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November 30, 2011

Fells Point Corner Theatre bites into 'The Little Dog Laughed'

There is plenty of theatrical material to be derived from stories of closeted gay actors worried about discovery.

In his play "The Little Dog Laughed," which had a well-received run on Broadway in 2006, Douglas Carter Beane mines some of that fertile ground.

The playwright has created a spicy, wickedly funny scenario about a movie star named Mitchell, prone to a "slight recurring case of homosexuality."

That description comes from Mitchell's uber-agent, Diane, which has to be one of the juiciest roles to come around in years.

Holly Pasciullo dives into it with a vengeance to deliver a production-anchoring performance of "Little Dog" at the Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Although the rest of the cast doesn't quite match her assurance and flair, there is ...

enough energy in this staging, smoothly directed by Steve Goldklang on Roy Steinman's straightforward and rather harshly lit set, to hit the key notes effectively.

The plot finds Mitchell (Tom Burns) in a New York hotel with rent boys on his mind. The one who arrives, Alex (Chris Krysztofiak), is not quite what the actor expected. Despite the seamy side of the situation, serious sparks begin to crackle. But when Diane discovers that Mitchell may actually consider a career-threatening relationship, she springs into defensive action.

Meanwhile, there's the little matter of Alex's girlfriend (don't all male hustlers have girlfriends?). It turns out that Ellen (Emma Healy) has something to say that might affect the blossoming romance, too.

It's all pretty much regular sitcom territory, excepting the mature audience stuff (of course, there's nudity), but Beane's clever writing keeps things remarkably fresh. Even when the action takes a weird turn or two, the piece holds together. 

The playwright's understanding of the prism of sexual identity and desire shines through the comedy. And he sure does know the Hollywood crowd, skewering all sorts of things, from the one-upmanship ritual of the power lunch ("A Cobb salad with everything on the side") to the drafting of milk-every-penny contracts.

Diane symbolizes many hideous things about that world, but she's wonderfully cool about her calculated manner. And she's armed with so many cutting remarks (a sample: "Gay men hate all women, unless they're in black and white and suffering majestically") that it's a wonder there isn't blood all over the stage by play's end. You just can't help liking her.

Pasciullo, whose delivery has something of the snap that Megan Mullally brought to the similarly no-holds-barred Karen in TV's "Will and Grace," is delectably adept at revealing Diane's coldblooded streak. But she also makes it possible, if only for an instant, to notice the beating of what might be an actual human heart beneath the steely veneer. That helps confirm the richness of the play.

Burns doesn't exude the star quality that would make Mitch seem like such a big deal, but he neatly conveys the character's volatile case of nerves and his giddy flirtation with closet-busting.

Krysztofiak's work here is not as confident and colorful as it was earlier this season in the Glass Mind Theatre production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ "Den of Thieves," when he played an impetuous would-be thug. Still, the actor gets across enough of Alex's engaging, conflicted nature.

The character of Ellen has nearly as much tangy material as Diane, and Healy gives it quite an amusing spin.

The production runs through Dec. 11.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: The ultimate 'Stairway to Heaven' covers

Looking for truly rare musical treats for yourself or, perhaps, a cherished soul on your holiday gift list? For this Midweek Madness installment, may I suggest that you not overlook this incomparable collection, devoted to one of the most iconic of all rock classics:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 28, 2011

Ken Russell's curious legacy of classical composer bio-pics

Ken Russell, the brilliant and brilliantly controversial English film director, died Sunday at the age of 84.

Movie buffs, I imagine, will remember him chiefly for such works as "Women in Love" and "The Devils." Classical music fans will also remember him for his string of curious, often bizarre bio-pics of composers, including Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Elgar and Delius. (Mr. Russell's film on Richard Strauss never ...

saw the light of day, since he played up the composer's Nazi associations so strongly that the Strauss estate prohibited use of the music.)

I still recall the shock the first time I saw "The Music Lovers," Mr. Russell's version of Tchaikovsky's life, starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. At least that one had a certain entertainment (and trace of camp) value, along with some splendid scenes that really did bring characters and events into sharp relief.

With "Mahler," Mr. Russell's imagination went into hyper-drive and pretty much destroyed the final result. Poor Robert Powell had the great fortune to look rather like Mahler, but was stuck in such an awful mix of history and fantasy that he never had a chance.

Still, I admired Mr. Russell's interest in great classical composers and his willingness to seek a cinematic means of bringing them to life. Here's the trailer to "Mahler," followed by a nutty dream sequence from "The Music Lovers" that ends with Tchaikovsky literally being put on a pedestal:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 25, 2011

A salute to soprano Sena Jurinac, who died this week at 90

The name Sena Jurinac is not quite a household one, expect in the homes of really devoted vocal music fans, but the Yugoslav soprano left quite a mark. She died Tuesday in Germany at the age of 90.

A particularly superb interpreter of Mozart and Strauss, Miss Jurinac was a mainstay at the Vienna Opera for many years.

The Grove's Dictionary entry on the singer sums her up neatly: Her voice was "beautifully pure, rich and even throughout its range"; "the integrity, eloquence and commitment" of her singing "have made an unforgettable impression on ... generations of opera-lovers"; "she will be remembered as one of the outstanding sopranos of her time, generous of voice and radiant of personality."

Here are a few ...

exquisite examples of that generosity and and radiance:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:18 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 24, 2011

Being thankful for a concert by the New York Festival of Song

For no good reasons -- I'd like to blame my intense work schedule, but I suspect I'd have to cite my faulty time management, too -- I never managed to write about last week's concert by the New York Festival of Song at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center., which has all sorts of enticing attractions for its 10th anniversary season.

(Maybe I was subconsciously rebelling against the parking ticket I got while at the performance. It had been so long since I attended a Clarice Smith event that I didn't notice they had installed one of those infernal pay station systems in the garage).

So please indulge me now, on Thanksgiving Day, for I was mighty grateful for the opportunity to experience "Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life" -- easily one of the enjoyable concert's I've heard all year. I was disappointed that the house was not full, but that was the only down note of the evening.

If you haven't encountered the New York Festival of Song before, do make an effort to catch this clever and consistently engaging ensemble. In our area, UM and Wolf Trap have been the closest to Baltimore they've performed, as far as I know. I think folks in Charm City are missing out on something big. (How about it, Shriver Hall Concert Series?)

Coming up on its 25th anniversary season, NYFOS was founded by pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier and has done exceptional work. From the beginning, NYFOS has showcased a remarkably rich sampling of the vast song repertoire, across centuries and cultures; from the most terribly serious to the most light-hearted (and, in last week's program, the most deliciously camp -- Cole Porter's "You're the Top" and Mary Wells' "My Guy" took on a whole new life).

Blier was joined by four well-matched singers for the Clarice Smith concert. The first time I heard the pianist Blier play -- ages ago, it seems now, at a festival in Boulder, Colo. -- I was ...

very impressed with his musicality and his charm.

Those attributes have remained over the years, even as he has had to deal with a form of muscular dystrophy that greatly limits his mobility. There is no way to miss Blier's situation, or to be affected by the process of seeing him be lifted from a wheelchair to a seat at the piano.

I imagine he hates any mention of this, but I do so only to add that Blier's determination to serve the music is what hits you hardest at a concert. That commitment, not to mention his disarming manner when he introduces the songs, creates an intimate bond with an audience that really does deserve the overused word "special."

I suppose some folks might feel put off by the idea of hearing "songs of gay life." But the neat thing about this program was how non-exclusive it was. It provided a kind of music and social history lesson, delivered with great sensitivity and lightened by some terrific humor.

When you're gay, especially in the early years of your awareness, you hang tightly onto any information about other people like you, especially important people from fields that you care strongly about. If you're a gay classical music lover, learning about, say, Tchaikovsky is a big deal, for example.

Blier's program included nods to Tchaikovsky and several other gay composers, among themSaint-Saens, Poulenc, Griffes and Britten, using their songs with texts that can easily be read in a very revealing way when you consider issues of sexual orientation.

One of my favorite examples on the program was Tchaikovsky's "At the Ball," exquisitely sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg at the UM concert. Here, the sense of a hidden message in the words became palpable in a way it might not be in another context: "By mere chance .. I caught sight of you ... I was entranced by your trim figure and you pensive manner, your laugh, at once sad and merry ... Sometimes ... late at night (as) I drift into sleep .. I do not know whether I love you, but it seems that I do."

Grouped by theme, the songs were imaginatively chosen to make a point, sometimes quite subtly (Schubert's "Der Gondelfahrer," de Fallas' "Polo"), sometimes with all guns blazing (John Wallowitch's "Bruce). Everything was delivered with style. Highlights were many. Among them:

Blumberg's warm-toned account of "Is It Dirty," Christopher Berg's haunting setting of a Frank O'Hara text; tenor Scott Murphee's elegant phrasing in Poulenc's "Montparnasse"; baritone Timothy McDevitt's eloquence in Chris De Blassio's "Walt Whitman in 1989." And then there was Matt Boehler, who put his vibrant bass to highly expressive use in songs both serious and, um, gay.

Cool concert, clever concept. And you just know there's plenty more where that came from. I'm ready for the sequel.

I found this vintage video clip of Tchaikovsky's "At the Ball" and enjoyed it even more with the memory of last week's NYFOS event, so I thought I would share it:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:07 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 23, 2011

Midweek Madness: Healthy, hearty tip for your Thanksgiving meal

For the benefit of all my health-conscious readers, I thought this TV ad would make the ideal offering for my Midweek Madness featurette, which is all about giving and sharing.

It will be especially helpful for those feeling extra waves of madness at the thought of preparing tomorrow's Thanksgiving Day meal. This one simple approach will help relieve the holiday pressure, save lots of time and ...

produce such wonderful results you might not even have to worry about being around to face another busy Thanksgiving:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 22, 2011

Verdict is in on Baltimore Symphony's 'Jeanne d'Arc' at Carnegie Hall

Marin Alsop may not single-handedly reverse the fate of Arthur Honegger's neglected oratorio "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher," but the conductor is certainly giving it a valiant try.

Alsop championed it over the summer at the Oregon Bach Festival, then in London, Baltimore and New York this month.

It is easy to understand Alsop's interest in the score, which combines a whole mess of styles and hefty ideas.

It's also easy to understand why some folks resist the score, precisely because it combines a whole mess of styles and hefty ideas.

Although I am not convinced by all of the music or the text, I think there's some great stuff in there. This is not just an oratorio, but an experience. I found that experience absorbing and, ultimately, rewarding last week when Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony, soloists and choristers in "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher" at Meyerhoff Hall.

It was fun getting to hear in person a piece I only knew from recordings and music history books, and to hear it performed with such commitment and quality.

But you don't need to read more of my opinions. You want to know what the Big City critics thought after the BSO's presentation Saturday night at Carnegie Hall (I did not get to make the trip). So here's their verdict:

Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times: The stage all but groaned with performers ... A conscientious conductor commanded the podium.

... Honegger was, if nothing else, a master of stylistic fusion. He also was curiously deft at making a relatively short exercise, about 80 minutes, seem long.

Marin Alsop ... presided over the aural orgy ... Last week she pioneered the so-called dramatic oratorio with the excellent Baltimore Symphony on home turf ... And on Saturday she .. conducted throughout with neat bravado ... Caroline Dhavernas spoke Jeanne’s lines with stoic passion. Ronald Guttman offered sympathetic counterpoint as Frère Dominique ...

When all was said and sung, the would-be revival suggested much ado about rather little.

Vivien Schweitzer, New York Times: Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony’s adventurous music director, who is clearly passionate about the 80-minute piece, marshaled the forces in a tightly wrought performance ...

The mishmash of eclectic and sometimes gaudy elements often becomes disjointed and doesn’t gel into a particularly cohesive whole, although Ms. Alsop aptly revealed the myriad musical details of each scene ...

Caroline Dhavernas imbued her portrayal of Joan with dignity, expressive depth and urgency, particularly in her tragic concluding moments. Ronald Guttman enacted the role of Brother Dominic with charismatic flair ...

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 20, 2011

On the 100th anniversary of Mahler's 'Das Lied von der Erde'

One hundred years ago today -- Nov. 20, 1911 -- Bruno Walter conducted the premier of Gustav Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" in Vienna. It was, of course, a posthumous premiere; the composer had died, much too young at 50, a few months earlier.

If this was the only work of Mahler's we had, that would still be enough to guarantee him lasting fame. With his choice of ancient Chinese poems (and a few of his own lines), Mahler created a deep reflection on nature and what it means to be a part of it, to live and love, to fear, to question, to die.

I would love to have been at the premiere, to see and feel how the audience responded, whether it touched them at all or merely perplexed them.

To this day, I think ...

some listeners, even fans of Mahler symphonies, have trouble getting "Das Lied." It took me a while, I admit, to warm up to it back in the early days of my Mahler fixation, but I found myself coming back to it time and again, riveted by the coloring and atmosphere, affected especially by the long concluding movement -- surely some of the most profound music ever created.

To mark today's centennial, I thought the fourth movement would make a good choice for an audio/visual clip. I know it's autumn now, but this burst of spring imagery still seems right -- maidens gathering blossoms, watching handsome young men rushing past on their horses (Mahler conjures up that jaunty image so perfectly).

Here's the marvelous Christa Ludwig with Leonard Bernstein conducting:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:58 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 19, 2011

Peabody Opera Theatre delivers colorful 'Rake's Progress' at the Lyric

Forgive the abbreviated report (ever the slothful one, I do try to take a day off every now and then), but I wanted to get a little something on the record about Peabody Opera Theater.

The company made its first venture into the Lyric Opera House Friday night with a production of Stravinksy's "The Rake's Progress" that gets a repeat Sunday afternoon.

Catch it if you can -- this work will not be back around soon. (This is quite the week for rarities in Baltimore; the BSO just presented an Honegger oratorio for the first time.)

In brief, the Peabody staging by Garnett Bruce (director) and Luke Hegel-Cantarella (set) provides a colorful, often clever framework for this fable about a young man's descent into ruin and madness.

The orchestra, dynamically led by Hajime Teri Murai, revels in the neo-classical piquancy of Stravinsky's ingenious score. It's great to hear the musicians in the resonant acoustics of the Lyric. The strings, in particular, sounded terrific.

And the young cast ...

reveals considerable flair for the assignment.

Peter Scott Drackley is a bit short on tonal heft and nuance, but his performance in the title role is always musically attentive.

Kisma Jordan steals the show, vocally, as Anne Trulove with her truly lovely soprano. She sounds wonderful in the house, the tone ripe and well-supported, the phrasing lively, the diction superb. I can't prove any great powers of prognostication, but I sure do feel there's a good chance we could all be hearing more from this singer in time.

Peter Tomaszewski uses his vocal resources effectively as the devilish Nick Shadow and brings a nice theatrical flair to the role. Kristina Lewis has a good romp as the curiously bearded Baba the Turk; her singing, especially in the low register, has considerable lushness.

The cast is nicely rounded off by Alexander Rosen (Trulove) and Diana Cantrelle (Mother Goose). Particularly vibrant work comes from David Diehl as Sellem; he matches Jordan for precise articulation of the English text (surtitles are used in the production, just in case).

The chorus is the other big star, producing a hearty, balanced tone; the choristers also jump unabashedly into the action part of the assignment, starting off in their underwear for the bustling brothel scene.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

November 18, 2011

Latest NEA grants include Center Stage, BSO, Baltimore Choral Arts

A fresh round of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts includes music and theater organizations in the Baltimore area. Given periodic political threats to the NEA, threats that tend to get louder with each election cycle, any grant must seem doubly valuable these days.

Center Stage received $55,000 "to support the production of 'Gleam,' an adaptation by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' ... considered one of the jewels of the Harlem Renaissance."

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was awarded ...

$35,000 "to support the Orchestra Fellows Program for musicians of color. Plans for the second year of the program will include mentorship activities, private coaching, audition preparation, and training for outreach and educational events."

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society earned a $10,000 grant "to support 'The Land of the Free,' performances and educational activities in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the events leading to the creation of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Plans include a public performance featuring composer Ysaye Barnwell's 'Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem.'

On the visual arts front: Walters Art Museum, $34,000 "to support the exhibition 'Saints, Slaves, and Diplomats: The African Presence in Renaissance Europe'"; MICA, $25,000 "to support the Ceramic and New Technology Research Initiative."

And Baltimore-based Young Audiences of Maryland, Inc. (aka Young Audiences/ Arts for Learning) received $20,000 "to support the Rural Access for All Opportunity Program, [offering] performing and visual arts workshops and residencies ... in rural communities across Maryland."

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:18 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Center Stage, Clef Notes, Drama Queens

BSO makes case for Honegger's quirky oratorio 'Joan of Arc at the Stake'

Joan of Arc did not get a fair trial. But she did received a pretty decent form of posthumous vindication -- sainthood.

Arthur Honegger's 1938 oratorio about the hypocrisy and cruelty surrounding the 15th-century French heroine's fate initially enjoyed a brilliant success for several years. But "Jeanne' d'Arc au bucher" gradually faded into rarity status, if not downright obscurity.

Now comes Marin Alsop, bounding onto the scene, not with a sword, but a white baton, to give Honegger's ambitious work a fresh hearing.

The oratorio is the conductor's calling card du jour -- she has performed it in Oregon and England recently -- and her commitment could be felt every minute Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, where Alsop presided over a large assemblage.

Joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, Concert Artists of Baltimore, and Peabody Children's Chorus; two actors; several solo singers; and an ondes martenot player (this early electronic instrument plays a valuable role in the prismatic score).

Alsop is ...

in her element when confronting musical-logistical challenges. She presided with calm authority over the masses that packed the stage, maintaining smooth coordination and a taut flow that largely succeeded in helping the disparate pieces of the quirky oratorio fit together.

With a wide-ranging stylistic reach that manages to incorporate allusions to ancient chant, Bach chorales, jazz and cabaret, "Jeanne d'Arc" is on the unruly side.

But that eclecticism helps keep the roughly 80-minute piece continually absorbing (if not always persuasive). There's a fresh aural experience around every corner.

The text by Paul Claudel gets heavy-handed in places, especially with satire. But where the personal tragedy of Jeanne is kept tightly in focus, Claudel's poetry hits the spot.

The oratorio requires a performer in the title role -- a speaking part -- who can create a kind of music of her own. That Caroline Dhavernas did superbly.

Though confined to a small plot of space onstage, the actress inhabited the character so incisively -- she even looked the part -- that you could conjure up cinematic imagery to go with it.

Dhavernas proved wonderfully touching in the close of Scene IX, when Jeanne says with quiet faith, "There is God who is the strongest." The actress was likewise affecting in the next scene, when Jeanne sings a few lines from a folk song (the only singing called for in the role).

The solo singers were uniformly effective, offering lots of dynamic phrasing.

Tamara Wilson's gleaming soprano registered fully. Soprano Hae Ji Chang and mezzo Kelley O'Connor blended exquisitely. Timothy Fallon coped well with the high-lying tenor part, and bass Morris Robinson made his presence felt strongly. There were vibrant contributions as well from Vijay Ghosh and Nathan Wyatt (I loved the Monty Python voice he tossed in at one point), along with the young, sweet voice of Caitlin DeLatte.

The choral forces summoned a mighty sound at the score's climatic points and got fully into the spirit of the wild trial scene, where Jeanne is tried by assorted (or sordid) animals.

I would not have minded a little more volume from the ondes martenot, but it was played expertly by Cynthia Millar. The orchestra rose to the occasion impressively. The brass, especially the pinpoint trumpets, contributed greatly.

Alsop ultimately made a strong case for "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher." Her sensitivity to the most personal moments in the work paid off, and she built some of the most atmospheric moments, such as the opening of Scene VII with its tolling bells, with great care. She also tapped into the mix of drama and strange rapture of the finale to telling effect.

Given the spatial limitations, stage director James Robinson could not generate much inn the way of action, but he clearly helped the performers animate the text, and lighting effects worked well to set mood and maintain focus.

One thing that could have used fine-tuning was the surtitles used to project translations of the French text. Too often, so many lines were crammed onto a single frame that I imagine a lot of folks in the hall would have welcomed binoculars.

This is not a piece likely to be done again any time soon, let alone done much better. Catch it tonight at the Meyerhoff, or head to Carnegie Hall tomorrow.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 16, 2011

Washington National Opera offers David Alden's startling version of 'Lucia'

Maybe it's just the contrast with a safe and predictable "La Traviata" the other day in Baltimore that makes the thoroughly unsafe and unpredictable "Lucia di Lammermoor" in DC so much fun.

OK, maybe fun isn't quite the right word -- not when you consider that poor little Lucia in Washington National Opera's production is seen cuddling the equally blood-splattered corpse of her short-lived husband, and that (SPOILER ALERT!) a gunshot-wounded Edgardo gets finished off by Enrico, who snaps the neck of his arch-enemy in the closing seconds.

No, Sam Peckinpah did not get his hands on "Lucia di Lammermoor." David Alden did, originally for English National Opera. His one heckuva powerful staging that has been reproduced here.

You can argue about all sorts of details in Alden's concept, or the black-and-white bleakness of the set (Charles Edwards) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel), conjuring the milieu of a decaying Victorian insane asylum. You can even dismiss the whole darn thing, as one disgruntled opera-goer was overheard doing the day I attended. But you sure won't walk away unmoved.

On balance, it's a remarkably brilliant attempt at cutting through coloratura veneer of this opera to remind everyone just how deep the tragic story is -- sibling betrayal, insanity, murder, suicide.

By updating the action to Donizetti's time, rather than the 16th-century setting of the Walter Scott novel that inspired the opera, Alden does not disturb the essence. The staging toys intriguingly with an inmates-running-the-asylum notion, which only intensifies what becomes here an almost Dickensian drama.

The production makes particularly effective allusions to ...

the bygone practice of putting on public shows involving mental patients. Even though you know early on that this will figure in the opera's famous mad scene, that scene still ends up being quite the shocker. Here, the onlookers get so much more of an eyeful than they ever bargained for.

The sight of Enrico playing with a doll in Act 2 before his confrontation with this sister provides a particularly unsettling image, echoing an earlier one of the girl-like Lucia and intensifying the overall off-kilter atmosphere.

Another recurring image is that of grim-faced portraits hung on walls, or get packed in boxes, or held, icon-like; the pictures help underline the family ties that bind and wound characters in the drama.

Alden's way of leaving performers in front of the scene-changing curtain is one more theatrically potent flourish.

Questionable touches include the sight of a hand (belonging to Lucia's maid, Alisa) emerging from behind a slowly opening door, in tacky, vintage-horror-movie fashion; and a retinue of thugs creeping into the Wolf's Crag scene to beat up Edgardo (the idea of Enrico entering that scene flask-in-hand, already drunk, is terrific).

In this visual and theatrical context, the use of an armonica for the mad scene, as Donizetti intended, is the crowning touch. (It is quite rare to hear this instrument in a "Lucia" performance, live or on recording.)

This Benjamin Franklin-perfected instrument of musical glasses produces a sound so eerie and ethereal that it can't help but reflect Lucia's fragile mental state. Heck, people used to think the instrument itself could trigger nervous disorders. (William Zeitler is the accomplished armonica player here.)

Two casts have been assembled for the run, which wraps up this weekend at the Kennedy Center.

The cast I heard, which performs again Friday, is headed by Sarah Coburn in the title role.  She's a riveting presence from the get-go.

A little more tonal color would be welcome, along with some more adventurous embellishments in her arias, but the soprano has a voice of admirable purity and security. And she knows how to burrow into the music incisively, a quality matched by exceptionally nuanced acting.

Saimir Pirgu makes an impressive Edgardo. The tenor favors a full-throttle volume, but the sound has body and resonance. And when he does file down the tone, the effect is striking. His singing in the final scene, especially the opening recitative, is superbly sculpted and shaded; his acting here, too, reaches an empathetic peak.

Michael Chioldi also delivers as Enrico. It has been quite a while since I've heard a baritone who can produce as rich a sound and so much vividly communicative phrasing into Enrico's Act 1 aria. Throughout, Chioldi uses his vocal and dramatic resources in rewarding fashion.

Mirco Palazzi sounds a little light as Raimondo, but he does some exceptionally affecting work in the narrative that leads into the mad scene. Corey Evan Rotz is a sturdy Arturo. Jeffrey Gwaltney shows considerable promise as Normanno. Sarah Mesko rounds out the cast ably as Alisa. The chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, does smoothly focused singing and handles the stylized acting with aplomb.

Philippe Auguin conducts the score with a keen appreciation for the curves of bel canto melody -- his approach to the Sextet is a particularly compelling case in point -- and draws dynamic playing from the orchestra.

With so much stimulus for ear and eye (Adam Silverman's lighting design is a key component of the latter), this "Lucia" will not be easy for forget.

Final performances are Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:42 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Opera Week at Towson U. includes Idol-style contest, one-act works, more

Among the many things happening out there these days is Opera Week at Towson University. Even though we're partway through said week, there's still a lot of activity left:

Wednesday night's diversion is "Opera Idol," an aria contest featuring TU voice students. The audience gets to pick the winners -- and gets a chance at some prizes, too, during an opera quiz.

On Friday, various scenes from works by Mozart, Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan will be performed by TU's Music for the Stage.

Saturday morning finds the focus shifting to ...

opera for children. "Little Red's Most Unusual Day," a take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale by John Davies incorporating music by Offenbach and Rossini, will be performed by Opera in a Can, directed by Phillip Collister. Additional activities for kids are planned around the performances.

On Saturday night, Music for the Stage presents three comic American one-act operas: "A Game of Chance" and "Not A Spanish Kiss" by Seymour Barab; "Captain Lovelock," by John Duke.

Opera Week wraps up Sunday afternoon with a performances by winners of the first Rosa Ponselle City of Caiazzo Vocal Competition, which was held last summer. Simeone Tartaglione conducts the concert. There will also be a pre-concert lecture about Ponselle's life and legacy by Bette Hankin, a friend of the legendary soprano.



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:13 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Midweek Madness: Half a Sextet from 'Lucia di Lammermoor'

If you've noticed people stumbling out of the Kennedy Center lately looking dazed, ashen or plain loopy, you'll know they've just attended Washington National Opera's boldly off-beat production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

I'll have more to say about that later, but, for now, I thought that the proximity of an opera all about insanity should help determine my latest Midweek Madness installment. So here's a taste of the great Sextet from "Lucia," as performed by ...

a hard-working, lip-syncing trio:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 15, 2011

Center Stage production serves up raw slice of life in 'American Buffalo'

Felling like one of the forgotten 99 percent lately?

Step into the seedy re-sell-it shop that has been painstakingly and brilliantly constructed in the Head Theater at Center Stage and you can be connected to enough distrust, frustration and contempt to fuel a thousand Occupy Wall Street movements.

David Mamet's "American Buffalo" may be set in mid-1970s Chicago and may be concerned with one attempt at one absurd little crime, but it could be set anywhere, any time.

And it could be the story of any scheme to strike out at a cold, unfair world that seems to have stacked everything against the little guy, a world where even a card game among friends might be rigged.

Mamet electrified the theater world with "American Buffalo" more than three decades ago. Something about the language -- not just the unfettered vulgarity of it, but the cadence and even poetry of it -- struck a nerve. And although society's losers have been the subject of many a work of literature, theater and cinema, Mamet's particular trio of misfits still stands out.

This is certainly ...

a good time to be hit by the raw force of "American Buffalo," with so many people out of work, out of luck, out of ideas.

When shop owner Don realizes, a little too late, that he may have sold a valuable coin too cheaply and plots to get it back, he's Everyman for a moment -- all of us who didn't buy that stock or dumped it too soon, who blinked at the car dealership instead of walking away. Don just wants to break the cycle, shift the odds in his favor, get a leg up.

Who hasn't wanted to do that? (We just don't all start thinking about crime.)

Don has befriended the unlikeliest of co-conspirators in a street kid named Bob, who may or may not have a clue. And then there's Teach, the volcanic pal who hones in on this sure thing, inevitably upsetting the fragile plan.

There is something curiously fascinating and touching about the way these three plot and dream, the way they clash and parry. Even when things turn ugly, you want to cheer them on and imagine that someday, somehow, they will do better.

It is particularly easy to root for the team assembled by Center Stage. The first-rate cast, directed with an extraordinary sense of pacing and nuance by Liesl Tommy, reaches a level of believability that is almost frightening.

William Hill offers a finely shaded, sympathetic performance as Don, a character filled with so many bad ideas, good intentions and sensible advice ("You can get an idea and deviate from it"). Hill doesn't just put telling inflections on every line, but also makes silences between them speak volumes. His persistently worried face is another rich communicator.

Rusty Ross effectively uses physical quirks and twitches to mirror the slow, off-kilter thinking inside the troubled Bob. In the finale, when everything has gone so weirdly wrong, the way Ross reaches out to clutch the shirttail of his mentor Don, proves quite poignant.

Jordan Lage nearly steals the show as Teach, moving through Don's store like a caged, underfed animal, lashing out physically or verbally with equal force. It's a startling achievement.

In masterful fashion, the actor conveys all the funny, scary and pathetic qualities of this spring-loaded guy, who wants to believe there's something out there for the likes of him, but knows better. Lage makes each Teach-ing moment hit home.

The cast has an assist in the realism department from the Neil Patel's super-detailed scenic design.

Even if you can't get up close to the set, you'll likely sense the completeness and depth. Every nook and cranny of Don's store is filled with second-hand stuff, even shelves that cannot be seen by anyone except the performers; the edge of the stage, too, is jammed with used merchandise.

Kathleen Geldard's spot-on costumes and Lap Chi Chu's deceptively simple lighting add the finishing layers on a trenchant production that exerts a chilling, long-lasting hold.

Performances continue through Dec. 11.

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

November 14, 2011

An encore from baritone William Sharp

The last Baltimore Symphony program showcased American music, including Aaron Copland's nostalgic "Old American Songs" with soloist William Sharp. I heard (and read) grumblings after the performance I attended about difficulty hearing the baritone in Meyerhoff Hall.

I heard grumblings after Renee Fleming sang there, too, one more reason why I chalk it up to the acoustics, not the vocalists. I don't think Meyerhoff is so great for solo violin, either, by the way. That said, I had no trouble getting the impact of Sharp's performance, even if a few words were swallowed up by the accompanying orchestral fabric.

I have always been impressed with his interpretive vibrancy, his ability to connect deeply with both words and music. I'd say his students at Peabody are damn lucky.

I thought a little encore from the baritone would be in order, especially for the benefit of anyone who didn't hear the BSO program -- or didn't hear him well enough at one of the performances. Here's a song by ...

Paul Bowles, an unjustly neglected composer, with a text by Tennessee Williams: "Heavenly Grass." This recording easily captures the many qualities that make Sharp such an admirable artist:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:15 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

November 11, 2011

Baltimore Symphony program showcases American music, familiar and rare

Marin Alsop's dedication to American music is well known and justly admired. Her interest in Edward Collins' contributions to American music is, I suspect, much less familiar -- just like Edward Collins himself.

Alsop, who has recorded many works by Collins, chose one of them to balance the standard fare by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland in the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program. It's a particularly timely choice, too, given Veterans Day.

The "Tragic Overture," dating form the early 1920s, sums up Collins' response to his experiences fighting in World War I -- he first titled the piece "1914." The score has a dramatic punch, alleviated occasionally with sweeter material, but references to "Taps" near the end leave no doubt as to the underlying message of the music.

The Illinois-born Collins, who died in 1951, enjoyed modest success during his lifetime and may enjoy a degree of renewed interest at some point.

Alsop certainly gave every indication of commitment to the man and his neo-romantic, expertly crafted music Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Hall. She drew from the BSO a dynamic performance of the "Tragic Overture" that needed only ...

more solid intonation from the brass at the close.

The audience's hearty response suggested that folks here would welcome an opportunity to hear more by this unsung American composer.

The Copland portion of the evening included the familiar "Appalachian Spring." The woodwind section seemed a little out of sorts in places, but the ensemble otherwise produced a beautifully nuanced sound as Alsop shaped the score with a tender touch.

Copland's "Old American Songs," an endearing souvenir of 19th century gems, requires a vocal soloist with a thoroughly natural, highly communicative style. That's exactly what the BSO had in baritone William Sharp.

This was a long overdue engagement -- the exemplary singer, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, last appeared with the orchestra in 1992.

Meyerhoff is not the most hospitable acoustic environment for a singer, and Sharp does not have a particularly large voice. Still, his articulation was so clear, his phrasing so genial and telling that he communicated the essence of each of the seven songs with ease.

He achieved particularly exquisite results in the ballad "Long Time Ago," but was just as impressive letting loose in "I Bought Me a Cat" and other lighthearted items.

Alsop made a valiant effort to keep the orchestra from swamping the baritone, while also drawing out delectable subtleties of Copland's instrumental coloring. The ensemble's  playing had considerable character.

Capping the evening was a buoyant account of Gershwin's evergreen "An American in Paris."

The full program will be repeated Sunday afternoon; the Copland items will be featured on Saturday evening's "Off the Cuff" presentation.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 10, 2011

On the Record: Monument Piano Trio; Victoria Chiang, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

Two recordings with Baltimore connections caught my ear lately.

The Monument Piano Trio's debut CD arrives just in time. The group's violinist, Igor Yuzefovich, recently accepted the post of concertmaster at the Hong Kong Philharmonic (he has been serving as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's assistant concertmaster), so a change in personnel looks likely at some point down the line.

(Betting money has BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney stepping in; that could work out very well, I imagine.)

Meanwhile, the abilities of the current trio, so familiar to local audiences, have been preserved on an Analog Arts recording packed with great repertoire by ...

Brahms, Shostakovich and Paul Schoenfield.

As I've always found at concerts by the ensemble, the technical level is high, the interpretive level equally so, on this CD, which was recorded at the University of Baltimore.

Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard maintain an effective tension in the Piano Trio No. 2 by Brahms, but they also offer spaciousness and dynamic warmth for the most darkly lyrical passages in the score.

The players tap into the desolate world of Shostakovich's profoundly disturbing Trio No. 2, generating a performance of considerable emotional power and rich atmosphere. 

Schoenfield's "Cafe Music" provides a great dessert after the two heavy entrees. This late 1980s piece, inspired by the composer's stint as piano player at a Minneapolis restaurant, manages to combine just about every light genre from the old days -- rag, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, etc. Even a Chassidic melody gets woven into the fabric.

It all adds up to a fresh, entertaining, often witty experience, and the Monument players deliver it with panache.

The viola has been the target of jokes for so long that some folks may have forgotten that it is a wonderful instrument, capable of a deep, mellow sound. Too bad more composers didn't get inspired by those qualities. The repertoire for viola remains rather slender, compared to that for violin.

But there certainly is material to be found, and more than hour's worth fills a Naxos release featuring Victoria Chiang, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member. She's the soloist in 18th-century concertos by Carl Philipp Stamitz and Franz Anton Hoffmeister, backed by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar. The disc was recorded at Goucher College, the orchestra's home base.

The concertos are pretty and solidly written, if formulaic; they don't exactly leave an indelible imprint. But Chiang's dynamic, expressive playing makes the most of the music with her beautiful tone and tasteful phrasing. She receives smooth, stylish backing from the ensemble.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 9, 2011

A 'Glee' episode to cherish for lots of reasons

OK, get your sniggering out of the way now. Yes, I am a Gleek who looks forward to every episode of "Glee," even after sitting through the so-so and repetitive ones.

And what I saw last night reconfirmed my belief that this is an inspired and inspiring show.

I know that some folks think just the opposite. I read one devastating put down in a UK paper last season that made me almost hate "Glee" too -- until I came to my senses. Come on, this is not just another TV show.

It manages to cram in so many issues of teen angst, so many points of view about politics, sociology, sexuality and community -- all to a soundtrack of great songs (all right, mostly great). And for those of us who still carry around baggage from our younger years, especially concerning our orientation, "Glee" provides an amazing uplift.

We see the same old bullying, the same old stupidity, from kids and adults alike, in this show, but we also see ...

a lot of triumphs in the lives of these characters -- a perfect verbal comeback from Kurt; a dizzying, parent-defying dance routine from Mike; full-throttle diva turns by Rachel or Mercedes; a dollop of common sense from Kurt's dad.

Anyway, back to this week's episode, which drove home some great points, one of them unintentional.

In the excerpts from "West Side Story" woven into the plot, Lea Michele proved again why she would have made a highly credible Fanny Brice in the "Funny Girl" revival that has just been scrapped (come on -- did you really buy the Lauren Ambrose angle?).

Not saying that said revival would not still have been sunk by nervous investors and a shaky economy. But I am saying Michele clearly has the chops and, I imagine, the following to make her bankable on Broadway.

I thought that all of the "West Side Story" passages clicked in this "Glee" entry because they were truly, engagingly sung. The brilliance of Bernstein's music seemed to catch hold with the cast, seemed to mean something to them -- a welcome affirmation of a 50-year-old musical.

Yes, I know about vocal enhancers, but I don't think these performances, especially the exquisitely molded "One Hand, One Heart" duet between Michele and Darren Criss as Blaine, needed any electronics.

In the end, what deeply impressed and touched me the most about this episode was the way it allowed the relationship between Kurt  (the first-rate Chris Colfer) and Blaine to blossom in what seemed a very natural progression.

My partner and I -- we're far from ancient, but we did live through a very different time -- never expected to see gay characters depicted so sensibly and, more importantly, so romantically on a commercial TV series. "Glee" has pushed the envelope way off the table.

It's not just the discreet kisses, but the look in their eyes that is at once unapologetic, hopeful, tender and afraid (can anyone, anything this wonderful really last?).

There are so many fun plot lines intersecting in "Glee," heightened this season by Sue Sylvester's scary run for Congress. I look forward to seeing how all of them develop. But if I never saw another episode, I'd feel content knowing that I got to witness Kurt and Blaine get so much closer, and to hear so much potent singing from everyone along the way.

I realize that there is bound to be a backlash because of the teen sex in this episode (so tastefully suggested that some folks could have missed it completely). Get over it. This stuff happens. What really came through last night, more than anything else, was that simple little concept called love.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:41 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Everyman Theatre pries delightfully into 'Private Lives'

If love were all, relationships might be terribly boring. That couples are apt to encounter, with some frequency, various frictions of a non-amorous nature may well be what keeps them stuck together. It sure can make them fun to watch.

So Noel Coward reminds us in “Private Lives.” An antic revival of this 1930 comedy of bad manners is currently ripping up the boards at Everyman Theatre.

In a fast-paced three acts, Coward generates a clever, witty whirl from a simple set-up. At a seaside French hotel, Amanda and Elyot, now divorced, collide on their honeymoons with fresh spouses. It turns out that the old emotional bonds between the two were not as neatly severed as the legal ones.

The playwright, who often seems to be channeling Oscar Wilde in the quip department, skewers notions of romance, fidelity, compromise, sensitivity — you name it.

“Let’s be superficial and … enjoy the party as much as we can.” Elyot tells Amanda. Forget being sensible or serious. That’s “just what they want,” all those “futile moralists who try to make life unbearable.”

The more Elyot and Amanda thwart conventionality, ...

and the more they fall back into the fierce squabbling that sent them to divorce court, the more obvious they are made for each other. Whether they can ever realize and deal with it is the question mark that keeps the play spinning.

And spin it does in this production, the first work directed for Everyman by one of the company’s longtime resident actors, Carl Schurr. He gets tight ensemble work from a cast headed by local favorites Deborah Hazlett, as Amanda, and Bruce Nelson, as Elyot.

Neither performer summons a consistently convincing up-market British accent, but that’s a small matter in light of the volatile chemistry between them.

They handle the verbal and physical comedy of their roles with panache. The drag-out fights are, of course, the most entertaining. (It does make you feel awfully wicked these days, though, to laugh when Elyot declares that “some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”)

Although Hazlett and Nelson tear into those battle scenes with a vengeance, they also make it possible to detect what’s really going on behind the barbs, under the umbrage.

Coward clearly gave the best material to Elyot and Amanda. (He and the great Gertrude Lawrence played these parts triumphantly onstage; the sometimes stormy friendship of the two artists provided inspiration for the play.) But the other characters can gain nearly equal footing if performed with enough bold and imaginative flourishes. That’s what happens here.

Erin Lindsey Krom has a bright romp as Sibyl, Elyot’s airy bride. And Peter Wray, looking like one of those twitty, tweedy types in Monty Python skits, leaves an amusing imprint as Victor, Amanda’s on-the-rebound husband, who cannot abide Elyot’s “incessant trivial flippancy.” Krom and Wray have the accents down nicely, too.

And Sophie Hinderberger makes the most of her cameo as a temperamental French maid.

Daniel Ettinger’s sets look almost too meticulous and pristine, but they allow the antics to flow easily in decidedly handsome surroundings. The costumes designed by David Burdick punch up the atmosphere; Amanda’s classy outfits are especially evocative, like something from a vintage MGM movie.

A songwriter capable of considerable melodic charm, Coward added a crucial musical element to “Private Lives” in the form of a lilting waltz, “Someday I’ll Find You.” (It’s integrated smoothly into this production, including a nice vocalized version by Nelson.)

There’s a line from the rarely heard intro to that song that pretty much captures the essence of the play: “Can’t you remember the fun we had? Time is so fleet.”

The production runs through Dec. 11


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Midweek Madness: The ultimate 'Stairway to Heaven' collection

OK, this Midweek Madness diversion is especially for all of my hard rock-lovin' blog readers (not that I actually have any, but just in case).

It's one of those brilliant commercials from the incomparable SCTV program, this one touting ...

a not-sold-in-stores (no store would stock it) collection of multiple artists interpreting the Led Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 8, 2011

Power outage hits An die Musik, causes concert postponements

An die Musik, the retail store/concert room on Charles St., remains in the dark. A blown circuit breaker late last week caused a power outage has already caused the cancellation of a piano recital and the postponement of several other events through Tuesday.

The electrical glitch, which also put the phone system out of order, will not be a quick, easy fix, given the dated wiring in the building, said owner Henry Wong. He is due back in Baltimore Wednesday from Vancouver.

Check the An die Musik website for updates on concerts.

Among the events on this week's currently still on the schedule: Eric Kennedy and Shodekeh (Thursday) and "Ebony & Irony VIII: Un-Natural Disasters," a productions by Joyce J. Scott and Lorraine L. Whittlesey (Saturday).


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 7, 2011

Weekend review: Pro Musicia Rara, conductor Lee Mills, composer Jake Runestad

My Sunday afternoon musical outings included a delectable Pro Musica Rara program and a Peabody concert that showcased some very promising talent.

Pro Musica Rara, an organization that deserves much more support, put together a colorful selection of vocal and instrumental items from the personal collection of Jane Austen, supplemented by some items she and her set may well have encountered.

There's a lot to be said for a concert that puts aside weighty matters in favor of good old-fashioned entertainment, especially when the musicians are as engaging as they were on this occasion at Towson University's Fine Arts Center.

Pro Musica was fortunate to have guest artist Julianne Baird (pictured) back for this event; the soprano is a major artist who knows not just how to delivered historically informed performances of early music, but how to eliminate even the slightest trace of the academic while doing so.

Accompanied by Pro Musica's Eva Mengelkoch on the fortepiano, Baird started things in silvery-toned fashion with ...

an aria from Handel's "Susanna." The singer was likewise sweet of voice and tender of expression in "She Rose and Let Me In," partnered in this case by cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear.

Throughout the afternoon, the three music-makers seemed to have a great time. Baird can make even the slightest of ditties sound substantive and charming, which she did here to notable effect in "The Irishman" and "The Sapling Oak Lost."

The singer also gamely shouted out the descriptive titles of the various sections that make up "The Battle of Prague," a case of pure shlock, 18th-century style, that generated considerable gusto from Mengelkoch, Whear and a guest percussionist.

On her own, Mengelkoch also delivered Beethoven's Variations of "Rule Britannia," which is pretty insignificant for Beethoven, but perfect for an afternoon re-creating Jane Austen's drawing room. In between the performances, the players recited music-related passages from the author's works, which added an extra degree of charm to the proceedings.

Earlier in the day, I stopped by Peabody to hear a concert led by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra-Peabody Conducting Fellow Lee Mills, who is a candidate for artist diploma at the conservatory (the event was "in partial fulfillment of the requirements" for that diploma). The opportunity to hear a work by Peabody alum Jake Runestad (pictured) on the program was another draw.

The orchestra, put together for the occasion, made an admirable showing. They responded energetically and, for the most part, smoothly to Mills throughout. He approached the restless Overture to Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" with a fine balance of propulsion and lyrical breadth.

I couldn't stay for all of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" at the close, but the first three movements emerged with an effective vibrancy. The third proved particularly rewarding, with some beautifully molded phrasing from the podium and in the stands (harpist Jordan Thomas added a good deal of sonic character here).

The highpoint of the concert for me was the piece by Runestad, "As Rain to the Sea," for soprano and orchestra, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg (I didn't think anyone under, um, a certain age read Sandburg anymore).

At the heart of the poem: "What is truth? ... How much do the wisest of the world's men know about where the massed human procession is going?" In the last line, the poet describes how "all things human rise from the mob and relapse and rise again as rain to the sea." Runestad responds to these lines with particular expressive power.

This is a big score with big ideas. I was struck by the composer's firm grasp of orchestration, from the most percussive, brassy outbursts to a highly imaginative use of delicate pizzicato at the close, which creates a wonderfully atmospheric fade-out full of subtle tensions.

When unleashed at full throttle, which is quite often in this score, the effect of all that instrumental force lined up against one soprano reminded me of David Del Tredici's "Alice" works -- except that Del Tredici uses amplified voice to help even the playing field. I wonder if that wouldn't be such a bad thing in "As Rain to the Sea," since few of the words could be deciphered in this performance.

Nonetheless, soloist Lisa Perry made quite an impression with the pure, gleaming timbre of her voice. Mills guided the orchestra through the eventful music steadily, bringing out the taut dissonances with considerable force and molding the calmer passages tellingly.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:18 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

Monday Musings: More on the debut of Lyric Opera Baltimore

Baltimore doesn't like to part with beloved, long-established people, places and things.

When the Baltimore Opera Company folded under the weight of debt and poor judgment, a number of people wanted very much to bring it back -- or at least something very much like it. They succeeded in what has to be record time.

For a community, still gripped by the Great Recession, to see grand opera back onstage at the Lyric only three years after the previous company's unexpected swan song is an extraordinary achievement. Everyone involved has to feel great after this weekend's debut by Lyric Opera Baltimore with two performances of "La Traviata."

As I wrote previously, there was a lot a deja vu in the air Friday night. The look and feel of things was much like the old days. Just about the only thing missing in the lobby was ...

the woman selling in a sing-song voice "li-BRET-ti."

The holdovers from Baltimore Opera are relatively few, but they are exceedingly important, starting with Jim Harp, who was such a key artistic figure in the old organization. The Lyric wisely hired him after the liquidation to help keep opera alive in the historic theater.

Harp had been as much a public face for Baltimore Opera as its longtime general director Michael Harrison, but without the negative baggage. He was exactly the connective thread the Lyric needed if something like the old company was ever going to return. (I don't think there was ever a chance that something totally unlike the old company was ever going to be considered.)

Some dynamic folks from the previous board also made the transition to Lyric Opera Baltimore, providing the base for what could be a healthy, sustainable company. Money will still be essential, of course, if not as much as the old company needed, since administrative and production costs have all been reduced. There still will have to be a solid financial framework, with big time donors stepping up regularly, so there can be future growth and, eventually (I hope), risk-taking.

For now, Lyric Opera is going to steer a conservative course, leaving it to Peabody Opera Theatre, which will have a presence at the Lyric for the first time, to spice things up -- Stravinsky's brilliant work "The Rake's Progress" will be performed by the conservatory company later this month.

"La Traviata" proved that Lyric Opera can deliver the goods. It was not exactly a life-changing production, but it proved effective on balance, thanks largely to Elizabeth Futral's assured, absorbing portrayal of the title role. From her defiant "Sempre libera" to a riveting last act, the soprano showed what it means to burrow into a role. Another plus: Her voice sounded stronger, steadier and warmer than when I last heard her.

The other principals disappointed, especially tenor Eric Margiore, who favored one volume and tone color. But he and baritone Jason Stearns got the job done. So did the rest of the cast, sometimes with a good deal of color -- notably from Rolando Sanz (Gastone), Coleen Daly (Flora) and Brendan Cooke (Grenvil).

I wish conductor Steven White had left a stronger imprint on the score. More nuances of tempo and dynamics would have done wonders. Still, he did some impressive work, especially in the finale to Act 2, which was shaped with a good deal of dramatic weight.  Some fine work by the BSO in the pit all evening; the orchestra will surely get even more smoothly into the operatic mode if the association with the new company continues.

The staging, directed by Crystal Manich, needed a lot more flair and imagination than the grating explosion of laughter in the opening party scene (or the clumsy burst of dancing in the subsequent party scene). And, for all the surface prettiness of the scenery and costumes, the production looked like a moth-balled idea of what opera should be.

That said, the significance of this weekend cannot be overlooked. Against the odds, Lyric Opera Baltimore has emerged to resume a valued tradition of filling a great old theater with a noble art form.

PHOTO (by Sharon Redmond and Rich Riggins) COURTESY OF LYRIC OPERA BALTIMORE


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:28 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 5, 2011

Lyric Opera Baltimore debuts with 'La Traviata'

When the financially strapped Baltimore Opera Company went into liquidation in 2009, after more than five decades, it seemed unlikely that a new organization would take its place any time soon. But the unlikely has happened.

On Friday night, Lyric Opera Baltimore debuted with a production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” that provided a dash of déjà vu along with a good feeling about the future.

Many of the singers onstage at the Arthur and Patricia Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, both soloists and choristers, performed with the previous company. In the pit was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which, until the 1990s, used to play for old company.

But a lot is different about Lyric Opera Baltimore — new management, new board of directors, new financial structure (the company is a part of the theater, not a lessee, as Baltimore Opera was). And the building itself is different, too, thanks to a major renovation of the backstage facilities that makes bigger sets and smoother set changes possible.

Friday’s inaugural event (there is another performance Sunday afternoon) had to overcome a couple of technical glitches first. Between a problem with the stage lighting and another at the will-call window, the curtain was delayed for about a half-hour.

The audience seemed to take it all in stride, though, and there were loud cheers when ...

Ed Brody, chairman of the Lyric Foundation‘s Board of Trustees, announced from the stage: “Welcome to the return of grand opera to Baltimore.” (Brody also asked for a moment of silence in memory of philanthropist and former actress Patricia Breslin Modell, who died last month. Art Modell was in the house.)

When the opera finally started, it was evident that a serious, respectable company has been assembled with remarkable speed. The performance certainly had enough going for it to whet the appetite for the remainder of the season.

Chief among the assets was soprano Elizabeth Futral as Violetta, the consumptive courtesan whose chance at love is cruelly thwarted. Futral matched highly expressive, often brilliant vocalism with acting of considerable refinement and poignancy.

As Alfredo, Violetta’s love interest, tenor Eric Margiore cut a romantic figure, but revealed a voice of limited color and, in the upper reaches, stamina. Aside from some drooping intonation, baritone Jason Stearns did sturdy, stirring work as Alfredo’s myopic father, Germont.

Supporting roles were ably performed. The chorus summoned a big, mostly well-balanced sound, and the BSO played with its accustomed poise. Conductor Steven White varied between routine time-beating and beautifully molded phrasing.

Stage director Crystal Manich took a disappointing, by-the-book approach; the choral scenes looked particularly clunky. The sets from Chicago Lyric Opera filled out the stage nicely, but looked dated, even a little stuffy. Visually, more bland opera than grand.

PHOTO by:  Sharon Redmond and Rich Riggins

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 4, 2011

Weekend treats for the concert-goer

I worry about you not having enough music in your diet, so here are a few things you should consider taking in this weekend:

UPDATE: A power outage on Charles St. has caused Michael Sheppard's recital to be canceled. Perhaps he will be get another opportunity when he gets back from Hawaii. The dynamic pianist Michael Sheppard gives a recital Friday night at An die Musik. He'll be trying out a program that he will perform next week at the University of Hawaii.

In addition to a sonata by Mozart and several pieces by Chopin and Liszt (including that latter's finger-busting transcription of Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture), Sheppard will play one of his own works: Fantasy on Themes from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Speaking of Sheppard, he and his colleagues of the ...

Monument Piano Trio -- violinist Igor Yuzefovich and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski -- will perform works by Brahms, Shostakovich and Paul Schoenfield from their first CD in a concert Monday evening at the University of Baltimore.

Back to Friday. The Peabody Concert Orchestra, led by Hajime Teri Murai, moves uptown to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for a colorful program that includes Mozart's Symphony No. 25 and Respighi's "Pines of Rome."

Also on tap is a work you don't get to hear all that often: Joseph Jongen's brilliant "Symphonie Concertante," with organ soloist Daniel J. Sansone.

Sunday afternoon's lineup includes an enticing concert at Towson University by Pro Musica Rara that promises a glimpse into the musical tastes of one of the most popular writers in Western literature. The program offers vocal and instrumental pieces that Jane Austen kept at home.

The guest artist is Julianne Baird, a marvelous soprano prized for her interpretations of early music. Joining her will be Pro Musica's excellent cellist Allen Whear and fortepianist Eva Mengelkoch.

And since the first Sunday of the month falls this weekend, that means the Bach Concert Series has a program at Christ Lutheran in the Inner Harbor. The program includes Cantata 47, as well as the Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, performed by organist Daniel Aune.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

A picture is worth a thousand viola jokes

I love the viola. Honest. Some of my best friends are violists. Well, maybe one, but still.

That said, viola jokes do have a certain undeniable appeal. And when I was forwarded this picture, I just had to share, since ...

it's as good as any viola joke I've heard lately:



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:07 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 3, 2011

Nigel Reed triumphs as doomed actor in 'Barrymore' at Rep Stage

So he drank a little too much. And fooled around a little too much. And recited some wonderfully off-color stories or limericks a little too often. Oh yes, and forgot his lines a lot.

But John Barrymore sure was fun, as audiences can rediscover in a welcome production from Rep Stage that brings the storied actor to life for a couple of hours.

"Barrymore," a play by William Luce that became a notable vehicle for Christopher Plummer on Broadway in 1996, in this case provides a terrific showcase for a regional favorite, Nigel Reed. He enjoys quite a triumph.

The play effectively provides a biographical sketch within a plausible framework. The set-up is that Barrymore, starved for cash and a comeback ("I have enough money to last the rest of my life," he says, "provided I die right now"), arrives ...

at a theater to rehearse for "Richard III."

It's 1942, just a matter of weeks before the actor's death at the age of 60. He's aware that time is clicking loudly, but he's not about to let on.

The play is very well sourced; quips and antics have the ring and sting of truth. Barrymore's famous inability to remember lines provides particularly rich fodder.

(He was known on movie sets for keeping blackboards just off-camera with his dialogue written on them. When he told a friend that he wanted to play "Macbeth" in the Hollywood Bowl, Barrymore was asked: "How would you get blackboards big enough?" The reply: "I'd have airplanes skywriting.")

In the play, the legendary actor continually shouts "Line!" at a terribly patient prompter, each interruption leading to another fascinating riff on reminiscence or regret.

Reed seizes on these opportunities to flesh out the character. He even manages to look a little like the real thing, though it would take some serious makeup to approximate the deeply haggard appearance Barrymore had toward the end.

Reed flings bon mots with elan and expertly times punchlines of zingers so that you almost never see them coming, as when a description of 20 years of blissful marriage to one of his wives ends with: "Then we met." Or when -- marriage is a topic that recurs often -- he observes that "Wagner had the decency to give his 'Wedding March' the tempo of a dirge."

In Act 2, Barrymore is much the worse for wear, now pathetically attired in a Richard costume, but no closer to grasping the challenge before him. Something of a mad scene ensues, and Reed makes the most of it with acting of exceptional skill and sensitivity.

The role of the patient prompter, who tries as long as possible to help the legend regain his footing ("You're worse than a drunk, you're a coward, " he tells his idol), is not as thoroughly written -- no surprise. But D. Grant Cloyd gives it effective color.

Terry Cobb's set design is admirably evocative, as are the costumes from Denise Umland. Steven Carpenter directs the production with a sure, unobtrusive hand.

It is possible to pick a nit or two with the script. A passage about another iconic actor, John Gilbert, for example, repeats the dubious notion that Gilbert's voice was so absurdly high that his transition from silents to talkies proved laughable. It was the dialogue he was given that did him in, a fact that Barrymore presumably would have appreciated.

But such things prove insignificant given the overall authenticity and sympathy in this portrait of a doomed man and the noble profession that, at his best, he served so brilliantly.

"Barrymore" runs through Nov. 13.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

November 2, 2011

Midweek Madness: Noel Coward in full flower

Everyman Theatre's revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" opens this week, an event that made me think of the playwright himself as a perfect source for the latest Midweek Madness installment.

So here's dear Noel and one of his ever so witty songs as only he could deliver it, complete with impeccable diction and some divine gestures:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:27 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Outtakes from George Hamilton's promo for 'La Cage'

For those enjoying "La Cage aux Folles" at the Hippodrome this week -- and you should catch this production if you can (my review:http://,0,3319263.story) -- I thought you might enjoy these outtakes from a promo George Hamilton shot recently for the tour.

Hamilton is a hoot offstage, as I can attest from a nearly hour-long phone interview the other day, and this short video clip ...

captures his personality pretty well:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:26 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

November 1, 2011

Performance Workshop Theatre stages Miller's 'A View From the Bridge'

There's a cancerous, unspeakable force driving Eddie Carbone, the anti-hero longshoreman in "A View From the Bridge," Arthur Miller's classic play enjoying an accomplished revival from Performance Workshop Theatre.

Having created a cocoon to raise Catherine, his terribly enticing niece, Eddie simply can't bear the thought that she might break free someday. His ordinary world -- loyal wife, dependable job, close-knit community -- just wouldn't have enough going for it without Catherine in it.

The physically pure, but morally contaminated, arrangement that Eddie enjoys at home could not possible last, of course.

By the time an exotically handsome young man and his brother -- cousins of Eddie's wife -- arrive illegally from Italy, the Carbone household is already heading toward a crisis point. The presence of guests merely speeds it up a little.

Watching Eddie self-destruct is never pleasant, but ...

it sure can make for great theater (and great opera, too -- William Bolcom's adaptation of the play is one of the most successful new operas in the past several decades).

Performance Workshop Theatre provides a close-up experience in the company's welcoming home on Harford Road.

This organization, with roots extending back to 1976, offers several productions and educational activities each season. The "workshop" part of the title doesn't seem to me entirely helpful, suggesting as it does a not-quite-finished state. Be that as it may, there is nothing unfinished about this "View From the Bridge." It's one of the better efforts I've seen among Baltimore's non-Equity theater groups.

Co-artistic director Marlyn G. Robinson guides the action fluidly and, for the most part, tautly through Roy Steinman's compact, evocative set.

The company's other co-artistic director, Marc Horwitz, heads the cast as Eddie. He's a little too soft-spoken and deliberate at times, as if determined to conceal the character's emotional turmoil until the last possible moment. But the actor rises tellingly to the occasion when the plot turns the corner from drama to tragedy.

Stacy Downs does endearing work as the naive, openhearted Catherine. As Eddie's all too aware wife, Beatrice, Katherine Lyons gives a standout performance, as beautifully nuanced in voice as in gesture. And she's genuinely affecting at those terrible points in the play when the truth must be laid out coldly on the modestly covered table in the Carbone living room.

Christopher Kinslow doesn't look too convincing as a blond, but his colorful acting brings Rodolpho persuasively to life. Michael Donlan likewise fleshes out the role of Marco. With an admirably subtle, yet richly communicative, style, Michael Salconi makes a compelling Alfieri (Jonathan Dillard's lighting worked especially well for the breaking-of-the-fourth-wall segments).

All in all, the production effectively illuminates Miller's sobering view of the ever-fragile human condition.

Performances continue through Sunday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:03 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Guest blogger reviews recording of works by Peabody composer Michael Hersch

Because of a theater gig, I will not be able to attend what promises to be a major event of the fall season -- a performance of "the wreckage of flowers" by Michael Hersch, presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series Tuesday night at An die Musik. I am a great admirer of Hersch, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member who creates works of startling complexity, sincerity and communicative richness. "the wreckage of flowers" is a notable example. Guest blogger Logan K. Young reviews a recent recording that includes this piece:  

By Logan K. Young

Born in Washington, based in Baltimore, composer Michael Hersch is indeed a local marvel. In fact, given his myriad early successes, increasingly high-profile commissions and prodigious keyboard skills, I’d argue he’s the Beltway’s own Thomas Adès. No, that’s not hyperbole; Hersch really is that unique a voice, that solid a musician.

Only a few months over 40, he’s already on his fifth record for Vanguard Classics -- no small feat for a composer with regular office hours at Peabody, too.

This newest release collects three of Hersch's most refined works yet: the intimate “Five Fragments” and “Fourteen Pieces After Texts of Primo Levi” (both for unaccompanied violin), as well as the startlingly beautiful “the wreckage of flowers: 21 pieces after poetry and prose of Czesław Milosz.”

Brilliantly rendered here by new music specialists Miranda Cuckson on violin and Blair McMillen at the piano, “the wreckage of flowers” finds Hersch in a particularly concentrated mood. None of the movements ...

breaks the three-minute mark, but this brevity begets both soul and wit.

There’s an economy of means, compositionally, that’s implied whenever an artist works in miniature, but Hersch has always been able to speak volumes with Spartan wares. Having mastered the single, over-arching gesture long ago, neither formal rigor nor aesthetic bite is lost to duration.

The late Czesław Milosz was a Polish Nobel laureate who defected to France in 1951. Apropos, his most famous work, "The Captive Mind," is a study of how intellectuals behave under a repressive regime. Working only with violin and piano here, it’s hard not to imagine Hersch feeling somewhat stymied, himself, while writing. After all, he’s made quite the name for himself thanks to his large orchestral works.

Listen, though, to Movement XX (subtitled, after Milosz, “Farther, under the arch of ancient ruins, you see a few tiny walking figures...”). When the piano finally enters, make no mistake, it’s a deliberate, even frightening ripieno. That Hersch can make a duo sound like a full band is a testament to his scoring here. If we’re to extrapolate from Milosz’s text, those tiny walking figures in the distance are now breathing down our necks:

Writing on Hersch’s focus in the album’s liners, Cuckson the violinist notes, “It can at times be almost unbearably intense.” So honed is Hersch’s compositional acumen, by condensing things down to just a few pregnant minutes per movement, “the wreckage of flowers” ends up feeling like a piece twice its length. But that’s hardly a criticism, I’d contend. It’s simply the work of a truly captive mind.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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