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March 31, 2012

'Porgy and Bess' receives admirable staging at Morgan State

First, you have to admire the chutzpah.

Morgan State University Opera went way out on a limb, artistically and financially, to present a fully-staged production of "Porgy and Bess," a work of daunting proportions and challenges.

Then you have to admire the results, which went considerably beyond the college level.

For one thing, with the help of stellar artists, some of them MSU alumni, the level of singing in the principal roles Friday night was about as good as you could find at major opera houses anywhere today. (Those performers will be featured again Sunday afternoon; an alternate group sings Saturday night.)

Given the crucial choral part in this opera, another decided plus is this venture is the presence of the justly famed Morgan State Choir. On Friday, the choristers may not have been entirely comfortable with the acting and dancing side of things, but produced a stirring sound.

The budget allowed for some key assets -- a sizable ...

set, purchased from Opera Company of Philadelphia, that offered sufficient atmosphere and allowed for easy flow of the action; and a professional orchestra in the pit, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, led with a sure and expressive hand by Julien Benichou.

Hope Clarke, a seasoned, sensitive director/choreographer with a Tony nomination among her long list of credits, deftly emphasized the sense of genuine community on Catfish Row, along with the superstitions and pettiness that threatened it. Some of the blocking and dance sequences looked rudimentary, but the key elements of the drama were effectively conveyed.

That drama, and the music driving it, have been well honored in this Morgan staging. This is the real "Porgy and Bess," in its unabashed grand opera form. No big cuts, no Broadway-style reductions to George Gershwin's brilliant score or orchestrations.

It's a great reminder of the continued potency of the original work, with its ever-fascinating story by DuBose Heyward, who fashioned the libretto (with significant input from his wife Dorothy) and a good deal of the lyrics (with contributions from Ira Gershwin).

On Friday night, Kevin Short commanded the stage as Porgy. The bass-baritone filled out the music with an exceptional rich, even tone and vivid, often quite individualistic phrasing. He was particularly compelling in the final scene, as Porgy slowly realizes that Bess has deserted him.

Short, with the help of the vibrant Ruby Weston (Serena) and Leah Hawkins (Maria), made "Oh Where's My Bess" an affecting high point of the evening.

Kishna Davis tore into the role of Bess, revealing the character's physical and moral volatility -- Bess is the ultimate "sometime thing" -- to telling effect. The soprano's plush voice hit the spot, whether in Bess' sweet little goodbye on the way to the picnic or soaring in the "I Loves You Porgy" duet.

The lithe and nimble Larry Hylton caught the oily attractiveness of Sportin' Life and sang with delicious flair. Lester Lynch was a dynamic force, vocally and theatrically, as Crown.

In most cases, supporting roles were ably filled, showcasing lots of promising talent among the university's voice students. Shana Oshiro, as Clara, sang "Summertime" sweetly. I also especially admired the evocative work of Joseph Johnson (Honey Man), Melodye Shipmon (Strawberry Woman) and Anthony Marciano (Crab Man).

Technical glitches, mostly with lighting, took a toll Friday, but nothing derailed this earnest and spirited effort.  I couldn't help but think, though, how much more satisfying it would have been to experience this production at the Lyric Opera House instead.

I'm afraid the cavernous Gilliam Concert Hall at the Murphy Fine Arts Center just doesn't cut it acoustically, or in ambiance. At the Lyric, amplification would not have been needed (it was, thankfully, used moderately here). Oh well.

I hasten to add that it is important to have this "Porgy" at Morgan, where the first Bess, Baltimore's Anne Brown, once studied (Morgan College then). It's a fitting way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the arts center and, above all, to show off promising voice students at the school and the growth of the opera department under the guidance of Vincent Dion Stringer.

And there's another element worth noting -- the opportunity to see this classic opera about African Americans produced by an African American institution. That's significant and valuable in itself.

Final performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:27 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 30, 2012

Last-minute weekend music suggestions

In addition to a big work by Bach and a grand opera by Gershwin, this weekend's musical calendar includes several more intimate concerts that ought to be well worth checking out.

Tonight at 8 at An die Musik, there will be a concert by two distinguished Peabody Conservatory alumni: guitarist David Starobin (1973) and baritone Patrick Mason (1972).

Their program ranges from Paganini and Schubert to the remarkable contemporary composer John Musto.

The recent CD "Crazy Jane" from the fine label Bridge Records, which Starobin founded in 1981, showcases the incisive artistry of both musicians in a colorful program of Musto, Paul Lansky, George Crumb and others.

On Saturday at 1, also at An die Musik, another Peabody alum from the 1970s, pianist Abe Minzer, plays Book 1 of Bach's epic Well-Tempered Clavier.

And still on the topic of impressive Peabody products, in this case of more recent vintage. The Duo Transatlantique, made up of excellent classical guitarists Benjamin Beirs and Maud LaForest, will give a concert 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Faye Contemporary.

Thanks to the invaluable Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust, there will be a free concert at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Har Sinai Congregation by the ...

Ellicott City-based Orchestra of St. John’s, led by Ronald Mutchnik.

The program includes "“Spirit of America," a work by Baltimore composer Vivian Adelberg Rudow that allows for "optional audience participation."

Also on the bill will be the Alberta Concerto by Russian-born, Canadian-raised composer Minuetta Kessler, with piano soloist Jeffrey Chappell, along with popular works by Mozart and Barber.

The centennial of Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino, whose elegant music deserves to be much better known, will be honored with a free concert at 2 p.m. Sunday at Villa Assumpta (Charles and Bellona). The program, presented by Arts for Hearts' Sake, features soprano Elizabeth Hart, violinist Jose Cueto and pianist Nancy Roldan.

And Concert Artists of Baltimore offers a program 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Engineers Club rich with lyrical works, including Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, piano pieces by Chopin, the Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke, songs by Brahms and arias by Meyerbeer and Rossini.

The performers are mezzo Melissa Kornacki, violist Julius Wirth and pianist Eric Zuber.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:08 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Out West With the BSO: The critical view after the first concert

And now a few words from the Southern California critical community about the Baltimore Symphony performance Wednesday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with Marin Alsop conducting, percussionist Colin Currie as soloist:

Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register: Jennifer Higdon's Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto took the center spot in the program.

It certainly is an entertaining show, especially with percussionist Colin Currie as soloist, running around stage to his various set ups and pounding the living daylights out of them ...

Alsop led it enthusiastically.

Her moment, and the orchestra's, to shine, though, came ... with a performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. We've heard this work a few times in recent seasons here, including with some world class ensembles. If this performance didn't quite reach the sheer luxury and virtuosic brilliance of those others, it had plenty going for it.

The Baltimore Symphony sounded ...

bright and gritty. The violins, well unified, laid into their parts with vehemence. The lead trumpet player allowed no one in his way ...

Alsop dug into the work unrelentingly. Her phrasing never became heavy or overbearing, though, thanks to her animated rhythms, purposeful accents and forward momentum. It was a fiery and thrilling performance.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times: An uncommon woman, Alsop began her program Wednesday by pairing Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with Joan Tower’s cheeky “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” That was followed by Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. It is, unfortunately, a commonplace concerto, but Alsop ended with a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 ... Alsop ... made the symphony sound intriguingly American.

She is a conductor who insists on rhythmic cogency, sometimes to the point of hammering. That can be an enlivening approach, and it was here ...

The Baltimore brass players don’t hold back. The orchestra has color, especially in its woodwinds. It was wonderful to hear the violins’ competing rhythms of two against three in the slow movement as tartly distinct, not Romantic and misty ...

Alsop did something new. She made a neo-Classical counterrevolutionary symphony feel newly revolutionary.

Photo Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Soulful Symphony to present Whitney Houston tribute

The Soulful Symphony, led by Darin Atwater, will honor the legacy of Whitney Houston at its June 1 season-finale gala concert at the Hippodrome.

The originally scheduled program, offering the premiere of Atwater's "Ghetto Ballet," has been postponed.

Atwater will now conduct "The Voice: A Tribute to the Life and Music of Whitney Houston," featuring new arrangements of the late pop music diva's hit songs.

Tickets are available in person at the Hippodrome Theatre Box Office or through Ticketmaster. Gala tickets, including a pre-show dinner, are $250.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

BSO's summer season includes music of Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, video games

The Baltimore Symphony's 2012 summer season will have a mostly pop music flavor and take place mostly in the open (or semi-open) air.

The only concert in Meyerhoff Hall will be "A Night in Fantasia" on July 28, devoted to music from video games and anime. The program, tied to the Otakon Convention in Baltimore, will be conducted by Philip Chu and feature Jillian Aversa, the voice of Soulcaliber V, God of War, et al.

At the Pier Six Pavilion in the Inner Harbor, the BSO will offer a tribute to Michael Jackson on July 26 with conductor Brent Havens and vocalist James Delisco.

On July 27 at the Pavilion, the orchestra shifts gears into the music of ...

Led Zeppelin, again conducted by Havens. Singer Randy Jackson and a rock band (not the actual Led Zeppelin, in case you were wondering) will share the stage with the BSO.

Outdoors at Oregon Ridge, the orchestra will open the summer season with its traditional Independence Day program July 3 and 4, conducted by Robert Franz and featuring bass-baritone Derrick Parker. Fireworks will cap both concerts.

Back at Oregon Ridge on July 14, the orchestra once again visits the film music of John Williams, conducted by Robert Bernhardt.

For tickets to the BSO summer season, call 410-783-8000 or visit the BSO Web site.

July will also find the BSO performing beyond the immediate Baltimore area. On July 11 at the extraordinary Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, concertmaster Jonathan Carney will serve as conductor and soloist in a program of works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Elgar (this program was recently performed at Meyerhoff).

And on July 21, the BSO, led by David Lockington, will provide the orchestral support for the three finalists in the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Center Stage announces 50th anniversary season, Kwame Kwei-Armah's first

When Kwame Kwei-Armah started on the job of artistic director at Center Stage last fall, he summed up his attitude with a simple message: Welcome to the conversation. That philosophy runs throughout the company’s 50th anniversary season, 2012-2013, the first to be totally planned under Kwei-Armah’s watch.

Plays, old and new, were chosen not just for the value of the lines spoken onstage, but also for their potential to generate a broader dialogue on various issues. By the end of next season, it may seem as if the plays themselves are conversing with each other.

“It’s a reflection of the kind of world I want Center Stage to be, a very significant civic partner in the community,” Kwei-Armah said. “If you leave my theater saying only, ‘That was a nice evening,’ I’ve failed. I want people to be talking about the work on the way home and, I hope, the next day as well.”

Here's a snapshot of the '12-'13 lineup: 

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller; Sept. 19 to Oct. 21.

This revival is timed for the election season. The plot revolves around a form of whistle-blowing that puts brothers into conflict with each other, amid challenging issues of politics, finance and science.

“The play asks what the responsibility of the individual is, and what we owe society,” said Kwei-Armah, who will direct the production. “The brothers will be played by two actors who will alternate the roles, so that will change their conversation onstage. This work is also a conversation between the adapter of the play and the originator.”

The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe, by Stephen Thorne; Oct. 17 to Nov. 25

This work, which originated last year at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, examines the pathetic last days of Poe. “It’s kind of profound and deeply felt, but with zany hilarity, including some vaudeville and burlesque,” said Gavin Witt, associate artistic director and director of dramaturgy at Center Stage.

The play fits the conversation theme by giving Baltimore audiences a fresh opportunity to consider a local icon. It also adds to the dialogue about Baltimore’s theater companies. Kwei-Armah is breaking with Center Stage’s longtime tendency to overlook local talent in favor of New York performers by hiring ...

Bruce Nelson, a popular resident artist at Everyman Theatre, to portray Poe.


A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee; Nov. 21 to Dec. 23

The 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning work opens a window into an unsettled upper-middle class household of middle-aged suburbanites. “It speaks to the fear we all secretly have, especially when the economy is uncertain, and when we don’t know what our roles are,” said Kwei-Armah.

The play, which will be directed by Mark Lamos (his staging of “Into the Woods” is currently at Center Stage), was also chosen “to make sure that Center Stage members know that the classics, from Shakespeare on, will be well looked after during my tenure,” Kwei-Armah said. “But only classics that I think speak to something here and now.”

The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall; Jan. 9 to Feb. 24

This work, a 2009 hit in London that received a more muted response in New York last fall, is set in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On the night before he is assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. engages in a conversation with a maid.

“It is both fantastical and spiritual, but not a political play in any form,” said Kwei-Armah, who will direct the production. “It is a wonderful exploration of an icon. This is a play that deserves to be seen by Baltimore audiences. I like the work very much. I have ambitions [as director] to make it particularly mine.”

Mud Blue Sky, by Marisa Wegrzyn (world premiere); March 6 to April 14

The award-winning young American playwright has “a deliciously wicked, wry sense of humor,” said Witt. Wegrzyn’s new work centers around three female flight attendants in their 40s who take stock of their lives while in a hotel room outside O’Hare Airport.

“They’re asking quintessential questions,” Kwei-Armah said. “When we did a reading of the play, all the women over 30 at the table had tears in their eyes at the end. The men were more like, oh really? But I want women’s voices to be a huge part of the conversation next season. And this is a beautiful story beautifully written.”

The Raisin Cycle: Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris; Beneatha’s Place, by Kwame Kwei-Armah (world premiere); May 8 to June 9

The Norris work, which received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, is related in theme and place to the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black family in Chicago moving to a white neighborhood.

“‘Clybourne Park’ certainly speaks to Baltimore, as to any urban area, and to gentrification and political correctness — and the desire for freedom from it,” the British-born Kwei-Armah said. “My play is a response to both ‘Clybourne Park’ and ‘Raisin in the Sun.’ As a newbie [in this country], I found I have a take on race in America.”

In effect, the cycle will set up “a conversation between two plays,” Kwei-Armah said. And, added Witt, “these two plays will be in a discussion over a third.”

The 1961 film version of “A Raisin in the Sun” will be shown at Center Stage during the run.

50 Monologues: My America

Having freshly located to the States for the Center Stage job, Kwei-Armah wanted to learn more about the country. “Instead of going to Google, I went to 50 artists, some of the best writers in America, and asked them to write three-minute monologues about ‘This is My America,’” he said.

Those writers include Paula Vogel, Pulitzer Prize-winner playwright of “How I Learned to Drive.” Actors will be engaged to deliver the monologues on film, which will be shown during the run of “Enemy of the People.”

For more information, call 410-332-0033 or go to the Center Stage Web site.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

March 29, 2012

Out West With the BSO: Guest blog post from percussionist Colin Currie

I would love to be out on the West Coast with the Baltimore Symphony, reporting from the front lines of the orchestra's first tour with music director Marin Alsop, but I am delighted that some of the participants have volunteered to file occasional guest blog posts. The first comes from Colin Currie, the brilliant percussionist who brought down the house last week performing Jennifer Higdon's concerto. He is being featured in that work at some of the stops on the tour, which opened last night in Costa Mesa, California:

Greetings from Orange County, where the beautiful Chesapeake cherry blossom of last week 

is swapped for the palm trees of California, and furthermore, a feathered friend at our hotel in Costa Mesa!

I enjoy travelling to the West Coast as one can look forward to what is, in effect, a fairly indulgent lie-in (courtesy of the time change), rising lazily at around 7am local time to a full morning of activities!

I locate a conference room for myself and my darabuka (a kind of hand-drum) to work on next month's premiere of Kalevi Aho's Percussion Concerto with the London Philharmonic (would love to bring this work to the BSO!) then dutifully adjourn to the treadmill for a time.

Mr Mallard has shuffled round to poolside at the deep end, slumbering in the sunshine, his beady eye opening only momentarily to impart mock disdain at my diving skills.

The afternoon is relatively easy-going (a nap!) until 4pm when I get to the hall to fine-tune my equipment and do Higdon warm-up.

Pre-concert warm-up is always the same for me, a good couple of hours playing most of the piece under-speed, with occasional phrases at full speed, repeated many times to make sure they are functioning at full throttle.

I like the hall and it reminds me of the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, UK, although discrepancies between the surrounds environments and climate are noted.

I have a very brief but efficient sound-check with the orchestra at 7pm and time for ...

a final freshen-up back at the hotel.

This picture was taken on my stroll to the hall, and shows its geometric architecture and the Californian dusk light.

A marvelous concert awaited me!

Rapturously received and had a good old bop with Marin during the cadenza section and towards the finale.

Even managed some repartee with some audience members who were especially excited to be sat slap bang in front of my drum set!

Truly a pleasurable tour thus far and now looking forward to launching this concerto even further into the stratosphere in Berkeley and Eugene!

-- Colin Currie


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

March 28, 2012

On Bach, 'St. Matthew Passion,' Baltimore and Mengelberg

Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" will fill this weekend in Baltimore. The Bach Concert Series offers this monument of Western music in a two-part presentation, Saturday and Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor.

The series is best known for its free monthly concerts, typically devoted to a cantata and some instrumental works. Tickets are understandably being charged for the large-scale Passion project.

The performances will be conducted by T. Herbert Dimmock, whose championing of the composer is boundless and whose dedication to the Bach Concert Series has made it an admirable component of the city's cultural life.  

The epic "St. Matthew Passion," intended for the closing days of Lent, is a reflection on the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. It can speak strongly to those of any or no religious affiliation or leaning. This is music of incredible beauty and ingenuity, not to mention intense drama.

I was freshly reminded of how stylistic approaches to Bach have changed so markedly over the past several decades, thanks in large measure to ...

the historical authenticity movement, which has caused a general speeding up of tempos and a crisping of articulation.

Sir Colin Davis, the eminent British conductor, will have none of it. In an interview this week with the Guardian, he said of the period instrument:

"The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It's entirely theoretical. Most don't play the music because it's moving, they play it to grind out theories about bows, gut strings, old instruments and phrasing. I've heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content."

Yikes. Them's fightin' words. That got me thinking about the era way before all that historical awakening, when Bach could be savored for its emotional content at what would now be considered glacial tempos and thoroughly romantic phrasing. I must say that, while enjoying many of the historically informed performances today, I still feel an occasional craving for the good old days. Let me give you an example, using the final chorus from the "St. Mathew Passion."

Wednesday just happens to be the birthday of conductor Willem Mengelberg. I realize his legacy will forever be tainted by his behavior after the Nazi occupation of his native Holland, but his music-making remains important and inspiring (to me, at least). See what you think of how Mengelberg approaches the close of Bach's masterwork, compared to a more contemporary, PC version led by Philippe Herreweghe: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: An itch for Rachmaninoff and Marilyn Monroe

I known it is fashionable in some corners to make a smelling-cauliflower face at the mere mention of the name Rachmaninoff, but I never tire of the guy.

And I think it is possible for the composer's non-admirers -- perhaps even a certain hot shot young Austrian pianist who says life is too short to drink bad wine or play Rachmaninoff -- to warm up to this music: Put Marilyn Monroe in the picture.

So, for my Midweek Madness junkies, whether Rachmaninoff-inclined or not, here's a memorable scene from "The Seven Year Itch," when the ...

Piano Concerto No. 2 gets the divine Marilyn all quaky and shaky:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 27, 2012

Mike Daisey to discuss 'Steve Jobs' controversy at DC's Woolly Mammoth

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which plans to go ahead with its summer presentation of Mike Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," offers a free public forum Tuesday night with the author/performer.

Daisey, joined by the company's artistic director Howard Shalwitz and managing director Jeffrey Herrmann, will discuss the controversy over the factual validity of work content, which led to the retraction episode on "This American Life"and Daisey's recent apology.

The forum is at 7 p.m. tonight at at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company., 641 D St., N.W. Admission is free. To reserve a seat, call 202-393-3939.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

March 26, 2012

Baltmore Concert Opera serves up 'Lucia' complete with armonica

Nothing like a perennial favorite and a bit of novelty to pack 'em in. So it was for Baltimore Concert Opera, which gave two SRO performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor" over the weekend, complete with the armonica Donizetti originally intended for the mad scene.

On Sunday afternoon in the elegant ballroom at the Engineers Club, many of the singers sounded like they were working their way into the roles, rather than having lived in them. Recitative passages suffered especially from a bland delivery that glossed over the vividness of the Italian language.

That said, the performance caught fire as it went along, and, even pared down to orchestra-less concert size, the brilliance of "Lucia" could be appreciated. 

In the title role, Sharon Cheng sounded ...

wan much of the time. Her pleasant, if monotonic, soprano floated through phrases, instead of animating them, and her diction was mushy. Her embellishments were on the conservative side and not always comfortably executed. Still, she proved eloquent in the Lucia/Enrico duet in Act 2, and she did produce enough sparks to capture the dramatic power of the mad scene.

That mad scene featured the remarkable Dennis James on the armonica, an invention of Benjamin Franklin's that could not be more fitting for depiction of Lucia's unraveling mental state. Coordination between singer and armonica was not entirely smooth, but the interplay provided considerable aural fascination.

William Davenport brought a wonderfully ringing tone and great ardor to the role of Edgardo. I hope the tenor can develop softer dynamics, which would have added much to his otherwise exceptional work here. I thought Davenport sounded like a tenor with a future the first time I heard him; I still do.

Nicholas Pallesen proved impressive as Enrico, with a dark, sizable voice and consistently potent phrasing. Matthew Curran, as Raimondo, summoned a rich, smooth sound and shaped the music with stylish power.

Conductor Ronald Gretz took sensible tempos and allowed for some effective rubato. The Sextet was too rigidly paced for my taste, though; the melodic peaks could have used more breadth. Jim Harp provided solid support at the piano.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:12 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

March 23, 2012

At the BSO: Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is a smash

Just a hunch on my part, but I think that West Coast audiences are going to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s visit that starts next week.

A sample of what’s in store for folks in California and Oregon is contained on the program the BSO performs this weekend at Meyerhoff Hall. One item, in particular, is bound to go over well out there, just as it did Thursday night at the Strathmore Center -- Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto.

Higdon, one of the contemporary composers regularly championed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, writes in a style that is easily accessible to those whose ears are happily stuck in the 19th-century.

But Higdon is also solidly, naturally connected to the sound-world of pop/rock music, so listeners from that side of the aisle can feel thoroughly comfortable with her work.

In this concerto from 2005, Higdon unleashes a kinetic storm of urban beats, balanced by ...

passages of Asian-influenced musings that exploit the most seductive qualities of the diverse percussion instruments assigned to the soloist.

Adding an unusual layer to the work is Higdon’s decision to treat the orchestra’s percussion section as a second protagonist. That means a whole lot of beating going on at times.

The result is that the rest of the orchestra, all those strings and things, sometimes seems like an afterthought. But that doesn’t much matter in the end, for the concerto is filled with absorbing musical ideas that are taken in interesting, often foot-stomping directions.

The piece was written for Colin Currie, a magician with a marimba, a devil with a drum. You can tell how much Higdon enjoyed putting him through his paces; he has to dart across the stage from one set of instruments to another, usually with mere seconds to spare. She also took full advantage of Currie’s expressive abilities, which are as impressive as his technical wizardry.

On Thursday, the soloist’s brilliant performance was complemented by the flair of the BSO’s percussionists. There was some lively work from the orchestra, too, along the way, and Alsop kept all the forces on the same tight track.

The other big item on the program is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. By now, ears should be accustomed to Alsop’s approach to this composer, vastly different in many ways from that of her predecessor Yuri Temirkanov, yet persuasive on its own terms.

Where Temirkanov found cosmic struggles and dark shadows, not to mention broad tempos, in the Fifth, Alsop takes a lighter, faster view overall. But she hardly slights the fundamental drama in the score. It’s more that she lets you feel early on everything can and will turn out all right.

Thursday's performance had an engaging sweep and abundant character. The waltz movement, for example, was shaped with considerable gracefulness, while the finale surged forward on an increasingly potent electric charge.

The orchestra sounded terrific, with lots of warmth from the strings and vivid color from the woodwinds and brass. In the second movement, there were glowing solos from principal horn Phil Mjnds principal oboe Katherine Needleman.

At the start of the concert, Alsop offered one of her favorite pairings: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” They both sounded just a little shy of spot-on.

The concert is repeated Friday and Saturday at the Meyerhoff.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

March 22, 2012

Audiences will listen: Stephen Sondheim turns 82

It's Stephen Sondheim's 82nd birthday, which is a good reason to remind you that Center Stage is offering a revival of "Into the Woods," the brilliant creator's multi-layered look at fairy tales and their consequences.

I wish some elements in the production were stronger, but, on balance this is is a vibrant reminder of the musical's beguiling power

Given the Sondheim birthday and the Center Stage show, it's also a good reason -- as if I needed any -- to trot out my idol, Barbra Streisand, who was born to interpret Sondheim's music. Here's her version of ...

one of the most affecting songs from the "Into the Woods" score, "Children Will Listen."

The message of these lyrics sure bears repeating. Often.

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

March 21, 2012

Birthday gift: Nine hours of Bach for less than a buck

Bach's birthday -- March 21, 1685 -- is being celebrated with a gift from eOne, which is relaunching the vintage Bach Guild label.

Through Friday, nine hours of Bach's music can be downloaded for one low, low price of 99 cents. Yes, folks, I said 99 cents. And if you download in the next 20 minutes, we will throw in this Japanese knife set -- whoops, wrong promotion.

This really is a deal, considering what's included (the price goes up to a still-cool $9.99 on Friday). Among the artists on The Big Bach Set are Andras Schiff, Joseph Szigeti, Antonio Janigro, and the English Chamber Orchestra.

A complete B minor Mass, all the Brandenburgs and Orchestral Suites, and a whole lot more fill the nine hours.

It's all available through Happy Bach-ing.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:31 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

'Diner' pre-Broadway tryout won't be in the city that inspired it

Well, it was fun to daydream about. The musical version of Barry Levinson's "Diner" will not have its pre-Broadway run in dear old Baltimore, birthplace of Levinson and the actual diner, as some of us had been hoping.

Instead, the musical, with a book by Levinson and music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow will open a four-week engagement Oct. 23 at San Francisco’s SHN Curran Theatre, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshal (director of the current "Anything Goes" revival in New York).

A Broadway opening is anticipated in spring 2013.

Let's just hope we get the post-Broadway tour before Washington does.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: Thoughts of Mad Men and Miss Marmelstein

Like "Mad Men" fans everywhere, I've been chomping at the bit for the start of Season 5 on Sunday.

I also happened to notice that Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of a Broadway musical that, except for the specific occupation involved, and except for the time period, and, oh, yes, except for the ethnicity, is really a lot like "Mad Men."

OK, a little bit, but enough to justify my using it to generate this installment of Midweek Madness.

The musical, of course, is "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," which opened on Broadway March 22, 1962.

The plot revolves around a moral-less, ruthless guy trying to claw his way to the top of New York's garment industry. Naturally, he uses people, undercuts his colleagues and takes advantage of women. Sounds like Don Draper with a measuring tape to me.

And you just know that female employees in the garment industry ...

would have been subjected to a heap of sexism, just like on Madison Avenue.

As it turns out, one secretary depicted in the musical actually craves some sexism. She's Miss Marmelstein, portrayed 50 years ago by a woman still in her teens and destined to steal the show.

So here to sing about the humiliation of not having men in the office get fresh with her (almost sort of like Peggy Olson, before she got wise), is the one and only Barbra Streisand:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:07 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 20, 2012

Shriver Hall Concert Series assembles another stellar roster for 2012-2013

It's not news that the Shriver Hall Concert Series offers major artists from the classical music arena. Still, the 2012-2013 lineup strikes me as one of the starriest yet.

For keyboard fans, two exceptionally imaginative virtuosos are slated: Marc-Andre Hamelin and Piotr Anderszewski.

The string soloists are nothing to sneeze at, either. Cellist Alban Gerhardt will give a recital, accompanied by pianist Cecile Licad. Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will give a concert with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and the Parker Quartet.

Speaking of chamber ensemble, two of the best from the younger generation will be ...

featured on the series: the Brentano and Pavel Haas quartets.

Next season's baroque concert offers the brilliant Europa Galante, led by violinist Fabio Biondi.

And the annual vocal recital will be offered by the top-notch mezzo Magdalena Kozena, accompanied by a pianist who typically has the spotlight to himself -- the eminent Yefim Bronfman.

Like I said, one the starriest lineups yet.

For more details check out the Shriver site

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

'The Brothers Size' a great fit at Everyman Theatre

There’s no mistaking a strong new voice in theater, someone who surprises and challenges, who creates fresh ways to examine familiar issues.

Tarell Alvin McCraney emerged a few years ago as such a voice when, still in his 20s, he unveiled a trilogy of plays set in the Louisiana bayou and loosely based on Yoruban mythology of West Africa.

The second of these pieces, “The Brothers Size” from 2007, has been particularly well-received in stagings across the country and abroad. It is now at Everyman Theatre in a searing production that hits you with a double, equal force — the imagination of the writing, and the power of the performers.

At its heart, the play is about the bonds of family, how they can go much deeper than we will ever know until they are threatened. Sibling attachments are hardly unexplored in drama. What McCraney does so well is ...

spin his plot, set in “the distant present,” from unexpected threads that lead in unexpected directions. We are kept on edge as we are drawn inside.

The characters have names and archetypal traits derived from Yoruban gods. None of this is crucial to understanding the play, mind you, but fascinating.

Ogun Size is the strong one, with a solid business repairing cars and an unshakable work ethic. He’s the tough-love dispenser, but with a softer, easily penetrated side beneath the veneer.

Ogun’s brother Oshoosi is the wandering one, antsy for an adventure — a trip to Mexico, maybe — or just for sex. His tendencies land him in trouble; he has just been released from jail when the play opens.

Then there is Elegba, named after the trickster god, the tempter. He’s a cousin to Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess,” strangely cool and beguiling, always popping up to take advantage of a situation. Elegba shared a cell and a whole lot more with Oshoosi, and he clearly wants to reclaim something of what they had — even if neither man really understands what that was.

Put these ingredients into a play bound up heavily in mythical matters, and you’d likely have quite a bore. McCraney leaves all that in the background, so that the implications can sink in later, when you find yourself still thinking about everything you’ve seen and heard (and you will).

McCraney’s language achieves a striking richness at times, as when a woman’s sadness is likened to an after-rain breeze. But the poetry is so deftly applied that it never turns arch. There’s abundant humor, too, in the text.

The people in this play, prone to throwing profanity and the N-word around, remain down-to-earth even when they speak stage directions to the audience (“Ogun exits,” etc.) — one of the playwright’s quirkier, but oddly appealing, ideas.

Using a theater-in the-round set-up and a spare, evocative scenic design by Daniel Ettinger, the Everyman production provides an almost uncomfortably intimate experience. The cast, directed with a sure eye for detail by Derek Goldman, creates a brilliant, finely meshed ensemble that moves with choreographic eloquence.

Yaegel T. Welch brings a compelling voice and layers of telling texture to the role of Ogun. Chinaza Uche likewise taps effectively into the multiple elements that make up Oshoosi. The two men do extraordinarily affecting work in the play’s most cathartic scene for the brothers, ignited by a vintage Ottis Redding record.

Powell Lawrence shines as Elegba, so sinewy and assured in movement, yet with eyes that subtly speak of the character’s vulnerability and longing.

The play sometimes loses steam, and the ending lacks weight. But, by any measure, “The Brothers Size” is a major achievement. So is this production.

Performances run through April 15.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

March 19, 2012

Satisfying sonic Sunday: BSO with Belohlavek, Richard Goode at Shriver Hall

On Sunday afternoon, I took in a couple of highly satisfying performances.

First up was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which welcomed back distinguished Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek after an absence of 26 years. I hope his next visit won't take that long.

The program, not surprisingly, focused mostly on Eastern-European repertoire. The exception was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 -- I couldn't help but think that Dvorak's Piano Concerto would have been even more fun here, in company with that composer's "Carnival," Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" and Janacek's "Taras Bulba."

The newsiest item was the brilliant Janacek score, which, remarkably, the BSO had never before played. Even if you didn't know\ the extremely vivid story of the 17th century Cossack warrior that inspired the piece -- lots of torture, killing and that sort of thing -- the music's strikingly dramatic character would speak loudly.

Belohlavek brought out its passion and sweep with an authoritative touch, and the BSO ...

responded with expressive fire and technical polish. The third movement, in particular, really took off. Jane Marvine's finely shaded English horn playing was among the the sterling solo contributions in the performance.

A few measures of the Kodaly Dances could have been a little tighter, but the ensemble again showed off its quality as Belohlavek stirred up a highly kinetic account of the prismatic score. Soloists, particularly Steven Barta (clarinet) and Phil Munds (horn), proved admirable. Note, too, the singing tone from the whole cello section in the opening passage.

In the Dvorak overture, the conductor balanced propulsion -- the fast bits truly flew by -- with melting lyricism.

The Beethoven Concerto, too, held many rewards. The soloist, Shai Wosner, commanded attention from the start with his first chord -- arpeggiated, which I can't remember hearing a pianist do.

Throughout, Wosner deftly sculpted the music with an appealingly light and crisp articulation that still allowed a good deal of tonal warmth. Likewise, the performance moved easily between a chamber music intimacy and all-out force. The cadenzas were delivered with terrific drama. Belohlavek provided model support and had the orchestra moving smoothly in and out of the conversation.

After the BSO, it was time for the Shriver Hall Concert Series and a typically eloquent recital by Richard Goode.

The pianist, who hummed along at times (well, I hope that's where the humming emanated from), began with two dramatic Mozart items -- the C minor Fantasie and C minor Sonata, which were linked together to make an even richer statement.

Although Goode had the music in front of him, he sounded thoroughly at home. The playing had a strong dynamic edge that pointed up how much Mozart was pushing the keyboard of his day, paving the way for Beethoven to push it further.

This, naturally, helped connect the Mozart pieces to the next work, Beethoven's Sonata No. 18, which Goode (now from memory) played the heck out of. The dashing Scherzo and witty finale were dispatched with particular brilliance.

Chopin was the focus after intermission. Where some pianists tend to bring out the softer side of the composer's music and others the muscular, Goode managed to honor both. Although he rushed through some waltzes, he still managed to produce lovely touches. Most impressive was his handling of the C-sharp minor Scherzo, marked by understated virtuosity and poetic richness.

I loved, too, Goode's encores -- Chopin's C major Mazurka (Op. 24, No. 2), with its piquant twists and turns; and Schumann's "Traumerei," phrased with effortless grace.



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:39 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

Eschenbach, National Symphony present gripping 'Fidelio' in concert

Beethoven's link to the what, in some quarters, would be called liberal causes -- liberty from tyrannical states, the brotherhood of man, the power of love and justice -- may have been a bit exaggerated over time.

But this is how many people want to imagine the composer, and why he is embraced so heartily.

When Leonard Bernstein changed a beloved text from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom" in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth to mark the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, it seemed safe to assume that the composer would have approved.

After all, Beethoven had already revealed a firm commitment to freedom and the overthrow of evil forces in his single opera, "Fidelio."

That commitment registered anew in a gripping concert version of the opera offered by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director Christoph Eschenbach.

When the prisoners in Act 1 make their tentative steps out of their cells for a rare sight of sunlight; when Florestan, unjustly held in the jail, sings of his despair at the start of the second act; when a benevolent ruler arrives in the nick of time -- it is impossible to miss Beethoven's sympathies in such passages.

And when, at the end, everyone offers an ecstatic salute to the loyalty and bravery of Leonore, the good wife who risked her life to save her husband, Beethoven isn't just reinforcing the value of a strong marriage. He celebrates the greatness of the noble, selfless individual fighting against ruthless, immoral and amoral authorities.

Well, that's how I like to think of it, at least. And that's how I heard it Saturday night in the NSO's memorable performance at the Kennedy Center.

This was very much ...

a theatrical "Fidelio." Presented in an effectively semi-staged format, the action moved rapidly and absorbingly as directed by Stephen Pickover (only some hand-pointing and flag-waving actions assigned to the chorus struck me as unwise). The cast got well into the piece, so that it was easy to conjure vivid imagery to go with each scene.

I wish Melanie Diener had landed more squarely on pitch all the time, but her portrayal of Leonore rang true. At her best, the soprano produced a lush, dark sound and sculpted the demanding music with considerable expressive fire.

Simon O'Neill delivered Florestan's equally demanding music with an affecting passion, not to mention laser-like articulation and a bright, theater-filling tone. (This was the voice we didn't get to hear last year, when O'Neill sang Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" with the Baltimore Symphony hours after being hospitalized .)

With his plush voice and appreciation for every syllable of text, Eric Halfvarson did stylish, sterling work as Rocco, the common man with an uncommon conscience. Tomasz Konieczny thundered effectively as the nasty Don Pizzaro. Kyle Ketelsen brought a rich bass-baritone and a compelling delivery to the role of the enlightened Don Fernando.

As Marzelline, sweet-voiced Jegyung Yang did not always project easily, but her colorful characterization did. Paul Appleby performed the small role of Jaquino vibrantly. And Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society of Washington was in superb form. The men produced a beautifully blended tone for the prisoner scene; the full chorus helped to shake the rafters splendidly in the finale.

The NSO delivered very impressive playing, right from the overture. There was discipline in the attack, warmth in the tone, expressive depth in the phrasing. The horns had a particularly beneficial night.

The main star of the evening -- besides Beethoven, of course -- was Eschenbach. His inspired and inspiring guidance drew fresh details from the score, emphasizing, for example, the subterranean orchestral colors during the dungeon scene, and ensuring that each of Beethoven's edgiest chords really shattered the place before resolving.

Eschenbach also fashioned a marvelously moody, seamless transition from the rescue scene to the "Leonore" Overture No. 3. In that overture (often interpolated as scene-change filler in opera house productions), the conductor's interest in dynamic contrasts, rhythmic tautness and, in the closing moments, sheer, unbridled joy paid off handsomely.

He unleashed that same mood in the opera's last scene, driving everyone onstage to a peak of contagious exhilaration. The whole performance provided a memorable journey on the road to joy.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

March 16, 2012

Robert Ward's 'The Crucible' gets vivid staging by Peabody Opera

Peabody Opera Theatre is on a roll. In the same season that saw worthy productions of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" and Dominick Argento's "Postcard from Morocco," the company has successfully tackled another demanding 20th-century work, Robert Ward's "The Crucible."

Based on the Arthur Miller play, "The Crucible" does not always have a distinctive ring to my ears. I find some of it too obvious or heavy-handed; the orchestral thump at the first mention of the word "witchcraft" is but one example.

And I confess to wondering if Ward was thinking of another American opera when he wrote the big scene between John Proctor and the wicked young woman who once had his heart -- it sounds like it could easily turn into a duet called "Abigail, You Is Not My Woman Now."

That said, "The Crucible" reveals a good deal of craftsmanship and, above all, packs quite a theatrical wallop ans it rushes toward the dispiriting conclusion of this story about bewitched, bothered and bewildered folk in colonial Massachusetts.

Roger Brunyate, directing his final Peabody Opera main stage production as head of the company, seizes on that propulsive element and zeroes in tightly on the drama. He also designed the economical set, which is subtly lit by Douglas Nelson.

Brunyate got impressively intense performances from Thursday night's cast (this group also performs Saturday; another was heard Wednesday and will be onstage Friday). The singers did not ...

meet all the needs of the score, which is filled with wide leaps and extended fortissimo passages, and several performers were reduced to shouting. But everyone managed to communicate credibly the essence of the music.

Nathan Wyatt was a standout as John Proctor, the moral core of the story. Although he struggled at times to control the tone at either end of his range, the bulk of his singing emerged solid and warm.

Alexandra Razskazoff did vibrant work, vocally and dramatically, as Abigail. Julianne McCarthy sang with a good deal of expressive flair as Elizabeth Proctor.  Peter Tomaszewski gave a sympathetic, sturdy-voiced performance as Reverend Hale.

Among the others, I was particularly taken with the tender tone and sensitive phrasing of Delaney Rosen as Rebecca Nurse. And James Kil strongly conveyed the noble character of Giles Corey.

The orchestra, conducted effectively by JoAnn Kulesza, poured out an impressive wave of instrumental angst.

PHOTO (of Amedee Moore and Jisoo Kim from the Wed/Fri cast) COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

Birthday wishes to composer David Del Tredici on his 75th

Once upon a time, I got to hear a fair amount of music by David Del Tredici. I guess I was in the right place at the right time, for opportunities in the Baltimore area have been scarce.

I was reminded of this lamentable deficiency in my musical diet when I noticed that today marks the richly imaginative composer's 75th birthday. It made me want to hear some of marvelous works inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll -- or anything else, for that matter.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra honored Del Tredici earlier this month with ...

a performance of "Final Alice" and posted the closing portion of that prismatic score from 1976, which I thought would make a worthy birthday salute here. What mesmerizing music this is -- a sonic wonderland, you might say. (Boosey & Hawkes also marked the birthday by posting a three-part interview with the composer that is well worth checking out.)




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

March 14, 2012

Peabody Opera offers 'The Crucible,' Roger Brunyate's last staging as artistic director

The years after World War II, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against suspected communists in the government, were filled with intimidation, false accusations and rushes to judgment.

That reminded Arthur Miller of the Salem witch trials, prompting his acclaimed play “The Crucible” in 1952.

Nine years later, all of the intense issues raised in Miller’s work found new expression in an opera by Robert Ward. His version of “The Crucible,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, quickly became one of the most performed American operas.

Its advocates include Roger Brunyate, the artistic director of Peabody Opera Theatre who is retiring from the post after 32 years. He directs the company’s first production of "The Crucible," which opens Wednesday.

“The opera is very close to the Miller text,” Brunyate said, “but is also much more gut-wrenching. It enhances the play enormously, concentrating ruthlessly on the emotional clashes of the characters.”

Ward’s work played a role in the Northern Ireland-born Brunyate’s own career. A few years after joining the Peabody faculty, he was ...

engaged to direct his first professional productions in the U.S. — “The Crucible,” for companies in the Chicago and Kansas City. He was recommended for those jobs by the composer.

Brunyate also went on to write the libretto for Ward’s “Roman Fever,” a 1995 opera based on an Edith Wharton story.

“Since this is my last production as artistic director, and since ‘The Crucible’ has never been done at Peabody,” Brunyate said, “it seemed a not inappropriate way to acknowledge that debt to someone who got me started professionally in this country and with libretto writing.”

“The Crucible” had its premiere at the New York City Opera.

Ward was “thrilled to write for major singers like Norman Treigle,” Brunyate said, “and he wrote to the limits of what they could do. Most professionals, let alone students, would be challenged by that. The music is very demanding.”

The pressure of the vocal lines is not the only test.

“The orchestra is rather large, which can be tough for young voices,” said JoAnn Kulesza, music director of Peabody’s opera department and conductor for “The Crucible.”

Students in the cast received some coaching on the opera from Ward, now 94, via a video conference from Duke University, where he is professor emeritus.

“The opera is a product of American opera of the mid-century, when people were trying to find the American equivalent to Puccini and verismo,” Brunyate said.

Although Baltimore opera-goers have not manifested much of an appetite for anything more contemporary than Puccini’s “Turandot” from 1926, Kulesza expects “The Crucible” to be embraced by the public.

“The audience will find it easily accessible,” she said. “There are tunes in it you can walk away singing.”

People may also walk away thinking about the subtext of the opera, and the play that inspired it, even if we are long removed from witch trials or anti-communist witch hunts.

“You just need to ask about the Patriot Act,” Brunyate said. “We’re not entirely free from preemptive suspicions, where guilty-until-proven-innocent is something that keeps on creeping up. There are certainly new relevancies in an age of terrorism.”

Although “The Crucible” marks the final main stage production for Brunyate at Peabody, he will remain a part-time faculty member.

“I’m not going to Florida and bask in the sun,” he said. “I hate that, actually. I’m sure you’ll see me again. If it works out that Peabody goes to the Lyric in the fall with ‘Don Giovanni,’ I will direct that.”

Brunyate’s influence has long been felt beyond the walls of the conservatory, in shows he has directed for other Baltimore organizations over the years, and in opera companies founded by several of his students after graduating (not all of those companies survived).

As for Peabody Opera Theatre, its continued growth has been demonstrated in such vibrant productions as Massenet’s “Manon” last season on campus and the company’s first foray into the Lyric with Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” last fall.

“Roger essentially built the company from the ground up,” Kulesza said. “It wouldn’t be anything like it is today without him.”

“The Crucible” runs Wednesday through Saturday. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

Midweek Madness: A dissenting voice about Sondheim

There's nothing like a production of a Stephen Sondheim musical to get the adrenaline flowing, which means I am really looking forward to tonight's official opening of "Into the Woods" at Center Stage.

I have heard that some folks do not fall into the Sondheim-is-God camp. Hard to believe, I know. And I suppose it is even possible to empathize with the sentiments in this song by ...

the late and very clever Fred Silver, sung here by Michael McAssey: "I'm Getting Sick of Sondheim."

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:39 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 13, 2012

Deborah Voigt cancels concert for Washington National Opera

If you had plans to catch the colorful soprano Deborah Voigt in a concert Saturday presented by Washington National Opera, you'll have to find an alternative. Here's the release:

Washington National Opera (WNO) today announced the cancellation of DiVa Light: An Evening with Deborah Voigt, which was to have been presented on Saturday, March 17, 2012 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Ms. Voigt cancelled due to illness, and the concert will not be rescheduled.

Refunds will be issued to the original method of purchase. Additional questions about refunds may be directed to (202) 416-8540, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Glass Mind Theatre explores fairy tale roots, resonances in 'Adapting Cinderella'

This, apparently, is the month to re-examine fairy tales in Baltimore.

A bunch of them are being dissected over at Center Stage in a production of the potent Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods."

One story in particular, that of the abused young woman who loses a slipper and gains a nobleman, has caught the fancy of Glass Mind Theatre, one of the city's ambitious ensemble companies.

"Adapting Cinderella," created by members of the troupe over the past several months, seeks to figure out what all this "once upon a time" and "happily ever after" stuff came from, why we continue to hold onto such notions, why we still wait for a prince or princess.

Other questions include why we don't know enough about the sisters or the witches in these stories ("The Wiz," needless to say, springs from the same sort of questioning). More contemporary matters of bullying, sexuality and ethics also work their way into the play, however briefly.

The 90-minute production at Load of Fun, guided by Glass Mind's founding artistic director Andrew Peters, doesn't ...

entirely hold together structurally, and it gets bogged down in rudimentary choreography and pageantry. Still, there's enough intriguing material here to provide an engaging experience, and enough potential to suggest theatrical possibilities from further development.

Framing the play are scenes in a subway station, where ordinary folks deal with ordinary problems while waiting or panhandling. These scenes contain some of the best writing, by turns comic and bittersweet.

The action dissolves periodically into Cinderella-like stories from ancient times, one of Chinese origin, the other Egyptian. If the linkage with the folks back on the subway platform is a bit of a stretch at times, themes of cruelty, magic and unexpected love certainly ring a bell.

The ensemble -- everyone takes on multiple assignments -- does generally proficient work.

Among those making the strongest impressions are Sarah Ford Gormana, who reveals some serious pipes as the subway singer in an effective prelude to the play; Alex Scally, as a homeless man; Peter Blaine, who provides the narrative thread; and Elizabeth Galuardi, as the hapless Rhodopis in the Egyptian sequence.

A major asset in the bare-bones production is the classy, vividly atmospheric sound design by Andrew Porter.

"Adapting Cinderella" runs through March 25.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

March 12, 2012

Lyric Opera Baltimore continues inaugural season with buoyant 'Figaro'

The tally for Lyric Opera Baltimore's inaugural season is two for two. There have been shortcomings in each, to be sure, but the net result has been positive. 

With a lively, solidly-cast production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" over the weekend, the organization helped to solidify its claim as the successor to the late, lamented Baltimore Opera Company. Actually, in this case, it seemed more a resurrection than replacement.

This was the same physical production the former company presented on the pre-renovated Lyric stage in 2005 -- a formation of a few tall movable set pieces, decorated with crucial documents of the 18th century, designed by Allen Charles Klein.And the same director, Bernard Uzan, was on hand to guide the cast.

I'm all for a little deja vu now and then, but it would have been nice to see something new and more interesting.

That said, the musical side of things represented a significant step up (I caught Sunday afternoon's performance). To begin with, the conductor this time, Joseph Rescigno, balanced momentum with graceful contour. Unlike in '05, the score was allowed to breathe, yet never felt draggy.

There may not have a starry assemblage of singers onstage, but there wasn't a weak link. Everyone demonstrated an appreciation for the subtleties of the music and the text, as well as a flair for creating vibrant characters.

The performers achieved a true ensemble effort, put through their paces by Uzan in unfussy, neatly timed fashion. Comic bits generally hit the spot (Figaro's extra use for a yard stick in the measuring scene, for example), and the opera's more serious side was sensitively served.

In the title role, ...

Daniel Mobbs proved a very genial fellow. He offered a voice that, except when pushed hard in his last act aria, was evenly produced throughout the registers and capable of considerable tonal warmth. The bass-baritone also demonstrated an ability to shape and inflect the music most tellingly.

Janina Burnett, as Susanna, sounded a bit unfocused at first, but quickly added nuance and flair to her vocalism. Her account of "Deh vieni, non tardar" proved especially winning.

Caitlyn Lynch gave an exceptionally classy performance in the role of the Countess. From the first limpid notes of "Porgi amor," the soprano commanded attention. She phrased that aria with remarkable beauty of tone and seamless legato, casting quite a spell as she uncovered the essence of the music -- of the whole opera, for that matter, since it is the Countess who provides the work's heart and soul.

Lynch did much the same later in "Dove sono," which likewise seemed to spread a glow through the house.

Marian Pop, as the Count, could have used more volume at times, but the baritone's vocal suavity served him well. Kirsten Gunlogson handled the musical and theatrical demands of Cherubino deftly.

There was nicely characterized work from Madeleine Gray (Marcellina), Julius Ahn (Don Basilio and Don Curzio) and Michael Ventura (Antonio). Stephen Morscheck, as Dr. Bartolo, got a good deal of color from his soft-grained bass-baritone in the vendetta aria.

The production also introduced Melissa Wimbish, Lyric Opera's Peabody Young Artists of the Year (the company plans to showcase a singer from the conservatory each season). As Barbarina, the soprano revealed a bright voice and a knack for animating phrases.

The chorus handled its brief scenes in dynamic fashion.

As was the case with the season-opening "La Traviata," it was a luxury to have the Baltimore Symphony in the pit. The orchestra made a key contribution to the success of the venture with playing notable for its fluency and sparkle. I wish the harpsichordist for the recitatives had demonstrated a similar kind of elan.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Guest blog post: Logan K. Young on Cygnus Ensemble at Library of Congress

Here's a guest bog post about an intriguing program last week in DC-- TIM

By Logan K. Young

Some three years after her death, and the specter of pianist Dina Koston still looms over the Beltway. Having co-founded, with Leon Fleisher, the Theater Chamber Players -- which would become the first resident ensemble at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center -- in her twilight years, she had gone back to her first love: composition.

A former student of both master teacher Nadia Boulanger and the Darmstadt masterclasses, ultimately, Koston’s retreat to writing proved the wiser move. In fact, as I discovered Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, if things had turned out differently, Koston might’ve been remembered as a composer, first.

Apropos, then, that the inaugural concert of the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music would begin with Samuel Beckett’s “Ohio Impromptu.”

A brief but haunting meditation on loss and regret, Beckett’s playlet from 1982 was one of the last dramatic works he ever wrote. Late in his own life, here he’s worn down his characteristic dread to only the bare essentials: a Reader, a Listener, a table and a hat. Under the no-nonsense direction of Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman, Ted van Griethuysen ...

read his part with stoic grace.

“Little is left to tell,” the Reader intones to his identically clad Listener (whom scholars suggest is but a proxy for the same person.) Unlike the tramps and their pratfalls that temper "Waiting for Godot’s" existentialism, true, “Ohio Impromptu” is stark for stark’s sake. But as the organizing theme for a concert of new music, once again, Dina Koston was dead on.

From the minimally-inclined (Morton Feldman) to Minimalism incarnate (Baltimore’s son Philip Glass), contemporary composers have mined Beckett’s mire more so than any modern writer. Be it English or his adopted French, there’s a musicality all its own to his way with words.

Koston no doubt heard this herself; her teacher at Darmstadt, Luciano Berio, had used excerpts from Beckett’s novel "The Unnamable" in his own magnum opus, "Sinfonia." Regardless, I know I heard it in Koston’s piece from 2009, “Distant Intervals.”

Written for the idiosyncratic instruments of the Cygnus Ensemble -- double winds (one of which is also double reed), two strings and a pair of plectrals including guitar, mandolin and tenor banjo -- Koston’s orchestration called for more forces still. But even as the Coolidge Auditorium stage threatened to buckle under the added personnel, strangely enough, the James Baker-led group rarely got louder than a mezzo-forte.

Just as Beckett’s piece needn’t shout, Koston’s work achieved its titular distance in hushed, almost reverent tones. Her intervals, while angular and decidedly atonal, seemed most concerned with restraint. Nathan Botts’ trumpet occasionally broke this character, but I likened those interruptions to the Listener’s knuckle raps from “Ohio Impromptu.”

In the play, the Listener knocks on the table to signal the Reader to repeat certain phrases (cf. “Nothing is left to tell...”). It’s really his only means of communication. Listening, myself, to Koston’s “Distant Intervals” immediately after, I began to hear a similar kind of registral hopelessness. Errant, displaced notes made for a serial-sounding score -- one who’s internal logic I could not grasp with just the one sitting.

In reality, hers is a difficult piece because it’s a vulnerable piece. Given the overall quietude Cygnus and friends were able to achieve during its performance, and Koston’s “Distant Intervals” proved the perfect companion to a melodrama that’s all about finding one. Little is left to tell, indeed.

Here's a video of the Becket piece performed by Jeremy Irons:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Monday Musings: Everybody's a critic (and should be)

Art cannot exist without reaction. If no one experiences it, you're dealing with the old tree-falls-in-the-forest routine.

I love hearing what people have to say about experiences in concert halls, opera houses, theaters -- even if it starts out "You and I couldn't have been at the same performance."

Naturally, those of us in the business of being paid to render some sort of artistic verdict can get a little full of ourselves, can infuse our viewpoints with a whiff of papal infallibility. Of course, I can never really know if I'm right, in some cosmic sense of the truth. But I know what feels right to me, and I don't mind saying so.

(Any professional critic who pretends that there isn't a hunk of ego in the equation is kidding himself or herself, or you. Likewise, any critic who thinks he or she knows everything and is absolutely right about everything all the time is really, really sick.)

I enjoy getting refresher courses in the wide variety of opinions. There was the recent case of the two ...

"Winterreise" recitals, for example. I was quite taken with both, the one by Wolfgang Holzmair in Baltimore, the other a week later by Matthias Goerne in DC. But I had a clear favorite -- Goerne's. I felt I had witnessed something truly beyond extraordinary in that case.

I was drawn in deeply, right from the start, thanks to the singer's amazing technique, rich inflection of tone and total immersion in the text, as well as by pianist Christoph Eschenbach's eloquent and very personal accompaniment.

Others clearly heard something ordinary, I guess, or just uneven in Goerne's delivery. And where I heard pure poetry and all sorts of subtle nuances at the keyboard, some heard a routine or clunky touch. Go figure.

We all bring (or should bring) something with us to a performance, some set of values we have sorted out over the years. If we're smart, we always allow room for new values to be added -- a tempo we never thought we would find right, for example.

Some people never seem to get past certain parameters. Beethoven has to sound like this, Mozart like that. Do not cross this line when playing Chopin, that line when approaching a Mahler symphony. Oy, how dull.

I can get excited about, say, a John Eliot Gardiner, lean, mean, full-steam-ahead, period instrument Beethoven symphony, and also a thickly textured, tempos-all-over-the-place version by Furtwangler.

In my heart of hearts, I will always pick Furtwangler as my desert island choice -- he had a lot to do with the gradual formation of my value system (as did Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Bernstein and other podium heroes of the past). But I am glad to hear other approaches, open to being persuaded by other concepts.

I think it's cool when, say, Lorin Maazel conducts a Mozart symphony, as he did the other day in Washington, as if there had never been anything called the historical authenticity movement. I enjoyed the slower pace for a change, the warmer, thicker textures. I'm sure some listeners cringed and squirmed.

You must have noticed the types who want everything to sound the same way every time. No coloring outside the lines. No getting too emotional. No moving around onstage while performing. No weird or distracting attire, either. A whole litany of no's. Geesh.

I find it odd that some folks complain loudly about how too many performers lack individuality, then pounce on anyone who dares to demonstrate it, accusing them of being indulgent or calculating or -- the favorite putdown of the critical set -- "mannered." (I'm grateful that the world made room for such "mannered" types as, say, Cortot, wrong notes and all.)

The live performances that linger longest in my memory and the recorded performances that I especially treasure have a palpable passion for the music at hand, an identification with it.

Give me intensity of commitment, give me expressive fire -- which can mean deliciously soft and slow as much as it can mean vigorous and roof-rattling. Give me personality. Move me. Touch me. Dare me.

I know that people will always disagree over all of this. That's part of the fun. The only awful response to music is to have none, no real reaction one way or another. The worst kind of audience is passive, accepting anything that goes on, then stands up to applaud by Pavlovian instinct.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 9, 2012

'Addams Family' shows its kooky stuff at the Hippodrome

It has all the weight and nutritional value of cotton candy. But “The Addams Family,” the Broadway musical that has taken up temporary residence at the Hippodrome Theatre, adds up to a mildly entertaining package of song and shtick.

Revised since its New York premiere, which received a drubbing from the press, the show provides a workable vehicle for the characters first immortalized by the Charles Addams cartoons and memorably brought to life by the 1960s TV series.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the book, borrowed a well-used device to frame the musical — the comic collision of opposites. On one side, the ever so odd, but loving, Addams clan. On the other, the Beinekes, a white-bread family from Ohio that comes for dinner.

Although that would have been enough to fuel a 30-minute episode of the TV show, it feels padded here.

The big new idea fashioned for the national touring production is a bit creaky, too. Gomez Addams reluctantly agrees to keep from his wife Morticia a secret, something neither ever does. It’s about daughter Wednesday, who, in addition to torturing her brother — and I do mean torturing — has found time to fall in love and make marriage plans.

It’s just a little too convenient that Morticia insists on playing a “truth game” even before she knows just how much has been kept from her, but this set-up does pay some theatrical dividends in the Act 1 finale.

Even though nearly every little turn in the plot is apparent before it arrives, just as nearly every rhyme in Andrew Lippa’s generic songs gives itself away before the next downbeat, the production manages to hold together.

For one thing, ...

Brickman and Elice know their craft. The dialogue gets nicely droll at times, playing on the Addams’ off-center value system and slipping in the occasional contemporary spice (lines about home-schooling and young people’s obsession with texting get good laughs).

The set design, pared down from the Broadway staging designed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, is another plus. The towering walls of the Addams mansion may billow a little in the breeze, but the scenery delivers solid visual charm. A second act image of the noon rising over the New York skyline is particularly effective.

The musical also has a big thing going for it before the curtain is ever opened by Thing — the affection the public has long felt for the Addams characters, especially as personified on TV by John Astin, Carolyn Jones and the rest. There is no trouble generating a connection between stage and audience from the get-go. (Using a snippet of the TV theme song as bait doesn’t hurt.)

The touring cast is headed by Douglas Sills as Gomez, the patriarch with a cool collection of “instruments of persuasion” from the Spanish Inquisition. Sills suggests a young George Hamilton, with something of the same dash, the same sparkle in the smile. He’s a sturdy vocalist, with an admirable sense of styling for all the inevitably Latin-flavored songs given to the character.

Sara Gettelfinger has the deadpan down nicely for Morticia, and an eye-catching dress than magically contains her bosom, but she could try a little more nuance along the way. Her vibrant singing finds an especially telling outlet in “Just Around the Corner,” the sort of a ditty about death that you would expect from someone named Morticia.

Cortney Wolfson, as Wednesday, has a certain flair for the jet-black humor of the character and a rather strident, one-color sound for the vocal numbers. Patrick D. Kennedy, as Pugsley, the endearing sado-masochistic kid in the family, makes up in energy for what he lacks in polish.

Christy Morton is so likable as Grandma that you can almost forgive the rather tacky humor the character is used for by the writers. (Morton is the understudy for the role who performed Wednesday.) Tom Corbeil is suitably imposing as Lurch, and also surprises with some colorful vocalism.

The men of the Beineke family (Martin Vidnovic as the father, Justin Crum as Wednesday’s boyfriend) do serviceable work. But Crista Moore, as Alice, a frustrated woman prone to speaking in bad rhyme, nearly steals the show with her finely honed comic timing.

The actual scene-stealer, though, is Blake Hammond as Uncle Fester, the guy who can do unnatural things with light bulbs (what he does with one in the last scene generates one the show’s best sight gags). Hammond brings out the character’s endearingly childish, but warm and wise, qualities with great flair and breaks the fourth wall so naturally you can forget how worn that device has become.

The chorus of newly risen dead folks gets into the spirit vividly. The small orchestra is rendered tinny by the amplification.  

For what is, on many levels, just an old-fashioned musical, it’s strange that none of the songs is primed for a life outside of context. Then again, the predictability of the rhymes and rhythms in Lippa’s score gets a little tiresome. Still, there are a few neat numbers. You can’t help but go along for the ride with Fester when, aided by clever stagecraft, he sings his love song to the moon, for example.

And a certain kick is delivered by the finale, “Move Toward the Darkness,” a sort of flip side to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Something very Addams-esque about that.



Posted by Tim Smith at 6:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

Notable organists to give recitals in Baltimore

Two high-profile organists will be giving recitals in Baltimore a week apart.

First up is Sergio Militello, principal organist of the Duomo, the famed cathedral in Florence that represents one of the architectural gems on the Renaissance. Militello, who has concertized extensively around the world, will play works by Olivier Messiaen, Leo Sowerby and Jehan Alain, among others, in a recital at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Ignatius, where the church's 150-year-old Simmons organ was recently renovated.

The program also promises an "improvisation on sacred song" with the excellent Choir of St. Ignatius Church, Paul U. Teie director. Admission is free. A sample of Militello's artistry is below.

The following Sunday, Richard Elliott III returns to his hometown to give a recital. Elliott, who did his early studies at Peabody, has been principal organist of ...

the storied Mormon Tabernacle Choir since 1991 and has had a international concert career as well.

The recital is at 4 p.m. March 18th at Holy Comforter
Church. Admission is $20.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:44 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

March 7, 2012

Eschenbach digging into Kennedy Center's Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna

When Christoph Eschenbach was named music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, he was simultaneously named music director of the Kennedy Center, a newly created post.

His influence in both jobs can be detected this month as the center offers a multi-week celebration, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.

His involvement in the festival includes several programs with the NSO and appearances in more intimate settings as pianist. The latter included Monday's night's memorable performance as accompanist for baritone Matthias Goerne in Schubert's "Winterreise."

On Monday, he will again be at the keyboard when violinist Dan Zhu plays the complete sonatas of Mozart.

"He is a wonderful Chinese violinist I discovered a few years ago," Eschenbach said in an interview. "These days, nobody plays Mozart sonatas so beautifully."

Thursday and Saturday will find Eschenbach on the podium leading the NSO in an all-Bartok lineup that includes the eerie one-act opera "Bluebeard's Castle," with Goerne in the title role. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung sings the role of Judith, the latest wife who learns, to her detriment, what lies behind the seven doors of the castle.

"'Bluebeard' works very well in concert, since ...

nothing really happens," Eschenbach said with a smile. "But we will do a little with lighting to show the audience when another door opens. For me, the doors open to Bluebeard inside; each door is really a door to his heart."

Next week, Eschenbach and the NSO offer a full-length opera, Beethoven's "Fidelio." The cast includes Simon O'Neill as Florestan and Melanie Diener as Leonore. The Choral Arts Society of Washington will also be featured.

"Some operas come out very effectively in concert versions," Eschenbach said. "One listens to the music more. And the orchestra part in this opera has so much in it. It is said that 'Fidelio' begins like a light opera, and 20 minutes later, after the quartet, the opera begins. But that is not true. The beginning is full of excitement, too.'

In opera houses, it has long been a tradition to stretch out the second act with the playing of the "Leonora" Overture No. 3, a practice Eschenbach frowns on. "But we are playing the overture here, because it’s not in the opera house," he said.

Later this month, Eschenbach turns to a work that does not turn up in concert halls very often, Dvorak's "Stabat Mater." The NSO will be joined by the Washington Chorus; soloists include Anne Schwanewilms and Nathalie Stutzmann.

"I will be honest -- I have never conducted it," he said, "but I always wanted to. I have been looking for the right occasion and here I found it. I have loved this piece since my childhood, when I first heard it when I was 12 or 13. It is a wonderful piece, not so complicated, but an outpouring of very honest and deep religious emotion."

The conductor will also lead the NSO in programs devoted to Hungarian dances by Bartók, Kodály, Liszt, and Brahms on Friday; music of the Strauss Family on March 16 ("For me this music is very, very near," Eschenbach said); and pieces by Dvorak and Janacek on March 23. Eschenbach will also participate in a free chamber music concert with members of the orchestra on March 24.

Eschenbach gives every sign of settling into his work at the Kennedy Center and with the NSO.

"The orchestra has been opening up like a flower," he said. "It’s showing its real strengths."


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Marin Alsop opens Sao Paolo Symphony season with live webcast

Marin Alsop opens her inaugural season as principal conductor of the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra at 2:30 p.m. EST Saturday with a program that will be broadcast live over the Internet.

The program includes Clarice Assad's "Terra Brasilis," Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 (with David Fray as soloist), and the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich.

Last February, Alsop signed a five-year contract with the Brazilian ensemble, which has a season that runs from March through December. She remains music director of the Baltimore Symphony; her current contract with that orchestra extends to August 2015.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:49 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Midweek Madness: A Bergman teaser for Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool 2013

The Kennedy Center's 2012-2013 season promises something called Nordic Cool, which sounds, well, cool, just on the face of it. The details get even cooler.

There is, for example, a stage version of Ingmar Bergman's sprawling, absorbing, sumptuously filmed "Fanny and Alexander." Learning about that made me think of something else related to Bergman, which is where Midweek Madness comes in.

For years, the mere mention of Bergman's name has made me think of only one thing: "Whispers of the Wolf," introduced to his equally unsuspecting television viewers by Count Floyd, the ever so slightly edgy host of "Monster, Chiller, Horror Theater" on SCTV, the channel to end all channels.

So here, then, as my latest effort to satisfy your understandably insatiable Midweek Madness craving, I offer this profoundly incisive Bergman-esque appetizer for next year's Nordic Cool festival at the Kennedy Center. You will never think of the number "1313" the same way again:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

March 6, 2012

An affecting journey to the soul of 'Winterreise' from Goerne, Eschenbach

If you are very, very lucky, you get to hear a performance every now and then that is so sublime in execution, so profound in expressive realization that it will have a place with you for the rest of your life.

I felt I had one of those  experiences Monday night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, since I just can't imagine ever forgetting what happened when baritone Matthias Goerne sang Schubert's "Winterreise," partnered by Christoph Eschenbach at the piano.

It represented for me an interpretive benchmark that I don't expect will be surpassed anytime soon.

One can go a few years without easily encountering "Winterreise" in concert. By a coincidence of scheduling, I heard it twice in eight days.

The first recital featured Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and pianist Russell Ryan in a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation. The second was offered as part of the Kennedy Center's current festival, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.

Luckily, I've always felt a person can never be depressed enough. So I did not hesitate to take in two proximate doses of these 24 songs about a desolate man, unlucky at love and convinced that nothing but loneliness and wretched wandering awaits -- unless he succumbs to suicidal thoughts first.

But just as you can look at the icy painting "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich and feel both somber and strangely uplifted, "Winterreise" can exert something like exhilaration. That is certainly how things turned out on Monday.

The music had ...

 an electric current from the first sounds of the dark, steady rhythm set by the piano in "Gute Nacht." Eschenbach, in the space of a couple measures, managed to create great tension and a remarkable palette of coloring. Goerne's entrance generated another little jolt from the warmth and intimacy of the tone, the compelling way phrases were shaped and shaded.

In just the opening moments of that first song, it was evident what an uncanny rapport the two artists had, how perfectly in sync every breath, every nuance. This continued for the next 75 minutes, so that you felt you were on very personal terms with both men, not to mention Schubert and poet Wilhelm Muller, when it was over.

The baritone produced a downright startling prism of tonal coloring along the way, often within a single, long-breathed phrase. There was a compelling darkness in the voice for the cycle's most angst-driven passages; a disarming lightness when the mood softened (as in "Irrlicht," "Fruhlingstraum," and the gentle melodic leap at the end of "Tauschung"); and any number of gradations in between.

If you didn't know what the texts were, you would still sense the meaning from how deftly articulated -- how fully lived -- each word emerged.

Eschenbach created his own compelling poetry, bringing out the richness and depth of Schubert's keyboard writing. The pianist inflected tempos with exquisite little fluctuations that spoke volumes, and his touch invariably matched the imagery of the verses. 

I suppose both musicians allowed a trace of human fallibility during the recital. I vaguely recall that the singer encountered strain in the upper register once, maybe twice. And I seem to think that one of Eschenbach's notes, at the start of "Rast," landed shy of its target.

All I really remember, though, all I care about, is that two artists with impeccable taste and uncommon insight gave a mesmerizing performance of "Winterreise." I felt privileged to witness it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:18 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

'Book of Mormon,' 'War Horse' headed to Kennedy Center in 2012-13 season

You just know it's going to be major ca-ching time at the Kennedy Center box office for the 2012-2013 theater season.

For a start, the lineup has “The Book of Mormon,” the wildly popular musical that remains one of the hottest tickets in New York. It will cap the season with a run in the summer of 2013, preceded by such current Broadway hits as “War Horse” and “Anything Goes.”

”Million Dollar Quartet,” about the night Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins jammed together, is also in the mix, along with a musical version of “Jekyll and Hyde” featuring Constantine Maroulis, and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas."

The theatrical entries in the center's big festival next season, Nordic Cool 2013, include the U.S. premiere of ...

a dramatization of the epic Ingmar Bergman film "Fanny and Alexander" by the Royal Dramatic Theatre from Stockholm. A coalition of Icelandic theater groups will present "Bastards: A Family Saga," based on "The Brothers Karamazov."

Other Nordic Cool highlights include Ibsen's "The Wild Duck," performed by Oslo's Warmblooded National Theatre.

A mini-fest of plays by Tom Murphy, covering several chapters of Ireland's history, is also on the 2012-13 schedule.

For a touch of nostalgia, how about a new production of Ferenc Molnar's "The Guardsman"? This comedy about a married couple of newlywed actors was a Broadway hit in 1924 for the storied husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.

To get you in the mood for trying to find tickets to "The Book of Mormon" next season, here's a little song from the the show:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:29 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens

Kennedy Center announces National Symphony, Washington National Opera 2012-13 seasons

The music portion of the Kennedy Center's 2012-2013 season, announced Tuesday, includes a rich assortment of repertoire led by Christoph Eschenbach in his third season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and a trio of dynamic sopranos fueling Washington National Opera's productions.

Just during his first few programs in the fall, Eschenbach will conduct Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," works by Wagner, Bruckner's Seventh, Dvoark's Seventh and Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" (with mezzo Kelley O'Connor), among other things.

Eschenbach will also participate in the Center's Nordic Cool 2013 festival, conducting works by Sibelius, Lindberg and Saariaho.

Symphonies by Shostakovich and Schnittke also are on Eschenbach's list; he and the NSO will take them to Carnegie Hall as well.

Guest artists include ...

Lang Lang, who will appear in several programs, including Beethoven concertos and a dual piano recital with Eschenbach. Other soloists on the roster: pianists Emanuel Ax, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yuja Wang; cellist Alisa Weilerstein; violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter; and mezzo mezzo Anne-Sophie von Otter.

Guest conductors include John Adams, leading his "City Noir" on a program with pianist Jeremy Denk; and Vasily Petrenko and Jaap van Zweden, who will participate in a new Chicago Symphony-developed format, "Beyond the Score," which incorporates a multimedia presentation about, and complete performance of, a major work.

Washington National Opera's season is heavy on works in Italian: Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," and Bellini's "Norma," with the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic "Show Boat" and a family production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" (with current and former members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program) providing a linguistic and stylistic switch.

"Norma" will star Angela Meade, the much admired young soprano who seems poised for a major career; she will also be heard in a recital as part of the season lineup.

Two dynamic, well-established sopranos will also be featured during the season: Sondra Radvanovsky in "Anna Bolena," Patricia Racette in "Manon Lescaut."

"Don Giovanni" will star Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, with Paulo Szot, Tony-winning star of "South Pacific" on Broadway, taking the part for one performance.

"Show Boat," directed by WNO artistic advisor Francesca Zambello (this co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago just opened to mixed reviews), will feature Rod Gilfry and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

The company's popular Celebrity Concert Series will offer performances by soprano Diana Damrau and baritone Nathan Gunn.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:29 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

March 3, 2012

BSO presents memorable combo: 'Passion of Joan of Arc,' 'Voices of Light'

There are so many amazing elements in "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the 1928 silent film the Baltimore Symphony is presenting this weekend with an affecting musical score, Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light."

The unblinking closeups used by director Carl Theodor Dreyer in the movie are justly famous -- the looming faces of the judges; the dazed Joan, tilting her head upward, looking in vain for genuine sympathy; the eager jailers and torturers.

Occasional overhead shots are likewise startling; you can feel the ground shifting as the forces against Joan unite in their unshakable need for her confession or her death.

What I think is most astonishing of all about the film is how it still speaks to us, even in our digital movie age. The black and white is as searing as any 3-D, high-gloss color extravaganza today. More significant still is how the issues depicted in Dreyer's film (he used the trial transcripts as the basis for the project) have an uncanny way of feeling very contemporary, sometimes disturbingly so.

In 2004, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was offered in tandem with Einhorn's 1994 score by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, I was struck by how it conjured all-too-fresh realities from our world at the time -- "when," as I wrote, "we are steeped in images of tortured prisoners and executed innocents, and when we are even hearing talk of communion being withheld from politicians who stray from church teaching."

In 2012, not much seems to have changed, as I was reminded Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, when ...

painful scenes flashed by of Joan being abused by men, being ridiculed for not being feminine enough, being denied communion.

We've just heard quite a chorus of strident male voices in our country targeting a young woman who spoke out for reproductive rights and women's health. And the other day, reports surfaced of a priest in the D.C. area refusing communion to a woman he accused of being unworthy -- she lives with another woman -- even though the occasion was her own mother's funeral.

Such resonances made the visual experience on Friday all the more stinging. The aural experience emanating from the musical forces onstage proved just as powerful, guided by Marin Alsop with calm authority and expressive richness.

The conductor seemed deeply connected to Einhorn's fusion of medieval chant and gentle minimalist flavoring, which provides a poignant counterpoint to the often hard-to-watch imagery on screen. Rather than playing the traditional role of a click-track film score, the music is more a reflection on the action than a depiction of it, with texts drawn from scripture, poetry of Joan's time and more.

The BSO summoned a beautiful patina of instrumental coloring on Friday, helping to cast a spell as hypnotic as Dreyer's masterpiece. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski delivered their solos eloquently.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, prepared by director Tom Hall, produced a glowing, well-balanced sound and phrased with admirable sensitivity. The guest vocal artists -- soprano Julie Bosworth, alto Janna Critz, tenor Tyler Lee, baritone David Williams -- provided the finishing touch with their elegance of technique and subtle nuance.

The final performance is Sunday afternoon.



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:28 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

March 2, 2012

Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic reach impressive heights in DC visit

In a world of so many variables, it is heartening to know that some things stay wonderfully consistent. The Vienna Philharmonic, for one.

The orchestra gave a gratifying concert Tuesday night for the Washington Performing Arts Society, in conjunction with the Kennedy Center's Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna project. It was just as expected, of course. The Philharmonic is one gold standard you can count on.

This was a welcome occasion to drink in that golden sound, to admire pristine articulation. More impressive still was the sense of players totally immersed in the music, approaching it from the inside out.

Another element of reliability on Tuesday could be found on ...

the podium, where veteran conductor Lorin Maazel provided his usual meticulous guidance and beautifully expressive nuances.

The first half of the program, devoted to Mozart, yielded particular pleasures from the way Maazel brought out inner details of scoring in the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture, and little expansions of tempo he took at key points in the last two movements of Symphony No. 40, adding a dramatic zing to complement all the expressive elegance from the ensemble.

Things really started cooking after intermission when, now with a full complement of players onstage, Maazel turned to the Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius and the Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss. Hearing the orchestra sink its collective teeth into these scores, well, that was something to behold.

The Sibelius work is a marvel of content and concision, four movement's worth of activity packed into a single, 20-minute movement that grows organically before your ears.

Maazel generated a taut, absorbing performance and drew almost magical playing from the Philharmonic -- rich, earthy string tone, golden sounds from the brass (the trombone solos were superb sculpted), vivid coloring form the woodwinds.

Works like "Rosenkavalier" are practically mother's milk for the Viennese, so a loving, glowing account was inevitable. I was still surprised, though, by just how vital the performance turned out to be, how every note sang.

Maazel was in his element, unleashing the music's sensual richness and applying rubato with particularly compelling results. He shaped the Presentation of the Rose and the sublime Trio with remarkable tenderness, and actually kicked up his heels (well, one of them at least) in the most exuberant waltz passages.

The results were so uplifting that I could almost forgive the ending the Suite, which, instead of offering the perfect closing pages from the opera, sticks in a cheap, for-the-masses coda.

A generous encore by an unrelated Strauss, Johann Jr., capped the evening -- "The Blue Danube." Once again, it was fascinating to hear a work the musicians have played a zillion times sound so vital, so personal, so meaningful.

Maazel had a hand in the freshness, ensuring delicious nuances of tempo and phrasing. He got another chance to do some more heel-kicking, too.


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

March 1, 2012

Leon Fleisher conducts all-Brahms concert with Peabody Symphony, Yury Shadrin

Leon Fleisher brings an air of authority into a concert hall, whether he walks over to a piano or a podium.

The latter was his destination Tuesday night, when he led the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a program devoted to Brahms, a composer who has played a significant role in Fleisher's storied career.

Symphony No. 3 found the conductor in an expansive mood, but within his broad tempos, he had phrases crackling and surging.

It was a beautifully sculpted interpretation, if not always a beautifully played one.

The orchestra sounded a couple notches below the technical level I heard earlier this season. Intonation in the brass and woodwinds proved unreliable; the strings didn't always summon a cohesive tone.

But ...

the expressive connection was there from the get-go, and that made quite a difference. (Unless my ears deceived me, there were a few touches of portamento from the strings, a once-common practice well worth bringing back in the right repertoire.)

Brahms' B-flat major Concerto took up the second half of the program, providing quite a showcase for one of Fleisher's star students, Yury Shadrin.

The Russian pianist, now in his early 30s, has been steadily building an international career -- competitions, concert engagements in this country and abroad -- since the 1990s. That he decided to clear time for additional study, and to do so with an artist of Fleisher's stature, speaks well for the young man's priorities.

His playing on Tuesday spoke well, too. Shadrin clearly has the chops for this daunting score. He handled the most difficult passages with aplomb and, even at his most forceful, avoided tonal brittleness. A wide range of nuances kept the music sounding fresh and spontaneous as the pianist effectively limned the concerto's drama, poetry and, ultimately, charm.

Fleisher could not have been a more supportive partner for his pupil. The orchestra, now slightly reduced in size, sounded much better, providing a solid foundation for the soloist's exceptional work.

Prior to the concerto performance, Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker were acknowledged for their $1 million gift in support of the Leon Fleisher Scholars Fund, which will support gifted piano students at Peabody. Fleisher told the audience that, while many philanthropists give to buildings, "Bob and Rheda give to people." The couple was on hand to receive the hearty, sustained ovation.

Note that Shadrin will give a free recital presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series at the BMA April 28.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute
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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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