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April 30, 2012

Stay tuned: Reviews to follow

Your humble correspondent had a whirlwind weekend -- two operas, two plays. I managed to get one review done in between my travels to College Park, D.C., Shirlington and Columbia, but I have a previously scheduled day off Monday, so you will just have to stay on pins and needles until I can file all the rest.

In due time, I will report on Washington National Opera's staging of "Nabucco" (you ought to go, if only for the roof-raising performance by soprano Csilla Boross as Abagaille and an intriguing theatrical concept by Thaddeus Strassberger that will give you plenty to argue about).

Also coming up will be reviews of "God of Carnage" at Signature Theatre (well worth the trip, even if you're planning to catch the play's Baltimore premiere from Everyman next season) and "Las Meninas" at Rep Stage (worthy presentation of an unusual work).

Stay tuned.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

April 28, 2012

Maryland Opera Studio makes shining case for Argento's 'Miss Havisham's Fire'

Dominick Argento, one of America's most distinguished composers, has been the focus of an extraordinary festival at the University of Maryland to honor his 85th birthday. He well deserves all the attention.

I finally got a chance to sample some of festival Friday night -- a production of "Miss Havisham's Fire," Argento's fascinating 1979 opera (subsequently revised) that looks behind the veil of the unforgettable jilted bride from Dickens' "Great Expectations." If you can get to the Clarice Smith Center for the final performance Sunday, by all means do.

I have reservations about ...

the structure of the piece and, especially, the long final scene, which drains the dramatic tension. But, overall, there is no question that this is a major work of substantial worth.

The score, with one foot comfortably in the past, another firmly planted in the 20th century, is rich in thematic ideas and imaginative orchestration. The vocal writing is assured and natural. And, let's face it, the subject matter is very cool.

Argento has so many deft touches in the opera. Among my favorites are the long, sustained note that accompanies the scene where Miss Havisham, all dressed and anxious for her wedding, receives the kiss-off letter from her fiance; and the ballroom scene in Act 2, which recalls "Eugene Onegin" in its ability to fuse dance and drama to compelling effect.

Maryland Opera Studio, under the direction of Leon Major, has long been one of the university's finest assets. The company shines very brightly in this venture.

Major's stage direction is fluid and arresting, aided by the visual atmosphere beautifully summoned by James Kronzer (scenic design), David O. Roberts (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting).

The cast animates the telling stage pictures with performances that ring true. The veteran soprano Linda Mabbs, as Miss Havisham, gives a triumphant lesson in the art of operatic singing and acting. Her voice retains much of the innate sweetness I recall from hearing her perform in the D.C. area during my early freelance days. Her phrasing is unfailingly eloquent and involving.

Alex DeSocio makes a most sympathetic Pip, and his singing has substance and warmth. Strong contributions, vocally and dramatically, come from Andrew Adelsberger (Coroner), Jarrod Lee (Jaggers), Deborah Thurlow (Nanny), Monica Soto-Gil (Sarah Pockett), Emily Kate Naydeck (Young Aurelia), Ilene Pabon (Estrella), and Patrick Cook (Drummle), among others. It is an admirably cohesive ensemble.

The chorus, too, impresses. And the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, eloquently conducted by Timothy Long, handles the opera's challenges with confidence and expressive shading.

Like I said, catch it if you can. No telling when there will be another chance to experience this haunting opera around here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:28 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 27, 2012

BSO welcomes Jun Markl, Arabella Steinbacher for all-German program

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is concentrating this week on meat-and-potatoes German fare from the the first half of the 19th century.

That might have led to a ho-hum meal, but two German guest artists for the program have ensured plenty of interest.

Make that two multicultural German guest artists.

Conductor Jun Markl, a BSO podium favorite, and violinist Arabella Steinbacher, making her debut with the orchestra, have an interesting heritage in common -- each was born in Munich (a few decades apart) to a German father and a Japanese mother.

Markl's talents have been well-documented here. He has an easy rapport with the BSO, and it showed again Thursday night at Strathmore (the concert is repeated Friday and Saturday at the Meyerhoff).

With a flair for rhythmic spark and lyrical warmth, the conductor set ...

Weber's "Euryanthe" Overture spinning at the start of the evening. Inner details of the orchestration emerged neatly; dynamic contrasts also received keen attention. The ensemble responded with typical poise and color.

To close, there was Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony. Although not really programmatic, the score is so rich in atmosphere that it's easy to hear the five movements as a set of postcards that capture fond memories.

Markl drew out those evocative qualities, maintaining a keen sense of propulsion without slighting sensitivity.

The orchestra's playing had a few rough edges, but again proved expressive, especially articulating the moods of the last two movements, from awed and reflective to unbuttoned and frenetic.

At the center of the evening came Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a towering work at once youthful and mature, profound and playful. Steinbacher, using a deliciously dark-toned Strad from 1716, proved up to the challenges.

She revealed considerable technical elan, but not the faceless shine that some young fiddlers display. She even sacrificed purity of sound here and there when digging into a phrase.

The spacious opening movement found Steinbacher making many a poetic point; she also offered subtle work in the hushed, expansive Larghetto. The finale's high spirits inspired a burst of engaging personality.

Markl backed the violinist solidly and coaxed vibrant work from the BSO throughout the concerto.

Steinbacher clearly won over the Strathmore crowd in a big way. The hearty, sustained ovation generated an encore, Kreisler's Recitative and Scherzo, delivered with a combination of charm and effortless bravura.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:49 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

'Mary Poppins' makes a pleasant landing at the Hippodrome

It easy to wish for more from “Mary Poppins,” the hard-working musical that has landed at the Hippodrome — a more layered story, more fleshed-out characters, more sparkling dialogue, more imaginative songs.

Then again, it’s easy to see what has kept the show running on Broadway for six years and has kept a national touting production racking up the miles and the audiences for three (two million theater-goers served in more than 30 cities so far).

For one thing, “Mary Poppins,” created in the 1930s by Australian novelist P. L. Travers, continues to be a beloved character with kids, not to mention adults who retain fond memories of childhood.

There is a lot of appeal in ...

the original stories about the uber-nanny who pops in providentially from the sky to solve any number of problems faced by mortal families and transform the lives of the young ones in her care.

Those stories helped to inspire the musical, but the most obvious influence is the popular 1964 Disney film musical, the one that astonishingly earned Julie Andrews an Academy Award (everyone knows Debbie Reynolds gave a superior performance in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown").

Songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman from the cinematic "Mary Poppins" are retained in the musical, in some cases expanded upon by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who also contributed new ones to the score.

Striking so many familiar notes, the show has a built-in advantage. Add in the imprimatur of co-producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, not to mention a clever scenic design full of whimsy, and you’re talking box office magnet.

So what’s not to like? Well, the plot never quite takes flight as easily as Mary does. Or as easily as she should — in the version at the Hippodrome, there isn’t much magic when Mary gets hauled aloft, and, worse (spoiler alert!), she doesn’t get to make one of the truly great theatrical exits, as she does on Broadway and did when the touring production played the Kennedy Center in 2010.

The first time I saw the show, in Washington, it struck me as super-cali-ficial, and that hasn’t changed. The serviceable music doesn’t provide much compensation (by the hundredth or so reprise, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” starts to grate big time.)

The plot revolves around the home of George and Winifred Banks. The husband is too absorbed by his bank job to notice his spouse or offspring; the wife struggles to hold things together and to be taken seriously; their two kids are smug and unruly, but really just want a hug from daddy.

Enter a perpetually unruffled woman with an umbrella and a penchant for dispensing obvious lessons in child-rearing, growing up, saving marriages, being true to your dreams and, of course, keeping a supply of sucrose handy to help the tough things in life go down.

The process of getting everybody and everything straightened involves few surprises or insights as the show whirls from incident to incident and introduces an assortment of fringe characters. It just never takes enough time to make any one good point in a solid way. Things stay, well, sugary.

But the show never stops trying to entertain the eye and the ear, which does help wear down resistance. And the cast at the Hippodrome is so eminently likable that you have little trouble surrendering.

In the role of the “practically perfect” Poppins, Rachel Wallace manages to bring out genuine warmth beneath the businesslike concentration, creating enough of an aura that you can buy the idea of the Banks children becoming smitten and responsive. (She far outshines Caroline Sheen, who seemed so robotic in the show’s Kennedy Center visit.)

Wallace can also sing with a good deal of finesse and expressive coloring.

As Bert, the amiable, knowing chimney-sweep and budding artist who serves as a bit of a tour guide for the audience, Case Dillard provides abundant charm, without ever getting sticky.

There’s an ingratiating naturalness to his performance, even when he does his startling upside-down and side-ways dance around the proscenium — the greatest inspiration in Matthew Bourne’s choreography.

Michael Dean Morgan does a telling job with both the severe and softer sides of George. Elizabeth Broadhurst makes an endearing Winifred, a woman who knows that “all the best people have nannies,” but who can’t stop being a mother.

Tregoney Shepherd is terrific as Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ harried cook. With her lilting accent and suffer-no-fools manner, she makes the character a delectably close cousin to the cook played by Lesley Nicol on the TV hit “Downton Abbey” (created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book for “Mary Poppins”).

Cherish Myers and Zach Timson make an effective pair as the Banks kids (they alternate performances with another pair of young actors).

Q. Smith, a vivid actress with a singing voice of exceptional range and tonal richness, nearly walks off with the show in her dual assignment. She’s touching as the Bird Woman and quite the scenery-chewer as Miss Andrew, the nanny from hell who left a lasting mark on a young George Banks.

The rest of the well-polished ensemble proves engaging. Their all-out delivery of “Step in Time,” the main contender for showstopper status, is especially impressive.

The original set design by Bob Crowler, even if economized a bit for the touring version, still delivers.

The fluid scene-changes, especially the one that turns a bland park into a prismatic wonderland, continue to delight. Same for the cool shift of visual perspective for the bank scenes, where we learn that money is not the most important thing in the world, except when it is (the script offers a little something to both the one-percenters and the 99).

A spoonful of substance wouldn’t hurt “Mary Poppins,” but maybe a sugar rush is enough reward.

The show runs through May 6 at the Hippodrome.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:15 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

April 25, 2012

Recovering my 'lost weekend' (Part 1): Handel Choir's 'Semele'

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had something of a 'lost weekend' (not the Ray Milland variety, honest), which meant that a couple of days unexpectedly got away from me, days that would have been spent writing about a couple of performances (and attending at least one more last Sunday).

I know it's a little late now -- OK, very late -- but, for what it's worth, I thought I would offer some of what I was planning to say about last weekend's musical activity, starting with the Handel Choir of Baltimore's standing-room-only concert Saturday night at the Church of the Redeemer.

The ensemble honored its namesake by digging into "Semele," one of the composer's most beautiful creations, a combination opera/oratorio based on Greek mythology. The score includes the exquisite tenor aria "Where'er you walk," which is reason enough to rank "Semele" high.

As I have said repeatedly, the Handel Choir has made terrific progress over the years with artistic director Melinda O'Neal. That progress was vividly driven home on this occasion. O'Neal kept things moving, in keeping with historical performance practice, but she let the music breathe.

The ensemble produced a ripe, smoothly balanced sound, with much firmer efforts from the men than I recall previously. An iffy entrance in "Endless pleasure" aside, there was admirable discipline in the singing, as well as expressive fire. Contrapuntal passages were nimbly executed, even at a bracing clip.

The roster of guest artists was headed by soprano Clara Rottsolk, who soared in the title role. She used her bright, clear tone with great finesse, from the pianissimo sculpting of "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" to the bravura flourishes in "Myself I shall adore."

Rottsolk and plush-voiced mezzo Kristen Dubenion-Smith, as Ino, blended gorgeously in "Prepare then, ye immortal choir."

Aaron Sheehan, an unfailingly stylish tenor, proved a major asset, too, as Jupiter. His elegant embellishments in "Where'er you walk" were beautifully judged.

Other particularly notable solo contributions to the performance came from contralto Monica Reinagel and countertenor Douglas Dodson.

The Handel Period Instrument Orchestra, supplemented by members of Peabody's Baltimore Baroque Band, proved to be a star of the performance in its own right. I especially admired how the fearless strings didn't just take fast passages with panache, but with wonderful color.

All in all, this performance of "Semele" represents an impressive achievement for the Handel Choir, which, I hope, will be emboldened to explore more of what the group's namesake created besides "Messiah."

I still have "Where'er you walk" wandering through my head, so I'll finish this post by sharing a lovely version with you, sung by John Aler, followed by a forgivable act of tenor-usurpation -- the incomparable John McCormack in a superb account of the soprano aria "O sleep why dost thou leave me":

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness: Rosa Ponselle and Joan Crawford sing Verdi (!)

Once upon a time, two icons, one from film and the other from opera, enjoyed a sincere friendship in Hollywood.

The opera star gave the movie star encouragement to sing, and the two legends apparently joined voices from time to time in private.

One such session was captured on what, even for 1938, sounds like a rather primitive recording device. It's the the soprano-mezzo duet from Verdi's ...


I thought for this installment of Midweek Madness it would be fun to offer this memento of what appears to be a very congenial collaboration between the divine Rosa Ponselle and the equally immortal Joan Crawford.

It's not really mad, of course, but it sure is unusual and fascinating. Awfully cool, too.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 23, 2012

On Streisand's 70th birthday, my list of her 10 most exquisite recordings

Barbra Streisand turns 70 on Tuesday. Her music-making still sounds as young and vital as ever.

Her exalted standing among pop vocalists is unchallenged, five decades after the "kooky" girl from Brooklyn first started generating a buzz in New York nightclubs.

I won't bore you with tales of how Streisand played a major role in my musical awakening, how she became one of the most important and consistent sources of inspiration to me. But I will mark the birthday milestone by offering a sampling of what I consider some of her greatest recordings.

I intentionally avoided the usual and uncontested choices, such as her brilliant deconstructionist "Happy Days Are Here Again," and all the spine-tingling, big-dramatic-finish songs or frenetic up-tempo numbers. There are so many fabulous examples to choose from in those categories.

I decided instead to concentrate here on some of her subtlest, most affecting interpretations, material that shows off the distinctively beautiful color of her tone, the extraordinary security of her technique, her exemplary articulation, and, above all, her ability to sculpt a phrase with poetic eloquence.

It wasn't easy choosing, but here is my list -- in chronological, not necessarily qualitative, order -- of THE 10 MOST EXQUISITE STREISAND RECORDINGS:

"Who Are You Now?" (from the original cast recording of "Funny Girl")

"Who Will Buy?" (from "The Second Barbra Streisand Album")

"Where Is the Wonder?" (from "My Name Is Barbra")

"Why Did I Choose You?" (from "My Name is Barbra")

"One Kiss" (from "Color Me Barbra")

"He Isn't You" (from the soundtrack of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever")

"Love is Only Love" (from the soundtrack to "Hello, Dolly")

"My Buddy/How About Me?" (from "The Way We Were" album)

"If I Love Again" (from the soundtrack of "Funny Lady")

"Lazy Afternoon" (from the album of that name)

These are not necessarily the most obvious contenders for "greatest hits" status, but they should be. And if any are new to you, I hope you will agree how priceless they are once you've searched them out.

Thanks to the fellow Streisand admirer I live with who created these audio examples, I offer these five examples from my Top 10 list as a grateful birthday salute to this amazing "actress who sings" -- and thrills, and touches, and enriches.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:02 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

April 21, 2012

Mini-review: Lyric Opera Baltimore's 'Faust'

For those of you who may be wavering about whether to catch the final performance Sunday afternoon, stop the wavering and go. This is one to catch.

No, not because of the contemporary production, which has its effective points, but does not entirely convince.

And certainly not because of the stagecraft -- there were several amateur-night-in-Dixie moments Friday night at the Lyric involving basic lighting and coordination elements that a professional company should be able to avoid.

The reason to take in this "Faust" is ...

the opportunity to drink in a very satisfying account of Gounod's rich score.

In my dozen years here, I can't recall offhand hearing a tenor fill that theater with more pure beauty of tone, security of technique and expressive ardor than Bryan Hymel summoned last night as Faust. His was a very classy, eloquent singing. (We sure could have used him for Lyric Opera's "Traviata" last fall.)

Stefania Dovhan also impressed greatly as Marguerite, delivering a good deal of radiant vocalism and interpretive intensity. It was good to hear this gifted and internationally busy soprano in this house at long last; she did her early studies at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

And, even allowing for an apparent indisposition (lots of coughing into his sleeve between phrases), Kristopher Irmiter had the vitality to carry off the role of Mephistopheles.

Sturdy supporting work came from Lee Poulis (Valentin) and Irene Roberts (Siebel), and the chorus made some notable contributions.

Presiding with authority, sensitivity and a flair for building to dramatic peaks, conductor James Meena provided another substantial plus.

I'll have more to say later about the production, but suffice it to say for now that, musically speaking, this is easily the richest achievement of Lyric Opera's first season -- reason enough to make the Sunday matinee.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:02 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 20, 2012

Lyric Opera Baltimore cuts back for second season

Lyric Opera Baltimore, which wraps up its inaugural season this weekend, has announced a scaling back for 2012-2013.

Instead of three fully staged productions at the Modell Performing Arts Center, there will be two, plus a concert with duo-piano accompaniment. As was the case this season, the lineup will be augmented by a student production from the Peabody Opera Theatre.

The decision to cut back next season resulted from “a combination of financing and timing,” said Modell Center president and executive director Sandy Richmond of the shorter season. “But we’re excited to bring two grand opera productions and continue our very important collaboration with Peabody.”

Italian opera will be the focus next season.

Lyric Opera Baltimore starts things off Nov. 2 and 4 with ...

Puccini’s “La Boheme,” one of the most popular works in the repertoire. It was last staged at the Lyric in 2006 by the former Baltimore Opera Company.

The cast includes Anna Samuil as Mimi. The Russian soprano’s credits include the La Scala, the Glyndebourne Festival and, singing the role of Musetta in “La Boheme,” the Metropolitan Opera.

For the Baltimore “Boheme,” Musetta will be sung by Colleen Daly. The role of Marcello will be performed by Timothy Mix. A tenor for the role of Rodolfo has not been announced.

The staging will be directed by Bernard Uzan, who directed Lyric Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Faust” this season. Steven White, who conducted “La Traviata” to open the company’s inaugural season last fall, will be back in the pit for “Boheme.”

The second production will be Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” May 17 and 19, 2013, a nod to the composer’s bicentennial next year. It was last staged at the Lyric in 2002 by Baltimore Opera.

Stephen Powell, a baritone who has been featured prominently in productions by New York City Opera, will sing the title role. Norah Amsellem, who has sung the role of Gilda in “Rigoletto” at the Met and elsewhere, will be featured in that part for Lyric Opera. Bryan Hymel, who finishes up the title role in the company’s “Faust” this weekend, returns next season to sing the Duke.

“Rigoletto” will be conducted by Richard Buckley. The stage director is John Hoomes, general and artistic director Nashville Opera.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which performed two of Lyric Opera’s three productions this season, will be back for 2012-13.

“To have the BSO in the pit for both productions is just fantastic,” Richmond said.

On April 13, 2013, the company will present a concert of music from the bel canto period of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, featuring two young artists who have been making a name in this repertoire: mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and her husband, tenor Alek Shrader.

They will be accompanied by duo-pianists James Harp (Lyric Opera’s artistic director) and Edward Polochick (artistic director of the Concert Artists of Baltimore).

“We want to continue to present the highest quality of events we can manage,” Harp said, “what we felt we could do and still be financially responsible.”

Each staged production costs about $500,000, Richmond said. Decisions on what sets and costumes will be used for “Boheme” and “Rigoletto” have not yet been finalized.

“Both productions will be traditional,” Harps said. “We want to have a level of opulence, but take budget concerns into account as well. These won’t be econo-sets, I’ll tell you that.”

The Peabody production next season will also come from the Italian repertoire, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” performed Nov. 16 and 18.

As for Lyric Opera Baltimore, its trimmed second season should not be viewed as a set-back, Harp said.

“When you look at what is going on elsewhere — San Antonio Opera just went under — the principal thing to remember is that we have been able to have a season of grand opera at the Lyric again,” he said. “The fact that we could return grand opera to a great city is miraculous. I hope people will be willing to re-invent with us. It’s an incremental process.”
Posted by Tim Smith at 4:16 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 18, 2012

Midweek Madness: The art of marketing orchestras, European-style

I hate to steal so blatantly from other bloggers, I really do. But the ever engaging Norman Lebrecht has uncovered such cool stuff lately that I just had to grab it for my Midweek Madness series.

Here are commercials from Europe attempting to sell the simple notion that orchestras are cool. It is particularly fun to see the Czech Philharmonic video, since that ensemble's conductor, Jiri Belohlavek, was here recently for a memorable guest stint with the Baltimore Symphony.

I have no idea if these ads work on the elusive young demographic, but they ...

sure are fun:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 17, 2012

Peabody composer's Pulitzer should be noted by Lyric Opera Baltimore

Monday' brought the great news that Kevin Puts, a terrifically gifted composer who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his first opera "Silent Night." Tuesday, the folks over at Lyric Opera Baltimore should be meeting intently to discuss plans for producing that work soon.

"Silent Night" is based on the haunting film "Joyeux Noel" about the Christmas in 1914 on the front lines of World War I when German, French and British troops stopped the senseless slaughter long enough to celebrate the holiday with each other.

So here's the idea, Lyric Opera: The Baltimore premiere of "Silent Night" in December 2014, 100 years after that remarkable moment in the otherwise dreadful history of the War to End All Wars. How about it?

To begin with, it's ...

a natural marketing hook. Nothing wrong with taking advantage of that. And it would be great way for the company to signal that it will be more than just another mausoleum-type organization, devoted solely to tried-and-true music of the past.

Most importantly, Puts and "Silent Night" deserve to receive the local attention.

This composer connects with listeners on a visceral level, which is why his orchestral works are so successful and why audiences at the Minnesota Opera premiere of "Silent Night" last November responded so enthusiastically.

Here's a taste of what we could be enjoying here if folks with a little courage (and a lot of generous underwriting) could be found:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:10 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 16, 2012

Takacs Quartet reconfirms its stature in Shriver Hall concert

The Takacs Quartet first came to attention in Budapest more than 30 years ago and quickly earned a prominent place in the chamber music world.

A few personnel changes over the decades have done nothing to diminish the quality and stature of the ensemble, currently based at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

That point was driven home Sunday evening in an appearance for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

At the start of the program, the players dug into the Debussy quartet with a dark sound and, in the score's more animated movements, a muscular articulation that drew out the music's inner strength.

Janacek's brilliant Quartet No. 1, nicknamed the "Kreutzer Sonata" after Tolstoy's story of love and jealousy, inspired a taut, superbly articulated account from the Takacs group.

The occasion also provided first violinist Edward Dusinberre an opportunity to demonstrate his ... 

considerable gift for musical stand-up -- OK, he sat down while he introduced Janacek's challenging work, but the effect was the same. The fiddler's delivery had a seasoned entertainer's charm and timing.

Beethoven's Op. 131 could not help but seem even more adventurous and forward-thinking after the Debussy and Janacek pieces. The players delivered the seven-movement score in a cohesive, thoroughly absorbing sweep, finding rich character and myriad nuances of tone and dynamics at every turn.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Shriver Hall

Janice Chandler Eteme soars in Tiffany Series recital at Brown Memorial

Not long after I arrived in Baltimore a dozen years ago, I heard a performance by soprano Janice Chandler Eteme.

I felt then that she had one of the most innately beautiful, warming voices I'd encountered in a long while, and that she would be well worth hearing even if she were merely doing vocal exercises. I still feel that way.

So it was nice to be in the singer's presence again Saturday night at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, where she gave a recital presented by the Tiffany Series.

Chandler Eteme, ably accompanied by pianist JoyAnne Amani Richardson, chose a program rich in melodic and textual quality.

There was much to savor, from the stately lines of Handel's "Dank sei dir Herr," which she delivered with an intensely glowing tone, to the introspective, haunting songs "Chanson triste" and "I'invitation au voyage" by Duparc, which the soprano caressed eloquently.

Perhaps with the over-reverberant acoustics of the church in mind, most of the tempos were on the slow side. That kept the notes from mushing together, but the pace sometimes ...

worked against the material, as in Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and Faure's "Notre amour." Although wonderfully vivid in phrasing, both could have used more momentum.

Where the music called for spaciousness, though, Chandler Eteme provided it in abundance and to memorable effect. Schubert's "Nacht und Traume" was a particularly transfixing case in point.

The soprano included a welcome burst of operatic singing in the concert -- two selections from Verdi's "La traviata." She negotiated the coloratura of "Sempre libera" valiantly and got to the heart of the aria. With a promising tenor, Devin Mercer, she also sculpted "Parigi, o cara" quite elegantly. (Too bad Mercer did not also provide the off-stage tenor lines for "Sempre libera.")

Chandler Eteme summoned remarkable tonal radiance and communicative power for the beloved Margaret Bonds arrangement of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." The afterglow of that performance stayed with me through the rest of the weekend.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:26 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 15, 2012

Baltimore Symphony offers Russian program with French flavor

OK, I admit it upfront. I'm going to reach for a silly stereotype and generalization in discussing Lionel Bringuier's podium debut with leading the Baltimore Symphony this weekend in an all-Russian program.

I know this is as unfair as accusing a Russian conductor of making Brahms sound Russian, but this young Frenchman put a spin on the music that seemed very French.

I hasten to add I loved the combination of finesse, transparency, sensuality and delicacy that Binguier applied Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Other listeners might not have found the results sufficiently Russian, with enough of dark drama and hefty sonic impact in such pieces as Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain" or Tchaikovsky;'s "Romeo and Juliet."

I found no lack of temperament or surging power here. It's just that Bringuier paid great attention to subtle things in those scores, sought to make sure that a pianissimo -- and few conductors have gotten such genuine piannissimi out of the BSO as he did Friday -- registered with as much color and meaning as an all-out blast of orchestral force.

The Mussorgsky war horse emerged with ...

abundant atmosphere; the quiet closing moments, in particular, carried great poetic weight.

The well-traveled Tchaikovsky score likewise sounded quite fresh and engaging, with an emphasis on the noble side of the tragedy being depicted. Fine details in the orchestration came through beautifully; the famous love theme blossomed with plenty of feeling, but a great elegance as well.

And Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite unfolded most beguilingly under Bringuier's guidance. Again, the soft side of the music received particular attention, with the conductor coaxing exquisite refinement from the strings. All of that nuance paid off in terms of contrast with the score's explosive moments.

The BSO, which offered admirable playing throughout these works, also provided smooth and supple support for one of its own in Khachaturian's Violin Concerto -- concertmaster Jonathan Carney was the soloist.

Carney tackled the action-(if not content-)packed piece with even more confidence, bravura and color than I recall from his 2006 performance with Yuri Termikanov conducting.

The long stretches of perpetual motion in the finale, for example, seemed mere child's play for the soloist. He also managed to find something quite substantial in the tender Andante, which also inspired some more wonderful pianissimo playing from the ensemble.

This is not one of the most profound concertos in the repertoire. It's over-stuffed, sometimes over-wrought and seriously under-nourished. But it sure is fun. Carney effortlessly unleashed that entertainment value, with Bringuier a consistently stylish partner all the way.

Sunday afternoon's final performance at the Meyerhoff would be well worth catching.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

April 13, 2012

Guest blog review: Mobtown Modern presents Michael Lowenstern

My thanks to Megan Ihnen, mezzo, concert presenter, blogger and more, for submitting this account of the latest Mobtown Modern program.

Michael Lowenstern, considered one of the finest and perhaps the most innovative bass clarinetist in the world, muses from the stage about a conversation he had with his 3 year old daughter.

“Daddy, write something I would like,” he recounts to the small crowd gathered for the Thursday night Mobtown Modern performance at the Windup Space. Knowing chuckles rose from the tables flung about like a Chicago jazz club done through a quirky Baltimore lens.

Lowenstern took his daughter’s request to heart and created the pieces for the album Ten Children.

Along with selections from that album, Lowenstern delighted the audience with pieces featuring his innumerable bass clarinet timbres, occasional voice/body percussion, tech-savvy multi-tracked layering, and his approachable stage presence.

An unmistakable hint of humor runs through Lowenstern’s compositions and performance. His is the “serious new music” featuring (gasp!) technology in live performance that even non-new music people like.

From the initial moments of Trick, the first piece of the evening, he established a groove that propelled the audience through the rest of the performance.

Lowenstern uses a system called ...

“Max” that connects his laptop and sound equipment to develop unique sound-making tools, unusual instrumental sounds, and custom performance systems which he uses to synthesize his loops with his live performance.

Catapulting from Klezmer influences in Sha to searing harmonica lines in a 2006 piece entitled My Mouth; the character and tone of each of his pieces change continuously. For example, Lowenstern plays whirling dervish loops in the third piece of his cycle Ten Children then contrasts with the beautiful, melodic lullaby in the tenth piece.

He demonstrated his humor, later in the evening, when he invited two audience members to play iPhones using phrases cut from English language learning tapes. He juxtaposes male and female voices with questions and statements for uproarious results while he loops frenzied musical lines in the background.

Mobtown Modern has a highly successful programming history and Michael Lowenstern’s performance adds to it. Co-Founders Brian Sacawa (Series Curator) and Erik Spangler (Sound Lab Curator) work hard to ensure that they are bringing high-quality, innovative contemporary performances to Baltimore. In fact, most of their programming is rarely heard in the Mid-Atlantic area.

Baltimoreans should certainly seek out their next concert, ZeroTime Operations, on April 28th which features a networked performance of two groups of archeologist/musicians, one in Rome and one in Baltimore.

-- Megan Ihnen


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

'The Whipping Man' gets taut, atmospheric production at Center Stage

There is always something new to learn about the Civil War and the struggle for this country’s soul.

A just-out book, for example, examines a little-known order in 1862 issued by Gen. Ulysses Grant, expelling Jews from territories in Tennessee and two other states. The fact that the edict was quickly rescinded by President Lincoln hardly lessens the chilling nature of the incident.

And consider “The Whipping Man,” a play by Matthew Lopez that had a well-received run Off Broadway last year. Lopez takes as his starting point another little-discussed aspect of the Civil War — the fact that some Southern Jews were slaveholders, and the likelihood that their slaves adopted the Jewish faith.

The play, which has received a taut, atmospheric production from Center Stage, seizes on this intriguing footnote to put an almost dizzying spin on the issues of bondage and freedom. There may be a question of how much historical weight is behind the idea, but the theatrical result is quite intriguing.

The scene is Richmond, April 1865, just after Lee’s surrender. Passover is about to begin, and ...

an event at a theater up in Washington is about to happen.

Three people return to a once-grand house — Caleb DeLeon, a badly wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, son of the owner; and two now former slaves, Simon and John, who toiled for years in that place and became practicing Jews.

The tables having turned inside the war-battered, rain-drenched mansion (wonderfully evoked by scenic designer Neil Patel), Simon is now in the head-of-household position, Caleb more of a housemate. John has quickly moved from subservient to assertive and risky.

All three men still have much to fear, as it happens, and much to regret. There are private demons inside their heads, unknown threats outside the door. Perspectives have shifted and will shift some more. (When Simon announces, “The President’s dead,” Caleb replies: “Which?”)

The DeLeon home itself is haunted by ugly doings behind a veneer of gentility, and the shadow of the unseen title character — the man whose whipping skills were sought out by the patriarch whenever his slaves made him cross.

This scenario is extraordinary from all angles. The sight of freshly emancipated men holding a religious ceremony commemorating the delivery of enslaved Israelites from Egypt cannot help but strike chords as ironic as they are poignant. (At this Seder, hardtack substitutes for the matzo, collard greens for the bitter herbs.)

Caleb’s discomfort during all of this says much, too, and not just in the context of 1865. The play obviously resonates with the whole complex history of relations between blacks and Jews over the years, the common threads of struggle and transformation, the lingering suspicions and resentments.

The connection to our own day is further driven home by the decidedly contemporary tone of Lopez’s dialogue. John, in particular, often speaks with an urban jive that doesn’t seem entirely mid-19th century.

Any anachronistic flavor is much easier to digest than the way the plot unfolds. Lopez packs in a few too many dirty secret-spilling passages, most of them in the closing minutes of each act, when things turn melodramatic or trite.

As a result, one of the questions during the Seder scene in “The Whipping Man” might be: Why isn’t this play even more different from all other plays?

It’s disappointing to recognize a rather conventional trajectory emerging after a powerful double shock at the start — first, being introduced to the unusual setting and situation; then quickly being confronted with the graphic depiction of an amputation. (The faint of heart may want to recall those immortal words from “Dixie”: “Look away, look away.”)

There should be bigger payoff as “The Whipping Man” develops, something to leave you a little more surprised and moved. There’s too strong a hint of a TV potboiler here, right down to what could be nicely-timed stops for commercial breaks.

Still, there’s much to be said for the way the play shines a light on a part of our difficult history and the continuing ramifications. It’s well worth being reminded, as Simon says, that “there’s more than one way a man can be a slave.”

Astutely directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah in his first staging since being named Center Stage artistic director, the cast makes an admirable effort to get at the heart of the matter.

Kevyn Morrow’s conveys the mix of noble, humble and stubborn qualities in Simon, an illiterate man who speaks plainly and well, who wears his scars with dignity and still believes totally in the God of Abraham (“You lose faith when you stop asking questions”).

In a beautifully layered portrayal, Morrow makes the most of such moments as Simon quietly asserting himself by serving John before Caleb, or enthusiastically reciting the Passover prayers in between bursts of singing “Go Down, Moses,” which takes on a whole new resonance.

Johnny Ramey does vividly detailed work as the volatile John, who can jump from courageous — he once ran an underground library, and he’s fine with rummaging through abandoned Richmond dwellings — to timorous in a flash.

As Caleb, Michael Micalizzi has the unenviable task of being confined to a recumbent position for most of the play. He tends to stick to one tone as well. More nuance and depth would give his performance a lift.

David Burdick’s costumes and Michelle Habeck’s moody lighting effectively complement the fine set, but operatic downpours and thunder verge on overkill after a while.

“The Whipping Man” may not fulfill all the promise of the premise, but this production certainly serves the material well. And, in the end, the experience leaves just enough of a sting.

The production runs through May 13.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

April 11, 2012

Iron Crow Theatre gives Baltimore premiere of Daniel MacIvor's 'The Soldier Dreams'

A young man lies inert on a bed, an IV drip his last tether to the world.

Periodically, a few curious words emerge from him, confusing his family members and his boyfriend, who have gathered for the long goodbye.

From this simple setup, Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor addresses familiar themes in “The Soldier Dreams,” a late-1990s work being given its Baltimore premiere in a mostly effective production by Iron Crow Theatre.

The play does its work in a span of only about 75 minutes. A little more time might actually have been a good thing, given the sketchiness of some details.

The central character of the dying David, for example, doesn’t emerge with much depth; repeatedly hearing that ...

he loved dancing and had cute uses for sign language goes only so far in defining his personality.

But MacIvor, who won Canada’s biggest theater award, the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize, a few years ago, has a painter’s touch. He makes almost each verbal brush stroke here count for something and, by the end of the play, he succeeds in creating an effective, sometimes affecting portrait of family and loss. He also is adept at the humorous jab, the kind where most of us can recognize ourselves as the target.

The undercoating is unstated, but unmistakable: David’s fatal illness is AIDS. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “The Soldier Dreams” is the way MacIvor keeps that issue from looming over everything else.

The play isn’t concerned so much with how or why the popular David is slipping away well before his time, but how and why those closest to him respond to the fact.

Old sibling rivalries flare up. The lover resents or suspects the other mourners. An in-law who doesn’t quite fit in tries hard to show how much he cares. A nurse patiently navigates through the tension in the room to do her work.

The universality of all this goes without saying, and, at its best, the Iron Crow staging at Theatre Project captures the elements in the play that can speak to anyone who has had to keep a death watch (or fears one).

What adds crucial spice to the scenario is the revelation that David, who was in an open relationship, had a brief encounter while in Ottawa for his older sister’s wedding, an encounter no one else knows about.

The memory of meeting a German medical student — the mysterious words from the deathbed all relate to this — is what replays in David’s mind. The highest sensual and emotional peak for David? The night he was infected? Perhaps both.

Cleary, David is the one handling death more calmly than those around him. Unlike them, he is long past the mundane and petty. If he still had his faculties, he’d obviously tell everyone to get along and get over it.

Directed by Steven J. Satta-Fleming, the action unfolds simply, maybe too simply, on Daniel Ettinger’s spare set. All the standing around the bed (the sole prop) and all the exits-in-a-huff through a black curtain upstage leave something to be desired.

As Tish, David’s older and colder sister, anxious to assert authority and claim the role of chief mourner, Marsha Becker does admirable work, especially in the break-the-fourth-wall monologues (the play is heavily dependent on this worn device). She makes telling points just by the way she handles her reading glasses in a scene when Tish tries to introduce a slide show about her brother.

Steve Sawicki impressively gets to the genuine heart of Tish’s nerdy husband Sam, who jots down pathetic haiku and worries constantly about being PC. Karin Crighton is on target as David’s kid sister Judy. Joseph Ritsch gives a rather stiff, one-note performance as Richard, David’s lover.

While Alec Weinberg lies in a very convincing catatonic state on the bed, Paul Wissman portrays David for the memory scenes, and does so with nuance and charm. Too bad he looks so awkward (most actors would) in the inevitable, regrettable dancing finale, which slathers a dollop of kitsch into the proceedings.

Rich Buchanan brings a subtle sensuality to the role of the German student, who provides the multi-faceted key to the play when he tells David: “Even when the soldier dreams, the war goes on around him.” Sarah Lynn Taylor ably rounds out the cast as the level-headed nurse.

Michael Perrie’s original music, which has an appropriate hint of Bach chorales, adds a nice touch.

Performances continue through April 21.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:23 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: Fiddling with Busby Berkeley

My mind works in mysterious ways.

Last week, the Baltimore Symphony got back from a West Coast tour, which included a stop in Berkeley, which reminded me of another Berkeley, Busby, which always makes me think of his insane musical numbers, which include a deliciously over-the-top item featuring fabulous fiddles, which ought to do the trick for this installment of Midweek Madness:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

April 9, 2012

Remembering Mike Wallace for his early recognition of Barbra Streisand

Reactions to the death Saturday of Mike Wallace have understandably focused on his extraordinary contributions as a broadcast journalist, especially his incisive work on "60 Minutes," his brilliant interrogations of the mighty and the dangerous.

Forgive me (as he would say), but I always associate Mr. Wallace first with his prescient appreciation of Barbra Streisand at the start of her career. That provides plenty of reason to admire the guy. If you've never heard the clips I've posted below, I think you'll find them quite enjoyable.

When I became a Streisand addict at a tender age, I was ...

out on a limb in my immediate circle of family and friends. Most people I knew could not stand her "strident" voice, her "kooky" looks, etc. So that made me all the more adamant in my devotion to her, and I loved finding anyone who shared my taste (hey, I was young, what can I say?).

As I dug more into the past of my new idol -- she was already firmly established by the time I first heard her -- I felt vindicated whenever I learned about the people who had spotted Streisand's talent right away and gave her an early boost.

One of those was Mr. Wallace, on one of his early gigs, a TV show called "P.M. East."

For the longest time this was something I could only read about, but, eventually, a few tantalizing 1961 audio clips of the show emerged. They're really quite endearing, with Mr. Wallace sounding genuinely fascinated by this unusual young woman, her singing, her sense of humor, her offbeat ways.

So, as my way of honoring the memory of a notable journalist, I've attached a couple of clips from those long ago days.

I especially love the one that includes Streisand's disarming performance of "Moon River." The second provides a nice sample of the banter from occasions when she was Mr. Wallace's guest on "P.M. East":

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

April 8, 2012

Easter greetings from Judy and Fred

Before heading down to Virginia to be with the parental units for Sunday, I wanted to leave y'all with a song for the day: "Easter Parade," from the closing minutes of the charming film of that name, starring the ineffable Judy Garland and Fred Astaire:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

April 5, 2012

Out West with the BSO: Marin Alsop provides end-of-tour blog post

The final guest post from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's West Coast tour comes right form the top -- music director Marin Alsop:

With the tour barely over (I'm writing this as we wend our way homeward), I'm still on a high from our thrilling final concert last night! (And feeling a bit exhausted from no sleep and too many hours in the plane, too!)

Ending our first tour together in Eugene, Oregon—where I served as Music Director from 1989-1996—was a real treat for me. Eugene is an ...

incredibly special place, filled with generous friends who care deeply about their community and have a profound commitment to impacting the world around us. It is thanks to their immense generosity that we could add a stop in Eugene to our tour.

Many of the BSO musicians joined me in expressing their appreciation to our amazing donors in person at the beautiful reception they held for all of us after the concert.

Walking out onstage last night to that sold out, whooping audience felt like the perfect way to end a wonderful tour! And finishing with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony felt refreshing and fun. We played two encores and the crowd was still shouting.

The details of the tour were flawless. BSO Director of Operations and Facilities Alicia Lin and her team handled every minute detail with precision and seamlessness.

The presenters couldn't have been more welcoming and appreciative everywhere we went. And the weather was perfect! (It had been raining all month in Eugene but the clouds parted and the sun came out for the BSO's one day visit—right on cue.)

But, most importantly, the musicians played their hearts out. Whether it was the concert for 1,600 school children in Berkeley, or Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony in Orange County, I felt the musicians pushing their artistic bar higher than ever before in a great display of impeccable ensemble, orchestral warmth and true virtuosity. I couldn't have been more proud.

As you can see from the photo below, absolutely everyone seemed to be having fun! Pianist Lura Johnson and stage manager Ennis Seibert working on the stage set-up (or their choreography?) before the final concert in Eugene. 


I'm already looking forward to our next BSO tour.


-- Marin Alsop
Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

April 4, 2012

'Memphis' heats up the Hippodrome

Maybe it’s the timing.

“Memphis,” the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, is not the deepest or most original of works. But this exuberant tale of race and music in the 1950s seems to take on added substance at the Hippodrome this week, given how freshly divided the country is right now over the Trayvon Martin case.

And maybe it’s the location.

Given Baltimore’s own history of strained race relations and gaps between “white” and “black” pop music back in the day, “Memphis” can’t help but provide extra resonance and relevance. The show is, in many ways, a pretty close cousin to the endearing “Hairspray,” right down to scenes of a TV dance program where taboos are shattered.

However it’s considered, this national touring production of “Memphis” sure does hit the spot. It provides a hefty serving of entertainment as it gives you a little extra to chew on.

With a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, “Memphis” centers around a white, gangly high-school dropout named Huey Calhoun who manages, in record time, to break racial and musical barriers in his hometown.

Of course, Huey nearly ...

sets off a few race riots along the way, especially after he falls hard for a young black singer, Felicia Farrell. Their difficulties starting, let alone maintaining, a relationship provide a major plot thread.

Although complex issues in that relationship often merit no more than a few quick lines, considerable character development is achieved by the end, enough to give the musical a real heart to go along with a good beat.

The music succeeds in establishing the gritty appeal of the Memphis style, though with what sounds to me like a little more 1960s flavoring than ’50s. Too bad there isn’t one good earworm out of some 20 songs.

Not too many of the lyrics are worth remembering, either. Many are trite or awkward (“See, I was lost until I found the music of my soul”). Others are just plain cringe-worthy. Some are all of the above (“I will make my colored dreams come true, for this is one colored woman who will color her life her way”).

And, as with many a musical these days, dialogue that would be much better spoken ends up getting sung, leading to many a clunky moment.

Fortunately, the singers assembled here can make you forget all of that. They jump into every number with a disarming naturalness and infectious energy. In the same way, they create credible characters with fully fleshed-out personalities.

Bryan Fenkart shines as Huey. He’s got a great drawl going, and a rubbery way of moving that gives the show one more layer of choreography. He sings sturdily as well.

More important, Fenkart astutely brings out Huey’s lovable naivete about everything in the would around him — legal or customary segregation, social manners, business, corporate-think — and taps tellingly into the sweet guy beneath the impossible fashion sense.

Felicia Boswell gives an electric performance as Felicia. Physically reminiscent of an early Supremes-era Diana Ross, she exudes star quality from the moment she enters. Her acting is beautifully nuanced, often quite affecting. And her voice has terrific range, stamina and nuance, enabling her to sell even the weakest songs.

Quentin Earl Darrington is a vibrant presence as Felicia’s protective brother Delray.

Other standouts include Will Mann as Bobby, the radio station janitor who becomes one of Huey’s most loyal confederates; and Rhett George as the initially mute Gator, bartender in Delray’s nightclub. (Of course, the character finds his voice, one of several plot points signaled well ahead of time with all the subtlety of a semaphore.)

Nearly walking off with the show is Julie Johnson as Huey’s pathetically bigoted yet wonderfully redeemable, mother. Her comic timing and vocal inflections are impeccable; her gutsy singing lights up the whole theater.

The well-polished ensemble never flags, even when Sergio Trujillo’s dance sequences are at their most kinetic. An excellent band keeps the score churning mightily.

Christopher Ashley’s fluent direction has the show moving briskly through David Gallo’s clever set, which easily evokes the days of separate and not equal, “race records” and the musical spark that would bring a whole bunch of people together in Memphis and beyond.

Performances continue through Sunday.

Here's a taste of the action:


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:33 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

BSO to give co-premiere of 'Overture for 2012' by Philip Glass

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 will be commemorated musically with a new work by Baltimore-born Philip Glass, the celebrated minimalist composer.

His "Overture for 2012" will receive a simultaneous world premiere in June by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The Glass work promises to provide an appropriately American alternative to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," which has become a favorite in this country during Fourth of July celebrations, despite the fact that its depiction of a Russian defeat of Napoleon's forces.

The Baltimore bow for "Overture for 2012" will take place on ...

June 17 at Meyerhoff Hall on a BSO program called Star-Spangled Symphony and conducted by the orchestra's music director, Marin Alsop.

The event is tied in with Star-Spangled Sailabration, an international maritime festival being held at the Inner Harbor June 13-19. The concert will, of course, also feature Tchaikovsky's "1812," along with music by John Williams.

The Toronto Symphony's premiere of the Glass piece, slated for the same day and time as the BSO's, is part of Luminato, a city-wide, multi-genre festival in Toronto June 13-17. Luminato will also honor the composer's 75th birthday with a new production of his seminal opera from 1976, "Einstein on the Beach."

Here's a brief video of Alsop discussing the "Overture for 2012":



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Single Carrot Theatre checks into shadowy 'Hotel Cassiopeia' reclusive world of Joseph Cornell

You might say that Joseph Cornell lived in a box within a box.

From his early teens to his death in 1972 at the age of 69, the artist stayed firmly tied to a home in Queens he shared with his mother and invalid brother.

When Cornell ventured out, it was chiefly to rummage for any number of objects that he would use back home to create the assemblages that made him famous -- each contained in a little box with a glass front.

As art critic Robert Hughes writes, "that glass, the 'fourth wall' of his miniature theater, is also the diaphragm between two contrasting worlds. Outside, chaos, accident, and libido, the stuff of unprotected life; inside, sublimation, memory, and peace."

In his 2006 play "Hotel Cassiopeia," currently onstage at Single Carrot Theatre, Charles Mee opened an imaginative window into those boxes by ...

fashioning an intricate, Cornell-like box of his own.

The work contains an assortment of visual images and verbal bits and pieces -- excerpts from diaries, letters, classic movie dialogue. Along the way, other great artists -- Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky -- pop up for philosophical discussions.

Some things in the mix are fascinating, others banal. Some scenes are taut and revealing, others flaccid and diffuse. Gradually, through the disparate elements, a portrait of the reclusive Cornell emerges, a man who admires Lauren Bacall, waitresses and ballerinas, but watches most women from afar; a man with a child's delight in sweets (a litany of his favorites desserts provides one of the play's more endearing moments).

There is no real narrative, no clear path to a cathartic peak. Somehow, though, the material generates a genuine theatrical experience, one with a strange beauty, a curious pull.

The work is well-suited to Single Carrot, which, of course, routinely thinks outside the box and, in this case, reveals a knack for getting deep inside one, too. It's among the most effective productions I've seen from the company.

Director Genevieve de Mahy paces and guides the action with a fluid touch, using every corner of the space effectively. That space has been nicely enhanced by set designer Lisi Stoessel with suggestions of Cornell boxes, now life-sized (a particularly affecting one serves to place Cornell's brother in the scene).

Nathan A. Cooper does affecting, subtly nuanced work as the sweet, scared artist who has "to sit on the edge of my bed for a few hours/waiting for the time of lifting/ waiting for the time of evenness/the time of naturalness/arriving in the mental clearing."

Cooper fills in a lot of the blank spaces between such poetic expressions, adding color and depth. His gentle movements generate a certain poetry, too.

Gina Braden impresses as Cornell's cruelly stifling mother and also does a nice stand-in for Bacall.

The real Bacall turns up, too, with Humphrey Bogart in projected scenes from "To Have and Have Not." There are also clips from "Algiers," with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. In both cases, Cornell recites the lines of the male stars, one way, I suppose, he can feel he has a semblance of relationships.

There are assured, colorful contributions from the rest of cast: Katie Rumbaugh (Ballerina, et al.), Alix Fenhagen (Waitress, et al.), Nathan Fulton (Herbalist/Matta), Paul Diem (Astronomer, Duchamp), and Rich Espey (Pharmacist/Gorky).

The play could easily become tedious or pretentious, but this nimble and imaginative staging avoids such a turn.

Many of the deftly choreographed scenes leave vivid impressions, none more so than at the point when Cornell realizes his brother has died. Here, paper, a recurring theme in the production, is used poignantly as cast members seem to fulfill that wonderful image in Shakespeare: "Take him and cut him out in little stars."

Music is used superbly throughout the production (Steven Krigel did the sound design). Mee specifies certain pieces, including Satie's "Gymnopedies" and the exquisite recording of Handel's "Where'er You Walk" by beloved British contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Those and the other selections used here, from Messiaen to a vintage "Am I Blue?" (with Espey adding rhythmic sweeps of a broom), add a great deal to the cumulative effect of the venture.

"Hotel Cassiopeia" provides much to ponder and to savor. It may well leave you suspended for quite some time at an unexpected angle -- to borrow one of the Pharmacist's lines -- in a "geometry of memory, thought and feeling."

Performances continue through April 29.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

Midweek Madness: Bending over backwards for your entertainment

In my continual effort to brighten up your drab, dreary little lives (as Ethel Mertz would say), I chose for this Midweek Madness installment a rousing dose of music, dance and totally mad limberness.

Do not try this at home:

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

April 3, 2012

National Symphony's first tour with Eschenbach to include five Latin countries

The National Symphony Orchestra heads off in June on its first concert tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

Stops include Mexico City; Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago; Buenos Aires and Rosario in Argentina; Montevideo in Uruguay; São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The orchestra's first international tour was to South America in 1950. "It is especially pleasing that this tour visits a part of the world that occupies a very important place in the NSO’s history, as it does in mine," Eschenbach said in a statement Tuesday.

"One of my very earliest tours as a pianist included many of the same countries we will visit, and to this day I remember the warmth and welcome of the audiences. I’m sure that our concerts will be enjoyed by our audiences, and will contribute to greater international artistic friendship," Eschenbach said

Programming for the trip, June 12-27, includes Beethoven's Seventh, Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," as well as Lalo's Cello Concerto with soloist Claudio Bohórquez. A new NSO commission, "Blue Blazes" Sean Shepherd, will also be featured.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

Out West with the BSO: Guest blog post from violinist Ivan Stefanovic

Here's another report from the Mild West, where the Baltimore Symphony has been touring. Violinist Ivan Stefanovic offers this report from the weekend the orchestra spent in Berkeley:

Dear blog readers, greetings from a land of huge eucalyptus, old olive, stately pine and tropical palm trees, town of many incredible farm-to-table restaurants, unsavory but entertaining characters on the sidewalks, ever-present fog and mist in the hills, and, of course, great coffee shops.

The BSO arrived in Berkeley on Thursday evening after battling rush-our traffic and crossing a bridge (not the Golden Gate) that, height-wise, makes our own Bay Bridge look like child's play.

The town is not very big, and the hotel we're staying in is near University of California at Berkeley, whose campus is adorned with the aforementioned beautiful tree specimens.

The campus paths are strangely empty and quiet this week, as most students are gone for their Spring Break.

On Friday morning, the BSO had ...

two concerts. The matinee, "LIFE: A Journey Through Time," was tailored for school children, as it featured the incredible photographs of nature by the world-renowned National Geographic photographer Franz Lanting.

Music that accompanies the movie was written by Baltimore native minimalist composer Phillip Glass. It requires at times razor-thin precision on part of the conductor in order to match the rapid movement of photographs on the big screen that hangs above the stage.

Our Music Director Marin Alsop, who has done this score (and many other live movie scores) many times with great success, yet again managed to bring it all to life with great accuracy. The children in this concert showed almost too much enthusiasm while we were playing, but that just may be preferable to them being bored.

The evening concert started with a pairing of two fanfares, by Copland and Joan Tower, which gave our brass a chance to shine even in the less than ideal acoustical environment.

Our featured soloist was the energetic, yet so cool and composed percussionist extraordinaire, Colin Currie, who displayed his rhythmical superiority (which he still matched with great sensitivity in slow and calm sections) on many instruments, and while he darted from one part of the stage to another in order to reach different groups of instruments.

Jennifer Higdon, who wrote the Percussion Concerto, ingeniously paired the soloist in front of the stage with orchestra's own percussion section in the back, often having them play off of one another in rapid succession, and especially so in the extended and rock-like cadenza.

Our guys were a great match for Colin, proving that the great distance between them and the soloist that they had to overcome didn't matter to musicians with great ears.

Second half of the concert featured Prokofiev's great Fifth Symphony, which gave a chance to the orchestra, under Marin Alsop's leadership, to show both its expressive capability and great sense of drive.

The Berkeley audience responded accordingly, and was quickly rewarded with a short excerpt from Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances."

Keep cheering us on from afar!

PHOTOS BY IVAN STEFANOVIC: A mission-style church across from Zellerbach Auditorium; Many choices of salsa in one of the excellent restaurants in Berkeley

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

April 2, 2012

A few notes on Bach Concert Series's 'St. Matthew Passion'

I stopped by Christ Lutheran Church Sunday afternoon for Part II of the "St. Matthew Passion" in a presentation by the Bach Concert Series. It was good to be in the presence again of Bach's profound music, even if there were some drawbacks to the realization.

Conductor T. Herbert Dimmock did not always keep his forces on track. But he ensured that many of the score's most dramatic moments, such as the shocking cry of "Barabas" from the choir, registered strongly, and he shaped the chorales quite sensitively.

The chorus needed greater clarity of articulation in the busiest contrapuntal passages, and could have used more actual tenors and firmer basses. At their best, though, the choristers came through with enough sonic and expressive weight.

Half the soloists ...


lacked consistency of technique and/or tone. The others, though, proved rewarding. Baritone Benjamin Park's warm sound and eloquent phrasing made "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" a highpoint. Likewise, Monica Reinagel's richly communicative singing made the alto solos glow tellingly. Soprano Jennifer Young's sweet tone proved a boon.

The orchestra occasionally turned slippery, but also contributed mightily to the experience overall, with particularly elegant work from the concertmaster and wind soloists.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:30 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Out West with the BSO: The critical view from the Bay Area

Here's a sample of the critical reaction to the BSO's weekend concerts presented by Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley:


Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle: [The] weekend's most sustained achievement came during Friday's robust and pointed rendition of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. This was also, not coincidentally, the best opportunity to assess the current state of this orchestra, which has not performed live in the Bay Area in at least a quarter of a century.

To judge from the Prokofiev, at least, things are ...

going well in Baltimore. The strings in particular sound ripe and well-blended, and the ensemble sound of the orchestra is even more arresting than that of any individual section.

And Alsop drew those strands together deftly into a performance of eloquence and specificity ... the orchestra caught the quicksilver wit of the second movement with wondrous clarity.

... the paired opening selections, Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," could have been a little more crisp and focused ...

[Jennifer Higdon's] Percussion Concerto sounded largely like a collection of effects in search of some strong musical ideas.

Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury News: Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony also received a dynamic performance. Alsop introduced the first movement's weighty blocks of sound in a firm, well-paced rhythmic flow; the woodwinds were outstanding here, both in the principal theme for flutes and bassoon, and the second theme for flute and oboe. But there was fine playing throughout the orchestra. The violins voiced with warmth and definition, the dusky low strings sang, and the horns played with a crisp, assertive edge.

The conductor and her orchestra returned for a single encore: Borodin's vivacious "Polovtsian Dances."
Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Out West with the BSO: Guest blog post from violinist Greg Mulligan

The Baltimore Symphony spent the weekend in a fabled counterculture center (lots of regular culture there, too, of course). Here's a report from violinist Greg Mulligan on Saturday's multimedia performance fusing a 1928 silent film about Joan of Arc with a contemporary score by Richard Einhorn, part of the BSO's mini-residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tonight's concert in Zellerbach Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley was mesmerizing, as it was in Baltimore a few weeks ago.

Richard Einhorn's score beautifully magnifies the intense emotion contained in the silent film from 1928, "The Passion of Joan of Arc." The audience watched and listened silently, befitting the quiet intensity of much of the film, and gave all the performers a nice ovation.

This time the BSO performed with the women and men of the UC Choral Ensembles. I enjoyed their beautiful singing, especially the many sections reminiscent of very early vocal music, with one voice's melody chanting over a static pedal in another voice.

Kudos to Marin and to our staff for making all the arrangements with the local singers, and for creating and leading a cohesive ensemble for the audience's (and our) pleasure.

As a side note, ...

what a cool place Berkeley is! From the many street musicians and used book/record stores to the great restaurants and a bar with a live salsa band, and the beautiful campus and residential neighborhoods, Berkeley seems to have it all. I have really enjoyed our time here.

-- Greg Mulligan


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
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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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