynthia Roberts will play portions of the solo works for violin. The various minuets, sarabandes and the like will be interpreted onstage by Catherine Turocy (director of the New York Baroque Dance Company) and Meggi Sweeney Smith.

Sonatas for violin and keyboard by Mozart, Beethoven and others will be performed by Roberts and fortepianist Christoph Hammer on March 11.

The fortepiano will be in the picture, too, on April 29, with Mengelkoch as the player, joined by the Pro Musica Rara Classical Quartet -- violinists Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Sharon Pineo Myer, and Whear. The program includes a quintet by Boccherini and a chamber version of a Mozart piano concerto.

Like I said, a very attractive season from Pro Musica Rara.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 24, 2011

Evolution Contemporary Music Series announces 2011-12 season

As I've mentioned before, Baltimore has become quite a nice little hotbed for contemporary music. It's not just cool that we have Mobtown Modern and the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, but that each one has its own identity, with remarkably little overlap of repertoire.

Mobtown's 2011-2012 season was announced last week. Now comes word of Evolution's, which will again be held at An die Musik, where a season preview concert and fundraiser will be held Sept. 20.

Composer Judah Adashi, founding director of the series, devised a theme for the new season that reflects remarks made by conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim: "You can only live in music … if you see the parallels with literature, if you see the parallels with painting, if you see the parallel with the development of political processes."

An element of that theme will be particularly evident on Nov. 1, when violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen perform music by the challenging composer Michael Hersch, who is on the Peabody faculty.

The program includes two works written in response to 9/11: "The wreckage of flowers: 21 pieces after poetry and prose of Czeslaw Milosz" and "Fourteen Pieces, after texts by Primo Levi."

Drawings by Nicholas Cairns will be displayed during this concert, providing a visual intersection with the music.

On Dec. 6, there will be ...

a "Liederabend" (a term you'd never see on a Mobtown Modern schedule) devoted to works by Oliver Knussen, Peter Lieberson and Arvo Pärt that incorporate texts by Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke -- the parallel with literature Barenboim mentioned.

Shakespeare's "The Tempest" provides the focus for a concert Feb. 7, when Kaija Saariaho’s "Tempest Songbook" and Paul Moravec's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tempest Fantasy" will be performed.

A program on March 6 will offer works by Martin Bresnick, director of the composition program at Yale University, who drew inspiration from Franz Kafka and Francisco Goya.

The series will close with a concert by the International Contemporary Ensemble April 3. Members of that ensemble will also spend time mentoring Baltimore School for the Arts students, who will also perform at the concert.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: Leonard Bernstein's hands-free Haydn

For this week's dash of Midweek Madness, I thought I would jump the gun a bit and combine it with something that would actually be more appropriate to post on Thursday, which is Leonard Bernstein's birthday (he would have turned 93).

But this video of the incomparable Lenny with the Vienna Philharmonic is ...

so much fun that I thought it would serve my purposes perfectly right now. In this fabulous demonstration of hands-free conducting in a Haydn symphony, what Bernstein does with just his face is more than some baton-wavers will ever accomplish with their whole bodies.

Of course, it's a bit of a stunt. Of course, it's got ego all over it. Who cares? It's irresistible.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 23, 2011

Fast earthquake marketing: $5.90 rush tickets at Signature Theatre

That didn't take long.

The Signature Theatre in Arlington quickly seized on the wild earthquake that tipped the scale at 5.9 on Tuesday with a limited offer of $5.90 tickets. (Maybe that will be $5.80 now that we got downgraded.)

These are rush rickets available two hours prior to showtime for preview performances of two musicals being given their world premieres by the company: "The Hollow" on Tuesday and Wednesday nights; "The Boy Detective Fails" on Thursday night.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Call for entries in Baltimore Playwrights Festival

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which is currently wrapping up its 30th anniversary season, is in the preliminary stages of the next one. A call for entries has gone out to budding playwrights to submit works for consideration in the 2012 festival. The deadline is Sept. 30. 

The only requirements: The plays cannot have been previously produced; the playwrights "must be domiciled (or at one time have lived) in Maryland or Washington D.C."

You can get more details, guidelines and instructions on how to submit plays (it's an online-only process) at the festival's Web site.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

August 22, 2011

Remembering Darthea Redding Kerr, who worked for Baltimore and National symphony orchestras

Darthea Redding Kerr, who died last week from cancer at the age of 61, was a valued member of the administrative staffs of our region's two major orchestras. Her obituary ran in Monday's Sun.

She served for several years as assistant personnel manager at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (her surname was Olander then).

She went on to serve as executive assistant to the National Symphony Orchestra's music director Leonard Slatkin (she left that post when he took the helm of the Detroit Symphony a few years ago).

Dottie, as she was widely known, was prized in both organizations for her warmth and dedication, and her death has no doubt affected many people.

From an outsider's perspective, I can attest to Dottie's charm. I especially enjoyed seeing her whenever I stopped by the NSO to do an interview with her boss. On one occasion, she took me aside and said something that gave me a particular lift (no, I can't tell divulge it). I'll always enjoy that memory.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:19 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, NSO

Monday Musings: How just a few notes can create lasting magic

Like so many artsy types, I spend a good deal of most Sunday mornings poring through the New York Times. It's what one does, after all.

After going through Sunday Review and getting all worked up again about one political issue or another (speaking of Sunday Review, will Gail Collins please, please finish writing her damn book and get back to penning those marvelous op-eds?), I turned to the A&L section.

Zachary Woolfe, whose work has impressed me a good deal since he joined the Times stable of music writers last season, had an interesting column on the nature of charisma -- why some classical musical artists have it, some don't; why "you simply can't look away from" the charismatic ones, how their gift can elevate "even the most unassuming musical passage."

(Nice to see an essay on such a subject given prominent play on the front page of the section. That wouldn't -- couldn't -- happen at a lot of papers in this country.)

Reading Woolfe's article made me start to think about ...

the charisma-filled performers I have been lucky enough to experience live. I thought about it so long that it was suddenly the next day, and thus perfectly suited to my Monday Musings feature-ette.

One of the things I admire most about certain classical artists -- instrumentalists, singers, conductors -- is their ability to change the whole equation, if you will, in the midst of a performance merely by the way they approach one small detail, perhaps an "unassuming musical passage," as Woolfe put it.

Yuri Temirkanov has charisma to spare. It can be awfully subtle, especially since he is loathe to smile until the end of a concert, but he sure has it, even in his bearing as he walks to the podium. He has it, too, in the distinctive way he conducts. Many people don't use batons these days, but no one uses his hands with quite the mesmerizing flow that Temirkanov has, the almost balletic motion.

The example I have been rerunning in my head since contemplating the charisma issue is Temirkanov's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. When I first him lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in that work, I was blown away by a very small thing he did at the start of the lilting third movement.

There is no indication from Dvorak for a gently drawn out start to that movement. You can Czech out dozens of recordings of the symphony and hear dozens of conductors begin the movement in tempo. That's how it goes. But not to Temirkanov.

The way he stretched out the first notes, as if from a nostalgic dream, was so magical, so OMG, that I was a changed man. The entire symphony seemed more meaningful and involving, somehow, because of that tiny gesture in a single measure.

It was as masterful a touch of charismatic conducting as any I have ever heard. Much to my surprise, the other reviewer I saw of that particular interpretation said nary a word about this unusual feature (in addition to Baltimore performances, Temirkanov led the BSO in the Dvorak 8th at Carnegie Hall). I guess charismatic interpretations aren't always universally felt.

If I were a contestant on a variant of the old game show "Name That Tune," perhaps called something along the lines of "Name the Fewest Notes in a Performance That Totally Blew You Away," I could start with two.

Picture it: Charleston, S.C. The Spoleto Festival U.S.A. A production of "Der Rosenkavalier," starring Renata Scotto as the Marschallin. (I couldn't find a picture of her in this role, so one from her performance of Klytemnestra in "Elektra" with the Baltimore Opera will have to do -- that was pretty darn charismatic, too.)

There's a moment after the sublime, spine-tingling Trio in the last act, when the Marschallin, who has lost her young lover Octavian to the equally young Sophie, sees the two ecstatically in love. Sophie's father remarks to the Marschallin, "That's how it is with kids today" (or words to that effect). The Marschallin replies simple: "Ja, ja" ("Yes, yes").

I think the way a soprano gets her ja-ja's out can make all the difference in a long night of "Rosenkavalier." The inflection can make you feel all the heartbreak inside the character of a woman afraid of loneliness and the advance of time.

What Scotto did with those two words, those two notes ripped my heart out that day in Charleston. There was the slightest catch in her throat as she sang them. Nothing melodramatic, just real and honest and naked and devastating. Talk about your charisma.

Even the way Scotto then left the stage, hesitating just for a second in the doorway, was special; she communicated more with her back to the audience than many a performer can head-on. Man, that was great acting.

You never know when a charismatic jolt will hit you in a concert hall or opera house, which is one reason why it's worth going to live performances as much as possible.

I will never forget great moments I've witnessed, including Birgit Nilsson in "Elektra" in Vienna, earning 45 minutes of applause (almost half as long as the whole opera); Leontyne Price singing "This Little Light of Mine" with a radiance that could light Baltimore for a year; Carlos Kleiber conducting "Rosenkavalier"; Evgeny Kissin's Carnegie Hall debut; etc.

When music is made with the genuine, unforced spark of personality -- charismatic personality -- and when it speaks deeply to you, your life is changed somehow, not just in that moment, but ever after.

I'd love to hear from you about some life-changers you've experienced.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:55 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes, Monday Musings

August 19, 2011

A salute to some unsung orchestras of the Baltimore region

Not surprisingly, when it comes to orchestral thought, this is pretty much a Baltimore Symphony-centric area. It's got the biggest budget, the most musicians, the most concerts, the most famous music director, etc.

So it's easy to overlook all the other orchestral activity going on, especially by the orchestras that are either beyond the beltway or on a community level, with fewer professional players involved.

I am often struck by the sense of musical adventure generated by ensembles of modest means. Whatever limitations there may be on the  music-making, there seems to be no restriction on the programming.

Some of the most imaginative repertoire choices I've seen around here lately are from orchestras that, for various reasons, get the smallest share of the spotlight. 

Let me give you a few examples ...

The Columbia Orchestra and music director Jason Love concluded the 2010-11 season with a startling program built around a theme of creation and destruction. Selections from Hadyn's "The Creation" were juxtaposed with Krzystof Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" (a masterpiece that has not turned up on a BSO program during my 11 years here).

That single program also included an excerpt from John Adams' recent opera "Doctor Atomic" and even Radiohead's "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)." A lot of big-league orchestras would never risk putting such an assortment, or even such a weighty philosophical topic, in front of their subscribers.

For 2011-12, the Columbia Orchestra offers, among other things, a "final words" program, featuring Verdi's last work, "Stabat Mater," and the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. Another concert balances warhorses by Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov with works by contemporary composers Zhou Tian and Arturo Márquez. Cool.

There's quite an impressive mix of familiar and fresh planned by music director Sheldon Bair for the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra's 35th anniversary season, too. A program that finds room for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and a Grateful Dead-inspired symphony by Lee Johnson is plenty interesting.

Add into that same program arias from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and a gorgeous excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Mozartiana" Suite, and you're talking extra-clever.

Even the orchestra's holiday concert will be packed with unusual items before getting to the Christmas sing-along, including pieces by William Grant Still (why, oh why is this composers music so routinely ignored?), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Malcom Arnold.

One more example.

The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, led by Jed Gaylin, has plenty of standard fare listed for 2011-12, but still has room for music by Lutoslawski and Michael Daugherty.

I would point as well to Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" and Barber's underrated Piano Concerto on the Hopkins Symphony lineup, wonderful works that do not come around every day. (I wonder if the BSO has ever programmed either of those. UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, the BSO did program the Barber with Garrick Ohlssohn in 2007. I should have remembered that. Ditto for the Serenade to Music, done in 2006.)

The thing these groups have in common is a willingness to leave safe havens, where community orchestras might reasonably be expected to stay, and head out into less traveled territory. That's good for their musicians, good for their audiences.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 18, 2011

Zora Neale Hurston adaptation replaces Toni Morrison-based work at Center Stage

The final piece in Center Stage's 2011-2012 season has been put in place.

Artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah chose Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner's "Gleam," an adaptation done in the 1980s of the 1937 Zora Neale Hurston novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," to replace the previously postponed production of another adaptation.

Marion McClinton’s version of Toni Morrison’s "Jazz," originally slated for a Center Stage run Jan. 4 to Feb. 5, was deemed ...

in need of "further script development."

McClinton will direct "Gleam," which tells a Florida-set saga of an African American woman, Janie Crafword, and her emotional roller coaster of a life, with multiple marriages, multiple challenges and a proudly independent streak.

The novel by Hurston, a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance, has inspired other treatments over the years, including a TV movie starring Halle Berry in 2005.

Rattner's play, originally titled "To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine," premiered at Wayne State University in 1983 and subsequently received several productions. It also received an award from the Kennedy Center's Arts Fund for New American Plays in 1987.


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

August 17, 2011

Midweek Madness: Carol Burnett and company 'perform' contemporary music

The midweek point is almost over -- forgive me for not getting this posted sooner, oh you devoted followers of my Midweek Madness feature. I've had so much so much madness in my week (sometimes just mad) that I kept getting distracted. Enough of the excuses. On with the show.

When I received Mobtown Modern's enticing season announcement Tuesday, I started thinking  that an appropriate Wednesday diversion would be a take-off on contemporary music by Carol Burnett and friends. Of course, this skit is ...

terribly offensive to, and woefully ignorant of, contemporary composers and performers. Downright shameless, even. Possibly libelous. But, just between us, I think it's still pretty funny:



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:59 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 16, 2011

Mobtown Modern's 5th season to feature music of Cage, Glass, Xenakis

Mobtown Modern will mark its fifth anniversary of spicing Baltimore's musical life with an exceptionally promising mix of repertoire and performers.

2011-2012 also marks Mobtown's first untethered season. The organization, curated and co-founded by stellar sax player Brian Sacawa, began as an affiliate of the Contemporary Museum, which had a change in management last year. For its fifth year, Mobtown is going independent. More on that in a moment. Back to the music.

The season opens with a performance by one of the hottest groups on the international new music scene, the JACK Quartet, performing the complete string quartets of Iannis Xenakis Sept. 14 at the 2640 Space.

The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, which has made some very hot recordings, will ...

make its Baltimore debut on the Mobtown series with a program of music from the first decade of the 21st century Nov. 9 at the 2640 Space.

Mobtown's annual tradition of performing Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night" for boom boxes will be held Dec. 3, starting at the Pratt Southeast Anchor Library.

On Jan. 26 at the Windup Space, Mobtown will deliver a sequel to last season's terrific account of "Glassworks" with the performance of another gem by Baltimore's own Philip Glass, "Music with Changing Parts."

The centennial of John Cage in 2012 will be commemorated by Mobtown with a recital on Feb. 15 (venue TBD) by pianist Adam Tendler, who will play the composer's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Mobtown is planning another Cage event during the season -- "Musicircus," a work from 1967 that involves multiple ensembles and the element of chance. More details are promised later.

The season also includes a performance April 15 at Windup Space by bass clarinetist virtuoso Michael Lowenstern, whose style Sacawa describes as "ClassicoFunkTronica."

Back to the post-Contemporary Museum state for Mobtown Modern. To help maintain its independence and its future, an online fundraising campaign through Kickstarter has begun. The goal is $5,000, to be used toward fees for artists and an audio technician, as well as administrative costs. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 15, 2011

In aftermath of London riots, painful story of musician, flutes and cats

There must be innumerable stories of suffering and loss from the London riots, so it may seem unfair to single any of them out.

But this one, reported by The Guardian, pulls at two of my heartstrings -- music and cats -- and I thought it was worth sharing.

The name of Carla Rees is new to me. I know now that she's an accomplished flutist, with a speciality in the alto and bass flute.

In addition to solo work, she is artistic director of an ensemble called Rarescale. Her flair for contemporary music is reflected in her performance of over 250 premieres.

She also teaches at a college of the University of London.

By virtue of where she happened to share a flat in Croydon with her boyfriend, Rees is now homeless, victim of one of the riot-fueled fires that swept London. She and her boyfriend returned from ...

coaching students in a youth orchestra to find the streets filled with rioters, reports The Guardian: "Fearful of the atmosphere, they grabbed clean clothes, fed the cats and booked into a hotel. An hour later, her home was in ruins."

Rees, 34, lost at least 10 valuable flutes and hundreds of music scores, including compositions written for her and Rarescale -- unpublished scores filled with notes from the composers.

Adding to the devastation was that Rees lost her two cats in the blaze. Like so many Londoners, I suspect, she could not have realized that the rage and mindlessness in the streets would escalate to such destruction.

A fund has been set up online to help the flutist.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 11, 2011

London-born Center Stage director Kwame Kwei-Armah on the turmoils back home

Kwame Kwei-Armah has only just settled into Baltimore and his tenure as artistic director of Center Stage. "It's head down and running to whichever meeting is next," he said Thursday.

But this week, he has understandably been distracted by the intense rioting back in his hometown of London. "I have been following events assiduously," he said.

Three of his four children are still in the U.K., due to arrive her later this month (a fourth child and his wife are already in the States.)

"My youngest went with his mother [Kwei-Armah's first wife] to pick up his grandmother at midnight Saturday in Tottenham, a street away from where the first big fire was," Kwei-Armah said. "You can understand how frightening that was. His last view of London was of flames and riot police.  And my brother was ...

driving in Croydon when his car got attacked. They were trying to car-jack him, but he got away."

The children are now safe in a London suburb, but Kwei-Armah has not stopped thinking about what has been going on there. The latest news of a calmer situation has brought welcome relief.  

"Today is the first day that tears haven't come to my eyes," he said.

"I grew up in a generation of riots in England in the '80s. I had hoped we had somehow gone past that. I am sad for my children that they had to see this."

The director spoke of mixed feelings, including anger at "the wanton self-destruction" of the rioters and at how "police have been treating young people in Britain for ages."

"A lot of talk from officialdom has focused solely on criminality," Kwame-Armah added. "Very little is being said about the huge underclass that exists in London, why the number is so big, why so many are from ethnic minorities. That's not looking for excuses, but reasons.

"It is a tremendously sad time for my country. These have been very painful days, enough to make me want to fly over there, grab a broom and help clean up."


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:22 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

August 10, 2011

Midweek Madness: In these volatile days, Marlene Dietrich's musical saw may soothe

Such a roller-coaster week so far, full of terribly unsettling news -- the stock market, the London riots, the prospect of a Rick Perry candidacy.

I figured this installment of Midweek Madness had to be doubly distracting, something to take your mind far away from the troubles around us (and, boy howdy, nobody knows the troubles I've seen just since Monday, so I may need this particular relief more than you).

Here then, for something completely different, the immortal Marlene Dietrich performing a lovely little Hawaiian song on her saw.

As you will hear in this radio show from the 1940s, interviewed by Milton Cross (voice of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts back in the day), Miss Dietrich had ...

even higher musical ambitions, but, really, when you've mastered the saw, what else is left?

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

August 9, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera offers vigorous, absorbing production of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

When it comes to opera in the summertime around this region, the most notable action is to be found in Northern Virginia.

For four decades, Wolf Trap Opera has been exploring a wide range of the repertoire and periodically adding to it with commissioned works, all the while showcasing some of the nation's finest young artists.

How fine? Just peruse the list of alumni scheduled to appear on an operatic greatest hits concert Aug. 24 at Wolf Trap's Filene Center to celebrate the company's 40th anniversary: Stephanie Blythe, Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, Alan Held, Eric Owens, James Valenti, to name a few. Quite a legacy.

The alumni concert, to be conducted by Stephen Lord, has something for just about everyone. There will be excerpts from operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Dvorak, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Delibes, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Puccini.

Meanwhile, you can catch a perennial favorite, Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," in an ...

effective new production from Wolf Trap Opera -- final performances are Thursday and Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Every staging of "Hoffmann" raises the question of which edition of the score to use. The "integral edition" painstakingly compiled by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck is cited as the basis for the Wolf Trap production, but, it is not, as far as I can tell, entirely faithful to that ground-breaking scholarship.

Still, even allowing for the inclusion of popular numbers inserted after Offenbach's death into the "Guilietta" act, this version struck me as basically persuasive, musically and dramatically, on Sunday afternoon. The spoken dialogue, rather than the sometimes clunky Giuraud recitatives, flowed naturally.

"Hoffmann" is a long work that requires potent singer-actors and theatrical flair. For the most part, Wolf Trap Opera delivered.

On the visual front, Michael Olich's set design, with its smoothly sliding boxes, provided just enough detail to evoke each scene. Throughout, a nocturnal mood was sustained (Robert H. Grimes devised the subtle lighting), underlining the spooky flow of the story. Mattie Ullrich's costumes added a mix of the sinister and the fanciful (some of them seemed to have been inspired by "Gangs of New York").

Director Dan Rigazzi revealed a knack for momentum and for moving the large cast neatly in and around the small stage. I wish he had devised a more menacing entrance for Dr. Miracle in Act 2, a more telling entrance for the long-awaited Stella in the epilogue. But Rigazzi drew mostly natural, detailed acting from the singers, and that counted for a lot.

Nathaniel Peake tackled the daunting title role with considerable success. If the voice was a little tight and monochromatic at the start, it warmed up in short order; the tenor sounded remarkably fresh and sturdy at the opera's close. Some of his soft singing proved especially telling along the way.

Instead of one singer (always a risky option) portraying all the loves in Hoffmann's life, this production divvies up the assignments.

Jamie-Rose Guarrine went for broke on Sunday as Olympia, the mechanical doll, venturing way into the vocal stratosphere with vivid, if somewhat edgy, results. Marcy Stonikas, even more visibly pregnant than in the company's June production of Wolf-Ferrari's "Le Donne Curiose," tended to stay with one volume and tone color, but she brought considerable fire to the role of Antonia. Eve Gigliotti sang ardently as Giulietta.

Craig Irvin, as Hoffmann's various nemeses, used his robust bass-baritone artfully. Catherine Martin was another vocal standout as the Muse/Nicklausse. The rest of the soloists and the chorus made dynamic contributions.

So did the orchestra. Despite being chamber-sized, that ensemble produced a good deal of cohesive sound and expressive depth for conductor Israel Gursky, whose knowing way with the score yielded equally satisfying doses of gentle nuance and all-out, riveting passion.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Baroque ensemble to perform at Walters Art Museum

Classical concerts are few and far between in Baltimore this month, so this one commands extra attention:

A baroque ensemble headed by ...

Peabody alum Andrew Arceci (pictured) on viola da gamba and harpsichordist John McKean will perform Thursday in the Sculpture Court at the Walters Art Museum. The program, presented by An die Musik, will focus on of vocal and instrumental music by French and Italian composers, including Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Lully and Forqueray.

Participants include soprano Elizabeth Hungerford, violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, and John Armato on theorbo.

The concert is at 7 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $12-$20.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:16 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 8, 2011

'Uncle Vanya' a welcome Kennedy Center guest with Cate Blanchett, Sydney Theatre Co.

It seemed fitting that the air was so hot and heavy, with dark clouds passing low in the sky, as the audience arrived for a performance of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" at the Kennedy Center Saturday night.

The opening scene in this visually grim, but dramatically vibrant, Sydney Theater Company production exuded the lethargy of a hot, aimless day and came complete with the sound of buzzing flies.

Later, the rumble of thunder and splashes of rain didn't just enhance the ambiance of Zsolt Khell's strikingly weathered set, but provided some nicely shaded presaging to the human outbursts that would have to occur before life could settle back into listless routine on the fading Serebryakov country estate.

The residents and visitors on that estate are not the cheeriest of sorts -- all of those resentments, unrequited loves; all of that vodka. You would probably hate spending a weekend with this lot in real life.

But these are fascinating creatures just the same, perhaps more so than usual, thanks to ...

Andrew Upton's adaptation of the play, which has a crisp, contemporary ring without being forced. And thanks also to director Tamas Ascher, who keeps the tension strong even when things are at their most static and who ensures that the flashes of humor register potently -- I'm not sure Chekhov has ever been quite this funny.

Of course, the cast helps, too. The Sydney company offers an impressive demonstration of true ensemble work, as was the case when the troupe paid a memorable visit to the Kennedy Center in 2009 with "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The presence of the stellar Cate Blanchett in the role of Yelena, bored, but dutiful, wife of the much older professor Serebryakov, does not tilt the balance.

Blanchett, so tall and so beautiful, is a formidable presence, to be sure, and she gives a deeply nuanced performance that energizes the stage even when she is motionless. For all of the glamour she brings to the frayed surroundings, she makes it clear that Yelena is just as trapped and unfulfilled as everyone else by the choices they have made.

Blanchett leaves the scenery-chewing to others, especially Richard Roxburgh as the volatile Vanya, who is in the spring-loaded position from the get-go, long before he actually picks up a pistol. There's a lot of pain inside this character, a lot of heart, too; Roxburgh brings all of that out in a portrayal rich in expressive detail, physical and verbal.

Hugo Weaving likewise fully inhabits the role of Astrov, the bored country doctor whose presence at the estate proves unsettling to several people in several ways. Weaving is especially deft at revealing the liberating influence of drink on the otherwise low-keyed doctor. When he kicks up his heels, he sends a seismic jolt through the play. He is no less delectable in the scene with Blanchett when Astrov and Yelena finally have their moment of passion, however abbreviated, however absurd.

Hayley McElhinney does wonderfully sympathetic work as the inescapably "plain" Sonya. When, her hopes of love crushed, she pulls out a little girl's chair and shrinks into it, the effect is extraordinarily touching.

John Bell conveys the myopic, egotistical Serebryakov with great flair. Telling efforts come as well from Sandy Gore (Maria), Jacki Weaver (Marina) and Anthony Phelan (Telegin).

"Uncle Vanya" has been updated to the Soviet era, roughly 1950s, which means an occasional anachronism (would Astrov mention Lent in Soviet days? Would anyone, let along a professor, have a private estate?).

But the time change neatly underlines the sense of slow decay in and around the confining world of the characters. And if Blanchett's Yelena looks like she was outfitted in Hollywood (Gyorgyi Szakacs designed the costumes), that only intensifies the way she stands out from the rest.

Among the many small things that account for much of the production's power is the use of music, especially the Dream Song from Massenet's "Manon," which gets played on a phonograph a couple times. The aria describes a dream of a little cottage in a beautiful forest with a clear stream, a bit of paradise denied because a desired one is not there to share it.

Variations on such a dream haunt more than one character in this tale of wasted lives, thwarted goals and what might have been.

"Uncle Vanya" runs through Aug. 27 in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

August 5, 2011

Lucille Ball's centennial reminds me why I love 'I Love Lucy'

Last year, I wrote a little something about how Gustav Mahler saved my life. A tiny bit of hyperbole aside (never miss an opportunity to theatricalize), he did.

But long before Mahler entered my consciousness and helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life, there was Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel.

They were my favorite childhood companions and they stayed with me right on through adulthood, giving me lift after lift along the way. They are with me still.

Cringe or chortle if you must, but it's the truth. I am a life-long "I Love Lucy" fanatic. And on the occasion of the centennial of Lucille Ball's birth -- Aug. 6, 1911 -- I couldn't resist a few words about how much she and that brilliant sitcom mean to me.

Watching "I Love Lucy" in re-runs remains one of the clearest memories I have of my youth. Actually, just hearing it is an even stronger memory. I became so fond of the show that, ...

when our TV set went on the blink for a while and had only sound, but no picture, I would still sit in the front of the set at the appointed time to listen to "I Love Lucy." I loved it just as much.

Over the years, wherever I lived, I soon found out when the show was being aired. It came in especially handy whenever I was feeling down; nothing could snap me out of it like a visit to the Ricardos flat at 623 E. 68th Street.

In Los Angeles, during my time in grad school, I would sit many an evening with the sweet little, Mrs. Trumbull-like landlady of the humble house where I rented a room off-campus, and we would watch the 6 p.m. re-runs together while eating supper off of TV trays. Then I would go back to my oh-so-serious musicological studies.

As the decades went by, "Love Lucy" never lost its hold. Lucille Ball, alas, did not interest me as much in other contexts. I never cared for her later sitcoms. I happily discovered her early movies (some are quite terrific), but had a tough time with the later ones (oy, that "Mame"). Still, the comic genius of Lucille Ball was never in doubt.

I have great respect for what she accomplished throughout her life, but it is her chapter as Lucy Ricardo that really means the most to me. Heck, it even landed me a life partner -- 27 years ago this month, an acquaintance of mine in Fort Lauderdale told me I just had to meet a guy he knew who loved Lucy as much as I did. Robert and I still toss dialogue from the show into our conversation. We always will.

So thanks for everything, Lucille Ball. You and the terribly underrated Desi Arnaz created an amazing product with the help of the ideal Vivian Vance and William Frawley, and, of course, the superb script writers. You made television history and television magic, Miss Ball. Another hundred years from now, assuming the planet remains habitable, you will be still be making people laugh.

I had to post a gem from "I Love Lucy" to end this verbiage, but what to choose? Too many favorite moments.

In the end, I figured that, since this blog covers music and theater, I should pick a scene from one of Lucy Ricardo's disastrous moments onstage -- in this case, a scene from the immortal operetta she wrote as a fundraiser for the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League -- "The Pleasant Peasant."

The fact that she couldn't carry a tune didn't dissuade her in the least from taking a major role, of course. Little did she know that the chorus would be right behind her, ensuring that the music would have a chance:



Posted by Tim Smith at 4:15 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Wondering what to make of Lauren Ambrose as the next 'Funny Girl'

It took a couple of days for the news to sink in that Lauren Ambrose has been chosen to head the cast in the Bartlett Sher-directed revival of "Funny Girl" due for a Broadway run next year. Talk about outside-the-box casting.

Of course, I'm not rushing to judgment. Ambrose is a talented actress, as "Six Feet Under" fans can attest with particular enthusiasm. And it does make a certain sort of sense that Sher should want to avoid picking someone to portray Fanny Brice who suggests the peerless originator of the role, Barbra Streisand.

Such a person is out there, of course -- Lea Michelle from "Glee," who practically gave a national audition during the 2010 Tony Awards, when she bounded in belting "Don't Rain On My Parade." Michelle would certainly have given the assignment her all, but there's no guarantee the result wouldn't have ended up seeming like an intense, yet ultimately pale, imitation of the deified Streisand.

Ambrose will step onstage without that issue in the picture, but she will still have to create a credible characterization. Perhaps she will end up closer than Streisand did to re-creating Brice's character in authentic detail; maybe Ambrose will take the role in directions none of us can imagine .

While we await the outcome, here's a little comparison test of Ambrose and Michelle singing the Fanny Brice classic that isn't in the Broadway "Funny Girl" score, but was added to the movie version, having become a stunning Streisand anthem. I think you'll notice a few little differences of approach from these two young, gifted performers:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

August 3, 2011

Chesapeake Chamber Opera cancels season, searches for new 'home city'

File this under Not Surprising, But Disappointing.

Chesapeake Chamber Opera, one of the modest-sized ensembles that emerged after the demise of the Baltimore Opera Company in 2009, will not be back for the 2011-12 season. If it does emerge again, it may no longer be based in Baltimore.

Founder and general director Beth Stewart says that fundraising became "nearly impossible," given the economy and "the glut of small opera companies and the re-emergence of a grand opera company in Baltimore." (Lyric Opera of Baltimore is due to make its bow in November.)

Chesapeake Chamber Opera "will be going dark this season as the company searches for a new home city where it can grow and flourish."

My limited exposure to the plucky group revealed that ...

Stewart has an ear for vocal talent -- she engaged some very promising young artists -- and an enthusiasm for making opera easily accessible to the uninitiated.

Originally called Chesapeake Concert Opera, the ensemble introduced staging elements very quickly; the switch to "chamber" in the name was a natural. Although on a shoe-string budget (piano accompaniment was the rule), the company managed to deliver animated, involving performances that clearly delighted audiences.

It's a tough market in the best of times for new arts groups, let alone those involved with such a challenging genre as opera. Beth and her colleagues made a valiant effort and I wish them well in the future.

Here's the complete statement from the company:

The current economic climate, along with the glut of small opera companies and the re-emergence of a grand opera company in Baltimore, has made a successful fundraising campaign for Chesapeake Chamber Opera's upcoming season nearly impossible. In its current incarnation, CCO simply cannot support productions that would do the talent of the artists justice. To that end, CCO will be going dark this season as the company searches for a new home city where it can grow and flourish.

CCO is so grateful for the support Baltimore has shown during its first two seasons and is very proud to have been able to feature such talented young artists, many of whom are already enjoying upward career trajectories--artists like tenor William Davenport, soprano Chloe Olivia Moore, and baritone Terrance Brown will not soon be forgotten in Charm City.

"This has been an extremely tough decision," said General Director Beth Stewart, "but it's one that we hope will lead to a better chance of long-term survival for the company so we can continue to feature top-notch talent at bargain prices. We hope we have shared our love for the art and for the people of Baltimore and we hope to entertain you again."


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Midweek Madness: Benny, Carmen and a wild ride through 'Paducah'

A little blast of perpetually tropical Carmen Miranda seems appropriate for Midweek Madness during this ever so hot summer, even if, in this case, she's singing and wriggling to a tune about Paducha, Kentucky.

This is a great, only-in-Hollywood moment from the 1943 musical "The Gang's All Here." It starts off with a bit of a Chopin Nocturne, of all things, before segueing into the smoothly swinging Benny Goodman, and then the divine Carmen. (I always marvel at how Carmen ...

can keep the plastic stomach cover -- no female navels allowed on screen in those days -- from falling off with all that gyrating.)

So here's your midweek madcap jolt -- suitable, of course, for a lift any day of the week:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

August 2, 2011

Center Stage cancels production of Toni Morrison's 'Jazz'

A musical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s "Jazz," one of the high-profile items on the 2011-2012 season at Center Stage, has been pulled from the line-up.

The company's new artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, made the decision after the show, adapted by Center Stage associate artist Marion McClinton, was work-shopped last week in Minneapolis.

According to a statement released by Center Stage, "It was decided ...

the new play with music will require a longer development period than originally anticipated."

Kwei-Armah also said he "expects Center Stage to be involved in this inspirational piece in the future."

A replacement for "Jazz." which had been scheduled to run Jan. 4 to Feb. 5, is expected to be announced "in a few weeks."

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

On the Record: Round-up of discs devoted to music of Philip Glass

I loved the music of Philip Glass long before moving to his native city, but I get an extra kick out of it living here, knowing that this is where he grew up.

If the world thinks of him as a downtown New York composer, Baltimore will always claim him. I have absolutely no reason for mentioning any of this. I just felt like it.

So now I'll get to what is important -- recent recordings of Glass works.

Orange Mountain Music, a label dedicated to the composer's music, keeps up a steady stream of well-produced discs that are invariably worth a listen. A case in point is a recording devoted to the Concerto for Cellos and Orchestra No. 1.

The 2001 score opens with darkly churning material for the cello that gradually moves in more lyrical directions, while the orchestra provides increasingly colorful reactions. Familiar Glass trademarks pop up in the rhythmic and harmonic patterns, as well in some of the orchestration (no surprise there), but there is abundant freshness of invention in this almost neo-romantic concerto (I said almost).

GlassCelloConcerto (mp3)

The absorbing, atmospheric concerto gets a winning performance from soloist Wendy Sutter and the Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Dante Anzolini.

As a rule, I find steel drum bands fascinating for about 20 seconds, but ...

I couldn't tear myself away from the recording of NYU Steel playing a version of Glass' Etudes for Piano (Nos. 1-10) on another Orange Mountain Music release.

The 18-member steel drum ensemble from New York University has a field day with these faithful, virtuosic arrangements done by the group's director, Josh Quillen. It's an infectiously vibrant disc.

Organist and pianist Steffen Schleiermacher tackles three daunting pieces from the late 1960s on a release from the MDG Scene label.

This is the sort of music that drove the music establishment nuts back in the day and may still challenge some listeners. Here, Glass is at his most minimalistic, where the action takes place within a relatively narrow range of notes and chords and where the subtly shifting rhythms create a hypnotic tension.

Schleiermacher has the material well in hand. He has the organ works "Music in Similar Motion" and "Music in Fifths" spinning and pulsing mightily. "How Now" for piano is likewise delivered with impressive skill.

MusicInSimilarMotion (mp3)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

August 1, 2011

Monday Musings: Another summer without substantive music in Baltimore

It's once again that time of year when I whine about the lack of significant, substantive music in Baltimore during the long summer months.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just folded up its tent until September, having offered what seemed to me to be a particularly uninspiring assortment of off-season fare.

There were the usual appeal-to-the-masses things, such as Saturday's finale of video game music. The penultimate program Friday night at the Meyerhoff was devoted to Gershwin -- yes, another Gershwin program.

(For the record, the BSO played well for conductor/clarinetist Carl Topilow, who revealed a smooth, natural approach to the music. I particularly enjoyed Terrence Wilson's spontaneity and panache in "Rhapsody in Blue." And Kishna Davis, who was in a contagiously exuberant mood, offered some very vibrant singing, especially in "Somebody Loves Me" and "My Man's Gone Now.")

There was a Beatles night along the way this summer and a few other things I can't recall now. I never was terribly interested in the the lineup the BSO put together this year.

Of course, the orchestra's summer season is not about pleasing me (although, come to think of it, that seems like quite a reasonable goal). I understand the need to sell tickets and I understand that experience has led the BSO to conclude that the Baltimore public wants only light, bright fare when the temperature starts to climb.

What I don't understand is ... 

why we can't get a combination that satisfies the pop tastes on enough nights, but also has room for things that will appeal to the more classically-grounded BSO fans.

It's been so disheartening to see the orchestra struggling to find something that clicks economically and artistically for years now. The "Summer MusicFest" days of a decade or so ago may not have lit up the box office, but they sure did deliver fun and substance in pretty good measure.

I've mentioned before that I like what the New York Philharmonic started a while back, the "Summertime Classics" series devoted to the kinds of pieces that helped many of us become attracted to classical music -- the greatest hits that are now mostly consigned to radio. The Philharmonic has an engaging host/conductor, Bramwell Tovey, who seems to have made this series work. No reason why the BSO couldn't devise something similar and find someone with similar public appeal to put on the podium.

I also think it's worth looking at a true festival format, a concentration of events around a clear theme (composer, genre, whatever) and a heavily marketed approach that targets people looking for a cool time and musical rewards. Is it really impossible to do something like this in Baltimore? Is it because not enough people hang around town at this time of year, or because it's just too darn hot for those who do?

Well, here's a little something to consider. Back in the '90s, the now sadly extinct Florida Philharmonic and its then-music director James Judd launched a summer enterprise in Fort Lauderdale called Beethoven by the Beach.

Think about it: South Florida. Summertime. Heat. Terrible humidity. Few tourists. Sounds insane, right?

No festival should have been successful in that place at that time, but this one, at least early on, did quite well. There were lots of symphonies and concertos from the orchestra, and the festival also had room, in smaller venues, for things like the complete piano sonatas (I still recall some goth kid who attended every one of the sonata concerts -- he had never heard any of them and wanted to get the full experience).

I mention this Beethoven fest because the BSO used to drop Beethoven's Ninth into the summer lineup almost as a matter of course, one surefire ticket-seller. But the orchestra never seized on the opportunity to develop further the public's love of that work and that composer.

It doesn't seem so insane to me to try something like a Beethoven in Baltimore festival. In addition to lots of the obvious repertoire, there could be an offbeat touch here and there, maybe a Mass or a concert version of "Fidelio" (I doubt any Baltimore opera company will ever bring us this great work).

Find some some alternative, more intimate concert spaces where you could try out the piano sonata cycle, or perhaps the string quartets (the Meyerhoff lobby could be usable in this regard).

Go out on a limb and get a hotshot pianist to perform Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. Build programs that show Beethoven's influence on subsequent composers. You could keep the Beethoven theme going for years, with a little imagination.

There's always Tchaikovsky to build a summer festival around, too, if Beethoven doesn't float your boat. Tchaikovsky's good box office, isn't he? And wouldn't it be nice to hear the "1812 Overture" indoors for a change, not to mention as part of broader look into the composer?

Marketing a festival that has a point and a personality, that contains lots of popular fare and popular prices, should not be beyond the BSO or Baltimore. There have to be enough music lovers, or music-curious folks, who are not down-y-oshun all summer long, who crave some stylish, substantive entertainment.

And I'm not saying that a "Final Fantasy"-type concert, or tribute band sort of show, or a Gershwin program can't still be part of the equation. It's a matter of clever packaging and determination.

A summer festival would be a great time to try out new visual approaches -- big screen projections, for example. And new formats -- maybe late-night concerts, at prices attractive enough to draw a younger crowd (this concept, which has proven popular in some places, seems like a natural for summertime).

Anyway, I just think there's an opportunity for something bigger, better and cooler from the BSO from late-June through July. The summer season too often feels like an after-thought.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:32 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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

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