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October 31, 2011

Guest blogger: Logan K. Young reviews UMBC's Livewire fest

As you know, I just can't be everywhere. I was particularly sorry to miss the hefty, heady assortment of contemporary music at UMBC last week. But, thanks to a guest blogger, I can provide this great report on one of the programs:

By LOGAN K. YOUNG

According to Dr. Linda Dusman, Concert Committee Chair at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, LIVEWIRE is “UMBC’s celebration of the extraordinary musical creativity that characterizes the first decade of the 21st century.”

Having wrapped up its sophomore year on Saturday night with an exquisite concert by the VERGE Ensemble, LIVEWIRE 2: ON FIRE certainly lived up to its ecumenical, all-CAPS mission.

The programming -- eight shorter-duration works all written between 1999-2011 -- was fresh and adventurous, the execution precise and assured.

From Tom DeLio’s sparse, academic pointillism to the neo-classical tunes and jaunty rhythms of Alexandra Gardner, no other new music ensemble on the Beltway has as broad a repertoire as VERGE.

Speaking of DeLio and Gardner, both composers were ....

on hand for a lively pre-concert discussion. While they both lamented the ritual of speaking before (instead of after) their music has been heard, the two differed somewhat on what they hoped their audience would hear.

DeLio, a tenured professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, spoke of his fascination with pure sound, no doubt gleaned from his work with electronic music. Gardner, a Peabody alum and Associate Editor of NewMusicBox, talked more of extra-musical inspirations such as books and photography.

Honestly, you could hear this difference of opinion in their music. DeLio’s "transients/resonances" (2006) for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello and percussion was a methodical étude on what happens when a sound is over. Does the music stop right there? Or does it linger on? There’s a lot of silence through-composed into DeLio’s music, and kudos to VERGE for remaining absolutely still during his negative space so we could come to our own conclusion.

Gardner’s "The Way of Ideas" (2007) for flute, clarinet, violin and piano proved much more straightforward. Taken from a line in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass about how thoughts become reality, VERGE’s balanced reading let us hear how the flute’s motif would soon become the clarinet’s. The interplay between flautist David Whiteside and clarinetist Rob Patterson was so jovial and so transparent, following Gardner’s hocketting logic was a delight indeed.

It’s always a pleasure, too, to hear any late-era Elliott Carter, and pianist Audrey Andrist deserves a special citation for her concentrated rendering of "Caténaires" (2006). A true elder statesman of American arts and letters, Carter will turn 103 next month; including him on a program dedicated to 21st century music is a particularly apt call.

Perhaps the most forward-looking piece on the program, though, was Ben Broening’s brand new work for solo violin and computer, "gathering light" (2011). From the piezo harmonics to the low-end rumblings, Lina Bahn’s otherwise classical instrument was made to sound something fierce, almost feral by comparison. Broening describes the piece as a musing on the liminal light of the Estonian forest, but a better description might be what goes bump in the night.

If last year’s festival was a call to action, this year’s LIVEWIRE: ON FIRE was a call to arms. There’s a stockpile of talent at UMBC, for sure. And with local ensembles like VERGE and composers such as Tom DeLio and Alex Gardner for hire, the next iteration will most certainly not be a shot in the dark. To the fore, Baltimore -- there’s a new new music series in town.

-- LOGAN K. YOUNG
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:58 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 30, 2011

Petrenko makes energetic return to Baltimore Symphony podium

Vasily Petrenko's guest-conducting debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in early 2009 made a very strong impression. You just knew he would be invited back.

Something about the young Russian's totally in-charge demeanor and personality-filled music-making provided good reason to believe that he was more than the latest bright new thing in classical music. (He's principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.)

Petrenko's looks do give him an immediate marketing advantage, but it's hard to hold onto a podium for very long with photogenic attributes alone. He's the real deal where it counts. His technique is sure, his instincts sound.

If there was a bit of a let-down about Petrenko's return to Baltimore this weekend, the program was perhaps the main drawback. Shostakovich's stunning Symphony No. 8 gave the conductor opportunities for showing off his skills two years ago in a way that the rather diffuse Symphony No. 3 by Rachmaninoff could not this time around.

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, Petrenko ...

generated plenty of vivid, expressive moments in his account of the Rachmaninoff work, but didn't quite bring everything together to make a compelling statement. He didn't always hold the orchestra tightly together, either; the scherzo-within-the-adagio, in particular, sounded a bit dodgy.

The rest of the concert clicked very well. Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 moved engagingly along, benefiting as much from the muscular, yet sensitive, solo work of Barry Douglas as from the way Petrenko highlighted the vivid orchestral details.

The real gem of the evening, though, turned out to be a grand old chestnut: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole." It hasn't been played on a BSO subscription program since 1997, which may be partly why the musicians seemed so freshly energized by the music. But Petrenko's conducting had a huge role here. He masterfully unleashed the sensual quality of the score, shaping phrases with compelling personality and adding extra spark to the rhythmic vitality.

The result was one of the most deliciously virtuosic, infectiously high-spirited performances the BSO has given in years. The tight bond between Petrenko and the players could not have been clearer than in the breathless coda, which had an arresting, incendiary impact.

The final performance of the program is Sunday afternoon.

PHOTO (by Mark McNulty) COURTESY OF IMG ARTISTS
Posted by Tim Smith at 12:59 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

October 27, 2011

Peabody Trio program offers youthful and mature Mahler

Thanks to the Mahler centennial year (he died, much too young, in 1911), his music has been performed even more often than usual. No complaints about that, of course. We diehard Mahler-ites never entirely get our fill.

The composer has been getting a lot of attention at the Peabody Institute lately.

On Saturday, the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 received quite an effective performance.

Tuesday brought a welcome opportunity to hear the single surviving movement of his A minor Piano Quartet, composed when he was about 16; and the "Kindertotenlieder," one of Mahler's most personal and affecting works.

The quartet fragment reveals very little of the composer Mahler would become, but it sure does proclaim a very serious talent.

All of about 16 at the time, Mahler had absorbed the harmonic language of the German romanticists and had a good grasp on the principals of thematic development. In this fascinating memento of his youth, Mahler may have ... 

overworked that development angle a little bit, but he does get some wonderful drama out of his principal melodic idea.

The moody music inspired an absorbing, sensitively nuanced account from the Peabody Trio, joined by violist Maria Lambros. The quality of performance made you wish all the more that Mahler had completed the quartet.

Earlier in the evening, the trio's pianist, Seth Knopp, accompanied baritone William Sharp in "Kindertotenlieder."

Better known and more richly vivid in the orchestral version, these bittersweet songs on the loss of children can work well in the more intimate setting.

Sharp, a superbly communicative vocal artist, reached deeply into the heart of the texts as he sculpted the melodic lines.

The higher peaks of those lines necessitated some switches to falsetto that didn't always come off smoothly, but that was of little consequence given how affecting the baritone's interpretations were.

I wish Knopp could have extracted more tonal warmth out of the piano, but his playing was always supportive. His eloquent phrasing at the close of the final song proved especially satisfying.

Music of Ravel framed the evening. I had to slip out before the A minor Piano Trio that capped the concert, but I did hear Violaine Melancon and Natasha Brofsky give a well-meshed, expressive performance of the Sonata for Violin and Cello at the start.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute
        

NEA Opera Honors will be streamed live on Web

The ceremony for the 2011 NEA Opera Honors -- the recipients are scenic and costume designer John Conklin, Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, and composer Robert Ward -- will be held at 7:30 Thursday evening at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in D.C.

Tickets are free and, the last I heard, still available (202-547-1122, ShakespeareTheatre.org, or the box office).

NPR's Nina Totenberg is the host for the event, which includes performers by soprano Sarah Coburn and tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

If you can't be there in person, ... 

it will be streamed live online. And that webcast will be archived for future viewing.

To get you in the mood, here's the great Rise Stevens in a vintage clip:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

October 26, 2011

On Steve Jobs, the computer and Bach

Baltimore filmmaker Mike Lawrence, whose "Bach & Friends" has deservedly won a great deal of praise, has been making fascinating documentaries for quite some time. One of his earliest was "Memory & Imagination: New Pathways to the Library of Congress," and among those Mike interviewed for that project was a young Steve Jobs.

"I could not have made 'Bach & Friends' without his computers and software," Mike said in an email. "In 1989, I filmed an interview with Steve for my Library of Congress film and what a special day that was. I remember very fondly every minute of the time I spent with him. I still have the NeXT coffee mug he gave me."

A friend of Steve Jobs asked Mike to send a copy of "Bach & Friends" to the celebrated Apple co-founder, who, like so many others, found himself drawn to the music of the venerable composer. Mike shared with me two Bach-related passages from books about the late Mr. Jobs:

From "Return to the Little Kingdom: How Apple and Steve Jobs Changed the World" by Michael Moritz: "I had been listening to a lot of Bach. All of a sudden the wheat field was playing Bach. It was the most wonderful experience of my life up to that point. I felt like the conductor of this symphony with Bach coming through the wheat field.”

And from "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson: "Bach, he declared, was his favorite classical composer. He was particularly fond of listening to the contrast between the two versions of the 'Goldberg Variations' that Glenn Gould recorded, the first in 1955 ... and the second in 1981, a year before he died. 'They're like night and day,' Jobs said after playing them sequentially one afternoon. 'The first is an exuberant, young, brilliant piece, played so fast it's a revelation. The later one is so much more spare and stark. You sense a very deep soul who's been through a lot in life. It's deeper and wiser.' Jobs was on his third medical leave that afternoon when he played both versions, and I asked which he liked better ... 'I like the earlier, exuberant one. But now I can see where he was coming from.'

Here's a video clip Mike Lawrence put together from his 1989 film as a tribute to Steve Jobs, talking about the possibilities of computers, followed by the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, as played by a youthful Glenn Gould:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:12 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

Midweek Madness: The letter-reading passage from 'La Traviata'

As you know by now, Lyric Opera Baltimore is getting ready for its first bow -- a production of Verdi's "La traviata" Nov. 4 and 6. If all goes well, the new company will fill the void left when the Baltimore Opera Company went bust in 2009.

In order to make sure that you get the maximum out of this "Traviata,"  I thought it would be useful to go over a particularly crucial scene  -- the reading of the letter by the oh-so-tragic character of Violetta in Act 2. I found the ultimate explanation and delivery of said letter-reading and ...

would like to share it here. I am not sure even the fine soprano Elizabeth Futral, who will lead the Lyric Opera cast, could reach this level.

Yes, Midweek Madness fans, it's Mari Lyn time again. If this doesn't move you to tears, nothing will:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness, Opera
        

October 25, 2011

Weekend review lineup 3: Chamber Music by Candlelight

My musical weekend wrapped up Sunday night at Second Presbyterian, where members of the BSO and friends offered another program in the series called Chamber Music by Candlelight.

Being free, this presentation of Community Concerts at Second is one of the best bargains in the area. Co-directed by violinist Ivan Stefanovic and clarinetist Edward Palanker, it's also is one of the most colorful. Like the perennially popular chamber music programs at the Spoleto Festival, the Candlelight series mixes together all sorts of instrumental combinations, genres and time periods.

Sunday's lineup was typically wide-ranging and absorbing. The evening started with ...

the Serenade, Op. 73, by Robert Kahn, a German-born composer who knew and emulated Brahms and, to gauge by this piece, must have admired Strauss, too. Although this work dates from the early 1920s, its heart is very late-19th century.

Clearly structured, the score exists in nine different versions, the better to make it marketable. If I am not mistaken, the version heard here for oboe, horn and piano is the one Kahn originally started with. (Hey, this is a blog, so I can end with a preposition if I fell like it.)

The instruments complement each other remarkably well, and the writing, with richly realized harmonies and vibrant contrapuntal action, is consistently attractive. Michael Lisicky (Oboe), Phil Munds (horn) and Mary Woehr (piano) performed the Serenade with equal parts sensitivity and panache.

Another talented trio -- violinist Qing Li, clarinetist Steven Barta, pianist Sheng-Yuan Kuan -- delivered a bravura account of Bartok's spiky, spicy, folksy, sometimes slightly jazzy "Contrasts." Must have been a Bartok crowd that night at the church (who knew?); the performance drew the heartiest ovation of all.

Speaking of contrasts, string quartets from two very different eras and sound-worlds filled out the program. Beethoven's Op. 95, which the composer labeled "serioso" for a good reason,  received a taut, absorbing performance from violinists Rebecca Nichols and Greg Mulligan, violist Karin Brown, and cellist Bo Li.

The C major Quartet by Szymanowski (pictured), a composer whose distinctive music ought to be heard much more frequently, offers considerable rewards. The score boasts an abundance of color, from pastel to blatant; a piquant mix of tonalities; and remarkable richness of atmosphere.

Those qualities were communicated with considerable fluency and expressive power by an ensemble that featured Stefanovic and Brown, along with violinist Kenneth Goldstein and cellist Daniel Levitov.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

Weekend review lineup 2: Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra has reached its 29th season in what sounds like fine shape, to judge by the opening concert Sunday afternoon at Goucher College.

That the ensemble can afford only three programs a season (a recitalist provides a fourth) reveals the lingering financial pressure, but this is one determined group.

It has a new slogan, too: "Baltimore's Classical Orchestra." I'm not sure what the marketing advantage might be, but this may help lure folks who get the wrong idea when they see "chamber." And it does point up the programming emphasis on Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, etc.

On Sunday, two repertoire staples ...

were on the bill. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto gave concertmaster Madeline Adkins an opportunity to shine, and shine she did. Adkins, who is also associate concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, invariably produces a refreshing spark when she plays.

Hers may not be the sweetest or most purely defined tone, but it has personality and impact. Same for her phrasing, which is enriched by a juicy application of portamento. Adkins moved surely, spiritedly through the concerto and enjoyed smooth backing from her colleagues, led by BCO music director Markand Thakar.

Adkins was back in the first chair for the second half of the concert, devoted to Beethoven's "Eroica." There are historically solid reasons to perform such a work with an orchestra of under 40. There's also a benefit in the way that musical lines can emerge with greater clarity. That said, I did miss a bigger, beefier sound in this symphony, so packed as it is with dramatic flourishes.

Still, Thakar paced the score effectively and drew generally polished, ardent work from the musicians. There was a strong kick to the first movement and a welcome breadth in the funeral march. The scherzo was a little short on wattage (the horns did admirable work here), but the finale percolated with a good deal of character.

PHOTO (by Cassidy Duhon) COURTESY OF MADELINEADKINS.NET
Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

Weekend review roundup 1: Peabody Symphony Orchestra

It probably would have been a good idea to set up an anti-depressant concession stand in the Peabody Institute lobby Saturday night.

Inside Friedberg Hall, an audience was treated to a Peabody Symphony Orchestra program packed with downers -- Tchaikovsky's wrenching "Pathetique"; the angst-driven Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony; and "Malleus," a turbulent tone poem by Peabody doctoral student Douglas Buchanan referencing the horrific fate of those executed for witchcraft in Salem.

Too much of a brood thing? Perhaps. But I must say the concert proved involving from the get-go.

Hajime Teri Murai seemed even more fired up and expressive than usual. Aside from an occasional smudge of articulation or, primarily in the Tchaikovsky work, intonation, the orchestra turned in a very impressive effort. There was a palpable feeling of players fully connected to the music.

"Malleus," which won this year's Macht Orchestral Composition Competition at Peabody, got things started with a jolt. Buchanan has a knack for ...

summoning massive sonic blows, reminiscent in impact of the kind John Corigliano can unleash.

The hammering passages in the taut score are filled with terrific orchestral color and weight, not to mention feeling -- in a program note, Buchanan writes about two "(nine-times great) aunts" who were hung in 1692, victims of the disgusting witch hunt. A nephew, no matter how many generations removed, is not likely to take that sort of thing lightly.

The composer's eventful score is not all percussive outbursts; a contrasting passage that pits fragile piccolo phrases floating above ominously rumbling basses has an especially haunting quality. If you didn't know the background of the piece, the sense of a journey through fear, rage and mourning would likely still be suggested. This is very clear, personal music.

Murai drew an impassioned response from the orchestra, which maintained the level of intensity in the Mahler Adagio. The violas led the way with admirably cohesive and expressive playing of the opening material. The violins, too, impressed with their handling of the subsequent soaring motive, one of Mahler's most ardent, yet troubled, utterances.

Murai shaped that Adagio with a good deal of sensitivity and concern for subtle details, an approach that, after intermission, he applied as well to the opening Adagio of the "Pathetique." He did some wonderful things with the first appearance of the descending theme in that movement, giving stretching and bending just a little to give it more of an aching quality.

Murai's way of giving phrases breathing (or sighing) room in the outer movements helped underline the pathos in "Pathetique," where some conductors today seem determined to downplay it. The 5/4 movement flowed briskly, but warmly.

The march was taken at a wild clip that just kept getting wilder. You don't hear that every day. It was terrific. (When Marin Alsop led the BSO in a performance of the work last month, she put a slight gear shift into the march, slowing it down a bit before the big finish. I liked that approach, too.)

The Peabody ensemble really let loose in that march and managed to keep up with Murai, who was evidently pleased with their grit. When the audience didn't respond -- for a few seconds, I thought I was finally going to hear a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth without instant clapping between the third and fourth movements -- the conductor started the applause himself.

I would not have minded more expansiveness in the finale, but that music emerged nonetheless with a good deal of gravitas, the finishing touch to an evening of deep, dark thoughts.

SUN FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute
        

October 24, 2011

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program expands to third school

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's nationally recognized educational outreach project, OrchKids, is expanding to a third location, Mary Winterling Elementary School.

The pre-K through 5th-grade public school is in the Lexington neighborhood, close to the largest OrchKids operation at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School.

"We're trying to create a linked neighborhood and create an OrchKids campus in West Baltimore," said Dan Trahey, OrchKids director of artistic program development.

"Mary Winterling and Lockerman Bundy are very near to each other. There are some things that Mary Winterling has that are going to be great for the program, like a 500-seat theater and a place where it would be easier to hold outdoor concerts.

"My dream is ...

to create a musical yellow brick road, maybe painted with musical notes, that connects the two schools," Trahey added. "For people in the neighborhood to see kids with their instruments walking between the schools would be so great."

With Winterling joining Lockerman Bundy and New Song Academy (about a half mile from the other two), there will be more than 350 children taking part in OrchKids programs during the 2011-2012 school year. OrchKids is scheduled to expand to an East Baltimore school in the Highlandtown neighborhood in January.

OrchKids, launched three years ago with seed money by BSO music director Marin Alsop, provides music education programs during and after the regular school day at no charge to the participants. Instruction on a variety of instruments is included, along with group lessons and tutoring. Meals are served during the after-school sessions.

Based on a much-heralded national education program in Venezuela called El sistema, OrchKids aims to provide enhanced opportunities, musical and otherwise, for disadvantaged children.

In a statement released Monday, Winterling Elementary School principal Nikia Carter said: "I anticipate the positive impact that OrchKids will have on the students and families ... Music is an invaluable tool for teaching skills that extend beyond the classroom, such as discipline, confidence and cooperation with peers. I eagerly look forward to watching my students grow both as musicians and as thriving individuals." "

Trahey said that 100 pre-K and kindergarten students at the Winterling school will be taking part in OrchKids this first year. "We like to start with younger kids and build up," he said. "Starting next year, the kids will be moving back and forth between Mary Winterling and Lockerman Bundy for classes."

The Frederick-based company Music & Arts, which sells, rents an repairs musical instruments, has committed $90,000 in instruments and other supplies for OrchKids over the next three years. Music & Arts is also providing an instrument repair credit of $5,000.

PHOTO BY BILL DENNISON

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

October 22, 2011

Louis Langree leads Baltimore Symphony in vivid night of Mozart, Debussy

Sometimes, the programs that look on paper rather routine turn out to be unusually rewarding. I'd put the latest Baltimore Symphony offering -- standard fare by Mozart and Debussy -- in that category.

Louis Langree, the second French guest conductor to appear with the orchestra this month, drew a combination of elegance, finesse and drama from the musicians Friday night at the Meyerhoff.

The elegance and finesse I was expecting; the drama, not so much. But there it was, right at the opening of Mozart's Symphony No. 31, delivered with true gusto and not a little grit.

All the lyrical charm of the piece emerged, too, but I admired the way Langree had the players really digging into the notes, not just skating across them.

Mozart's supremely refined Violin Concerto No. 3 also received a fine account. Langree's model attentiveness ensured a warm framework for the soloist, James Ehnes.

His sweetness of tone and warmth of phrasing paid especially memorable dividends in the slow movement -- each time the violinist sculpted the arc of the recurring motive, the effect proved ever more poetic.

Two of Debussy's hit-parade contributions concluded the evening -- "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and "La Mer." Each seemed ...

to exude freshness of color, phrase and rhythmic motion.

The Prelude, thanks to some in the audience, sounded more like the "Cough-ternoon of a Faun," but the conductor nonetheless kept his concentration. The the music flowed beautifully, with many an exquisite subtlety of dynamics or tempo adding extra character. The solo work in the orchestra proved quite eloquent. The strings purred beguilingly.

Langree likewise shaped Debussy's vivid tone poem of the sea with great care, nuance and personality. Just one highlight was the way he paced the gleaming crescendo that caps the first movement, achieving remarkable expressive impact. Except for some questionable intonation in the closing moments of the second movement (a case of mal de mer, perhaps), the orchestra again delivered impressive music-making.

The final performance is Saturday night.

PHOTO (by Benjamin Ealovega) COURTESY OF BSO

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

October 21, 2011

Second Annual Lieder Weekend at An die Musik explores birth of the genre

The mere thought of art songs -- "lieder," to use the even classier term -- drives some people crazy.

An otherwise brilliant and discerning colleague here at the Sun just laughed wildly when, in answer to his query about which upcoming splendors in Baltimore to catch, I suggested the Second Annual Lieder Weekend at An die Musik. "Ooh, you mean all that 'Erl King' stuff? Never. Never." Poor soul.

Well, OK, lieder isn't for everyone. But for anyone who loves poetry, music, the classically trained voice, and the piano, it's an automatic magnet. And for those who would like to get a better idea of where, how and when lieder emerged as a major art form, this Lieder Weekend offers a great opportunity.

Friday night offers examples by Mozart, Haydn and Tomasek; Schubert is the main focus Saturday and Sunday. (You have to love the idea of a lieder fest held at a place named after a Schubert lied.) The performers are well known in this area for their expressive music-making -- soprano Ah Hong, baritone Ryan de Ryke, pianist Daniel Scholsberg.

To get you in the mood, here is ...

a charming example of what's on tap this weekend: Schubert's "An der Mond," a great example of how the composer could spin a beguiling melody. The singer in this clip is the stylish Siegfried Lorenz:

 

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 20, 2011

Opera fan urges campaign to dress up for the art form

OK, Baltimore opera-goers. Listen up. Get those mirrors out well before you leave home on Nov. 4 to attend the opening night of "La Traviata," Lyric Opera Baltimore's inaugural production.

Take a good look at what you've got on and ask yourself a simple question: Does this outfit match the event? Would Rosa Ponselle be pleased to see me dressed like this?

I got an interesting email on the topic of attire that I thought was well worth sharing.

Now don't jump to conclusions or start ranting about elitism. Hear the guy out:


My wife and I were longtime season ticket holders for the Baltimore Opera Company and were very disappointed when they went belly-up a few years back. We then became season ticket holders for BSO and have generally been pleased with their performances and really appreciate Marin Alsop and her style.

We are, however, disappointed at the continued level of dressing down for formal concerts. Even at the Baltimore Opera, attendees’ dress code was going downhill toward the end.

Well, it is now 2011 and opera is back starting November 4 with La Traviata by Lyric Opera Baltimore. Hooray!

The purpose of this e-mail is to ask you to start a campaign to make Lyric Opera Baltimore GRAND OPERA. I said that if opera came back I was going to get a tux, and I have done so. I am hoping that you can get the word out for opera lovers to dress UP not DOWN for Grand Opera. I hope I am not the only one with a tuxedo on November 4.

Jim Ireland

Personally, I am of two minds about the issue Jim has raised.

I do get a little tired of seeing the super-casual, occasionally downright trashy, fashion sense of some opera- or concert-goers, and not just in Baltimore. I do think that going at least a little above the level of lounging or recreation attire is appropriate and can actually make you feel better about the event you're attending. This doesn't mean formal wear, of course, just tasteful, respectful wear.

On the other hand, I want anyone and everyone to enjoy symphony, opera, theater, so I'd hate to make folks feel they don't belong if they're not dressed up.

But I love Jim's enthusiasm for such a good old-fashioned cause. There is something special about the arts, and when the genre in question is grand opera, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask for a touch of style in the audience. So I hope Jim spots a few other tuxedos in the Lyric Opera House Nov. 4. (I might be inclined to join him, but my tux somehow shrank while it was in the closet.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:54 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

October 19, 2011

Signature Theatre's 3rd annual Stephen Sondheim Award goes to Patti LuPone

The Signature Theatre, known for revelatory productions of Stephen Sondheim works, established an annual award in his name two years ago. The first recipients were Angela Lansbery and Bernadette Peters.

The third is equally deserving: Patti LuPone.

She will receive the honor at a gala in April at the Embassy of Italy in Washington.

"With her wonderful performances in 'Gypsy,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Company,' 'Passion,' and more," said Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer in a statement released Wednesday, "she has had an amazing connection to Steve's words and music."

Sondheim added his own praise:

"There are few performers who can play both Mrs. Lovett and Fosca, Evita and Reno Sweeney, Nancy in 'Oliver!' and Cora Hoover Hooper in 'Anyone Can Whistle,' and still create roles for David Mamet. In fact, there’s only one.

"Versatility of such a high caliber is rare indeed, and therefore it couldn't be more appropriate that the recipient of this year's Signature Theatre Sondheim Award is going to the best tuba player on Broadway: Patti LuPone."

 

SUN FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

Midweek Madness: Petula Clark, great cars, indescribable choreography

For your midweek diversion I must thank my other half, a longtime fan of Petula Clark and old cars.

He spotted this irresistible, smile-inducing clip that shows Petula delivering one of her classics while flanked by some cool British vehicles and a vibrantly attired herd of dancers. Somehow, she is not the least bit distracted by some of the cah-RAY-zee-est '60s moves you'll ever see.

I have to wonder if those responsible knew at the time just how divinely campy this choreography would look, starting with that guy gyrating underneath one of the autos. You may have to watch this video twice to catch all of the fabulousity that punctuates a great song of the times:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
        

October 18, 2011

An 'Our Town' that moves, from Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Those straightforward, honest folks of Grover’s Corners are back, waiting for the milkman, smelling the heliotrope, attending choir practice, falling in love. And, of course, making their way to the local cemetery.

In this case, the characters who populate Thornton Wilder’s enduring play “Our Town” are reliving their experiences not in a traditional theater, but on the grounds of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park atop an Ellicott City hillside. It’s a mostly effective example of a cool concept practiced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company called a “movable production.”

During its summer season, the company uses the park for outdoor performances set up in the expected manner — a fixed stage area, audience in front. During the fall season, everything is in motion. The action progresses from spot to spot in and around the ruins that fill the site, and the audience moves accordingly, often ending up mere inches away from the actors.

The atmosphere at the venue, visually speaking, provides an understandable draw. The atmosphere, meteorologically speaking, can provide unwelcome drawbacks. But if you’re suitably outfitted for any nocturnal chill and prepared to clamber through the ruins (the “movable” element actually starts with the hike up the hill from the parking lot), it’s a breeze.

Speaking of breeze, on the night I attended “Our Town,” ...

 brisk winds through the trees caused enough noise to drown out some lines of dialogue, but the resulting confetti-like cascade of leaves added an artistic touch. So did the moon, rising as if on cue, and the flicker of stars – all mentioned in the play itself.

The production, guided by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company founding artistic director Ian Gallanar, doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings, but communicates the play’s key messages of shared, fragile humanity.

There’s an unavoidable loss of tension whenever everyone heads to another location; this proves most damaging in Act 3. The opening cemetery scene in that act works wonderfully, held in a creepy corner of the ruins, framed by the remaining walls of a chapel. Gallanar stages this scene in absorbing, one might even say haunting, fashion. But the decision to then move back outside for the finale kills the mood and the pacing.

An interior space serves nicely for the passage in Act 2 when young George Gibbs and Emily Webb have their spat and make up over an ice cream soda. The subsequent wedding scene also clicks beautifully, with audience members and actors lined up together on a long staircase to watch the nervous couple.

The cast, sporting evocative costumes (by Marilyn Johnson) and an uneven assortment of New England (or thereabouts) accents, is headed by Dave Gamble as the Stage Manager. He gives an assured portrayal, never overdoing the folksiness. He communicates easily and genuinely, making the elimination of the fourth wall seem a thoroughly natural practice.

Noah Bird captures the boyish side of George at the start of the play quite tellingly, and goes on to trace the character’s development with a good deal of nuance. As Emily, Kelsey Painter sounds rather monochromatic, even a little hard-edged at times, but she does sensitive work in the final act.

Michael P. Sullivan (Dr. Gibbs) and Jenny Leopold (Mrs. Gibbs) flesh out their roles vividly. Ron Heneghan and Lesley Malin are likewise well-matched and colorful as Mr. and Mrs. Webb.

The youngest members of the supporting cast don’t entirely measure up, but the others prove reliable. James Jager does a particularly charming turn as Howie. Frank Mancino has great fun as the quaintly long-winded Professor Willard.

And Joan Crooks turns Mrs. Soames into a fully three-dimensional figure, from exuberant wedding guest to reflective member of the pushing-up-daisies community that remains forever bound to Grover’s Corners.

Performances continue through Oct. 30.

PHOTOS (by Teresa Castracane) COURTESY OF CHESAPEAKE SHAKESPEARE COMPANY

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

October 17, 2011

Age-defying Tony Bennett delivers the goods at the Lyric Opera House

Yes, we all know that Tony Bennett has been around a long time and that, at 85, he's still going strong. But it's still a bit of shock any time you get to experience his age-defying artistry in person.

Bennett delivered the goods in high style Saturday night in the Lyric Opera House -- officially, the Patrica and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. (There was a moment of silence at the start of the evening for Patricia Breslin Modell, who died last week at 80 after a long illness.)

The near-capacity crowd had to wait a bit before encountering the vocal legend. Bennett's daughter Antonia provided opening-act duties in a set of standards (and a beguiling, relatively rare Noel Coward song, "Sail Away").

The younger Bennett had some fuzzy intonation, but it was easy to detect that she has learned the fundamentals of jazzy styling. It was harder to discern a distinct personality in her singing.

As for the senior Bennett, he took hold of the place from the first, soft phrases of "Watch What Happens" and never let go. It was instructive to observe how ...

Bennett husbanded his vocal resources for more than two dozen songs (and one duet, Sondheim's "Old Friends,"which provided another chance to put Antonia onstage). Many of the numbers were delivered once through, lasting just a couple minutes or so, but there was never an air of the perfunctory about this.

What proved especially rewarding was the way Bennett kept things vocally intimate much of the time. It had the effect of drawing the audience in and even silencing the usual coughing (not, alas, silencing a few persistent talkers).

The ballad-rich program included superbly sculpted accounts of "But Beautiful," "The Way You Look Tonight" and, especially, "Once Upon a Time." In the latter, Bennett gave a model demonstration of how to interpret a lyric, just by the way he subtly emphasized "everything" in the phrase "Everything was ours." Magical. 

Bennett was just as effective when he moved from the conversational to the full-throttle. He let go of forte high notes faster than in the past, of course, but they still contained the familiar, stirring gleam in the tone.

Bennett's jazz chops got an occasional workout, too, in some swinging selections, spurred on by his excellent quartet: pianist Lee Musiker, drummer Harold Jones, bassist Paul Langosch, guitarist Gray Sargent.

Like another inimitable singer, Barbara Cook, Bennett typically closes his performances with an unamplified song. His favored choice for this demonstration is "Fly Me to the Moon," which, subtly accompanied by Sargent, he sang Saturday night with considerable elegance and more than enough tone to reach the house. 

The audience tried to coax more from the vocal legend, but had to settle for Bennett taking a last bow, this time cradling his cute little dog. The singer raised one of the pet's paws to deliver a farewell wave and disappeared backstage.

PHOTO BY KELSEY BENNETT

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 14, 2011

Some thoughts on Liszt and the Liszt-Garrison Festival's first concert

The bicentennial of Franz Liszt has inspired various commemorations around the music world. including the inevitable batch of recordings.

In addition to some hefty boxed compilations released to mark the occasion, a steady stream of fresh material has arrived or will arrive soon, such as Lang Lang's "Liszt: My Piano Hero," complete with DVD recital, from Sony.

Of particular note is a brilliant and provocative 2-CD set from ...

pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard on the Deutsche Grammophon label, "The Liszt Project," which places the composer in context with works by Wagner, Berg, Bartok, Messiaen and others. Great stuff.

Local Liszt fans can take advantage of the Liszt-Garrison Festival and International Piano Competition, which offered an interesting mix of instrumental and vocal repertoire in a concert Thursday night at Grace Memorial Methodist Church. Several more Liszt-centric programs and discussions will fill the festival schedule throughout the weekend at Notre Dame University of Maryland.

Also in Baltimore, the Peabody Conservatory has been busy celebrating Liszt since the season started (the composer was born Oct. 22, 1811). Coming up next are three recital programs featuring student pianists covering a wide sampling of the repertoire: Oct. 19 ("Liszt: Traveler Extraordinaire"), 20 (Liszt: Sacred and Profane") and 23 ("Liszt Potpourri").

Some folks will not understand why anyone would bother to remember, let alone perform, Liszt's music. They think of it as cheap, sentimental, flashy, pointless. Such people, bless their hearts, are not entirely well. They're what we used to call tetched in the head. Pay them no mind.

The inescapable fact is that Liszt shaped music history. It was not just the performer side of the man that did this -- the rise (and cult) of the soloist was very much generated and perfected by him (for better or worse). As a composer, he constantly expanded not only what the keyboard could do, but how melody and harmony could be developed, how musical structures could be intensified.

Not every work is a gem. You can say that about every composer (outside of Bach and Mozart, of course). But even when Liszt's music does sound a little, well, cheap, sentimental, flashy or pointless, there is almost always substance beneath the surface. Sometimes, it's just awfully entertaining. Got a problem with that?

A lot of what some folks object to, I think, is based on today's cynical mindset. We think "empty" where 19th century listeners thought "breathtaking." We hear "sentimental" where they heard "poetic" and "touching." (You can say the same about Gottschalk.) Well, call me a sentimental fool, but I can still hear poetic.

Poetic was the word at the start of Thursday's Liszt-Garrison concert, with the darkly reflective "Le lugubre gondola," in an arrangement played with great sensitivity by violinist Jose Cueto and pianist Nancy Roldan. And the "Consolation" in D flat, one of Liszt's most disarmingly romantic piano pieces, received a lovely account from Roldan, who revealed a keen appreciation for legato line and subtle rubato.

The program also offered examples of the composer's rarely heard choral music, performed by the Chancel Choir of Grace Methodist, led by Bruce Eicher.

The 2009 winner of the Liszt-Garrison Competition (Young Artist II division) made an appearance, too.  Yon Joon Yun did not bring Liszt with him, but played half of Chopin's Preludes. His playing was pristine and often dramatic, but I would have welcomed greater rhythmic flexibility and a wider tonal range in places.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 13, 2011

Opera Lancaster puts antebellum spin on Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte'

What with the canceled seasons by Opera Vivente and Chesapeake Chamber Opera, Baltimore fans of the genre may be feeling a little worried. But the art form is far from dead in Charm City, and, as always, there are also operatic attractions within easy reach beyond the immediate vicinity.

There's one option you may not have known about -- well, I sure didn't -- and it's a reasonable drive to the north. Opera Lancaster opens its 60th anniversary season this week (that it has been around six decades makes me feel even worse that I overlooked its existence).

The company has chosen Mozart's wonderfully comedy of the sexes, "Cosi fan tutte," and has given it an intriguing twist. Director Anne Mason has re-located the opera to ...

New Orleans in 1860. The piece will be performed in English and with new character names, but the plot about men testing the fidelity of their girlfriends -- Southern belles, in this case -- remains the same.

The cast includes Luke Grooms, a tenor who performed with the old Baltimore Opera in "The Bartered Bride" and on the national tour of "Phantom of the Opera" that played the Hippodrome last year. The conductor is Simon Andrews.

Opera Lancaster's performances of "Cosi fan tutte", held in the High Fine Arts Center at Lancaster Mennonite High School, are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:16 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

October 12, 2011

Program at Goucher College Wednesday commemorates Rosa Ponselle

The history of opera has witnessed many great singers whose names continue to resonate through the years and whose artistic standards continue to inspire. Ranking very high on this luminous list is Rosa Ponselle.

The soprano died 30 years ago in Baltimore, where she had long made her home and was the driving force behind the Baltimore Opera Company for a good deal of its history.

She is being remembered in "The Life and Times of Rose Ponselle" Wednesday at Goucher College Hall. This presentation will be made by Elayne Reynolds Duke, the most ardent keeper of the Ponselle flame, and eminent record producer Ward Marston, famed for his restoration of vintage recordings.

The program will include ...

audio and film rarities, including items from Ponselle's private collection and the MGM archives.

Duke, just about the only close friend of the soprano still alive, will share her memories of the legendary artist during the program. Marston will discuss and play recordings of Ponselle and her illustrious colleagues.

This is the first of what Duke and Marston envision as a long-range project aimed at promoting and preserving the Ponselle legacy. That's an awfully worthy goal at a time when, judging by what we hear in opera houses these days, a lot of young singers could use more exposure to Ponselle's exceptional technique and interpretive gifts.

The presentation is at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Goucher College's Merrick Lecture Hall.

SUN FILE PHOTO

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

Midweek Madness: Canine vocalise

All right, so this clip has been around, but it's a first for this humble blog, and a natural for my award-shunning Midweek Madness featurette.

Here, then, to brighten your day, is a most musical dog offering a most inventive and stirring vocalise, while providing its own very fine accompaniment at the piano. (I recall an opera singer or two who sounded strangely like this, but I think this dog may have better pitch):

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 11, 2011

St. Lawrence String Quartet opens Shriver Hall Concert Series

Folks convinced that they hate chamber music should spend a couple hours with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The conversion rate would surely be high.

This group, which opened the 46th season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening, backs up impressive technical skills with a level of infectious enthusiasm, not to mention an ability to communicate.

In violinist Geoff Nuttall, the ensemble has an unusually effective spokesperson. It's no wonder that he recently succeeded the affable Charles Wadsworth as chamber music director at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC.

Wadsworth earned famed for his folksy, droll introductions at concerts. Nuttall can also deliver aural program notes in an animated, amusing style, as he did throughout Sunday's concert (maybe a little too often).

In addition to knowing how to coax an audience into listening harder, he can even get them to ...

talk louder during the music. Yes, talk.

To illustrate a point, Nuttall asked the Shriver Hall crowd to chatter away -- "Don't be polite" -- as the ensemble sat down to play Haydn's C major Quartet, Op. 74, No. 1. The composer, Nuttall said, began the score with two bold chords meant to stop the din that, in pre-concert-etiquette days, would have been going on at the work's premiere.

Whatever the musicological grounds might be for that risky shtick, it made an amusing start to the program. But it was the playing that really paid off, especially the rich nuances the musicians produced in the trio section of the minuet and the bravura they sustained in the finale.

Nuttall, playing first violin, sometimes sacrificed purity of tone, but the great character in every phrase proved worth it. Violinist Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza matched that character and offered exemplary articulation as well.

Two plaintive, darkly beautiful pieces by Osvaldo Golijov found a worthy champion in the ensemble. "Tenebrae," with its mix of trembling, melancholy and echoes of Couperin, cast quite a spell. So did "Kohelet," freshly written for these musicians. St. John, now in the first violin chair, phrased the long-held notes of the primary melodic line exquisitely.

Dvorak's G major Quartet, Op. 106, received a taut, unabashedly openhearted performance.  The playing had a gripping intensity, not just in the most passionate outbursts, but in many inner details, such as the second violin's edgy pizzicato notes amid the slow movement, delivered by Nuttall with almost demonic force. 

PHOTO (by Marco Borggreve ) COURTESY OF SLSQ.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:40 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall
        

October 10, 2011

Incendiary Beethoven Fantasy caps Concert Artists' 25th season-opener

Although the perfect weather kept taunting and tempting me on Sunday, I headed indoors to catch two performances. The first, in the afternoon, was the 25th season-opener for Concert Artists of Baltimore, and a most satisfying season-opener it turned out to be.

I like this group. I have ever since I came to town. Thanks to founding artistic director Ed Polochick, the ensemble can be counted on for music-making generated by intense commitment and, for want of a more technical word, joy. That's what keeps me coming back.

Having relocated this season to the Peabody campus, Concert Artists no longer enjoys the acoustical advantage of the Gordon Center, where an orchestra of under 40 can sound more like 60 and where the string tone, in particular, gains a nice bloom.

Peabody's Friedberg Hall is not quite so forgiving, and there were times on Sunday when little discrepancies in the playing by the violins stuck out.

Such blemishes really did fade, though, in light of all the expressive force onstage. The way Polochick had the orchestra charging through Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, for example, proved thoroughly invigorating. The familiar music took on a bracing freshness.

The orchestra also did generally supple work in Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, which featured ...

the downright legendary Leon Fleisher and his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, as soloists. The duo sculpted phrases with their accustomed thoughtfulness and stylish nuance, and they enjoyed typically attentive support from Polochick.

The program was book-ended by music for voices. The choral component of Concert Artists had the stage to itself at the start in Britten's exquisite "Hymn to St. Cecilia." The group produced a warm, generally cohesive sound and, sensitively guided the conductor, sculpted eloquent phrases.

The vocal ensemble was back at the end for Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and did some effective singing in it. The orchestra, too, made a fine showing. Polochick ensured that the quirky, irresistible, piece, with its preview of things to come in the Ninth Symphony, held together. When he got the chance, he didn't hesitate to kick things into warp speed, and it paid off.

The real star, though, was Ann Schein, who tackled the assertive piano solo with a disarming combination of tonal fire power and electric phrasing. She caught the improvisatory feeling of the opening passage and continued to generate a wonderfully spontaneous mood.

So a couple of notes got away from her. So what? The pianist never lost hold of the score's exuberant spirit. That's what counted. In short, Schein shined.

SUN FILE PHOTO

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

Head Theater at Center Stage to get makeover

Good news for those of us who just never could warm up to the configuration of the Head Theater at Center Stage.

That upstairs space, where "The Second City: Charmed and Dangerous" soon finishes its run, has had a cabaret-style look, with little tables filling most of the floor space and bleacher-style seating on the sides. It's about to get a makeover.

In a statement released Monday, new Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah said: ...

"One of the things I loved when I first came to this theater was the uniqueness and wonderful flexibility of The Head Theater. Since taking over, however, it has come to my attention that The Head Theater receives many complaints from patrons, designers, and directors.

"Bearing in mind that I share their concerns, we are reconfiguring The Head Theater to a more 'traditional' space ... on the road to a fully flexible, 21st-century theatrical black box."

Conventional seating will replace the cabaret tables for the rest of the season. Current ticket-holders "will be in comparable locations to their current seats," according to a press release. A new seating chart is on the Center Stage website.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:53 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens
        

October 9, 2011

Opera Vivente cancels 2011-2012 season; seeks new home

Opera Vivente, which has enlivened the Baltimore scene for 13 years with wide-ranging repertoire and often highly imaginative productions, all performed in English, has cancelled its 2011-2012 season.

That season was to have opened in a new home next month at with "The Marriage of Figaro." The company announced several months ago that there would be a move from its base at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon to a facility on the east side of town, where the Maryland State Boychoir makes its home.

"Efforts began last spring to ...

move the company to a new venue to provide improved production and an enhanced audience experience," according to a notice posted on the Opera Vivente website. "After six months of negotiations, a lease could not be executed and Opera Vivente’s ability to fund its current season operations became impossible."

Money was also a factor: "Although season ticket sales and contributions were encouraging, projected income for the remainder of the season is insufficient to ensure financial stability if the company pursued its season production plans."

No refunds are being given: "Income from ticket sales and contributions has been used to fund ongoing production and administrative costs since the close of the 2010-2011 season in May, 2011." Patrons are being asked to "convert" those ticket purchases into tax-deductible contributions.

In addition to "Figaro," the 2011-12 lineup was to have included "Ariodante" and an version of "The Bartered Bride" transformed to a Baltimore location, complete with Baltimore-speak -- a followup to the company's Bawl-mer-ized 'Magic Flute" in 2010 (pictured).

The company, founded and directed by John Bowen, "will use this time to explore options for its future" and asks for "patience and continued support as we work through these difficult circumstances."

UPDATE: Responding by email to my phone call asking for more details on what happened, Bowen said he has "nothing to add to the press release information. It certainly isn't an unusual tale in the current scary economic and social climate in which we now live."

SUN STAFF PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:50 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

'Spamalot' makes quick, rousing visit to renovated Modell Center at the Lyric

The newly renovated Lyric Opera House -- now officially the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric -- is open for business.

The inaugural season has an assortment of opera (Lyric Opera Baltimore takes its first bow next month); pop stars; the occasional icon (Tony Bennett next week, John Waters in December); and, this weekend, a bunch of crazy knights seeking the Holy Grail in the 2005 Tony-winning musical "Spamalot."

This is one of several bus-and-struck shows breezing in and out of the Lyric this season. Only one of three performances remains -- 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon -- and if you are looking for a quick lift, get over there.

I was ...

pleasantly surprised Saturday night at how effective this touring production is. For one thing, it looks good. This is the first big show to use the Lyric's new modern backstage facility, replacing the ancient sandbag system for flying scenery, and the droll set pieces really do fly in this colorful staging. It seemed visually quite close to what I remembered on Broadway.

BT McNicholl has re-created the original Mike Nichols direction vibrantly. And the cohesive ensemble plunges into the deliriously zany business with admirable finesse.

Folks already tuned into the Monty Python world may have a better time with all of this than those unfortunates who don't grasp why the mere mention of Spam is hilarious, or what is so funny about a killer rabbit. But, hey, we can't all have superior comic tastes. 

Arthur Rowan makes a worthy King Arthur. Brittany Woodrow brings a terrific voice and styling to the role of the Lady of the the Lake. Kasidy Devlin has a great fling as Sir Robin, as does Marylander Adam Grabau portraying Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter and a couple of other choice parts.

This well-oiled production reconfirms that "Spamalot" is a big, old-fashioned musical with a silly heart inside. It offers something to entertain and/or insult just about everybody. Can't ask more of show than that. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTYPYTHONSSPAMALOT.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:55 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

October 7, 2011

One more 'South Pacific' item: The absolute ultimate version of a great song

OK, I know I should stop with the 'South Pacific' stuff, but I just couldn't resist one more post.

As I said previously, the songs from this show have been stuck in my head since Tuesday night's opening performance of the production at the Hippodrome -- just as those songs were stuck for ages after I saw the original Broadway revival.

To tell the truth, my tastes were always a little more Rodgers and Hart than Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I have found, over the years, a greater and greater appreciation for the musical scores by the latter duo.

The song from "South Pacific" that really, really moves me is "This Nearly Was Mine." The melody, with its elegant harmony, is top-drawer; the words are exceptionally effective. The structure is terrific, too.

I have admired how this song was delivered by Paulo Szot in the 2008 New York staging; in Washington last year by David Pittsinger in the first national tour of the wonderful Bartlett Sher revival; and this week in Baltimore by Marcelo Guzzo in the second national tour. And, of course, I love the classic performances by Ezio Pinza and others who starred as Emil de Becque.

But there's a version of this song, removed from its theatrical context (and from the original bass/baritone realm), that's in a class by itself. The first time I heard ...

Barbara Cook sing this in concert some years ago, I got shamelessly teary-eyed. I had rarely been so unexpectedly touched by a singer and a song.

So, with thoughts, images and, above all, sounds, of "South Pacific" still swimming around in my head, I just had to relive the experience of this transcendent interpretation, and I hope you enjoy it, too. Here, then, Barbara Cook and "This Nearly Was Mine":

 

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:55 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Hippodrome
        

October 6, 2011

Some favorite interpretations of the 'South Pacific' hit parade

The arrival of "South Pacific" at the Hippodrome has had my head filled again with the great songs from that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

The score is packed with superbly crafted words and music, always in service to the plot. Hearing in them in context is wonderful, of course, especially in the revival brilliantly conceived by Bartlett Sher (the production now in Baltimore is the second national tour).

But the songs from this show have long enjoyed a life outside the theater, and I thought I'd share a few of the many interpretations that have left an impression on me.

I'll begin with a remarkable pop singer who ...

put a haunting stamp on "Some Enchanted Evening" back in the 1970s, Jane Olivor. Next, some cool studio video of Frank Sinatra recording "Younger Than Springtime." I'm not sure it can be sung any better. You knew I would have to work Barbra into this, and I did, attaching her in-concert version of "A Cockeyed Optimist."

 

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
        

October 5, 2011

Midweek Madness: 'There are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden'

The clamor for more of my Midweek Madness feature-ettes has been so astonishingly non-existent that I have put aside all my more pressing duties to oblige with another.

On the way to work this morning, I took a wistful little look at our garden, slowly fading with the seasons, and that gave me the idea for sharing a gem from the old, old days.

This terribly quaint song, composed by Liza Lehmann, is performed here by the one and only Beatrice Lillie. (I suspect some of you may, for varying reasons and with varying artistic results, rush to add it to your own repertoires.):

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

October 4, 2011

Concert Artists of Baltimore heading back downtown for 25th season

In the performing arts, each little milestone means a lot, from the inaugural season on. If you last five years, it's time to celebrate. Get to 10, and that's 20 in for-profit years. Hit 25, and you are making a really big statement.

Concert Artists of Baltimore, an organization that comprises a professional chorus and orchestra, opens its silver anniversary season on Sunday. That's newsworthy enough.

"I can't really take credit for it," says founding artistic director Edward Polochick. "I just try to persuade people to keep on going forward with it."

The organization remains true to its original purpose.

"Why not be able to explore the full range of a composer's work? All of the greats wrote vocal and instrumental music," Polochick says. "Having our own chorus gives the chance to do much more."

Adding interest to the 25th anniversary is a homecoming for the ensemble, which is heading back downtown, where it all started.

Concert Artists played its first season at Westminster Hall, then had a few years at Peabody (Polochick is a longtime faculty member at the conservatory), then several more at what is now called Notre Dame of Maryland University.

But for nearly a decade, the principal concerts have been held beyond the Beltway, at the acoustically splendid Gordon Center in Owings Mills. (Concert Artists has long kept one foot back in Baltimore with a chamber series at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon.)

"I don't know why people were so reluctant to go to the Gordon Center," Polochick says. "But we lost a lot of ground going out there. It just didn't work for us."

So Concert Artists, which has a budget of around $400,000, returns to its geographic roots for its 25th season, opening Sunday in ...

Peabody's Friedberg Hall with something of a blockbuster program.

In addition to Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecilia" and Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, there will be two keyboard-centric pieces with an impressive lineup of soloists: Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher in Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos; Ann Schein in Beethoven's Choral Fantasy.

 

The rest of the season looks enticing as well. A January concert offers works for string orchestra by Tchaikovsky and Arensky, as well as Brahms' Double Concerto with violinist Josė Miguel Cueto, who has been the concertmaster with the ensemble from the beginning, and cellist Gita Ladd). In March, a program will explore the life and works, vocal and instrumental, of Mozart.

In May, Concert Artists moves a few blocks north to perform Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and Orff's "Carmina Burana" at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric Opera House, joined by the Peabody Concert Orchestra and Peabody Hopkins Chorus. (The orchestral component of Concert Artists will also play for a Lyric Opera Baltimore production this season.)

Maintaining a choral/orchestral force "hasn't been easy," Polochick says. "We've been through a lot of the trials and tribulations it takes to keep a group around this long. But we have been mostly in the black, and we have always paid our musicians on time."

Given the high profile of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it is all the more remarkable that Concert Artists (and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, which launched a few years earlier) have managed to hang on. It will be interesting to see how things turn out with Concert Artists based firmly in downtown Baltimore.

One thing likely to remain the same is the highly energized music-making, a trait easily attributable to Polochick's unusually dynamic conducting. He has a way of not only drawing out the best in musicians, but also drawing listeners into the experience. It's a quality that could keep Concert Artists going for many more years.

SUN FILE PHOTOS

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:37 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

October 2, 2011

Baltimore Symphony shines in program with Tortelier, Gutierrez

This weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program has a lot going for it -- spirited conductor, inspired soloist, a vibrant mix of repertoire.

I caught Saturday night's performance at the Meyerhoff (it repeats there on Sunday afternoon). Just about everything seemed to be clicking from the start.

The orchestra clearly likes working with Yan Pascal Tortelier, who guest-conducts here frequently -- his most recent BSO appearance was just last March.

He is no shrinking violet on the podium (at intermission I overheard some students laughing about his "jumping jacks"), but there is an obvious communicative power behind his animated style.

Tortelier gets these players to dig into music with a palpable freshness and enthusiasm, and he did so on this occasion to memorable effect with a well-organized program.

Following a practice that used to be common a century or more ago, the heaviest stuff came first -- in this case, Sibelius' Fifth. Then, after intermission, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 and Elgar's "In the South." (Mahler, for one, thought that such an arc was better for audiences, who are at their most alert and attentive at the start of a concert.)

The Sibelius symphony is  ...

 

 

one of the composer's finest, maybe his greatest. It is taut and brilliantly organized, seeming to emerge organically from some earthy life force. The score has a way of grabbing hold and never letting go, and that's what Tortelier ensured in a performance that moved inexorably along.

With works like this, I wish the BSO could afford to be at, say, 110-strong, which would help the weightiest chords in this symphony knock you back in your seat. But the ensemble, now usually closer to 90 in number, can still produce an impressive sound, which it did on Saturday.

The playing also had considerable character and color. Truly gossamer articulation from the violins in the gentlest moments proved especially admirable. The brass, too, contributed strongly to the atmospheric performance.

For the Mozart concerto, the number of players was appropriately reduced; the clarity and warmth of the music-making remained the same, in this case with the woodwinds leading the way.

At the keyboard, Horacio Gutierrez offered his accustomed wealth of elegance and expressive richness. There was an infectiously joyful nature to his phrasing, a crystalline quality to his tone. Tortelier offered effortless partnering throughout.

As I may have mentioned before, I love Elgar's music and wish we heard more of it around here. So it was great to have the relatively under-appreciated "In the South" on this program (I seem to have missed the BSO's most recent performance of the piece in 2005, on a non-subscription concert).

This souvenir of an Italian sojourn is not as cheery as, say, Tchaikovsky's. Given that Elgar encountered yucky weather on his 1904 visit, the rather dramatic nature of the score may not be surprising.

At one point, things sound downright scary, even a little tragic (perhaps Elgar had a premonition of the current Italian woes of debt and embarrassing politicians). But this sweeping work, with its obvious debt to Richard Strauss, is awfully entertaining, both in terms of melodic richness and prismatic instrumentation.

The BSO responded vividly to Tortelier's obvious affection for the work (he conducted it, as he had the Sibelius symphony, from memory). A darkly beautiful solo from principal violist Richard Field was among the highlights.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO (Photo of Horacio Gutierrez by Christian Steiner) 

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:51 PM | | Comments (2)
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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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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