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February 29, 2012

Midweek Madness: A Viennese waltz to salute Kennedy Center festival

The Kennedy Center launched its latest festival the other day, "The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna," which runs through March 29. Lots of great stuff can be savored, from Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" to Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle."

Naturally, with Vienna in the mix, there have to be some waltzes, which will be on the National Symphony's program March 16, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. One item on that concert is "Voices of Spring." I've been thinking about that particular waltz lately, since spring seems to be coming awfully early this year.

Then I started thinking about ...

the sparkly vocal version of the piece that is occasionally performed by sopranos, and I wondered if I could find an ideal recording. Instead, I ended up with this one, thanks to a couple of thoughtful friends.

So, with apologies to everyone at the Kennedy Center, I could not resist offering it here to herald the Viennese portion of the festival, and to provide another uplifting installment my public service, Midweek Madness:


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 28, 2012

Renee Fleming, John Waters, Claire Bloom, and Wagner spice BSO's 2012-13 season

From Renee Fleming to Claire Bloom and John Waters, from Wagner's "Ring" to a new symphony by Christopher Rouse and a lot of classic film scores, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2012-2013 season promises a notably diverse and interesting diet.

For her sixth season as BSO music director, Marin Alsop will zero in on several themes. Movie music is one, which explains why the season announcement was made Tuesday at the Charles Theater.

Alsop will conduct the orchestra in live soundtracks to three acclaimed films: Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" (post-"The Artist," this presentation of a silent movie may be a bigger event than expected); Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," with its gripping score by Prokofiev; and "West Side Story," the brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical. Bernstein's contribution to the movies will also be acknowledged with his Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront."

In another nod to cinema, the 25th anniversary of the kinetic Waters hit, "Hairspray," will be celebrated with a concert version of the musical it inspired. This event, part of the BSO SuperPops series and led by principal pops conductor Jack Everly, will feature Waters as narrator.

American music has been a priority of Alsop's from the start, and next season will contain a fair share. The conductor will give particular attention to ...

the Baltimore-based Rouse, giving the East Coast premiere of his Symphony No. 3, along with performances of three other Rouse scores.

Alsop will conduct back-to-back programs of American music to launch the subscription season. Repertoire includes Copland's Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein's response to President Kennedy's assassination, Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," with the exceptional actress Claire Bloom as narrator.

The season will be dotted with contemporary works, among them John Adams' "Shaker Loops," which will be performed on a program with Jennifer Higdon's "Concerto 4-3" and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 4 that the BSO will also perform at Carnegie Hall. "Ansel Adams: America," a multimedia piece with music by Dave and Chris Brubeck, which the BSO commissioned in 2010, will be reprised.

The orchestra will add its voice to the global commemoration of the Wagner bicentennial in 2013. In addition to an orchestral synthesis of the "Ring" (arranged by Henk de Vlieger) and excerpts from "Tristan" and "Die Meistersinger," Alsop will conduct the complete Act 1 from "Die Walkure," with a cast that includes the superb bass-baritone Eric Owens.

The nod to Wagner will also include a semi-staged play with music, in the tradition of "Analyze This: Mahler and Freud" from last season. "A Composer Fit for a King," by writer/director Didi Balle, looks at the curious relationship of Wagner and his patron, "mad" King Ludwig II.

Fleming, one of the most gifted and popular sopranos of our time, starts the season off with a gala concert Sept. 15, conducted by Alsop (program to be announced).

The guest soloist roster for the rest of 2012-13 includes: pianists Garrick Ohlsson (Rachmaninoff 3rd), Stephen Hough (Liszt 2nd), Benedetto Lupo (Bartok 3rd), Jean-Philippe Collard (Saint-Saens 3rd) and Simon Trpceski (Rachmaninoff 4th); violinists Midori (Bartok 2nd) and Gil Shaham (Barber); and organist Felix Hell (Poulenc).

Guests on the BSO podium include Hannu Lintu in a program featuring Sibelius' Second Symphony; Juano Mena with Tchaikovsky's Fourth; Yan Pascal Tortelier, with Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass; Mario Venzago with Franck's D minor Symphony and Elgar's Cello Concerto (with Sol Gabetta); Ignat Solzhenitsyn with Mozart's Requiem and the BSO's first performance of "Tabula Rasa" by the mystic Estonian composer Arvo Part; and Carlos Kalmar, with Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" and a work by young Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen.

Greatest hits are woven through the season. Alsop will, for example, lead Beethoven's Fifth, Dvorak's Eighth, Brahms' Piano Concertto No. 2 (with Denis Kozhukhin), Saint-Saen's "Organ" Symphony, and Orff's "Carmina Burana." 

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 will be conducted by Christoph Konig in his BSO debut, Beethoven's "Eroica" by Markus Stenz, another BSO debut. Gilbert Varga will conduct Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

The season also offers several pieces that do not come around often, such as Schumann's Violin Concerto (with Kolja Blacher); Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" and some of his Etudes-Tableaux orchestrated by  Respighi (Alsop conducting); and Silvestre Revueltas' "Sensemaya" (Alsop).

In addition to "Hairspray," the SuperPops lineup for 2012-13 includes a music from James Bond movies, salutes to Motown and 1950s TV, a Broadway potpourri, a holiday program, and a concert by the Canadian Tenors.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Wolfgang Holzmair offers intense 'Winterreise' for Shriver Hall Concert Series

When Franz Schubert was feeling down, we're talking way down. And no composer could capture the heart of despondency the way he could in song, especially in "Winterreise."

Depression never sounded more beautiful.

The 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller he chose convey a chilling case of someone who has his love, and his way. This wintry journey, which, in a good performance, seems every bit as physical as it is emotional and metaphorical, achieves a profound depth.

On Sunday evening, Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair sang "Winterreise" in a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation, accompanied by American pianist Russell Ryan.

There was some disappointment. Holzmair's voice sounded thin and nasally (a cold, perhaps?), and it was pushed to the limit in the most drama-laden songs, such as "Der sturmische Morgen" and "Mut." But, in the end, the singer ...

was so thoroughly connected to the words and the music that you could not help but be drawn into the experience. This was an intelligent, sensitive interpretation. Just the way Holzmair used his hands as he sang could be remarkably affecting.

Highlights included the final outbursts of "Aif dem Flusse"; the carefully calibrated contrasts of mood in "Fruhlingstraum"; the subtly conversational articulation in "Die Krahe"; the white tone produced in "Der Wegweiser."

And the incredible final song, "Der Leiermann," conjuring the image of a hurdy-gurdy man playing on with icy fingers while people ignore him and dogs growl, found Holzmair phrasing incisively.

The pianist proved an able partner, but tended to favor technical clarity and concentration over tone color and and expressive personality.

The audience, given translations of the texts, rustled noisily with every page turn. Judging by the flashlights that lit up parts of the auditorium, several people struggled to read the material. Naturally -- does no one hear the perennial pleas of a poor critic? -- the hall was left much too dark.

Until organizations can afford some version of supertitles for lieder recitals, making printed versions unnecessary, they have simply got to get over a fear of lighting. We are all adults. We don't have to listen in the dark in order to feel we're getting a proper classical music experience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

February 27, 2012

Leon Fleisher Scholars Fund gets $1 million from Robert Meyerhoff, Rheda Becker

Baltimore philanthropists Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker pledged  $750,000 Monday to the Leon Fleisher Scholars Fund for piano students at the Peabody Conservatory.

This gift, to be paid over the next few years, will bring the total contribution from Meyerhoff and Becker to $1 million by 2016.

The couple launched the endowed scholarship fund, named for the famed pianist and 53-year veteran of the Peabody faculty, with a $250,000 donation in 2009.

“We hope this gift will raise the profile of Peabody and help the school compete with other top conservatories for the very best piano students worldwide,” said Meyerhoff in a statement released Monday.

Fleisher, who in recent years resumed limited two-hand performances after focal dystonia prevented the use of his right hand for several decades, had high praised for the donors.

“When strewing her seeds of talent among the young, ...

Mother Nature is quite deaf and blind to socio-economic levels, which renders this gift of such epic generosity all the more meaningful, pertinent and powerful,” the pianist said.

Since the Fleisher Scholars Fund was established, 85 other donors have contributed about $234,000. It is expected that the fund will provide two full-time scholarships each year.

The Meyerhoff-Becker gift will be publicly celebrated at a concert by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night. Fleisher, who built a successful career as a conductor after the onset of the right-hand damage, will lead the ensemble in an all-Brahms program.

A Fleisher student, Yuri Shadrin, winner of the 2011 Yale Gordon Concerto Competition, will be the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the works Fleisher owned in his keyboard prime. Symphony No. 3 rounds out the concert.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:58 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

Washington National Opera gives musical, theatrical jolt to 'Cosi fan tutte'

Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," with its wicked libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, postulates that all women are faithless in love. An absurd notion, of course, as countless men demonstrate day after day.

Let's face it, we're all a little flawed, prone to mess up relationships, one way or another. Part of being human, you might say.

That's the real lesson of "Cosi," and it is being driven home with imagination and skill in a production Washington National Opera unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. There's a fresh jolt, musical and theatrical, at just about every turn.

The staging marks the company debut of celebrated British director and designer Jonathan Miller. His concept for this work originated at the Royal Opera House and was subsequently produced by Seattle Opera before landing in D.C., which, as it turns out, is the setting Miller devised for this updated take on "Cosi."

Although the cream-colored unit set -- imposing walls, neoclassic doorway -- could be used for any number of operas and any number of time periods or locations, it suggests Washington well enough. Same for the costumes, along with the omnipresent cell phones and occasional lap top. Every time the chorus appears, it looks like a gathering of Capital Hill staffers.

The essence of the plot remains unchanged. The cynical Don Alfonso persuades his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to test their conviction that their respective fiancees, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will always be faithful. After pretending to be called into military service, the two buddies return in disguise; each then attempts to steal the wrong woman. None of the relationships will ever be the same afterward.

There are many ...

droll touches in Miller's vision -- Ferrando and Guglielmo in their fatigues, with a TV news crew nosing in; their disguise as tattooed biker dudes (I was expecting something more surprising, to tell the truth); Dorabella and Fiordiligi miming a walk across a tightrope, cutely underlining their moral predicament; Don Alfonso delivering asides into his phone.

The finishing touch on the contemporary approach comes from the supertitles, which push the envelope in terms of cheekiness. It's possible to argue against taking as many liberties with the translations as is done here, but, judging by the response Saturday, the audience loves being drawn into the story and the humor this way.

Localized zingers get the biggest laughs, as when Fiordiligi and Dorabella wonder where the bikers could be from. In the original, the women assume they must be Wallachians (Google it) or Turks. Here, the uncouth guys have the women imagining such exotic locales as Leesburg and Baltimore. (Our fair city turns out to be the right guess, by the way. Baltimore is, as Washingtonians will tell you, a working class city crawling with scary bikers.)

The success of any operatic update depends on the conviction behind it. Here, everyone seems solidly into the scheme. There is little awkwardness or self-consciousness from the singers, who even manage to look pretty natural carrying out the inevitable scenes of boogeying (I do wish directors would resist applying this tired device to old operas with a good beat).

The taut ensemble features Elizabeth Futral in particularly impressive form as Fiordiligi. She could use a little more tonal body for "Come scoglio" in Act 1, but she gives an inspired interpretation of every word and idea in that aria -- and punctuates it amusingly with snaps.

Futral likewise makes much of "Per pieta" in the second act, while singing most of it on her knees; she gives the phrases an affecting tenderness that gets to the the humanity behind Mozart's comedy.

Joel Prieto is quite the charmer as Ferrando. There are times when the tenor needs a freer, warmer sound (on Saturday, this was especially true in the exquisite aria "Un'aura amorosa"), but he is a supple molder of phrases. He and Futral reach quite an expressive height in their second act duet, revealing the weight of the reality dawning on the characters.

As Guglielmo, Teddy Tahu Rhodes towers over his colleagues physically and reveals a beefy sound to match his animated delivery. Renata Pokupic rounds out the quartet of crisscrossed lovers with a deft portrayal of Dorabella. The mezzo's singing does not have a wide range of tone colors, but is consistently elegant in shape.

Christine Brandes has a romp as Despina, here identified (via the supertitles) a "personal assistant," rather than servant. She makes her entrance in a pants suit bearing take-away lattes. The soprano offers a bright, supple voice and a knack for handling comic business, particularly the disguise as a doctor offering electro-shock therapy for Ferrando and Guglielmo (the accompanying nurses are a fun addition).

As Don Alfonso, William Shimell provides a delicious suavity of tone and nuance. This is the way you could imagine John Gielgud phrasing the music. Shimell's acting is just as distinctive, revealing not just the smug confidence of the character, but a bittersweet mood underneath; this Alfonso really isn't all that pleased with himself.

The chorus makes a fine showing in its brief appearances. The orchestra is in excellent shape, producing a refined, richly expressive sound. Michael Baitzer plays the recitatives at the fortepiano with admirable flair.

WNO music director Philippe Auguin masterfully guides the score with tempos that feel right, phrase-molding that feels real. The conductor ensures that the music sings as effectively in the pit as it does onstage.

This production kicks off the Kennedy Center's latest festival, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna (couldn't someone have devised a less dull title?). "Cosi fan tutte" represents the best of what was happening 222 years ago in Austria's capital; Washington National Opera's production of the work offers a cool idea of what's happening right now in ours.

Performances continue through March 15. Those of March 9 and 11 will feature a cast of "emerging artists," current members and alumni of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.  


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

Twyal Tharp's 'Come Fly Away' breezes through Baltimore

Sometimes, I guess what happens in Vegas shouldn't stay there.

That seems to be the lesson from "Come Fly Away," Twyla Tharp's kinetic tribute to Frank Sinatra, which breezed through Baltimore over the weekend, with four performances at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

When it bowed on Broadway in 2010, this narrative ballet had two acts and a live singer interacting with the Chairman of the Board's recorded voice. It was met with mixed reviews.

Tharp subsequently revised the show during a Las Vegas run, trimming it to a single, 80-minute act and ditching the extra singer.

The lean result is in the midst of an extensive national tour that will reach the Kennedy Center in mid-April (Baltimoreans perennially miffed that most touring shows play DC first can take a little pleasure in this). Although I did not see the longer, original version, I can't help but feel the slimmer one is better.

The essence of the original concept -- multiple couples arrive at a night club and go through various problems before reaching some sort of understanding -- is still outlined. And because the action is compressed, there is no time for the energy to sag, even in the few moments of relative physical calm.

Tharp's alternately athletic, sexy and witty choreography for this show still divides people, understandably. There is ...

a certain sameness after a while to the moves, a tendency to go too often for the splits and the glitz. A hint of old-fashioned Astaire-Rogers elegance now and then wouldn't hurt. But I think it is quite easy to put aside qualms and just go with the kinetic flow, especially given the quality of the strong-matched cast.

At Friday night's performance, Baltimore area-native Ashley Blair Fitzgerald demonstrated abundant flair as the capricious Kate, partnered by the imposing and impressive Anthony Burrell as Hank.

Matthew Stockwell Dibble, re-creating his Broadway role as the unlucky-at-love Chanos, tore up the joint. Stephen Hanna, as Sid, brought a combination of muscularity and suavity to the proceedings. Christopher Vo offered acrobatic energy as Marty. The rest of the principals and ensemble measured up nicely.

The musical side of things is, for the most part, terrifically successful. There's the brilliant idea of electronically isolating the voice of Sinatra from original recordings and backing it up with a live, very hot band that plays the original arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and others. I cannot imagine spoiling this effect with any other singer, however talented.

By focusing solely on Sinatra -- in a compelling touch, heard a cappella at the start in "Stardust" -- the show's real raison d'etre is underlined: "Come Fly Away" is, above all, a tribute to one of history's greatest vocal artists. It is, secondarily, a vehicle for the dancing.

I only wish that the song list did not include any items that require piping in strings electronically. The occasional shift from the live-action to prerecorded is jarring. I also wish that Tharp had avoided using "My Way" altogether. It's such a treacly thing, and far out of character with the rest of the songs used here.

I could do without the assault of "New York, New York," too, but it fits the narrative better than "My Way." One song is curiously absent -- "Come Fly With Me," which inspired the show's pre-Broadway title and still haunts the current one.

The band, led from the keyboard by Ron Cookman, is top-notch. Hearing these guys in action conjures up the mythic era of night clubs and sizzling music, when Sinatra ruled the world.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Monday Interlude: A potent date for opera singers

I just happened to glance at my handy-dandy Boosey & Hawkes music calendar and spotted no less than three opera greats born on this day, Feb. 27. Seems like a pretty cool coincidence to me, maybe a deep karma thing.

The three in question: Enrico Caruso, the astounding Italian tenor, in 1873; Lotte Lehmann, the inspiring German soprano, in 1888; and Mirella Freni, the elegant Italian soprano, in 1935.

So, while you're waiting for me to post something brilliant (yes, I will reviews of all the goodies I caught over the weekend), I hope you enjoy this little musical interlude from today's birthday bonanza:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 24, 2012

Alsop leads BSO in high-voltage works by Prokofiev, MacMillan

Music from the 20th century gets the lion's share of attention on the latest BSO program -- the operative word is lion.

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony and James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" are meaty, sometimes fierce works that provide everyone -- conductor Marin Alsop, the orchestra and listeners -- with quite a workout.

A curiously small audience turned out for the encounter Thursday night at the Meyerhoff.  Perhaps more people will show up for Sunday's repeat. (The "Off the Cuff" concerts tonight at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff will focus solely on the Prokofiev symphony.)

MacMillan, a Scottish composer who brings a set of strong religious beliefs (Catholic) and a social conscience to his music, was seized by the pitiful story of Isobel Gowdie.

She was one of the many women in Scotland who faced the hideous fate of being accused of witchcraft. Her astonishing confession in 1662 has been widely studied and discussed from many angles.

For MacMillan, this is a case of intolerance and misogyny -- Alsop told the audience that that the composer was speaking out against "persecuting people because they're different" -- and requires some act of atonement. His arresting score attempts to provide it. 

"The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" achieves ...

a remarkable level of darkness and angst by means of some wonderfully pungent chords and startling percussive thunder. There's a palpable sense of a horrible drama unfolding, a drama that you know should be stopped from reaching its wretched conclusion, but you are powerless, just like the accused.

Eventually, the strings sing out softly the promise of peace, while ugly taunts and threats continue to shatter the air. The effect is gripping. So was the performance.

Alsop, an ardent champion of the composer's, had the BSO churning awesome waves of sound and fury; the final sustained note, building to nearly a heavy metal-level volume, was brilliantly executed. This was visceral music-making. Even without the strange and haunting back story, this is a striking piece.

Alsop does not have the personal connections that someone like Yuri Temirkanov has to Russian music -- not that there is anyone quite like Yuri Temirkanov -- but she brings her own considerable passion and conviction to the material. So it was on Thursday in Prokofiev's Fifth, which Alsop led from memory.

The symphony is partly covered with the shadows of World War II, but also partly illuminated with rays from the light at the end of a gruesome tunnel. Alsop made it easy to feel these conflicting emotions, to sense a journey gradually turning upward. The conductor's taut tempos still allowed for breathing room; her interest in generating mighty fortissimos was matched with attention to subtlety.

The BSO delivered a big-boned sound, technical discipline and high-octane expressive fuel.

In between these two mighty works came a trifle, Sarasate's Fantasy on Bizet's "Carmen" for violin and orchestra. (Naturally, the BSO's marketing title for this program is "Carmen Fantasy.")

Going directly from MacMillan's witch to Bizet's bewitch-er took a bit of a mental adjustment, but the bravura exercise provided a nice showcase for associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins, who sported a Carmen-worthy gown for the occasion.

It takes a Heifetz to produce all of the fireworks in the score with effortless articulation and unerring intonation. Mere mortal violinists tend to land a little short of that mark.

Except for a little tonal roughness early on and slippery going in the coda, Adkins demonstrated admirable polish, not to mention delightful personality. Her phrasing vividly conveyed the sensuality and spice in the music. Throughout, Alsop and the orchestra provided their colleague with supple support.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

February 22, 2012

Midweek Madness: A musical romp through 'Downton Abbey'

If, like me, you are having severe withdrawal pains since the Season Two finale of "Downton Abbey," you could use a little of my global gift, Midweek Madness, more than ever.

So how about a brief musical tour through the show for this week's entry?

OK, so the video is a bit old and doesn't actually take into account the second season, but most of the characters haven't changed that much, so it still works.

Anyway, you will be singing along in no time and feeling frightfully better:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

February 21, 2012

Opera world loses another valued singer, soprano Elizabeth Connell

Elizabeth Connell, who started her nearly four-decade career as a mezzo and made a triumphant transition to soprano, died in London from cancer at the age of 65.

If the South African-born singer did not enjoy widespread name recognition, her reputation in the industry was secure and stellar. Miss Connell had the power for Wagner and Strauss, the dramatic truth for Verdi, the elegance for Mozart.

Her final performance was a recital Nov. 27 in Hastings, capping the evening with an encore that now seems all the more touching -- a song by Ernest Charles that was a favorite of divas past, "When I Have Sung My Songs."

Here is that encore from Miss Connell's last concert, complete with an endearing bit of trouble at the end that required starting the song over:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Lyrical afternoon with Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Ana Vidovic

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra has only three concerts listed this season, each scheduled a few months apart. It would be perfectly understandable if things sounded a little, well, unpolished, when the ensemble takes the stage, but that's not the case. If anything, the BCO sounds better each time I hear it.

The group boasts some fine musicians, a mix of free-lancers and Baltimore Symphony veterans (including Madeline Adkins, who clearly has much to offer as BCO concertmaster), so I realize that a certain level of technical quality is to be expected.

Still, it was remarkable to hear such impressive work during Sunday afternoon's performance at Goucher College, as if the orchestra had been giving concerts every week since opening the season last October.

Music director Markand Thakar, who evident knows how to maximize rehearsal time, had the players producing a consistently well-balanced sound.

Thakar knows how Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" goes, and he had it going very well at the start of the program. Tempos were spacious, dynamic contrasts beautifully attended to, phrases sensitively molded.

The strings summoned a velvety tone throughout, while woodwinds and brass likewise offered subtlety and warmth.

It was much the same at the end of the evening, in ...

Schubert's Symphony No. 5. Thakar got the music percolating nicely, and the musicians again paid keen attention to details of color and contrast.

In between came Rodrigo's exquisitely atmospheric Concierto de Aranjuez, with Ana Vidovic as soloist. The Peabody-trained guitarist demonstrated much more than effortless technique. Her phrasing, seemingly spontaneous and filled with delicate touches, communicated richly.

Thakar provided smooth support from the podium, and the orchestra purred nicely, with many a telling solo effort within the ensemble.

The famous Adagio, which enjoyed a whole new life years ago as soundtrack to a Chrysler TV ad featuring Ricardo Montalban and the ad man-created "rich Corinthian leather" (see below), emerged with particular care and tonal beauty; Leslie Starr's English horn solo here matched Vidovic's playing for elegance.

Although the audience did not exactly demand an encore from the guitarist, she returned to the stage to deliver one anyway -- a most welcome one, too. She played Tárrega's ever-haunting "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" with admirable finesse and a gently glowing tone.




Posted by Tim Smith at 5:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 20, 2012

Two Maryland opera singers among winners of George London Awards

Among the six young winners of the 41st annual George London Foundation Competition are two native Marylanders -- Frederick-born soprano Corinne Winters and Annapolis-born baritone Zachary Nelson.

The winners each received $10,000 at the conclusion of the competition Friday night at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

The George London Awards are named for the great bass-baritone, who was one of the most valued vocal artists of the 1950s and '60s and later worked in management, including a stint as director of what is now Washington National Opera.

Over the years, the competition has recognized several blossoming talents who went on to enjoy major careers, including Christine Brewer, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Catherine Malfitano, James Morris, Matthew Polenzani, Sondra Radvanovsky, Neil Shicoff, and Dawn Upshaw.

In addition to Winters and Nelson, the 2012 winners are bass-baritone Brandon Cedel, contralto Suzanne Hendrix, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa and soprano Chloé Moore. They were chosen from a field of 90 singers.

Winters, 28, earned her undergraduate degree at Towson University, her master's at the Peabody Conservatory. She is also a graduate of the ... 

Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where she created the role of Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter" by Margaret Garwood. The soprano, who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut, has sung with Wolf Trap Opera Company, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and others.

Nelson, 25, who graduated from Catholic University, is a current resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts and has sung several major roles with that company. He has also performed with Lyric Opera of Virginia and the Opera Orchestra of New York.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

February 19, 2012

Peabody Chamber Opera's 'Giulio Cesare' at Theatre Project

If you have a chance to catch Peabody Chamber Opera's presentation of Handel's "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" at Theatre Project -- the final performance is Sunday afternoon -- take it. 

Peabody doesn't produce baroque operas every day, and the other local companies that used to dip into this repertoire have folded up their tents. UPDATE: As readers have pointed out, the observation about Peabody and baroque opera is not quite legit. In my carelessness, I think I got a wee bit confused. It is fair, I think, to say that the conservatory has not put much focus on Handel operas. But I will be promptly set right, if I am off on that point, too.

This is one of Handel's greatest scores, filled with colorful, richly expressive arias. Within the rigid structures of baroque opera, the aria-after-aria progression, the composer proved wonderfully creative.

All the while, he revealed something meaningful about the characters and their relationships. This is not a case of mere vocal show.

This opera has a good story, too, of course. Director Timothy Nelson has put a provocative contemporary spin on it, from the "Mission Accomplished" sign to assorted acts of torture. This is not exactly Handel's Middle East, but he would still recognize the place and the issues as Caesar and Cleopatra find love and danger.

I'm not convinced by all of Nelson's ideas (in a program note, he writes that ...

some elements here provide an homage to 1981 "Giulio Cesare" production by his friend and mentor Peter Sellars).

But things that strike me as a little, well, precious, such as the imitation handguns (characters point fingers at each other), are balanced by many a deft touch. One example is the handing of photos to Caesar to provide evidence of Pompey's beheading.

In the end, things fit together to form a cohesive, thought-provoking package. Nelson's all-white design for the staging completes the picture effectively.

The cast doesn't sound as vocally sturdy or developed as those in some Peabody ventures (Italian pronunciation varies widely, too)l, but the singers get the job done and are finely tuned into Nelson's concept.

Countertenor Daniel Moody, as Caesar, does impressive work. The timbre could use more bloom, but it has obvious potential, and the singer's phrasing is admirably eloquent throughout. Julie Bosworth, as Cleopatra, is sometimes pressed to her limit by the dramatic flourishes, but otherwise shapes the music, especially "Piangero la sorte mia," a sublime example of Handelian beauty, with a good deal of character.

Janna Critz (Cornelia) and Elizabeth Merrill (Sesto) contribute some of the production's most vivid vocalism. There is sensitive supporting work from Kerry Holohan (Tolomeo), Matthew Sullivan (Achilla) and Megan Ihnen (Nireno).

The Baltimore Baroque Band, led by Adam Pearl, can be rough in tone, but rises to the challenges to provide a dynamic element in this ambitious and welcome production.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

February 17, 2012

A night of Austro-German drama with Baltimore Symphony

Drama is the operative word in this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program.

We're talking minor keys, heavy chords, heaving and sighing melodies, emotional outbursts. Oh, yes, and some death. But, hey, that's life.

It turned out to be quite a satisfying experience Thursday night at Strathmore. The repeat Friday night at the Meyerhoff should prove equally rewarding, if not more so.

All this dramatic activity springs from a familiar source -- the vast Austro-German repertoire that serves as the foundation of the symphonic world.

The biggest items reflect 19th-century German romanticism -- Brahms' "Tragic" Overture, Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" Overture, Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration."

A lot of piano concertos by Mozart -- they are, after all, products of sublime Viennese classicism -- would not fit smoothly with such company. But No. 20 in D minor can sure hold its own. This is Mozart in his darkest mode, stirring up quite a storm of ideas and turning them into something that approaches a three-act tragedy.

Although this particular concerto fits very well in the mix, that's not enough to justify the program's title. Have I mentioned before how much I hate, hate, hate the marketing trend that long ago swept the orchestra world, generating titles -- often meaningless -- for every program? Why advertise this one as "The Genius of Mozart" when he accounts for only one out of four works on the bill?

But I digress. Back to Thursday.

James Gaffigan, who made his BSO in 2009, was ...

back on the podium leading with a sure hand and an effective penchant for propulsion.

The Brahms overture churned and rumbled nicely. A little edgier approach would not have hurt, but the music spoke, and the orchestra delivered the message vibrantly.

The Wagner overture proved even more satisfying, with Gaffigan sweeping the music along. You could almost see menacing waves. Tension was maintained throughout, so that music of longing and redemption, too, had a powerful pull.

The brass let loose mightily Thursday night. The strings poured on the tone, and the woodwinds sang out warmly.

The same rich playing (some intonation slippage in the brass aside) also served the Strauss tone poem, which the conductor shaped persuasively.

The "Death" part of the score -- the struggles for breath, the flood of memories from early days -- emerged with terrific atmosphere. The slowly rising "Transfiguration" music could benefited from even more nuance in rhythm and phrasing, but it still registered.

Solo contributions by Jane Marvine (English horn) and Katherine Needleman (oboe) proved especially notable in the Wagner and Strauss pieces.

The Mozart concerto provided a fine vehicle for Lise de la Salle to make her BSO debut.

The young French pianist, who is quickly making a name for herself on the international scene, brought crystalline articulation to the score, with plenty of power as needed. 

She produced a volatile jolt in the first movement cadenza and tore through the finale at an impressive clip, maintaining clarity of line all the while. The slow movement -- exquisite lyricism that cannot entirely escape the threat of clouds -- could have used a little more nuance of tone coloring, but still proved affecting.

Gaffigan ensured smooth rapport between de la Salle and the orchestra. The woodwinds were in particularly shining form.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 16, 2012

Denyce Graves to join Peabody Conservatory faculty

Denyce Graves, the much-admired mezzo-soprano whose portrayals of Carmen and other alluring characters have been celebrated in the world's leading opera houses, will join the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in the fall.

The D.C-born singer will be on campus next week to listen to prospective students.

In addition to her operatic career (her Met debut was in 1995), Graves has been a familiar presence on concert stages.

She also reached millions as a soloist during the televised memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral a few days after 9/11.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:30 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

February 15, 2012

Mobtown Modern rings in John Cage centennial with pianist Adam Tendler

If they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.

This intrepid pianist mastered the technically, intellectually and emotionally daunting Sonatas and Interludes by John Cage for prepared piano and has performed them -- by memory -- all over the country.

On Tuesday night at the 2640 Space, Tendler repeated this feat before a sizable audience of mostly young people who apparently did not have Valentine's Day dates -- or thought this concert would be a great way to spend one. The event was presented by Mobtown Modern to salute the 2012 Cage centennial.

Chances to hear anything by Cage are few around here, a paucity not likely to change very much during his anniversary year. Except in the case of Mobtown Modern, which has also scheduled a performance of Cage's "Musicircus," a multi-ensemble sonic experience, in May. 

It is well worth being reminded of the composer's revolutionary impact, which went far beyond "4:33," the still-radical exploration of silence and ambient noise. Throughout his life, Cage challenged everything, and pretty much embraced everything, too, if it could be put to an aesthetic use.

No one has ever taken a broader view of what constitutes music. You might say he un-caged music (you would be greeted with groans, but you could say it).

My only live encounter with him was a concert he gave in Miami that consisted of ..

a single sound-producing object -- a gourd, which Cage rubbed and tapped for more than an hour. It was crazy, mostly riveting, sometimes boring. It ended up making its own strange sense.

Some folks might have a similar reaction to the Sonatas and Interludes, written in the mid-1940s. They are certainly off in their own little world, starting with the "prepared" element -- screws and bolts are placed in between or on the strings to turn the instrument's familiar sonic personality into something quite different. (Cage gives specific details on these preparations.) 

The changes give these pieces amazing colors, suggestive at times of percussion, exotic bells, even synthesizers. But beyond that aural novelty, Cage creates something that is at once oddly familiar -- there are at least semi-clear structures reflecting centuries'-old traditions, for example -- and wonderfully unconventional, unexpected.

The music takes on an Eastern flavor at times, but Western romantic flourishes pop up as well (the 12th Sonata turns positively Mussorgsky-like). There is a lot of softness and slow motion, and a lot of gentle treble activity as well, making the occasional explosions all the more effective. Motives are frequently reiterated with a chant-like focus, foreshadowing minimalism. There is something mystical about these works.

Because of the difficulty of preparing a piano (Tendler told Tuesday's audience that it usually takes him between 90 minutes and two hours -- and mere minutes to de-prepare them), these scores don't get brought out every day. And because of all that preparation, you might as well play all of them -- about 70 minutes' worth. The full dose can turn hypnotic, as happened on this occasion.

Tendler's identification with the material could be keenly felt throughout. He has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, considering them from ever angle. His technical command impressed, as did his memorization faculty. But what registered most was the very personal nature of the performance, the sense of a pianist living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: Judy and Liza go grocery shopping

And now for something completely different.

Two musical icons -- Judy and Liza -- provide this Midweek Madness infusion as they discover the thrill of shopping for groceries, adding an occasional musical flourish along the way:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

February 14, 2012

Last-minute suggestion for Valentine's Day concert

In the better-late-than-never category, note that Dyana Neal, of WBJC-FM fame and many local music/theater credits,will give a Valentine's Day cabaret show tonight at An die Musik.

In this program, titled "Love, Sex, Romance" (not necessarily in that order, I imagine), Neal will be joined by her husband, baritone Jim Knost, and pianist Douglas Brandt Byerly.

The song list includes such gems as "I've Got You Under My Skin," "It's Magic," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "I Remember It Well" and the ever-haunting "Some Other Time."

In addition to all the romantic music, you get champagne and pastries included in the ticket price. Call it "Love, Sex, Romance and a Bargain." The show is at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

End of an era: Cellist David Finckel to depart Emerson Quartet

Chamber groups do not just become like family to the players; they can become like family to audiences, too.

Over the years -- or decades -- as people see the same personnel, watch the musicians grow artistically, hear the tight interconnections of the music-making, an extra bond develops. It's almost as if you go to their concerts to hear old friends. So when a longtime member of an ensemble leaves, it gives one pause.

That's what happened with today's announcement that David Finckel, cellist in the Emerson Quartet, will depart at the end of the 2012-2013 season -- which is to say after 34 years. His successor will be ...

Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, a 16-year veteran of the London-based Nash Ensemble and former principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He also enjoys a career as a conductor.

By the time I first encountered the Emerson Quartet, at the Spoleto Festival USA, the current membership was in place. I imagine that's the only lineup a lot of us have ever known. And what a fabulous foursome -- violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and Finckel.

Year after year, the Emerson has demonstrated finely matched technique, an intensity of focus, probing interpretations. These guys work together on a level that just seems to land naturally, inevitably on a higher plane. Things that might not work for others -- the violinists alternate first and second chair; the violinists and violist stand during performances -- work splendidly for this group.

Finckel has been a busy cellist outside the quartet for some time, and he wants to devote more time to that. Here's an excerpt from his statement:

"My colleagues of 33 years have been extremely understanding of my desire to pursue, with greater energy, my increasing number of performing, educational and presenting commitments that are independent of the quartet ...

I could not be happier to see [Paul Watkins] take my chair, nor can I wait to hear how marvelous the quartet will sound in its new incarnation ... I am equally excited for the opportunities that await me in the next chapter of my artistic and professional life."

Finckel's colleagues expressed their views in a joint statement:

“Our collegial feelings toward this marvelous cellist are mingled with awe and admiration for his manifold talents as a chamber music player, soloist and artistic director of two major presenting organizations and a recording company ... His passionate, uncompromising commitment to our art could serve as a beacon to those who have lost their way in these economically and culturally disorienting times ...

It is only fitting that David's successor be a multi-talented musician ... Since Paul is almost two decades younger than the rest of us, we see his coming both as an opportunity to reaffirm and renew our commitment to the musical values we have long held dear, and as a chance to ensure the continuation of the Emerson String Quartet beyond the participation of any individual member.”

Here's a taste of the Emerson magic:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 13, 2012

Virginia Opera captures spirit of Philip Glass' 'Orphee'

Philip Glass secured his notable place in the history of 20th century opera with such epic works as "Einstein on the Beach" and "Satyagraha."

But the composer's stage works of more modest dimension would have been enough to earn him stature. "Orphee," from 1993, is a particularly striking example of his art.

The Mid-Atlantic area got a welcome, if long overdue, opportunity to experience "Orphee" last weekend in a visually classy, musically fulfilling production from Virgina Opera.

(Isn't it time a company in the composer's birthplace, Baltimore, embrace his operas? How about it, Peabody Opera? Lyric Opera Baltimore? Anybody?)

The fascinating nature of "Orphee" begins with its source -- the 1949 film of that name by Jean Cocteau, who retold the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld through a contemporary fable of a troubled poet. Glass took the original movie dialogue line for line and used that as the basis of his libretto for the opera, which is sung in French.

The story remains the same -- a mysterious Princess, really an agent of Death, makes dangerous choices after falling for Orphee, who is losing favor with the elite because his poetry has become too popular, and who starts to neglect his wife, Eurydice; the princess' chauffeur develops a crush on Eurydice; a radio conveys messages in a hypnotic code.

The most familiar aspect of the legend -- Eurydice being returned to the underworld when Orphee breaks the rule about looking at here -- is part of this tale as well, but with an optimistic twist.

The issues that Cocteau raised so stylishly in his film get fresh emphasis in the opera -- the creative impulse, the tension between popular and avant-garde art, love and fidelity, life and death.

Glass, writing in his most lyrical and even seductive vein, created a ...

fast-moving opera that grabs hold from the first jazzy flourishes from the orchestra. Throughout, the composer's distinctive thematic reiteration and rhythmic churning are employed to colorful, often keenly sensitive effect.

(In an instrumental passage from Act 1, Glass seems to give a nice little nod to the most famous opera involving Orpheus, the one by Gluck; a sweet flute solo recalls the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from that earlier classic.)

Virginia Opera, which has a long history of moving beyond the safe borders of the repertoire, embraced the challenges of "Orphee" with care and attention, as was evidenced Sunday afternoon at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax.

The physical production originated with Glimmerglass Opera and was used in 2009 by Portland Opera (the latter's performance generated a fine recording from Orange Mountain Music). Designed by Andrew Lieberman, the single set is an attractively sleek, up-market residence bathed in beige.

Kay Voyce's costumes neatly capture the essence of everyone from the oh-so-casual bright young things to the menacing motorcyclists controlled by the fur-draped Princess.

Sam Helfrich directed the action with an appropriately cinematic flair, while ensuring that the human emotions inside this symbolic, surreal story emerged tellingly. He conveyed the shifting between this realm and the underworld in clever ways, using doubles for some of the characters.

Matthew Worth soared in the title role. His big, warm baritone filled out the music beautifully, with lots of nuance in the phrasing. There was a natural, conversational quality to his singing that helped make his acting all the more persuasive.

Sara Jakubiak was a vivid Eurydice. Her diction was not always clear, but the soprano's vibrant, deftly shaded tone proved most engaging. 

As La Princesse, Heather Buck projected powerfully, if not with much color, and top notes turned strident. Still, she rose to the emotional peaks in Act 2 affectingly, making this curious character all the more sympathetic.

Jeffrey Lentz, as Heurtebise, the chauffeur, was a vocally slender presence, but he compensated with highly communicative phrasing. Jonathan Blalock also could have used more vocal heft. Still, he delivered a deftly drawn portrayal of the cocky, punk-poet Cegeste, whose new fame threatens to overshadow Orphee's.

The rest of the ensemble did colorful work, notably Christopher Temporelli as the head Judge in the Underworld.

Conductor Steven Jarvi shaped the score with admirable fluency and expressive detail. Members of the Virginia Symphony played as if Glass were a regular part of their musical diet, not only articulating the tricky patterns with clarity, but with great feeling as well. The orchestra gave the performance a beguiling sonic glow from start to finish.


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

February 11, 2012

Belated birthday wishes for Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price turned 85 on Friday. I should have stopped what I was doing that day to make note of the occasion, but will try to make amends now.

No singer I have experienced live sent more chills and thrills through me than Miss Price. Something in the timbre is pure magic; something in the phrasing is extraordinarily communicative and meaningful; something in the bearing says "diva" in the best sense of the word.

You will remember Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" summing up the glorious days of silent movies: "We had faces!" Whenever I hear Miss Price, I think how ...

she so nobly represents a peak of vocal art during a time that could be described with the line: They had voices!

This soprano has lived for art, just like Tosca, so I had to include Miss Price singing "Vissi da'arte" fabulously. And I couldn't resist a modern take on that sentiment -- her sumptuous performance of "What I Did for Love."

Many happy returns, Miss Price.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 10, 2012

Peabody Chamber Opera sends colorful 'Postcard From Morocco'

Some works of art pull you in by the clearest, most direct of means; you know why you're hooked at the start and you know what you've been through when it's all over.

Some works engage you for reasons you can't entirely explain and fill you with more questions than answers when you walk away, but you still feel satisfied somehow.

"Postcard From Morocco" is one of the latter type. Although this 1971 opera by Dominick Argento is nothing if not elusive, it manages to leave quite an imprint -- on singers as well as audiences, I imagine.

Peabody Chamber Opera has an effective staging of the piece well worth catching at the Theatre Project through Sunday.

It's a nice nod to Argento, who turns 85 this year. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at the Peabody Conservatory in the 1950s and went on to become one of this country's most successful and respected opera composers. He deserves plenty of attention any year.

Which reminds me -- the University of Maryland School of Music will salute Argento's 85th with productions by Maryland Opera Studio of "Postcard From Morocco" and "Miss Havisham's Fire" at the Clarice Smith Center in April. Argento will take part in discussions of his work during the April festival, which also features chamber music concerts, master classes and more. An all-Argento concert on March 30 will be at the center as a prelude to the fest.

OK, back to Peabody, Theatre Project and "Postcard from Morocco."

With a libretto by John Donahoe, the piece offers something of ...


an operatic "Twilight Zine" episode. The set-up is a train station in an exotic land, circa 1914, with lots of strange types flitting about the waiting room. They seem to embody something Lily Tomlin once said: "We are all in this together -- by ourselves."

The characters, identified by such descriptions as Lady With a Hand Mirror and Man With Old Luggage, make odd attempts to start conversations, and odder attempts to extract or reveal a little personal information.

Each person clutches something dear, something that seems in danger of being taken away or misplaced -- or discovered, which may be worse.

At one point, a crowd presses in on a man asking a question that suddenly goes from ordinary chit-chat with strangers to a menacing demand: "What do you do?"

Periodically, entertainment is offered to the would-be passengers. There's a puppet show. A vamp-ish songstress warbles in a made-up language. But nothing dispels the curious sense of unease, the feeling that these people are so emotionally lost that no train will ever lead them home.

Jennifer Blades directs the production with a fine eye for detail and surprise and has each scene unfolding in telling fashion on the efficient set (by Tom Bumblauskas). A couple of mannequins, looking as up-market as the humans in the production, add to the visual flair.

The singers are uniformly engaging. They don't all have ready-for-prime-time voices, but the potential is evident in each.

Tyler Lee, as the Man With a Paint Box, is particularly admirable. The tenor's sensitive phrasing conveys the character's melancholy and isolation most persuasively. Jeffrey Martin brings a solid tone and exemplary diction to the role of the Man With a Cornet Case.

As Lady With a Hand Mirror, Lisa Perry helps to fuel the performance with bright, agile singing. Elizabeth Kerstein likewise adds a dynamic touch as Lady With a Hat Box and the Foreign Singer.

Colorfully filling out the cast are Melissa Wimbish (Lady With a Cake Box), Halim Shon (Man With Old Luggage), and Michael Maliakel (Man With a Shoe Sample Kit).

Two voice students stay silent, performing as mimes -- Justine Moral and Joseph Harrell (with a good tan, he could give "Jersey Shore's" Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino some competition). They move in and out of the action quite charmingly and also get to carry on in one of the opera's most delicious scenes -- a dance routine set to a bizarre mash-up of Wagnerian themes.

Argento's eclectic score, which derives some of its most potent effects from only a single instrument interacting with a voice for long stretches, is in capable hands. Eileen Cornett is the music director. A well-matched orchestra is attentively conducted by Blair Skinner (he and the players sport Moroccan hats for the occasion).

With all of its mysteries and its unsettled air, this opera remains a fascinating, unsettling experience. If you had to sum it up, postcard-style, you might say: "Having a wonderful time. Glad I'm not there." 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein to give recital at Goucher College

Simone Dinnerstein, one of the most interesting pianists on the scene today, will be presented in recital at Goucher College as part of the 52nd Annual Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Lecture-Performance.

Dinnerstein will play excerpts from her just-out album on the Sony label, "Something Almost Being Said: The Music of Bach and Schubert." It's a gem of a recording, typical of the pianist's work -- technically refined and artistically eloquent.

Her account of Schubert's Impromptus, Op. 90, is quite impressive -- check out the video below of No. 3 in G-flat, played with exquisitely intimate phrasing.

As Dinnerstein explains: "Bach and Schubert's melodic lines are ...

so fluent, so expressive, and so minutely inflected that they sound as though they might at any moment burst suddenly into speech. They sound like something almost being said."

The recital, which offers the Impromptus and Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat, will be at 7 p.m. March 4 in Kraushaar Auditorium. Thanks to the Louis and Henrietta Blaustein Foundation, which supports the annual Rosenberg Lecture-Performance, tickets are only $10 (free for Goucher students ). Call 410-337-6333 or use the Goucher Web site.

Here's that video:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 9, 2012

The addictive attraction of the International Music Score Library Project

As some of you know well -- because I frequently go on and on about it -- I love piano transcriptions.

Over the years, I managed to find quite a few, but not nearly as many as I could uncover in a single hour plugged into the International Music Score Library Project, one of the coolest, most addictive sites I know.

It was a hunt for transcriptions that led me to IMSLP quite a while ago, but I discovered so much more there -- 159,000 scores by more than 7,000 composers.

It's a place I never tire of visiting whenever I want to put eyes on a score quickly and -- my favorite part -- print out something that I want to add to my collection. All for free, mind you.

This is a fabulous public domain space. I suppose it may be threatened, to some extent, by the recent Supreme Court decision regarding copyright protections, but I hope that IMSLP, founded six years ago this month, survives and thrives. I have been using it for a long while now and cannot imagine not being able to access it. 

Soloists and ensembles can find enough vocal and instrumental repertoire here to last a lifetime of performing -- OK, non-contemporary repertoire.

It is one of the most best examples I know of how the Web can benefit musicians.

Back to transcriptions. Just this week, on a whim, I wondered if anyone had ever done a piano arrangement of ...

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. I was still thinking about the exquisite performance of that piece I heard performed by Jorg Widmann with Christoph Eschebach and the National Symphony recently.

The slow movement has one of Mozart's most incredibly beautiful melodies and I had this yen to play it on the piano. Well, IMSLP let me down. No transcription. Sigh. But wait. How about Mozart's Clarinet Quintet? That's got some great stuff in it, too, and might be interesting to play. And there it was. Neat.

Then, I figured, did anyone transcribe the exquisite Clarinet Quintet by Brahms? Yep, they sure did. I printed out the first movement today and hope to try it out soon.

I know some of you are thinking it makes no real sense to play pieces like this at the keyboard, but what do I care about making sense? Thanks to IMSLP, I have such goodies as the complete score to Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride" -- for solo piano. How sensible is that? It sure is fun, though.

I've printed out assorted lieder, symphonies and tone poems arranged for keyboard, too. "Death and Transfiguration," anyone? My articulation of the "Death" part is deadly, but I can get through the "Transfiguration" very movingly, if I do say so myself. How about Tchaikovsky's "Manfred"? Loads of fun pounding out the heavy fate theme (that really makes the cats scatter).

Anyway, my specialized interest does not begin to explain the full extent of the treasury to be savored at this site -- full orchestral scores (and individual parts), chamber works, oratorios. (I use it for plenty of music originally written for piano, too.)

If you haven't already discovered International Music Score Library Project, give it a whirl. And don't be surprised if you keep coming back for more.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 8, 2012

Midweek Madness: Perry Como and the art of laid-back singing

It's Midweek Madness time again, and, for no reason whatsoever, I thought of Perry Como. And that made me think of this promo for his last great tour:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

February 7, 2012

Birthday greetings to Stuart Burrows, a tenor of rare gifts

Vocal music fans invariably have a list of singers they feel are not sufficiently appreciated. Topping my list is Welsh tenor Stuart Burrows, who celebrates his 79th birthday Feb. 7.

When I first started getting interested in classical singers, I picked up one of his albums on a whim -- the name meant nothing to me, back in my terribly uninformed days -- and I was hooked at first sound. The velvety tone, with its hint of sweetness; the seemingly effortless legato; the unerring tastefulness -- these are the qualities that most define Burrows (and elude so many vocalists today).

Here, as a birthday salute, a sample of the tenor's artistry -- a performance of "Il mio tesoro" that can, I believe, be mentioned in the same breath as the long-cherished one by John McCormack (the breath control during the coloratura run is marvelous); and two popular 19th century ballads that, again, Burrows delivers with great elegance:

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

February 6, 2012

Nicholas McGegan returns to BSO podium for spirited workout

The Baltimore Symphony welcomed Nicholas McGegan back to the podium last week.

His expertise in historically informed performances to music from the baroque and classical eras makes him a valued guest conductor with modern instrument orchestras. They can always use a little jolt from the authenticity crowd.

With McGegan, you also get an abundance of personality, which makes his appearances doubly welcome. On Saturday night at the Meyerhoff, he danced his way through an attractive assortment of familiar scores by Bach, Haydn and Mozart, and something new to the BSO's repertoire -- a suite from Rameau's opera "Nais."

(As a concert-goer remarked on Saturday, McGegan seemed to be at least a third of the way toward ...

the fabulously expressive podium choreography of Joseph Olefirowicz.)

The Rameau suite proved to be a highlight of the evening. For one thing, the music is exceedingly tuneful and colorful, a rich document of the sonic glory that defined the French baroque. McGegan brought plenty of rhythmic drive to to score, but abundant nuance as well, and he drew lively, attentive playing from the ensemble.

Without attempting imitation, the BSO strings nonetheless caught something of the light and lithe character of period instruments, while a good deal of flair also emanated from the brass, winds and percussion.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 opened the evening. In tutti passages, the sound struck me as rather mushy at times, but the performance nonetheless proved pleasant.

Qing Li, the violin soloist, offered some vivid phrasing, but the most shining work came from the oboists (Jane Marvine, Sandra Gerster, Fatma Daglar) and the horn players (Philip Munds, Gabrielle Finck).

After intermission, Andrew Balio, the orchestra's principal trumpet, stepped to the front of the stage to play the heck out of Haydn's E-flat major Concerto. It was a great opportunity to be reminded of Balio's technical polish and musicality. His phrasing had elegance, charm and wit in equal measure.

McGegan ensured smoothly flowing support for Balio from the orchestra, which also did polished, character-rich work in the program's concluding dose of E-flat major -- Mozart's Symphony No. 39. The conductor shaped that work with an engaging combination of propulsion and lyrical contour to cap this feel-good concert.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

The Susan Graham recital that wasn't

Nothing like an invigorating 70-minute drive to DC, only to discover that the trip is for naught.

Happened to me Saturday afternoon -- arriving all a-flutter at the Kennedy Center to hear Susan Graham's recital for the Washington Performing Arts Society, only to be told by the garage attendant that the mezzo-soprano had canceled. Oy, vey.

I knew my karma was off that day. Earlier, I couldn't access my email (for reasons still unknown), where I would have found a notice of the cancellation. And, just for extra fun, as I arrived at the Kennedy Center, a warning light on the car went off, so I felt my life was complete.

I'm sorry Miss Graham got ill. Honest I am. But, hey, a year ago I went to the Met to hear her sing "Iphigenie" and darned if she didn't cancel. So I am beginning to take this personally -- it's all about me, as you know.

At least there are delightful recordings of this fabulous singer to savor. I put together a few here, to create a mini-recital for the benefit of anyone else who felt forlorn over the weekend. I've chosen a couple of exquisite French songs, and two funny items, including the one about ...

mezzos and pants roles that Miss Graham she surely would have sung on Saturday:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:29 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 3, 2012

'A Skull in Connemara' gets smashing production at Center Stage

If you are perfectly at peace with the dust-to-dust concept — you know, the reality that all of us, except maybe Lenin and Kim Jong Il, are going to disintegrate anyway after we die, so who cares how? — then the sight of a few old bones being pulverized by mallets won’t bother you.

Otherwise, you may feel just a wee bit twitchy during the second half of Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara,” a dark-as-night comedy enjoying a decidedly vivid production at Center Stage. You may want to avoid a front row seat, too.

Bone particles (or a realistic semblance thereof) fly as forcefully as insults and insinuations in this play. It’s set in an Irish town where space in the church yard cemetery is at such a premium that those who have rested in peace for seven years are disinterred to make way for fresh customers.

OK, so. That sure sounds extreme, but not in Connemara.

No one even gives this practice much thought until Mick Dowd, the man in charge of the skeletal business, faces the prospect of uncovering his own wife. You see, her death never was satisfactorily explained for some people in town, so reopening her grave takes on a whole new level of interest.

Things get pretty messy, in physical and emotional terms, before the digging (also in physical and emotional terms) is done. Oddly enough, things get awfully funny, too.

“A Skull in Connemara” springs from ...

a surreal well of humor that started generating an extraordinary group of works by McDonagh in the mid-1990s. This piece, the second entry in what became known as the Leenane Trilogy, might be thought of as a fusion of a Monty Python skit and the 1990s sitcom “Father Ted,” which was set on a bleak and loopy Irish island.

But the wit, some of it hammered home, is balanced by a spooky, serious streak that forces you to look twice at the oddball characters McDonagh conjures up in a corner of County Galway.

In this forlorn spot, jerks and quirks appear plentiful — Maryjohnny Rafferty, the grandmother who cheats at church bingo; Thomas Hanlon, the policeman who obsesses about “a pot of jam and a lettuce in the fridge of the fattest man you’ve ever seen in your life”; his younger brother, Mairtin, whose thickheadedness will come in handy as the plot unfolds.

Mick, the grave-digger, might seem almost normal in such company, were it not for all the baggage weighing him down, the memories and worries that keep sprouting from the hallowed ground around him.

This is quite a quartet of quaint, curious and cruel folk. They hide or invent things, obsess and quibble, push buttons guaranteed to raise hackles or doubts. And they seem destined to keep repeating their lives, their mistakes.

There’s a pathetic sadness here, which, in the end, moves the play to a different level.

The director of this production, BJ Jones, who heads Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, quotes a fabulous Oscar Wilde line in his note for the Center Stage program book: “The Irish have an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains them throughout temporary periods of joy.” You couldn’t find a better key to the gray matter inside “A Skull in Connemara.”

Jones is reunited here with several colleagues from a 2002 Northlight Theatre staging of the play, including Todd Rosenthal, whose scenic design deftly captures this weird world, right down to real dirt for digging.

The set is dominated by a hutch packed with religious statues, bric-a-brac and what-not. The towering piece of furniture leans at such an awkward angle that it's in danger, like so many things in Connemara, of collapsing.

Although their Irish accents are not entirely persuasive, the cast members create a thoroughly convincing ensemble.

Si Osborne, a veteran of the Northlight production, has a weathered, subtly sad look that makes Mick sympathetic, even when the character turns scary. Just the way he sinks into a chair says a lot; it’s as if Mick is being swallowed up by all the things that haunt him. And the actor achieves something truly touching at the end of the play, when more questions than answers linger.

Jordan J. Brown vibrantly captures the mix of nerdy, needy and nasty in Mairtin. (Brown seems to have drawn some inspiration from a great source — Irish actor Ardal O'Hanlon, who starred so memorably as the daft Dougal in “Father Ted.”)

Barbara Kingsley is terrifically colorful as Maryjohnny, a squinty-eyed biddy who sees plenty, but won’t let that keep her from enjoying one more drink of Mick’s poteen. And Richard Thieriot rounds things off strongly as the almost-on-the-ball Thomas.

With its decidedly original characters and situations, not to mention bone-crushing wit, “A Skull in Connemara” leaves a lasting mark.

Incidentally, by an odd coincidence, "Star Wars" figures in two Baltimore theaters right now. In "Skull," Mairtin recalls when kids stole his "Star Wars" figures -- "It was Han and Luke and some other one they had off me -- Princess Leia! Aye, and them are the three best ones in 'Star Wars.' You can’t play 'Star Wars' without them."

Meanwhile, the real Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher, is across town at the Hippodrome reminiscing about the movie in her one-woman show "Wishful Drinking." What are the odds of that?

"A Skull in Connemara" runs through March 4.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

February 2, 2012

'Wishful Drinking' makes rough landing at the Hippodrome, but still flies

As she is the first to tell you, Carrie Fisher has had an eventful life. Since a lot of those events involved drugs, alcohol, rehab, and battles with bipolar issues, you might not think that it could be such a funny life, too. But funny it is. Pretty endearing, too.

Fisher happily shares her experiences in “Wishful Drinking,” a solo theatrical vehicle the actress/writer introduced in 2006 with considerable success. The show, which arrived at the Hippodrome this week, still has legs. The level of sturdiness, though, can vary from performance to performance. (Video from an earlier production -- pre-weight loss -- is posted below.)

There’s no use pretending that opening night on Tuesday went smoothly. Fisher, who could not have been more unflatteringly attired (surely her weight loss since becoming a spokesperson for Jenny Craig deserves a better outfit), often sounded halting, even with a teleprompter.

The uneven pacing made the show’s length more problematic, underlining the fact that ...

there really isn’t quite enough solid-gold, well-structured stuff here to justify two acts.

Fisher, who also seemed to be fighting a cold, told the audience that she had not performed the material in a few months. I imagine she will quickly get back up to speed during the run here. But, hey, any evening with Fisher, in any condition and at any speed, would be hard to resist. She is just such terrific company.

Even if you have seen “Wishful Drinking” before or feel like you already know her stories, the live experience is well worth the effort. Besides, she is likely to toss in fresh observations at any moment (on Tuesday, Newt Gingrich earned a very funny description).

Part of the attraction here is the age-old sport of celebrity-watching. In Fisher’s case, she’s got plenty of celeb cred on her own, having risen to the ranks of the cinematic immortals thanks to a certain sci-fi epic and an iconic hairdo that made her look like an ad for a doughnut company.

The “Star Wars” anecdotes, including the Princess Leia Pez dispenser and other merchandising horrors, still have considerable interest and zing. The saga of that far-away galaxy clearly left a mark — more like a scar, really — on Fisher. There may be no effective therapy for that.

Fisher’s literary efforts, too, have made her a star. “Wishful Drinking,” which unfolds on a fairly intimate, adult-playhouse set designed by David Korins, abounds in clever, witty writing. Fisher is as adept at fashioning a self-deprecating line as she is at aiming a great slice-and-dice assessment at others.

But Fisher offers much, much more in the fame department, which she thoughtfully explains through one of the early visual shticks in “Wishful Drinking” — a crash course in “Hollywood Inbreeding 101.”

There is something endlessly fascinating about the Fisher saga. Who could ever tire of hearing about her mother, the divine Debbie Reynolds, or her roving-eye father, Eddie Fisher? They’re the parental gifts who keep on giving. Even the peripheral characters, especially Marie “The Body” McDonald, are great fodder.

If memories of her long, on-off relationship with Paul Simon still smart, Fisher doesn’t let that stop her from revisiting the chapter in typically incisive and wry fashion. The man who died in Fisher’s bed gets his share of attention, too, as does the father of Fisher’s daughter.

For all of the fun side-trips in the show, every road leads back to Fisher and the crucial issue of her survival. “Wishful Drinking” is an extended lesson in everything counselors say about overcoming addiction or mental woes, especially the part about how acknowledging the problem is the first step, a step that has to be repeated daily.

When you hear the line at the top of the show, “I’m Carrie Fisher and I’m an alcoholic,” it provokes a laugh — she wants it to — but also a cringe. And for two hours, you’re part of group therapy, not just entertainment. The experience can feel a little strange, perhaps, a little voyeuristic, but the level of honesty and candor can work quite a spell.

Folks sitting in the front rows may find themselves drawn into the session more deeply than they had anticipated. Fisher amusingly employs audience participation, much the way Dame Edna does in her one-woman shows, including rewarding a lucky attendee with a stage appearance and memento of the occasion. And, also like Dame Edna, the interaction gives Fisher a chance to show off ad-lib skills.

In a deft touch, the star opens and closes “Wishful Drinking” singing a take on the ironic Barbra Streisand version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Fisher’s cares and troubles may not be entirely gone, but you want to believe she will be just fine from now on.

The production runs  through Feb. 12 at the Hippodrome


Here's a video taste of the show:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

February 1, 2012

Midweek Madness: The ultimate in carefree conducting

If Oliver Hardy had been a conductor, I imagine he would have been just like Joseph R. Olefirowicz, who is as cool and funny and expressive as can be in this clip from the Volksoper in Vienna.

One look, and I knew I had to share it on your favorite Wednesday online featurette in the entire cyber-cosmos, Midweek Madness. You will thank me. Profusely. (As I thank my Florida buddies for alerting me to it.)

This was filmed just last week during a concert version of ...

Bernstein's "Candide" -- specifically the number "What's the Use?" It's not super audio, but you'll hear enough to see that this Massachusetts-born conductor could not be more comfortable with the music or himself.

I sure hope more clips of the "Candide" performance emerge. I keep imagining how terrifically this guy could give cues during "Glitter and be Gay." ( I did find a clip filmed at a rehearsal for a different "Candide" a year or two earlier, and I figured it would be fun to have here, too.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:44 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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