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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


I completely agree about the Crumb pieces! They were previously unknown to me and just simply lovely. I am going to have to look for those again. The Crumb variations on "Around Midnight" were not just wonderful and imaginative music, but a wonderful experience, even philosophical and life changing in some ways. I loved Adashi's pices, and, although I started out reacting to the first piece as you did, once I got used to the idea, thought it was very beautiful and effective.

Maybe I was just particularly receptive that night, but I thought it amongst the most interesting and most challenging/mind changing recitals I've attended all year (and I hear quite a few).

This is such a wonderful group. I'm a big fan of An Die Musik and often attend things I don't know anything about just because it's there and (therefor) likely to be good (or at least very interesting).

But I think I first heard about them through your column. Thank you for introducing me to them as they have become one of the groups that I watch for with great interest.

Those Crumb pieces were new to me, too. Terrific. I admire Judah's series enormously and I agree that this was one great program. Thanks for the comments. (I'm glad the Sun's pay wall hasn't kept everyone away.) TIM

BTW - I am headed to the Lunar Ensmble's concert tomorrow (Sat) for more contemporary composers. These are young up-and-coming composers of some very interesting material. I, as a big fan of the art song form/genre (whatever you want to call it), am particularly intrested that two of the pieces being presented are song settings of some wonderful poetry by Ted Hughs and Robert Frost.

It's at the same location as the other event (An Die Musik, Live), but at 3pm in the afternoon this Sat (can you believe that's tomorrow already?)

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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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