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January 31, 2012

D. W. Griffith classic will be screened with live soundtrack

Sorry for the late notice on this -- my fault, I fear.

There's a great opportunity to experience an important silent film, D.W. Griffith’s "Intolerance" from 1916, with live musical accompaniment from the Baltimore band Boister at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stevenson University. It's a free event -- with advance reservations (call 443-334-2163).

Here's more from the press release:

The concert will be held in the ...

Inscape Theatre on Stevenson’s Greenspring campus.

"Intolerance," considered a masterpiece of the Silent Film Era, covers an historical timeline of 2,500 years focusing on stories from the Babylonian, Judean, Renaissance, and Modern eras. Griffith constructed the film to form moral and psychological connections among each of its four stories and demonstrate the persistence of intolerance throughout time and different cultures.

Boister will complement the silent film with the sounds of the accordion, piano, trombone, guitar, banjo, drum, bass, keyboard, and saxophones ... Boister is fronted by singer/pianist/accordionist Anne Watts leading an eccentric troupe of musicians who regularly hybridize, improve, and bend musical genres.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Seeing 'Red' at Arena Stage: A compelling experience

The "Aria" that launches Bach's Goldberg Variations is one of the most perfectly constructed and expressively sublime works of music. For many listeners, it represents something profoundly spiritual as well.

After Bach spins 30 ingenious variations on that material, he reprises the Aria, which cannot help but sound all the more fulfilling, having generated so many powerful intellectual and emotional responses.

It is no accident that this Aria provides the opening and closing sounds in the Arena Stage presentation of John Logan's "Red," a portrait of the brilliant, path-breaking painter Mark Rothko -- for many people, his work represents something profoundly spiritual, too. (The production originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.)

The intermission-less play is, essentially, a series of variations on complex, challenging themes of art and philosophy. It ends where it started, pondering an answer to the most difficult question of all: What do you see?

Talking about art can turn pretentious and tedious in no time. A play about talking about art could be even worse. Logan's remarkably feat here is to address a whole bunch of difficult issues in such a way that they become not just interesting and illuminating, but also downright entertaining.

The drama in the play is largely ignited by the commission Rothko received to paint murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, an unlikely -- and, as it turned out, impossible -- place for his art. "Red" lets the artist to rant marvelously at the rich and oblivious who would be dining in front of his work.

Other great material involves Rothko discussing ...

fellow artists, from Jackson Pollack to the Pop Art crowd, and lamenting the lack of discernment and judgment on the part of viewers ("We live in the tyranny of 'fine'").

This can all get a little heady -- we're not used to people in contemporary plays discussing the finer points of Nietzsche's theory of tragedy, for example --  but it is never applied too thickly.

The play takes place in Rothko's Bowery studio over a two-year period in the late-1950s. There are only two characters -- the artist (Edward Gero), whose ego is as large as the canvases he works on; and a new, young assistant named Ken (Patrick Andrews), who has much to learn and much to endure.

Some of their verbal flights and fights sound a little too lecture-y or poetic, but begin to feel natural before long as the play works its carefully plotted way toward insights into what made Rothko choose the paths he took.

Reproductions of several of the famous abstract paintings, with their complementing and contrasting masses of color, are part of Todd Rosenthal's note-perfect set. But you end up seeing even more of them in your imagination, thanks to the vividness of the language. When Rothko says, "The more you look at the works, the more they move," it is remarkably easy to sense that movement.

With his booming voice and stocky presence, Gero dominates the stage, easily conveying the artist's larger-than-life personality, his arrogance and strength of conviction, his striving for spiritual truths.

When, in an early scene, Rothko starts talking his way into the proper mood to paint, Gero makes the words thrilling. You can feel the adrenaline pumping, and you want the man to grab a brush more than anything.

The actor is even more impressive in the last section of the play, when Rothko's faith has been unexpectedly shattered by something Ken -- a mere assistant, after all -- points out.

Here, Gero deftly reveals the ground shifting beneath Rothko's feet, an unsettling that seems to point to the artist's eventual suicide (the play includes a startling visual foretaste of that unfortunate end).

Andrews makes an engaging foil as Ken. He vibrantly animates the interplay with Gero's imperious Rothko, the efforts to penetrate the artist's "titanic self-absorption" and challenge his "chromatic anthropomorphism." Andrews also persuasively handles revelations of the character's bleak back story (this aspect of the play feels contrived, but has its effective purposes).

The production, directed with considerable nuance by Robert Falls, offers many a startling image, from the sudden burst of light early on to the moving coda bathed, of course, in red (Keith Parham designed the superb lighting). The scene where Rothko and Ken vigorously prepare a canvas with quick brush strokes is a deliciously wry, complete with a cigarette afterward, and is executed here quite brilliantly.

Music, both Richard Woodbury's original work and classical and jazz selections, makes compelling appearances throughout.

"Red" does exactly what Rothko made each painting do -- it pulsates. And the play's impact reverberates long after the curtain calls.

The production runs through March 4.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:25 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Camilla Williams, who broke down racial barriers in opera, dies at 92

Camilla Williams, who broke a racial barrier several years before Marian Anderson famously did so at the Metropolitan Opera, died from cancer at the age of 92 in Bloomington, Ind., where she was a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

Ms. Williams is credited as the first African American to be featured in a starring role with a major American opera company. That debut on May 15, 1946 was in the title role of "Madama Butterfly" with the New York City Opera. The soprano went on to become the first singer in a major role at the Vienna State Opera in 1954, a year before contralto Marian Anderson made her Met debut.

Ms. Williams also was involved in another bit of history -- she sang the national anthem at the Lincoln Memorial before Martin Luther King's delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech there.

Here is a disarming video clip of Ms. Williams describing her early career, which got a boost from the legendary ...

Geraldine Farrar. I have also attached an extended excerpt from a 1953 recital disc that provides a fine example of Ms. Williams' artistry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 30, 2012

Les Violons du Roy, recorder soloist Maurice Steger light up Shriver Hall

I don't think of the typical Shriver Hall Concert Series crowd as very likely to do a lot of enthusiastic hooting and hollering over baroque music, but that was the reaction given Sunday evening to Les Violons du Roy. No wonder.

This ensemble of 15 from Quebec City delivered a sterling demonstration of period instrument panache, and had the extra advantage of a Pied Piper-like soloist who worked his magic on three concertos.

The whole program had an infectious energy. And, for all of the obvious discipline and fine-honing in the execution, there was an air of spontaneity, too.

If you never thought a "historically informed" performance could be fun, this concert would have turned your ears.

Les Violons du Roy, conducted by founding artistic director Bernard Labadie, got things started with Handel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat (Op. 6, No. 7).

There were pianissimi of the finest grade. Every crescendo, accelerando, ritardando and other expressive device was achieved with great finesse.

The overall sound of the orchestra was quite warm, far from the dry tone of early music groups in the first days of the authenticity movement; tempos, too, felt more flexible.

When speed was desired, as in the most spirited variations in the "La Follia" Concerto Gross by Geminiani (after Corelli), it hit unabashedly supersonic levels, yet never left a single player in the dust. Solo playing within the ensemble was uniformly impressive, at whatever speed.

The rest of the program was devoted to ...

works for recorder and orchestra.

The recorder is one of those instruments that isn't always taken seriously, and isn't always heard to its best advantage. 

(That's one reason there was so much comic mileage in the vintage Saturday Night Live skit about a dicey French restaurant where "for your entertainment pleasure, our daughter Francine will play the recorder.")

Swiss-born Maurice Steger could disarm the most recorder-adverse listener with a single phrase. He combines a startling level of technical bravura with an ability to breathe sincerity and purpose into even the most floridly decorative phrase.

The personality in his playing proved quite persuasive, especially in Telemann's A minor Concerto. Steger's disarming charm made each movement of that work more animated and involving than the last.

The soloist also made much of the Haydn-worthy wit in the music, aided at every step of the way by Labadie and the ensemble.

The Telemann piece was so rewarding on so many levels that it would have been better placed at the end of the evening. The concertos that came after -- by Sammartini and Geminiani -- had their fine points, but paled by comparison, in one way or another.

Still, Steger's delivery remained full of character, and the beautifully dovetailed contributions of Les Violons du Roy remained equally delectable.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:49 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

Austro-German feast from Eschenbach, NSO; Jorg Widmann dazzles in debut

After a long period schedule conflicts (and the occasional fatigue) this season, I finally got a chance to catch up the the National Symphony Orchestra and its brilliant music director Christoph Eschenbach over the weekend. It gave me quite a high.

Eschenbach cooked up an Austro-German feast that mixed standards -- Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 -- with a fascinating dose of new music by Munich-born composer and clarinetist Jorg Widmann, who was also the soloist in the concerto.

Widmann's "Armonica," from 2006, has a prominent part for the glass armonica, that ethereal instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin.

The device provides not only sonic interest here, but also a way for the composer to treat the rest of the orchestra. Waves of sound emerge, gradually, pulsate and dissipate.

In addition to the exotic flavor of the armonica, the orchestra is enhanced by such unexpected instruments as ...

water gongs and accordion (it makes its presence felt initially from just the soft breath of the bellows alone). The harp, too, is effectively used, adding unexpected coloring at one point from its highest reaches.

The net effect is a fascinating harmonic haze that takes its time unfolding and makes its points with subtle inference.

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach drew a sensitive performance from the NSO. Christa Schonfeldinger was the compelling armonica soloist.

(One of the most famous and effective applications of armonica is in the original mad scene from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." In March, Baltimore Concert Opera will have an armonica for its "Lucia" performances, a nice touch of luxury for a company that otherwise uses only piano accompaniment.)

Widmann's performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was a marvel of silken tone, eloquent legato phrasing and seemingly impossible breath support. The solo playing fully matched the sublime character of the score, each phrase sculpted with a painter's sensibilities.

Eschenbach's second-nature partnering ensured a beautiful response from the orchestra, which produced its own impressive glow to complement that emanating from the extraordinary clarinetist.

Schubert's Ninth Symphony received a performance that had a truly majestic feeling, but never seemed pompous or blatant in its effect. Eschenbach applied his distinctive stamp to every phrase, every tempo, and had the musicians responding as if they had all lived for years with those ideas and ideals.

There were so many extraordinary touches along the way, moments when the conductor's slightest nuance made the familiar freshly invigorating or deeply moving -- extra weight to the most dramatic chords and a little extra space between them to let them register; exquisite gradations of dynamics; a tender lingering over the curve in a melodic line.

When he reached the prolonged silence in the second movement, Eschenbach made it feel incredibly profound with suspense and import. You could have heard a pin drop in the concert hall -- no finer sign of audience involvement.

Throughout, the NSO sounded technically firm and expressively alive, from the violas singing out poetically in the first movement introduction to the brass vibrantly underlining the dramatic release of the finale.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

January 29, 2012

BSO takes nature walk with Beethoven, Frans Lanting, Philip Glass

Music can tell stories as riveting as the best literary texts, can paint images as vivid as the finest works on canvas. That message is reinforced on the first half of the latest Baltimore Symphony program, and then, to an extent, reversed on the second.

The sonic-only pictorial lesson comes from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the composer’s extraordinary evocation of a visit to the countryside, complete with babbling brook, tipsy farmers and a cool thunderstorm.

This classic is matched with a multimedia production, “LIFE: A Journey Through Time,” with an evolutionary tour of nature through the work of National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting, matched to music by Philip Glass.

Here, the sounds serve as complement or counterpoint to the imagery. The accompaniment was not created with the visual in mind, but matched to it subsequently. The pictures clearly could stand on their own without a note, but the match-up provides an extra kick. 

Marin Alsop, who was instrumental in generating the Lanting/Glass epic, introduced it to the BSO in 2007. Given all the other music available by Glass, one of Baltimore’s most famous sons, and given that his 75th birthday will be observed on Tuesday, it’s disappointing that we didn’t get something new to the BSO repertoire. “LIFE” is a compilation of previously existing pieces (arranged for orchestra by Michael Riesman). A symphony by Glass would have been very welcome.

Leaving that aside, it was impossible not to be impressed by ...

the performance Alsop drew from the ensemble Friday night at Meyerhoff (where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon). The tight rhythmic pulse and vibrantly nuanced melodic patterns produced a suitably absorbing sound-world to take in Lanting’s brilliant images on a giant screen.

The Beethoven symphony at the start found the BSO in likewise disciplined, sensitive form. Alsop shaped the score with evident affection. She stayed on familiar paths, in terms of tempo and phrasing, but breathed a good deal of freshness into the performance with beautifully shaded dynamics and lyrically shaped phrases. The orchestra played admirably. Woodwinds added to the aural landscape with particular charm.

Here's an excerpt from "LIFE," filmed at the Cabrillo Festival premiere in 2006:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

January 27, 2012

Baltimore Playwrights Festival seeks directors for stage readings

This just in from the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which is "urgently seeking volunteers to direct staged readings of new scripts by local playwrights."

Here's more from the release:

Readings will take place on Saturdays in February and March, at various theaters in the Baltimore area. Directors will be assigned a script, and are responsible for casting actors to fill the required roles, holding at least one read-through rehearsal, and being present to direct the staged reading on the date scheduled. Prior theater experience is preferred, but not necessary.

For more information, contact Miriam Bazensky:, 410-756-2762.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

For Mozart's birthday, three of his most divine minutes

Hey, I know you don't want to forget to wish Mozart a happy 256th birthday. (To tell the truth, I almost forgot myself.)

As Nicolas Slonimsky so succinctly put it in his Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Mozart was the "supreme Austrian genius of music whose works in every genre are unsurpassed in lyric beauty, rhythmic variety and effortless melodic invention." That covers it pretty well.

To mark the composer's birthday, I wanted to keep it short, sweet and sublime -- three of the most divine minutes in all of Mozart -- "Soave sia il vento," the trio from "Cosi fan tutte."

In this scene, two women who think their boyfriends are sailing off to war, and the cynic who knows it's a ruse meant to test the issue of fidelity in the female sex, join voices in wishing the men a safe journey.

The whole thing could have been played just for laughs in this very adult comedy, but Mozart, that "supreme genius," went for something else -- the heart. You may need to have yours examined if you ever find yourself less than deeply entranced by this trio.

There are many wonderful performances out there, but I could not resist this one, because it features two of my all-time favorite singers ...

Montserrat Caballe and Janet Baker, along with the excellent bass Richard Van Allan. (Sorry there's no video interest in this clip, but the music is more than enough.)

So Happy Birthday, Wolfgang. In the words of "Soave sia il vento," May the winds be gentle, may the waves be calm ..."

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:37 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 26, 2012

Soulful Symphony's first Hippodrome season to open with Michael Jackson tribute

The Soulful Symphony, dormant for more than a year, will be back in the spotlight on Saturday.

The orchestra, founded in 2000 by composer, pianist and conductor Darin Atwater and made up predominantly of African American musicians, had an affiliation with the Baltimore Symphony for most of its first decade.

Thanks to the recently launched Hippodrome Arts Fund, Soulful Symphony is now a partner with the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"We're ready to launch this thing again," Atwater said. "It's a new chapter, a new home -- but the same soul."

One aspect of that new home is the possibilities it offers to have a more ...

theatrical look for concerts. "I've been working in collaboration with the Hippodrome's technical director to get lighting and backdrops," Atwater said. "It will not be too elaborate, but it will have an immediate effect on our audience."

For its inaugural Hippodrome program, Atwater has chosen excerpts from his genre-bending "Paint Factory," along with tributes to Motown and the late Michael Jackson.

The salute to Jackson includes freshly orchestrated arrangements of "Thriller," "Human Nature" and more. Several of the selections, including "Will You Be There," will feature Soulful's choral component.

"I've been a little hesitant until now to do a Michael Jackson tribute, because I didn't want it to turn into a parody," Atwater said. "But I've got arrangers who understand the look and feel of our group. The charts they've done are stellar."

Greatest hits by several iconic groups from the Motown era will also be performed on the concert.

Although Soulful Symphony has not been active for a while, most of the ensemble's longtime instrumentalists and vocalists were available for the new season, Atwater said.

He has set an ambitious budget of about $800,000 for the Hippodrome lineup, which will include the premiere of his ballet, "Ghetto Safari," which will have what he described as a "very edgy, urban score." The season also offers the first complete performance since 2006 of Atwater's "Evolution of a People." A gospel evening, featuring choirs from around the area, is also on tap.

"We've got some aggressive fundraising to do," Atwater said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Hippodrome

January 25, 2012

Everyman Theatre explores marital crisis in (more than) 'Fifty Words'

The daily dust-ups between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich pale in comparison to the battle scenes being played out with considerable force on the stage of Everyman Theatre.

Michael Weller’s recent drama “Fifty Words” focuses unflinchingly on a married couple, Jan and Adam, who have to face something formidable in their Brooklyn brownstone — a night entirely alone.

It’s the first such night since their son was born nine years earlier; the boy, having finally made a friend, is away on a sleep-over. This leaves the parents with a lot of time, if not each other, to kill.

Adam, a moderately successful architect, decides an amorous romp with his wife is in order, before he has to leave for another business trip in the morning. But Jan seems terribly preoccupied, both with left-over work related to her start-up business and with her absent child, who has developed a distinctive way of hiding under his own troubles.

Before long, the spring-loaded spouses uncover any number of suspicions, resentments and long-avoided truths.

“It’ll sting; I can’t help that,” Adam says to Jan at one point, treating a fresh cut on her foot after one of their rounds.

That’s nothing compared to the emotional wounds inflicted on both people before the night is over, more wounds than could ever properly heal. Recalling earlier conflicts, Adam tells his wife: “We were just learning how to hurt each other back then. We were amateurs.”

They are professionals now.

Everyone knows some seemingly incompatible mates who are nonetheless bound together. Marriages can be complex, as theater-goers already know well from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In that drama, George and Martha reveal an uncanny ability to goad and ensnare each other. Their weapon — or refuge — of choice is booze, so much easier than sex.

For Adam and Jan, physical intimacy is the trap, and has been from the day they met. They have developed ...

additional buttons to push — the compliment that sounds like a put-down, for example. When they spar, the result is not pretty. But it does make for absorbing and (like Albee again) sometimes surprisingly funny, theater.

“Fifty Words” has its share of creaking plot devices. And the reliance on a succession of bombshell revelations begins to feel formulaic. The play begins to feel long, too, since Weller repeats some of his points along the way and pads some of the dialogue.

Still, the material has an undeniable edge that often slices close to the bone as it seeks a key to the essence of that slippery thing called love — “There should be fifty words for it,” Jan says, “like Eskimos have for snow.”

The Everyman production, directed with a sure hand by Donald Hicken, digs into this unflinching dissection of fidelity, responsibility and parenting with two of the company’s regular stars, Clinton Brandhagen and Megan Anderson.

Brandhagen, a consistently dependable actor, creates a finely shaded portrayal of Adam. He persuasively conveys the character’s shifts between crude and sexy, oblivious and sensitive, angry and humorous (he makes a little moment early on, when Adam imitates a long-winded phone call from Jan’s mother in St. Augustine, not just amusing, but endearing).

Anderson effectively mines the unsympathetic side of Jan, with a hardness of demeanor and delivery from the get-go. It takes a little too long for the actress to reveal the softer elements, the qualities that would help explain the bond with Adam.

But Anderson ultimately opens enough of a window into this complex figure, who fears ending up “like one of those old couples you see in restaurants staring into space, chewing, nothing left to say.”

Given how much is simmering inside Jan and Adam, it’s fitting that the action unfolds entirely in their kitchen. Designer Tim Mackabee has fashioned a contemporary a space that is not so chicly stylish as to make Adam seem like a big architectural star, just comfortable and individual enough.

Above all, the long, narrow stage reflects how the characters, in so many ways, have become so terribly confined.

"Fifty Words" runs through Feb. 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Midweek Madness: The art of the fugue, Lady Gaga-style

My thanks to Brian Sacawa, the effortlessly cool dude who guides Mobtown Modern, for alerting me to a contrapuntal tribute to Lady Gaga.

I got quite a kick out of what you might call Bach's "Bad Romance," so I just had to choose it for my next installment of the life-enhancing feature known as Midweek Madness. You might go a little gaga over it, too.

Let the fugue begin:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 24, 2012

Opera Lafayette uncovers Monsigny work once sung by Marie-Antoinette

The early music scene in our region -- the early music scene, period -- is particularly fortunate to have Opera Lafayette as a major player.

The D.C-based company has been reviving neglected repertoire since 1995, and doing so with remarkable style. Several Naxos recordings document the quality.

The latest discovery, in a production presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday night and heading next to New York on the way to Versailles, is Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's "Le Roi at le fermier."

This 1762 opera enjoyed considerable popularity back in the day, so much so that it was performed in 1780 in the Theatre de la Reine, starring no less than Marie-Antoinette. That alone gives "Le Roi at le fermier" ("The King and the Farmer") abundant curiosity value.

When Opera Lafayette performs the piece at Versailles, it will be with restored sets from 1780, which, somehow survived all these years in storage. The performances, Feb. 4 and 5, will be in the recently renovated Opera Royal at the storied palace.

"Le Roi et le fermier" abounds in felicitous melodies that settle easily into the ear, and they are enhanced by remarkably colorful orchestration.

The libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine spins a simple tale set in Sherwood Forest involving a farmer named Richard and his concern for his beloved Jenny (the role Marie-Antoinette sang). That concern stems from the fact that Lurewel, a courtier of the King of England, has dastardly designs on Jenny.

The king, lost during a hunting expedition, ends up in Richard's humble abode, where he learns how decent and wise commoners can be, and how bad Lurewel is for his image. All ends sweetly.

It may be hard to, um, wrap one’s head around the notion that Marie-Antoinette would want to perform in an opera that depicts how benevolent a monarch could behave toward the little people of his kingdom -- a message that doesn't seem to have stuck with the Queen of France, or her hubby, who witnessed her performance.

But it is easy to ...

imagine how charmed Marie-Antoinette would be by Monsigny's music.

The score includes, most notably, a storm scene that inspires vivid writing; on its own terms, it can hold its own against the stormy passages Rossini, Weber and Verdi would compose years later.

Opera Lafayette assembled a lively cast for this semi-staged production.

William Sharp, as Richard, was up to his usual standard, delivering a musically astute performance, filled with subtle, communicative inflections.

Although Dominique Labelle, as Jenny, sounded a little stiff at the start, the tone and the phrasing warmed up quickly.

As the King, Thomas Michael Allen produced a light, sometimes tentative sound, but did expressive work along the way. Jeffrey Thompson, as Lurewel, got a good meal from chewing the minimal scenery (by Bill Harkins). The foppish characterization is a very tired device, but Thomspon carried it off with a fresh zing, and his baritone rang out in sturdy, vivid fashion.

A good deal of characterful singing also came from Delores Ziegler as Richard's Mother. She made the most of a little aria sung while serving the King a meal that, from the droll sound of the accompanying woodwinds, must have had a distinctly avian flavor. Yulia Van Doren (Betsy), Thomas Dolie (Rustaut), David Newman (Charlot) and Tony Boute (Courtesan) rounded things out vibrantly.

The orchestra of period instruments sounded limber and polished. Company founder/artistic director Ryan Brown conducted with obvious affection, keen interest in subtleties of the scoring, and an effective pulse that kept things flowing nicely.

The production, directed by Didier Rousselet, took a curious approach. Rousselet and another excellent actor, Monica Neagoy, handled most of the spoken dialogue, while the singers mimed the action.

It didn't entirely persuade theatrically, but the duo could hardly have been more engaging. Even the way they entered the opera proved memorable -- seen only from the shoulders up, as if two sculpted busts on pedestals, gradually and amusingly coming to life.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 23, 2012

Baltimore, National symphonies to play Carnegie Hall's 2013 Spring for Music

Carnegie Hall seems more than ever to be the epicenter of classical music life in this country, what with the Achievement Program already launched and the National Youth Orchestra of the United States being created there in 2013.

Another of the many initiatives that keep Carnegie Hall so interesting is a festival called "Spring for Music," which bowed last year.

This annual event in May focuses on "the quality and creativity of North American orchestras." With tickets popularly priced at $25 and repertoire that emphasizes the off-beat, the festival has obvious appeal.

The two major orchestras in our area will be showcased during the 2013 Spring for Music.

Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony May 6, 2013, in a program that includes ...

John Adams' "Shaker Loops," Jennifer Higdon's "Concerto 4-3," and the 1947 version of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 4.

Christoph Eschenbach will conduct the National Symphony May 11, 2013, in a tribute to the late cellist/conductor and former NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich. The program offers Schnittke's Symphony No. 6 and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.

Participants in the 2014 festival have just been announced: New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, conductor; Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot; Rochester Philharmonic, Arild Remmereit: Winnipeg Symphony, Alexander Mickelthwate; Cincinnati Symphony, James Conlon; and Pittsburgh Symphony, Manfred Honeck. Repertoire for 2014 will be announced later.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:50 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, NSO

January 22, 2012

In today's Sun, yes, more about the cell phone plague

I always worry about my blog-only readers missing some of my inestimable prose elsewhere -- that's the kind of caring person I am -- so I just wanted to let you know that I have a follow-up to the New York Philharmonic cell phone disaster in today's Sun.

This one looks at how some of our local arts organizations are trying to cope with the menace from those smart (or evil) phones.

And speaking of that menace, please take a moment to check out a great refresher course on cell phone etiquette from the Washington Post's Maura Judkis. Not that you need the reminder, of course, but you may know some less enlightened souls would would benefit from the suggestions. And, one day, we may all once again enjoy the fullness and richness of uninterrupted live performance.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:35 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 21, 2012

Alsop leads BSO in blockbusters; Olga Kern featured in Tcahikovsky concerto

It is possible to quibble with the idea of cramming three blockbuster works into a single program, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra carries it off.

Ravel’s “Bolero,” that brilliant study in rhythmic and melodic reiteration, not to mention crescendo, is more likely to serve as a concert finale than a curtain-raiser, leading into Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming Piano Concerto No. 1. But here they are, back to back.

And after two of classical music’s Greatest Hits, why not one more? Well, at least one of classical music’s Greatest Minutes — the introductory passage of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” forever identified as the theme from the sci-fi classic “2001.” The rest of Strauss’ ambitious reflections on the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may not be quite as popular, but the whole thing is a marvelous showpiece.

What makes these three war horses well worth trotting out together is the terrific music-making they inspire. On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the connection between music director Marin Alsop and the BSO sounded like it had reached a tighter, more spirited level. This was especially evident in “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Of course, there was an instant let-down at the very start. The indelible opening, with its gradual sunburst of C major, should rattle your chair, tingle your spine. It has a lot better chance to do that when ...

there’s a pipe organ in the house, as Strauss calls for, delivering a shattering tonal foundation.

Alas, Meyerhoff is not equipped with such an instrument, so a puny electronic substitute has to suffice. I know it’s just a pipe dream, but can’t some fabulous donor make a giant gift to pay for the installation of a first-rate pipe organ? Ah, but I digress. .

Strauss’ music can be heard as a tense drama between intellect and emotion, art and science, nature and religion. Or it can be enjoyed simply as a tour de force of thematic development and orchestral coloring. Whatever the notion, this is eventful stuff.

Back at the start of her tenure here, Alsop could be a little stiff with such emotionally charged works, more concerned with the technical points of a score, and the orchestra tended to respond in kind. Things are very different now.

The conductor led a fully impassioned, beautifully shaped performance. She was sensitive to small details and ensured that each explosive peak had sufficient impact. Alsop also caught the quizzical mood at the end, the conflict of tonalities that represents how difficult some questions of existence are, how out of reach some answers will always be.

There was an all-hands-on-deck effort from the ensemble. The strings summoned a burnished tone and sang out all those ecstatic, only-by-Strauss melodic curves and leaps (the cellos and basses did sound out of sorts, intonation-wise, at the start of the fugue, but that was a minor matter). The brass and woodwinds offered considerable warmth and power.

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney delivered the solos in the “Dance of the Superman” passage — only Strauss could envision Nietzsche’s hero as a happy Viennese waltzer — with great charm.

The only good reason to drag out the Tchaikovsky concerto yet again, rather than the composer’s under-appreciated No. 2, is to present a formidable keyboard artist. Olga Kern, winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition a decade ago, is certainly that.

She has the requisite athletic prowess, for one thing. Consider how Kern attacked the wild octave passages in the outer movements on Thursday. More often, when pianists are tempted to go for broke in those measures (almost all of them are now), you get nothing but a big blur of bravado. Kern managed to maintain a remarkable degree of clarity even at supersonic speed.

The pianist had plenty of passion for the grand lyrical tunes, and made something meaningful out of most of the material in between. Softer dynamics and other nuances would have been welcome here and there; a bit of Mendelssohn-like delicacy in the middle of the second movement, for example, could have added a lot. Still, this was a formidable display of pianistic gifts.

Alsop did not just maintain smooth sailing from the podium, but brought considerable nuance to the orchestral side of things. She did that as well in “Bolero” at the start of the concert, drawing out a good deal of expressive solo playing and, ultimately, smoothly leading the combined the forces into quite a satisfying sonic release.

The full program is repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff. Alsop's offers an "Off the Cuff" exploration of "Also sprach Zarathustra" at 7 p.m. Saturday. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

January 20, 2012

Etta James, influential jazz singer, dies at 73

Just saw the news that Etta James has died in California at the age of 73 of leukemia.

Although she had a difficult life, including bouts of drug addiction, she managed to maintain a decades-long career in a tough business, leaving her mark on jazz, R&B, gospel, blues and soul. Many vocalists have taken inspiration from her art.

Although probably best known for her searing performance of "At Last," I think this recording of Etta James singing ...

another great standard, "Willow Weep for Me," captures her expressive power very tellingly:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Hungarian violinist died aboard Costa Concordia; helped children to safety

Like much of the world, I have been riveted by the horrid fate of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground last Friday. It should never have happened, of course, and the investigation into the how and why is likely to be long and painful.

News reports about the first victim identified from the wreckage only adds to the darkness of this event. He was a 38-year-old Hungarian violinist named
Sandor Feher, who worked aboard the ship as a member of the the Bianco Trio.

Witnesses say that Mr. Feher first helped children with their life jackets before returning to his cabin for his violin. It is hard not to think of the Titanic and stories of its musicians.

Here is a video Mr. Feher posted just last month in an effort to ...

secure a job as a violin teacher. It seems he taught us all something in his final hours:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 19, 2012

Center Stage offers free readings of Martin McDonagh plays at ale house

You knew things were going to be different with Kwame Kwei-Armah heading Center Stage, and you were right.

The latest proof: Center Stage will present free public readings of two Martin McDonagh plays featuring members of Everyman Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre and other local actors.

How's that for collaboration within the arts community? Pretty cool.

The project provides a neat way for Center Stage to promote its production of one of McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara," which opens next week.

The readings will focus on ...

the two other mid-1990s works that form what is known as the Leenane trilogy -- "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Lonesome West." All three are peopled with some of the most idiosyncratic Irish characters ever to take a stage.

With all that Irishness flowing, what could be a better locale for the readings than a pub? Liam Flynn’s Ale House will be the venue for both events.

A 8 p.m. Sunday, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" will be read by a cast that includes Rosemary Knower as Mag Folan, Susan Rome as Maureen Folan, Bruce Nelson as Pato Dooley and Nathan Fulton as Ray Dooley.

The cast for the reading of "The Lonesome West" at 8 p.m. Jan. 29 offers Nelson in the role of Father Welsh, with Giti Jabaily (Girleen Kelleher), Nathan Cooper (Coleman Connor) and Rich Espy (Valene Connor).

Providing stage directions for both readings will be Genevieve de Mahy.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre, Single Carrot Theatre

Guest blogger Logan K. Young previews Mobtown Modern's Mantra concert

In advance of what promises to be one of the most kinetic concerts from Mobtown Modern this season, a performance Thursday of Michael Gordon's "Timber" for six percussionists, guest blogger Logan K. Young offers this preview. If I didn't have a BSO concert tonight, I know I'd be happily Mobtowning. -- TIM


It was only a matter of time — and circumstance.

With a host of smart, progressive composers disenfranchised by the politics of big choirs and even bigger orchestras, three indefatigable grad students — David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe — left Yale and started their own ensemble.

They christened it as only they could: Bang on a Can.

A music festival, the all-day-and-all-of-the-night Bang on a Can Marathon, soon followed. It’s still going strong (and late) today. In March 2001, BoaC’s record label, Cantaloupe Music, was born. In fact, the label just put out a wonderful sampler to celebrate its silver anniversary.

A thriving summer school, commissioning consortium and one Pulitzer Prize later, Bang on a Can has become the paradigm for DIY classical music in every stuffy college, every staid conservatory throughout the country. Not bad for a start-up, indeed.

Of the founding BoaC trio, Michael Gordon (Wolfe’s husband) has always struck me as the most unique voice. His music is consistently the most original. To be fair, that 2008 Pulitzer actually belongs to Lang. Like Brahms, he’s a real composer’s composer.

Baltimore got to hear this for herself when Evolution Contemporary Music Series presented Lang’s "The Little Match Girl Passion" at An Die Musik late last year. As duly noted, that performance did not disappoint.

Now it’s Gordon’s time. And with Mobtown Modern bringing the fine, rotating cast of Mantra Percussion to the always cooperative Red Emma’s, no one will leave 2640 discouraged either.

Apropos of their name, Mantra Percussion will be performing Gordon’s "Timber," a nearly ...

hour-long work for what amounts to a consort of two-by-fours you might find in the yard of Horstmeier Lumber on the Camden side of town.

In reality, though, these graduated boards are legitimate liturgical instruments from the Byzantine era known as simantras. Moreover, no less a composer than Iannis Xenakis utilized them to striking effect in his antiphonal opus, Persephassa.

As with Xenakis’ composition, Gordon’s work is also scored for six percussionists. Whereas Xenakis used an entire battery of percussion however, Gordon — the consummate minimalist — wrote only for the simantras, themselves. But the end result is hardly monochromatic.

In other words, you will not be, well, bored.

Each of the piece’s five movements, ranging from just over seven minutes to nearly twice that length, is a careful, yet pliant study in timbre. Sure, Gordon’s trademarked ‘rhythmic dissonance’ is certainly here in all its polyrhythmic grandeur, but it’s the sound alone that’s truly stunning.

On the recording from Cantaloupe (cleverly packaged in a one-pound fibreboard box, no less) you can hear the wooden overtones darting back and forth across the stereo field. It’s quite an achievement in audio engineering.

Of course, the best way to experience Michael Gordon’s Timber is always going to be live and in person ...


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 18, 2012

Last-minute reprieve for New York City Opera seems possible

The depressing saga of New York City Opera, which left its longtime Lincoln Center home for an uncertain future as a nomadic company, has hit an unexpected note of optimism.

Although negotiations with the musicians appeared to have broken down for good a few days ago, talks resumed and it now looks like a 2012 season -- a shadow of the seasons City Opera once offered -- will proceed. Rehearsals for "La Traviata" will now begin; that production is due to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Feb. 12.

Here are excerpts from the union's press release:

After months of negotiations and mediation which last week resulted in a lockout of musicians, the negotiating committee comprised of musicians who play in New York City Opera and their union ... provisionally approved an offer by management that, if ratified by the full orchestra, will allow the 2012 season to proceed.

In response to this latest offer ... Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, AFM, said: “This tentative settlement is far from ideal, but our membership is now carefully considering its elements in light of the circumstances ... Though greatly saddened by the Opera’s departure from Lincoln Center and its truncated season, the musicians simply want to find a way that would allow ‘The People’s Opera’ to continue its grand tradition.”

The voting for ratification will close at 4:00pm on Thursday, January 19th.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Gustav Leonhardt, pioneer in early music movement, dies at 83

Gustav Leonhardt, the revelatory Dutch harpsichordist, organist and scholar, died Monday in Amsterdam at the age of 83.

He was, to quote the Guardian's obit, "a pioneer and pillar of the early music movement." No one seriously interested in music of the baroque could have missed Mr. Leonhardt's contributions to the understanding of that genre over the past 60 years.

His work carried enormous weight as the music world began to rediscover the techniques and principles of historically informed performance practice. He leaves behind a substantial recorded legacy, and several students who have continue to contribute to the authenticity movement.

Here is a sample of Mr. Leonhardt's artistry, filmed at a recital in Paris last month:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:16 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: Operatic outing with Placido Domingo, Carol Burnett (some purple, too)

For your Midweek Madness pleasure or pain (or both), how about a night at the opera with Carol Burnett and Placido Domingo?

To give this a little extra relevance, do notice that Miss Burnett is wearing purple. We in Baltimore know how important purple is right now.

Oh yeah, this little gem even raises that ever-timely issue of ...

audience behavior. Not bad for an old TV skit, eh? Enjoy:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera

January 17, 2012

Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio delivers colorful program at Second Pres

While most of the city was no doubt riveted to the Ravens game Sunday afternoon, classical music fans packed at least two local venues -- Meyerhoff Hall, where Itzhak Perlman was wrapping up his box office-igniting guest soloist/conductor stint with the Baltimore Symphony; and Second Presbyterian Church, where the Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio performed a colorful program.

(I hear that Perlman kept his audience informed of the game's progress, score by score. At the chamber concert, one of the players announced the final result after intermission.)

Although the free admission policy of Community Concerts at Second certainly helps draw people, this was a very big crowd, bigger than the ones I remember seeing in that nave during my periodic visits over the years.

The audience was rewarded with stellar playing from start to finish. The ensemble's name may not roll right off the tongue, but the playing sure hit the spot quickly and easily.

Two trios book-ended the bill, Beethoven's Op. 11 and Brahms' Op. 114. In the former work, the musicians caught ...

the mix of Haydn-esque humor and Mozartean lyricism that mingle so appealingly with the sinew that identifies pure Beethoven. Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein's silken tone and charming way of shaping a phrase proved particularly rewarding.

The brooding beauty of the Brahms trio gave Fiterstein and cellist Amit Peled ample opportunity to spin out songful phrases, which they did to exquisite effect. In both scores, pianist Alon Goldstein was a full-fledged partner, providing an equal share of artistic sensitivity and technical elan.

The rest of the program was designed to showcase the individuals in the group.

Peled's vehicle was a work I've been delighted to hear him deliver before, Five Pieces on Folk Themes by Sulkhan Tsintsadze. The cellist burrowed into this vividly evocative piece with a juicy, enveloping tone and a keen sense of the music's character. It was a bravura performance. Goldstein held up his end of things with aplomb.

The pianist likewise offered impressive support for Fiterstein in a tightly meshed account of the Poulenc Sonata. The players made each harmonic turn speak eloquently, even hauntingly.

Goldstein's solo turn came in four of Chopin's Preludes, which he delivered with a combination of digital polish, warmth of expression (in the "Raindrop" Prelude) and dramatic heat (No. 24). I just wish there had been a full-sized grand for him to play.

All in all, the afternoon delivered chamber music-making of a very high caliber.

As my faithful readers know, I have a hard time ignoring audience behavior -- misbehavior, more to the point. Let me be the first to commend the attentive audience at this concert. Hardly any coughs, even.  But I did encounter something new. Not sure what to make of it, really.

A man and woman in front of me spent the entire two hours reading copies of the New Yorker. The woman did put the magazine down to applaud dutifully after every piece, which I guess was nice; the man never looked up.

Did they mistake Second Presbyterian for a Christian Science Reading Room? Do they just like to hear live music while catching up on periodicals? Is the lighting really bad at home?

I was tempted to ask them, but suddenly the woman switched gears and drew a newspaper out of her satchel. It was a back issue of the Sun, and her eye was fixed on an article by moi. Who was I to interrupt such an enriching pastime?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 16, 2012

A lesson in passionate music-making from Concert Artists of Baltimore

At the risk of repeating myself, I must reiterate a few observations:

a) Baltimore is fortunate to have several quality music ensembles beyond the main attraction, the BSO;

b) intensely committed, vividly expressive music-making is rewarding to experience, even if it is not at a Vienna Philharmonic level technically;

and c) Concert Artists of Baltimore routinely delivers impassioned, involving performances, thanks to founding artistic director Edward Polochick.

Saturday night's program at the Peabody Institute was devoted to lushly romantic works, including Tchaikovsky's well-worn Serenade for Strings.

Polochick succeeded in giving that familiar music a jolt of fresh energy and poetic intensity. The slow movement, in particular, was superbly sculpted to extract the maximum sentiment, without getting sentimental.

The players responded with admirable discipline and nuance; the pianissimo close of this movement was achieved most tellingly.

The strings ...

did not necessarily have the richest tone, or, especially in the upper reaches, maintain ideal clarity of articulation, but they invariably made the music speak. That made all the difference throughout the Serenade, as well as in Arensky's beautifully crafted Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky.

The full orchestra took the stage after intermission for Brahms' Double Concerto, featuring the ensemble's concertmaster, Jose Miguel Cueto, and principal cellist, Gita Ladd. Both have been with the ensemble since its beginning 25 seasons ago.

Polochick signaled from the opening tutti that his was going to be an all-out, no emotion-barred account of the deeply lyrical piece. With her first entrance, Ladd did the same; her plush tone and extrovert phrasing dominated the performance. Cueto did what he could to make his presence felt, but his comparatively slender sound and sometimes not-quite centered notes limited his otherwise attractive work.

The orchestra encountered a few rough patches, but largely rose to the occasion with terrifically vivid playing to cap a consistently rewarding night of music.

PHOTO (by Richard Anderson) COURTESY OF UMBC


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

Ravens mania in Baltimore prompts memories of classic 'purple' songs

Our fair city is awash in purple these days. It's a case of Ravens fever, which strikes Baltimore with the fierceness of a flu every season, and has extra bite if the team does well.

Wearing purple, the Ravens color, is typically reserved for Fridays, but with prospects for a Super Bowl shot flashing before many an eye, purple is everywhere, every day.

The lights on Baltimore's iconic Washington Monument gave off a purple glow as I arrived at ...

Peabody Conservatory for an orchestral concert Saturday night. Earlier that day, all the clerks at the Giant grocery store were in full purple mode.

On Sunday afternoon, I spotted a fair amount of that color in the audience at Second Presbyterian Church for a chamber music program; the place was packed, despite the fact that the concert started during game time. One mother and her daughter rushed into the performance quite late -- right after the team's win was assured, I imagine -- each sporting a head-to-toe outfit in the same purple shade.

All this purple haze in town got me thinking about musical manifestations of the hue. No, not Jimi Hendrix and that "Purple Haze." Or the "Purple Rain" conjured by the artist intermittently known as Prince. This is a blog of great snobbery and musical classiness, after all, so I had to find something truly up-market, yet suitably purplish in its lyrics.

First, thrill to a purply gem from Judy Garland -- who could be a classier singer? (The song's intro takes a terribly long time, but such an inspired mix of melody and lyrics requires a big lead-in.)

For contrast, I've also included an earlier high-class standard featuring the lovely Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw's band, and a tear-jerking film segment that adds immeasurable depth to this "Deep Purple" reflection.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 14, 2012

'Gleam' production has put a venerable spiritual in my head

The experience of attending "Gleam" at Center Stage has stayed with me, despite some reservations about the play and one of the performances. As I said in my review, the work made me think of the great spiritual "This Little Light of Mine," which has been ringing through my head.

I should the say the melody that I know and love is ringing through my head. There are two musical treatments of the words. Maybe someone can fill me in on the true history of each -- they're similar, but distinct.

The best known -- judging by frequency of YouTube entries, for one thing -- is embraced by black gospel singers and white folk (and rock) singers alike.

The one that I learned is part of the Negro spiritual tradition. The first time I realized that it wasn't so widely known was when I played it on the piano at a memorial service for ...

a Baltimore Sun colleague, a beautiful and sweet copy editor named Dacia, who died at an absurdly young age.

After the service, several people asked me what that tune was, and I felt terrible that I hadn't announced it -- I had assumed everyone would know why I chose to honor the memory of Dacia, with her gently gleaming personality, by playing "This Little Light of Mine."

Anyway, I wanted to share two versions of the spiritual now, just because it's on my mind again and it has me thinking of all the wonderful people I've known, some gone, some still here, who have been such a shining presence in my life.

My favorite interpreter is Leontyne Price, whose version never failed to move me to tears when I heard her sing it as an encore at recitals. This White House performance is a good representation. I also found Paul Robeson's stately recording, so I included that, too. I hope you enjoy:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 13, 2012

Perlman pays return visit to Baltimore Symphony as violinist and conductor

The classical music world, ever on the hunt for bright young stars with box office snap, still has some reliably surefire veterans. One of them is Itzhak Perlman, the most popular, widely recognized violinist since Heifetz.

Tickets for Perlman’s guest stint as soloist and conductor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have been scare for some time, even though, as was the case at his 2010 guest stint with the ensemble, Perlman is doing minimal fiddling.

People still want to experience his musicianship, still want to let him know how much he means to them. The waves of affection in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday night were frequent and hearty. It is will surely be the same Saturday night at Strathmore and Sunday afternoon back at Meyerhoff.

The program provides a neat little music history lesson, progressing by means of well-worn pieces from Baroque to Classical to Romantic — Perlman does not typically stray far from those three genres.

I’m not sure that half of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is the most imaginative choice for the Baroque portion, but ...

it’s not a bad fit for Perlman. If his articulation in the more animated movements was occasionally indistinct on Thursday, his phrasing in the Largo of “Winter” and the “Adagio” of “Summer” offered a good deal of eloquence and tonal warmth.

There are other artists, especially those specializing in historic baroque performance practice, who bring more striking contrasts of tempo and dynamics to these scores. Perlman stuck to a more conventional path, and, giving tempos with his bow from a raised chair next to the first violins, enjoyed an attentive response from the BSO.

The fiddle safely packed away, Perlman then focused on podium duties. First up was Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, one of the composer’s most propulsive creations. The conductor took a particularly bracing approach to the tense first movement and drew out the lyrical elements of the inner movement quite effectively.

Supple, colorful work from the winds in the middle section of the Minuet cast a nice aural glow in the hall. Elsewhere, the horns hit some slippery spots, but the ensemble overall made an admirable showing.

To close, Perlman turned to the Symphony No. 4 by Brahms, one of the glories of the Romantic age. This is big-boned music. Even when it softens or slows, you feel the tension and sinew beneath the themes, the dark power fueling the rich chords.

Perlman’s long career as a violinist has included many terrific performances of the solo violin works, so it was no surprise that his account of the symphony should be so sure, passionate and communicative.

The interpretation held no surprises, no highly individualistic notions of rhythm or phrasing, but it did not need them. Perlman let the score speak for itself, and speak quite eloquently. The performance had gravitas.

This is the kind of music symphony musicians know and cherish deeply, and you could sense the enjoyment from the BSO. They dug into heart-searing melodies of the first two movements to impressive effect, rollicked through the scherzo vibrantly, and sounded thoroughly wrapped up in both the intellectual and emotional journey of the finale.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:48 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Center Stage offers rare revival of 'Gleam,' adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston novel

There’s a vintage spiritual with a gentle, folksy tune and a message of optimism, self-worth and defiance: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

It could be the theme song of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a sprawling story about an African American woman named Janie, who struggles to lift male-imposed bushels off of her light and manages, against considerable odds and with inspiring honesty, to shine. Or gleam.

Although not entirely fulfilling, “Gleam,” Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner’s earnest adaptation of the Hurston book, conveys the heart of the matter. And although the Center Stage revival of the play could use a more persuasive anchor in the cast, the production provides an engaging theatrical experience.

First performed under a different title in 1983 at Rattner’s alma mater, Wayne State University (the playwright wrote it as her master’s degree thesis there), a revised version of “Gleam” had its professional premiere five years later at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theater. It has been out of sight since then.

There’s a nice reason to revive the piece in Baltimore — Hurston ...

earned her high school credits here in 1918. She then made her way, after receiving a degree at Howard University, to New York, where she contributed substantially to the Harlem Renaissance.

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston fashioned a very eventful tale, taking place in Florida from the early 1900s to the late 1920s. Any saga is hard to wrestle into shape for the stage (or for film), and Rattner’s distillation ends up with a little more incident than insight.

Janie is pressured into marriage at 16 with a much older man who thinks of her as just another mule on his farm. She makes a break for it with a dashing stranger, who transports her to a new town, where he becomes a big shot and treats her as little more than a prop.

It takes many years and another plot twist before Janie finally has an opportunity to enjoy “things sweet wid mah marriage,” yet that relationship, too, has its challenges. By then, though, she can deal with anything, having tasted freedom of thought and action, something then so uncommon for women of all racial and economic backgrounds.

Janie’s journey, ripe with theatrical possibilities, is told in the language of poor African Americans. That dialect made some readers uncomfortable with Hurston’s book years ago; it still does.

People may feel even queasier today about hearing such dialect, given the legacy of cruelly stereotyped figures in old movies. But the transfer to theater reinforces the ring of truth, and the rich poetic nuance in the language that helped earned Hurston’s novel classic status.

The words often takes on a musical quality in the Center Stage production, especially in the warming voice of Stephanie Berry, as Janie’s friend, Pheoby, who functions as narrator in the play. It’s wonderful to hear her set a scene: “It was spring time an’ de rose of the world was breathing out smell.”

Country sayings and colloquialisms frequently go beyond the quaint to the touching, as when Janie’s weary grandmother Nanny, played vividly by Tonia M. Jackson, asks her to “put me down easy … Ah’m a cracked plate.”

There is a good deal of down-home humor in the script, too. It doesn’t come so much from characters trying to be funny — there’s a you-are-so-ugly exchange, for example. It’s more from delicious ways some of them fancy up a point, including one man’s response to a married couple’s little squabble: “Ah’ll thank yah kindly tuh leave me outta your domesticity.”

Such moments should, of course, be complementary to the central drama of the play. They tend to register more memorably here because Christiana Clark, for all of her fine abilities, offers a one-dimensional portrayal of Janie.

She maintains the same basic volume and deliberate tone of speech, the same way of moving, even when the action moves by flashback to Janie’s teen years. And Clark never reveals enough of the light within Janie. She can certainly be affecting — the final dialogue with Pheoby is beautifully done, for example — but it is hard not to want more personality, more subtlety, more shine.

Axel Avin, Jr., does dynamic work as Jody Starks, the would-be knight who has no use for “puny humans playing ‘round de toes of time,” and “pours honor” all over Janie without remembering to add love. Brooks Edward Brantly easily conveys the sensual charm of Tea Cake, who turns Janie’s world upside down. It’s a kinetic, multi-layered performance.

All of the supporting players bring abundant flair to the stage, forming a tightly matched ensemble. Gavin Lawrence, in particular, is a terrifically animated presence in multiple assignments.

Director Marion McClinton keeps the momentum going and makes good use of David Gallo’s evocative set, subtly lit by Michael Wangen. ESosa’s finely detailed costumes are another plus.

In the end, Rattner’s ambitious realization of an honored novel commands more respect than affection, as does the Center Stage production. But it is well worth being reminded of this slice of American life, with its universal values, failings and desires. There is many a truth, many a lesson to be gleaned from “Gleam.”

The production runs through Feb. 5


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Cell phone offender at New York Philharmonic gives his side of story

The man who became the subject of international ire over the case of Mahler interruptus at the New York Philharmonic this week has explained his side of the story to the New York Times' Dan Wakin.

As some people suspected all along, it was an alarm on that now infamous iPhone, which forced the orchestra's music director, Alan Gilbert, to take the widely applauded, extraordinary step of stopping the performance of Mahler's profound Ninth Symphony on Tuesday until the offending device was silenced.

But the owner, "called Patron X by the Philharmonic," said that ...

he had turned the phone off before the concert and had no idea an alarm had been set -- the phone was new to him, a replacement for a BlackBerry given to him by his company. He also was unaware that an alarm would sound even if a phone was off -- for that matter, he was unaware that "phones came with alarms."

Patron X, a long time Philharmonic subscriber in a front-row seat (I wonder if he will ask to change his location now), has chatted with and apologized to Gilbert. In the Times story, the unidentified man says "he had not slept in two days" and feels "horrible" about the whole thing.

I'm not sure how many folks who were calling for expulsions and even executions (I heard from some pretty mean folks) will be satisfied by all of this. It does point up human frailty, of course, and that usually provokes sympathy from those of us known to be similarly mortal. I'm guilty, too, of jumping to conclusions, having gone through so many performances marred by unmistakable audience rudeness.

Seems like we now have to worry about "smart" phones that are also wicked, fooling us into thinking we have control, when, all along, they can overrule our wishes. I'm glad I still use an obsolete cell phone. 

Maybe those pre-concert announcements about telling people to turn off everything will have to add warnings about hidden alarms. We may need to delay all performances a few minutes while newly trained ushers roam the aisles helping patrons figure out the inner, potentially dangerous workings of their assorted hand-held devices.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:01 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 12, 2012

Single Carrot Theater stirs up 'MilkMilkLemonade'

It’s not easy being a kid, especially a gay kid stuck on a chicken farm, yearning for the big shopping malls just a few miles away. It’s not easy being a chicken, either, especially when processing day is never far off.

Out of those truths comes “MilkMilkLemonade,” a dark, uneven comedy about sexual and philosophical awakening.

This recent work by Joshua Conkel is being served up in energetic, if not entirely satisfying, fashion by Single Carrot Theatre.

In a fairly compact span of 75 minutes, Conkel sprinkles all sorts of issues, along with the chicken feed, on a slender tale surrounding 11-year-old Emory.

The boy is perfectly comfortable with his doll, a budding libido, and a passion for show biz. He takes particular pleasure in his best friend, Linda, who happens to be a giant, talking chicken.

Then there’s Nana, Emory’s chicken-raising grandmother. She appears to be hanging onto life just long enough to make sure that, somehow, Emory can go sexually straight before he gets any older.

Praying away the gay isn’t going to get her far, so Nana enlists an ally in this quest, a neighborhood kid, Elliot, to bully some sense into Emory.

But Elliot slides between butch nastiness and an urge to play house with Emory — not in a naïve way. And Elliot’s got some other problems, namely an evil twin, who, parasitically, lives in the boy’s thigh.

Helping guide the audience through all of this is a narrator who also gets to portray the parasite and one big, hungry spider.

Emory is too young, too innocent (well, sort of), to fear anything about life beyond the farm. He just knows he wants to ...

enjoy his awesomeness, to be a dancing star, have fun. The notion that he should abandon childhood delights, let alone get his man pants on, is incomprehensible to him.

And as much as Nana tries to preach a pre-ordained, everything-has-a-purpose ideology, the more things are bound to change and hurt.

There is plenty of potential here for an absurdist romp, and, especially in the first half or so of the play, Conkel delivers.

Just the sight of a kinetic dance routine to the distinctive sound of the 1960s group Harpers Bizarre doing the Cole Porter classic “Anything Goes” is enough to ensure laughs. And, for some folks, possibly bittersweet memories — that recording was used in the opening credits of the movie version of “The Boys in the Band.”

Not that Emory is destined for something quite so bleak. But he’s clearly going to be in for some tough lessons if he ever survives that formidable grandmother and her skewered view of things (Nana’s description of how boneless, skinless chickens are raised is one of the play’s more memorable flights of fancy.)

“MilkMilkLemonade” — the title comes from a naughty children’s rhyme and also happens to be the name of an equally naughty, and annoying, Katy Perry song — never quite develops enough steam to deliver a theatrical punch. It meanders and takes detours that lead to dead ends.

The Single Carrot production doesn’t entirely make up for the structural weaknesses, though the cast, nimbly directed by Nathan A. Cooper, certainly jumps into the proceedings in vibrant fashion.

Aldo Pantoja makes a believable, even endearing Emory, hitting peaks in the wacky dance numbers (Sara Anne Austin provided the show’s choreography).

Jessica Garrett looks as silly as you would expect in a giant chicken costume, and delivers Linda’s clucks — translated by the narrator — with aplomb. But even Garrett can’t do much with an odd sequence that suddenly has Linda doing stale stand-up comedy.

Giti Jabaily gets fully into the groove as the obnoxious Elliot (the play allows for gender-bending casting), and even lets a glimmer of potential goodness in the character seep through nicely. Elliott Rauh’s Nana doesn’t become a colorful enough figure, despite the oxygen tank and wonderfully ratty slippers.

As the narrator/parasite/spider, Genevieve de Mahy is a continually engaging swizzle stick in this curiously mixed drink of a play.

The production runs through Feb. 5.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

January 11, 2012

Alan Gilbert stops NY Philharmonic of Mahler's Ninth when cell phone erupts

UPDATE: The comments to this post, including from people who were at the performance, have been spirited and fascinating. Feel free to add to them. Maybe out of this conversation we can figure out some truly effective -- and legal -- measures to prevent such incidents. -TIM   

Alan Gilbert is being hailed on the blogosphere after Tuesday night's incident at Avery Fisher Hall. 

When a cell phone went off during the hushed, poignant moments of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the New York Philharmonic music director stopped his orchestra and glared at the offending patron sitting down front -- just as ...

Mahler himself would have done.

Paul Pelkonen's Superconductor blog report is extremely specific, right down to ring tone (marimba) of the iPhone in question. The ringing erupted "just 13 bars before the last page of the score."

An eye- and ear-witness reports that Gilbert asked the villain, "Are you finished?" Hearing no response, the conductor said, "Fine, we'll wait."

By that point, the audience made its annoyance known with shouts of "Kick him out" and the like, according to the witness, as well as some rhythmic clapping.

The ringing finally stopped and the phone owner indicated that the device had been turned off.

The conductor then addressed the audience, saying that, although it can be worse to stop a performance under such conditions, "this was so egregious that I could not allow it." Amen.

Gilbert resumed the performance at a suitable point before the place where he had halted, which, I assume, allowed for a reasonable form of musical closure for the audience and players alike. (I would have been tempted to do the whole finale over from the top -- assuming no overtime issues for the orchestra.).

It seems that the only possible solution for this sort of increasingly common threat to the sanctity of concert halls and opera houses is a blocking of phone signals.

I don't know for sure if such technology is available, affordable or feasible, but authoritarian regimes manage to block all sorts of transmissions, so there's got to be a way to handle this ugly threat.

I say we need an all-out movement in this country, with protest marches, sit-ins and everything. The rallying cry: Take back our concert halls! We could even call it the Key Party. Or maybe not.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:36 AM | | Comments (45)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: For my fellow 'Are You Being Served?" fans

As an unabashed Anglophile, I am fond of quite a few Britcoms, even ones that some Brits consider to be terribly déclassé. One of my faves is "Are You Being Served?"

I happened upon this musical salute to the show and just had to share it for this dash of Midweek Madness -- a song sung by the late, inimitable John Inman, a.k.a. Mr. ("I'm free!") Humphries.

I didn't know this song existed (and I'm not surprised). It's the sort of ditty you'd expect to turn up on ...

an early episode of Benny Hill's show, but, as tacky as it is, it does provide a droll little reminder of the fabulous Grace Brothers department store and its ultimate Men's Wear sales clerk.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:05 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 10, 2012

Looking into the crystal ball for opera trends in 2012

The folks at Wolf Trap, in what was presumably a moment of great weakness or desperation, asked me to write about possible trends for opera in 2012.

In case you want to see what I came up with, you can do so on the Wolf Trap blog.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Washington National Opera announces complete Ring Cycle, commission projects

Washington National Opera, now firmly a component of the Kennedy Center, made welcome news Tuesday.

For starters, the long-delayed complete "Ring" Cycle -- the company started it, but ran out of money before reaching "Götterdämmerung" -- will be presented in 2016.

This is the so-called "American" Ring, a concept developed by Francesca Zambello, who directed the first three installments in Washington ("Das Rheingold" in 2006, "Die Walküre" in 2007, "Siegfried" in 2009).

Zambello directed the complete cycle last season at the San Francisco Opera. She is now WNO's artistic adviser and will direct at least one production for the company each season.

A concert version "Götterdämmerung" was presented in Washington in 2009, marking the WNO debut of conductor Philippe Auguin, subsequently named WNO music director. He will conduct complete cycle in 2016.

Staring next season, the company will launch a three-part commissioning project. First up, an opportunity for student composers and librettists (three teams will be chosen) to develop 20-minute operas "based on ..

contemporary American stories."

In the future, WNO will commission a new work of a one-hour length from "a more experienced American composer-librettist team," again with an American-oriented plot.

Ultimately, "a leading young American composer and librettist" will be commissioned to create "a full-length opera on a contemporary American theme." This work will be full staged and given a slot on the company's regular subscription season.

In other news, WNO will start using the Terrace Theater again for productions, the first time since 1987. Folks with long memories will recall some very effective, intimate opera experiences in that theater when it was regularly used by the company. And WNO will also start offering family-friendly holiday programming next season.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Remembering pianist Alexis Weissenberg

Alexis Weissenberg, who died in Switzerland at 82 on Sunday, was a musician of rare gifts. The Bulgarian-French pianist had terrific technical skill, capable of producing spine-tingling power, balanced by equally compelling stylistic sensitivity.

It is possible to quibble with some of the artist's interpretive choices, but not with the intelligence and commitment behind them. Here are some examples -- stirring Bach, exquisite Chopin, and a selection from one of my favorite recordings, a collection of ...

Rachmaninoff songs Weissenberg made with tenor Nicolai Gedda (who had his work cut out for him trying to compete with all that heroic pianism):

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

January 9, 2012

On the Record: New Broadway cast recording of 'Follies"

Under Old Business from 2011, I've got a whole bunch of recordings that I never managed to hear.

I figured I would try to get through a few of them before we get too much deeper into 2012, and a music theater gem seemed like a good place to start.

One of the great events of the Mid-Atlantic theater season in 2011 was the Kennedy Center’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s innovative, transporting “Follies,” with a cast headed by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, Ron Raines and Danny Burstein.

The show, with some change of personnel, went on to Broadway, where it earned another round of critical acclaim. The new cast recording (PS Classics, two discs) explains what the fuss is all about.

This may not be definitive in every detail -- will any version of “Follies” ever be that? -- but it is filled with involving performances. And, in a bonus of Sondheim addicts, a good deal of dialogue is included on the two-disc set (a handsomely illustrated booklet adds to the appeal). The result is quite a vivid representation of the actual theatrical experience.

Peters is ...

a little short of spine-tingling, but always engaging, especially in her account of “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Raines proves to be a wonderfully sensitive vocal artist throughout. Maxwell and Burstein generate a good deal of electricity.

Other highlights include Elaine Paige’s vibrant “I’m Still Here,” and Jayne Houdyshell’s “Broadway Baby,” which seems to have a little, welcome dash of Elaine Stritch in it. <>The recorded sound is excellent, allowing the score, conducted by James Moore, to register with an immediacy and warmth that brings out subtleties as tellingly as the jazzy splashes.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 6, 2012

Baltimore Symphony offers invigorating salute to the Gershwin Brothers

It’s not easy inserting an element of surprise into an all-Gershwin program, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra succeeds handsomely with this weekend's SuperPops venture.

Conductor Jack Everly has found some cool, off-the-beaten-track items that make the familiar ones seem just a little fresher, and his assured, sensitive guidance from the podium generates a consistently classy level of music-making.

A couple of dynamic guest artists also contribute to what becomes quite an uplifting experience.

Attention is paid not just to the genius of George Gershwin, but the considerable talent of his brother Ira, a first-rate lyricist. Broadway veteran Judy McLane is on hand to sing some of the indelible songs the brothers produced, along with a representative sampling of songs Ira wrote with other composers after George’s death.

But the orchestra gets to play the lion’s share of Gershwin tunes on its own, and that’s where the main surprise comes in — a rare performance of the long-lost Overture to “Rhapsody in Blue,” the so-so 1945 bio pic about the composer.

In a practice that seems terribly quaint today, movies often came with orchestral overtures, just like operas and musicals. The curtain-raiser for “Rhapsody in Blue” was dropped when the film went into wide release and went unheard for more then 50 years, when it surfaced on a recording.

The original score by Warner Brothers music director Ray Heindorf was given by Ira Gershwin to pianist/singer Michael Feinstein, who gave it to Everly. The overture vibrates with the whole glorious aura of vintage Hollywood, when top-drawer studio orchestras were the norm.

It’s jam-packed with wonderful songs and, of course, a nod to the famous work for piano and orchestra that gives the movie its title. Heindorf captures the ...

very essence of the Gershwin style in arrangements filled with color and character. A gorgeously shaded version of “The Man I Love” is a particularly shining example.

The program would be worth it just for the chance to hear this overture live, and to hear it played by the BSO with such polish and flair (Chris Dudley’s tender trombone solo in “Embraceable You” is among the notable individual efforts). But there is more to savor.

Many a Gershwin salute includes Robert Russell Bennett’s finely crafted arrangements of “Porgy and Bess,” and Everly has made room for it here.

But the conductor has also squeezed in Bennett’s “Gershwin in Hollywood,” another terrifically stylish example of orchestral arranging, which includes an ethereal treatment of “Love is Here to Stay” and a version of “A Foggy Day” that sounds more like an underwater day (in a good way).

Speaking of squeezing, including the Overture to “Girl Crazy,” too, is almost too much of a good thing, since that means three big orchestral items structured pretty much in the same song-after-song manner. But it’s hard to complain, even if a few tunes turn up more than once.

The two vocal portions of the concert offer rewards. For one thing, McLane has a refreshingly direct, straightforward approach to the material (you just know she would never stoop to even the slightest “American Idol”-ism in her styling).

Her elegant approach is especially effective in “My Ship,” the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin from “Lady in the Dark.” That song also features an excellent arrangement. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” from the Gershwin’s “Oh, Kay!,” likewise benefits from the orchestral arrangement, which includes an atmospheric reference to the slow movement from Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

In the case of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” also featuring McLane, Everly has unearthed Conrad Salinger’s richly nuanced orchestration used when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers performed it in “The Barkleys of Broadway.” Again, that old movie magic is conjured up delectably, just by the sounds alone.

Although the program would have been rewarding enough if it had stayed focused exclusively on the song portion of George Gershwin’s career, the inclusion of the evergreen “Rhapsody in Blue” provides a fitting finale.

Stewart Goodyear, who delivered an impressive account of the piece in a BSO concert in 2007, is back for an even more dynamic and absorbing one.

The pianist has a field day with the score. He finds fresh ways to sculpt phrases, but resists the sort of exaggerated ritards and mushy phrasing that some others go for in an effort to sound distinctive.

When he gets to the big lyrical theme, Goodyear is as sensitive as you could want, without getting sticky over it. The jazzier elements produce a terrifically kinetic response.

All the while, he is tightly partnered by Everly and the orchestra (Christopher Wolfe is the vivid clarinet soloist).

The well-stuffed program, which also offers the relatively rare “Lullaby” for strings and the “Walking the Dog” orchestral passage from the Astair-Rodgers movie “Shall We Dance,” underlines something we already know, but bears repeating — Gershwin was a genius. You can’t take that away from him.

The concert will be repeated Friday through Sunday at the Meyerhoff.

On Thursday night at Strathmore, Everly handled a non-musical surprise with aplomb. A film clip meant to go with the "Walking the Dog" segment started up beforehand while the orchestra was playing music form "Porgy and Bess."

The conductor calmly stopped the performance and vamped til ready with jokes.  It took too long to get the matter resolved, but Everly kept his cool. I wonder if he did some great screaming when he got backstage.

PHOTOS FROM SUN FILES (Everly) AND BSO (Goodyear by Andrew Garn)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Aretha Franklin sets out to discover the next great opera singer

Not sure what to make of this news item from NPR: The Queen of Soul wants to find the next Queen of the Night -- or Aida, or Calaf, or whatever.

The incomparable Aretha Franklin, who once electrified the hell out of folks when she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards and sang his signature aria, "Nessun dorma" (I cannot tell a lie -- I was hooked from her subterranean octave drop in the second measure), has announced a contest for aspiring opera singers.

She told NPR that she would "like ...

to see some younger singers come along and take [the] place" of such notables as Leontyne Price. Jessye Norman and Barbara Hendricks. Franklin will sign winners to her own label, Aretha's Records, and offer career support.

Unlike the typical opera competition, there apparently will be no jury, just Franklin.

Singers between the ages of 18 and 40 are invited to send demo recordings (CDs or those ancient things called cassettes), along with an 8-by-10 head shot and resume. Mail to:

Aretha's Records

c/o Thav, Gross, Steinway & Bennett

30150 Telegraph Road

Bingham Farms, MI 48012

There is something odd about this venture, given that classically trained singers are being asked to compete for the favor of an artist from a different genre. Then again, that artist is a cherished legend in her own time, so her offer cannot be dismissed lightly.

Will a nod from Aretha help a winning vocalist get into the Met? Probably not. But it could be a cool chapter in the life of any aspiring singer.

While you're preparing your entry, here's a little inspiration:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

January 5, 2012

Looking ahead at the music, theater scenes with a grain of optimism

On Wednesday afternoon, I took part in a conversation on WYPR's Midday with Dan Rodricks about the state of the arts in Baltimore (if, understandably, you feel just awful that you missed it, there's a podcast available).

Today, I am still thinking about the topic, especially as it applies to my primary beats, classical music and theater. On the whole, I feel optimistic about both, which is unusual for me. There seems to be a positive vibe in the air, despite all the woes and uncertainties.

Yes, we recently lost some valuable organizations (Opera Vivente, Chesapeake Chamber Opera), but we gained a big one (Lyric Opera Baltimore).

Yes, it's still hard to raise money for performing arts groups, but that doesn't seem to stop them from multiplying. Just start counting the theater companies around town, for example.

Yes, Baltimore Symphony musicians are still ...

scandalously underpaid; and, yes, some of them have left to find greener pastures. But the orchestra plays better than ever these days, with a discipline and finish that cannot fail to impress.

When I read the crime reports, drive past neglected parts of town or receive the city tax bill in the mail, I can get very glum about Baltimore.

But when I see the continued flourishing on the arts scene -- the start-up enterprises, newly forged collaborations, daring choices of work to perform -- I do feel the future looks pretty tempting.

There's a good buzz about the BSO, both for its concerts and its outreach (the expanding OrchKids project is a terrific venture). Lyric Opera seems to be percolating nicely.

Longtime groups, among them Concert Artists of Baltimore, Handel Choir, Baltimore Choral Arts, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, are very much in the game.

Mobtown Modern and the Evolution Contemporary Music Series spice things up regularly. The sounds pouring out from the Peabody Institute seem stronger and brighter than ever.

The Shriver Hall Concert Series continues to keep the bar high. Against the odds, An die Musik still offers a rich mix of performances, seemingly around the clock. Good things invariably happen on Sunday afternoons in area churches, thanks to energetic concert presenters.        

On the theater side, Center Stage and Everyman provide regular jolts of highly professional work. New leadership at the formers and a new home soon for the latter will only increase the dynamic level.

Single Carrot and other adventurous ensemble companies never stop pushing the envelope of contemporary theater. The city's long-running community theaters continue to enliven the scene.

Theatre Project remains a vibrant place for new work. The arrival later this year of Baltimore Open Theatre promises exposure to innovative troupes new to the city. 

There will always be things we need (more consumers of music and theater, for a start) and things that can be done better. 

Those organizations lucky enough to have endowments need reinforcement; those without need to start them. Groups operating on a shoestring could develop considerably with even modest support (there is only so far a DIY attitude can go). Those with sizable budgets require constant replenishing; enough of an increase in support would mean better pay for artists, better reasons for them to stay here for the long haul.

How cool it would be if a local angel or two from the one-percent crowd suddenly showered the arts with tons of cash. But I know that a hefty, extravagant burst of philanthropy is not likely, so I don't spend a lot of time letting my imagination roam.

Instead, I take comfort, and derive hope, from the way Baltimore's arts community has hung on through nasty economic conditions and still manages to surprise with new ideas, freshly intensified passions. A city that has so much going on culturally, above ground and underground, in big venues and small, is doing OK and should do even better in 2012.

SUN STAFF PHOTOS (the group shot includes members of various ensemble theater companies)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 4, 2012

Former Center Stage exec to head Carmel Bach Festival

Debbie Chinn, former managing director of Center Stage, has been named executive director of the Carmel Bach Festival, effective this spring.

The festival, held in July, has been a significant part of California's cultural life for 75 years and has developed a fine reputation far beyond the West Coast.

In August 2010, a few months after Irene Lewis announced she was being forced out as artistic director of Center Stage after nearly two decades, Chinn resigned from the company.

She said at the time that she wanted Center Stage to "be free to chart its own course without being confined by past practices -- even if that meant reconsidering my own position."

She had been managing day-to-day operations at the company for two years.

Chinn, who plans to move from her current home in Towson to the Carmel area in the spring, brings a wide range of experiences to her new post.

Her resume includes administrative stints with the San Francisco Symphony, California Shakespeare Theater, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and Center Theatre Group of the Music Center of Los Angeles.

She has also served on the boards of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Theatre Communications Group, and the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Chinn said she ...

was "deeply inspired" by Carmel Bach Festival music director Paul Goodwin's ideas for the future of "profoundly impressed by the devoted support from the Festival's ever-growing community."

Goodwin returned the compliments, saying "we connected immediately, and I'm looking forward to an exciting and fruitful partnership.”

Festival board president David Nee praised Chinn's "superb record of embracing innovation while preserving the great traditions from which it springs."


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Hippodrome breaks box office record with 'The Lion King'

The national touring production of "The Lion King" that winds up its five-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre on Sunday, has already broken a box office record.

For the week ending Jan. 1, which included nine performances, the theater grossed $1,531,590, the highest for a Broadway show there.

The final tallies for the engagement will show over $6 million in gross ticket sales and more than 62,000 people attending.

"'The Lion King' truly reigns in Baltimore, and we look forward to our next return engagement," said Jeff T. Daniel, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, in a statement.

The Hippodrome estimates a ...

$21 million economic benefit to Baltimore from the show's run, counting "travel, hotels, restaurants, parking and other businesses patronized by both theatergoers and production staff." That figure is derived from an economic impact formula used by the Touring Broadway League, a trade organization.

Baltimore isn't the only place crazy about "The Lion King." The production still running after 14 years on Broadway grossed $2,444,032 at the Minskoff Theatre last week, a house record and the highest weekly gross yet for the show.

The other current North American production, wrapping up more than two years at the Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas, also set a new house record and had the highest grossing week ($1,369,460).


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:16 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

Midweek Madness: A distinctive duo notes that it's cold outside

It's a new year, and a new excuse to continue inflicting Midweek Madness on you.

As all but my warm weather friends know, temperatures have aken a decidedly wintry turn of late. Some of us got awfully spoiled by the nearly balmy conditions over the holidays (my other half, my sister and I went down-y-oshun, as we say in Baltimore, on New Year's Day, enjoying the very tolerable conditions Lewes and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware), but we knew it couldn't last forever.

So, for all of those you currently thinking, baby, it's cold outside, here's a duet by two icons who, somehow, seem ...

meant for each other -- Mae West and Rock Hudson:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:33 AM | | Comments (1)
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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