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September 30, 2011

Cool: Lost movement of a Beethoven string quartet reconstructed

As reported in The Guardian, the original slow movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in G major, Op. 18 No. 2, a movement that the composer discarded for reasons unknown, has been rescued from obscurity.

The music was reconstructed Barry Cooper, a music professor at the University of Manchester, from sketches and received its premiere Thursday. Judging from this video clip of that performance, there's some real gold in this abandoned movement:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:59 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

CD tour by Christopher O'Riley, Matt Haimovitz to include Baltimore's An die Musik

One of the coolest recordings I've come across lately is "Shuffle.Play.Listen," featuring Christopher O'Riley, the remarkably creative and engaging pianist and host of the popular NPR show “From the Top,” and the equally adventurous cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Ready-made for iPodders, this release from Oxingale Records offers one disc of mostly classical selections and another of pop/rock songs arranged by O'Riley. You can load the discs onto a music device, hit "shuffle," then sit back and enjoy crossing from one musical border to another and back again. You don't have to be that literal, though. I enjoyed hearing each disc straight through.

The whole set would be worth having if only for ...

O'Riley's brilliant arrangements on Disc 1 of Bernard Herrmann's music from the Hitchcock classic “Vertigo.” O'Riley effectively captures the essence of Hermann's indelible soundtrack, and the pianist's richly expressive playing is matched by Haimovitz in atmospheric performances that may have you feeling a little dizzy. Selections from O'Riley's "Vertigo" Suite are interspersed with colorful music by Janacek, Martinu and Stravinsky (the ordering provides built-in shuffling on this disc); the artists deliver that repertoire impressively, too.

O'Riley, long admired for his piano arrangements of songs by Radiohead, fills Disc 2 with keyboard/cello versions of pieces by that group, as well as Arcade Fire, Cocteau Twins and more.

I confess I don't know all of the source material (whatever gaps remain in my rock awareness, I still listen to more non-classical stuff than the typical rock fan ever embraces Bruckner, I'd bet). But O'Riley's arrangements sound awfully persuasive to me, filled with vivid writing for both instruments, and the two musicians sound deeply connected to the material.

As part of a CD-promoting tour, O'Riley and Haimovitz are coming to town. They will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at An die Musik.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of the artists in action during the recording of "Shuffle.Play.Listen," performing their version of "Empty Room" by Arcade Fire:


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:22 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 29, 2011

Unfinished business: Glass Mind Theatre, Baltimore Concert Opera

I know I am late sharing my incredibly important views on some events I attended last weekend, but I kept getting swept up in the eddies of life. Stuff happened. Stuff is happening still.

All the while, the guilt kept piling up (I wasn't raised Catholic for nothing), so that just made each day all the more torturous (feeling pity for me yet?).

But I am determined, even at this late date, to impart a few words about two worthy organizations in Baltimore that work hard at pumping up the local culture.

Glass Mind Theatre is one of city's cool ensemble-based companies, the kind with a tight-knit group of founding members who pitch in to do everything that needs doing, from acting and directing to box office and PR.

To open its second season, Glass Mind turned a work by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright who made things so difficult last season for family newspapers and non-premium cable TV because his Broadway hit had a title unprintable and unspeakable ("The Mother----- With the Hat").

A decidedly dark (and slightly padded) comedy from 2002 called "Den of Thieves" proved to be a smooth fit for the Glass Mind players Saturday night in the tucked-away Load of Fun Theater. I'm sorry to say the run is over, so you'll have to take my word for it.

In brief, the crazy plot involves petty and serious crime, addiction of one kind or another, and a lot of colorful characters, from a pretend-Latino named Flaco to a mobster named Big Tuna. Beneath and around the more well-worn elements (like low-end thieves convinced they can pull off the perfect robbery of drug money), there's substance, too, not to mention a lot of wicked humor, in "Den of Thieves."

The Glass Mind cast, directed by Britt Olsen-Ecker, effectively communicated a lot of that substance, thanks especially to ...

two keenly detailed performances.

Christopher Kryzstofiak was terrific as Flaco, with a delectably punchy New York street accent and no end of swagger. The actor also managed revealed a real person beneath the ridiculous bravado, and that paid off handsomely in Act 2, after the would-be robbers found the tables hideously turned.

As much for her communicative eyes as for her assured handling of lines, Sara Ford Gorman was another standout  as Flaco's former girlfriend, Maggie, a woman who has any number of challenging personal issues before getting caught up in the messy theft attempt.

The rest of the cast proved generally effective in this low-budget, high-energy production.

My other left-over-from-the-weekend business is operatic in nature. I only had time Sunday afternoon to catch the first act of "Madama Butterlfy" at Baltimore Concert Opera. It was nice to see a good house at the Engineers Club, despite the book festival that added some logistical challenges that weekend.

I confess that my appetite for operas in concert format with piano accompaniment is not ravenous. But this company makes a considerable effort to present worthy singers and to provide audiences with a respectable performance, and this "Butterfly" got off to a reasonably persuasive start.

Except when pushed at the very top of her range, Alexandra LoBianco offered a creamy tone cream and sensitive phrasing in the title role. James Taylor, as Pinkerton, sounded underpowered and often under pitch, but generated some expressive sparks. Ron Lloyd produced an impressively beefy sound, as well as warm nuance, in the role of Sharpless.

The other singers and the chorus did competent work. Ronald Gretz conducted efficiently. James Harp was his usual attentive self at the piano.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

September 27, 2011

Irene Lewis directs potent revival of 'Trouble in Mind' at Arena Stage

There’s an unexpected case of theatrical synergy going on in the region, with two productions that look squarely at issues of race, identity and self-esteem.

At Everyman Theatre, you’ll find a potent staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which became in 1959 the first work by an African-American woman to reach Broadway.

At Arena Stage, there’s an absorbing revival of “Trouble in Mind,” a play by Alice Childress that almost became the first work by an African-American woman to reach Broadway. It enjoyed an acclaimed run off-Broadway in 1955, but efforts to move it to the Great White Way proved fruitless.

Adding an extra twist: “Trouble in Mind” uses a play-within-a-play format to reveal conflicts within a biracial company rehearsing for a Broadway show about racism.

And giving extra interest to the Arena State revival, which runs through Oct. 23, is the fact that is directed by Irene Lewis, former artistic director of Center Stage, making her debut with the D.C. company. Lewis has tackled the play before.

This is largely a reprise of the Center Stage presentation of “Trouble in Mind” that she guided in 2007, with several of the same cast members, including the treasured E. Faye Butler. The original design team remains, too — David Korins (the impeccably atmospheric set) and Catherine Zuber (the equally evocative costumes).

Childress, who had more than her share of disappointments as a budding actress confronting rigid color barriers, captured the backstage milieu with keen detail when she penned “Trouble in Mind.” Characters, black and white, are richly drawn. The differences, spoken and unspoken, between those characters emerge with similar clarity.

The play is often ...

very funny (I wonder if 1950s audiences would have been amused by the same things). Preachiness is largely avoided, allowing points to emerge naturally as actors work their way through a problematic script called “Chaos in Belleville,” which attempts to deliver an enlightened, anti-lynching message.

That process is less problematic for the whites than for those assigned roles as stereotypical Southern blacks in the era of Jim Crow. One of those actors, Wiletta Mayer, accustomed to portraying maids (invariably named after flowers of gems), starts to challenge the director over matters of interpretation and motivation.

From that one spark of opposition, “Trouble in Mind” derives a good deal of dramatic weight and power. The work might be even stronger if Childress had written subtler lines for the play-within-the-play (it could be called “Cliche in Belleville”), but the device does it job of building the drama in the rehearsal room to a rewarding peak.

When an older actor named Sheldon tells the others of his experience as a boy witnessing a lynching, the artifice of the theater falls away and everything that has been simmering in the company suddenly is clarified.

As Sheldon, Thomas Jefferson Byrd (pictured at right) delivers that monologue with affecting understatement. At one point, stretching out his arms to imitate the body he saw being dragged, Byrd shows us that the Sheldon isn’t even aware of the crucifixion image he has just conjured.

Byrd's slow drawl and long, slender fingers fascinate throughout this production as much as they did during his erformance in the Center Stage production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" last year.

Butler commands the stage as Wiletta, dispensing the character’s humor, wisdom and defiance with terrific flair, each rise and fall of her musical voice enriching the portrayal. She does some amazing things in the climactic passages, conveying Wiletta’s hurt and unshakable dignity to electrifying effect.

Starla Benford sparkles as Millie, an actor who has made her peace with the system, but begins to question herself. Brandon J. Dirden easily captures the naivete and charm of John. Gretchen Hall does the same as Judy, the white counterpart to that character.

Marty Lodge offers admirably nuanced work in the thankless role of the director, Al Manners, who loves to touch Wiletta, but never really sees her. Other vibrant contributions come from Daren Kelly (Bill), Garrett Neergaard (Eddie) and Laurence O’Dwyer (Henry).

With its vivid depiction of backstage life, “Trouble in Mind” remains greatly entertaining. With its razor-sharp dissection of the things that define us and divide us, this oddly neglected play is still devastating, too, as this deftly directed, artfully acted production reaffirms.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:49 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

September 26, 2011

WYPR-FM to launch all-classic HD channel Oct. 3; programming includes Peabody recitals

WYPR, 88.1 FM, will launch an all-classical, HD channel on Oct. 3.

One Baltimore-centric element of the programming involves what is being called an "unprecedented partnership" with the Peabody Institute. At noon on weekdays, Peabody director Jeff Sharkey will ...

host “Peabody Intermezzo,” an hour-long program containing student recitals recorded live at the conservatory. Additional Peabody performances, involving faculty as well, are expected to be added to the programming in the future

WYPR, an NPR affiliate, has a predominantly news format, with jazz in the off-hours. Classical music has occasionally had a presence over the years, primarily through periodic shows devoted to the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

The new HD channel means that the Baltimore market will now have two classical radio stations (WBJC has long had that format).

HD radio is a relatively recent development. Consumers who do not yet have an HD radio in their homes or vehicles will be able to hear the new station via online streaming.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:15 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

September 25, 2011

Christoph Eschenbach extends contract with National Symphony Orchestra

The extraordinary German conductor Christoph Eschenbach has extended his contract as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center through the 2014-2015 season. The extension, announced Sunday at the NSO's annual season-opening ball, adds two seasons to his original three-year contract.

“This artistic home has been even more welcoming and rewarding than I had imagined,” Eschenbach said in a statement.

The Eschenbach magic has been evident -- at last to some of us -- from his first concerts with the NSO, so the news of his intensifying relationship with the orchestra and the center is most welcome.

So is some more news made at Sunday's gala: Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, who has already donated more than $25 million to the institution, announced yet another gift, this one to ...

fund a new organ for the Concert Hall, in honor of the NSO's 80th anniversary and the center's 40th.

The original organ developed any number of technical problems over the years and had been pretty much written off. The new one, with 5,000 pipes, will be built by Casavant Frères of St-Hyacinth, Quebec. Installation is slated to begin next summer.

The instrument will have 85 ranks of pipes, four manuals and pedal. A set of 61 pipes from the center's original organ will be retained to honor that instrument's donor, Catherine Filene Shouse (she was responsible for Wolf Trap, too).

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

September 24, 2011

BSO premieres work by James Lee III about Harriet Tubman

In addition to such things as new recording contracts and a nationally recognized education program, Marin Alsop’s influence as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can be seen in the programming each season.

She typically weaves connective threads through concert repertoire. For 2011-12, that thread involves commemorating extraordinary women, including Joan of Arc in Novembver.

This weekend, Harriet Tubman is the focus, via the premiuere of a work by James Lee III, a Morgan State University professor whose finely crafted music has been gaining increased exposure nationally.

The 12-minute “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” was greeted warmly by the audience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon.

“Chuphshah” (Hebrew for “freedom”) provides a whirlwind portrait of Tubman’s life and struggles, with quotations from vintage tunes that provide guideposts for listeners. Those quotations can’t help but bring to mind Charles Ives, this country’s first great composer; Ives packed his music with melodic reminiscences of Americana.

Lee references spirituals and, to conjure images of the Civil War, snippets of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.” If the device tends to make the music sound like a soundtrack in search of a documentary, the piece nonetheless succeeds on it own. The orchestration is consistently vivid; harmonies are often richly layered; spicy dissonances here and there deliver a bracing kick.

On Friday, Alsop led the BSO in ... 

a strongly etched account of the work. Jane Marvine played the English horn solo -- Lee uses that soulful instrument to represent Tubman -- with impressive warmth.

The rest of the concert was devoted to two items from 1890s, both among the best-loved items in all of classical music.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto suggests an epic biography of some heroic, yet all-too-human, figure. It is unconcerned with mere technical display, but rather requires the soloist to burrow into an alternately eventful and reflective world beneath the surface of the notes.

Alisa Weilerstein, already a significant artist before being awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship last week (the so-called “genius grant”), sounded a bit unsettled at the opening of the concerto. But she soon settled into the music and gave a distinctively lyrical performance. The Adagio and the haunting moments just before the end of the concerto inspired particularly subtle and poignant playing.

Alsop offered the cellist supple support and drew considerable expressive power from the orchestra.

Except for some untidiness in the last movement, the BSO also did impressive work at the end of the program in Tchaikovsky’s searing Symphony No. 6, the “Pathetique.” The conducting, though, proved less persuasive.

The middle of the symphony fared best. The second movement, the almost-waltz in 5/4 time, could have been played with finer gradations of dynamics, but Alsop ensured that the music’s tension came through powerfully. Even more impressive was show she drove the third movement’s defiant march along with a bold sweep and kept the repetitive patterns from turning routine.

But in the outer movements and their tortured emotions, the conductor favored momentum over poetry and breadth. The familiar phrases still communicated, but didn’t touch; the death-suggestive gong in the finale hardly had time to register. It was all a little too dry-eyed for me.

PHOTO (by Christian Steiner) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:44 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

September 22, 2011

Baltimore loses great friend of music with death of Loraine Bernstein

With the death on Tuesday of Loraine Bernstein, Baltimore's classical music scene lost one of its greatest friends and advocates.

As longtime assistant director of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust, she helped to fund many a concert, to help artists and ensembles, to recognize students -- the Gordon Concerto Competition at the Peabody Conservatory has produced a particularly noteworthy stream of gifted young performers. It is not surprising to find that, in lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged for Peabody or an ensemble Mrs. Bernstein championed, Concert Artists of Baltimore.

If you'll pardon the personal aside, I first valued Loraine because ...

she was one of the few people who made me feel welcome in Baltimore. We used to meet for lunch just about every year, talking and, yes, sometimes gossiping, about the music world, local and beyond.

I had a small connection to Yale and Peggy Gordon, which brought me a little closer to Loraine. My brother, the late and much-missed Rev. Michael Smith, befriended the Gordons while he was studying at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park. The Gordons loved anyone who loved music, and Michael, an accomplished organist, fit that bill.

I mentioned all of this to Loraine one day over lunch. A couple days later, a package arrived in the mail. Loraine had found in the Gordon possessions a book my brother had inscribed and sent to them as a gift years before. She thought I would like to have it. That was Loraine.

A full obituary will soon appear in the Sun and I am sure I will learn from that a lot more about Loraine than I ever knew from her. [UPDATE: That obit is now available: http://,0,4629039.story">] She was too self-effacing to talk about herself on those few, delightful occasions when I was with her, much more interested in discussing the fine points of a performance she had heard.

When I started on this job, I was delighted to see the Gordon Trust name on concert programs and the arts center in Owings Mills that honors Peggy and Yale. It always made me think of the one time I got to have lunch with them and my brother.

Then, after I met Loraine, I would also think of her whenever I encountered the Gordon name around town. I would think of her smile and charm and wonderfully firm opinions. I will continue to do so. I am grateful that I knew her, however casually, and grateful for the compliments and encouragement she offered me at every opportunity.

In her honor, here is Schubert's song about the blessed art of music that can take us to a better world:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:49 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 21, 2011

Midweek Madness: A 'Glee'-triggered memory of Streisand, Harold Arlen

The season-opener of "Glee" sure had its peaks last night, not to mention some lows (could we please drop those damn slush-in-the-face scenes?).

One of the musical high points offered yet more proof, as if any were needed, that some serious Streisand fanatics are involved with that show. Last season, a stunning Barbra-Judy duet was re-created for Rachel and Kurt. On Tuesday's show, those irrepressible Glee-fuls tackled ...

a re-make of a much less known duet from the early '60s album "Harold Sings Arlen (with Friend)."

Harold Arlen was not exactly a great vocalist, but he was one of the greatest American songwriters, so why not let him warble his own tunes? In "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," the composer was joined by the young Streisand in a rock-ish and almost tacky, but rather fun, arrangement that the "Glee" segment took and ran with (to engaging effect).

Here, for your Midweek Madness diversion, is the original inspiration with Babs and Harold:


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Midweek Madness

September 20, 2011

A few words about String Orchestra of New York City, Monument Piano Trio

I spent Sunday afternoon in the company of some first-class music and some admirable music-making.

First up was the conductor-free String Orchestra of New York City (cute acronym -- SONYC), opening 2011-12 season of Community Concert at Second. The event also marked a debut for the newly renovated sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church.

An already elegant room now looks even more so. The acoustics seemed about the same to my ears; this is a very inviting space sonically -- or should I say sonyc-ally?

After some jarring intonation problems in the New York ensemble's opening burst of baroque (a concerto grosso by Torelli), things steadily improved. Two short, deliciously moody pieces by Sibelius received warm and absorbing performances, and Elgar's soaring Introduction and Allegro found the players, well, soaring.

The program also offered a vibrant account of ...

Jonathan Leshnoff's String Quartet No. 2, which lends itself easily to string orchestra arrangement.

From the descending motive that haunts the first movement to the giddy perpetual-motion finale, not to mention some great chords of almost Elgar-like lushness along the way, the score reveals the distinctive flair of this Baltimore-based composer. (The very last notes make for an overly conventional finish, but that's a minor disappointment.)

From Second Pres, it was a downright idyllic drive to St. John's in pastoral Glyndon for the season-opener of the Music in the Valley series.

Baltimore's Monument Piano Trio was joined by BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, here playing viola, and Florida-based violinist Aleksandr Zhuk. The program opened with the A major Piano Quintet by Dvorak and closed with the F minor Piano Quintet -- which is sort of like having filet mignon followed by roast beef.

(Speaking of food, I was disconcerted -- I've been disconcerted a lot lately in concert settings -- to see a buffet being laid out for post-concert noshing, in full view of the audience and at least some of the musicians while the Brahms was still being performed. I have only been to this church hall a couple of times, so I do not know if this is standard procedure, but I sure hope not. There has to be a way to avoid such distraction.)

I always enjoy hearing the Monument personnel --violinist Igor Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, pianist Michael Sheppard -- and this was no exception. Their considerable individual talents came through vividly, as did those of the guest musicians, but this was all about fully integrated chamber music playing.

The Dvorak score was delivered with great color, rhythmic snap and poetic expression. In the darkly dramatic Brahms quintet, the group again produced tightly meshed articulation and phrasing and maintained a very effective tension from opening to close.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

'Million Dollar Concert': MacArthur Fellows Marin Alsop, Alisa Weilerstein with BSO

This weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra unexpectedly will have two recipients of MacArthur Fellowship Grants onstage -- cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is among the 2011 winners; and conductor Marin Alsop, who earned her distinction in 2005.

As you will recall, this award -- commonly called the "genius grant" -- recognizes "originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society through your work" and comes with $500,000 for the recipient.

That gives the BSO engagement, when Weilsertsin will perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto, an extra cache. "The million dollar concert, right?" the cellist said with a laugh from New York a few hours before the 2011 MacArthur Fellows were announced.

Weilerstein, 29, has been guarding the news of her good fortune since being informed on Sept. 7. She was in Jerusalem at the time.

"It was completely out of the blue," she said. "I was completely floored. I swore loudly on the street when they called me," she added with a laugh. "I figured ...

if I ever got an award like this I would be 85. I was allowed to tell my nearest and dearest, so I just told my boyfriend and my parents."

The cellist, whose busy international career has earned her considerable acclaim, has not decided what to do with the $500,000. "I'm still pretty shocked," she said. "I don't have very formulated ideas yet."

Weilerstein does not expect things to be any different when she joins Alsop in Baltimore this weekend. "We're still the same people," she said.

Here's a sample of the cellist's musicianship in a clip from the Elgar Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Barenboim:


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

September 19, 2011

Monday Musings: The perennial problem of thoughtless audiences

Not to belabor a point, but last Thursday's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at the Meyerhoff turned out to be such an ordeal that I just have to vent a bit more.

When people tell me that they have stopped going to performances because of audience distractions, I always try to argue that the value of live music-making is still so high that it's worth putting up with the occasional burst of boorish behavior. I am beginning to doubt myself.

The nonsense I witnessed turned this concert into something, well, disconcerting. Time and again, my ears were forced to choose between the profundity of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony and ...

the crackling of a plastic bag that contained something of such interest to the woman in front of me that she reached for it every few minutes -- all the way through a nearly 90-minute performance.

When she wasn't doing that, she was opening and closing and dropping her program book. Or squirming in her seat. Or nudging her husband and pointing up to the vocal soloist located stage-left above the orchestra. (Amazingly, she made the effort to muffle her frequent sneezes, but one credit didn't erase all those debits.)

People turning to stare at her didn't deter her in the slightest, as you can imagine. Those who become a menace at performances invariably exude a combination of oblivion and entitlement.

Consider the several cases of concert-desertion during the Mahler. These folks departed at will as the music was being played, no matter how many others in their rows were disrupted in the process. And, as I mentioned in my review, one guy waited to leave until one of the most glorious moments in the finale of the "Resurrection" (talk about The Rapture!) -- only to calmly stroll back and plow back to his seat very shortly after.

Anyone capable of missing even 10 seconds of that transcendent vocal/orchestral passage needs therapy -- and an usher barring his return.

Are we getting ruder? Are too many people attending performances just because it's something they do, not something they deeply desire? Is there anything that can be done to change the behavior?

Announcements about turning off cell phones are routinely made (not, usually, at the BSO's Meyerhoff concerts, where such eruptions are commonplace), so would it help if pre-performance admonishments about bad manners were also delivered?

If we could keep away all the people who have no real interest in the music, how full would the concert halls or opera houses be?

It seems so obvious that people should be able to behave as long as they are in the room -- and that, if they want to flee, they should do so at the least damaging moment and in the least annoying manner as possible. It seems so obvious that people should cover their mouths when coughing.

It also seems so obvious that a live performance should be quite unlike anything you are used to at home (no matter how great a sound system you have), and that the differences include no talking, no eating or drinking, no rustling, no jangling (women wearing 350 bracelets on each arm are a particular pet peeve of mine), no wandering in and out.

It should just involve old-fashioned, fully concentrated listening in a communal environment with like-minded worshipers at the altar of art and culture.

Is that really, really too much to ask?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:19 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Monday Musings

September 17, 2011

A couple of Sunday concerts worth noting

It's the start of the music season, and you know what that means -- too many things scheduled on Sundays. But, hey, it beats having too few things going on, so we'll take it.

I wanted to mention two events this Sunday that should be particularly worth a look and listen.

At 3:30 p.m., Community Concerts at Second (Presbyterian Church) launches its 25th anniversary season -- a great milestone for this presenter of fine-quality, free classical music programs -- with the String Orchestra of New York City.

The conductor-less ensemble, which started in 1999, will perform works by Torelli, Elgar and Sibelius, which would be enticing enough. But the concert also includes ...

an arrangement of the String Quartet No. 2 by the exceptional Baltimore-based composer Jonathan Leshnoff.

At 5:30 p.m., Music in the Valley at St. John's in Glyndon opens its season with a program featuring the Monument Piano Trio, one of the best additions to Baltimore's music scene in the past decade.

The recent news about violinist Igor Yuzefovich may mean complications for the group in the future, but, for now, this appearance offers a good opportunity to hear him and his colleagues -- cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard.

They will be joined by guest artists Jonathan Carney (switching from his usual violin to viola) and Alexandr Zhuk (violin) for colorful piano quintets by Brahms and Dvorak. 



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:17 AM | | Comments (0)

September 16, 2011

Marin Alsop, BSO open season with Mahler's epic 'Resurrection' Symphony

The most devout agnostic might easily be shaken to the core by the emotional force of Gustav Mahler's epic Symphony No. 2, nicknamed "Resurrection," the sole piece on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first subscription program of the season.

In the space of roughly 80 minutes, the music takes the willing listener from dark places, where suffering and death hover, into sunlit vistas, only to plunge again into even more grave-like depths.

Finally, after cataclysmic outbursts, tortured reflections and almost palpable pain, Mahler offers a mesmerizing, humbling glimpse of "a light that no eye has yet fathomed." In a magical effect, that light is gently spread by a chorus entering pianissimo to sing about how, after a short rest, we shall all rise again.

Whether one embraces that message or not, it is impossible to miss the monumental nature of this work from 1894, which reflects in every possible way the composer's belief that a symphony should encompass a whole world. And in a good performance, it is impossible not to be absorbed in -- and difficult not to be moved by -- the musical drama.

The BSO has done well by the "Resurrection" Symphony over the past decade or so. Former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov opened (in 2000) and closed (in 2006) his tenure with the piece. His successor, Marin Alsop, who has conducted several Mahler symphonies since taking the helm in 2007, is offering her first local performance of the Second in this week's concerts.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she led ...

an ultimately rewarding account of the score. It missed the kind of soulful depths that Temirkanov tapped into, but Alsop's interpretation had its own integrity and expressive force (and a level of orchestral discipline that Temirkanov did not exact.)

The long, eventful first movement needed a lot more fire and weight in places, but the second movement was gorgeously shaped and shaded; Alsop was admirably flexible in matters of tempo, attentive to subtle shifts in dynamics. She drew exquisite playing from the strings here.

The Scherzo was delivered with a good deal of bite. The ensuing "Urlicht" movement bathed the hall in a wonderful glow, thanks to the lush tone and poignant phrasing of mezzo Susan Platts.

Alsop held the sprawling finale together (a little too tightly sometimes) and had the orchestra producing considerable sonic power. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society was in peak form, from the hushed opening lines to the climactic peaks. Platts and soprano Layla Claire eloquently added their solo voices to the mix.

Although Alsop allowed the vocal phrases room to breathe and build mightily, the intensity level sagged a bit in the orchestral coda; the last notes lacked a truly visceral impact.

Still, all in all, a worthy account of one of the glories of the symphonic literature.

Some in Thursday's audience were not so worthy. Several folks wandered out at will while the music was in full bloom (one guy left about two minutes before the end, only to walk back in for the last 30 seconds -- what did he do, go out and spit?).

The worst offender, though, was the woman right in front of me who squirmed and fussed, kept digging something out of a noisy plastic bag, and, sure enough, started to talk once the chorus started to sing. I've known four-year-olds who could behave better at concerts. Geesh.

You know, it's pretty hard to concentrate on resurrection when you're thinking about murder.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

September 15, 2011

Mobtown Modern presents brilliant JACK Quartet in all-Xenakis program

The first cool thing about Wednesday night's season-opening presentation by Mobtown Modern was the size of the audience, easily the largest crowd yet for this intrepid organization devoted to cutting-edge music.

Quite unscientifically, I'd put the number at a couple hundred or so.

Before you dismiss that as no big deal, just consider the program -- the complete string quartets of Iannis Xenakis.

Is there a major Xenakis following in Baltimore? Or is it more that there's a sizable fan base for the featured group, the much-acclaimed JACK Quartet?

Either way, I was surprised by the turnout, impressed by the enthusiastic response of the crowd to each performance.

The second cool thing was ...

the venue, one being used for the first time by Mobtown Modern.

The 2640 Space, more typically associated with rock or jazz events, started life as a church. Its architectural appeal is considerable, even if the walls and arches look a bit on the weathered side (OK, very weathered). And the acoustics proved quite lively for the un-amplified concert.

Ultimately, the coolest thing, of course, was the music. Xenakis wrote exceptionally complex works; mathematical calculations played a part in many of them. The quartets, spanning the years 1962 to 1994 (the composer died in 2001), are rich in muscular dissonance and vivid sonic effects.

Each quartet is held together by its own firm structural integrity (Xenakis studied architecture early on), and the JACK ensemble dug into the scores with a keen understanding of the distinctive shapes and contours.

No technical challenge seemed to give the musicians the slightest pause. Just hearing such fearless, tight playing was a valuable experience. But these guys aren't just about showing off skills of articulation; they make music. And they found in the Xenakis quartets remarkable avenues for expressive impact.

The driving blocks of thick chords in "Tetora," for example, emerged with tremendous energy.

The oldest of the works, "ST-4/1, 080262," received a particularly brilliant performance, where the eerie slithering up and down strings and siren-like wails took on deeply poetic qualities; where a long, descending cello line produced a mesmerizing effect; and where silences, too, communicated strongly.

A great start for Mobtown Modern's new season of adventure.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Patricia Racette shines in Washington National Opera's 'Tosca'

The main reason to catch Washington National Opera's season-opener is the opportunity to savor a genuine diva -- in the best sense of that overused, mostly misapplied term -- in the title role of Puccini's "Tosca."

Patricia Racette, an invariably compelling artist, gave an all-cylinders-firing portrayal on Monday night that combined vocal plushness, intensely committed phrasing and persuasive acting. It was the soprano's show all the way.

Her account of "Vissi d'arte," spun out with excellent breath support, was notable for the rapt phrasing at the start and the way Racette subsequently touched the heart of the matter without overplaying anything.

(Note that Natalia Uskakova is slated to sing one performance of the role, Sept. 23. The production runs through Sept. 24.)

Two tenors are alternating in the role of Cavaradossi. Gwyn Hughes Jones had the Monday slot. His voice ...

had a nice ring on top notes. He also demonstrated a flair for stretching out a phrase, which produced a certain visceral impact, as in his ardent account of "Recondita armonia." Where subtlety was called for ("O dolci mani," notably), Jones did not succeed in softening the tone to a telling degree.

The role of Scarpia is also double-cast. Portraying the arch-villain on Monday was Scott Hendricks. When he could be heard over the orchestra, the sound lacked warmth, but the singer's phrasing was alert and vital. He also had the theatrical chops for the assignment, oozing smarm with particular effectiveness in the second act.

Valeriano Lanchas sang with a good deal of color and force as the Sacristan. Kenneth Kellogg (Angelotti) and Robert Cantrell (the Jailer) did generally sturdy work. Jegyung Yang sang sweetly as the shepherd. The chorus produced sufficient volume and vibrancy for the "Te Deum."

The orchestra sounded a little short on strings, but played with considerable passion. Presiding in the pit was Placido Domingo, WNO's former general director.

Domingo may not have kept things together tightly at every turn, but this was nonetheless one of the most satisfying performances I've heard him conduct, attentive to details of atmosphere in the score and shaping the most lyrical moments with welcome spaciousness.

The old-fashioned and just plain old-looking production gets the job done, more or less, but it doesn't scream "major opera company." Director David Kneuss puts people through their paces in mostly routine fashion; the final act, in particular, could use a flash of theatrical inspiration. 

Not that I was expecting a deconstructionist staging, just something a little more visually distinctive and absorbing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 14, 2011

Midweek Madness: An operetta number from Ethel Mertz

And now, to relieve the midweek strain, a little number from the immortal operetta "The Pleasant Peasant," composed by that remarkable duo of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz.

Here's Ethel singing the indelible Act 1 aria, "I Am Lily of the Valley," in a gala production by the Tuesday Afternoon Fine Arts League in New York. She not only offers uncommon vocal polish and intensely expressive phrasing, but also superb acting -- note, especially, how, with the subtlest of gestures, she indicates "the valley over there."

This is clearly the work of a true artist of the stage:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

September 13, 2011

Concertante enhances Baltimore's chamber music scene

Concertante managed to play under my radar for a few seasons, but I am glad I finally caught up with the ensemble Sunday afternoon with a capacity crowd at the Bolton Street Synagogue.

Now in its 15th season, Concertante started out as a chamber orchestra, then gradually slimmed down. Strings have always formed the foundation, with keyboards and, lately, a clarinet added here and there. The group plays series in three markets -- Baltimore, Harrisburg and New York (the only free series is the one in Baltimore).

The Bolton Street Synagogue is quite an intimate space with clear, if dry, acoustics that served a thoughtful program ideally suited to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. That is not to say Concertante planned such a connection. It's just that all of the selections offered something reflective -- in the case of Beethoven's C minor String Trio (Op. 9, No. 3), something both dramatic and reflective.

That trio inspired a beautifully nuanced performance from ...

violinist Xiao-Dong Wang (Concertante's artistic director), violist Rachel Shapiro and cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach.

A few passages, especially in the finale, could have been more unified in execution, but the phrasing always communicated. The Adagio (talk about reflective) unfolded with particular warmth.

At the center of the program came John Corigliano's "Soliloquy" for clarinet and strings, a commemoration of the composer's father (the senior John Corigliano was longtime concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic).

This poignant, time-suspending work suggests a kind of ghostly dialogue, as if the clarinet were communing with a spirit. But no such fanciful concept need be considered for this music, which speak on its own in a tense, darkly beautiful harmonic language.

Clarinetist Christopher Grymes revealed admirable technical and expressive strengths and enjoyed a smooth rapport with his colleagues (violinist Lisa Shihoten joined the others).

Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, one of the glories of chamber music literature (all music, really), offered the players another opportunity to demonstrate impressive musicality. Tempos were leisurely, without growing slack; phrasing was consistently sensitive.

The room had no reverberation to speak of, but the sounds of that gentle Quintet remained for a long time in my mind afterward.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:19 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 12, 2011

Everyman Theatre's searing production of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

It turns out that lightning can strike in the same place twice, after all.

Less than a year ago, Everyman Theatre presented a revival of a great American play, Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," with a tightly cohesive, exceptionally affecting cast and a note-perfect physical production to match.

Over the weekend, the company unveiled another revival of a great American play, Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," with a tightly cohesive, exceptionally affecting cast and a note-perfect physical production to match.

Drawing upon all-too-real experiences in her own life, Hansberry fashioned a compelling drama of a family trying to fulfill personal dreams, as well as that elusive panacea known as the American dream.

The difference, an acute difference when "A Raisin in the Sun" premiered on Broadway in 1959, is that this family is black.

There is nothing remotely dated about the play. There is nothing manipulative about it, either. Half a century later, it feels fresh and real, still asks questions that sting, still refuses to provide pat answers.

Hansberry opens a window into the African American world with one hand, holds up a mirror to all of us with the other.

The plot of "A Raisin in the Sun" unfolds from a deceptively simple incident, with members of the Younger family, in their well-worn apartment on Chicago's South Side, awaiting the arrival in the mail of an inheritance check and the possibilities it offers.

There are inevitable conflicts among family members over how the money should be spent. Things turn deeper and more unsettling when Lena, the recently widowed matriarch, introduces the prospect of a move into a home in a white neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (That's also the name of the recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning Bruce Norris play, a kind of sequel to the Hansberry classic. Perhaps that work will turn up before too long at Everyman.)

Why Lena makes her choice, and the way the family is affected by the turn of events, is the stuff of arresting drama, heightened by ...

Hansberry's vividly crafted writing, which allows each character to emerge in keen detail.

Directed with a sensitive hand by Jennifer L. Nelson, given a highly evocative set design by James Fouchard and astutely costumed by LeVonne Lindsay, the Everyman staging exerts a potent pull from the start and never lets go.

As Lena, a woman intensely devoted to family and traditional values, Lizan Mitchell gives a performance of shattering emotional impact. She conveys as much with her eyes alone as she does with her lines.

Every wound Lena has ever felt registers in Mitchell's portrayal; every hope does, too. I can't remember the last time an actor had me tearing up so often.

(In the production's only misstep, recorded music -- otherwise well-timed -- intrudes right after Mitchell delivers Lena's heart-stopping lament at the close of Act 2; silence would be far more effective at that crucial moment.)

Ken Yatta Rogers brilliantly captures the propulsive, quixotic, selfish, ultimately brave components that make up Lena's son, Walter Lee. As Walter's practical and tender wife, Ruth, Dawn Ursula does equally impressive and touching work, so subtly nuanced at every turn that even the act of making breakfast communicates richly.

Walter's sister, Beneatha, is a major spark in the play. She's attuned to the growing civil rights movement, seems to sense that a women's rights movement will be next, and is also fascinated with the idea of exploring African culture. Fatima Quander brings admirable vitality to the role; she's likely to grow even more comfortable and natural with it as the show's run continues.

Eric Berryman offers abundant charm as Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian smitten with Beneatha. The rest of the supporting cast is generally sturdy, from young Isaiah Pope as Travis (he alternates in the part with Jaden Derry) to Stephen Patrick Martin as the point man for the not-so-welcoming committee of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.

Everyman Theatre has hit yet another peak with "A Raisin in the Sun." Theatrical experiences don't come much more involving or rewarding than this.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

September 11, 2011

Baltimore Symphony kicks off season with eclectic gala concert

The annual Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gala gives each new season a jolt of cash and energy.

Saturday's event at the Meyerhoff raised $750,000, which has a nice ring to it ($1 million would sound even nicer, but we're still struck in a recession, after all). It also provided a good deal of musical refreshment.

This wasn't the most cohesive of programs, but the eclectic mix chosen by music director Marin Alsop held its rewards.

There was one big classical work, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, featuring Baltimore's favorite daughter, Hilary Hahn, as soloist. And there was a significant premiere, David T. Little's arresting salute to Baltimore, "Charm."

These items were book-ended by fanfares from Aaron Copland (his saluting the "common man") and Joan Tower (hers saluting the "uncommon woman") at the start, and, of all things, a gospel version of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" at the close.

There was room, too, for ...

participants in the BSO's commendable educational initiative, OrchKids. The gala is an excellent opportunity to remind the orchestra's patrons of the good this project is doing, and how much greater the impact could be if more funding is found.

Given the nature of the occasion, speeches took up part of the evening, but these were the most effective I can remember at a BSO gala.

Incoming board of directors chairman Kenneth W. DeFontes, Jr., who also happens to be president and CEO of BGE, got some laughs -- and, surprisingly, no boos -- when he mentioned the "interesting and demanding time" we had all just been through, what with an earthquake and two power-cutting storm systems. The gala chairs, Tom and Barbara Bozzuto, likewise delivered concise and wry remarks.

For me, the musical highlight of the evening was the premiere of "Charm." Little generates great melodic and rhythmic energy from a compact motive in this pulsating, vividly orchestrated work. There are traces of minimalism and rock in the score, applied with freshness and individuality.

Listeners may debate whether the composer captured Baltimore in the music, but there certainly is a suggestion of urban bustling here, especially from the way Little employs a potent array of percussion instruments.

The coolest part of the work, though, is the ending, when the strings offer reflective musings, suggestive of the dawn after a rambunctious night. The soft, delayed resolution of the final chord seems to recall a similar effect in the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Alsop drew a taut, bracing performance of "Charm" from the BSO. She should find room for the new piece later on in the season, so more people can enjoy it.

Hahn was her usual, impeccable self in the Mendelssohn concerto, her intonation spot-on, her tone exquisitely refined. More personality in the phrasing would have been welcome. Alsop was an attentive partner, and the orchestra played with considerable finesse.

The eager young students from West Baltimore public schools where the OrchKids program flourishes offered a propulsive number, punctuated by the pounding of the Bucket Band and a burst of kinetic krumping from one of the youngest performers.

A choral ensemble made up of singers from the choirs at Morgan State University, Baltimore City College and Baltimore School for the Arts, along with parents of OrchKids members, tore into the "Hallelujah" with crowd-pleasing results.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

September 10, 2011

Relief from cares and woes, thanks to a kitten, two apples and a great soundtrack

In case, like me, you could use a quick lift and a little distraction from the assorted cares and woes of the world, just spend a couple minutes with this kitten, a pair of apples (sorry for the misidentified fruit when I first posted this -- I was in some strange daze at the time) and a fabulous soundtrack from the "Alien" flicks:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:28 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Baltimore Symphony's assistant concertmaster gets top post in Hong Kong Philharmonic

Igor Yuzefovich, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's assistant concertmaster since 2005, has been named concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

He starts in January, but is scheduled to perform as guest concertmaster in Hong Kong on several occasions before then. He is also expected to play for some BSO programs during the fall.

The Moscow-born Yuzefovich has a long connection to Baltimore. He did a good deal of his musical training at the Peabody Institute, where, in the Preparatory Division, his teachers included the late,  much-missed BSO violinist Leri Slutsky.

Yuzefovich continued into the Conservatory, earning a B.A. and graduate performance diploma.

The violinist frequently worked as a sub or extra player in the BSO prior to being appointed assistant concertmaster by music director Yuri Temirkanov. Yuzefovich has been ...

valued in the orchestra not only for his solid technique and innately expressive music-making, but also for his outgoing personality and sense of humor. 

The violinist is a valued chamber music player as well. He co-founded the Monument Piano Trio in Baltimore seven years ago, an ensemble that enjoys a sterling reputation for musicianship and wide-ranging repertoire. (No word yet on whether he will be able to maintain his relationship with that group after leaving the area.)

Yuzefovich will take up his Hong Kong Philharmonic post as the orchestra's music director, the distinguished Dutch conductor, Edo de Waart, is winding down his tenure as artistic director and chief conductor.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:42 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

September 9, 2011

Denyce Graves to give master class for Peabody Conservatory voice students

As Terrence McNally's hit play "Master Class" affirms, the combination of a seasoned vocal artist and budding students eager for fine-tubing can be quite electric.

Of course, not every master class could be as wild as the one in the play, which has the divine Maria Callas dispensing wisdom in between reminiscing about her fabled career.

For that matter, the classes Callas actually gave at Juilliard were much saner than the version McNally created for his play, which is back on Broadway featuring Tyne Daly in a terrific performance as Callas.

Ah, but I digress. Denyce Graves, the popular and glamorous mezzo-soprano who has enjoyed a major international career, will give a two-hour master class at the Peabody Conservatory on Monday, starting at ...

12:30 p.m.

Five voice students are scheduled to participate in the session.

If you'd like to observe Graves working with the students, the master class is open to the public at no charge. It will be held in Griswold Hall.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:42 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

September 8, 2011

Concerts in the area will provide reflections on 9/11

The first anniversary of 9/11 inspired a remarkable global commemoration -- the "Rolling Requiem," performances of Mozart's Requiem from time zone to time zone.

As far as I know, the 10th anniversary has not generated anything quite like that, perhaps a result of how quickly the world got back to its usual suspicious or warring factions. But there are musical events in the Baltimore/Annapolis to mark the sobering occasion, including these:

The Annapolis Chorale, which participated memorably in that 2002 "Rolling Requiem" project, will revisit Mozart's powerful Requiem on Sunday.

J. Ernest Green will lead his ensemble in two free performances of the work, also featuring the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, soprano Carolene Winter, mezzo Catrin Davies, tenor J. Austin Bitner and bass Brendan Cooke.

The first performance is at 4 p.m. on Sunday during a service of remembrance at St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis.

The second is at 7 p.m. at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. On that occasion, in addition to the Requiem, the Chorale will sing Mozart’s sublime “Ave Verum” and the orchestra will play Barber’s darkly beautiful “Adagio for Strings.” Both events are free.

The Baltimore Vocal Arts Society presents a free concert, "In Memoriam -- Remembering An American Tragedy," at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Joseph's Monastery, 3801 Old Frederick Road.

The program includes works by Douglas Townsend and Daniel Crozier, as well as spirituals, performed by vocalists Tona Brown, Schauntice Marshall and Robyn Stevens, accompanied by pianists Adam Graham and Michael Angelucci.

Trio Galilei -- Sue Richards, Celtic harp; Carolyn Surrick, viola da gamba; Ginger Hildebrand, guitar and fiddle -- will give a concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Creative Alliance as a "tribute to those who've served, and an opportunity to reflect on post-9/11." The ensemble spent a great deal of time providing musical comfort to wounded military personnel at the recently closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

If you are looking for a worship service on Sunday that commemorates 9/11 through music, there will be one at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton. The service includes "Lamentations" composed by Mark Hardy, a teacher and choral director at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The featured performer will be cellist Troy Stuart, who also teaches at the School for the Arts.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 7, 2011

Yo-Yo-Ma, Barbara Cook among those receiving 2011 Kennedy Center Honors

The recipients of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors include two giants of classical music and the musical theater: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and vocal artist Barbara Cook. Excellent choices by any measure.

Yo-Yo Ma has not just maintained a compelling level of artistry, but also has helped spread the gospel of classical music and reached out across many a cultural boundary with his extraordinary Silk Road Project.

Barbara Cook not only left a brilliant imprint on the musical theater, and also remains one of the most insightful and moving interpreters of that repertoire and the rest of the Great American Songbook.

Not that the rest of the Honors list isn't also top-drawer:

Singer/songwriter Neil Diamond, saxophonist/composer Sonny Rollins, and actress Meryl Streep.

The 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors Gala will be held Dec. 4 and broadcast on CBS on Dec. 27.

STF/AFP/Getty Images

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Rep Stage opens season with a romp through the Restoration

It seems unlikely that many Americans are well up on the Restoration period in England.

We know something of the Puritans who had their heyday before that period, primarily because of their legacy on these shores (a legacy that seems to rise up again with every few election cycles).

But we know little, I suspect, of Charles II, let alone Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to make a living from poetry and plays.

Those historical figures (or, at least, approximations) and some heated issues from the Restoration get a work out in "Or," a recent play by Liz Duffy Adams that serves as the 19th season-opener for Rep Stage.

Part of the fun comes from the way Adams weaves the 1960s into that 1660s milieu, with assorted political, economic and, especially, sexual references that have a way of connecting the two eras. There are some obvious connections to the early 2000s as well.

In an intermission-less stretch of 90 minutes, the play largely succeeds in providing context and fleshing out characters, although it would be nice to get more of a sense of Behn's theatrical career (the plot concerns her steps toward that career). The story is deliverered in between bursts of farce -- lots of doors opening and closing, confused identities, sudden plot twists.

Whether all the details packed into the work have a ring of truth is beside the point. For all of the comedy in the piece, it is, at heart ...

about the color and power of language, the justice of gender equality, and the intriguing possibilities inherent in what used to be called free love.

"Or" doesn't always crackle. The opening scene, set in a debtor's prison, where Aphra spent some time after spying on behalf of Charles, takes too long to percolate. Some of the subsequent humor has a forced quality.

And I hate to sound even remotely puritanical, but Adams over-salts the script with profanity, a practice that also takes on the air of contrivance after a while.

Still, the cleverness and entertainment in the material hold rewards, which find a mostly satisfying outlet in the Rep Stage production, directed at a more or less propulsive pace by Michael Stebbins. (Performances run through Sept. 18.)

Charlotte Cohn, as Aphra, tends to stay on low burner. There's something curiously passive much of the time in her performance; more vitality and expressive nuance would help explain why the character left such an imprint.

Jason Odell Williams hits the mark more winningly in a triple-role assignment. He's droll as Charles; explosive as William Scott, a spy and possible revolutionary who complicates matters; and very funny as Lady Davenant, a theater producer eager for a stage-worthy "comi-tragedy" from the pen of Aphra.

Lady Davenant gets the most virtuosic speech in Adams' play, and Williams delivers the breathless lines with bravura to spare.

Christine Demuth rounds out the cast playing another three characters. She does the most effective scenery-chewing as Nell Gwynne, the celebrated actress of the day who is ready and willing to pursue just about any dalliance.

James Fouchard's effective set design is speckled with peace symbols, daisies and other allusions to the Age of Aquarius. Splashes of music, including suggestions of the Beatles and Barry White, pop up in wry fashion. Melanie Clark's fanciful costumes complete the staging's visual flair.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

September 6, 2011

Center Stage offers low-cost season pass for the 21-34 age set

Performing arts groups are always trying to think up ways to attract customers whose hair has yet to turn gray (or fall out), and whose minds are still flexible. Center Stage announced Tuesday an unusually attractive offer geared to the younger set, specifically ages 21 to 34.

The company has introduced a $38 membership plan for these folks. It includes a season-long "GO Pass."

That pass is not valid for "special engagements" -- sorry, but "Second City: Charmed & Dangerous," the follow-up to last season's smash production by the Chicago comedy troupe, is not included in the deal.

Still, that leaves all the other presentations of the 2011-2012 season, including mainstage productions, cabaret shows and theater labs.

But, wait, there's more!

Go Pass-holders not only ...

can get a ticket to as many shows as their hearts desire, but as many performances of each show as they feel like attending.

The catch? Based on availability. But, unless every Center Stage performance sells out, that will still leave plenty of opportunity. Pass-holders can order tickets in advance; walk-ups are also permitted. (Clearly, the marketing folks at Center Stage have carefully considered the buying habits of the younger crowd.)

Given that a single ticket could easily cost $38, am eight-month, season-long pass represents a bargain.

But, wait, there's more!

Each pass-holder can buy extra tickets for a show at $20 each (limit of two).

There must be another catch or two, you say. Well, OK. You don't get the best seats in the house, but "not the worst, either," according to the company. Also, you do have to pick up your tickets no later than 20 minutes before curtain time. And you can't be a habitual no-show after arranging for tickets; your membership will be revoked.

If you order the "GO Pass" in the next 30 seconds, you'll also receive a five-piece kitchen knife set  -- sorry, wrong offer. Actually, you can't call in the next 30 seconds. Operators aren't even standing by yet. And when they are standing by, it will be for a limited time.

Go Passes will be on sale Sept. 26 to Sept. 30 only, via; by phone, 410-332-0033; or at the box office, 700 N. Calvert St.

Feeling left out because you're just a wee bit past the age of 34? Not to worry. Center Stage has an offer for you, too, in the form of "3-Packs" -- three-show subscription plans that come with 20-25 percent savings.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

September 5, 2011

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra dies at 43 from injuries in scooter accident

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, who rose to fame after substituting for Luciana Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, died Monday at the age of 43, the result of severe injuries from a motor scooter accident on Aug. 27 in his native Sicily.

It has been reported that the crash may have been caused when the singer experienced a brain hemorrhage. He was not wearing a helmet. After surgery at a hospital in Catania, he went into a coma.

Mr. Licitra's career was launched in 1998 at the Teatro Regio of Parma, but it was his unexpected Met debut four years later in "Tosca," a last-minute sub for Pavarotti, that put the tenor on the international map.

Although Mr. Licitra ...

did not meet all the expectations generated by his Met triumph, he won considerable admiration for the remarkable power and Italianate richness of his voice.

Locally, Mr. Licitra left a memorable mark, starring in Washington National Opera productions of "Andrea Chenier" in 2004 and "Tosca" the next year. His voice had a truly electrifying effect on those occasions. The tenor was only a little less impressive in the company's production of "Un Ballo in Maschera" last year and a concert version of "Cavalleria Rusticana" in 2008; his vocal and dramatic intensity still hit home.

Here are examples of Salvatore Licitra's all too brief career:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 2, 2011

Arena Stage offers ticket deal to remaining month of 'Oklahoma' revival

The box office figure at Arena Stage "looks like it's climbin' clear up to the sky," thanks to the company's revelatory revival of "Oklahoma."

On every level, this production, directed by Molly Smith, represents a remarkable achievement, enabling the original qualities of the iconic American musical to emerge with disarming freshness and often arresting insight.  

More than 100,000 people have attended the show, counting last year's original run and the encore that started this summer. That reprise runs through Oct. 2.

To usher in the last month of the show, which is the best-selling mainstage production in the company's 61 years, Arena Stage is offering a deal: 

 $45 tickets to all remaining performances. They will be on sale for three days, starting at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 7 and lasting until 11:59 p.m. Sept. 9.

Tickets will be available online, by phone (202-488-3300, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) or at the box office (1101 Sixth St., SW).


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

In today's Sun: Rep Stage goes back to the future with 'Or'

You know how I worry about my faithful band of readers not being able to find my non-blog writing. So, in case any of you theater-inclined types missed it, I thought I should mention a preview in Friday's paper of Rep Stage's season-opening production -- Liz Duffy Adams' "Or."

The play, with one foot in Restoration England and the other closer to our time, sounds fun, especially given the cast. Performers include Jason Odell Williams and Christine Demuth, who were featured last season in the company's presentation of works by J. M. Barrie. Completing the "Or" cast is Charlotte Cohn, Williams' wife.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

September 1, 2011

Minnesota Opera video ad sets new standard for wit and on-target message

For years, the best ads I've seen in the high-art music biz have come from opera companies -- cheeky, clever, funny. I have no idea if they work wonders at the box office, but they surely help break down some of the barriers that persist.

I just saw a really great ad for the Minnesota Opera's 2011-2012 season that is bound to make some opera-phobes reconsider. Take a look:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:22 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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