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December 29, 2011

Winding up the Mahler year at the keyboard

To mark the centennial of Mahler's death in 2011, I finally read, cover to cover, the last volume in the monumental biography of the composer by Henry-Louis de la Grange.

It's a 1,700-page tome, so it took several months of that year for me to get through it. Not that I'm a pathetically slow reader, just that I usually don't feel much like reading after a typical computer-heavy day at the paper, and .... well, no point in making excuses. I made it. That's what counts. OK, so I didn't read every appendix, but will return to them I'm sure.

Anyway, it was a terrific experience to become immersed in the minutiae of the last years in Mahler's life -- and I do mean minutiae. De la Grange crams in everything and everybody; the footnotes alone (yes, I did read all of them), would make a good-sized book.

Even when things became just a little dull as a result of all that detail, it was still worth it. The net effect was that Mahler seemed more alive and approachable than ever.

And I kept discovering little things that intrigued me. The gay couple, for example, Mahler befriended with apparent ease and sincerity. The fact that Mahler conducted at the National Theatre in my hometown of Washington, something I had somehow overlooked before. Reading about his trip made me realize that he also saw my current home city of Baltimore on the way to and from, if only from a train window. Cool.

The book exposed some really big problems, bigger than I previously realized, with ...

New York critics during Mahler's time at the Metropolitan Opera and, especially, New York Philharmonic. It seems impossible that so many of them could have been so blind (or deaf). De la Grange takes understandable delight in also including reviews Mahler received on tour with the Philharmonic -- not the first or last time that critics in the provinces have been closer to the mark than big city fellers.

Like recent biographies of Tchaikovsky, this one persuasively debunks the notion of a composer filled with premonitions of his own death. Mahler, de la Grange argues, was far from a deep depression until the fatal illness struck.

The composer/conductor would have returned for at least one more Philharmonic season, despite the problems he was having with some folks in management or the board. Mahler's untimely death seemed all the more pitiful as I read the closing pages. Imagine the things this guy could have done had he lived even another year or two.

As my final Mahler-year fixation, I have been enjoying a Christmas gift from Robert -- a new reprint of a 1920s book of excerpts from Mahler symphonies arranged for solo piano. Ages ago, I found some of this music in a public library (San Diego, I think) and made now well-worn copies of a few selections. It's great to have the whole thing in one neat volume.

No idea why there is nothing from the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, but there are plenty of other things to tackle, which I have been exploring during my week off from work. I find it curiously satisfying to pluck out this music at the keyboard, as if the mere act of producing the notes brings me a little closer to Mahler. (Of course, all my tempos are terribly slow. But, hey, I like my Veni Creator Spiritus on the deliberate side.)

In the next few days, I may get out and stumble through all my other Mahler transcriptions -- a vintage Peters edition of Symphony No. 5 and  wonderful arrangements done recently by Serge Ollive

I'll give Mahler a little rest after this blast, but I know he will still figure in my musical life in 2012. And 2013. And 2014. And .....

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:23 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 28, 2011

Midweek Madness: A year-end blow-out

For my last Midweek Madness feature of 2011, I figured you deserved a bonus, since you have put up with so much nonsense.

To begin, how about something totally insane: Mrs. Miller in a duet with Jimmy Durante (you young 'uns will have to ask some older folks who Mrs. Miller was, and how she managed to invade the entertainment world in the 1960s).

Next, something equally disastrous, this time from live opera. During a 1940 performance of "Rigoletto" in St. Louis, the famed Quartet from starts promisingly -- tenor Jan Kiepura phrases with beguiling elegance. But then ...

things slip away fast and it's soon every singer for him/herself.

Hold onto your ears and dig in:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)

Singing in the New Year with the Bach Concert Series

Among the unsung stalwarts of Baltimore's musical life, the Bach Concert Series figures highly.

With modest financial resources, the organization manages to put on monthly concerts during the music season at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor, covering a great deal of Bach's immortal repertoire. Most of the performances are free, which only adds to the value of the venture.

The Bach Concert Series will sing in the New Year on Sunday with an apt choice -- Cantata 16, "Herr Gott, dich loben wir," which was composed for use on New Year's Day (see below for an audio clip). T. Herbert Dimmock will conduct the orchestra and chorus. The soloists are tenor Richard Kennedy and bass Mark Wilson.

The program also offers the G major solo cello suite, with soloist Gretchen Gettes, and a selection from the Orchestral Suite No. 2.

If you would like to get in on the performing end of things, the Bach Concert Series is looking for some additional singers for the presentation this season of one of the cornerstones of Western music. Here are the audition details:

Herb Dimmock plans to expand the chorus, currently at 45 members, by 6 to 8 singers for performances of the St. Matthew Passion, March 31-April 1.

Interested singers should be able to "sight read well and blend with other voices." Auditions are held by appointment. Call 717-533-6873 or email:

The Bach Concert Series Choir rehearses Sundays 5 p.m. to 7:15 p.m., and the second Tuesday of each month, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

And now for that sampling from the New Year's Day Cantata:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 27, 2011

Highs and lows of Baltimore's music scene in 2011

As the year winds down, tradition calls for stock-taking. And, speaking of tradition, that figures prominently in any looking back at Baltimore's musical life in 2011.

Defying common wisdom, Lyric Opera Baltimore did the phoenix thing and made a promising debut in the very spot where one of the city's oldest cultural institutions breathed its last two years earlier. It is much too soon to know if the new venture has what it takes (or can get it) to hang on for the long haul, but the mere fact that it is here, staging grand opera at the Lyric, says a lot.

Opera companies are not easily born. This one had an advantage, to be sure, in that experienced folks from the unfortunate Baltimore Opera Company were ready and very willing to take on the challenge of trying again. Still, it represented a major achievement, all the remarkable for sprouting in the midst of a stubborn recession -- the very same recession that dealt the mortal blow to the severely wounded Baltimore Opera.

I've already expressed reservations about ...

the likelihood of an artistically conservative direction for Lyric Opera, and will not belabor that point now. Except to say that any opportunity for the new company to take even a mild walk on the wild side (repertoire, staging concepts, pricing, etc.) should be seriously entertained.

There are new audiences waiting to be cultivated here. Think how cool it would be, for example, if Lyric Opera Baltimore could celebrate native son Philip Glass with a production of "Satyagraha." It's too late for his 75th birthday (next month), so how about starting now to lay the groundwork for an 80th birthday tribute? (I know that Glass isn't exactly a wild-side figure anymore, but he would be in his hometown. Baltimore has never paid the composer all the attention he deserves.)

If Lyric Opera Baltimore was the vocal high of 2011, Opera Vivente was the vocal low.

It was not the only small company to leave the scene. Chesapeake Chamber Opera also slipped away, leaving behind some admirable efforts and tantalizing prospects for future development. But Opera Vivente had been around much longer, had established a much firmer track record. Great repertoire, often intriguing and absorbing production ideas.

It is still not entirely clear how the company got into such trouble, finding itself essentially homeless and financially unsustainable just as the 2011-12 season was about to begin. And even though there was talk of a return down the road, the announcement of a sell-off of costumes and props did not inspire much confidence.

One of the things that hindered Baltimore Opera Company was a tendency to circle the wagons inside, limit the flow of information and, so it seemed, duck responsibility. That did the company no favors when the end came, leaving ticket-holders and supporters wanting.

Opera Vivente kept pretty mum, too, in the last months. It, too, left ticket-holders and supporters wanting. Strange. And sad.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 23, 2011

An engaging visit with Dorothy Fields at Everyman Theatre

Each year at this time, Everyman Theatre takes a nostalgic walk through the Great American Songbook, departing from the company's usual focus to offer a cabaret-type show with a few singers and a single pianist.

Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer have provided fertile ground for these presentations in recent seasons. Now it's the turn of Dorothy Fields, a name with less recognition, but a great deal of weight in the business.

Because Fields is a bit more obscure, and because she's just such an interesting figure in the history of popular music, Everyman took an extra step this time, creating much more than a song revue.

"On the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields," which runs through Jan. 1, has a book written by James Gardiner, a Signature Theatre regular who starred in Everyman's Berlin salute a couple years back. Gardiner has fashioned a very effective vehicle that manages to impart lots of information about a somewhat elusive figure, without turning wordy or gimmicky.

There is much to savor about the life Fields led. She broke into what was very much a man's world in the 1920s and held her ground.

She fashioned clever and colorful words for some of the most successful songs of the past century, including the one that provides the title for this show, not to mention such standards as “I Can't Give You Anything But Love” and “I'm in the Mood for Love.”

What gives the Fields story an extra degree of interest is her longevity. That she wrote lyrics for Jerome Kern and Quincy Jones says a great deal. Few people in this business lasted as long as she did, or produced memorable work in nearly ever decade of her career. To go from "I Feel a Song Coming On" to "Big Spender," with a stop along the way as book-writer for "Annie Get Your Gun," is a pretty cool stretch.

The Everyman production, with musical direction by Howard Breitbart (pictured), wisely ...

whittles down the Fields legacy to about two dozen songs, more than enough to show off what the lyricist could do. (It's a great idea to precede "I Won't Dance" with the original, dreadful lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.) The selections, more or less chronologically arranged, include plenty of the hits, but also some delectable lesser known items that deserve fresh attention.

The arrangements are generally spot-on, but a mash-up of “Don't Blame Me” and “Make the Man Love Me” doesn't quite work; both of these great ballads lose too much in the process. (A similar treatment of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I'm In the Mood for Love” comes off more smoothly.)

The production, smoothly directed by Vincent Lancisi, boasts an amiable, capable cast of four, headed by Nancy Dolliver as Dorothy. She is not the strongest vocalist, but she doesn't have to be.

What Dolliver brings to the stage is a vibrant portrayal of the lyricist, so warm and funny that it's easy to believe this is what Fields was like, right down to the accent.

And she sure knows how to extract the gold in a Fields lyric, most notably from a very sly song with music by Arthur Schwartz, "He Had Refinement." And when, near the end of the show, Dolliver delivers "Nobody Does it Like Me," the effect is quite electric, as if it really were Fields' own personal anthem.

Gardiner is, as usual, an engaging presence, though his voice seems to have lost some of its freshness and ease of projection. Katie Nigsch-Fairfax sings brightly.

Delores King Williams (pictured) makes a welcome return to Everyman. She's a remarkable singer, as rich in tone as in interpretive nuance. Her delicious account of "Remind Me" is one of the show's high points.

Breitbart plays with his accustomed enthusiasm (he could drop a glissando or two without harming the arrangements). What he needs is a good piano — a top-notch, 9-foot grand would boost the whole show. Barring that, the small, tired instrument onstage should at least have an open lid, to cut down on the boxy sound.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

A birthday salute to Puccini, and memories of Margaret Roggero

It's that time of year again when I mark the further erosion of my youth. OK, so it eroded ages ago. I can pretend, can't I?

It's also the day I salute one of my favorite composers, Giacomo Puccini, who shares my birthday (or vice versa). I know some sources say he was born Dec. 22, but others, including my daily bible, the Boosey & Hawkes Music Diary, say the 23rd, which is good enough for me.

I get a kick out of sharing this little coincidence with the guy. It was Puccini, after all, who really opened my ears to opera, back in the dark days when I thought that the genre resembled some sort of barking dog contest.

But this Dec. 23, my thoughts of birthdays and Puccini intermingle with memories of ...

a cherished friend -- Margaret Roggero.

Last month, the exceptional mezzo-soprano died at the age of 93 in Florida, where we met years ago after she wrote me a letter as Margaret R. Ludwick, using her married name.

Margaret sang nearly 600 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in a repertoire that ranged from Mozart to Berg. She was perhaps most identified with the role of Suzuki, which brings me back to Puccini.

She was so proud of being in the Met's new production of that opera in 1958, directed by Yoshio Aoyama. (When I met Margaret, she had a Siamese cat named Goro, after a character in "Butterfly"; when that one went to the Great Big Litter Box in the Sky, Marget got a pair of Siamese, named for "Turandot" characters Ping and Pang.)

Margaret was a wonderfully elegant, witty woman, a joy to know. And the stories she had -- she sang with nearly every legendary vocal artist and opera conductor of the 1950s and early '60s, so the anecdotes were endlessly fascinating.

Although she left the Met rather embittered by the lack of advancement during Rudolf Bing's reign, Margaret never lost her appreciation of the times and friends she had in the old house.

There isn't a huge recorded legacy, but you can find some great examples of Margaret's talent on CD with a little searching. One non-operatic item of particular note: Berlioz' "Romeo et Juilette" on RCA, conducted by Charles Munch.

Margaret was an astute critic of today's vocal crop. You could not blame her for being rather unimpressed with most of what she heard (exceptions included Cecilia Bartoli -- I'm so glad I got to take her to as Bartoli concert and introduce the two artists afterward). You always knew how much Margaret missed the kind of majestic voices that have long since disappeared.

So today, let me honor her memory and Puccini's birthday with a performance recorded live in the old Met, led superbly by Dimitri Mitropoulos, one of Margaret's favorite conductors to work with there.

This is the Intermezzo from "Manon Lescaut," a work Margaret requested to be played at her funeral, because she thought it summed up all the beauty and passion of the art form she so dearly loved -- and, I would add, so richly served:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 22, 2011

Last-minute idea for combination gift and good deed

OK, I know I am very late with this, but a few shopping days do remain.

If you have a few more gifts on your list, or just want another Christmas CD for yourself, here's an idea worth considering. And in this case, you don't just get something to listen to; you get to help a worthy cause as well.

Candie Cramer, a Baltimore flutist who started out at Peabody Prep, when to Towson Senior High and the Oberlin Conservatory, made a Christmas CD a few years ago.

It's an 18-track collection of secular and non-secular Christmas music, accompanied by synthesized keyboard.

Cramer is drawing renewed attention to the album this season for a big reason -- to raise money for ...

her great niece, Natalie. The two-year-old was operated on a couple months ago at Johns Hopkins for a rare kidney disease, Cystinosis, which has greatly stymied the girl's height and weight. All sales of the CD will got to help defray the expenses of the operation.

The CD is available at The Sound Garden.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:28 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

A typically quirky, raunchy John Waters Christmas

I'd love to know what the two dear little old ladies, clutching their canes, expected when they entered the Lyric Opera House Wednesday night for "A John Waters Christmas."

Were they in the wrong place? Did they get the dates mixed up, and thought it was Thursday, when the Irish Tenors will perform there? Were they expecting Johnny Mathis?

(During the show, Waters, a longtime fan of the singer's, said he thought it would be funny if he and Johnny booked concerts on the same night, one at the Lyric, one at the Meyerhoff, and then switched places without warning their respective audiences. Sounds cool to me.)

If those sweet looking elderly souls actually knew what they were in for, they have my great admiration. Even I was embarrassed hearing some of the raunchier stuff our Baltimore icon said in his roughly 80-minute monologue.

Waters has been doing an extensive tour -- more than two dozen performances all over the place, including Down Under -- and the Baltimore gig served, appropriately, as the last stop.

Decked out in a spirited, Isaac Mizrahi-designed red suit, Waters kept more or less to the Christmas theme, mostly by ...

mentioning (unprintable) gifts he would find interesting to give or receive.

Along the way, he dispensed keen observations on human behavior ("If you are old enough to remember the fashions, you are too old to wear them") and, especially, sexuality (this guy probably knows more about gay and straight sexual habits than most gays and straights). Of course, he also reminisced about Baltimore people, places and practices -- no one can do that better.

Like some of his movies, the results were uneven, a mix of wickedly funny peaks and dry spells. But those peaks sure could be formidable; mentions of Connie Francis and the 1961 movie "Susan Slade" were particularly delicious. Waters' assured, rapid-fire delivery was never less than impressive, as was the way he fielded questions from the house afterward.

And what a distinctive audience it was, ideal for people-watching in the lobby beforehand. Several seemed to have dressed as if they expected a casting call for the next John Waters film.

It turns out that some of those folks were not on their best behavior. A Sun colleague told me that she and her party were stuck in the midst of persistently rowdy types in the balcony, including a drunken woman who vomited into her purse. I guess there's irony or something in a Waters-like scene playing out during his own show.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:19 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

December 21, 2011

Midweek Madness (II): A 'divine' song in advance of 'A John Waters Christmas'

Here in dear old Baltimore, there's much anticipation filling the surprisingly mild air about tonight's performance that will light up the Modell Center at the Lyric: A John Waters Christmas.

Nothing like a dollop of X-rated ruminations on the season. I can't wait.

Meanwhile, to help everyone get even more in the mood, how about a Christmas song from none other than Divine, the ultimate John Waters-launched star? All right, maybe not Divine, exactly, but in the spirit of, thanks to the incomparable SCTV:

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

Midweek Madness: A great motel for Christmas, as seen on SCTV

People everywhere are taking to the roads in that grand effort to be with family and friends for the holidays. Those who have to make an overnight stay on the way to and fro will be glad to know about this terrific motel in the south Mellonville area.

At the Driftwood Inn, the food and accommodations are terrific, and the staff will serve you "in a courteous and obedient manner" (boy, that sure makes a change from the usual lodging experience in all those hoity-toity name-brand lodgings, doesn't it?).

The inn offers such an enticing Christmas package deal that it would be worth taking advantage of even if you didn't need to stay over.

Here are all the inviting details from this classy SCTV commercial:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 20, 2011

A sneak preview of Paul McCartney's next album

So, OK, this is a blog primarily for classical music and theater types, but who doesn't have a soft spot for Paul McCartney?

Seems like the Cute Beatle is making an album devoted primarily to the "standards he grew up listening to in his childhood," according to the press release.

"When I kind of got into songwriting, I realized how well structured these songs were and I think I took a lot of my lessons from them," McCartney says in the release. "I always thought artists like Fred Astaire were very cool. Writers like Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, all of those guys -- I just thought the songs were magical."

It's great to find yet another rocker digging into that magic. The album, which does not yet have a title, but does have a release date (Feb. 7), also contains ...

two new McCartney songs. Here's a preview:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:31 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Everyman Theatre to salute remarkable legacy of lyricist Dorothy Fields

If the name Dorothy Fields doesn’t ring immediate and appreciative bells, you are not alone. But, chances are, you know this lyricist’s work a lot better than you think.

Everyman Theatre provides an opportunity to get better acquainted with the lyricist in its winter concert presentation, “Keep on the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields,” which opens this week.

The cast includes Nancy Dolliver, James Gardiner, Katie Nigsch-Fairfax and Delores King Williams. Howard Breitbart is musical director.

Gardiner, the engaging singer and actor who has appeared in Everyman’s Irving Berlin celebration a few seasons ago, wrote the book for this year’s salute.

“When I tell people I’m doing a show about Dorothy Fields, they go ‘Dorothy who?’ But mention ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street,’ and they go, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Gardiner said. “She doesn’t have the name recognition of Ira Gershwin or Irving Berlin, but she definitely was one of the best lyricists in the 20th century.”

Born in 1904 in New Jersey, Fields enjoyed a long career that produced more than 400 songs, from such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” in 1928 to “Big Spender” from the hit musical “Sweet Charity” in 1966. She collaborated with a who’s-who of composers, from Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern to Cy Coleman and Quincy Jones.

That Fields could start in the business when she did says a lot.

“She was a female in what was kind of an all-boys club,” Gardiner said. “Her father even said to her, ...

‘Ladies don’t write lyrics.’ Dorothy said, ‘I’m not a lady, I’m your daughter.’” Lew Fields, a successful vaudevillian and producer, was fighting a losing battle. He and his wife were steeped in the theater milieu, so their daughter was bound to be bitten by the show biz bug.

“She wanted to prove to everyone that she was talented enough to do it,” Gardiner said. Previous tribute concerts at Everyman have been long on song, short on bio. But in the case of Fields, a change in the ratio seemed in order.

During his pre-curtain remarks for performances of the company’s recent production of “Private Lives,” artistic director Vincent Lancisi would ask the audience how many people had heard of Dorothy Fields.

“There were never more than four or five hands going up,” Lancisi said. “This is the first time we’ve done a show about someone who was not a household name. We’re hoping it’s a nice surprise for our patrons.”

Gardiner calls Fields “very elusive figure. There is not a lot of information about her life, and she elaborated some things herself,” he said. “We tried to stick to what the actual facts were.”

Those facts include interesting details about how Fields was working with Jerome Kern on a show called “Annie Get Your Gun.” When Kern died, the producers brought in Irving Berlin to write the songs.

“But he agreed only on the condition that he write the lyrics as well,” Gardiner said. “Dorothy still wrote the book for that show.”

The songs that Fields did provide lyrics for include some of the best-loved pop standards: “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “A Fine Romance,” to name a few. The Everyman show has room for at least 20 of them.

“We found a Christmas song, too, which we tried to work in,” Gardiner said. Added Lancisi with a laugh: “There’s a reason we don’t hear it.”

“Keep on the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields” opens Wednesday and runs through the Jan. 1.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

December 19, 2011

'Billy Elliot the Musical' bounds into the Kennedy Center

The boy just needs to dance.

When Billy Elliot, a pre-teen from a poor mining town, sets his feet in motion, he says it feels “a bit like being angry, a bit like being scared.” And a lot like flying.

If he had to describe the sensation in a single word, it would be “electricity.”

The current running through the national touring production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” now at the Kennedy Center may not be of the highest possible voltage, but it still generates a warming dose of feel-good entertainment.

And when Billy jumps into a dance at full-throttle, or, in a particularly memorable sequence, adds some aerial work for good measure, the show exudes an infectious exhilaration, pumped up in key spots by Elton John’s more or less effective score.

You cannot help but root for Billy, whose dancing gives him the best shot of getting away from a suffocatingly small town.

The kid deals with one setback — and well-traveled plot path — after another, including a gruff father who doesn’t want his boy doing something so girly (Billy to his Dad: “You’re supposed to encourage me.”)

But there’s never any doubt that things will turn out OK, that hope and gritty effort will be rewarded.

If the ending ...

is not a surprise, the story leading up to it has considerable freshness. That’s one reason the movie “Billy Elliot,” which inspired the musical, enjoyed success in 2000.

Set amid the devastating mine workers’ strike of 1984 in northern England during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the film crammed a lot of atmosphere, politics, and issues of social class and sexual identity, not to mention all that dancing, into a pretty compelling 90 minutes.

The stage version, which opened in London in 2005 and reached Broadway three years later (the New York run will end early next month), achieves a kind of cinematic momentum, thanks to Ian MacNeil’s smoothly gliding set.

But the musical, adapted by the film’s screenwriter Lee Hall (he also wrote the lyrics), takes nearly twice as long as the movie and yet, somehow, doesn’t feel as complete or as affecting.

It might have been better to narrow things down, rather than trying to cram it all in (the business of Billy communicating with his dead mother could be safely jettisoned, for a start).

Still, there is much here to pull you in, especially these days. “Billy Elliot the Musical” seems extra-relevant, what with vestiges of the Occupy movement still resonating, and with some politicians still equating unions with a diabolical evil that must be quashed.

Some of the show’s most impressive scenes, musically and theatrically, involve the miners. In a particularly potent example of Peter Darling’s imaginative choreography, a clash between those miners and the police is intricately interwoven with a scene of Billy’s dance class. Talk about two worlds colliding.

Even Thatcherism is back in the news, with the Conservatives back in power in Parliament and Meryl Streep portraying the Iron lady on the big screen. (One of the catchiest songs in the score, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," is probably more chart-ready than when the musical was new.)

The subsidiary theme in the musical about discovering and embracing sexual orientation at an early age also strikes doubly strong chords now. The show doesn’t go very deep exploring this, but there’s still something quite powerful in the chaste little kiss that occurs in each act.

For those who do not want to be bothered with weighty matters in the midst of an otherwise reassuringly old-fashioned musical, not to worry. It is easy to focus on the fun stuff. And, directed fluently by Stephen Daldry, the production is always entertaining.

Aside from some raw language (occasionally from the kids), it’s really a family show at heart, a reaffirmation of how filial and sibling ties can withstand many a breach. And how the creative impulse can overcome all obstacles, or at least put up a good fight.

The title role is exceptionally demanding for young actors. Three of them alternated in the assignment during the original Broadway production and made history by sharing the Tony Award for leading actor in a musical. In the current tour, no less than five performers are taking turns as Billy.

Lex Ishimoto had the spotlight the night I attended. He is more engaging as a dancer than as an actor, though he can get the main points of the drama across, and he tries hard to keep the distinctive regional accent going.

As Billy’s conflicted father, who must risk his own integrity to support his son’s, Rich Hebert gives a solid, colorful, ultimately sympathetic performance. He sings “Deep Into the Ground,” Elton John’s remarkable evocation of a folk song, with considerable eloquence.

Leah Hocking likewise shines as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who spots the potential in Billy and has quite a job unleashing it. Hocking conveys the character’s tender side as tellingly as the snarky.

Cynthia Darlow fleshes out the role of feisty Grandma delectably and does a fine job with the “We’d Go Dancing,” one of the most disarming songs in the score, with its bittersweet kicker, “But in the morning we were sober.”

Patrick Wetzel jumps wholeheartedly and amusingly into the supporting role of Mr. Braithwaite, the dance class piano player.

Two actors alternate as Billy’s buddy Michael, the boy with a thing for feminine apparel. If you see Ben Cook in the role, as I did, you may well find yourself wishing that this potential show-stealer was playing Billy, since he has such stage presence and flair. Just the way Cook asks “Do you get to wear a tutu?” is awfully funny. A dynamic dancer, too.

The rest of the well-drilled ensemble delivers, as does the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

If the score isn’t chock full of memorable tunes, it is fun to hear Elton John stretching in several directions. He often captures the sense of resentment, angst and courage swirling through the story.

That said, the biggest musical impact comes not from the songwriter, but from Tchaikovsky when young Billy and a projection of his older self dance to a surging segment of “Swan Lake.” That scene drives home the whole point of the show, letting everyone experience the great calling the kid has and the great art form he may well contribute meaningfully to, if all goes well.

It’s a pity that the show doesn’t keep that goal more tightly in focus. When the final, curtain-call-incorporating dance sequence arrives, it’s all about pop rhythm and mass appeal. It’s as if, after all that tough effort of getting into the Royal Ballet School, Billy’s real goal is to end up in something like, well, a Broadway musical.

"Billy Elliot the Musical" runs through Jan. 15 in the Kennedy Center Opera House

Photos by Kyle Froman



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:37 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

December 17, 2011

Saluting Beethoven's birthday with one of his most sublime creations

To mark Beethoven's 241st birthday (17 December 1770), I wanted to share one of my favorite things -- it's always about me, isn't it? -- in all of the composer's works.

The first time I heard the quartet from "Fidelio" was in a college class, well before I was fully and irreparably bitten by the opera bug. Something about this music grabbed me in a big way, and I have never forgotten that initial appeal. I developed a soft spot for the whole opera because of this first act quartet, which, I think, has a truly sublime quality that never wears out.

So Happy Birthday, Ludwig, and thanks for everything.

In this clip, we'll hear the voices of ...

Jessye Norman, Pamela Coburn, Kurt Moll and Hans Peter Blochwitz. The conductor is Bernard Haitink.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 15, 2011

One the Record: Jeffrey Biegel's 'A Steinway Christmas Album'

If you're in the market for another Christmas record this year, you can't go wrong with the one featuring pianist Jeffrey Biegel.

"A Steinway Christmas Album," released on the storied piano-maker's own label, manages not only to make a lot of familiar material fresh, the hardest task for any seasonal recording, but also to complement it with unexpected gems.

And no trace of lounge act, a potential pitfall when you're making a piano-only collection of Christmas music.

Biegel's technical flair and consistent tastefulness shine throughout the disc.

OK, so maybe his arrangement of "Grown-Up Christmas List" veers occasionally in a Liberace-y direction, but that's pretty easy to forgive in light of his elegant versions of "Christmas Lullaby," and, especially, "The Christmas Song" and "Auld Lang Syne."

The pianist features the work of several other arrangers on the disc. Andrew Gentile's treatment of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" is a remarkably successful example, right down to the neighing horse effect at the end, a pretty neat trick on a keyboard.

Carolyne M. Taylor's mash-up of ...

"Ding Dong! Merrily on High" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" turns out to be highly effective, too. Taylor's fusion of two other items, "In the Bleak Midwinter" with Liszt's "Un sospiro" is likewise striking.

Another classical allusion comes from arranger Donald Sosin, who cleverly channels Beethoven in a set of variations on "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."

Filling out the collection are colorful items from Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" (the lilting waltz "December," of course) and "The Nutcracker." There are also wonderful, off-the-beaten-path pieces by Liszt, Max Reger, Vladimir Rebikov, and Sergei Lyapunov.

And then there's Percy Grainger. The album would be worth having just to hear how eloquently Biegel delivers Grainger's gentle treatment of "The Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol."

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 14, 2011

Midweek Madness: A preview of Liberace's Christmas Special on SCTV

There have been a gazillion TV specials providing entertainment for the holidays, but none could ever measure up to this one from SCTV, which makes an ideal candidate for Midweek Madness.

Alas, only the promo remains, but that's more than enough to generate shivers:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:15 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 13, 2011

'Hairspray' gets kinetic revival at Signature Theatre

Those crazy kids with their triple-lacquered coifs and radical ideas about interracial dancing are back, ripping up the stage at Signature Theatre in an infectiously animated revival of "Hairspray."

Even allowing for a shortcoming or two, the production provides a striking reaffirmation of just what a cleverly crafted, thoroughly engaging musical this is.

It may follow well-worn paths in terms of plot trajectory, but so many fresh curves get thrown along the way that "Hairspray" never lets up and never lets you down.

It helps that the source material is so strong -- the film written and directed by John Waters, whose love affair with Baltimore, in all of its quirkiness, found particularly broad-based appeal here.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan did a remarkable job preserving the essence of the movie. And Marc Shaiman really nailed the early-'60s sound-world, including rock and  Motown; it's an uncannily evocative score.

The show revolves around the character of Tracy Turnblad, the ever-so-slightly overfed teen who just wants to dance on the local "Corny Collins Show" on TV. Oh yeah, and try to integrate said show while she's at it. And somehow catch the eye of its dreamboat participant, Link Larkin, too.

Carolyn Cole gives a ...

brilliant, Broadway-worthy performance as Tracy. She is totally at home in the role, from every angle, so genuine and ingratiating that Tracy takes on a much deeper dimension than usual.

Cole is also a solid singer, not just technically, but expressively; her instinctive phrasing makes songs come alive. She delivers dialogue with just as much color and tonal variety, if not more.

And the portrayal is heightened by some of the funniest, subtly-shifting facial expressions I've seen in a long time.

Tracy's arnin' (Baltimore for ironing) mom, Edna, is the role indelibly created by the one-and-only Divine in the Waters film and by hard-to-top Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway production of the musical.

Signature's Edna is a TV/radio producer in the DC area, Robert Aubrey Davis, longtime host of "Around Town" on the PBS affiliate WETA. He is also familiar to Sirius/XM satellite radio listeners for his work on the classical and pops channels.

Davis sort of grazes the scenery. It's an earnest, perfectly pleasant effort, but could use a firmer, more distinctive dose of personality.

As an actor, Patrick Thomas Cragin is also a bit short on spark in the role of Link Larkin, but he comes alive in the dances and sings with a good deal of flair. Erin Driscoll is amusing as Amber Von Tussle, the supremely vain girl who thinks Link is all hers. Sherri L. Edelen generates even more heat, musical and theatrical, as Amber's wicked mom, Velma.

With an ever-ready-for-my-close-up smile, Stephen Gregory Smith does a terrific job as Corny Collins. Lauren Williams has quite a romp as Tracy's bursting-of-her-shell girlfriend Penny Lou Pingleton. Matt Conner, one of the few in the cast who tries for a Baltimore accent, and Lynn Audrey Neal handle multiple supporting roles in vibrant style.

Nova Y. Payton delivers quite a jolt as Motormouth Maybelle, using her formidable vocal skills to bring down the house with "I Know Where I've Been," the song that gives "Hairspray" its soul in more ways than one.

Generally effective contributions come from the rest of the ensemble. And the nine-piece band, with Jenny Cartney leading from the keyboard, makes a hot sound.

Director Eric Schaeffer has the action flowing seamlessly through Daniel Conway's streamlined set, which leaves plenty of room for the performers to execute the fun choreography by Karma Camp and Brianne Camp. Each burst of dancing somehow gets more kinetic than the last.

"Hairspray" runs through Jan. 29.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

December 12, 2011

An elegant 'Messiah' from Handel Choir of Baltimore

Please excuse the sacrilege, but I do not feel the need to hear 'Messiah' every single season. It's just one of those masterworks that I can cherish deeply without yearly exposure.

That said, I know we are fortunate to have some fine annual presentations of the oratorio in our area.

For visceral excitement, it's hard to beat the one that Ed Polochick conducts for the BSO. He takes some of the fastest tempos in the West and can coax some of the most sensitive and colorful nuances out of a chorus. He typically has fine soloists as well.

But this year, I decided on the Handel Choir of Baltimore, which delivered an admirable (and abridged) account of "Messiah" Saturday night at St. Ignatius Church -- the 77th year this organization has presented the oratorio, an impressive track record.

As I have noted before, Melinda O'Neal has ...

honed this ensemble over the past seven years or so. It's flexible and responsive, capable of producing a warm, cohesive sound, which it did on this occasion.  

At either end of the dynamic range, however, I felt a little cheated. I would have welcomed a more delicate pianissimo, a more shattering fortissimo. Even at their loudest, the choristers were easily outgunned by the enthusiastic timpanist. I think this music can handle (so to speak) greater contrasts.

O'Neal paced the score in rather courtly fashion, nothing too fast or too slow -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The performance exuded an air of elegance and intimacy, a feeling aided by the subtle timbre of the fine period instrument orchestra. The orchestra's gentle phrasing of the "Pifa" was an especially telling moment.

Soprano Teresa Wakim offered a pearly tone and vivid ornamentation. Tenor Matthew Anderson used his beautifully rounded, supple voice to make each phrase speak eloquently.

I found the timbre of countertenor Charles Humphries a bit edgy, but his singing had a good deal of communicative weight. Timothy LeFebvre's mellow baritone and technical finesse rounded out the solo quartet admirably.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 11, 2011

Send in the Cirque: The Baltimore Symphony tries out new holiday show

Having watched box office numbers decline after several years of its Holiday Spectacular (a product that originated at the Indianapolis Symphony), the BSO tried out Cirque de la Symphony this season. I caught up with it over the weekend.

There's obviously great box office appeal to the cirque idiom; turnout was strong, crowd reaction vociferously enthusiastic.

The folks of Cirque de la Symphonie clearly know how to make it all work in a concert hall setting. It's a smooth operation all around.

The ensemble has some to-notch talent, especially the hand-balancing masters Jarek and Darek. They stole the show with some amazing, strikingly choreographed feats during one of the coolest musical items on the program -- a fusion of "Little Drummer Boy" on top of Ravel's "Bolero," reconfigured into 4/4 time (this was the only time I didn't gag instantly at the sound of "Little Drummer Boy").

Alexander Streltsov and Christine Van Loo did some terrific aerial work to the familiar "Waltz of the Flowers" from "Nutcracker." Acts with hoola hoops, cubes and other props held rewards.

And juggler/mime Vladimir Tsarkov succeeded in providing some charming comic relief, as well as neat tricks.

That said, this holiday version could have used a few tweaks. Several times, I found myself thinking: If that's the kind of show they wanted, they sure got a good one.

First off, it was terrible idea to pair ...


"O Holy Night" with an aerial act while Davis Stack, an admirably focused and musically secure boy soprano, sang.

For that matter, it would be a terrible idea to do anything to upstage this classic aria. There are a zillion carols or secular songs that would make a better fit for cirque-ization.

Speaking of terrible, what on earth was with all those cheesy video projections on a huge screen behind the orchestra? I wouldn't think cirque folks would welcome so much visual distraction going on during their acts.

A few scenes of snowy mountains would have been OK, but there were way too many of them, and they were indiscriminately applied; even non-holiday music on the program got the same treatment. Worse were the greeting-card-like shots of sweetly decorated homes. Surely audiences don't need seasonal and sensory overload.

One more complaint: Most of the clips were too short for the musical selections, so they just went into continuous loop mode, making them all the more annoying. The BSO can do better that that.

As for the musical end of things, the orchestra, led by the amiable Bob Bernhardt, sounded crisp and colorful throughout. It was especially nice to hear the ensemble on its own in such well-crafted chestnuts as Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival" and Carmen Dragon's Straussian arrangement of "Deck the Halls."


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

December 9, 2011

James Levine withdraws from the Metropolitan Opera through 2012-13

The news is not surprising, but will reverberate wildly in the days ahead: James Levine, still recovering from a spinal injury, has withdrawn from all conducting assignments at the Metropolitan Opera through the 2012-13 season.

Fabio Luisi, who has already filled in for Levine this season in several productions, will continue to do so, including Wagner’s "Ring" Cycle in the spring (except for a couple of performances).

Here's Levine's full statement:

Early last summer I had to undergo three back surgeries to address a condition known as stenosis, from which I was suffering a great deal of pain. The issue has been successfully resolved, and I am no longer in any pain. But at the end of August, just a week before I was to begin rehearsing at the Met, I fell and injured my spinal cord, which required emergency surgery.

Fortunately none of the earlier surgeries were compromised. Since then I have been in the hospital on a regimen of rehabilitation and intense physical therapy. After three months, I will finally return home at the beginning of next week but will continue the rehab and therapy as an out-patient.

Spinal cord injuries are well-known for taking a long time to heal. No two people recover at the same rate and the rehab typically is over a long period. Although my doctors and therapists have been very pleased with my progress, and I see the positive results, I am frustrated that I am not yet approaching a complete recovery. However, based on my progress during the initial phase of recovery, my doctors and therapists feel that, given time and continued therapy, the prognosis is excellent.

Since the Met must plan its seasons far in advance, I am now in the position of having to predict when I will again be ready to conduct. I have met at length with Peter Gelb and other members of the Met family to discuss this. We have come to the conclusion that it would be profoundly unfair to the public and the Met company to announce a conducting schedule for me that may have to be altered at a later date. I do not want to risk having to withdraw from performances after the season has been announced and tickets sold. With that in mind, I have reluctantly decided not to schedule performances until I am certain I can fulfill such obligations.

The Met’s 2012-13 season needs to be finalized, and the best conductors available must be contracted now. As my condition improves, I feel confident I will be ready to conduct again soon, but I cannot risk a premature announcement. It is disappointing to come to this conclusion, but I know it is the right one.

On a more positive note, I look forward to resuming my other responsibilities as Music Director. I will continue to collaborate with Peter Gelb on long-term artistic plans, work with the artistic administration on future planning, coach singers, and work with the participants in the Lindemann Young Artist Development program.

I am particularly grateful to Fabio Luisi and the other conductors who have taken over my duties, often on short notice, and I am delighted that Fabio is now a more permanent part of the Met team in the important role of Principal Conductor.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:18 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 8, 2011

Engrossing piano/vocal program from Evolution Contemporary Music Series

By coincidence, Tuesday turned out to be my contemporary music day, and a right good day, too (as we say in Baltimore).

I spent the afternoon as a guest in two classes taught by composer Johnathan Leshnoff at Towson University -- one on music since 1914, the other for composers. It was fun being around such cool, engaged students, hearing such lively discussions of new music and, in the second session, hearing the music that some of those students have been creating.

After such an afternoon, it was a smooth segue into the Evolution Contemporary Music Series concert at An die Musik that evening. The inventively organized program focused on four composers, each represented by songs and piano pieces.

The selections by George Crumb proved ...

particularly memorable. His Three Early Songs from 1947 are light years removed, stylistically, from the experimental side the composer would gain fame for later.

These pieces, with texts by Robert Southey ("Night") and Sara Teasdale ("Let It Be Forgotten", "Wind Elegy"), are quite ravishing, suggesting a sound-world from decades earlier.

The vocal writing is unfussy, direct. The words are allowed to speak. The harmonic language is lushly romantic, the piano accompaniment colorful and telling.

Soprano Sara MacKimmie sang the songs beautifully, with richness and roundness of tone, considerable depth of phrasing. She enjoyed expert partnering from Kenneth Osowski.

The pianist's impressive skills also found a vivid outlet in selections from "Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik," Crumb's absorbing "ruminations" from 2002 on the Thelonious Monk classic "Round Midnight."

Crumb exploits the piano imaginatively, inside and out, while exploring the Monk song from every angle. The "Incantation" movement, with its evocations of tolling bells, is a particularly atmospheric example.

So is "Golliwog Revisited," a nod to "Golliwog's Cakewalk" by Debussy complete with wry references to "Tristan" (and a splash of "Till Eulenspiegel" for good measure).

Another highlight was the portion of the concert focusing on Arvo Part. "Fur Alina," a 1976 solo keyboard work of quiet, unhurried lyricism, was nicely played by Judah Adashi (founding director of the Evolution series).

The vocal music side of Part was represented by his sober setting from 2000 of the folk song "My Heart's in the Highlands," sung by mezzo Kristen Dubenion-Smith.

Some of Adashi's own music was also on the program, including a counterpart to Crumb's salute to Monk -- in his recent piano piece "Nina," Adashi honors another jazz great, Nina Simone. Some of the music struck me as forced, even gimmicky in places (the rhythmic tapping), but Osowski gave the material a persuasive performance.

Adashi's "Tres Canciones," sung by soprano Leah Inger Murphy with the composer at the piano, is a 2000 setting of Sandra Cisneros poems. The songs are not always subtle (in "Beatrice," a line about "odd geometry" and "lopsided symmetry" sparks a little too much note-splatter), but Adashi creates an effective level of emotional tension.

The program finished with works by Peter Lieberson, the fine composer who died well before his time earlier this year.

His Bagatelles for piano form 1985 pack in lots of color and spice within a short span. (I detected a reference to "Tristan" in the score, forming a neat balance with the Crumb work heard earlier.)

Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" from 2005 were written for his wife, soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died the next year, much too young. "Amor mio" -- the poignant text opens with "My love, if I die and you don't/My love, if you die and I don't" -- provided a fitting close to an unusual and rewarding evening.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 7, 2011

Philip Glass raises his voice at Occupy Lincoln Center protest

Sorry to be so late making mention of this interesting news from New York, but I figured later was better than never.

There was an Occupy Lincoln Center protest held last week after a performance of "Satyagraha" at the Metropolitan Opera. The composer of that work, Baltimore native son Philip Glass, was outside on the plaza with the protesters.

When the opera-goers started streaming out of the Met, Glass used the system of bullhorn-free communication perfected by the Occupy Wall Street movements to ...

recite the closing lines of "Satyagraha" (the lines are from the Bhagavad Gita), and the crowd repeated the words.

No less than Alex Ross was on hand as eyewitness and posted a detailed report on his blog.

I found the video of the incident fascinating from many angles. I know there are divergent views of the Occupy movement, but it's hard not to agree that it has been an extraordinary example of social activism, a phenomenon that has affected the national conversation.

It may seem weird that Glass would participate in this demonstration outside the place where a lot of people paid a lot of money to attend his opera. But this particular action does not seem to have been directed against opera lovers, but used more as a reminder to them of the principals that had first brought so many people together in the Wall Street area weeks ago.

There is something rather touching about seeing Glass lead this provocative, ancient, consoling chant: "When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age ... for the protection of good ... setting virtue on her seat again."

I posted audio of the finale of "Satyagraha" after the Occupy Lincoln Center clip -- still one of my favorite eight minutes in all of music.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: It's a Wonderful Remix

Not sure about you, but I am in total denial about the whole Christmas/New Year's thing, the gift shopping (is that even necessary in a recession?), the card-sending.

The forecast of some snow tonight -- even though the morning has started out at over 60 degrees -- sort of jolted me a little. (All those years I lived in Florida made it much easier to think 'Holidays? What holidays?')

So for Midweek Madness, that feature many of you look forward to with what can only be described as a pathological fixation, I thought a jolt of something Christmas-y -- with a twist -- would be in order.

I think this is a very clever remix of ...

scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life" set to a great seasonal song to help you (OK, me) get in the mood:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 5, 2011

On the Record: Conspirare's 'Sing Freedom'

If, like me, you value spirituals as highly as lieder, there is a new recording you'll want to grab.

If you're among those folks, bless their hearts, who can't stand spirituals for some pathetic reason, this CD may well make you a convert.

It's from an Austin-based professional choral ensemble called Conspirare that has been going strong for two decades.

The reasons for that success are evident throughout "Sing Freedom: African American Spirituals," released on the Harmonia Mundi label.

To begin with, Conspirare, led by its founder Craig Hella Johnson, is a first-rate choral force, boasting impeccable articulation, intonation, diction and rhythmic clarity, not to mention a warm, seamless blend.

What seals the deal is the exquisite musicality these choristers offer in a rewarding assortment of well-known and more obscure spirituals.

Spirituals have ...

multiple layers of meaning, from the purely devotional to the political. They represent the voice of an oppressed, yet hopeful, people. They spring from a specific faith and speak to a cruel period of American history, but they are also universal and timeless.

Those qualities glow throughout this recording, which features classic choral arrangements and some notable recent ones, including harmonically rich, haunting treatments by David Lang ("Oh Graveyard") and Tarik O'Regan ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). There's room, too, for a kinetic new spiritual,"Freedom Song" by Robert Kyr.

The CD demonstrates the rare expressive power in this noble musical genre, and the remarkable ability of Conspirare to express it to compelling effect.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 2, 2011

Guest blogger previews Mobtown Modern presentation of 'Unsilent Night'

Thanks again to Logan K. Young for this blog post:

When it comes to Christmas in Baltimore, natives and visitors alike know all about the “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Festooned with garlands, swathed in luminaries, so sparkling are the Hampden row houses there that Charm City was recently named a Top 10 Destination for Holiday Lights.

But for those who prefer their yuletide a little less Town & Country and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, there’s always Phil Kline’s crowd-pleaser, “Unsilent Night.”

Since 1992, downtown New York composer (and erstwhile Del-Byzanteen) Phil Kline has gathered an ever-increasing number of revelers in Greenwich Village and handed each one a mix tape. After all, ‘tis truly better to give this time of year.

Each participant then ...

loads his or her cassette into a separate boom box (the bigger...the better) and, all together now, the audio occupiers trod from Washington Square to Tompkins Square Park blasting Kline’s carols. Fa la-la-la-la; Merry Christmas, to all!

On the Kline tapes, however, are not carefully curated songs to get you in the Christmas spirit -- no Bing or Burl, much less Bieber -- but instead disembodied excerpts from Kline’s ambient masterpiece. From the snaked line of ghetto blasters to the trippy, but pleasant sounds themselves, the overall effect is quite striking -- like one of Gabrielli’s canzonas care of Ingram Marshall.

In a sign of the times, Kline offers .mp3s now, but not even an inert string of 1s and 0s could make his night “unbeautiful.”

For six years now, the honest, hard-working people of Baltimore have mounted their own performance of this crowd-sourced opus. In fact, “Unsilent Night” has taken on a life of its own, really, what with some sixty cities both here and abroad staging performances this month.

Saturday night, starting at 4:45 p.m., Mobtown Modern will join forces with the Enoch Pratt Southeast Anchor Branch Library to present Kline’s rite of winter. As always, the public is cordially invited to join the Highlandtown fray. Just B.Y.O.B.B. (your own boom box, that is), and they’ll provide everything else -- for free!

Eine “Kline” Nachtmusik, indeed.


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

December 1, 2011

John Hurt shines in Beckett play presented by Shakespeare Theatre Co.

When the light slowly, oh so slowly, comes up on John Hurt, sitting at a desk on an otherwise bare stage and staring into space, the effect is riveting enough.

What happens next in the production of the Samuel Beckett classic "Krapp's Last Tape" in Washington is even more so -- nothing.

Like a variation on John Cage's infamous "4:33," Hurt barely moves a muscle for several long minutes, an eternity in theater time. The only sound is ambient -- people rustling in their seats, an occasional cough, maybe a stomach rumbling (mine did that on Wednesday's opening night; sorry, I hadn't had dinner).

The slightest change in Hurt's expression or position of his head takes on enormous significance in this tense stillness.

It is an extraordinary way of drawing an audience in, while also making them just a little uncomfortable. Ours is not an age of quiet, after all.

From that electric opening, Hurt continues to  mesmerize throughout this incisive Gate Theatre Dublin production of Beckett's 1958 play, astutely directed by Michael Colgan and expertly lit by James McConnell.

It is being presented at the ...

Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a short run that ends Sunday.

(In addition to its own stellar work, the company regularly brings in important work from other troupes; memorable recent examples include National Theatre of Great Britain's "Phedre" with Helen Mirren and National Theatre Scotland's "Black Watch.")

In "Krapp's Last Tape," the sole, eponymous character marks his birthday -- his 69th -- the way he traditionally does, by tape-recording his reflections on the past year and listening to one of his previous tapes. This year he chooses the tape he made when he turned 30.

The play, lasting only about an hour, is a marvel of subtly poetic writing, psychological insight and theatrical imagination. The Nobel Prize-winning Beckett uses a deceptively simple structure to get at the dark place in all of us, the place where regrets fester, where fears of aging and being alone can turns crippling.

The wonderfully named Krapp rewinds his life, so neatly documented on reel-to-reel tapes, only to disapprove of "that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago." But he hasn't really changed much. He's still addicted to bananas and, consequently, tired of chronic constipation. He's still unfulfilled romantically, not even very successful when it comes to the commercially transacted kind.

Hurt has long been one of Britain's finest actors. (I'll always be especially grateful for his work in "I, Claudius," "The Naked Civil Servant" and "Love and Death on Long Island"). With his wonderfully weathered face and richly layered voice, Hurt burrows far into this role.

He is effective in the comic bits at the beginning -- eating a banana, pacing about, slipping on the peel (even his squeaky shoes seem to say something). And, of course, relishing the chance to say "spool," one of Krapp's oddly endearing indulgences.

The actor does particularly affecting work later on just with a couple of simple gestures -- cupping his ear as he listens to the old tape; and the pathetic way he cradles the recorder when he replays the one, blissful recollection he cannot bear to lose, the memory of a time "when there was a chance of happiness." 



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

For World AIDS Day: 'Walt Whitman in 1989'

To mark World AIDS Day 2011, I wanted to share a remarkably affecting song that I heard for the first time recently, thanks to the New York Festival of Song: "Walt Whitman in 1989."

This performance comes form a new film, "All the Way Through the Evening" by Rohan Spong, a documentary centering on the annual concerts arranged in New York City by Mimi Stern-Wolfe as a tribute to composers lost to HIV/AIDS (she is the pianist in the clip).

The song, with words by Perry Brass and music by Chris DeBlasio, imagines Whitman returning to ...

hospital wards to offer comfort, as he did during the Civil War: "He rocks back and forth in the crisis ... he has written many words about ... the disfigurement of young men and the wars, of hard tongues and closed minds ..."

In the closing verse, Whitman tells a dying man about "the River of dusk and lamentation ... I will carry this young man to your bank ... put him myself on one of your strong, flat boats, and we will sail all the way through the evening."

The composer, Chris DeBlasio, died in New York in 1993. He was 34.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
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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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