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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

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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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