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May 31, 2012

Arena Stage offers buoyant revival of 'The Music Man'

Great American musicals from the past could not ask for a better revivification center than Washington's Arena Stage.

As demonstrated with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" in 2010 and reaffirmed by the terrific production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" currently on the boards, Arena artistic director Molly Smith knows the secret of a successful revival.

She starts with genuine respect for the original work, the most essential ingredient of all, and one you can't count on everywhere. Then she adds inspired layers of fresh thinking to create an interpretation that is at once comfortably familiar and freshly involving. For a finishing touch, Smith engages performers with the personality and commitment to make it all work.

No wonder "Oklahoma" was a box-office record-breaker for Arena. "The Music Man" deserves to be a big hit, too.

Compared to, say, the urban grit, passion and violence of "West Side Story," the Leonard Bernstein musical that also hit Broadway in 1957, Willson's show, which bested that other work for the Tony that year, might strike some folks as quaint, even inconsequential -- all con and apple pie.

But this tale of a "Professor" Harold Hill who lines his pockets and lifts spirits in an Iowa town by selling marching band instruments and uniforms to the local youths contains considerable substance and sophistication.

Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, was a gifted, formally trained composer with a reliable flair for melody and a remarkable ear for harmonic and structural variety.

You might not think so if ...

you only know the first few bars of "Seventy-Six Trombones," the big hit from "The Music Man" score, but the bridge in that song makes delightful turns that easily show Willson's craft (same for the bridge to "Till There Was You").

And consider the flip side of "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Goodnight, My Someone," which takes the same melody, slows it down and, voila, creates a charming ballad that can be used later to bring two characters together musically.

And don't forget "Rock Island," the brilliant opening number, which doesn't have any actual notes at all -- just rhythmic patterns ("Whad-a-ya talk, whad-a-ya-talk, whad-a-ya talk") that match the motion of a train, propelling the dialogue by a group of traveling salesmen and setting the wheels for the whole musical spinning.

The effectiveness of Willson's curtain-raiser becomes doubly apparent in the Arena production because Smith, as she did with "Oklahoma," dispenses with the overture and plunges right into the action.

That opening gets a clever treatment, too. The salesmen rise from underneath the center of a bare, in-the-round stage and, with just two rows of seats for props, conjure up the whole bouncing experience of a ride on the rails.

Such seemingly simple, smoothly executed stage business abounds in this production, complemented by Parker Esse's vibrant choreography, giving the whole show a fresh-breeze feeling. And since the performers are so consistently natural and engaging, nothing seems dated (the time setting has been moved up from the original 1912 by a decade or two).

Even the weakest bits of humor somehow sound new and funny. As for the romantic heart of the matter -- the gradual reformation of the notorious Hill and the blossoming of Marian the librarian -- that, too, emerges to telling effect.

As brought to life at Arena, "The Music Man" provides a welcome excursion into an America that is part myth, part all-too-real, where the locals have "a special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude we've never been without," but will "give you our shirt and a back to go with it if you crop should happen to die."

It's a place where minds can be awfully small, especially those attached to local politicians or school board types, and where books are occasionally banned, just like today. And where people can fall easily for things that are too good to be true, like Hill's music-learning "Think System," the same way someone is always falling for a TV infomercial now.

But beneath the surface of River City is an impulse to be creative, to get out of ruts, even to check out a little Balzac. All that everyone needs is just a little trigger, and that starts with 't' and that rhymes with 'b' and that stands for Burke -- Burke Moses, that is, who heads the Arena cast as the irrepressible Hill.

Moses has something of the dash and wicked charm of Robert Preston, who created the role on Broadway and repeated it in the subsequent movie version. Moses isn't a commanding vocalist, but he puts the songs across with panache, and he's a disarming actor.

Kate Baldwin is likewise a winner, vocally and theatrically, as Marian. She sings with a sweet, but never cloying, voice and an unfailingly stylish manner of phrasing.

The large cast is filled with deft actors, especially Barbara Tirrell as the mayor's ballet-prone wife and Donna Migliaccio as Marian's mother. Young Ian Berlin does a cute turn as Marian's lisping brother Winthrop. The townsmen-turned-barbershop quartet do a great job. Same for the spry dancers and and the brassy orchestra, led by Lawrence Goldberg.

Eugene Lee's set design keeps things uncluttered, but nicely atmospheric, aided by Dawn Chiang's lighting.  

Judith Bowden's costumes subtly reflect the inner journey of the River City folks -- they're in bland colors early on, but start sporting more and more vibrant shades as they are gradually led out of their shells by a most magnetic music man.

The production runs through July 22.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 30, 2012

Midweek Madness: Saluting the 'Queen of the House'

And now, dear Midweek Madness fans, for something completely different -- not to mention awful in any number of ways, but still oddly appealing and even strangely cool in a Mad Men-era sort of way.

No use in trying to say any more about this early version of a music video now; we can talk among ourselves later. Let's just roll film:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 29, 2012

Brief mid-afternoon break for Korngold's birthday

I thought it would be worthwhile to pause briefly midway through the afternoon on Erich Wolfgang Korngold's birthday (b. 1897, d. 1957) and wallow in my favorite music by the composer.

Yes, I'm talking about the other-worldly beauty of the "Marietta's Lied" scene from his most famous opera, "Die tote Stadt." Perhaps you could use a little break to wallow in beauty, too.

For those of you who don't mind scratchy old recordings, I've picked a gem by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber; for a modern-day version, some video from a production with Angela Denoke and Torsten Kerl. Enjoy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Looking ahead to 2012-13 season: Washington Performing Arts Society

Classical music lovers around here know well that the gold standard in this region for presenting major artists and orchestras continues to be set by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

The 2012-2013 season offers further reiteration of that point.

The biggest news on the WPAS lineup is the return of the sensational Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, the cream of that country's much-discussed music education program, El sistema.

The orchestra is led by the most famous alum of that program, Gustavo Dudamel (who is also music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). He'll conduct Strauss' Alpine Symphony and works by Carlos Chaves and Julian Orbon.

The WPAS orchestral series at the Kennedy Center also offers the ...

top-drawer Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performing Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with conductor Mariss Jansons on a program that includes Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Leonidas Kavakos.

Mahler's Ninth will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony with its longtime music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

And the Philadelphia Orchestra will be back, this time with its new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting Bruckner's Seventh on a program that also features Baltimore's own Hilary Hahn playing the Korngold Violin Concerto.

Another great orchestral attraction is on tap at the WPAS Stathmore series -- the Dresden Staatskapelle in an all-Brahms program led by Christian Thielemann and featuring violinist Lisa Batiashvili.

Also scheduled for Strathmore appearance: stellar violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter, Joshua Bell and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (she'll perform with and lead the New Century Chamber Orchestra); pianists András Schiff and Simone Dinnerstein.

Back to the Kennedy Center series. Among the starry entrants on the roster: Yo-Yo Ma playing solo Bach; pianist Evgeny Kissin; baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Hahn performing items from her 27 Encores Project on a program with pianist Valentina Lisitsa; and flutists James Galway and Jeanne Galway (appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day).

The action-packed WPAS calendar has a lot more, from pianists Richard Goode and Shai Wosner to cellist (and Peabody faculty artist) Amit Peled. And that's just the classical side.

WPAS covers other waterfronts as well; for 2012-13, the offerings include Ute Lemper, Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and Brian Stokes Mitchell with the Choral Arts Society of Washington.




Posted by Tim Smith at 9:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 28, 2012

Music for Memorial Day from Britten's 'War Requiem' with the late Fischer-Dieskau

On this Memorial Day, I wanted to hear the profound ending of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," a work that has been on my mind for two reasons -- its premiere 50 years ago this week, and one of the soloists at that first performance, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this month.

Among that singer's most indelible performances was the one he gave in Britten's extraordinary reflection on the toll of war -- all wars, all sides. The Requiem weaves together the Latin Mass for the Dead and gripping poetry by Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the cease-fire that ended World War I.

For the premiere in 1962 (and the first recording the next year), the two male soloists in the work were Peter Pears and Fischer-Dieskau -- an Englishman and a German, adding an extra layer of meaning to the first performance, given for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II.

The final section of the Requiem incorporates Owen's searing poem "Strange Meeting." The last lines: "I am the enemy you killed, my friend/I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./I parried; but my hands were loath and cold./Let us sleep now ..."

Britten turns those last three lines into a deeply moving coda. Here's that passage now, with ...

the voices of Fischer-Dieskau and Pears intertwined so poignantly, as the chorus sings of paradise and rest. (My compliments to whoever created this fine YouTube post, which so vividly brings home the message of Memorial Day.):

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:10 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 25, 2012

Peter Oundjian leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in Beethoven, Bruckner

Beethoven's Ninth, never too far from earshot in Baltimore, is back this week, but with a most welcome companion piece -- Bruckner's "Te Deum."

And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a most welcome companion to conduct this pairing -- Peter Oundjian, who made a memorable appearance with the ensemble in 2009 and is generating telling results again.

Last night's concert at the Meyerhoff produced the most consistently satisfying account of the Ninth I've heard the BSO give. If the Bruckner performance wasn't as solid, it stirred nonetheless.

Oundjian, music director of the excellent Toronto Symphony Orchestra, managed to breathe a great deal of fresh life into the venerable Beethoven work. He did so not by applying any wildly unconventional touches (I wouldn't have minded those a bit, of course), but simply by ...

ensuring a level of intensity from start to finish.

He drew out the sense of mystery, even fear, in the first movement, getting the orchestra to put an extra bite into dynamic accents and dark chords. The Scherzo was driven along, but never at the expense of subtlety and variety of expression; the contrasting trio section emerged with a remarkable glow, thanks to Oundjian's lyrical phrasing and tender playing by the woodwinds.

The Adagio was taken closer to the kind of tempo common in the good old days, before the authenticity movement scared the heck out of so many musicians. The unhurried approach allowed the poetic depth to register richly, and the warmth of the BSO's strings to be savored.

Oundjian saw to it that the finale's frantic start had an extra kick. Throughout that movement, he balanced momentum and weightiness, holding the disparate portions of the score together to make one cohesive statement.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, prepared by director Tom Hall, rose to the occasion impressively. Except in the "Seid umschlungen" passage, when the men encountered tonal thinness and strain, the chorus sustained a smooth, full-bodied sound and articulated with admirable clarity.

The guest soloists proved a valiant lot. Morris Robinson filled the hall with his deep, resonant bass. Tenor Nicholas Phan, stepping in for an indisposed Brandon Jovanovich, found top notes a stretch, but the rest emerged warm and sure, and his phrasing was full of vitality.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury, whose opera performances I have admired at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival, did shining work. Mezzo Mary Phillips completed the quartet ably.

I've said often that we don't hear enough Bruckner here; this was the first time his "Te Deum" has been  programmed by the nearly century-old BSO. Seriously overdue. 

Oundjian's tempos felt rushed, especially in the final section, when Bruckner quotes the soulful theme from his Seventh Symphony; the grandeur was missing. Still, the propulsive approach had its rewards -- the coda proved decidedly uplifting -- and the conductor's sensitivity to dynamic contrasts paid off nicely.

There was plenty of vivid singing from the chorus and the soloists (Phan did particularly eloquent work), but the orchestra didn't seem entirely settled into the notes. My guess is that the performances tonight and Saturday will be hotter. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:02 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 23, 2012

'Xanadu' gets sparkling revival from Signature Theatre

First, there was an odd film in 1947 called "Down to Earth," watchable only for the divine Rita Hayworth as the Greek muse Terpsichore who falls in love with a mortal while helping him put on a show.

Then there was an odder, barely watchable film in 1980, "Xanadu," based on the Hayworth vehicle and featuring Olivia Newton-John as Terpsichore, this time descending from Olympus to lend inspiration to guy dreaming of a roller disco.

Finally, there came the 2007 Broadway musical "Xanadu," which spoofed all of that other stuff, and did so in awfully clever fashion.

That show, with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, has received a sparkling -- literally, given the plethora of disco balls -- revival by Signature Theatre.

It adds up to 90 minutes of ...

pure, sure escapism. And if you have at least a trace of the camp-humor gene, you'll experience a good deal of convulsive laughter, too.

This production's got more snaps than "RuPaul's Drag Race." The fun starts at the door, when ushers pass out glow sticks. Inside, Misha Kachman's colorful set continues the playful mood and provides a slick space for the absurd story -- and all the cool roller-skating -- to unfold.

Matthew Gardiner's direction is consistently imaginative and superbly paced; there is not a sagging moment, even when the musical itself is at its weakest (a 1940s flashback). Visual shtick that could land with a thud in the wrong hands sails here, including bits with a phone cord and a slow descent on a staircase.

Gardiner gets loads of personality from the performers, who handle the deliciously nutty dialogue ("That sign is a sign") with aplomb and also execute his imaginative choreography with near-uniform flair.

As Clio, the sweet muse who dons leg-warmers and assumes an Australian accent (of course) for her earthly manifestation, Erin Weaver rocks this disco dominion.

She's cute and funny, getting laughs just from the way she flutters her hands to cast a spell. She's got a bright, sturdy singing voice that rides those still-catchy Electric Light Orchestra melodies. On top of everything, Weaver's a mean roller-skater, gliding effortlessly in and out of scenes.

Like Keanu Reeves in full surfer-dude mode (Kathleen Geldard's costuming adds the finishing touch), Charlie Brady is spot-on as dim-bulb Sonny Malone, whose sidewalk drawing of the muses sets the plot spinning.

Harry A. Winter is disarming as Danny Maguire, the big bad businessman who has a change of heart. The bi-gender corps of muses does shining work, with particularly notable scenery-chewing (literally, at one point) by Sherri L. Edlelen, hot vocalism from Nova Y. Payton, and colorful drollery from Mark Chandler.

Other assets include the hard-working band, led from the keyboard by Gabriel Mangiante, and Chris Lee's vibrant lighting, which helps to make "Xanadu" a most diverting destination, a place where you'll just love being "suspended in time."

Performances continue through July 1.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Everyman Theatre closes season with revival of 'You Can't Take It With You'

In the thick of the Great Depression, a new Broadway play took an energetic swing at everything that seemed wrong with the world -- government, big business, social conformity -- and left the audience in stitches.

In the wake of the Great Recession, "You Can't Take It With You" still hits home and still provokes a lot of good laughs, a point reiterated by Everyman Theatre's revival of the 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy.

Come to think of it, the piece might be even more relevant, given how so many of today's one-percenters act like they truly believe they can take it with them.

There remains something deliciously radical about the characters who inhabit the New York home of the elderly Martin Vanderhof, he of the whatever-makes-you-happy school of philosophy. They all do what most of us can only fantasize about -- quit jobs, plunge into hobbies (even making fireworks in the basement), get all communal with friends and quickly friended strangers, talk back to the IRS, not give a hoot what other people think.

Of course, life can't really be like this, right? The subtly subversive power of the play comes from the way it keeps making you doubt that, keeps shifting the parameters of normality.

In the much-extended Vanderhof household, time doesn't matter as much as how you fill it. And the way they fill it is fundamentally, blissfully selfish, yet, somehow, within a caring environment. How cool is that?

The Everyman production, directed by Vincent Lancisi, comes in ...

a little below the usual company standard. Some of the acting lacks punch, and the pacing, not to mention the quirkiness, could be edged up a notch in places. Even so, the strengths carry the day.

As Vanderhof, the tax-avoiding patriarch who walked away from the business grind and never looked back, Stan Weiman is pleasant, but not exactly commanding. His soft-spoken, sometimes tentative delivery keeps scenes from catching fire. Although the role doesn't require a Lionel Barrymore (star of the popular, unfortunately plot-tampered Frank Capra film version), a more idiosyncratic spark wouldn't hurt.

Caitlin O'Connell likewise could use a stronger dash of individuality in her otherwise accomplished portrayal of Vanderhof's granddaughter Penny, who writes plays simply because a typewriter got delivered to the house by mistake.

As Penny's daughter Essie, who flits about the place practicing ballet to limited artistic effect, Megan Anderson offers assured, nicely detailed work. She is especially funny in the last act, after the family's world has turned a bit more upside down than usual.

Clinton Brandhagen has a good romp as Essie's naive husband, Ed, a xylophone-clanking guy who prints anarchist slogans because they sound neat. Bruce Nelson jumps full-force into the role of Kolenkhov, the over-caffeinated Russian emigre who fits right into the wacky home.

Brianna Letourneau does a charming, sympathetic turn as Penny's “normal” daughter, Alice, in love with Tony Kirby, her well-off, well-situated boss. Matthew Schleigh smoothly conveys the mix of debonair and down-to-earth that accounts for Tony's appeal to Alice, and his willingness to go rogue.

The inevitable clash of families and values, caused when Tony arrives with his oh-so-stuffy parents a day early for dinner in the Vanderhof abode, is still comic dynamite. Carl Schurr (Mr. Kirby) and Deborah Hazlett (Mrs. Kirby) do a terrific job here, filling out this class menagerie in fine style. Hazlett scores major comic points with facial expressions alone.

Among the rest of the cast, the most vivid, persuasive contributions come from Barbara Pinolini as the drunken Gay Wellington; Kimberly Schraf as the once-grand Russian duchess Olga; Steve Sawicki as the defensive tax man; Chinai Hardy as the awfully tolerant maid Rheba; and Wil Love as the eccentric ice man who cameth and stayed.

Daniel Ettinger's engaging set and David Burdick's evocative costumes provide a lift for this welcome refresher course in how, as Grandpa Vanderhof says, "to just go along and be happy in our own sort of way."

Although the play calls for live kittens in the first scene, I was surprised to see such a young one brought out, especially since a loud explosion is part of that scene. The poor little thing didn't even look like it had learned to open its eyes. BARCS is given a credit in the program, which I assume means that a vet approved, but still.

"You Can't Take It With You" runs through June 17.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Midweek Madness: An orchestra unleashed

My thanks to an adorable reader in Washington for alerting me to this perfect Midweek Madness candidate -- an orchestra that ...

really knows how to let go:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 22, 2012

UPDATE: Metropolitan Opera changes position; Opera News will cover Met

UPDATE 4 p.m. Tuesday: The Metropolitan Opera has backed down; Opera News will continue to cover Met performances after all. FULL PRESS RELEASE BELOW

First, the disclosure.

I have been a correspondent for Opera News for something like 25 years -- a length of time I would not ordinarily acknowledge, since it raises hideous suggestions about my age; but with Internet searches so easy, no point in hiding the fact.

Now for the reaction to the story that broke over night in the New York Times: Opera News, a longtime magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, will "stop reviewing the Metropolitan Opera, a policy prompted by the Met’s dissatisfaction over negative critiques.”

This follows close on the heels of another worrisome incident -- WQXR removed a post from its blog that was critical of the Met, a move prompted by the institution in question. (There was also the case last year of the popular, non-critical blog that offered very smart guesses about future Met seasons -- that one was shut down, too, at the Met's request.)

The cyber-sphere has been abuzz all night -- the readers of the fabulous La Cieca apparently don't sleep at all -- about this latest manifestation of what appears to be a severe case of thin skin disease on the part of Met general manager Peter Gelb. I might as well get in on the discussion, too.

When confronted with fresh evidence of this nature, the first thing I think of is ...

the Somerset Maugham quote: "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise."

This unfortunate human trait is bad enough when it involves nothing more than your spouse or spousal equivalent asking you what you think of his/her outfit. When it comes to performers and heads of arts organizations, it's just a whole lot more serious.

The relationship of Opera News to the Met complicates matters, of course. The magazine is closely linked to the opera house, since the Guild was established as a fundraising arm of the company, so the idea of reviewing is obviously risky.

But the reviewing has been going on for decades. Funny that management was apparently cool with the reviews until negative assessments started cropping up lately.

I am forever amused by readers of mine who think I am so astute when I write a glowing opinion, but who change on a dime the minute I find fault with something. Then I'm accused of being unreasonable, cruel, stupid, destructive, etc.

Couldn't we all agree that we all of us not perpetually perfect -- critics included? (I say this as one of maybe two or three critics in the world who found much to like in the Met's otherwise roundly booed production of "Tosca" Mr. Geld chose to present a few years back.)

If, as it appears, Mr. Gelb has difficulty with encountering any discouraging words in the press, what is it like during a staff meeting at the Met? How easy is it for anyone inside the institution to question a decision or make an alternative suggestion?

I found myself thinking this morning about the case several years ago of the Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic taken off the Cleveland Orchestra beat after one too many unfavorable opinions of the music director. The newspaper might not have been an actual arm of the orchestra, but, with a publisher being on the orchestra board, it sure was easy to start lobbying for a change in critics.

All sorts of spin was attached to this situation by all sides involved, but the bottom line still boiled down to this: The Cleveland Orchestra asked for criticism, but only wanted praise. As for the newspaper, it decided it was in its best interests to placate an advertiser (and, at board room level, a pal).

The profession of music criticism took a hit in Cleveland, not just the individual critic. That's what bothered a lot of us. Looks to me like the same sort of thing is happening at the Met.

Silencing Opera News may not seem like a big deal to folks. Some people will focus on that Guild relationship and talk a lot about the how this just boils down to a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-it situation. I wonder.

Any squelching of opinion is cause for alarm and reflection. What about other critics who cover the Met? Will they find their access restricted based on their reviews? (Anecdotal evidence indicates that this has already happened in a few cases.)

And doesn't it ever occur to folks on the receiving end of criticism that reviews -- credible ones, at least -- are aimed not at trying to destroy but to improve?

Critics may write some pretty nasty things, but rarely out of pure spite and malice. We get concerned (or annoyed or offended) when standards slip, when the art is obscured by gimmickry, when performances are more about surface than substance. Strange how we want our musicians to be passionate, but our critics to be docile.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, I have to point out again how ridiculous it is that the same critic who loves a performance is considered to be wise and wonderful up until that same critic is not as impressed with another performance. It is as absurd to dismiss and try to ignore all negative reviews as it would be to accept only the positive ones. 

Messy scandals involving the arts v. the press rarely help anyone in the long run. There must be ways to keep the lid on, to find a compromise -- perhaps the inclusion of extra voices, the same way an op-ed page makes room for opposing political sides.

Then again, maybe that's going a step too far. Maybe people in the public eye just need to learn to get over their sensitivity, to have enough faith in themselves and their work to let the bad reviews roll off them.

The process of creating art and putting it before the public and, yes, the critics is essential if art is to develop. All that you gain by squelching dissent is to buy a little time, usually at the expense of integrity and respect.

P.S. Here's the Met's release:

In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.

The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission. While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.


FILE PHOTO (Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:00 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 21, 2012

Pianist Vanessa Perez makes Baltimore debut at An die Musik

Vanessa Perez, a young Venezuelan making waves in an ever-crowded sea of talented pianists, visited Baltimore Saturday afternoon to promote her new, all-Chopin Telarc recording.

She played the composer's 24 Preludes on a recital at An die Musik.

That intimate concert room has become a popular stopping-off spot for performing artists. On Monday night, violist Garth Knox and friends play from their new ECM recording there, before giving a CD-launch Tuesday at the hip Manhattan venue Le Poisson Rouge, an event touted in the Times and New Yorker. 

Back to the Perez recital. It proved to be a mixed bag. 

There was terrific technical virtuosity, as in the dash through the D major and E-flat Preludes. But there was some ...

smudgy, pushy playing, too, as in the B-flat minor and G minor (the latter, delivered at a supersonic speed that left the actual musical substance in the dust).

There was eloquent phrasing, as in the F-sharp minor and "Raindrop" Preludes, but articulation could also turn cold and methodical, as in the E minor. 

I admired the concentration and grit that Perez demonstrated as she moved those these two dozen amazing pieces, bringing out with a particularly effective edge the more startling ideas, such as the persistent dissonance in the A minor Prelude. I appreciated the pianist's determination to avoid anything sentimental or sticky.

Still, it would have been nice to hear a little more warmth of tone in places, a little more subtlety of articulation along the way -- qualities Perez does offer on the new CD, and which she revealed engagingly in the short pieces by Albeniz and Villa Lobos that bookended Saturday's recital.


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

Baltimore Concert Opera closes season with Puccini's 'Il Trittico'

Baltimore Concert Opera wrapped up its season with the three vivid one-acters that make up Puccini's "Il Trittico." I caught two of them Friday night at the Engineers Club.

The performance of "Suor Angelica" proved quite effective overall.

This melodrama is forever on the verge of corny or kitschy, but Puccini's exquisitely crafted music always keeps things from spilling over. Even so, the ending presents a hurdle.

Here, the title character of the nun with a dark past takes a lethal dose of poison after learning that the out-of-wedlock child she left behind has died. As the opera closes, Angelica sees a vision of the child beckoning to her from the other world.

In a concert version, all of that can be left to the imagination (some stage productions allow that, too), but you still need to feel Angelica's emotional roller-coaster ride of emotions as death approaches -- her fear of having committed the mortal sin of suicide; her intense relief when she senses that she will be forgiven and redeemed, after all.

Elizabeth Brooks conveyed ...

these feelings affectingly. She acted out the whole closing portion of the opera, from the searing aria "Senza mamma" on, with impressive intensity.

The soprano did not have all of the vocal resources to go with the fine acting. Her tone had a narrow color range and lost security in the upper reaches. Still, Brooks brought the character and the tragedy to life, and that counted for a lot.

Laura Zuiderveen, singing from memory and with considerable expressive force, captured the severity of Angelica's aunt, the Principessa. Also bringing sturdy vocalism and a lot of character to the performance were Melissa Kornacki (the Abbess), Madeleine Gray (La Zelatrice), Alexandra Christoforakis (La Maestra delle Novizie) and Sharin Apostolou (Suor Genovieffa). The rest of the participants did sensitive work.

Conductor Michael Borowitz kept things moving smoothly. Puccini's score is much too rich in sonic material to be reduced to a mid-sized grand, but pianist James Harp didn't let that deter him; his playing had enough nuance and warmth to provide compensation.

In "Il Tabarro," the verismo chapter of the triptych, Brooks skimmed the surface as the unfaithful wife Giorgetta, and often sounded effortful. Although David Murray was sympathetic as Michele, Giorgetta's increasingly suspicious husband, there was not enough weight and nuance in the baritone's singing.

Theodore Chletsos came closer to the mark as Luigi, the stevedore who wants to take Giorgetta away from the humdrum life on the Seine. Except for tightening in the upper reaches, the tenor impressed with a robust tone and ardent phrasing.

Gray brought vocal authority and verve to the role of Frugola. Ben Hilgert (Tinca) and Thomas McNichols (Talpa) filled out the cast ably. Nicholas Houhoulis and Natalie Conte handled the off-stage music nicely.

For the 2012-2013 season, Baltimore Concert Opera will offer performances of "Cosi fan tutte," "Macbeth," "Carmen" and "Tosca."


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Still haunted by tenor aria from Massenet's 'Werther'

Although I have heard a lot of music since attending Washington National Opera's production of Massenet's "Werther" a week or so ago, I keep being haunted by "Pourquoi me reveiller," the tenor aria in the third act. It plays on continual loop inside my pathetic little head. (I even hunted around for a ring tone version the other day, which might be going too far.)

I figured I might as well share my passion for this extraordinary aria, which combines so much feeling, from the deeply introspective to the passionately outspoken. (And this will give you something to chew on while awaiting my reviews of the plays and concerts I caught over the weekend.)

Just the first 12 notes of "Pourquoi me reveiller" get me every time -- so simple, yet so poignant. How perfect they are to draw you into Werther's melancholy.

Some folks think of Massenet as ...

a lightweight. I can't, not when confronted with this aria (or the rest of "Werther," not to mention "Manon").

Here are three golden-oldie versions of "Pourquoi me reveiller," only one of them in the original French -- a melody like this really does speak a universal language. I hope you like the amazingly poetic performances by these honey-toned tenors, Cesare Valletti, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Sergei Lemeshev, as much as I do. If you don't have time for all three, make sure you hear Lemeshev:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 18, 2012

On the Record: Bartok from BSO/Alsop; works by Joel Puckett, Larry Hoffman

While we await the long-predicted — heck, long-declared — death of the classical recording industry, new releases continue to emerge, day after day.

Three with local connections are well worth a listen:

BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor (Naxos)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s admirable recordings with music director Alsop on the Naxos label have so far included a vibrant cycle of Dvorak symphonies and a sensational, Grammy-nominated account of Bernstein’s “Mass.” Now comes a burst of Bartok.

Although no recording of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is likely to supplant the gold standard, made in ...

the technologically ancient 1950s by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, there’s always room for one more.

Alsop misses a few opportunities to intensify atmosphere or character in the Concerto, but she still gets to the heart of the matter, negotiates tricky rhythms expertly and ensures that colorful details of orchestration get to the fore.

The BSO is playing even more cohesively nowadays than when the recording was made in 2009. Still, the engineers at Meyheroff Symphony Hall captured the BSO in sturdy form. The ensemble delivers the propulsive portions, especially the snarky Intermezzo and boisterous finale, with a good deal of bite, and does sensitive work in the rest.

The standout on the disc is Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This fascinating, intricately layered score inspires a terrific, involving performance. The conductor’s attention to atmosphere and subtle detail pays off handsomely.

The BSO strings produce a darkly beautiful tone that intensifies the moodiness of the first and third movements; their playing in the wild finale really sizzles. The percussion and keyboard players make their every contribution count.

By the way, the Alsop/BSO/Naxos relationship continues. Currently in the pipeline and due in the fall is a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (taped back in 2008). And plans call for a cycle of Bernstein’s three symphonies; the first to be recorded will be the “Kaddish” early next season.

And, for the Harmonia Mundi label, Alsop and the orchestra will record Symphony No. 4 by this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Kevin Puts, when that work is played during the season-closing concerts in June.

WORKS OF LARRY HOFFMAN: String Quartet No. 1; Blues Suite for Violoncello Solo; et al. Performed by Atlanta String Quartet, trumpeter Andrew Balio, et al. (DBK)

Baltimore composer Larry Hoffman started out self-taught, playing folk, blues and bluegrass on the guitar in the 1960s. The former Peabody Conservatory faculty member never lost his roots in the nonclassical arena, especially his affinity for blues, which can be keenly felt in this album of works written between 1986 and 2011 and recorded at various times and places.

His String Quartet No. 1 is even subtitled “The Blues.” It’s a big, juicy score with a kinetic beat, and it gets a hearty performance from the Atlantic String Quartet, made up of current and former BSO members.

The often subtle writing in “Blues for Harp, Oboe and Violoncello” (a deliciously unlikely combination for blues) is warmly explored by a stellar lineup that includes the late oboist John Mack of Cleveland Orchestra fame. BSO cellist Kristin Ostling offers a gutsy account of the solo “Blues Suite,” a straight-ahead use of the genre’s idioms.

If there is anything bluesy in the other pieces on the recording, it may only be imagined, but the composer’s keen sense of rhythmic motion remains. “Pages of Anna” (in a cool computer realization) and “Colors for Trumpet and Percussion” (featuring the BSO’s Andrew Balio and percussionist David DePeters) are lyrical and moody, filled with imaginatively developed ideas.

ARTIFACTS: Works by William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster, Joel Puckett and Bright Sheng. Performed by University of Michigan Symphony Band; Michael Haithcock, conductor. (Equilibrium)

This two-disc set provides a hearty sampling of engaging contemporary composers, including Joel Puckett, a Peabody faculty member.

As he demonstrated in “This Mourning,” a choral work commemorating the toll of 9/11, Puckett has an ability to turn grief into compelling music. After the loss of a child in utero in 2009, he wrote “The Shadow of Sirius,” a concerto for flute, flute choir and wind ensemble superbly played on this recording by soloist Amy Porter with the University of Michigan Symphony Band.

Inspired by the poetry of W. S. Merwin, the score attempts to “explore a virtuosity of expression.” That it does, grabbing from the first pulsating, haunting notes. It does not let go. The solo flute acts, Orpheus-like, as a guide into a soulful realm where exquisite tone coloring and rich harmonies provide a kind of solace.

Heard abstractly, the piece reveals remarkable ingenuity and integrity. Heard with Merwin’s verses in mind (the CD booklet contains the texts), the music becomes exceptionally affecting, nowhere more so than in the last movement, when Puckett makes it easy to feel the poignant impact of Merwin’s imagery: “O closest to my breath / if you are able to / please wait a while longer / on that side of the cloud.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Classical music world loses another giant: baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Just saw the dispiriting news that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the incomparable German baritone who set the gold standard for lieder singing, died Friday at 86.

I daresay he helped a lot of people appreciate lieder -- really appreciate it. When you heard Mr. Fischer-Dieskau's beautiful tone and incisive phrasing, you found yourself inside a song, living the lyrics, sensing the poetic images.

The baritone left a sizable mark on other repertoire, of course, including opera. His performance in the Britten "War Requiem" remains one of the most profound documents of 20th century musical art. His interpretations of Mahler were equally inspired.

He was simply one of those exceedingly rare vocal artists who could make you sit up and take notice, no matter what the music, and make you feel so very fortunate.

Here are just a couple of examples of the artistry of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, singing Schubert, Schumann and Mahler:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:19 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 16, 2012

'Fela!' shakes the roof at Morgan State University

“I’m going to change Africa,” Fela Kuti says in the ambitious, highly-charged musical about his life and work. “I’m going to change the world.”

It’s not an idle boast.

“Fela!” the multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway show that has settled into Morgan State University’s Murphy Center through the weekend, provides a visceral encounter with the spirit of the iconic Nigerian musician, activist, polygamist and hedonist.

More than just the spirit, actually. Given the startling performance by Sahr Ngaujah in the title role, it’s easy to forget that this is a theatrical vehicle at all.

Starting in the late 1960s, Fela fused from various influences a hypnotic genre that came to be called “Afrobeat.” It soon exerted a global reach, which would have been enough to earn Fela lasting fame. But after exposure to ...

the Black Power movement in the States, he became politically energized and outspoken against oppression at home.

Fela’s music grew increasingly provocative, full of undisguised challenges to the Nigerian dictatorship. The authorities, of course, were not amused.

With a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones (he also directed and devised the kinetic, richly evocative choreography), the musical manages to steer a viable course between entertainment and polemics.

There’s a clever device to give the show a sense of structure. The setting is Fela’s Shrine, the nightclub/compound he established in Lagos, and the set-up is that it’s his last concert there, circa 1977.

Things get funny, vulgar, earthy and, in one vivid scene, severely scatological along the way.

It’s all held together loosely, but engagingly, for more than two and a half hours by Fela’s songs, interspersed with information about his life.

Much of those details emerge simply as banter with the audience. And the way Ngaujah banters, it feels like it comes directly from the source.

The actor, who also starred in the original Broadway and London productions of "Fela!" does not settle for impersonation. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s more like reincarnation. The main difference is that Ngaujah has the warmer, more technically polished voice. But the persona — judging by the vintage video I’ve seen of the real thing — is pure Fela. Everything Ngaujah says and does rings true, and brings the audience more tightly into his world.

There is little left of a fourth wall here. The audience is encouraged, even expected to be part of the song-and-dance action at times. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in the theater. Folks more accustomed to ordinary decorum and distance may have trouble with all of this, but it’s worth letting go.

The music has an organic force, with reiterated, brilliantly syncopated rhythms that can slip under the skin and regenerate cells you thought were long dormant. And when you sense everyone around you moving and tingling, it really is a cool sensation.

Then, just as everyone settles into a feel-no-pain groove, “Fela!” generates the zingers that will sting long after the final curtain — pithy lyrics, in Pidgin English, skewering colonialism, ruthless corporations, oppressive regimes, and “zombie” soldiers who stomp their way through people and principles.

There is very heady, disturbing stuff here, often accompanied by painful imagery of violence and suffering in Nigeria, projected on the vibrant, two-tiered set (designed by Marina Draghici, who also did the costumes).

When the story of the attack on the Shrine by 1,000 soldiers is told, no funky beat can obscure the horror. Suddenly, we are thrust into the heart and soul of the matter.

What hurts is not just the dreadful retelling of this raid, which caused the death of Fela’s mother, but the heavy reminder of how little has changed since the 1970s in parts of Africa and elsewhere.

As the details are recounted, symbolic coffins are piled on the stage, bearing inscriptions of more recent names from more recent controversies, including Trayvon Martin.

(The show misses an opportunity later to address another issue that has hardly lost its relevance. Fela died of AIDS, a disease still ravaging Africa. Seems like a subtle way could be found to make that point.)

Ultimately, though, there’s a cumulative uplift. Fela celebrated life as much as he challenged the forces determined to curtail freedom and pleasure, and that affirmation permeates the air.

It is underlined most emphatically here through the character of his mother, a free-thinker named Funmilayo, portrayed with an affecting grace and extraordinary vocal radiance by Melanie Marshall. She’s so magnetic that you can’t help but wish she got more stage time.

The rest of the cast in this international touring production shines, especially Paulette Ivory as Sandra, the American woman who helped spark Fela’s political thinking. But this is, above all, a showcase for the imposing talents of Ngaujah, who, backed by a tireless band of top-notch musicians, conjures up the full force of Fela.

Performances continue through Sunday.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: Saluting the latest inauguration of Vladimir Putin

Back around Christmas time, I interviewed a cirque artist who told me he had performed for three Russian presidents. I had to bite my tongue so as not to ask if all of them were named Vladimir Putin.

Seeing Putin once being grandly inaugurated last week made me think that some sort of festive salute, Midweek Madness-style, was in order.

I know that I have featured a certain indelible Russian vocal artist before, singing his greatest hit (one of the greatest pieces of vocal music, ever, for sure), but how could I resist an encore now? Especially since this particular song ...

was first a hit during the Soviet era, and, hey, doesn't it feel like just a little bit like the wonderful Soviet era is comin' back?

I found a performance of the song I had not seen before and it's just too good not to share. OK, so it comes from what must have been a Christmas TV special, but, hey, isn't every day Christmas in Putin's Russia? And isn't it fun to see an audience looking so genuinely, I mean really, really natural, unrehearsed and so doggone happy?

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

May 14, 2012

'Werther' gets eloquent treatment from Washington National Opera

Maybe it is not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Consider the case of young Werther, the central figure of the hugely influential novel penned by Goethe in 1774 and reborn in Massenet's masterful opera from 1892.

When Werther is prevented from pursuing the object of his intense desire, he becomes so stressful that he sees suicide as the only sensible option.

We have therapy for that sort of thing now, of course. I suspect a lot of people today cannot summon much sympathy for someone as obsessive and morose as Werther.

And I assume they were the types sniggling a few times during Washington National Opera's performance of "Werther" Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

So, OK, maybe the super-romanticism does get a little thick in the Massenet work, especially during the protracted death scene for the title character, but the music rings true. Massenet, a master of melody, mood and orchestral coloring, captured the essence, the soul of Goethe's story (one based on a real incident, by the way).

What the composer's fine librettists added in the way of character development fleshes out the story nicely, particularly in the case of Charlotte, the woman Werther falls for instantly and who feels she must marry someone else because of a promise to her dying mother. In the opera, Charlotte reveals much more of an attraction to Werther, much more of a conflicted conscience, than Goethe described.

This is an opera that can really grab hold when it is sung with elegance and eloquence, and when it is staged with sensitivity. For the most part, that's ... 

exactly what WNO delivers in a production updated, in mostly effective fashion, to late-1920s/early '30s -- Massenet's inspired use of the saxophone in the orchestration takes on a whole new significance in a setting with Jazz Age overtones.

The big news here is the company debut of Francesco Meli in the title role.

On Saturday, the Italian tenor produced consistently stylish, deeply beautiful singing, the sort you more often find only on vintage recordings.

Yes, there was a fortissimo note that didn't quite hold together. And nitpickers would subtract points for the singer's switch to falsetto once or twice. But what classy vocalism this was overall, so tender in tone, so exquisitely refined in phrasing.

The tenor's rhythmically elastic delivery of the opera's hit aria, the ultra-melancholy "Pourquoi me reveiller," proved electric. He was supported every measure of the way in that aria by conductor Emmanuel Villaume, whose appreciation for the inner beauty of the opera and ability to coax refined playing from the orchestra was a notable plus all evening.

Meli proved to be a believable actor, although even he could not quite make it easy to understand why this Werther would go crazy for this Charlotte.

Why on earth was Sonia Ganassi, an excellent artist who used her plush mezzo to incisive effect, made to look so matronly and constricted? Her hair style, her clothes -- way too close to Margaret Dumont territory (Barila designed the otherwise persuasive costumes). Ganassi did her best to enliven the character, though; her acting in the last two acts was especially telling.

The dowdy look for Charlotte wasn't the only miscalculation from director Chris Alexander, who certainly rings a lot of fascinating ideas to the production. But he undercut his own imaginative way of intensifying the drama and enriching the atmosphere in Act 3.

Here, Charlotte and her husband Albert host a Christmas Eve party. When Charlotte tries to flee in order to prevent Werther's suicide, she finds her way blocked by arriving guests and must quickly regain her composure to welcome them. So far so good. But Alexander repeats this scene of departure interruptus several times, so it just ends up looking silly.

Otherwise, there is much to savor in the staging -- well, "much" may not be the word, since Michael Yeargan's set, originally for Opera Australia, doesn't come close to filling the stage here.

But, overall, the clean lines, subtle use of props and refined lighting (by Mark McCullough) are really quite compelling. The background during the autumnal second act, for example, with tall grasses against a pinkish sky, has the poetic depth of a Wolf Kahn landscape.

The supporting cast came through vividly on opening night. Julien Robbins gave an endearing portrayal of Charlotte's father and sang colorfully. Deft work, vocally and dramatically, came from Emily Albrink as Charlotte's sister Sophie and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert.

The children's chorus, prepared by Michelle Kunz, made a bright contribution. But I wish the kids' offstage Christmas carol at the end -- the juxtaposition of that jollity with Werther's death is among the most incisive touches in Massenet's score -- could have been sung a little farther offstage, just to give it a more haunting quality.

Performances continue through May 27.



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

May 13, 2012

BSO to launch training ensembles, taking over from Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras

After 35 years, the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras, an educational enterprise involving multiple ensembles, will officially dissolve on Aug. 31, to reemerge on Sept. 1 as the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras.

Former GBYO employees, including artistic director Kenneth Lam, will become employees of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has not previously had an orchestral training program.

“The idea of having a youth orchestra had not been on our radar until folks from the GBYO approached us in January,” said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. “But having worked at the San Francisco Symphony, which has a youth orchestra, I always had in the back of my mind that a youth orchestra would be a natural thing for the BSO to do.”

The GBYO, founded in 1977 by BSO clarinetist Chris Wolfe, has about ...

250 students, ages six to 19, from throughout the metropolitan region take part in the organization. There is a full orchestra of advanced students, an intermediate-level orchestra, and two early-level string ensembles (these two will be combined into one in the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras).

The budget for the GBYO has been about $200,000. Approximately half of the money is raised from tuition, the rest from private contributions and grants from national, state and city agencies. “We hope those grants will stay in place,” Meecham said.

In a statement released Sunday, Lam said the the creation of the BSYO means that “our students will now have ties to a world-class music organization led by a visionary conductor in Marin Alsop [the BSO's music director], access to more sizable resources, and be in a better position to recruit the very best talent from across the State of Maryland.”

GBYO board president Jeff Zoller described the deal with the BSO as “a logical evolution.” He will become an an ex-officio member of the BSO’s board of directors.

The GBYO's current executive director Nana Gaskins Vaughn will join the BSO’s education and community engagement staff. Other conductors currently with the GBYO will continue with the BSYO. A new council formed by members of the GBYO board will take on the duties of fundraising and advocacy for the new organization.

Students in the BSYO will have increased interaction with BSO musicians and will get to attend BSO concerts.

Alsop is expected to work with the youth orchestra at some point in the future, Meecham said. In a statement, Alsop said that the addition of a youth orchestra reflects her goal of “deepening [the BSO's] the ties to the community ... and strengthens our commitment to serve and nurture Maryland’s most talented young musicians.”

The youth orchestra complements other BSO's educational initiatives, notably OrchKids, a program offered in early grades at a several Baltimore public schools. “As the kids get older and more proficient in their instruments, we hope they will get involved in the youth orchestra,” Meecham said.

For the past several years, the GBYO was ensemble-in-residence at Loyola University in Maryland. “Loyola needs their space back, so we're helping the youth orchestra to look for a new home for rehearsals,” Meecham said.

The BSYO will give one concert each season at the BSO's home base, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The location of additional concerts is to be determined (the GBYO's final concert of this season was held Sunday at Towson University's Center for the Arts).

Auditions for the BSYO will be held later this month and in June.



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:33 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

May 12, 2012

Baltimore Symphony performs romantic gems by Rachmaninoff, Elgar

May is turning out to be a great month for the Baltimore Symphony.

A week after a potent combination of a Ravel concerto and a Shostakovich symphony, the orchestra has put a Rachmaninoff concerto and an Elgar symphony together to form another satisfying and well-delivered program.

Of course, you have to be in the mood for sweeping lyricism and grand statements. This lineup is not for the cold of heart.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, before tackling Rachmaninoff's much-loved Concerto No. 2, Andre Watts came onstage to receive the National Medal of Arts.

The pianist had been unable to attend the White House ceremony in February due to a concert engagement (among those receiving this year's medals were Al Pacino and Mel Tillis). So Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the NEA, took this opportunity to make the official presentation.

BSO music director Marin Alsop read the certificate, signed by President Obama, that praised Watts for his ...

"superb technique and unwavering passion." A few minutes later, the pianist demonstrated both attributes in a typically high-Watt(s)age performance of the Rachmaninoff war horse.

The soloist's playing was impressively muscular. A few melodic lines certainly could have been less heavily articulated, but there still was considerable sensitivity as well. I loved how, in the finale, Watts seemed to signal to the orchestra, "Let's kick it up a notch" -- everyone really did seem to shift into the next gear for the charge to the finish line.

The pianist enjoyed steady support from Alsop and the ensemble, which needed only a deeper, more passionate tone from the strings.

Elgar's Symphony No. 1, last played by the BSO in 2004 with James Judd conducting (by contrast, it has been only a year since the Rachmaninoff concerto turned up), is a splendid work. It ought to be performed in this country as often as, say, Mahler's First. This is such noble, genuine, stirring music.

Like so much of Elgar's work, this symphony can be appreciated on a purely intellectual level -- the ingenious thematic development, especially involving the stately motto theme woven through the score.

It can be appreciated purely for the orchestration, which is as richly varied and finely applied as the best of Strauss. Above all, it can be savored for its inner emotional world, where melancholy is never too far away. There is a level of lyricism in this symphony that can really get to you, can make you feel as if you are hearing someone read from a diary about great struggles and hopes, and finding the way home.

Alsop revealed considerable appreciation for the warmth and breadth of the piece. Only in the Adagio did I feel her holding back slightly. I would have loved just a little more spaciousness, a touch more rubato in spots, a darker intensity in others.

But this was still a rewarding and involving interpretation. Particularly admirable was Alsop's assured handling of the many tempo shifts within the movements, allowing a natural flow, and her attention to minute details in the skittish scherzo.

She had the closing moments of the finale reaching a truly majestic level of expression, thanks to some downright radiant playing by an orchestra that seemed thoroughly caught up in the experience from the very first bars of the symphony. The strings this time poured out a golden sound, matched by great warmth and solidity from the brass.

The classy performance made me hope that we will get Elgar's Symphony No. 2 someday soon. Meanwhile, this program repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyherhoff.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

May 10, 2012

'God of Carnage' gets brilliant production at Signature Theatre

Long before the projectile vomiting, and long after, suppressed feelings and uneasy thoughts are spewed all over the set in Signature Theatre's searing production of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage."

The stains get harder and harder to remove.

This Tony-winning play (which gets its Baltimore premiere next season, thanks to Everyman Theatre) takes what seems like a routine sitcom setup and runs with it brilliantly.

The plot centers on two sets of parents -- the Novaks and the Raleighs -- brought together for the first time because their young sons had a bruising fight.

The financially well-off, terribly polite couples are determined to display their breeding, to find a politically correct way of dealing with the incident and moving on.

Of course, you know right away that ...

these adults are going to end up acting more like children than children (to borrow a phrase), but Reza keeps adding killer spice and detours to the process, creating 90 exceptionally volatile, absorbing minutes of theater that can keep an audience as much on edge as the characters.

At least those of us out in the dark get to laugh a lot -- the humor in the work is delicious, alternately wry and wounding, mental and physical. There's no disguising the dark side of this comedy, though.

Watching the breakdown in civility sure can get uncomfortable as "God of Carnage" (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton) unfolds, first dealing with the presumed issue of kids misbehaving and then moving into one parental indiscretion after another.

Once the clafouti flies and the rum starts to flow, the center just will not hold. Things that shouldn't be said out loud slip out, changing the dynamics and the alliances.

The tension between the two couples is bad enough as each side tries to settle on which kid bears the most responsibility, has the biggest lesson to learn, from the fight.

But with each slip of the tongue, even with each ring of a phone, the ground shifts a little more until the couples go from being at odds with each other to being at odds within each other, husband against wife. It even becomes men against the women before the confrontation is over.

In the end, it all adds up to a pretty damning indictment of what passes for sophisticated society. The play holds up a great big mirror, catching way too many of us in its reflection.

The Signature Theatre production shines from the get-go. James Kronzer's meticulous set provides a deliciously sleek place for the action, which has been directed with a flair for timing and nuance by Joe Calarco.

The cast achieves the kind of tight ensemble essential for such a compact, bracing work. Naomi Jacobson, in particular, is terrific as Veronica Novak, the high-art loving writer with an all-too-readily expressed concern for Darfur and the mother of the boy who got clobbered.

Jacobson can get teary-eyed in a way that invariably rings true; she can turn steely and aggressive just as persuasively.

She's effective matched by Andy Brownstein as Veronica's husband Michael, the down-to-earth wholesaler who dons a sweater to look more like a liberal. The actor is especially telling when, sweater off, the truths  start bubbling to the surface.

Vanessa Lock likewise shines when she gets to reveal the frustrations behind the cool facade of Annette Raleigh, the woman with a tendency to get nauseous (pity all the lovely things in the Novak home that end up getting sprayed).

Paul Morella, as Annette's snide, high-powered, cell phone-dependent spouse Alan, holds his own in the fray, vividly completing this alternately sympathetic and gruesome foursome.

"God of Carnage" runs through June 24.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

The Figaro Project finds a murder mystery in 'Don Giovanni'

Most opera-goers likely feel they have a firm grasp on the plot of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” — as firm a grasp as the one the opera’s antihero receives from an animated statue that drags him down to hell.

But maybe that’s not really how Don Giovanni, legendary roue (known in Spanish as Don Juan), met his demise. After all, who ever heard of a living statue?

That, at least, is the question being posed by The Figaro Project, an opera troupe that will unveil a new version of the Mozart classic this weekend.

“Who Killed Don Giovanni?” is the brainchild of ...

Caitlin Vincent, a Peabody Conservatory-trained soprano who founded The Figaro Project in 2009 as an outlet for young singers in the area and a means for trying out innovative presentations.

“I like ‘Don Giovanni,’” Vincent said, “but the ending is so anticlimactic. I never did buy the statue coming to life. What if that was just a lie to cover up the fact that Don Giovanni was murdered by one of the other characters?”

In the original opera, Don Giovanni, interrupted while pursuing Donna Anna, his latest female conquest, kills the woman’s father.

Don Giovanni is eventually pursued by Donna Anna, her boyfriend, Don Ottavio, and a woman Don Giovanni jilted, Donna Elvira. But it is a statue commemorating Donna Anna’s father who knocks at Don Giovanni’s door, sealing the rake’s fate.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to Vincent’s reworking of the plot — “We love opera, but it can be a little stodgy sometimes,” she said — and that’s a point driven home by an amusing YouTube commercial the company created.

The video clip -- see below; it's really cool -- introduces a terribly serious, if slightly bumbling, Inspector Lorenzo (baritone Nathan Wyatt), who will lead the investigation in the production.

“Who Killed Don Giovanni?” is “an opera within a play,” Vincent said. “All of Mozart’s music is intact, except the recitatives and the choruses — we don’t have a chorus. Our version starts at the end of the opera, and then there is a flashback, with interrogations in between. “

The new dialogue Vincent wrote will be delivered in English; the music will be sung in the original Italian.

Vincent will not give any advance hints on who might be collared for the crime.

“None of the characters is sympathetic,” she said. “They all have motives, and very good motives. Poor Don Ottavio is kind of a wimp. And Donna Elvira is kind of insane. Leporello [Don Giovanni’s servant] is the only one who witnesses the death, so I wouldn’t rule him out.”

The production, directed by William Schaller, will be modestly staged and costumed. There will be piano accompaniment by Ta-Wei Tsai. The cast includes Lydia Beasley as Donna Anna, Jessica Hanel Satava as Donna Elvira and Stephen Campbell. Blair Skinner will conduct.

“Our singers are just volunteer now,” Vincent said. “The instrumentalists get a small stipend. We don’t require a lot of money. And one thing I make sure is that we have all the money we need in advance; there’s no credit, no overstepping our bounds.”

That may explain why The Figaro Project has held on, while other nontraditional opera groups in Baltimore, including Opera Vivente, Chesapeake Chamber Opera and America Opera Theater, recently folded.

“We have a niche,” Vincent said. “One of the great things about Baltimore is that it is so offbeat, open to people being creative. It’s such an inviting environment to explore in.”

Past explorations undertaken by The Figaro Project have included cabarets (one was titled “Divalicious”) and the premieres of one-act operas by young composers. Next year will see another premiere, Joshua Bornfield’s “Camelot Requiem,” tied to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Meanwhile, all the focus is on the death of devilish Don Giovanni.

“Some people go for the dark side when doing this opera,” Vincent said. “I’ve always thought it is hilarious — darkly hilarious. So we are emphasizing the quirky comedic side.”

Performances are Friday and Saturday at the University of Baltimore.


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

May 9, 2012

Midweek Madness: A uke-y 'Ride of the Valkyries'

Wagner's "Ring" Cycle has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera's hugely expansive, not universally beloved production.

That got me thinking how I might slip a little "Ring" into Midweek Madness. I think the fabulous Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain provides a pretty neat way of doing so:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 8, 2012

Weekend roundup: Annapolis Symphony, Concert Artists, Choral Arts

Last weekend's musical activity for your (mostly) humble correspondent was all about milestones. (This week has been all about distractions, hence the tardiness of this report.)

I started off at the Maryland Hall Friday night with a program marking the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary; continued Saturday night at the Lyric for the finale to the Concert Artists of Baltimore's 25th anniversary season; and concluded Sunday afternoon at Kraushaar Auditorium, where the Baltimore Choral Arts Society wrapped up the 30th anniversary of its music director Tom Hall.

The ASO's golden celebration included a world premiere by composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank, a residency made possible by Music Alive, a project of the League of American Orchestras and Meet the Composer.

Frank is a significant figure on the new music scene, and the Annapolis ensemble is fortunate to have this two-year association with her.

"Raices: Concerto Suite for Orchestra" provides a ...

fine showcase for Frank's vivid musical personality, with its multicultural influences (the title is Spanish for "roots"). The composer's part-Peruvian background comes to the fore here -- sensual harmonies, infectious rhythms -- and so does her flair for organizing ideas into cohesive structures.

Each of the six movements in this suite is a mini-tone poem; they add up to a diverting and substantive experience.

Bartok's famous Concerto for Orchestra is slyly referenced in the way paired instruments are used. Frank imaginatively spices each movement with that device, creating a continually shifting palette of colors, from smoky bassoons (in the urban-flavored Allegro Nazca) to melancholy horns (in Adios al Altiplano, an intriguing nocturne).

Jose-Luis Novo led the ASO in a persuasive performance that showed off the fine wind players, not to mention concertmaster Netanel Draiblate and principal cellist Todd Thiel, who did vibrant work in the rather sultry third movement.

The program opened with a bright, warmhearted account of Dvorak's "Carnival" that found the orchestra's woodwind section in especially admirable form.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 featured Rachel Franklin, who, aside from a brief fumble in the finale, negotiated the score cleanly. I would have welcomed more personality in the playing, but the vociferous audience sounded thoroughly pleased with the results. Novo and the ensemble backed the pianist smoothly.

It was hard to spot the Concert Artists of Baltimore members Saturday amid the masses of musicians from the Peabody Conservatory that were practically spilling off of the Lyric stage for a program devoted to Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and Orff's "Carmina Burana" (Peabody and the Modell-Lyric Center were co-presenters of this collaborative project).

But with Edward Polochick at the helm, this was very much a familiar Concert Artist kind of night -- colorful music excitingly performed.

Acoustically, the cast of thousands (OK, something like 200 choristers and about 140 instrumentalists) was at a disadvantage, there being no acoustical shell on stage. Still, the music emerged with a good deal of vitality.

The Bernstein work, one of his most inspired and affecting, benefited from Polochick's attention to detail and, especially, his sensitivity to the score's deep lyricism. The endless fade-out the conductor called for at the end was an extraordinary touch.

The choral brigade could have used firmer singing from tenors and basses, but otherwise proved admirable. I could not warm up to the full-throttle sound and uneven tone quality of countertenor Peter Lee in the second movement. The orchestra did strong work, especially in the searing start of the third movement.

"Carmina Burana," the perennial blockbuster, inspired a highly-charged performance from the get-go. Polochick revved up every fast tempo and underlined every fortissimo ("Were diu werlt alle min" really rattled the place), but the conductor also made sure that the gentlest passages had room to blossom. His intensely expressive shaping of "Ave formosissima" proved particularly potent.

Chorus and orchestra really hit their stride here, offering consistently poised, spirited music-making. The sweet-toned Peabody Children's Chorus did shining work in its brief appearance.

Of the soloists, silvery voiced soprano Jennifer Holbrook stood out, especially for the radiant, unhurried way she floated the ecstatic "Dulcissime."

Kevin Wetzel was a little short on volume, but the baritone sang with great color. I wish the idea of having him act out the drunken abbot solo would have been nipped in the bid after everyone had a good laugh at rehearsals.

Even worse was putting a headdress on Lee and having him act out the lament of the roasted swan, capped with a dash out of the theater, screaming all the way. Oy.

Mendelssohn's "Elijah" once enjoyed enormous popularity, especially in Britain, much to the dismay of George Bernard Shaw, who castigated the composer's "despicable oratorio-mongering." The piece may not get quite as much exposure today, but it certainly merits attention.

I do think the bad guys have the best music. Their frantic calls to Baal, for example, really get the blood pumping. The Israelites tend to sound rather foursquare by comparison. But Sunday's Choral Arts performance of "Elijah" managed to give both sides equal fervor.

Tom Hall's well-chosen tempos were often inflected with telling rubato, and he revealed a keen ear for dramatic contrasts. Most impressive was his handling of the close to Part One and, especially, Part Two, adding an extra burst of emotional weight to each.

The finely honed choristers produced a mighty volume as effectively as a tender pianissimo, and articulated the text with considerable nuance. The Peabody Children's Chorus -- a busy weekend for these kids -- once again made a magical contribution.

Among the soloists, soprano Danielle Talamantes sang exquisitely, savoring the elegant curve of Mendelssohn's melodic lines. Tenor Peter Scott Drackley was a bit rough in tone, but ardent in phrasing. Shazy King delivered the alto solos expressively, if with a hooty sound and some rhythmic imprecision.

Thom King sang the title role from memory (and with a brief lapse of same). The baritone's uneven, sometimes strained tone took a toll, but there was much to be said for his intense, palpable commitment to the music and its message.



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Death of illustrator Maurice Sendak felt in opera world, too

Although best known for his compelling, wild-thing-filled illustrated children's books, Maurice Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, also left his mark in the opera field.

Baltimore audiences had an opportunity to savor Mr. Sendak's distinctive designs in a production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" presented by the late Baltimore Opera Company in 2000. That staging, originally for Houston Grand Opera and used by other companies over the years, made quite a statement. Please forgive the self-quoting, but here's what I wrote 12 years ago:

Maurice Sendak has seized on the shadowy insinuations of "Hansel and Gretel" in designing the eye-catching scenery ... The famed illustrator of children's books fills the Lyric Opera House stage with fanciful trees and buildings that hide spooky faces; the witch's house has roving eyes. The witch herself is first seen as a giant, menacing figure flying about on a broom, her giant jaw in constant chomping mode, looking for fresh victims.

The musical performance did not live up to the scenic potential, but Mr. Sendak's contribution proved memorable. Among other operas he designed are ...

Mozart's "The Magic Flute" (the latter, which I saw in the early '90s in a Florida Grand Opera production, created an engaging fairy tale for adults), Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" and Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges."

Here are a couple of video clips from "Hansel" (at the Opera Company of Philadelphia) and "Oranges" (at Glyndebourne) that provide at least a taste of the magic this brilliant illustrator could bring to the operatic realm:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

May 6, 2012

Vividly sung, intriguingly staged 'Nabuuco' from Washington National Opera

With “Nabucco,” his third opera, Verdi’s career truly began. He would go on to do much finer work, but his talent and potential are unmistakable here.

The first night at La Scala in 1842 was not just a triumph for the composer; the success meant much more  at a time when the north of Italy was under Austrian rule.

A story based on the Old Testament account of the Israelites during their Babylonian Captivity, yearning to be free, could not help but strike a chord and a nerve. From “Nabucco” on,” Verdi would be nearly as much a political force as a musical one.

Washington National Opera, after 56 years, has finally added the composer’s early masterwork to its repertoire. It has done so with  ...

a musically potent production that strives hard to remind today’s audiences of what “Nabucco” meant to Italian audiences when it was new.

Director/designer Thaddeus Strassberger has devised an opera-within-an-opera concept for this staging. La Scala-like boxes flank one side of the stage. Elegantly dressed patrons take their seats during the overture and after the intermissions and intently watch the performance, while Austrian soldiers keep an eye on everyone.

Most of the time, the idea works well, especially since Strassberger’s scenic design of the opera proper so gloriously conjures up a sense of 19th century theatrical grandeur (Mattie Ullrich designed the sumptuous, traditional costumes).

Several disconcerting things happen during the music-making, though, which call too much attention to the concept, at the expense of “Nabucco” itself.

Do we really need the distraction, several times, of an attendant laboriously tending to a whole mess of footlights (especially when the level of illumination doesn’t discernibly change as he moves along)?

And, yes, opera-going in days of yore could involve a lot more than opera, but do we really need to see the upper-crusties break into ballroom dancing on their way to the boxes?

When we get to the opera’s most famous, most indelible moment, the stirring choral piece “Va, pensiero,” a potentially interesting switch to a backstage perspective strangely goes awry.

Too much stuff goes on -- wandering crew members, a ballet class rehearsal, the preparation of a lighted prop -- when all the attention should be focused squarely on that amazing music. At the very least, shouldn’t all those folks crammed into the scene register a visible reaction to the power of Verdi’s melody as it unfolds?

And what on earth is up with all the added action to the big Part Two scene for Abagaille, from monks praying in overly elaborate fashion to more monks in scream masks turning into whirling Babylonians? If I were the soprano trying to get through the demanding music, I’d be taking a swing at those nuisances crowding the stage.

Such things only pile unnecessarily onto what is otherwise an imaginative and engrossing theatrical approach to the opera. Speaking of unnecessary, three performances of “Va, penisero” in one night is one too many.

The idea of allowing an encore the first time around is understandable. It happened in 1842, even though encores had been banned by the authorities. It happens a lot to this day, especially at Italian opera houses. But Strassberger has also built an encore into a post-script for the production (don’t even think of dashing to the parking lot when at the last written note of this “Nabucco”).

It's offers one more way of underlining the implications of “Va, pensiero” when it was new, and what it can still mean to any yoked people yearning to be free. That’s all to the good, but not after the music has already been sung twice. Verdi, I suspect, would have considered that overkill.

Well, you can’t say that Strassberger doesn’t give you lots to think and argue about. I’ll take that any day over a bland staging.

On the vocal front, there is some weakness where it hurts. This low-male-voice-heavy opera can use firmer, richer sounds than Franco Vassallo, as Nabucco, and Burak Bilgili, as Zaccaria, summon (or summoned the night I heard them, when Vassallo also encountered some uncomfortable pitch problems in the early going).

In both cases, though, there is a great deal of expressive styling in the singing and, within the limitations of very old-fashioned opera characters, persuasive acting.

The standout among the principals is Csilla Boross as Abagaille, a role that makes treacherous technical demands. The soprano has a terrific set of pipes, with abundant fire at the top and gutsy power in the low and middle range. She can slice through an ensemble scene, easily, excitingly.

It’s not just an electric vocal performance; Boross brings abundant temperament and personality to a ruthless character made all the more imposing here with an entrance that involves slitting the throat of a prisoner. (Abagaille’s final scene is handled a lot less imaginatively; the repentant, self-poisoned woman just wanders off the stage.)

With her dark, smooth voice, Geraldine Chauvet makes an effective Fenena. Sean Panikkar puts considerable life into the underwritten tenor role of Ismaele with warm, vibrant singing.

The chorus is a leading character in this opera. Washington National’s choristers, prepared by Steven Gathman, rise to the occasion with cohesive, beautifully nuanced singing. A long-sustained pianissimo close of “Va, pensiero” is achieved in a most affecting fashion.

The orchestra digs into the score with panache. Guiding everyone along steadily is conductor Philippe Auguin, who has Verdi’s music seething with life from the get-go.

Performances of "Nabucco" continue through May 21.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

May 4, 2012

Magnetic performances from Marin Alsop, Leon Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony

Meyerhoff Hall was the place to be Thursday night.

In a Baltimore Symphony program of Ravel and Shostakovich conducted by Marin Alsop, the intensity started early and never really let up.

The result was music-making that rivaled the hottest nights of the orchestra's years with former music director Yuri Temirkanov.

Local favorite -- heck, local hero -- Leon Fleisher helped light the fuse at the top of the program as soloist in Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand.

The pianist was greeted with ...

a stirring roar from the crowd when he walked out and again when the performance ended.

For four decades, Fleisher was limited to such pieces as this, having lost the use of his right hand to focal dystonia. New treatments allowed him to resumed limited ambidextrous performances in recent years, but it was great to hear him on this occasion using only one.

With abundant physical power as needed and an equal amount of expressive sensitivity, Fleisher brought out the alternately earthy, impressionistic, jazzy elements of this brilliant and unusual work. Alsop provided sensitive, well-timed partnering from the podium and drew playing from the orchestra that sizzled.

There's something quite defiant underneath Ravel's concerto, commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm as a soldier in World War I. The music suggests an effort, by sheer force of will, to overcome obstacles, to stand proud.

Fitting, then, that the concerto should be paired on this program with a symphony that is also about defiance, struggle and pride, a symphony that also owes its existence to an international conflict started by Germany.

Shostakovich's Seventh, known as the "Leningrad" Symphony, was written while the composer's native city was under siege during some of the ugliest, darkest days of World War II. Imagery of that whole hideous episode seems to infuse every note.

The score's back story cannot help but make an impact, even when the music sometimes loses inspiration and focus. The net effect remains compelling because of the way Shostakovich invariably manages to tighten the inner drama at key moments, from the famous prolonged and malevolent crescendo in the first movement to the fiercely determined stance in the coda of the finale.

Alsop may not have this symphony threaded through her DNA, as her predecessor here, Yuri Temrikanov, does, but she revealed a firm grasp of its elusive structure and its extraordinary emotional content. There was a coherence, tautness and clarity in her approach on Thursday, as well as a palpable sense of involvement.

(If those who have been staying away from the BSO because they never got over Temirkanov's departure -- and you know who you are -- had been at this concert, they might have finally realized that the orchestra is in very capable hands with his successor.)

I particularly admired the pianissimo start Alsop assured for the first movement crescendo, with Brian Prechtl so delicately articulating the snare drum solo to underline the barely audible, weirdly banal tune that depicts the gradual approach of evil. Each subsequent increase in volume, like the cruel twisting of a knife, was superbly controlled.

Alsop continued to bring out telling details, from the second movement's hints of the woodwind shudders in the "Abschied" of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" to the Adagio's grim poetry. And the end of the symphony was made terrifically effective by the way the conductor held her forces in reserve until just the right moment to unleash the full, brassy fury.

Throughout, the BSO delivered. The strings summoned a good deal of tonal depth; the viola section sounded warm and expressive in the third movement solo. With few exceptions, the woodwinds did shining work, while the brass produced mighty, beautifully blended walls of sound.

Sunday's repeat of the program should be a knock-out, too. On Friday and Saturday, Alsop leads an "Off the Cuff" examination of the Shostakovich symphony.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

May 3, 2012

Rep Stage closes season with intriguing 'Las Meninas'

I'm not sure what is more intriguing about "Las Meninas," the 2002 Lynn Nottage play on the boards of Rep Stage -- the strange plot itself, or the fact that it might all be grounded in fact.

Seizing on some hard facts and tantalizing gossip from the time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nottage spins a tale of Louis XIV and his Spanish-born queen, Marie-Therese. When the neglected, frustrated queen receives an off-beat gift -- an African dwarf named Nabo -- things get curiouser and curiouser.

Adding to the fascination is the presence of a nun, Louise Marie-Therese, who serves as ..

a guide through the courtly doings in the play. Her connection to what happened between the queen and the dwarf provides a key element in the drama. (You can Google your way to more info on this character, aka the Black Nun of Moret.)

"Las Meninas" feels a bit padded in places and runs out of theatrical steam in others, but it makes its points about privilege, sex and race in a mostly telling, often wonderfully provocative way. There is considerable humor along the way, too, some of it visual and unabashedly vulgar.

The Rep Stage production, fluidly directed by Eve Muson, gains considerably from Elena Zlotescu's transparent set and fanciful costumes, which produce a symphony in fancy white. Dan Covey's expert lighting provides the finishing visual touch.

The performance by Katie Hileman, as the queen, is a little stiff and studied at times, but the net result is effective nonetheless. KeiLyn Durrel Jones, who has to spend a lot of time in a severely stooped position to suggest Nabo's height, creates a rather endearing portrayal of the queen's clever plaything.

Drew Kopas does a colorful job as the king. As Louise Marie-Therese, Fatima Quander tends to stick to one volume and tone of delivery, but she summons a good deal of expressive power for the closing portion of the play.

Susan Rome shines in a dual assignment as the Queen Mother and Mother Superior. Tony Tsendeas likewise does accomplished work in a pair of supporting roles. A frilly, foppish group of courtiers fills out the staging of this imaginative, multi-layered play.

Performances continue through Sunday.

In a nice coincidence of timing, a production of "Ruined," the piece that earned Nottage her Pulitzer in 2009, opens this week at the Fells Point Corner Theatre


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

May 2, 2012

Midweek Madness: The Supremes meet 'Mary Poppins'

With the national tour of "Mary Poppins" providing more than a spoonful of entertainment at the Hippodrome this week, I could not resist devoting the latest Midweek Madness segment to one of the hit tunes from that show.

Yes, I'm talking about that ...

supremely adorable (if you are of a certain age or mindset) or annoying (if you're like me) song with the unforgettable (hard as I try) word that means something too wonderful to contain in a few syllables.

And, yes, I have found the ultimate performance, by a divine Motown group that must have been forced into the recording studio for this:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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