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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


Lovely review, Tim. Though as Peabody faculty, I probably shouldn't say this, I was doubly impressed that the two ethereal soprano soloists (Julie Bosworth and Janna Critz) came to this directly from singing leading roles in GIULIO CESARE at Theatre Project, which you reviewed ten days ago, and the tenor (Tyler Lee) from POSTCARD FROM MOROCCO a week before that. Now that I am on the verge of retiring, I find myself taking special pride in the versatility of our young artists. Roger.

And I should have pointed out that Peabody connection, which is, as you say, very impressive. TIM

Beautifully written review and so insightful, too.
This was one of the most extraordinary collaborations I have experienced.

Many thanks for your kind words. TIM

Amen to all of the above. It was a memorable, moving event with a powerful message for today.

Thanks, Dave. TIM

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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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