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September 30, 2012

'The Government Inspector' still has clout in Shakespeare Theatre staging

More than 175 years after its premiere in St. Petersburg, Gogol's "The Government Inspector" has lost little of its satirical spice.

The play remains almost painfully on target about the way people behave in public office and society; about how some of the least capable among us can end up running, say, education,  health care or the courts.

The Gogol classic also still has a lot of comic mileage left in it, as the Shakespeare Theatre Company underlines in its breezy new production, which uses Jeffrey Hatcher's effective, it sometimes heavy-handed, adaptation.

There's something particularly fun about ...

seeing "The Government Inspector" in Washington. The work might be set in a Russian backwater, but, heaven knows, it applies anywhere political hacks gather or influence peddlers roam free, anywhere folks with some power fear the slightest scrutiny, regulation or accountability.

Gogol fashioned a surefire scenario -- the ruling clique in a provincial town get word that a dreaded government inspector is heading their way, traveling incognito. A no-account civil servant spotted at a hotel, where he can't even pay the bill, is mistaken for that inspector and is promptly wined, dined and bribed. From this, all sorts of opportunities arise to skewer target after target and generate any number of laughs.

The plot is so durable that it has inspired many versions over the decades; a notable recent example is John Musto's "The Inspector," given a sparkling premiere by Wolf Trap Opera in 2011. And who could forget the hotel inspector episode on "Fawlty Towers"?

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's production doesn't quite tear up the Lansburgh Theatre the way the manic staging of "The Servant of Two Masters" did there last spring. But, directed by company head Michael Kahn, the show delivers the goods.

There is, happily, no attempt to lay anything serious over the proceedings. It's all played broadly and brightly (Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting actually verges on the harsh).

The cartoon-ish costumes designed by Murell Horton pop out and puff up drolly. James Noone's cute, revolving set allows for fluid pacing (the turnstile failed to function on opening night, but the stage crew moved it manually with aplomb).

The cast jumps into character and/or caricature gleefully. Derek Smith, rubbery of frame and loaded with facial expressiveness, does a particularly winning job as the non-inspector, Hlestakov.

Rick Foucheux huffs away with flair as the crawly Mayor, and Nancy Robinette offers equally vibrant work as the mayor's aspiring, calculating wife. Completing that happy home is Claire Brownell, who makes an enjoyably sarcastic, downright goth Marya.

Hugh Nees (Bobchinsky) and Harry A. Winter (Dobchinsky) bubble through the play to charming effect. Liam Craig, as Hlestakov's snide valet Osip (seemingly patterned here after Baldrick in "Blackadder"), could use a bit more spark. Sarah Marshall could use a bit more subtlety, but she certainly leaves her mark in a variety of roles, including the mayor's ultimate low-life servant and a diminutive innkeeper.

Floyd King, as the fey, prying postmaster who considers all mail fair game for browsing, reveals a good deadpan, and the rest of the ensemble ably fills out this welcome dash through Gogol's madcap masterpiece.

"The Government Inspector" runs through Oct. 28 at the Lansburgh Theatre. UPDATE: The run has been extended to Nov. 4.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

September 29, 2012

Marin Alsop, BSO peform Bernstein's 'Kaddish' featuring Claire Bloom

As a conductor, Leonard Bernstein seemed to be ever sure of himself, certain that his tempos and phrasing would uncover the very soul of a score. No wonder he made believers out of so many listeners.

But when Bernstein composed his own music, he frequently revealed that, in his own heart, he wasn't so confident.

Some of his most interesting and adventurous works are permeated with his doubts about faith in God and humanity, questions about why and how we become who we are.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is devoting this weekend to Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," which finds the composer at his most confessional.

The symphony is propelled by a lengthy text the composer wrote in the form of a one-sided, equal-footing conversation with God. Bernstein essentially goes through a crisis of faith and expects that the Almighty is doing exactly the same.

Most of us would probably hold this sort of thing in, or only discuss it in private. Bernstein couldn't resist letting it all hang out.

Since the premiere of the "Kaddish" in 1963, the piece has earned its share of complaints about the indulgent text, as well as the music, which mixes agitated atonality, soaring lyricism and jazzy riffs in a way that only Bernstein could.

But, over the decades, the symphony has ...

gained more respect and more performances. More recordings, too -- a handful have joined the two conducted by the composer; the BSO's performances are being recorded for future release on the Naxos label.

Judging by Friday night's performance at Meyerhoff Hall, the eventual CD ought to be a winner, on par with the orchestra's recent recording of "Mass," Bernstein's most brilliant faith-doubt fest.

On Friday, music director and Bernstein protege Marin Alsop demonstrated firm control of the demanding symphony, which surrounds the lone speaking voice not just with a full-force orchestra, but adult and boys' choirs and soprano soloist (intoning the traditional text of the Kaddish).NOTE: I originally and mistakenly identified the text as Hebrew, rather than Aramaic.

Alsop's keen rhythmic sense helped keep the often abrupt shifts in mood and musical style on track, so that the structural cohesiveness of the symphony emerged. And she outlined the emotional arc of the work, the journey from worried and argumentative to assertive and hopeful, with satisfying, often gripping results.

In Claire Bloom, the eminent British actress, Alsop found a very persuasive narrator. Bloom spoke in an intimate tone and gave the words an almost musical quality. She made even the most over-the-top lines seem thoroughly natural.

If a little of the text was lost in the hall amid orchestral outbursts (the amplification for Bloom was kept low), the Naxos microphones will no doubt catch them for the recording.

Soprano Kelley Nassief, alone in a balcony above the stage, began her second movement solo with an exquisite pianissimo and proceeded to shape the rising phrases most tenderly. Some top notes revealed strain, but the singing remained impressive throughout.

The Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director) fulfilled its considerable challenges with distinction, pouring out a solid, well-balanced tone. The Maryland State Boychoir (Stephen Holmes, artistic director) made a sweet-sounding, vibrant contribution.

The BSO turned in a terrific performance. Articulation was incisive, phrasing alive with character, right from the start, when the music seemed to emerge through a mist, bringing light with it.

The first half of this all-American concert proved far less memorable, and hardly a fitting complement to the Bernstein work.

To begin, there was a bright romp through John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," which is always fun to hear, but has now become a chestnut; something fresher ought to be easy enough to find.

Alsop programmed "Ansel Adams: America," written by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, two years ago. It did not need to come back.

The music is earnest and occasionally colorful, but vaporous, and the hall does not have sophisticated enough projection equipment to do justice to the Ansel Adams photographs that go with the score. The whole experience is terribly lightweight.

That said, Alsop gave the Brubeck piece plenty of expressive attention, and the orchestra responded with consistently colorful playing.   

The concert will be repeated Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:10 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

September 28, 2012

Strand Theater Company premieres Dylan Brody's 'Mother, May I'

Ellen Grunman dominates every conversation in her home, finishing other people’s thoughts, and you know she makes all the major decisions.

She’s two-parts Judge Judy, but one-third Mother Harper, the character Vicki Lawrence memorably created on the “Carol Burnett Show” — horribly dismissive of, or simply oblivious to, the things that matter to her husband or children, their accomplishments and yearnings.

Whatever her DNA, Ellen is a deliciously vivid character who forms the sometimes frightening axis in Dylan Brody’s play “Mother, May I,” receiving its world premiere production by the Strand Theater Company.

Brody, an accomplished comedian and writer, has fashioned a work that sets off so many familiar rings that audience members are bound to feel that the playwright somehow has an intimate knowledge of their own mothers. Fathers, too, for that matter.

In the Grunman household, issues have been ...

suppressed in such quantities it’s a wonder the kids aren’t in 24-hour therapy and patriarch Paul doesn’t burst blood vessels at every meal.

But Ellen floats above everything, dropping her belittling barbs with abandon. She doesn’t seem to realize any of the damage, since she doesn’t really notice anyone else, not fully, not deeply.

She is in continual float mode, hovering above the rest, lost in her own world of fun memories that can be triggered by the slightest comment anyone else manages to squeeze in — everything turns into a you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-to-me scenario.

The plot revolves around a rare visit home by son Daniel, who works in Hollywood. As his sister Franny, a struggling writer, puts it, the family motto is: “Long-distance: Significantly better than being there.”

Daniel is much more successful than his parents know. So is the girlfriend who is with him, Sarah (or Susan, as Ellen keeps calling her); she’s in film development for Warner Brothers (Ellen thinks she does the developing in a darkroom).

If all of this sounds like sitcom fodder, it is. But Brody manages to give it enough weight to sustain an evening-length play, and to keep a surprise around nearly every bend. The biggest surprise, during the inevitable revelation process for everyone (except Ellen, of course) in Act 2, doesn’t quite convince, but it sure is unexpected.

Also unexpected is the way Brody allows the parental characters to become rather sympathetic. Both cannot stop offering their help, as if the mere idea of kids growing up, moving out and on, has never made any sense at all. They have an unending need to be needed.

Maybe that’s where the cruel streak starts — Paul can be just as hurtful as Ellen, especially when it comes to their son. But they care, in their own peculiar way, which makes them all the more fun to watch.

Valerie Lash gives an impressively assured performance as Ellen, spinning out her lines with a disarming naturalness and considerable color. Larry Levinson does deft work as Paul, conveying just how trapped and emasculated the character is, yet how there’s a heart in there still functioning.

The rest of the cast — Jessica Felice (Franny), Jon Kevin Lazarus (Daniel), Caroline C. Keibach — are not as confident or layered, but they come through.

Rain Pryor, the Strand’s new artistic director, has the action running smoothly through the intimate space — with only 52 seats, an intimate experience is guaranteed with this family that, as Carrie Fisher said of hers, puts the “fun” in dysfunctional.

When Sarah spots works by a big-name photographer on a wall in the Grunman home, Paul appreciates her enthusiasm in ways she cannot guess. He quotes the artist: “Until a person can actually see things in a new way, he'll continue to think things remain exactly the same.”

If only Ellen could develop new eyes, she’d be so startled at all she has missed.

"Mother, May I" continues through Oct. 12.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Center Stage opens 50th season with revival of 'An Enemy of the People'

Walking into the Center Stage production of Arthur Miller’s “An Enemy of the People,” his adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen drama, is sort of like entering a swing state where voters are bombarded round the clock with negative political ads on TV.

Back and forth fly the attacks on honor and integrity, the attempts to claim ownership of the facts, the charges about who will be more responsible with the public’s money, who more likely to cause a tax increase.

Then with a seismic shudder, the whole darn state suddenly tips decisively to one side — and not the side you favor.

The intriguing Center Stage venture, the opening salvo in the company’s 50th anniversary season, seizes on the ever-contemporary issues in the play with an emphasis on media. The media for Ibsen in 1882 and Miller in his 1950 version was newspapers; here, it’s television.

Updated to 1960 and designed with a cool touch by Riccardo Hernandez, the staging suggests a live version of a TV show. That chic set and David Burdick’s “Mad Men”-worthy costumes provide a feast of black and white shades, streaked with the occasional, almost glaring touch of red.

In addition to vintage black-and-white footage shown on monitors and projected on the rear wall, live black-and-white video of the actors is used at key points. All of this visual reinforcement drives home just how, well, black and white the issues are at the heart of the play, which ...

concerns the water supply in a Norwegian town.

A doctor has discovered that the water has been disastrously polluted by run-off from a factory, threatening the town’s potential gold mine — a recently built spa that could attract a steady stream of money-spending visitors seeking the water’s supposedly restorative powers.

This being a prophet-in the-wilderness sort of story, the man with the warning, Dr. Stockmann, runs into plenty of trouble as he tries to warn his fellow citizens, starting with his brother, the stony, unyielding mayor, Peter Stockmann.

That mayor, who demonstrates formidable wagon-circling powers, is almost painfully contemporary. He’d be willing to tackle the crisis if it could be done “without financial sacrifice” (the Iraq War, anyone?). He’d happily accept free speech in ordinary times, but not extraordinary ones (Muhammad videos, anyone?). And why give the public new ideas when they should be perfectly satisfied with old ones?

The doctor gets a painful lesson in how easily majority rule can trump minority concerns, how fighting for the truth can leave you on a limb — with an ugly mob below.

If only Ibsen, or Miller, had figured out a way to argue this Good-vs.-Evil case in a less aggressive, obvious and reiterative manner. For all of its noble intentions and heated discussions, “An Enemy of the People” does run on, and it can be a bit of a bore, which the plethora of gray tones in the Center Stage production does not entirely alleviate.

But there’s no denying the provocative ideas and ever-timely nature of the play, which, coincidentally, just opened on Broadway in a revival featuring Richard Thomas.

For Center Stage, artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah has assembled a competent cast — in colorblind fashion, which adds an intriguing layer to such a political play — and he directs the action with generally effective momentum.

This is not one of the more cohesive or involving efforts of recent years, but the visual side of things certainly gives it style.

As Dr. Stockmann, Dion Graham doesn’t summon quite the gravitas to create a mesmerizing figure, and he gets a little too let-the-hands-do-the-expressing at times. But he limns the character’s mix of sincerity, bravery and unabashed egotism (the one flaw that makes things even tougher on the doctor).

Kevin Kilner has the whole haughty demeanor down pat as the mayor, without slipping into caricature. And when emotions flair, the actor makes the anger real and revealing — this magistrate may not have a reinforced steel spine after all. Kilner’s makes the brief display of vulnerability speak volumes.

Susan Rome offers a telling portrayal of the doctor’s wife, torn between standing behind her man and stepping in front to divert his attention back to their threatened family. As the doctor’s daughter, Charise Castro Smith could use a little more personality to make up for the character’s mostly stiff lines.

There are engaging contributions from Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, as the morally slippery newspaper editor Hovstad; and Wilbur Edwin Henry, as the equally evasive, moderation-seeking publisher Aslaksen. Jeffrey Kuhn jumps vividly into the role of Billing, an assistant editor all too eager for revolution, unless it gets in the way of his chances for advancement. And Ross Bickell does a beautifully nuanced job as the doctor’s doubting father-in-law.

John Ahlin is a good fit for the stalwart Captain Horster. Jimi Kinstle, as the drunk who crashes a highly-charged town meeting, is given free rein; his appearance is more comic bludgeoning than relief. (The seemingly oblivious character may be smarter than the mob, but he needn't be quite so over-the-top.)

The production does not overcome the weaker elements in the play, and some aspects of the imaginative staging raise questions (showing clips of the Nixon-Kennedy debates might be a little more compelling if the play weren’t still set in Norway).

Ultimately, though, Center Stage provides a welcome reminder of some fundamental political and philosophical points always worth considered, especially in a hotly fought election season.

"An Enemy of the People" runs through Oct. 21.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

A farewell to the composer of '(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair'

One of the many reasons I became a Barbra Streisand addict at a tender age was her performance of "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair," a song of remarkable poignancy in music and words alike. The composer, Billy Barnes, died this week in Los Angeles at the age of 85.

Mr. Barnes did a lot of things in his career, including the song "Something Cool," many contributions to "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and several successful musical revues.

I still think what Mr. Barnes achieved in "Too Long at the Fair" was an extraordinary example of songwriting, a model of its kind. In case you don't know it, or in case you would just like to enjoy it again, I've posted two versions that complement each other nicely:

Streisand's 1963 recording, which becomes a full-fledged opera scene, full of remarkable irony and pathos;

and a performance from the wonderful autumnal years of Rosemary Clooney's career, when she did such subtle, affecting things with limited resources (you get to hear more lyrics in this version).


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 27, 2012

Hippodrome announces lottery for $25 tickets to 'Wicked'

The Hippodrome will set aside "a limited number of orchestra seats," priced at $25, for the hit Broadway musical "Wicked," which rolls into Baltimore Oct. 3 for a month-long visit.

Regular prices for orchestra seats range from about $65 to $143, so we're talking a bargain here.

The catch: The tickets will be available only on the day of performance and will be distributed by lottery. You have to go to the Hippodrome to participate.

Starting two and a half hours prior to each performance, anxious "Wicked" fans will have 30 minutes to submit their names at the box office, where said names will be placed in a drum.

Two hours prior to the performance, names will be drawn. Winners can buy up to two tickets at $25 each, cash only.

To play in this lottery, bring a valid photo ID., which will be checked when you submit your lottery entry and again if/when you win.

Happy winners may then face another test: How to spend the remaining two hours before curtain time.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

'Don Giovanni' gets stylish revival from Washington National Opera

All things considered, the opening of Washington National Opera's season is quite strong, especially in terms of that elusive, hard to pin down concept known as style.

"Anna Bolena" features a great deal of stylish singing, conducting and orchestra playing. Same for "Don Giovanni."

The Mozart work is presented in a revival of the 2007 John Pascoe production, which looks simultaneously elegant and hip, complemented by imaginative costumes that give off a time-traveling hint of a "Dr. Who" episode.

Some of Pascoe's stage pictures -- a moody church scene, for example -- are as enchanting in their own way as the music (Donald Edmund Thomas' refined lighting is a significant star in this staging).

If the director gets carried away with comic stuff in a spot or two (one of them when Leporello pops up in a priest's outfit, fake nose and glasses during the "La ci darem la mano" duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina), it's easy enough to go along.

Even things like ...

the baby being carried around by Elvira and passed off to nuns, or the scantily clad female spirits who flit through the opera and form an all-girl band at the Don's supper party before helping to lead him to hell, fit persuasively enough.

The whole concept seems more persuasive than I recall from the first production. What helps it all click is that Pascoe knows how to get a cast uniformly not just into character, but into the essence of an opera. He also knows how to keep an opera entertaining -- not at all an inappropriate gift, I'd say.

Ildar Abdrazakov shines in the title role. He has a lush bass voice that won't quit. The tone alone can seduce, especially when the singer files it down to a honeyed mezza voce, as he does in a downright mesmerizing interpretation of the Serenade.

Abdrazakov is a magnetic actor, too, thoroughly at ease on the stage and convincing as an unrepentant, totally hands-on rake.

He's also persuasive carrying out an idea Pascoe has spiced the production with -- the Don's lingering feelings for Donna Elvira.

Here, the former lovers almost seem on the verge of going all "Private Lives" and reuniting a couple times (at the end of Act 1, this Don Giovanni plants a big kiss on his former lover, which shocks everyone long enough for him to make his escape).

This intriguing concept gains added plausibility from the dynamic portrayal of Elvira by Barbara Frittoli. The soprano's voice, with just a glint of steel beneath its creaminess, and her unfailingly colorful phrasing yield consistent pleasure.

Andrew Foster-Williams does a winning job as Don Giovanni's sidekick Leporello, revealing a particularly astute sense of comic timing. If the bass-baritone is a little underpowered at the lower reaches of his voice, the rest is solid and vibrant, while his attention to nuances of text is everywhere apparent and incisive.

Meagan Miller's Donna Anna, to begin with, looks fabulous in some of Pascoe's most elegant costumes (one of her hats would be quite a hit at Ascot). The soprano doesn't produce a lot of tonal variation, and she can sound a bit edgy when pushed, but she phrases sensitively and spiritedly.

In the role of Don Ottavio is a very impressive tenore di grazia, Juan Francisco Gatell, who delivers "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro" with refined nuance and admirable breath control. It's a pleasure to hear such a first-rate musician in this role, someone who doesn't take a single note for granted. He even manages to keep the character from seeming wimpy, no small feat.

Veronica Cangemi is an endearing Zerlina. She makes her entrance at a terrific clip, without losing her grip on the music, and proceeds to add numerous layers of charm. The soprano sculpts "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino" with a melting tone.

Cangemi and Abdrazakov create one of the production's musical high points in an unusually spacious account of "La ci darem la mano" that finds both singers purring irresistibly (in a nice touch, the duet ends with the Don -- literally, as Joe Biden would say -- sweeping Zerlina off her feet).

The exquisite shaping of that duet owes much to conductor Philippe Auguin, WNO's sterling music director. Scene after scene, the score unfolds beautifully, with plenty of breathing room and rhythmic elasticity (note how the brief trio of masqueraders becomes here such an ethereal, time-stopping moment).

Such qualities are not always encountered in Mozart performances these days, ever since the historical authenticity crowd started pushing leaner, faster, brighter. Auguin ensures a continual glow from the pit, where the orchestra does finely detailed playing.

Back onstage, the cast is filled out by Aleksey Bogdanov, a vibrant Masetto; and Solomon Howard, a Morgan State grad and current member of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program who does a sturdy job as the Commendatore.

Whatever quibbles there might be with little things in the staging, the big visual picture proves striking. Together with the extraordinary personality in the music-making, the combined effect is a freshly absorbing encounter with one of the most familiar works in the repertoire.

Performances continue through Oct. 13 at the Kennedy Center. The cast for the final performance will consist of current and former WNO young artists.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 26, 2012

'Anna Bolena' raises its head at Washington National Opera

There’s nothing like those Tudors and their affairs to provide gripping, juicy drama, as the recent Showtime series reconfirmed.

Donizetti found enough fodder in the intrigues of that royal court to fashion a trilogy of vivid operas in the 1830s: “Maria Stuarda” (staged by the late Baltimore Opera Company in 2007), “Roberto Devereux” (this seems to get the least attention these days) and “Anna Bolena.”

The latter, returning to the Washington National Opera repertoire after an absence of 19 years, is quite the gem.

With a fine libretto by Felice Romani, who lightly applied a seasoning of historic and poetic license, the work tells the sad tale of Anne Boelyn, the queen destined for the block after Henry VIII finds her lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour more appealing.

Donizetti’s score intensifies the familiar story through remarkable melodic richness and refined orchestral coloring.

The WNO production, which comes from the Dallas Opera and is directed by Stephen Lawless, starts off on a ...

glaring note — a dreadful pantomime that shows Henry VIII’s roving eye. In case anyone misses the point, there’s a projected text, too, explaining the back-story. Heads should roll over that shtick.

Things largely improve from there. The action flows swiftly on Benoit Dugardyn’s set, which gets more interesting as the opera progresses.

Imposing wooden walls move about quickly to create fresh scenes, at one point, closing in on Seymour as she realizes just how trapped she is by her love for the king, her friendship with the queen.

Balconies that frame the stage provide perches for the chorus of courtiers to look down on the messy lives and loves of the royals.

Sondra Radvanovsky tears into the taxing title role, sending an electric current through the music and effectively conveying Anna’s pride and vulnerability.

The soprano produces a wonderfully dark, warm sound, quite mezzo-like in tint. When Donizetti sends a melodic line into the stratosphere, Radvanovsky soars freely and excitingly; top notes have terrific fire.

Intonation may droop a little here and there, and a pianissimo dynamic level may be in short supply, but the visceral quality of the singing is something to savor. The soprano reaches an affecting peak in Anna’s prayer aria in the last scene (Donizetti based the melody anachronistically, but poignantly, on “Home, Sweet Home”).

As Seymour, Sonia Ganassi produces a ripe, well-focused tone and infuses her phrasing with abundant passion. She and Radvanovsky achieve show-stopping vocalism in their big Act 2 duet.

Shalva Mukeria, as Anna’s former love Percy, sings with admirable style and considerable sweetness of tone. Oren Gradus has the burly size and acting flair for the king; the voice isn’t exactly regal in volume or tone, but it is used vividly.

Claudia Huckle’s plummy contralto and beautifully shaded phrasing are matched by refined acting in the role trouser role of Smeton, the queen’s page. Kenneth Kellogg as Anna’s brother, Lord Rochefort, and Aaron Blake, as the smarmy Sir Hervey complete the cast ably.

The chorus shines. The women of the ensemble produce an especially impressive blend and tenderness in the scene where they comment on the sight of the imprisoned Anna. There is a wonderful visual moment here when the queen approaches a kneeler and assumes the position not of a supplicant, but of someone about to be beheaded, arms outstretched (one of the director's most inspired touches).

Conductor Antonello Allemandi reveals a sensitive, rhythmically flexible touch. The orchestra, which has steadily emerged as one of the company’s most reliable assets, responds with playing of great finesse and lyrical warmth.

The gentle flute and strings passage at start of the queen's bedchamber scene is but one example of how much attention is paid, in telling fashion, by conductor and musicians to the subtler side of Donizetti's finely wrought score.

Performances continue through Oct. 6 at the Kennedy Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

Midweek Madness: Some Gershwin to enjoy while you're bidin' your time

Since it happens to be George Gershwin's 114th birthday, and since I have been bidin' my time, hopin' for inspiration to feed you pathetic need for another dose of Midweek Madness, I figured, what the hey -- why not Gershwin?

Everything about the number "Bidin' My Time" from the movie version of "Girl Grazy" is perfection -- words, music, Judy Garland's delicious phrasing and facial expressions, her equally engaging cowhand companions, the subtle arrangement, the droll choreography.

Makes me smile every time. I hope it does the same for you:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

September 25, 2012

Single Carrot Theatre secures MICA facilities for season-opener

Single Carrot Theatre, shut out of its regular home at Load of Fun Gallery, has made a safe landing nearby.

The company will present its delayed season-opening production of Caryl Churchill's provocative two-actor play "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" at facilities of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The show will open Oct. 5 in Falvey Hall at the Brown Center on W. Mount Royal Ave., then move Oct. 12 to the new auditorium in MICA's Studio Center on W. North Ave., directly across the street from Load of Fun. 

"We cannot express how thankful we are to all the people who helped make this happen," said Elliott Rauh, Single Carrot's managing director.

The schedule: 8 p.m. Oct. 5, 6 and 11; 5 p.m. Oct. 7 at Falvey Hall. 8 p.m. Oct. 12, 13, 18-20; 5 p.m. Oct. 14 and 21 at Studio Center. (Note that company's has changed its usual starting times for evening and matinee performances.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

Free ticket offer for theater fans; includes Center Stage, Everyman, Iron Crow

The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance has organized "Free Night of Theater Baltimore" in October, in conjunction with Free Fall Baltimore, the annual project of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Several area theaters are setting aside tickets that will be awarded through a registration process. Events at Center Stage, Everyman Theatre, Iron Crow Theatre, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Audrey Herman Spotlighter’s Theatre and Baltimore Performance Kitchen are included in the give-away. More groups and performances may be added.

When you register for the drawing, you can select up to five performances that you are most interested in; winners may receive up to five pairs of tickets. The contest is "intended to give audiences an opportunity to experience new arts organizations," so registrants are being asked to sample the work of companies they haven't visited in the past year.

To have a crack at the freebies, register by Friday (Sept. 28). Winners will be notified via email by Oct. 1.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

September 24, 2012

More from Claire Bloom on career highs, new film, and 'Downton Abbey'

This week, the Baltimore Symphony welcomes one of Britain's finest actresses, Claire Bloom, who will perform the speaking role in Bernstein's "Kaddish." You can read about her views on the symphony and the preparation for it in my Sunday story.

I thought you might enjoy some more from my phone interview with Ms Bloom, who was speaking by phone from her London home.

I asked her about her extraordinary career and her future projects. And I also happened to mention, quite innocently, the hit British show "Downton Abbey," thinking that she might like to join forces with that stellar cast -- oops.

Here are excerpts from the interview:


I think I’m most proud of the ...

'Streetcar Named Desire' I did here [in the 1970s]. I think that was the best thing I’ve every done.

And I was lucky to have worked with Chaplin [in "Limelight," 1962]. That’s something you can’t top. When I finish with the Baltimore Symphony on the 30th, I fly to Los Angeles the next day for a 60th anniversary celebration of 'Limelight.' (SEE VIDEO CLIP BELOW)


The day after the 'Limelight' anniversary, I fly to Vienna to make a film about Edith Stein -- I am playing her mother.

Edith Stein was from an orthodox Jewish family of philosophers, but converted and became a nun. She died at Auschwitz and was canonized by John Paul II -- now that was a controversy. Had she died as a Jew or a Roman Catholic? Well, she died.

I have high hopes for the film.


I can’t watch it. It’s so awful. What a picture of England to give the world -- all that class snobbishness. I don’t find it funny or entertaining. I find it appalling.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Drama Queens

September 22, 2012

Baltimore Symphony celebrates American music in season-opener

Who needs the three B's when we've got two B's and a C?

Not that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra intended some grand, huzzah-huzzah patriotic statement or anything, but wasn't it nice to hear the season open without a single piece by a dead white European?

(OK, so the program features works by dead white Americans, but, still.)

Music director Marin Alsop chose three of the finest examples of 20th-century, tonally-grounded American classics -- Copland's Symphony No. 3 (I think of it as our Brahms' First), Barber's Violin Concerto (I think of it as our Bruch's G minor), and Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Warterfront" (I think of it as our Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Waterfornt").

And wait -- there was a living American composer on the bill, too, after all. That would be ...

George Bogatko, a friend of Alsop's who was invited by her to fashion a new arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the season kick-off. (Plans call for the next several seasons to open with freshly commissioned versions of the national anthem).

I rather enjoyed Bogatko's treatment at the start of Thursday's Meyerhoff Hall performance, even if it did sound like it began in a tributary of Wagner's Rhine. Harmonically and, especially orchestration-wise, the anthem emerged in an effective, mostly subdued manner. (I suppose the BSO will hear complaints from some folks, especially those used to singing along with the traditional version.)

The orchestra did not always sound thoroughly unified and focused Thursday evening, but occasional unevenness caused little damage. The playing had plenty of communicative fire.

Bernstein fashioned a terrific film score for Elia Kazan's gritty dockworker drama. The composer clearly could have been a contender in Hollywood, had he chosen such a path. He poured some of his most lyrical and dramatic music into "On the Waterfront," offering a foretaste of what he would achieve in "West Side Story" a few years later.

The suite from the Kazan movie becomes a massive absorbing tone poem, and Alsop seized on the expressive bounty to fashion a soaring, crackling performance that inspired some particularly telling, full-throttle efforts from the brass and percussion.

The Barber concerto is ideally suited to the talents of Gil Shaham -- and his 1699 Stradivarius.

The violinist managed to unleash all the romantic yearning in the score's first two movements without a single cloying phrase, to dig into the most rhapsodic passages without turning showy. This sense of balance made the exquisite beauty of the music shine all the more brightly.

And when it came time for bravura, in the wild, blink-of-an-eye finale, Shaham delivered it handsomely, taking it at a supersonic clip that still allowed the notes to be savored.

Alsop was in the soloist's groove from the get-go and drew some stylish work from the orchestra. The pivotal second movement oboe solo was delivered in exceedingly touching fashion by Katherine Needleman.

Copland's epic Third wanders a bit at times, and it sticks with some thematic ideas a little too long. But what imaginative, absorbing, soulful stuff this is, imbued with an unmistakable flavor of Americana (how a Brooklyn guy could so perfectly evoke prairies and mountains is still astonishing).

Alsop let the tension slip here and there, but otherwise guided the sprawling symphony with a sure, sensitive hand. At its best, the ensemble responded with richly layered playing.

Earlier on Thursday afternoon, the BSO held an affecting memorial service for principal timpanist Dennis Kain. This extraordinary musician was still on everyone's mind that evening -- in between the Bernstein and Barber works on the concert, Alsop conducted "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" as a tribute to Mr. Kain.

The program will be repeated Saturday at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:33 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

September 21, 2012

Modell Lyric announces $1 million pledge from Berman Foundation to support opera

Six weeks before the opening of Lyric Opera Baltimore's second season, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric announced a $1 million pledge in support of opera from the Baltimore-based Sandra and Malcolm Berman Charitable Foundation, Inc.

"It is one of the largest gifts in the Modell Lyric's history," said Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the center. "We're thrilled to receive it.

"This is a four-year commitment that started last season. We are announcing it now in conjunction with Lyric Opera Baltimore's grand production of 'La Boheme,'" Richmond said.

Performances are Nov. 2 and 4.The season continues with a gala concert in April and a production of "Rigoletto" in May.

The Berman gift, which will help underwrite a grand opera production each season, as well as support opera education programs and capital improvements, has been acknowledged inside the Modell Lyric with the naming of the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Grand Foyer.

The Bermans were subscribers for several years to the old Baltimore Opera Company, which folded in 2009.

"When that happened, we wanted to do whatever we could to help opera come back to Baltimore," said Sandra Berman, who is a member of the Lyric Opera Foundation board of trustees.

"We support a lot of other things, too, but we think that opera is extremely important in Baltimore. People shouldn't have to go to Washington or New York for opera. They should have top quality opera right here," Berman said.

When Lyric Opera Baltimore emerged as part of the Modell Lyric, the Bermans attended the company's 2011-2012 inaugural season of "La Traviata," The Marriage of Figaro" and "Faust."

"We thought the productions were ...

great," Berman said. At the end of that first season, the Bermans made the first installment of the $1 million pledge to support the new company.

"This is something Malcolm and I want to help and to keep going as long as we can," Berman said. "When I talk to people in the community, they're very excited about having opera here. People love the opera, they really do. And it is important to expose the young people to it."

In addition to supporting staged opera and more capital improvements to the recently renovated Modell Lyric, the Berman gift will be used to enhance outreach programs in schools, a summer opera camp and more.

"We hope the Berman's gift will attract other opera lovers and donors to the Modell Lyric," Richmond said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 20, 2012

Glass Mind Theatre secures new venue for start of season

Glass Mind Theatre, one of the tenants shut out of the Load of Fun Gallery while renovations are made to that space to comply with city regulations, has secured a venue for its season-opening production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Performances will be held the weekends of Sept. 28 and Oct. 5 at the Autograph Playhouse (9 W. 25th St.) -- probably best known these days as home of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

"We are extremely grateful to [Autograph Playhouse] owner Billie Taylor for housing our production, and to our friends at the Mobtown Players, E.M.P. Collective and Area 405 for hosting our rehearsals during the transition," said Sarah Weissman, marketing director at Glass Mind Theatre.

The Shakespeare staging is the first of Glass Mind's "Classics Resketched" season, to be followed by new versions of Chekhov's "Three Sisters " and Sophocles' "Antigone."

The "Midsummer" production will be directed, in her company debut, by D.C-based Elissa Goetschius, former literary manager at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Her take on the play promises to reveal "motives [that] are darker and twistier than you might remember from the last time you saw it."

The production will feature choreography by Sandra Atkinson.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Handel Choir of Baltimore artistic director Melinda O'Neal to step down

Melinda O'Neal, whose nearly decade-long stewardship has helped turn the Handel Choir of Baltimore into a much stronger musical force in the community, will step down as artistic director and conductor after the 2012-2013 season.

"This is my ninth year with Handel Choir and it's time for me to stand aside, make room for the next generation," O'Neal said.

The organization "is in very good shape," she added, with a "fabulous board [and] leadership with real dedication and resourcefulness ... Singers are younger on average and evidencing increasing skills and lots of heart."

In a statement, Leslie Greenwald, president of the Handel Choir board of trustees said that O'Neal's "unique talents have established Handel Choir's reputation for outstanding and innovative concert experiences.

"Melinda has breathed new life into a longstanding Baltimore cultural institution, making even annual performances of 'Messiah' fresh and new. Because of the artistic strength of the Choir under Melinda's direction, we are confident we will attract exceptional talent for this position," Greenwald said.

A search committee has been formed. A new artistic director is expected to be appointed in time for the 2013-2014 season.

Founded in 1935, the Handel Choir is one of the city's oldest cultural organizations, devoted not just to music of its namesake but a wide range of choral repertoire.

Musical quality was decidedly uneven when O'Neal joined the group in 2004, but she moved quickly to improve standards and fashion a firmer identity for the choir.

That she achieved most notably by ...

bringing historically informed performance practices to programs; this included the addition of a period instrument orchestra for "Messiah" and other baroque pieces. The caliber of guest soloists also improved considerably.

O'Neal's Handel Choir tenure included successful, imaginative collaborations with area organizations, among them American Opera Theater, Harmonious Blacksmith, Baltimore Baroque Band, Peabody Early Music, Pro Musica Rara, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony.

"I am so grateful for Handel Choir and the music we’ve made together," O'Neal said. "We just clicked."

During what will now be her swan song season, O'Neal will lead the 50-member Handel Choir in the 78th annual performance of "Messiah" in December and Brahms' "German Requiem" (with UMBC's Camerata) in April.

Also on the schedule is a program in February featuring music of noted contemporary composers John Tavener and Arvo Part, and the local premiere of "Song of the Shulamite" by Donald McCullough, a piece commissioned by the choir.

O'Neal is a longtime professor of music at Dartmouth College, where she plans to continue teaching for a few more years after her retirement from the Handel Choir. She is also finishing up a book, "Experiencing Berlioz: A Listener's Companion."

Handel Choir has been "a great program to work in and build," O'Neal said. "And I've really loved living in Baltimore ... It's time to hand over the privilege of leading this group, have fewer responsibilities, get to my Berlioz writing project."

O'Neal characterized her time with the Handel Choir as "an amazing journey."


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Peabody Institute features recent works by composer Michael Hersch

Michael Hersch writes music of astounding, even thrilling, complexity; music that can be hard to grasp, yet impossible to let go of; and music of stark, unsettling, seemingly implausible beauty.

There was an impressive demonstration of all these qualities in a concert Tuesday night at the Peabody Institute, where Hersh studied and now heads the composition department.

The long, meaty program focused on works written in the past two years, works that find the composer as uncompromisingly serious and reflective as ever.

The newest item, receiving its world premiere, was "of ages manifest," a riveting score for unaccompanied alto saxophone.

In seven movements, the piece exploits what seems to be every conceivable, or inconceivable, sonic property of the instrument.

The myriad sounds encompass breathy whispers from the threshold of audibility, as well as horn-like wails, with many a finely shaded gradation in between.

Melodic lines leap wildly one moment, center on long, slow crescendos the next (the latter starts to sound a little too like an etude in the fifth movement).

Aggressive, almost martial rhythms (the fourth movement) are balanced by episodes of mournful song (the sixth).

Some of the wildest movements seem to rush toward a cliff and emit one last, primal yell that is eventually answered by just two or three soft notes, like a faint echo, or a message trying to make its way from another galaxy.

Out of all of this emerges a riveting kind of sound-poem that the soloist, ...

Gary Louie, communicated with stunning technical brilliance and expressive power.

Miranda Cuckson brought incisive skills to a solo violin piece, "in the snowy margins," from 2010.

The extended crescendo idea is present in this work, too, along with vigorous, dissonant flurries that generate considerable tension. The closing movement achieves something of the poignant mood in the hurdy-gurdy song that ends Schubert's "Winterreise."

Hersch, an excellent pianist, performed his "Two Lullabies" (2011). This is unsettled music, atmospherically and harmonically, with many a struggle between tonal and atonal forces.

Things that go thump in the night, especially at the far reaches of the bass register, are balanced by hints of a comforting chorale; some pop music-style chords (at one point, I thought they seemed to be searching for John Lennon's "Imagine"); and what might be taken for the restless ghost of Chopin's A minor Prelude.

The Blair String Quartet, a finely matched ensemble, closed the evening with a taut, cohesive and absorbing performance of a 2010 score, "Images from a Closed Ward."

Inspired by drawings of mental hospital patients by the late Michael Mazur, the 13-movement piece reflects the composer's uncanny ability to open up a psychological realm, where the music seems to capture fears, dreams, suppressed desires, regrets.

The richness of ideas here is remarkable (only in the prolonged, agitated 11th movement does Hersch run out of creative steam); the variety of expressive techniques likewise impresses.

Throughout, harshness alternates with a tense lyricism. One of the most affecting passages is the penultimate movement, when gorgeous chords keep emerging, as if from a mist, to pass -- or collide -- in the night.

The eventful sonic journey includes a somber processional that forms the third movement and, to compelling effect, returns at the end, dissipating in quizzical fashion, yet remaining in the air long after.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

September 19, 2012

Obituary of longtime Baltimore Symphony timpanist Dennis Kain

My colleague, Fred Rasmussen, has written the obituary for Dennis Kain, the much-loved timpanist who was a member of the Baltimore Symphony for 46 years. Colleagues in the orchestra, and on the podium, speak eloquently of Mr. Kain's contributions.

The BSO will hold a memorial service at 2 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Hall.

On Wednesday, the BSO issued a statement mourning the loss of Mr. Kain and providing these comments from BSO members:

David Coombs, Contrabassoon:

Dennis was one of the nicest guys that you can imagine. He was the best timpanist I ever heard in my life. He lived for music. He would go home and listen to music all night, except when he was going to baseball games. He was into minor league baseball games. He always had a smile on his face.

Laura Sokoloff, Piccolo:

In the more than 40 years I worked with Dennis, I can count on my fingers the times any conductor asked him to play something differently. That is how excellent and professional he was—always prepared with a complete understanding of how he needed to play and why. Our greatest luxury was relying on his perfect sense of rhythm for all these years. Dennis was always a vital part of the ‘Baltimore Symphony sound’!

Christopher Williams, Principal Percussion:

He knew the music, his own part and how everything was supposed to fit together. His sound on timpani always blended with whatever music we were playing, yet when he had to he could be a very dynamic player who could lead the entire orchestra. His model of consistency at such a high level always amazed me—day to day, year to year. He was the consummate professional and musician we all strive to be.

Christopher Wolfe, Assistant Principal Clarinet:

Dennis was the consummate symphonic musician. His commitment and dedication to the orchestra were unsurpassed for almost fifty years. His timpani playing on many of the BSO recordings have become the benchmark for excellence and are sought after by many musicians around the country. He was admired by everyone and will be sorely missed by all.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Fells Point Corner Theatre opens season with timely 'Stop Kiss'

As Marylanders prepare to vote on a same-sex marriage referendum, the Baltimore area theater community is thick with plays containing same-sex relationships.

This isn't a case of collusion (arts organizations are hardly known for coordinating their schedules, let alone developing joint agendas), but some folks may suspect a giant, left-wing conspiracy anyway.

Rep Stage just wrapped up its contribution to the subject; Performance Workshop Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre are soon to follow.

Meanwhile, there's Fells Point Corner Theatre, where two women are the center of attention in “Stop Kiss,” Diana Son's 1998 examination of self-discovery and gay-bashing.

Plays with lesbian themes do not appear nearly as frequently as those about gay men, which makes this mostly effective community theater production a particularly welcome addition to the local conversation.

“Stop Kiss,” constructed out of short scenes that move back and forth in time, follows unexpectedly intertwined lives in New York. The result is a sensitive take on issues of sexual identity and attraction.

The plot begins to spin when ...

Callie, who does traffic reports by helicopter for a radio station, offers to make room in her apartment for a pet belonging to “some friend of an old friend of someone.” The cat's owner is Sara, a transplant from St. Louis who is about to head into that foreign, danger-filled territory known as the Bronx to teach public school.

Callie's initial suspicion that the newcomer will be too dull to spend time with proves unfounded. The two hit it off. The slightly more seasoned New Yorker eagerly passes along recommendations to the newcomer, who seems increasingly exhilarated by being in the famed city and finding someone so intriguing.

Just a simple friendship in the making, except for the sensation Callie and Sara gradually experience, the realization that something else is going on, something deeper and a little scary.

Son gives both characters heterosexual back-stories, which complicates things for them. Some of those complications seem a bit forced, but the plot holds up well in the end. And little revelations about the women's distinctive personalities, the idiosyncrasies and pressure points, help to make them real.

Then there is the matter of the senseless violence that interrupts the gentle progress of this love affair. Son weaves this element into the play in skillful fashion, allowing the weight of it all to sink in gradually.

Ann Turiano anchors the Fells Point Corner Theatre cast with a nicely layered performance as Callie, persuasive in tone and gesture. The actress limns Callie's shifts from cool to confused, hesitant to hopeful, in telling fashion.

She is especially affecting in the hospital scenes -- note what she does with a blanket in one of them, a small detail that symbolizes just how much the characters have learned and loved about each other.

Samrawit Belai is not as assured in the role of Sara; the character's inner strength doesn't register solidly. Still, Belai shows promise, and she matches Turiano for endearing nuances in the pivotal sofa bed scene that captures the whole crazy process of falling for someone and not knowing what to do next.

Christopher Jones does vibrant work as Callie's casual boyfriend, George, conveying the at-ease quality of a longtime friend with privileges, and also bringing out the genuine affection that helps keep the two entwined.

There's an air of apprenticeship about the rest of the supporting cast, but everyone gets the job done. Steve Ferguson has some particularly telling moments as Peter, Sara's far-from-comprehending boyfriend.

Director Jay Gilman has the 90-minute, intermission-less play flowing smoothly through Jim Knipple’s economical set. Dan Cassin’s sound design adds a vivid touch to the production.

"Stop Kiss" runs through Oct. 13.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: Honkin' with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

It takes too long between each "Madmen" series to get a good '60s fix, so, as a public service, Midweek Madness presents a blast from that fabled era to tide you over.

Yes, I'm talking about Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the quintessential (non-rock) '60s phenomenon. And this version of the giga-hit "Tijuana Taxi" -- well, it's beyond words.

Such choreography, such costumes, such camera angles, such inanity. Just try not to tap your toes, honk your horn, or wiggle your tush:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

September 17, 2012

Kennedy Center picks Baltimore as ninth city in its Any Given Child education project

The Kennedy Center has chosen Baltimore as the ninth city to participate in Any Given Child, an education initiative aimed at improving access to the arts for all students K-8.

At a press announcement Monday morning at Highlandtown Elementary, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake spoke of how the initiative would help the school system "leverage every resource we can."

In addition to providing increased exposure to the arts for students, the initiative will provide "professional development opportunities for our teachers," the mayor said.

Any Given Child is a multiyear project provided at no cost by the Kennedy Center. The first phase involves an audit conducted by Kennedy Center staffers and consultants to determine current arts education activities and needs throughout the school system.

The audit looks at ...

how many arts organizations already are already working with the schools, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, now reaching about 600 students in four schools. Activities, resources, needs and possible overlap are examined during the audit.

"This phase usually takes us nine months to a year to pull all the information," said Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education. "This is not a drive-by consultation. We're there for the long haul."

In phase two, a committee of community leaders is formed and charged with making concrete recommendations to both the school district and local arts groups so that a long-range plan can be developed to improve the quantity and quality of arts education.

"People can get worried when they hear about the initiative," Ayers said, "but this is not the Kennedy Center coming in to tell people what to do. This is about helping a community figure out to make sure that students have arts experiences every year of their education."

Baltimore joins Any Given Child partnerships already in progress around the country: Sacramento, California; Springfield, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; Las Vegas, Nevada; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sarasota, Florida; Austin, Texas; and Iowa City, Iowa.

"We chose Baltimore after getting a fabulous letter from Mayor Rawlings-Blake and supporting documents from Dr. Alonso," Ayers said. "It looked like a perfect opportunity to come in and work together."

Initiated by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, Any Given Child was launched in 2009 in Sacramento, where one of the things the audit revealed was overlap.

"The symphony orchestra was focusing in on fifth graders, the ballet company was focusing in on fifth graders, and the theater company was focusing in on fifth graders," Ayers said. "After the audit, one of them switched to fourth grade, one to sixth."

Securing funds for increased arts programming in schools is one of the long-range goals of Any Given Child. Ayers said there has been some success with that in participating cities.

"We've seen the funding community get excited about the project," Ayers said. "In Austin, an anonymous donor heard about all the arts groups working together and gave $1 million to support children going to performances."

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso said he was proud that Baltimore was now affiliated with Any Given Child.

"And we’re going to do amazing things as a result," Alonso said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 16, 2012

Renee Fleming lights up Baltimore Symphony gala; nearly $900,000 raised

Never underestimate the power of a diva -- the genuine artistic article, not the posturing kind.

The uncommonly gifted and gracious soprano Renee Fleming proved to be quite a magnet Saturday night for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala.

Meyerhoff Hall was well-packed with the well-heeled, as well as just plain folks; the concert, conducted by music director Marin Alsop and also featuring an appearance by a contingent from the BSO's education project OrchKids, raised nearly $900,000 for the orchestra.

The turnout was rich in state and local officials, including members of Congress; Baltimore's mayor (looking downright fabulous, by the way); and a certain country executive who chatted repeatedly with his constantly fidgeting companion through the first part of the program, then ducked out early after attending to his cell phone while Fleming gave a vivid account of "Vissi d'arte."

The soprano, radiating glamor in gowns by Douglas Hannant, offered several other familiar arias, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites and an exquisite surprise -- ...

"Ombra di nube," an infrequently encountered 1930s art song by Licinio Refice new to Fleming's repertoire.

A touch of edginess in the singer's upper reaches at the start of the program quickly dissipated; the golden tone that has made Fleming such a global favorite proved plentiful and melting.

"Vilja" from Lehar's "The Merry Widow" was delivered with delectably colorful inflections, "Song of the Moon" from Dvorak's "Rusalka" with compelling intensity. Fleming caressed that Refice song tenderly, though I would have welcomed an even more finely shaded pianissimo for the second verse.

The combination of vocal opulence and instantly communicative phrasing that Fleming produced in the operatic items -- she ensured that the context, not just the melodic warmth, of "O mio babbino caro" registered -- served her equally well in the Broadway selections.

"Hello, Young Lovers" was sung with an affecting intimacy. In "You'll Never Walk Alone," the soprano somehow managed to avoid the song's potentially cloying traps; she made the message and melody sound fresh and involving. She was joined for this number by a choir from OrchKids located in a balcony. The young singers chimed in sweetly, if a bit independently (the choir's director didn't always stay in sync with the stage below).

Alsop gave Fleming attentive partnering throughout the evening and drew from the BSO a good deal of beautifully nuanced playing. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski offered elegant solos along the way.

In the non-vocal portion of the program, the BSO orchestra sounded a bit ragged in waltzes from Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," which could also have used more of a Viennese rhythmic lilt. But Alsop had everyone clicking tightly in the infectious, propulsive "Malambo" from Ginastera's "Estancia."

The OrchKids number, George Bogatko's "We are the Orch," provided a breezy vehicle for the young, eager players (and a couple of break-dancers) -- and time for Fleming to change gowns.

After the Rodgers and Hammerstein items that closed the program, the soprano turned to the Harold Arlen classic "Over the Rainbow" for an encore. She sculpted phrases with the ease and incisiveness of a jazz vocalist and got deep into the heart of the wistful text, as Alsop and the BSO provided sensitive backing -- a terrific close to an unusually rewarding gala.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Dennis Kain, longtime principal timpanist in the Baltimore Symphony, has died

Dennis Kain, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's longtime principal timpanist, died Saturday after a bout with cancer. He was 73. UPDATE: A service for Mr. Kain will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The news of Mr. Kain's death arrived  shortly after the BSO finished its successful gala concert with soprano Renee Fleming before a packed house at the Meyerhoff.

Mr. Kain's illness kept him from performing in the ensemble for the past few seasons, and his absence, musically and personally, was keenly felt. He joined the orchestra in September 1966.

In the years that I got to hear him play, Mr. Kain invariably impressed with his sure technique and ability to coax myriad dynamic nuances from the timpani -- not to mention his quiet charm and twinkling smile.

Covering the BSO's 2001 European visit with then-music director Yuri Temirkanov, I wrote that Mr. Kain was "a rock of Gibraltar on this tour" -- his steadiness and musicality came through in concert after concert.

I also recall the timpanist's stirring contributions to performances of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 with Temirkanov in 2004; Bruckner's Third with Mario Venzago conducting in 2009;  Nielsen's Fourth with Juanjo Mena in 2010; and many more.

I will pass along more information on arrangements as it becomes available.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:10 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

September 14, 2012

Closure of Load of Fun Gallery has Single Carrot Theatre seeking new digs

Load of Fun Gallery, a linchpin in the Station North District and a center for visual artists and theater companies, has shut down temporarily after being notified by the city of a zoning violation involving "land use and occupancy."

This has sent Single Carrot Theatre scrambling for new digs, just as the company's 2012-2013 season was about to begin.

"Single Carrot is not at risk," said artistic director Nathan Cooper. "We have every intention of playing all the shows we planned on, and we are lining up ...

alternative venues."

The season-opening production of Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" will now open Oct. 5, instead of Sept. 21 as originally planned. The location of the performances has yet to be announced.

"We are awaiting confirmation of the space and we hope to announce that shortly," Cooper said. "We are also looking at other venues where we can hold the rest of the shows. But it is totally possible we could get back to Load of Fun later this season."

Sherwin Mark, who opened Load of Fun seven years ago, said he was "still in the process of trying to work out what the violation means. And we're in the process of gathering funding. This will accelerate making improvements to the building we were making anyway; I've been doing improvements since day one," Mark said. "We're determined to come back up as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, Single Carrot has found temporary space for its administrative office at Figure 53, a software company nearby. And rehearsals for the season-opening play have moved to a meeting room at the headquarters of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation.

"We’re a resilient company," Cooper said. "This has slowed us down just for a little moment. During out first season, we did not have a permanent home, so this is not a new concept.

"We’ve been really, really pleased with the support that’s come from the community. The big thing to take away from this is that everyone involved is trying their darnedest to get Load of Fun up and running again so artists can be working, and so this place can continue to be a hub of artistic activity in Station North."

No word yet on how the closure of Load of Fun will affect another resident company, Glass Mind Theatre, which also had planned to open its season on Sept. 21.

Another resident company at Load of Fun, Glass Mind Theatre, had scheduled a season-opening production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Sept. 21. Marketing director Sarah Weissman said that the new target date is Sept. 28, at a place to be determined.

"We are an advocate of Station North’s progress and have found it to be a home for our growth,” Weissman said, “and we are holding those interests in mind as we communicate with local groups and officials. In terms of our future, Glass Mind is incredibly fortunate to have a network of supportive theater leaders, organizations and community members.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

September 13, 2012

Jackie Evancho to perform in concert with Baltimore Symphony May 18

Jackie Evancho, the vocal prodigy who created a sensation singing "O mio babbino caro" at the age of 10 on "America’s Got Talent" two years ago, will make her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut May 18 at Meyerhoff Hall.

Tickets go on sale Friday at 10 a.m.

The concert is part of national tour Evancho is making this season to promote her soon-to-be-released album, "Songs from the Silver Screen."

The recording, duet out Oct. 2, features selections from "Titanic," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "South Pacific," "Summer of '42," and other films.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Marin Alsop, BSO launch pilot program with Parsons School to design new concert attire

Could the end of white tie and tails be in sight for orchestra musicians? Will a hip new form of concert attire spread through the classical music world? Stay tuned.

The Baltimore Symphony announced Thursday that music director Marin Alsop has funded a "pilot partnership" with the New York-based Parsons The New School for Design to devise an updated wardrobe for orchestral players in the 21st-century.

The project will involve 16 Parsons students from an interdisciplinary class this semester. They will travel to Baltimore to ...

observe the BSO in action, starting with Friday's season-preview concert at Meyerhoff Hall, so they can "conceptualize a fashionable attire that integrates new fabrics and wearable technologies."

Here's Alsop's statement:

The basic concert black worn by nearly every orchestra across the globe has been the status quo for hundreds of years. It's time to reinvent the modern orchestra. In honor of my friend and mentor, Tomio Taki -- a leader in the fashion industry and Parsons board member -- I've invited the talented students at Parsons to apply their creativity to the concert experience ... Concert attire is just the start. Our goal is to erase any pre-conceived notions of what a concert should look like and create an experience that is as inspiring as the music we perform.

By the end of the class, the students are expected to produce up to 10 prototypes of orchestral attire for men and women.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Francesca Zambello named artistic director of Washington National Opera

When Francesca Zambello was named artistic advisor to Washington National Opera last year, after the company became an official part of the Kennedy Center, a widely held assumption was that she would eventually emerge as artistic director.

The assumption proved correct.

On Thursday morning, WNO made it official that Zambello, one of the opera world's most respected and in-demand stage directors, has been named WNO's artistic director, effective Jan. 1.

She joins an administrative team that includes Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, WNO executive director Michael Mael and WNO music director Philippe Auguin. She will also direct one production per season, as well as oversee the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and the American Opera Initiative, a project recently launched by the company to commission new works.

In a statement, Zambello said that she will aim to maintain "the high standards set by my predecessors" and "will respect what appeals to our long-time patrons and supporters while at the same time ...

work hard to attract new audiences to opera."

"This is a challenge I embrace unequivocally, and I look forward to sharing more of my plans in the coming months," Zambello said.

As stage director, she has been responsible for some of WNO's most memorable productions of the past 11 years, including Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men," her company debut in 2001; Britten's "Billy Budd" in 2004; Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" in 2005 and 2010; and, especially, her imaginative and incisive version of Wagner's epic "Ring" Cycle, dubbed the "American Ring," which was aborted after "Siegfried" in 2009 due to funding concerns, but is scheduled to be presented complete in 2016.

The 2012-2013 season, which opens this weekend with Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," will feature a Zambello-directed production in the spring: Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" (this staging was introduced last season by Chicago Lyric Opera).

Prior to the fusion with the Kennedy Center, the primary artistic force for the company was mega-tenor Plaicdo Domingo, who began as the company's artistic director in the mid-1990s and was named general director in 2003. He stepped down in 2011.

Also playing a major role at WNO has been director of artistic operations Christina Scheppelmann, who departs this fall after a decade with the company to become CEO of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

September 12, 2012

On the Record: Complete solo piano music by Riccardo Malipiero

The classical recording business, which has had more postmortems than Howard Stassen (that'll give you younger folks something to Google), still keeps on ticking.

There is certainly not the same volume of yore, but that also means that there aren't quite as many additions to the overstuffed bins of Beethoven Fifth CDs.

I am constantly surprised by the esoteric fare that now pops up on disc, from obscure baroque gems right on through cutting-edge works where the ink on the scores is barely dry.

One recent item that caught my attention: The first recording of the complete solo piano music by Italian composer Riccardo Malipiero, performed by Jose Raul Lopez on a Toccata Classics release. Talk about off the beaten path.

The name Malipiero is not likely to register with many folks today, at least on these shores. Even people open to the more complex side of 20th-century music may not have encountered his work.

(His uncle, Gian Francesco Malipiero, left a larger mark as a composer, but is not really any better known to the average concertgoer or record buyer.)

With Riccardo Malipiero (1914-2003), we're talking about an ...

unapologetic modernist. Much of his work employs the 12-tone method pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and revered in some corners, reviled in others. Malipiero's embrace of that system was full-fledged, and, judging by his piano music, he achieved considerable expressive power in doing so.

No use pretending that Malipiero is easy listening, even in the pre-12-tone items. But Lopez makes the music quite approachable.

The pianist's grasp of the scores is sure, his articulation crystalline -- note the wild dash through the wildest contrapuntal flurries in Le rondini di Alessandro. The pianist's phrasing has plenty an expressive nuance, too, nowhere more so than in the inward-looking finale to the Diario secondo from 1985.

With movements that are often less than a minute (one of the 14 Variazioni lasts all of 10 seconds), Malipiero's keyboard works are filled with dashes of color; he's like a painter flicking a brush or making a swift swirl on a canvas. Lopez seems to thrive on these extraordinary little gestures, but he never loses sight of the big picture, the structure holding the individual components together.

The pianist also provides very detailed notes in the CD booklet that should help the adventurous listener along on this journey through a world of intricate ideas and fascinating sounds.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

2012 Kennedy Center Honors: Letterman, Hoffman, Makarova, Zeppelin, Buddy Guy

And the 35th annual Kennedy Center Honors  go to:

TV giant David Letterman, distinguished actor Dustin Hoffman, magical ballerina Natalia Makarova, influential blues guitarist Buddy Guy, and the potent rock band Led Zeppelin -- keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page, and singer Robert Plant will each receive one of the awards.

(2012 is a shutout year for classical music, but that genre is bound to get back into the picture before too long.)  

Here's a statement released Wednesday morning from Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein:

With their ...

extraordinary talent, creativity and tenacity, the seven 2012 Kennedy Center Honorees have contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world.

Buddy Guy is a titan of the blues and has been a tremendous influence on virtually everyone who has picked up an electric guitar in the last half century;

Dustin Hoffman’s unyielding commitment to the wide variety of roles he plays has made him one of the most versatile and iconoclastic actors of this or any other generation;

David Letterman is one of the most influential personalities in the history of television, entertaining an entire generation of late-night viewers with his unconventional wit and charm;

Natalia Makarova’s profound artistry has ignited the stages of the world’s greatest ballet companies and continues to pass the torch to the next generation of dancers;

and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant transformed the sound of rock and roll with their lyricism and innovative song structures, infusing blues into the sound of rock and roll and laying the foundation for countless rock bands.

The medallions will be presented to the artists Dec. 1 at the State Department during a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Dec. 2, a gala event will be held at the Kennedy Center and taped for broadcast on CBS Dec. 26.

For a photo gallery of all the honorees: 2012 Kennedy Center Honorees


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: A feline examination of life's meaning, or lack of same

If it's Wednesday, it must be Midweek Madness time. I thought you could handle some animal magnetism this time, so meet Henri, who gives new meaning to the concept of existential:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Midweek Madness

September 11, 2012

National Symphony announces outreach in DC neighborhoods

Representatives of the National Symphony Orchestra gathered on Tuesday at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the U Street fixture that counts President Obama among its satisfied customers, to announce a new community outreach project.

The venture includes a concert in January at Howard University with NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, principal pops conductor Steven Reineke and an eminent Howard U alumna -- soprano Jessye Norman.

The program will include ...

the Washington premiere of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4.

Here are more details from the press release:

The National Symphony Orchestra will make U Street, Howard University, Shaw, and Logan Circle the focus of its free community engagement activities in January 2013. Between January 8 and 14, members of the NSO will break into small ensembles to perform chamber music and educational activities as requested by approximately 20 community organizations.

The NSO’s performances during this period will be free of charge, thanks to a gift from Irene Pollin.

Among the partners are Howard University, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of its music department; D.C. Public Schools; the U Street Neighborhood Association; Florida Avenue Baptist Church; and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The majority of the schedule will be determined by the community itself, with the partner organizations gathering requests from their neighborhoods.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

A musical reflection on 9/11: Soothing Schumann

Here in Baltimore, the day looks uncannily like Sept. 11, 2001, with the same gorgeous sky, the air that holds the last breath of summer and an enticing hint of fall. The image of nature's beauty contrasted with the horrid events caused by humans who had no regard for humanity continues to haunt.

Like a lot of people, I find in certain works of music a kind of balm, and I thought I would share an example on this anniversary, as I have in previous years. It's the third movement from ...

Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet.

Not nearly as well known or as often performed as his Piano Quintet, the quartet contains what has to be counted among the composer's most deeply beautiful melodies, a song of the soul that seems perfect for a musical reflection on 9/11:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

September 10, 2012

Music in the Great Hall opens 39th season with French flourish

Virginia Reinecke, artistic director emerita of Music in the Great Hall, couldn't make it to the opening of the organization's 39th season Sunday afternoon;  the indefatigable nonagenarian keyboard artist is recuperating from shoulder replacement surgery (I think of her as the Bionic Pianist). But she would have had a ball.

To start, she would have loved the good turnout at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church; just as Virginia predicted, current artistic director Lura Johnson has lit a fresh fire under the concert series. The imaginative programming would likewise had pleased Virginia, the quality of the music-making even more.

The concert centered around the Bryant Park Quartet, a New York-based, six-year-old ensemble that features as first violinist Baltimore native Anna Elashvili, an alumna of Peabody Prep and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

In its local debut (it will be back for Sundays at Three in Columbia in February, Community Concerts at Second in May), the quartet came up with a ...

clever balancing act.

The concert opened with two groups of three -- three vocal pieces by Renaissance giant Josquin des Prez that turned out to be well-suited to adaptation; and the Three Pieces for String Quartet from 1914 by Stravinsky.

The juxtaposition of Josquin's harmonies and those of Stravinsky proved fascinating; the two sound-worlds, ages apart, somehow emerged as kindred spirits. The Bryant Park players drew out the piquant spice in both sets of works. The third of the Stravinsky's pieces, with its evocation of chant (the "Dies Irae" theme seems to poke through slyly), received an especially effective account.

The big-ticket items on the program formed another pair -- two exquisite masterworks from early 1890s French repertoire: Debussy's well-known String Quartet; and a big, infrequently performed score by his friend and supporter, Chausson, the Concert for violin, piano and string quartet.

(By the way, it's a common practice on these shores to call the Chausson score a concerto -- I've made that slip quite often myself -- but Chausson chose "concert," conjuring up the baroque term for pieces with contrasting groups of instruments.)

As with the Josquin/Stravinksy combo, it was rewarding to hear these two compositions in proximity. Chausson's musical language is steeped in the chromaticism of Franck, with a little Wagner on the side. Debussy carved out a different harmonic path entirely, but held onto some of the old forms as he did so. Chausson respected the younger composer's choices; Debussy returned that respect.

The Bryant Park group, well matched in tone and technique, delivered a vibrant performance of the Debussy quartet, achieving an especially refined level of phrasing in the closing minutes of the Andantino.

The players' sense of rhythmic and expressive vitality also served them well in the Chausson work, ensuring that they never slipped into a mere supporting role. The spotlighted parts were handled with considerable flair by BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney and Johnson at the piano.

If Carney sounded a little unsettled at the start, the violinist's tone soon warmed to its familiar purr. His phrasing had terrific sweep in the outer movements and a golden glow for the richly lyrical ones in between. Johnson summoned impressive bravura as needed -- Chausson demands a lot of it -- and balanced that with considerable nuance.

The six musicians maintained tight rapport as they tapped into the Concert's Brahmsian heat and French elegance. In the Grave movement, they also achieved a remarkable richness of expression that cast quite a spell.



Posted by Tim Smith at 11:26 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Van Cliburn, battling bone cancer, makes surprise appearance onstage

Van Cliburn, who is battling advanced bone cancer, made a surprise appearance the other day at a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the international piano competition that bears his name in Fort Worth.

I've posted video of the event below. It is really something to see.

The 78-year-old Cliburn arrived unexpectedly at the concert hall at 7:29 p.m., a minute before the performance was to have started. According to

a vividly detailed news report, he left his oxygen tank backstage and walked out with the support of Fort Worth Symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

(I couldn't help but recall the time in mid-1990s when I was backstage at the San Francisco Symphony's hall watching everyone go slightly crazy, wondering if the famed pianist would show for the season-opening concert. But in he walked from his car, mere seconds to spare, and headed directly onto the stage to play the Tchaikovsky concerto as if he hadn't a care in the world. Talk about a trouper.)

It is heart-warming to see and hear Cliburn at this Fort Worth event, to realize the courage it took for him to be there:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

September 6, 2012

Review: Rep Stage explores early gay rights history in 'The Temperamentals'

In those sage words of L. P. Hartley, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

For gay people, living in that "foreign country" meant camouflage, super-discretion, constant worry about what others might see or say.

Gays also developed their own foreign language of sorts, with code words that could prove useful in social settings. One such word, applied as a noun or adjective in the 1940s and '50s, was "temperamental," a substitute for "homosexual" (another, equally droll term in that period was "musical").

Jon Marans' 2009 play "The Temperamentals," which has been given an affecting production to open the 20th anniversary season of Rep Stage, shines a light on some of the most important and least known figures in mid-century gay history.

Today, the campaign for gay rights is widely considered to have been triggered in 1969 by the unexpected and fierce resistance to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. But the struggle started much earlier, most notably in 1950 across the country in Los Angeles.

There, in an act as daring in its way as the Stonewall riot, Harry Hay and a handful of friends formed the Mattachine Society to advocate for the right of homosexuals to live freely and openly.

Marans explores this story in a way that ...

neatly balances docudrama and personal drama. For the most part, historical details emerge without textbook dryness, and the political messages are not hammered home heavily.

This allows the interesting stories of the people involved, the lives that intersected in unpredictable ways in a tense era, to take the forefront and generate an engrossing work of theater.

In this respect, "The Temperamentals" is akin to Larry Kramer's autobiographical "The Normal Heart."

Both works focus on a specific struggle at a specific time -- Hay's determination to gain social and legal acceptance for what he termed "a sexual minority"; the demands by the Kramer-based character in "The Normal Heart" that the government acknowledge and work diligently to stop a devastating new illness affecting gay men.

Both plays center around someone who ruffled feathers and ended up ostracized from the organization he founded, accused of being too confrontational, too controlling.

"The Temperamentals" packs in a lot of detail and, using only five actors, a lot of characters (most of the performers take on multiple roles). Even Vincente Minnelli, the closeted film director, pops up -- Morans' way of raising the subject of Minnelli's wife, gay patron saint Judy Garland, is a particularly effective addition to the welcome humor deftly threaded through the play.

Nigel Reed is an engaging Harry, handling the gradual shift from nervous to confident to way-out-there with considerable nuance. And he is quite touching in the tender scenes involving Hay's love interest, Rudi Gernriech, the Austrian-born fashion designer later immortalized for the topless bathing suit.

Alexander Strain gives Rudi a good deal of grace and charm, along with a certain poetic depth. Rick Hammerly shines as Bob Hull, the most effeminate of the temperamental revolutionaries, and also the funniest. Hammerly makes Bob so endearing that the revelation of the character's racial insensitivity has all the more sting.

Brandon McCoy offers persuasive work as Dale Jennings, whose arrest galvanizes the other Mattachine members into risky legal action. Vaughn Irving does a solid turn as Minnelli and, especially, as Chuck Rowland, the "philosophical pessimist" in the initial Mattachine group.

The play calls on the performers to deliver periodic bursts of music, from the religious to the campy, which adds color and some endearing moments. The Rep Stage actors embrace this extra challenge gamely.

Director Kasi Campbell offers sensitive guidance throughout and keeps the action moving steadily all over JD Madsen's two-tiered set, which delivers atmosphere with a minimum of fuss -- and with the help of Dan Covey's expert lighting. (I'm not sure the blow-up of a magazine ad from World War II fits the otherwise subtle scenic design.)

There's a clever theatrical flourish before the performance begins. A vintage-looking TV set is active while the audience is waiting.

Snippets of 1950s broadcasts go by, including an alarmist public service film about the gay threat; and a cereal commercial featuring the stars of "Superman," among them gay actor Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen). The way the TV figures into the now obligatory, pre-curtain turn-off-electronic-devices message is delectable.

Not everything in "The Temperamentals" clicks. The dream sequence that opens the second act adds little to the drama or character development. And the final scene is anti-climactic, slipping a little too much into lecture mode for a lot of what-happened-to-them info.

But nothing gets in the way of the main thrust to the play, its vivid evocation of time and place, its testament to some brave souls determined to crack open the closet door and leave it ajar.

"The Temperamentals" runs through Sept. 16 at Howard Community College's Horwitz Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

September 5, 2012

Review: Everyman Theatre's season-opening production of 'Time Stands Still'

Sarah, the tough and gifted photographer at the center of the Donald Margulies 2010 play "Time Stands Still," has seen so much of the world through a lens that she can't always focus on what's just outside the frame in her own life.

The camera is as much a crutch for her as the cane she needs to maneuver around her Brooklyn apartment since returning from Iraq, badly wounded by a roadside bomb.

The healing process will be only partly physical. Sarah's internal injuries, so to speak -- those to the heart, to her value system -- are every bit as complex and acute, just as hard to treat.

Sarah's struggles with herself and the people closest to her generate an incisive drama about issues large and small in "Times Stands Still," which has inspired a taut, stylish production from Everyman Theatre.

The big questions about the human toll of war and the role of journalists chronicling it seem even more important to ask now, given how little attention Americans have paid to the supposedly ended conflict in Iraq, the possibly endless one in Afghanistan.

The other major concern in the play provides ...

potent fuel as well.

Sarah's relationship with longtime boyfriend James, a reporter who had a meltdown in Iraq, involves its own shifting demarcation lines, sudden flare-ups, tentative truces.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Margulies develops this material in ways that can keep an audience feeling just as insecure as an army detail patrolling on a dark night in a neighborhood known to harbor enemy sympathizers. Throughout, the playwright demonstrates his considerable gift for creating flesh-and-blood characters who speak a language that rings true, a language often spiced with a sharp-edged humor.

Director Jason Loewith has Everyman's cohesive cast moving through the work -- and the loft apartment conjured up in spot-on fashion by scenic designer Daniel Ettinger -- with remarkable naturalness and nuance.

Sarah is not an entirely likable character. She compartmentalizes emotions and responsibilities, and she tries hard to keep people at a distance -- not just the strangers she photographs in the horrifying wake of a terror attack; but those who know her best, who love her most.

Beth Hylton deftly captures Sarah's cynical surface, but also the power of her faith in what she is doing, and the vulnerable, tender place deep inside.

The actress is vibrantly partnered by Eric M. Messner as James, a journalist who once matched Sarah for courage, but finally broke from the strain of covering such a brutal, dehumanizing war.

Having left Sarah behind in Iraq, James experiences intense guilt over what then happened to her. Other feelings get in the way, though, after he discovers more about the time she spent there without him, and the anxiety triggered by this gives the character extra resonance.

Messner offers an insightful, richly layered performance that becomes especially affecting in last scene of the first act, when James surprises Sarah with talk of marriage, the step they never thought they needed.

The play involves one other couple. Richard, a photo editor, is a sturdy friend to both James and Sarah; his girlfriend, Mandy, is an event planner half Richard's age and, it seems at first, half his IQ. With these characters, Margulies revels in opportunities for a good deal of humor that, even when it resembles sitcom fare, comes as a welcome relief and release.

But there is much substance to both of these figures, too, a depth that comes through to telling effect in this staging thanks to two vibrant portrayals.

James Whalen taps into Richard's mix of level-headed, naive and compassionate features. Mandy Nicole Moore does a terrific job as Mandy from the moment she bubbles in with tacky balloons ("I didn't know which one to get, Welcome Back or Get Well Soon, so I got both"), to the scene when she suddenly asserts her own views and challenges Sarah's cold convictions.

All four characters develop persuasively. Some of us may question the paths they choose, the battles they fight, the barriers they erect or assault. But the way they reach their decisions makes for involving theater.

The evocative set (I especially liked the placement of a poster for the 1952 Marilyn Monroe movie "Don't Bother to Knock" just outside the front door) is subtly lit by Jay Herzog. LeVonne Lindsay's costumes neatly define the characters at the start of the first act -- shades of khaki and olive drab for Sarah and James, as if they both still have one foot back in the war; splashes of vibrant contemporary color from Mandy and Richard.

Some of the sonic-visual effects employed along the way come off as heavy-handed, especially the first volley, but that's a minor point. This is, typical of Everyman, a thoughtful and solidly integrated production of a play that has much to say.

"Time Stands Still" runs through Oct. 7.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:47 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Midweek Madness: A cetennial salute to John Cage

He was an amazing creative artist who taught the world that music is not defined by dots and bar lines on a page, or restrained by conventions of time and structure. Ironic, then, that his name was John Cage.

Nothing caged about this man, born 100 years ago on Sept. 5, 1912. He was the ultimate free thinker, the ultimate opener of doors and minds, the ultimate American maverick.

But Cage had quite a sense of fun, too, so I don't think he would mind being used for this installment of Midweek Madness. And what could be madder -- or more endearing -- than Cage's 1960 appearance on the TV game show, "I've Got a Secret"?

It's really something to see him politely putting up with host Gary Moore's skepticism and then, to nervous laughter from the audience, delivering a hearty performance of ...

"Water Walk" using a wild assortment of objects. Very, very cool.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

September 4, 2012

Personnel move at New York Times stirs concern in classical music world

Allan Kozinn, one of the most widely respected and admired critics at the paper for more than three decades, has been reassigned to a broader cultural beat.


It seems that Kozinn will not be reviewing for the Times at all. What a curious move for one of the greatest and, many of us thought, wisest of publications. Why would you ever want to marginalize such an incisive, engaging voice?

I know that there are at least two sides to every story. I know, too, that ...

things look very different from the outside of any institution. But something about this development just does not feel right, doesn't seem fair.

It is, at the very least, disheartening, especially to those of us who have been in music journalism a long time, have seen a lot of troubling things happen in the profession -- and to the people in it -- over the years. Stories like this hit home in a big way.

Norman Lebrecht broke the news Monday with a behind-the-scenes report that prompted a great deal of response; the comments on the site are worth a read. Lebrecht posted a New York writer's reaction on his site today. And Alex Ross speaks for many of us in his response to the news about Kozinn.

An online petition to reinstate Kozinn is circulating.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:34 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

Center Stage 'GO Pass' for 18-34-year-olds on sale Tuesday

OK, you lucky Gen-X-ers, or Y-ers or whatever, Center Stage is repeating its popular bargain introduced last year to help lower the median age of theatergoers.

The "GO Pass," available to those between the ages of 18 and 34, includes a ticket to all seven productions of Center Stage's 50th anniversary season.

The price of the pass is ...

$48 (just about the cost of a single seat paid by all those ancient folks who will be sitting nearby).

The pass goes on sale at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the box office, by phone (410-332-0033), or online.

More than 700 passes were sold last season, when the age range was 21 to 34. Passes to the 2012-13 season will be on sale through Sept. 30, or until the allotment runs out.

The GO Pass works like this: Reserve a set to any show, well in advance or on the spur of the moment just before curtain time (based on availability). Pass holders can also buy up to two extra tickets at $20 for each performance.

The golden anniversary season at Center Stage includes:

Arthur Miller's "An Enemy of the People" (adapted from Ibsen);

"The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe," by Stephen Thorne;

William Inge's classic "Bus Stop";

"The Mountaintop," a play by Katori Hall about the final night of Rev. Martin Luther King;

the premiere of "Mud Blue Sky," by Marisa Wegrzyn;

the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris;

and the premiere of "Beneatha's Place" by company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

September 3, 2012

Signature Theatre revives 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'

There's something very timely and very Texan about the early days of the 2012-13 theater season in the D.C. area.

At Arena Stage, the late, sassy columnist Molly Ivins is being channeled by Kathleen Turner in the entertaining play "Red Hot Patriot." Ivins famously skewered Texas politics in incisive, often hilarious fashion, and applied the same brilliant technique to the national scene (how she would have loved writing about this year's presidential race).

A little ways across the Potomac, Signature Theatre has resuscitated "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," the musical inspired by one of those true, only-in-the-Lone Star State stories -- the campaign to shut down a business that had peacefully catered to the hormonal needs of men for ages.

The show, which opened a long run Broadway in 1978 and was subsequently made into a much less successful film, doesn't necessarily leap to mind as the musical most in need of a revival. As you would expect, though, Signature makes a determined, entertaining case for it.

Maybe it's just me, but a musical that must have seemed like good ol' saucy fun when it was new seems a bit tacky, even cringe-inducing, in places all these years later. Its thickly applied veneer of sentimentality and romanticism doesn't hold up all that sturdily.

You have to set aside any pissant (to borrow a favorite "Whorehouse" word) qualms you may have about lil' ol' things like the exploitation of women.

In the first moments of the musical, you even have to swallow the notion that a farm girl who has run away from a sexually abusive father would head straight and excitedly to sex trade establishment known as the "Chicken Ranch" seeking employment; and that the madam would, in tender, motherly fashion, encourage this particular post-stress therapy.

That said, there's another ...

whole side to "Whorehouse," which is what Signature's artistic director, Eric Shaeffer, found to be a particularly compelling reason for this revival. As Schaeffer, who directs this production, writes in a program note, the show is fundamentally about hypocrisy and holier-than-thou types "who suddenly feel they have the right to tell you what to do and how you must do it."

With so many social agendas being pushed and so loudly these days, "Whorehouse" certainly delivers some contemporary relevance in high-kickin' style. And, boy howdy, some of the characters in this work still seem awfully familiar.

You've got the smarmy, toupee-topped TV personality Melvin P. Thorpe stirring up a bible-thumpin' crusade. When he declares there should be "no exceptions" in condemning certain things that decent, religiously grounded folks find objectionable, that phrase has a particularly fresh bite.

Then there's the terminally folksy governor adept at verbal gaffes ("It behooves the Jews and Arabs to settle their differences in a Christian manner") and prone to side-step every tough issue until pushed into a corner. (In his relatively few minutes of stage time, the governor embodies just about every distinctive trait of stereotypical Texan politicians that Ivins nailed with her prose.)

The lovable madam, Miss Mona, who just wants everyone to have a nice, clean time, and her longtime pal and protector, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, add plenty of spice to "Whorehouse."

It's still possible, though, to wish for more mileage from the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson. For all of the amusing local color, there are plenty of clunky moments, too.

And although the pleasant songs by Carol Hall contain clever lines and rhymes, many of the melodies tend to sound interchangeable.

Out of this variable material, Schaeffer ensures a generally effective splash of musical theater, with the help of an amiable cast.

Sherri L. Edelen fleshes out the role of Mona in high style (her bosom is almost an extra character). The acting is assured, the singing vibrant and richly nuanced. Edelen provides two of the production's highlights with her stylish delivery of "Bus from Amarillo" and "A Friend to Me" (the song Hall added for Ann-Margret in a 2001 revival).

Edelen is finely matched by Thomas Adrian Simpson as the Sheriff (the two are husband and wife offstage, which no doubt helps the chemistry.) He taps into the character's blustery and soft-hearted sides with equal flair, and he brings considerable vocal charm to "Good Old Girl."

Nova Y. Payton does a star turn as Mona's assistant Jewel; her rich voice and astute phrasing tears up the joint in "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'." Dan Manning chews the scenery delectably as the Governor. And Tracy Lynn Olivera shines as Doatsy Mae, sculpting her eponymous solo song, one of the more distinctive passages in the score, with an affecting naturalness.

The ensemble of hookers and hoofers cavort nimbly through Karma Camp's athletic choreography.

Collin Ranney's two-story, red-saturated set has an oddly antiseptic look that makes the place look rather like the best little chain hotel in Texas.

The production runs through Oct. 7 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 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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