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June 28, 2012

Baltimore Concert Opera founder to become general director of Opera Delaware

Brendan Cooke, founding general director of Baltimore Concert Opera, has been named general director of Opera Delaware. He starts on the new job July 10.

Cooke launched Baltimore Concert Opera three years ago when Baltimore Opera Company started its descent into bankruptcy and liquidation.

A baritone who sang regularly with Baltimore Opera and other companies, Cooke successfully built the new organization with the help of other local singers and opera fans.

There was little money to start, and no guarantee that audiences would come to un-staged performances with only piano accompaniment in the ballroom of the Engineers Club.

But the concept caught on, and the Baltimore Concert Opera has developed a loyal audience.

The organization plans to continue. Cooke will ...

"remain with BCO in an artistic capacity," according to a press release. Co-founder and board member Julia Cooke will become executive director.

Opera Delaware just finished its 67th season. In a statement, the company's board president, Tony Winchester, praised Cooke's "rich experience in administration, operations, fundraising and leadership" and called him "a standout candidate."

Baltimore Concert Opera board president Ben Schuman said he looked forward "to the possibility of creating synergies between the two companies in the future."

For his part, Cooke said in statement released by Opera Delaware that he is "truly humbled" to be chosen for the general director post. "I can’t wait to get started," he added.

FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

Centennial of conductor Sergiu Celibidache a reminder of poetic license

OK, I know -- I pay way too much attention to anniversary dates. Which reminds me: Why aren't people in Baltimore doing more to acknowledge the150th anniversary of Debussy's birth?

But I digress. Today's indulgence in backward glances has to do with Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, born June 28, 1912 (he died Aug. 14, 1996). I think it's safe to say that the general classical music-loving public in this country does not know much about the man or his work. But he is well worth discovering.

Active mostly in Europe -- he led the Berlin Philharmonic after the war until Furtwangler's return and later held posts with orchestras in Stockholm, Munich and elsewhere -- Celibidache became something of a cult figure over time. This was due both to ...

his music-making, which, often at very unhurried tempos, could not have been more different than that of his contemporaries, and his almost mystical philosophizing about the art.

I think the first time I became aware of him was reading ecstatic newspaper accounts of his U.S. conducting debut, which didn't occur until 1984 -- leading a student orchestra, albeit the top-notch one from the Curtis Institute, at Carnegie Hall. You knew from reading about the event that this was no ordinary conductor.

I find much to savor in Celibidache's recordings, even when, on rare occasions, the pace is too slow for me (as you know, I usually can accept any extremes). What I admire is the integrity of the interpretations, the sense of deep connection to the tissue and sinew beneath a score.

This extraordinary conductor practices the musical equivalent of poetic license, an unbridled freedom of how to shape a phrase, to control a movement, all in an aim to make the music more vital and communicative -- to the players as much as listeners.

On the occasion of his centennial, here's a little sampling of Celibidache and his art: Rehearsal footage that has bad sound and visuals, but provides a glimpse into the man's personality (and how he could make a daringly slow tempo seem sensible in the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth); and the final, uplifting measures of Bruckner's Eighth in a live performance:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:44 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 27, 2012

Midweek Madness: You gotta have a gimmick

As they sing in "Gypsy," "get yourself a gimmick and you, too, can be a star."

Here, for your Midweek Madness diversion, is a soprano who found her gimmick in ...

the "Laughing Song" from "Die Fledermaus":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness
        

June 26, 2012

Christina Scheppelmann to Oman, after artistic operations post at Washington National Opera

UPDATE 6/26: Word is that Christina Scheppelmann will become CEO of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman.

Christina Scheppelmann, the highly skilled, broadly knowledgeable and genial director of artistic operations for Washington National Opera, will depart Nov. 30 after a decade on the job.

Scheppelmann, hired by former WNO general director Placido Domingo, has been involved in putting together repertoire and casts, launching new projects (such as the American Opera Initiative), overseeing management of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, etc. According to the company's announcement Thursday, Scheppelmann will disclose "her forthcoming plans at a later date."

She is quoted as saying: “I owe thanks to ...

Plácido Domingo, to WNO’s great board, and to [Kennedy Center president] Michael Kaiser for all of their support. This company has a phenomenal staff and first-rate orchestra and chorus. It was for me such a great experience working with all of them ... After 10 years I will definitely miss WNO and D.C., but I am also very excited for the future.”

The press release included glowing words from company officials. Kaiser said that Scheppelmann's "hard work and diligence were key to making WNO’s recent affiliation with the Kennedy Center a success.”

WNO executive director Michael Mael noted that "she has brought many wonderful singers to Washington for the first time. We will continue to reap the rewards of her artistic leadership for seasons to come."

Before joining the D.C. company, the German-born Scheppelmann worked for San Francisco Opera, La Fenice in Venice and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Her credits also include serving on major vocal competition juries and appearing on the popular Metropolitan Opera Quiz.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

National Symphony Orchestra adds Oman to 2013 tour

While still traveling on its first tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra has just added a stop to the next one.

Word arrived Tuesday from Sao Paulo that the NSO will be visiting Oman next February, becoming the first major American orchestra to perform at the Royal Opera House Muscat. The soloist will be violinist Dan Zhu, performing Mozart’s Concerto No. 5.

The Oman concert extends the previously announced winter 2013 tour that begins on Jan. 31 and includes stops in Paris, two cities in Spain, four in Germany. The NSO is currently wrapping up its Americas tour, which has involved visits to Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO
        

On the centennial of Mahler's Ninth, a look at the embedded Strauss waltz

One hundred years ago -- June 26, 1912 -- Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the posthumous premiere of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9.

To mark this important anniversary, I think we should all find 90 minutes somehow and lose ourselves today in this music, which so profoundly sums up the composer's art and soul. A live performance may not be possible to find on the actual bicentennial date, but there is no shortage of excellent recordings.

The obvious one to seek out on such an occasion is ...

the one made live in 1938 with Walter leading the Vienna Philharmonic -- talk about a historic document. It was the first recording of the piece; it gives us a taste of what the 1912 premiere must have sounded like; and, chillingly, it documents a world that was about to be shattered a couple months later by the Nazis' move into Austria.

One element in Mahler's Ninth that has always fascinated me is the allusion in the first movement to a Johann Strauss waltz, "Freut Euch des Lebens," known in English as "Enjoy Life." Something about the work -- one theme in particular -- clearly meant much to Mahler.

Most people think of the Ninth as Mahler's farewell to life, not his determination to enjoy it. That darker view is probably the result of over-romanticism. The composer's most industrious biographer, Henry-Louis de la Grange, argues persuasively that Mahler was far from despondent and death-obsessed in his last years.

However you interpret the Ninth, the presence of those references to "Enjoy Life" adds one more incredibly poignant layer to this profound symphony.

Thanks to YouTube and an uploader identified as "mjd66," here's an audio tour of the connection between that uplifting Viennese waltz and the bittersweet opening movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, which was heard for the first time a century ago:

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

June 25, 2012

Rembering the art of composer/lyricist Richard Adler

The death last week of composer and lyricist Richard Adler at the age of 90 got a lot of us remembering the colorful Broadway scores that he created with Jerry Ross, "Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees."

The death of Mr. Ross at age 29 cut that inventive collaboration short, but those two shows were enough to assure both men lasting fame. Mr. Adler continued to write and produce -- he most famously staged the now iconic celebration for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden where Marilyn Monroe breathed "Happy Birthday."

I thought you might enjoy these reminders of Mr. Adler's gift -- the endearing ...

duet "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" with Eddie Foy Jr. and Rita Shaw from the film version of "Pajama Game"; Rosemary Clooney's classy, gently swinging version of "Hey There" from that same show (I don't think you'll mind the introductory banter); and Peggy Lee's irresistible, oh-so-1960, Latin-ized version of "Heart" from "Damn Yankees":

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
        

Olney Theatre Center's 75th season to include edgy plays, musicals

The Olney Theatre Center will celebrate a milestone in its distinguished history -- the 75th anniversary season -- with some edgier works than usual, reflecting the input of newly appointed artistic director Martin Platt.

Among Platt's stated goals is the "expanding and enriching" of programming, which has tended toward the conservative side lately (the current season includes a production of the vintage thriller "Sleuth" that will be followed by "Little Shop of Horrors").

Nothing conservative about the opening selection for the season in February 2013: "Spring Awakening," the rock-propelled, Tony-winning musical from 2006 about budding adolescent sexuality.

Two 1950s musicals are also slated: the largely forgotten "Carnival," based on the film "Lili" and featuring a song that enjoyed hit status for a time, "Love Makes the World Go Round"; and "Once Upon a Mattress," the charming vehicle that launched Carol Burnett's career.

A 2012 play by Jeff Talbott, "The Submission," is on the schedule. This "politically and racially charged" piece, Platt says, "will ...

make us a little uncomfortable in all the right ways."

The lineup also includes "Neville’s Island, A Comedy in Thick Fog," by Tim Firth, author of the popular play and film "Calendar Girls"; "Angel Street," the thriller that became better known as "Gaslight" in the classic movie version; an updating of Moliere's "Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite," complete with Euro-pop score; and two productions from the New York-based Bedlam Theatre, Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and Shaw's "Saint Joan."

The California-born Platt, who started on the Olney job in late May, has a broad background to draw upon as he sets about guiding the company's next act.

His resume includes stints as co-director of the Perry Street Theatricals in New York; founding artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; general director of Birmingham Opera Theatre, where his repertoire included the U.S. premiere of Verdi’s "Stiffelio"; and artistic director of the New Mexico Repertory Theatre.

PHOTO COURTESY OF OLNEY THEATRE CENTER

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

June 24, 2012

Olney Theatre revisits the twists and turns of 'Sleuth'

After more than 40 years, Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" holds up pretty well in the crime play genre.

Sure, it creaks a little here and there, but it still satisfies with its verbal sparring, its unashamed theatricality. That point is reiterated by the revival currently at the Olney Theatre Center.

The production's assets start with Cristina Todesco's handsome, white-dominated set design, complemented by Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting. It's far from the traditional British manor house.

Here, everything is sleek and chic, right down to a floor safe that pops open by remote control. The look is rather clinical, but ...

that fits the personality of Andrew Wyke, the toff-ish mystery novel writer who believes his mind to be noble and superior.

Wyke plans to demonstrate his acuity to Milo Tindle, a young man who has been invited over. After a minute or two of small talk, Wyke casually says to his guest, "I understand you want to marry my wife." Let the games begin.

Anyone who has seen "Sleuth" before on the stage or in its cinematic incarnation will likely find a return visit less of a thrill. Once you are in on plot's secrets -- a sign in the Olney lobby asks patrons not to reveal the ending to anyone else -- the interest lies more in how involving the cast is, how effectively the biggest twists and turns are executed.

At the performance I saw, actors hesitated over the occasional line and came up a few degrees short of genuine emotional heat in some key moments. At the risk of giving too much away, I should also mention that a scene involving a disguise is not quite convincing enough, which limits the crucial punch.

That said, there's an effective momentum overall in this production, guided by the company's outgoing artistic director Jim Petosa. And the play's biggest peaks, especially the Act 1 finale, are delivered with a good deal of flourish.

(Music plays a minor, telling role in the staging -- bubbly Rossini to launch the play, weightier Beethoven to underline the shifts in mood and consequence.)

Bob Ari fills out a smoking jacket authoritatively, but his portrayal Andrew doesn't always ring as true. He seems a little too spring-loaded early on, so the loss of cool later doesn't hit home as pointedly.

Still, Ari captures the character's preening, primping side neatly, and relishes the many tart zingers that animate the script ("Sex is the game, with marriage the penalty").

Jeffries Thaiss is adept at conveying Milo's mix of naivete, ambition and vulnerability. He also achieves considerable expressive nuance and power in the big Act 2 speech that turns a whodunit into a who-won-it.

"Sleuth" runs at Olney Theatre Center through July 8.

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:54 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

June 22, 2012

Shakespeare Theatre Company brilliantly stages two comic gems

If you want to take your mind off the heat or the presidential campaign or the tense wait for the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law, just head to either venue of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

I can't guarantee that you won't quickly resume your worries after attending "The Servant of Two Masters" at the Lansburgh Theatre or "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Sidney Harman Hall, but I defy you to remember any cares and woes while spending a few hours with the company's scintillant productions of these comic gems.

Adapted by Constance Congdon from Christina Sibul's translation of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century work (got all that?), "The Servant of Two Masters" is pure farce, insanely frantic and thick-plotted. The original material is strong enough to withstand any number of treatments -- a London National Theatre import called "One Man, Two Guvnors" is the talk of Broadway these days.

The version at STC is terrifically clever, offering a joy ride of witty dialogue and physical shtick that never runs out of steam. (Contemporary references, including mention of STC's potentially nasty battle with the Lansburgh Theatre's landlord, pop up along the way.)

Director Christopher Bayes masterfully puts his lively actors through their deftly timed paces all over Katherine Akiko Day's droll set, complemented by Valerie Therese Bart's dynamic costumes.

At the center of the action is ...

Stephen Epp as Truffaldino, the servant who finds himself working for two employers and getting caught up in all sorts of intrigues. With what might be a dash of Martin Short and a pinch of Charles Nelson Reilly, Epp offers a tour de farce, using every possible octave and dynamic level of his voice and practically every muscle in his body.

The rest of the ensemble jumps into the fray with panache. Particularly amusing flourishes come from Jesse J. Perez as Florindo, Danielle Brooks as Clarice and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone. The music by Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva played onstage adds a welcome vaudeville dimension to the proceedings.

Over at Harman Hall, things get nearly as farcical in a whirlwind production of "Merry Wives" that seems determined to prove that this is not, as commonly averred, one of Shakespeare's lesser, weakest works. They made a believer out of me. (Truth be told, I think Verdi and Boito managed to outdo the Bard in their opera "Falstaff," but that's another story.)

To begin with, the STC staging offers an inventive updating, not for the sake of updating (a common enough excuse these days), but for bringing out the issues of class -- especially middle class -- that fill the play. Placed in 1919, just after the Great War, this "Merry Wives" often seems like the comedy Wilde might have written to meet the demand for more drollery after "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Daniel Lee Conway's set design evokes a British music hall before the curtain rise; a lot of atmosphere gets conjured up in rapid fashion afterward, including a victory parade for returning troops amid the pealing of bells. Later on, Falstaff's followers arrive looking like they stepped out of the World War I episodes of "Blackadder"; Bardolph is clearly a cousin to Baldrick.

Such things add an entertaining spark, but director Stephen Rayne doesn't allow anything to overwhelm the material. The play's still the thing. And he draws from the cast vividly detailed and delineated characterizations, not to mention a bravura articulation of text.

David Schramm enjoys quite a romp as Falstaff, physically (he's every inch the part) and verbally, with many a basso profondo vocal flourish. The actor does not hide the pomposity or audacity of the fat old goat, but manages to bring out the rascally charm, too.

As the two victims of Falstaff's pecuniary advances, Veanne Cox (Meg) and Caralyn Kozlowski (Alice) do sparkling work, adding a layer of Noel Coward to the proceedings (aided by Wade Laboissonniere's elegant costumes).

Among the notable contributions from the rest of the ensemble are Amy Hohn, a super-buoyant Mistress Quickly; Michael Keyloun's foppish Slender; Tom Story's Doctor Caius, with a deliciously over-the-top French accent and a penchant for parfume; Floyd King as the prissy parson; and Mark J. Sullivan's dashing, motorbike-riding Fenton.

Light, bright and tight, both STC productions uncork plenty of humor and keep it flowing in fresh, invigorating ways. Ideal summer escapes.

"One Servant" runs through Jul 8, "Merry Wives" through July 15.

PHOTOS BY S. CHRISTIAN LOW ('One Servant') AND SCOTT SUCHMAN ('Merry Wives')

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

June 20, 2012

MIdweek Madness: A little something stupid, insipid and possibly insane

OK, Midweek Madness fans -- you ain't seen nothing yet.

I am almost sorry to unleash this one on you, because it could make your day feel quite unbalanced, and lead to some very disturbing dreams at night.

As you know, the illustrious Frank Sinatra occasionally slipped a little in the choice of musical material. One of his aesthetic plunges was ...

"Something Stupid," a duet with daughter Nancy. Their version was bad enough. But, oh, what horrors awaited when others decided to cover the insipid song.

Here's the ultimate (mis)interpretation. I don't know what I find scarier about this -- the way that the Lennon Sisters sing the words to stuffed animals; the way said sisters seem so Stepford; the tacky set (I just love the giant hotdog); or the whole, shattering reality that I've wasted nearly three minutes listening to such a wretched tune.

UPDATE: Folks with better memories of this song have pointed out some word changes, most egregiously turning "a drink or two" into "a dance or two." I guess it's easier to dance with stuffed animals than drink with them.

Enjoy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:49 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness
        

June 19, 2012

Baltimore Symphony names Fei Xie principal bassonist

Fei Xie, who joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in January 2008 as second bassoonist, has been named principal, effective at the start of the 2012-2013 season.

The appointment follows what is described as "an extensive search" by music director Marin Alsop and an audition committee to find a successor to Phil Kolker, who retired in 2010.

Xie becomes "the first Chinese bassoonist to hold the principal position in a major American symphony," according to a BSO statement released Tuesday.

He began his studies in China, where his parents are musicians in the Peking Opera.

He earned degrees from Oberlin College and Rice University. In addition to his orchestral work, he is a frequent chamber music player and is a founding member of an ensemble called the Black Sheep Bassoon Quartet.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:33 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

June 18, 2012

Next-day thoughts on Philip Glass' 'Overture for 2012'

If you blinked (metaphorically speaking), you might have missed "Overture for 2012," the new work by Philip Glass unveiled Sunday night in Baltimore and Toronto as part of events commemorating the War of 1812.

It seems the composer took the term "overture" at its most literal, fashioning a brief curtain-raiser of about five minutes.

The Baltimore and Toronto symphonies were expecting something closer to 12 (can they get a partial refund of the commission?).

I've heard from folks disappointed at how quickly the Glass piece flashed by. I, too, was surprised by the brevity, but, mostly, in ...

a good way. As soon as it was over, I thought: At last, a substitute for John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" when orchestras want to spice programs with a dash of minimalism.

Based on a single hearing (requests for an advance look at the score or admission to rehearsal were denied), I wouldn't put "Overture for 2012" on a par with that bravura Adams work. But the two items do have in common a persistent rhythmic drive and vivid orchestration, with similarities especially in the percussion batteries employed.

The trademark harmonic motion between a limited number of chords defines the overture as Glass-y; same for the way those chords are outlined. As for structure, the composer relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book -- a long, gradual crescendo -- to create tension in the last half or so of the score, when a cool, brassy scale-like theme emerges amid increasingly prismatic, kinetic swirls.

There's an effective uplift to the music, which the BSO delivered with considerable flourish Sunday night, expertly guided by Marin Alsop. 

I wouldn't mind a few more thematic ideas or changes of mood in the score, but the richness of sound and the spirit of the pulse certainly fit the festive nature of the occasion.

While the premiere provided a good opportunity for folks in Baltimore to remember one of the city's most illustrious sons, the concert also reminded me that the BSO has yet to perform something really big and weighty by Glass. I hope Alsop will program a symphony or concerto before long.

Even better, how about a concert version of one of the operas? I fear folks will be ice-skating on the Inner Harbor in July before we see "Satyagraha" staged at the Lyric.

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO BY ALGERINA PERNA

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 17, 2012

Barbara Cook and the art of song-styling in Kennedy Center concert

It's worth being reminded, from time to time, that our musical divinities are human after all.

Barbara Cook, who made her Broadway debut six decades ago and has long enjoyed living legend status, looked a little unsteady as she made her way with a cane onto the stage at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Friday night. (She told the audience she had been barely able to walk a few weeks earlier.)

She sounded a little unsteady, too, when she launched into her opener, "Let's Fall In Love," only to stop after a couple measures because she didn't like what she was hearing (or not hearing) through the monitors.

Even after things resumed, there were occasional unsettled moments, a few pitch slips, a bit of hoarseness. But you know what? None of that, absolutely none of it, mattered in the slightest.

First of all, Cook turns 85 this fall -- yes, 85. Many singers can't carry a tune well after 70. She still sets an amazing standard not just for vocal longevity, but also for artistic consistency.

Cook remains extremely important, even crucial, to our understanding of how to communicate through song. Any opportunity to be in her presence is to be treasured. It's that simple.

For about 80 minutes, the artist reaffirmed her stature (and her great sense of humor). Backed with sensitivity and stylish flair by pianist Ted Rosenthal and a trio of other first-rate players, Cook moved through a program rich in ...

standards, some of them new to her repertoire.

A couple of ballad pairings yielded disarming interpretations -- "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" with "It Had To Be You"; "The House of the Rising Sun" with "Bye Bye Blackbird" (these last two, Cook explained, are linked by having to do with houses of ill repute).

Even good old "Makin' Whoopee" seemed to get a whole new life from the telling way Cook articulated words and shaped phrases. Several items from the vintage Streisand songbook, among them "If I Love Again," "The Nearness of You" and "Lover Man," also turned up on the list, all delivered with considerable eloquence.

For her unamplified encore, Cook delivered John Lennon's "Imagine" with an affecting tenderness, casting quite a spell over an audience reluctant to let her go.

Earlier in the evening, Cook told the crowd, "I'm so glad I can still do this." We're all glad, too. And very, very grateful.

Cook gives a master class Monday evening at the Kennedy Center.

PHOTO BY DARRYL BUSH COURTESY BARBARACOOK.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 16, 2012

Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah on Queen's honors list

Kwame Kwei-Armah, the British-born playwright, director and actor who just wrapped up his first season as artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage, has received an OBE -- Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire -- from Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen's Birthday Honors List for 2012, released Saturday, recognizes achievement and service in a variety of fields, from government and journalism to philanthropy and the arts.

Kwei-Armah's, whose plays have been produced in London's Wets End to considerable acclaim, received the OBE "for services to Drama."  He will be presented with the honor at Buckingham Palace later this year. (An OBE is a couple steps below the top honor of knighthood, so he will not be known as Sir Kwame.)

UPDATE: In a statement released Monday, Kwei-Armah said: "My mother came from a tiny village in a small island in the Caribbean. If she were here today on this announcement, I perceive that it may have validated much of the pain, suffering and self-sacrifice she, my father, and many other family members of the Windrush generation went through to give their children a shot of living what I would of course call the West Indian dream, but what is in fact, the immigrant’s dream.

"A dream that although far from complete, has made our country a warmer, more equitable place than it was when they first arrived on its shores. It is with this narrative at the forefront of my mind that I say I am truly humbled to have been given this award."

His plays include "Elmina's Kithcen" and "Let There Be Love," both of which were produced at Center Stage, where Kwei-Armah's latest work will be premiered next season.

He was named artistic director of the company in 2010, succeeding Irene Lewis.Among those from the arts and culture world on the 2012 Queens Birthday Honors List receiving knighthoods are ...

actor Kenneth Branagh, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Michael Boyd, and opera director David McVicar.

Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet received a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). Jean Marsh, co-creator of the beloved TV series "Upstairs, Downstairs" received an OBE, as did English National Opera music director Edward Gardner.

PHOTO COURTESY CENTER STAGE

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
        

June 15, 2012

Searing revival of 'The Normal Heart' opens at Arena Stage

Plays do not come much more polemical than "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's impassioned indictment of government, media, doctors -- the whole world, really -- for ignoring a deadly disease that started claiming the lives of gay men in in the early 1980s.

But plays do not come much more shattering, either.

That there is still much to rage against is driven home both by the revival of "The Normal Heart" that opened Thursday at Arena Stage and the "Please Know" leaflet from Kramer being distributed outside the theater after performances -- "Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule ... that there most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanely expensive ... that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greed nightmares ever loosed on humankind ..."

Kramer, clearly, has lost none of the fire that consumed him when the virus began its hideous march. It does not say much for the rest of us that, just as he seemed a lone voice crying out in a frightening wilderness, he still stands out from the alternately complacent and timid crowd, challenging, shaming, pleading.

When Kramer set about ...

channeling his anger and frustration into a dramatic vehicle, little was known about the mysterious virus, let alone how to treat it. The action in "The Normal Heart" starts with the summer of July 1981, when the number of known fatalities was 41. Today, 35 million human beings have been taken.

It is impossible not to feel that appalling weight of hindsight when revisiting the play now. You want to scream right along the the character based on Kramer, scream at the jerky assistant in the New York mayor's office, at the closeted gays who just won't be pushed into public action, at the NIH official who turns down a request for research funds.

Kramer captured with remarkable skill the complex issues that swirled around the gradual dawning of a major crisis. What he also did, it turns out, is create a play that can hold up nearly three decades after its Off Broadway premiere in 1985, hold up theatrically and emotionally. It's still a punch to the stomach. It's still a major tear-inducer.

But, in addition to the sobs heard in the audience on opening night, there were a lot of laughs, too -- nervous ones, no doubt, in many cases, but also plenty of genuine ones. Although the work is heavy with expository material in the first act and heated, preachy arguments later on, there is wit to go with the wisdom, camp to go with consternation.

The power of this revival -- based on last year's acclaimed Broadway premiere directed by George C. Wolfe (Leah C. Gardiner is the re-staging director for the Arena production) -- comes from a cast that makes lines loaded with facts and messages sound as natural as the conversational dialogue.

The characters in this tragedy, based on real people, are fleshed out superbly, starting with Patrick Breen as the thinly disguised Kramer, here called Ned Weeks.

Breen, who had a smaller role in the Broadway staging, steps into the lead with flair. Ned is like a gay Woody Allen one minute -- overly chatty, awkward and self-effacing when facing a guy who's interested in him -- and a royal pain the next, on a tear about the unhelpful mayor or the lack of interest from the New York Times. Breen puts that hot-cold, sweet-sour mix across with considerable nuance.

Luke McFarlane shines as Felix, the Times reporter who falls for Ned and is gradually pulled into the struggle, only to face his own personal battle with the creeping threat.

The rest of the ensemble proves equally appealing, with especially telling work from John Procaccino as Ned's conflicted brother Ben; Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy, a young Southern charmer who quickly gets mobilized into Ned's avenging force; and Patricia Wettig as Dr. Brookner, who tries to cope with an emergency she cannot understand and a medical establishment she cannot change.

David Rockwell's stark set neatly serves the fast-paced action and, with the astute use of projections, helps to drive home the mounting toll of the plague.

This welcome production is not an easy sit -- "The Normal Heart" beats at an extraordinarily intense rate -- but it's an essential one.

The production runs through July 29.

PHOTOS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

A reminder of superb pianistic art 50 years after Alfred Cortot's death

Fifty years ago -- June 15, 1962 -- Alfred Cortot died, leaving behind a benchmark for pianistic artistry.

Say what you will about his dropped or sloppy notes, the guy could play. And he could make a piano sing like few other pianists of his day or since. Today's hot shots, typically more concerned with speed and volume than style, would do well to spend time with Cortot's recordings (not to mention those of Moiseiwitsch, Gieseking and some other amazing musicians of yore).

Here are three examples of Cortot's playing that easily demonstrate -- even through the primitive sound quality -- his distinctive sense of phrasing, color and tempo:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 14, 2012

Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates legacy of Leopold Stokowski

A century ago, a London-born conductor with Polish and Irish roots received a conducting offer from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He accepted, and a golden age of music-making began.

This month, the centennial of Leopold Stokowski's association with the orchestra is being celebrated with four concerts led by its dynamic music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The performances will be held at the Academy of Music, which the Philadelphia Orchestra called home for its first 100 years (some folks may never forgive the ensemble for moving into the Kimmel Center down the street).

It's a great opportunity to be reminded of one of the first superstar conductors. If part of the attraction had to do with ...

his striking looks and his ability to fuel publicity (three marriages, one of them to a much younger Gloria Vanderbilt, and a fling with Greta Garbo didn't hurt), Stokowski's reputation ultimately was made by his artistic imagination, his ability to produce magic from tone.

He developed the "Philadelphia Sound" -- based on the lushness of the string section -- and applied that sound to a remarkable range of repertoire (too remarkable for some ladies on the board who complained about "debatable music"). He also stepped into celluloid history with the 1940 Disney classic "Fantasia," which further sealed his lasting fame.

The "Stokowski Celebration" will offer a snapshot of the conductor's tenure in Philadelphia. The performances will be accompanied by special visual effects, a nod to his own experimentation with stage lighting at concerts.

At 8 p.m. June 21, Nézet-Séguin leads the orchestra in Dvorak’s "New World" Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Sheherazade." A 2 p.m. matinee on June 22 features works from Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra debut (Oct. 11, 1912): Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Ippolitov-Ivanov’s "Caucasian Sketches," and Wagner’s "Tannhauser" Overture.

Music from "Fantasia," with scenes from the movie projected overhead, will be performed during a family concert at 11:30 a.m. June 23.

The final concert, at 8 p.m. June 23, is audience choice -- a practice Stokowski started. Philadelphia Orchestra fans got a chance to vote on selections a few months ago. The results are pure Stokowski, including his arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Dukas' "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"; Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite and Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Given the enticing lineup, I think that, as W. C. Fields might say, all things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia next week.

Here's a taste of the Stokowski-Philadelphia legacy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 13, 2012

Washington National Opera sets first season of American Opera Initiatives

Washington National Opera's laudable commissioning project, American Opera Initiative, will kick off in the fall with the premiere of three 20-minute works, followed in summer 2013 by an hour-long piece.

All of the operas deal with American characters and subject matter; all will be performed in English.

The premiere trio will take place on Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center. "The Game of Hearts," with music by Douglas Pew and libretto by Dara Weinberg, is described as "a ...

 

comedic opera about a group of widows in a Seattle nursing home."

"Part of the Act," composed by Liam Wade to a libretto by John Grimmett, is also comic, dealing with a backstage battle of actresses in a New York vaudeville house in 1924.

And "Charon," by Scott Perkins (composer) and Nat Cassidy (librettist), offers "an allegorical tale of the ferryman of the River Styx and the cross-section of American characters he transports from the land of living to the world beyond."

The hour-long opera, to be unveiled in June 2013, is "The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story)" by composer and Baltimore School for the Arts alum D.J. Sparr and librettist Davis Miller. The story involves a reporter’s encounter with the boxing great.

PHOTO OF D.J. SPARR COURTESY OF DJSPARR.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera
        

Midweek Madness: The glittering Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth's delectable concert here in Baltimore over the weekend still has me in an upbeat mood (well, as upbeat as I ever get these days), so I figured another dose of her charm would be worth seeking and sharing with my peeps.

In keeping with the spirit of Midweek Madness, I decided that the ideal Chenoweth dosage would have to be the ...

insanely brilliant aria from Bernstein's "Candide" -- "Glitter and Be Gay" (or Gay-Friendly). And, yes, that's Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop leading the New York Phil in this high-voltage clip.:

 

 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:47 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness
        

June 12, 2012

Baltimore Museum of Art seeking new music for smartphone tour

The Baltimore Museum of Art is seeking original music for a smartphone tour that will be introduced when the Contemporary Wing reopens in the fall.

To be eligible, composers, sound artists, musician collectives, etc., have to be least 18 years old and based in the Baltimore region.

Between three and five applicants will be selected; each will receive a $300 award, acknowledgement on the mobile tour and an opportunity to perform at the re-opening activities.

Applicants are asked to ...

"send a brief statement on why they are interested in this project and one 30-second sample of original music in an mp3 format not exceeding 8 MB" (or send links to existing sites where the music can be downloaded.)

Short, original compositions are desired for use as audio interludes and interstitials on the tour that will be accessed via smart phones by visitors in the renovated Contemporary Wing.

The deadline for submission is 5 p.m. June 29. Winners will be selected July 6. They will have until Sept. 4 to deliver the music. For more details, check out the BMA's announcement.

SUN STAFF PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 11, 2012

Stellar mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens marks her 99th birthday

Too often when I write about great singers of past days, it is to announce their deaths. So let me hasten to note the 99th birthday of Rise Stevens, the eminent American mezzo-soprano, born in New York June 11, 1913.

With a plush voice and an instantly engaging manner of phrasing, she became one of the most popular opera stars of the 1940s and '50s, especially acclaimed for her portrayal of Carmen and Dalila. No wonder her dynamic stage personality was also appreciated by Hollywood.

These vintage examples capture the Rise Stevens allure very well, I think: a TV performance of "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from "Samson et Dalila" and a clip from her 1941 film with ...

Nelson Eddy, "The Chocolate Soldier" ("I Love Lucy" fans who, like me, know this aria only from Ethel's indelible version will kindly refrain from laughter):

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

Eschenbach, NSO cap season with searing account of Tchaikovsky's Fifth

Tchaikovsky sure got a workout over the weekend.

While his Violin Concerto was undergoing impulsive, idiosyncratic treatment from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in season-closing performances with the Baltimore Symphony, the composer's Symphony No. 5 was being given an extremely intense approach from conductor Christoph Eschenbach in his season finale with the National Symphony.

Both interpretations would have distressed listeners used to more mainstream choices of tempo and phrasing. I can't imagine anyone ending up feeling neutral about either -- and that's a good thing, surely.

Eschenbach's version of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Friday night at the Kennedy Center was notable, above all, for the way the conductor ratcheted up its soulful, surging qualities.

Slow parts were extra slow, fast bits extra fast, lyrical passages extra passionate, climactic spots extra forceful. (I was reminded more than once of Rostropovich's approach to this music then he led the NSO way back when.)

There was something very personal about this performance, a sense that ...

Eschenbach was living the music as he shaped it. This came through with particularly compellingly impact in the second movement, as the mood shifted from tender to troubled.

The conductor's elongated phrases heated the tension to an extraordinary degree as the music crested, and he had the orchestra with him every note of the way, pouring out a deep, dark tone. To say it was almost unbearable is in no way a complaint. This was edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it was thrilling.

The waltz movement was taken at a spacious pace, accentuating the slightly bittersweet character. The finale had a telling weightiness even when the pulse quickened. Eschenbach, it seems, agrees with those who feel there is more to this sweeping, major-chord affirmation than meets the ear, a layer of doubt or illusion.

The rapport between conductor and orchestra was impressive to hear throughout the Tchaikovsky. So was the lushness of the strings, the vibrancy of the woodwinds and (a few minor exceptions aside) the clarity and bite of the brass.

Things clicked, too, at the start of the evening in a propulsive, yet always lyrical, charge through Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture.

In between the two repertoire standards came a less often encountered item, Lalo's Cello Concerto, which last appeared on an NSO program more than two decades ago. It's a piece that strives a little too hard to be bold and meaty at times, but with an overriding elegance and flashes of atmospheric color that carry the day.

Claudio Bohorquez, a cellist with Peruvian and Uruguayan roots who will join the NSO on its Latin American tour that starts this week, was the persuasive soloist. His burnished tone and refined phrasing had the music singing nicely, while Eschenbach encouraged supple, colorful support from the ensemble.

Orchestras about to go on tour typically try out their encores on the hometown crowd first, so this concert had one -- a fun dash through the "Thunder and Lightning" Polka by Strauss.

PHOTO (by Christine Schneider) COURTESY OF CLAUDIOBOHORQUEZ.COM

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

June 10, 2012

Kristin Chenoweth casts spell in concert for Hippodrome Foundation

If you ever wondered why there's so much fuss over Kristin Chenoweth, you need only to have been at the Hippodrome Theatre Saturday night.

This stop on her first national concert tour found the physically diminutive, artistically towering singer/actress in brilliant form.

The event, a benefit for the Hippodrome Foundation's valuable education and outreach activities, drew a big, happy and clearly Chenoweth-devoted crowd.

(Not sure why Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was wearing what appeared to be an 1812-era military uniform -- bicentennial fever? -- but he sure looked dashing.)

The Chenoweth vehicle is more a two-act show than a mere concert.

Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, the mostly well-paced production features the star in a hefty sampling of repertoire from her career and her current country-flavored album, along with a whole lot of humor -- much of it self-deprecating ("When I was little" -- pause "--er").

Saturday's performance found Chenoweth in sterling vocal form. I was reminded more than once during the evening of ...

Kathleen Battle (in her prime, not her eccentric years). Like Battle, Chenoweth has a remarkably pure, sweet tone -- there's terrific personality inside the sound of the voice itself -- and a sure technique that can negotiate just about any hurdle.

I was particularly taken with her eloquent delivery of the ballads on the program, among them Kander and Ebb's "My Coloring Book," the Jerome Kern classic "All the Things You Are" and Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."

Until hearing Chenoweth's haunting version, I didn't think I could ever sit through "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables" without gagging on its triteness. She made it sound Schubert-worthy.

(I do wish the singer had resisted the tendency to finish lyrical numbers with a crescendo to forte; a soft ending can be so much more affecting.)

Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Comes Again No More" doesn't really need the propulsive assist from Andrew Lippa's arrangement, but Chenoweth tapped the ever-resonant power of the melody and lyrics. And she sure was in her element when she jolted the house with a high-powered version of a Christian anthem, "Upon This Rock" -- after thoughtfully advising nonbelievers that it "will be over in four minutes."

Music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell did admirable playing at the piano and had the small orchestra purring nicely. (The sound system unfortunately emphasized the treble range, one area that needed no boosting with Chenoweth in the house.)

An attractive supporting trio -- Tyler Hanes, Chelsea Packard, Will Taylor -- moved seamlessly in and out of the picture to provide supple vocal, choreographic and comedic support.

Chenoweth held the Hippodrome in the palm of her hand all evening, and gave every indication that she was genuinely happy to be there -- an impromptu snippet from "Hairspray" and a mention that her adoptive mother came from Baltimore made the star seem all the more at home. If we're really, really lucky, she'll be back soon.

FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:42 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Hippodrome
        

June 8, 2012

BSO showcases Kevin Puts, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and itself

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is wrapping up its 2011-12 season in extraordinary fashion with a program rich in musical substance -- and some good old-fashioned, over-the-top entertainment value.

The big news is the local premiere of Symphony No. 4 by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Conservatory faculty member who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music. The BSO has featured his work a few times before, but shorter pieces. It was rewarding to get a substantive dose this time.

The Fourth Symphony, from 2007, has an intriguing origin.

Subtitled "From Mission San Juan," it was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, headed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, and intended to honor a patron's ailing wife. Written expressly for performance in the San Juan Bautista Mission, the music is loosely based on songs of the Mutsun people who were there before the Spanish came.

It is easy to savor this lushly lyrical work without knowing any of that background, for Puts writes in such a clear-cut, instantly engaging manner, and organizes his thoughts into such sturdy structures.

The symphony offers quite an atmospheric experience. It is perhaps too cliched to talk about a journey, but that's what the work suggests, a sometimes bittersweet journey at that, but one where darkness is satisfyingly swept aside by a palpable radiance in the end.

The composer's mastery of orchestration is revealed at every step of the way, especially his ability to produce glittering effects.

The Prelude opens in mist, with ...

a plaintive theme emerging in a deliberately blurry manner (Puts intended to capitalize here on the mission's reverberation); it's as if memories are being slowly jogged. Low brass chords of Wagnerian portent flash out along the way, a contrast to Vaughan Williams-like lushness from the strings.

The narrative shifts gears in the second movement, with the arrival of folk dance rhythms and piquant instrumental coloring, evoking Mutsun culture. The way the increasingly lively material is eventually challenged by a stately hymn tune suggests that the pagans are determined to get one more good romp in before the missionaries clamp down.

The symphony then turns ruminative in an Interlude, with reflections on themes from the opening. A gradual increase in tension leads into a striking passage of turbulence that finds the strings practically screaming against an assault of brass.

This provides the set-up for a striking contrast, "Healing Song," which brings with it a genuine OMG moment.

Puts offers here a long, darkly beautiful melody that starts in a low register and keeps winding around the first note -- it's Rachmaninoff-meets-Native American, and it's incredibly stirring. Maybe even healing. This music sure does sound like it would be good for whatever ails you.

Alsop, who conducted the premiere of the symphony at Cabrillo, led an absorbing performance with the BSO Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall. Reflective passages were spaciously shaped; the second movement's burst of energy crackled nicely. The orchestra responded with playing of considerable expressive weight.

(Harmonia Mundi is recording the Puts symphony during these concerts. Alsop's request that the audience pause a couple seconds before applauding at the end, so the producers could get a clean take, when unheeded Thursday.)

The remainder of the program is devoted to chestnuts, each given a memorable performance.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto provides an opportunity to be reminded of just how out-in-left-field Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg can be.

During the orchestral introduction, the violinist suggested an anxious batter waiting for the pitch, rolling her shoulders and  shifting her feet before playing her first notes in the concerto. And what notes they were.

Salerno-Sonnenberg has always been a provocative musician, unafraid to twist a melody this way and that, to rush or slow a tempo as the mood strikes. Volatility is her strength (those who can't stand artistic license would call it her failing).

She milked the opening solo for all it was worth, making everyone wait for the orchestra to come back in -- just the first of the exaggerated effects. She proceeded through that movement with an abundance of slides, enough for a dozen fiddlers, and no end of phrase-bending before stretching out the cadenza to a glacial pace.

All of this is quite normal for Salerno-Sonnenberg. There's a sense of danger when she plays -- will she go too far? will she leave conductor and orchestra in the dust? -- and that's something you just don't find every day in the concert hall.

You don't see a standing ovation every day after the first movement of a concerto, either, and you shouldn't. But you also couldn't blame all the folks who jumped up Thursday night at the wrong time. It must have seemed like a whole concerto had been played, since so much wild, eventful stuff had happened.

The violinist yelled out, "Sorry, but the piece isn't over," and got back to business, delivering a rapt account of the Canzonetta and then tearing into the finale at a ferocious clip.

From her pianissimos of startling refinement and sweetness to her brutal slashes of the bow, Salerno-Sonnenberg made Tchaikovsky's well-worn concerto sound wildly new, even radical. (The way the violinist's hair covered up so much of her face as she played, making her look rather like Cousin Itt from "The Addams Family," only added to the unconventional effect.)

I wouldn't want to hear the piece played this way all the time, but there should always be a place for artists who want to choose their own path. Alsop, who had no apparent difficulty going along with the violinist, drew taut, vivid work from the BSO.

Stravinksy's "The Rite of Spring" closed the concert. All season long, it has been possible to sense a strengthening of the musical rapport between Alsop and the players. Thursday's performance was the most compelling evidence yet.

The confidence and virtuosity from the podium and the stands alike came through with each quick shift of tempo or dynamics. But this was much more than a case of technical precision.

There was visceral passion in this performance, a sense of spontaneity and just plain enjoyment emanating from the stage. An extra intensity in the articulation, an extra kick behind the phrasing helped make the score sound freshly revolutionary and primordial.

The concert repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff

KEVIN PUTS PHOTO BY R.R. JONES; NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN STEINER

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:35 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

Teaser review: Baltimore Symphony season finale

I am under the gun, dear readers, with other tasks, but I wanted to sneak in this quick word of advice about the Baltimore Symphony's season finale: Don't miss it. If the remaining performances get any hotter than last night's, fire marshals may have to be summoned.

OK, so maybe I'm being a wee bit theatrical ("Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize," as they say in "Master Class"). But, seriously folks, take this concert -- please.

For one thing, you'll get to hear a richly atmospheric, deeply lyrical symphony by Kevin Puts, this year's Pulitzer-winner for music.

There's also an interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg that you'll have to hear to believe (I heard it, and I still don't believe it). 

And, as if that's not enough for one program, there's an account of Stravinksy's "Rite of Spring" that sets a new benchmark for Marin Alsop's tenure with the BSO.

I'll have more to say about all of this -- I know these few paltry lines won't satisfy you -- as soon as I can.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

June 6, 2012

Vagabond Players stages 'Souvenir,' story of incomparable Florence Foster Jenkins

Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” being given an appealing production by the Vagabond Players, conjures up the real-life character — and I do mean character — Florence Foster Jenkins in all her audacity and peculiar charm.

This banker’s daughter from Wilkes-Barre became a famed New York socialite who fancied herself a soprano and, to the amazement of many, gave concerts for decades on behalf of her favored charities.

That Florence died at 76 one month after a blissful, music-mangling pinnacle — her standing-room-only Carnegie Hall recital in 1944 — only added to the myth. “Unique” is just too bland a word for her. 

“Souvenir” does not attempt to ...

gloss over the absurdity of this chapter in human folly, or to make anyone feel guilty for finding Florence awfully funny. But it’s an ultimately affectionate look at the woman and the faith she had in herself. As she memorably put it: “Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing.”

A cruel play would be pointless. Florence was not a cruel woman. She tended, it seems, to see the best in everything. She even managed to deflect the guffaws she sometimes heard, mostly from newcomers (experienced fans knew to stick handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle the laughs), and concentrate instead on the smiles and cheers in the house.

Temperley gives us a disarmingly sure, but fragile, woman who contemplates singing “Lucia di Lammermoor” with a Scottish burr (what a delicious sonic image); questions “this modern mania for accuracy”; and manages to get an unsuspecting pianist, Cosme McMoon, to put aside qualms and collaborate with her.

A modest success in 2005 on Broadway, where it provided an ideal vehicle for the vibrant Judy Kaye (she reprised the role in a 2009 Center Stage production), “Souvenir” presents considerable challenges to any actress portraying Florence. To begin with, there’s the task of singing badly — not as easy as it may sound.

Sherrionne Brown handles the wobbly warbling with terrific aplomb for the Vagabonds, each errant note propelled with delicious abandon, each phrase given the full, impassioned treatment. She’s a nuanced actress, too, capable of making Florence seem not just disarmingly quirky (she uses a finger to extract the last drop of wine from a glass), but also quite touching.

In the second act of “Souvenir,” centered around the Carnegie concert, Brown does an impressive job tearing into number after over-the-top musical number. She’s even more impressive afterward, getting to the heart of the matter in Florence’s poignant plea, “I am not a silly woman.”

When the play requires Brown to sing properly (this scene is Temperley’s most inspired idea), she comes up a little short, but that’s a minor disappointment. What counts is that Brown summons the very quality that Florence treasured and assumed she had in spades — expressiveness.

The role of McMoon, who serves as guide though a series of flashbacks, is portrayed by Scott D. Farquhar. He’s an amiable presence, but his acting isn’t entirely persuasive. And his piano playing is not as smooth and stylish as it needs to be to make the contrast with Florence richly pronounced.

Director Roy Hammond keeps things flowing nicely. Tony Colavito’s set design summons just enough atmosphere, aided by Bob Dover’s lighting, and costume designer Ann Mainolfi has assembled a vivid parade of outfits for the sweetly deluded diva.

"Souvenir" runs through July 1.

PHOTO BY KEN STANEK

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

Iron Crow Theatre offers telling production of 'The Typographer's Dream'

The three people in Adam Bock’s “The Typographer’s Dream” want to believe they made wise, satisfying career choices, but they’re not really so sure about that, or anything, by the end of the play.

This slender, but absorbing, work, which has been effectively staged by Iron Crow Theatre, showcases the writer’s gift not just for language, but for speech — the pauses, repetitions, nervous stutters that are part of everyday conversation.

Bock also understands human nature, the walls and bridges we build, the blinders we put on, the defense mechanisms we adopt. One more thing -- the playwright can be very funny, too.

“The Typographer’s Dream” starts off like some sort of oddball panel discussion about professions; the house lights are undimmed, emphasizing the non-theatrical environment (Conor Mulligan designed the set).

Eventually, things look more play-like, but ...

the enhanced sense of intimacy remains as the characters gradually impart information, secrets, advice (not all of it sought or welcomed).

Annalise (Jenny Male) is a Canadian geographer obsessed with boundary lines have emerged on the grizzled face of the earth, and how her chosen field has been cheapened by the way schools blend it into “social studies.” Margaret (Sarah Ford Gorman), in librarian clothes and sensible shoes, sounds a little bored by, yet still strangely addicted to, the process of choosing type and seeing it “kiss the paper.”

Dave (Steve J. Satta-Fleming) is a stenographer/court reporter terribly proud of each calibrated aspect of his work, unaware that his own personality has become rather like the machine he uses to capture every word in court.

The 75-minute play is fueled not by a traditional narrative, but by linguistic vibrancy and, in a well-timed twist, revelations about how the trio of “-ographers” are connected personally, how various factors threaten their friendship (Dave’s unseen boyfriend has a critical part in this).

The three variously challenged souls end up questioning the ways that they are defined by their jobs, at the workplace and beyond, the ways they communicate — or don’t (Dave has a really big problem using personal pronouns). These are not necessarily the deepest of issues, but we’ve all faced them, and Bock makes them freshly relevant in this imaginative play.

The Iron Crow cast, sturdily directed by Michele Minnick, gets a particular boost from Male’s dynamic, finely nuanced work as the ever-so-slightly manic Annalise. Gorman is likewise telling. She captures the mix of timidity and wonder that make Margaret so intriguing; when she goes silent mid-sentence, you can hear the wheels spinning inside her tense, uncertain mind.

Satta seems a little too buttoned-up at times, but he makes Dave a sympathetic soul who, like the others, is trying to cope in a world where words and demarcations matter, but where things unsaid and unsettled turn out to matter more.

"The Typographer's Dream" runs through June 16.

PHOTO BY KATIE ELLEN SIMMONS-BARTH

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

Midweek Madness: Liberace, Dusty Springfield, Phyllis Diller and glamor (?)

Watch "Mad Men" and you might think the '60s were totally, consistently cool. Think again.

I offer this case in point for your Midweek Madness diversion -- a big production number from '60s TV that would have had Don Draper rushing for the channel knob.

Here are Liberace, Phyllis Diller, Dusty Springfield and Millicent Martin (whoever she was), trying to celebrating vintage glamor. If you can, hold on until the end, if only to see how Liberace gets to be the center of attention:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness
        

June 5, 2012

National Symphony to tour Europe in early 2013 with Eschenbach

For the second time in the space of only eight months, the National Symphony Orchestra will go on tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

The NSO will visit two cities in Spain and four in Germany before ending the trip with a concert in Paris. Repertoire will include works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Strauss.

Soloists will be violinist Julia Fischer in a Mozart concerto and pianist Tzimon Barto playing Bartok.

In a statement released Tuesday, Eschenbach said that, from the beginning of his appointment, he "wanted to bring this great orchestra to the attention of the world.

"To be making our second international tour so quickly after our first is tribute to the wonderful musicians of the NSO, and to our work together,” the conductor said.

Next week, the NSO heads off to visit Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in its first tour with Eschenbach, who, in his two seasons so far, has given the orchestra a considerable artistic boost.

FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO
        

June 4, 2012

Russian entertainer Eduard Khil, famed for his "Trololo" song, dies at 77

Sad news from Russia. Eduard Khil, the entertainer who became an Internet sensation through a Soviet-era video, died Monday in St. Petersburg from complications of a stroke. He was 77.

Like zillions of others, I found his performance of the so-called "Trololo" song irresistible, even before I learned its background -- the original, sentimental lyrics about a cowboy heading back to the girl left behind were considered too pro-American by Soviet authorities, so Mr. Khil turned the tune into a vocalise.

Personally, I find that story a little hard to believe, but, hey, I don't care how the song came to be, or what it was supposed to be about. I'm just glad it was preserved.

When video from the 1970s of a broadly smiling Mr. Khil performing his hit began floating on the Web about three years ago, it soon went viral. According to news reports, Mr. Khil learned of his new fame and savored it.

Just the other day, I found a recent performance of "Trololo" and posted it as part of my Midweek Madness series. If you missed it, check it out. This guy definitely had something. I'm not sure what it was, but he sure had it in abundance.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 3, 2012

In today's Sun, interview with Pulitzer winner Kevin Puts

If you didn't spot this elsewhere on the Sun's Web site (I would feel just awful if you missed it), there's an interview with this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for music, Kevin Puts.

His Symphony No. 4 gets its Baltimore premiere this week.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

June 2, 2012

Conductor Gunther Herbig leads Baltimore Symphony with Old World charm

Given the rude, crude, perfunctory way of the world these days, the time may well come when no one remembers or appreciates Old World charm -- in any form.

Musically, Old World charm involves elegance and genuineness of expression, a refined sense of proportion, and a certain something hard to define -- the aural equivalent of a twinkle in the eye.

At 80, veteran conductor Gunther Herbig provides a great example of all those traits.

A frequent Baltimore Symphony podium guest, Herbig is back for what, on paper, looks like an awfully ordinary program -- Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- but there was nothing routine Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall. Old World magic filled the air from the get-go.

At the start of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, just the way Herbig had the violins articulating the opening theme spoke volumes about style, with beautifully modulated gradations of dynamics giving the familiar music renewed eloquence.

The tempo in that movement was spacious (by today's rhythmic standards for Mozart), but ...

not devoid of tension. Same for the Andante, here more of a rapt adagio, gently sculpted by the conductor and warmly phrased by the ensemble.

The remainder of the symphony -- a truly vigorous Menuetto, a stiff-shoulder finale -- proved just as freshly engaging.

At the center of this program, which provides a mini-music history lesson in 30 years of Viennese musical life, is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Jonathan Biss, a pianist of considerable gifts, is a great choice for the solo duties. He has technique to burn and a tone that, even when pushed, is never harsh. There's a sense of spontaneity and discovery in his playing, perfect for Beethoven.

Last night, Biss delivered a richly satisfying account of the concerto, poetic and impassioned, and he enjoyed supple collaboration with Herbig and the BSO. (Presumably, none of the musicians could hear the distraction those of us in the house had to endure throughout the Beethoven, including the sublime Largo -- a loud conversation carried on, from what I gathered later, by a hall employee in the sound booth. Oy.)

The concert closed with Schubert's Symphony No. 6, a score brimming with Shirley Temple cheeriness and a splash of muscle-flexing. Herbig's tempos allowed the ingratiating melodies to blossom sweetly and his attention to detail, especially dynamic levels, meant that the myriad colors in the orchestration could be fully savored. The orchestra responded with sparkling, buoyant playing.

The program will be repeated Saturday night at the Meyerhoff.

PHOTOS OF JONATHAN BISS (by Jillian Edelstein) AND GUNTHER HERBIG COURTESY OF BSO 

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:36 PM | | Comments (0)
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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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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