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October 31, 2012

Midweek Madness: Something scary in 3-D for Halloween

OK, brace yourself. It's Halloween, and Midweek Madness wants to scare the heck out of you.

How about some scenes from the 3-D classic, "Dr. Tongue's Evil House of Pancakes"? Even the title has me quaking:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

October 30, 2012

More theater cancellations: Center Stage, Everyman

The storm-related cancellations continue to roll in.

Center Stage will not present "The Completely Fictional—Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe" Tuesday night, but will resume normal scheduling Wednesday. Tuesday's ticket holders will be contacted by the Center Stage box office to arrange for exchanges.

Everyman Theatre has also canceled Tuesday's scheduled performance of "Heroes." In this case, too, ticket holders will be contacted by the box office to make exchanges.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

'Wicked' performance Tuesday night at Hippodrome canceled

Another performance has been placed on the post-storm casualty list: "Wicked" will not go onstage Tuesday night at the Hippodrome as scheduled.

Ticket-holders may exchange for Wednesday or Thursday performances this week, or receive refunds, via Ticketmaster (410-547-7328) or other point of purchase.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

Evolution Contemporary Music Series postpones season-opener

The Evolution Contemporary Music Series was to have opened the season Tuesday night with a program devoted to the work of composer Kaija Saairaho at An die Musik.

Due to the the storm, the event has has been postponed until Nov. 28.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 29, 2012

Four great musical storms to accompany Hurricane Sandy

If you're in the thick of the nasty hurricane that has assaulted the East Coast, or sympathize with those of us who are, here's a soundtrack to go with it -- some great musical storms.

I have to start with Beethoven, of course, the gripping storm scene from the Symphony No. 6.

Then two atmospheric storms via Rossini -- I couldn't decide between the one from "The Barber of Seville" and the similarly constructed, if much more exciting, one from the "William Tell" Overture, so I included both.

Lastly, the fierce tempest depicted in one of the Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes":

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 27, 2012

Cornelius Meister leads Baltimore Symphony in program of Mozart, Brahms, Strauss

The Baltimore Symphony is on a roll.

Week after week, October has found the orchestra, led by an inspiring lineup of guest conductors, performing with an extra burst of expressive wattage and technical polish.

The latest case came Friday night, when the podium was turned over to Cornelius Meister, who made quite a splash with his BSO debut in 2011.

The German conductor was just as impressive this time around in a program of standards by Mozart, Brahms and Strauss. There was nothing standard about the performances at Meyerhoff Hall.

Just as the handling of a simple roast chicken can tell you a lot about a restaurant's quality, the delivery of a Mozart symphony can tell you a lot about a conductor's and an orchestra's.

Because Mozart's music is ...

so familiar and comforting, a routine account, where all the notes are in place and nicely paced, can seem satisfying enough. The real test is to see if those much-played notes can sound new and surprising, perhaps with refined clarity of articulation or a minute shift in dynamics, a subtle pullback or bracing surge in the tempo.

Meister drew all of those telling ingredients from the BSO in a richly satisfying interpretation of the "Haffner" Symphony. The most lyrical passages were infused with unusually graceful nuances. In the finale, the conductor revved up the action to generate a bracing speed that never obscured details.

The conductor's preference for dividing the violins on each side of the stage allowed the interplay of melodic lines to come through with added color. And those violins, not to mention the rest of the ensemble, demonstrated considerable fluency and tonal warmth.

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski stepped out front at the start of the program to tackle the solo roles in Brahms' passionate Double Concerto, enjoying smooth support from their colleagues throughout.

Carney spun a consistently sweet sound and many an exquisite phrase. Skoraczewski occasionally forced his tone, but his musicality always shone through. He and Carney blended to particularly beautiful effect in the flowing Andante.

To wrap things up, Meister turned to "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," the brilliant tone poem by Strauss. In masterful fashion, the conductor ensured that each episode of this wild and crazy musical tale communicated vividly, while maintaining the firmness of the score's structure.

The orchestra sounded terrific, whether adding fire to a crescendo or laying on subtle atmospheric coloring; brass and woodwind soloists made sizzling contributions.

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


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 26, 2012

On the Record: Elina Duni Quartet, which plays Baltimore Sunday

One of the more intriguing CDs to cross my desk lately is "Matane Malit" ("Beyond the Mountain"), from the Elina Duni Quartet, released on the ECM label.

Duni is an Albanian singer who puts a seductive, jazzy spin on songs from her country, backed by the sophisticated talents of pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Norbert Pfammatter.

The distinctive sound of the language has its own musical quality as the warm-voiced Duni burrows into each melody and spins out vibrantly nuanced phrasing.

The quartet visits Baltimore this weekend to give a concert (8 p.m. Sunday) in an ideally intimate space for these performers -- An die Musik. Ought to be a great way to spend the eve of the "Frankenstorm" apparently heading our way.

Here's a brief video about the new CD:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:57 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

With Edgar Allan Poe on my mind, sharing a musical version of 'Annabel Lee'

This week, "The Completely Fictional -- Utterly True -- Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe" opened at Center Stage, offering a hefty reminder of Baltimore's most iconic former resident.

I will have more to say about the play shortly. Meanwhile, I wanted to share a song that started running through my head anew.

It's my favorite musical setting of Poe-etry -- "Annabel Lee," by the English composer Henry Leslie.

I think of it as a perfect example of the Victorian drawing room ballad and an awfully effective treatment of Poe's bittersweet words, with a well-crafted melody that works its way quickly into the ear and the telltale 6/8 meter long associated with the sea. Seems like it should be much better known.

I don't think the song could be more elegantly sung than it is here by the late Robert Tear, accompanied at the piano by Andre Previn:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:01 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

October 25, 2012

BSO News: Orchestra fellowship program; Alsop on CNN with Amanpour

The Baltimore Symphony has launched an Orchestra Fellows Program in collaboration with Sphinx, the extraordinarily productive, Detroit-based non-profit organization devoted to increasing diversity in the arts. A primary focus of Sphinx is to provide opportunities for Black and Latino musicians.

The first recipient of the BSO's fellowship, a one-year mentoring program, is violinist Tami Lee Hughes, who began her tenure performing in the orchestra earlier this month.

In addition to participating in concerts and working with OrchKids and the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra, Hughes will be mentored by music director Marin Alsop and BSO players.

Associate principal second violinist Ivan Stefanovic and violinist Gregory Kuperstein will help prepare Hughes for auditions with other orchestras.

The Baton Rouge-born Hughes, who will maintain a blog during her BSO fellowship, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, a master's and doctorate from the University of Michigan.

She has a wide range of orchestra, chamber music and solo experience, and has been featured on several recordings, including "Legacy: Violin Music of African-American Composers" (Albany Records).

In other BSO news, 

Alsop will be Christiane Amanpour's guest on the CNN program "Amanpour" Thursday, scheduled to air in our time zone at 3 and 5 p.m. It will also be available for online viewing.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 24, 2012

Midweek Madness: Cheeky Chico

I don't know about you, but I really, really, really need some levity this midweek point. So how about some pianistic diversion from that master of digital insouciance, Chico Marx?

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

October 23, 2012

Classical Revolution to participate in TEDxMidAtlantic conference

A dozen members of the Baltimore chapter of Classical Revolution, which I includedin my Sunday story about the city's expanding alt-classical scene, will take part in the TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 conference in Washington on Saturday.

The players, including several Peabody Conservatory students and alumni, will perform works by Bach and Scott Lee, a composer doing his graduate studies at Peabody. The musicians will be joined by members of the D.C. chapter of Classical Revolution. Rafaela Dreisin, director of the Baltimore chapter, will lead the discussion at the conference, which is presented by TED, a "nonprofit organization devoted to ideas worth spreading."

Other speakers at the 2012 conference include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, astrophysicist Mario Livio, and Carlyle Group co-founder and Kennedy Center chairman David Rubinstein.

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

October 22, 2012

Pro Musica Rara's season-opener features Scottish songs arranged by Beethoven

Pro Musica Rara's 38th season opened Sunday afternoon with a gem of a program and stylish music-making to go with it.

Folk songs from Scotland, arranged by Beethoven, had a prominent spot in the concert. These items provide a fascinating glimpse into a little known side of Beethoven, who arranged a great number of songs from Scotland, Wales and Ireland (on commission) in between penning some of his most famous and important works.

It may be tempting to dismiss these songs as inconsequential, but that would be a mistake. The composer took the job of arranger seriously, honoring the folk melodies fully and fashioning vivid accompaniment for piano, violin and cello.

The quality and character of Beethoven's Scottish Songs emerged engagingly in the Pro Musica performance at Towson University's Center for the Arts.

British-born tenor Rufus Muller brought considerable elegance of phrase to the material, his voice growing warmer and sweeter as the afternoon progressed.

His account of "Sunset" and "Faithfu' Johny" proved especially eloquent, and he also had no trouble uncorking the jaunty spirits of such numbers as "The Shepherd's Song" and "Sally in Our Alley" (which he embellished delectably).

Violinist Cynthia Roberts, cellist Allen Whear and fortepianist Christoph Hammer backed Muller with playing of admirable nuance and color. The distinctive tonal palette of the period instruments added greatly to the experience.

On their own, the three players also did impressed work in ...

Beethoven's C minor Trio (Op. 1, No. 3), tapping into the music's drama and lyricism. The soft ending was articulated with particular sensitivity.

There was room, too, for instrumental arrangements of folk songs that found a place in Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy," and Geminiani's baroque treatment of "Lady Bothwel's Lament."

A group of Haydn's English songs opened the concert. Muller encountered some uneven patches here, but his shaping of "She Never Told Her Love" was quite stirring, as was Hammer's sensitive keyboard work -- the pianist's playing was not always spotless Sunday, but it had terrific dynamic and rhythmic nuances all afternoon.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 20, 2012

Classy music-making from Juanjo Mena, Benedetto Lupo, Baltimore Symphony

When you hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play with the kind of fire it demonstrated Friday night, there's no debating that the musicians deserve the salary increases that have eluded them over the past decade because of assorted financial setbacks in the organization.

This week's news of a deficit from last season that could exceed $750,000 must have the players suspecting that raises will once again be hard to come by when another contract is negotiated next year.

With luck and fresh energy, things may well look rosier by then, but right now, the cloud over Meyerhoff Hall has to affect morale onstage. Not that it could be detected Friday.

The orchestra, led by one its favorite guest conductors, Juanjo Mena, gave a roof-rattling account of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 that ranks among the most visceral experiences I can recall in that place in some time.

The strings summoned a deep, rich tone for each lyrical theme, and proved fearless and crisp in the opening whirlwind of the finale, which Mena took at a wonderfully maniacal clip. Note too the sensitivity to dynamics from these players in the pizzicato third movement.

Lots of expressive molding came from the woodwinds, and waves of power from the brass (a few raw notes proved less problematic in such an intense performance).

Mena's role in all of this excitement was considerable. The Spanish conductor managed ...

to make an over-exposed piece sound freshly compelling, often with subtle touches of phrasing and, in the last movement, with an intriguing way of cutting out the usual breathing room before the start of the second theme.

The Tchaikovsky item was not the only memorable achievement. Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 also delivered intense rewards.

The soloist was the excellent Benedetto Lupo, making his BSO debut. It has been a long while since I heard the Italian pianist, who took the bronze at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition.

The qualities I admired back in the 1990s were very much in evidence Friday -- unfailing beauty of tone matched with solid technique and refined musicality.

Lupo brought clarity of articulation and piquant phrasing to the outer movements, and achieved poetic warmth in the richly atmospheric Adagio (unfortunately, members of the audience went in for a bout of competitive coughing at this point in the concerto).

Throughout, the pianist enjoyed attentive support from Mena and finely detailed playing from the BSO, which seemed to relish the piquant harmonies of this brilliantly constructed score.

The program opened with three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances from Op. 72. There was sufficient character and rhythmic life, but also some ragged playing and thick textures. A minor disappointment, though, in an otherwise first-rate night of music-making.

The program will be repeated Sunday at 3.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 19, 2012

Baltimore Symphony faces deficit of $750,000 or more

After four years of balanced budgets, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is anticipating a deficit of between $750,000 and $800,000 from the last fiscal year.

The final figure will not be known until the official audit is completed later this fall.

“Obviously, we are not happy about this,” said Paul Meecham, the BSO’s president and CEO.

“Even with increased ticket revenue and cost-cutting last season, that was not enough to make up for softness in fundraising. And we are seeing more of these challenges as we move forward this season.”

The budget last year was $25.5 million; the current budget is about $26.5 million.

In an effort to avoid another deficit this season, trims to expenses will be made. Administrative staff will take a one-week furlough at the end of the calendar year.

One program has been changed; in March, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 will be substituted for ....

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which would have required the hiring of extra players.

“We’re sorry that the staff is having a furlough imposed on them,” said violinist Gregory Mulligan, head of the players committee. “We’re disappointed at the deficit, but not surprised. If you look around the country, it seems that deficits seem to pop up when a contract with the musicians is about to run out.”

The current three-year contract at the BSO expires next September. Meecham said there were no plans to change conditions of that contract. The players have made concessions for several years to help the orchestra balance its books, accepting repeated pay freezes and cuts. Base pay was to have risen to about $90,000 this season, but that was scaled back to less than $70,000.

“Musicians’ salaries are less than they were in 2003,” Mulligan said. “But in the past 12 years, the budget has gone from $20 million to nearly $27 million. We are hoping that the organization is still committed to having a world-class orchestra in Baltimore.”

The separate board of directors that controls the orchestra’s endowment, currently valued at about $48 million, has offered to increase the annual draw from $2.5 million to $3 million if the BSO can match that extra $500,000 with new contributions.

A successful campaign to raise those matching funds, along with cost-cutting measures, “would get us to a balanced budget,” Meecham said. “I have measured confidence. We’re trying to be preventive so we don’t go back to the years of deficits the BSO once had.”

Among the factors putting pressure on the BSO’s finances are a $500,000 rise in pension obligations and a continued drop in government and corporate funding.

The BSO has been on generally firm financial footing since 2006, when its accumulated debt of more than $20 million was retired by using endowment money. Cash reserves, donations and revenue helped the organization avoid deficits in recent years.

Several orchestras around the country have experienced increased financial pressures, especially since the recession hit, and there is more talk in the industry about devising new business models.

A labor dispute at the Indianapolis Symphony ended this week after the musicians accepted a salary cut or more than 30 percent and a reduction of weeks of service; the orchestra will no longer operate year-round, as the BSO and about 15 others do.

Meecham said that no changes to the BSO’s 52-week status are anticipated but that “we have to look at all options.” A campaign to increase the endowment is in the discussion stage; a larger endowment would provide a cushion against declining revenue and contributions.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:02 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

October 18, 2012

A memento of Lotte Lenya on eve of Baltimore Lieder Weekend's Weill concert

Thursday happens to be Lotte Lenya's birthday (1898-1981), and that reminds me that the annual Baltimore Lieder Weekend at An die Musik has a cabaret theme this year, starting Friday night with a program featuring works by Kurt Weill -- Lenya's husband.

There will be cabaret songs by Schoenberg, Poulenc, Satie and others over the course of the Lieder Weekend, which features soprano Samantha Malk, baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Daniel Schlosberg. Sounds like a great match-up of colorful repertoire and artists.

Back to Lenya. To honor her birthday, and get you in the mood for Friday's Weill night, here's ...

a clip of her singing "Pirate Jenny" from Weill's "Three-Penny Opera." What a mesmerizing presence Lenya was, even if her voice could be, well, you know.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 17, 2012

Midweek Madness: Another testy political debate

I realize some of you may have had enough of debates between testy candidates, or arguments afterward over the effectiveness of the moderator. Well, it could be a lot worse.

For your Midweek Madness diversion, here's the classic SCTV debate during a city council campaign in Mellonville, where the newsman serving as moderator was ...

just a wee bit less than impartial, and where the choice of candidates ranged from ditsy to delusional to dangerous:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Midweek Madness

October 16, 2012

Review: Iron Crow Theatre premieres Megan Gogerty's 'Bad Panda'

The phrase "all aboard" gets an amusing twist in "Bad Panda," the Megan Gogerty play receiving its premiere from Iron Crow Theatre. Then again, everything gets a twist in this tale of sexual awakening, procreation and preservation.

Set in a private animal reserve, run by unseen wardens ("the royal they"), the plot concerns the last two pandas on earth and their attempt to mate, an attempt hampered ever so slightly by a decidedly offbeat case of opposites attracting -- the male panda becomes infatuated with a male crocodile.

Any anthropomorphizing can be dangerous, prone to get too cutesy or gimmicky or both.

Gogerty doesn't entirely avoid those traps, but she ...

uses the animal kingdom device cleverly to address issues of family and sexual orientation, along with the environment and scientific engineering. And she wraps all of it around a simmering fear of the unknown, the untried, the unspoken.

If there aren't quite enough surprises along the way, moments that push through the sitcom outer layer to reach some deeper place, there are some nicely poetic moments.

Here's Gwo Gwo, the male panda, telling Chester the crocodile about the day everything went bad for pandas: "The sky turned peculiar. And there was wind. Like the whole sky wanted to be someplace else."

Mostly, though, there's a droll touch, which keeps things spinning in entertaining fashion (Chester: You pandas. You don’t kid around. Gwo Gwo: We’re endangered. We don’t have time).

The work, developed over the past few years by the now Baltimore-based Generous Company's WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, is well served by the Iron Crow staging and makes a good fit at Theatre Project. Director/designer Joseph Ritsch has created an effective space for the action and has it moving fleetly. The cast, wryly costumed by Rebecca Eastman, does a persuasive job.

David Brasington gives a delectable performance as Gwo Gwo, who just can't work up much enthusiasm for all that mating stuff -- the ritual, yes, just not the ultimate act. The actor easily brings out Gwo Gwo's sweetly naive nature, and also reveals a flair for deadpan, which helps generate some of the best laughs in the show.

Adam Cooley's Chester, the "apex predator," is a fun fellow, especially when slipping into full hey-girlfriend-snap-snap mode. Katie O. Solomon brings an effective spark to the role of Marion, the would-be mama, and she makes imitation panda moves with aplomb.

In the end, the play feels rather slight, but it certainly sheds an intriguing new light on the concept of "unnatural acts."

"Bad Panda" runs through Oct. 27 at Theatre Project.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Mayor's Cultural Town Meeting to be held Wednesday

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will hold a Cultural Town Meeting, presented in conjunction with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the American Visionary Art Museum.

The event, open to the public at no charge, will include a keynote address by Randy Cohen, vice president of Research and Policy for Americans for the Arts, discussing the report released in June, Arts & Economic Prosperity IV: The Economic Impact of Nonprofits Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences in the City of Baltimore.

The public is invited to submit questions for the mayor in advance via the Cultural Alliance or Twiiter (#BmoreTownHall).

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:29 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

October 15, 2012

Weekend wrap-up: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Brentano String Quartet

In typical form, the Concert Artists of Baltimore opened its 26th season Sunday afternoon with an imaginative (if overlong) program and avid music-making.

Artistic director Edward Polochick focused on two composers, Mendelssohn and Britten, and chose two works by each -- something instrumental that is widely performed, something choral that is not.

The Britten half of the concert opened with ...

the Simple Symphony for string orchestra, a work from the his 21st year that sounds remarkable mature.

Polochick tapped into the score's lyrical heart, the "Sentimental Sarabande," with rewarding results, drawing from the players considerable tonal warmth and intense phrasing. The bubbly movements, particularly the pizzicato one, had plenty of vitality.

Cantata Misericordium, a telling of the Good Samaritan parable, is something of a mini-opera, fueled by Britten's wonderfully piquant harmonic language and, above all, his keen sense of word-setting and ability to generate vivid drama with an economy of means.

Polochick shaped the music with an ear for detail and a storng sense of momentum. Baritone James Dobson, as the hapless traveler, did not have quite enough power for the most heated moments, but offered telling expression. A few rough edges aside, tenor John Weber, as the Samaritan, sang with admirable sweetness of tone. The chorus sounded firm and bright; the orchestra came through strongly.

The Mendelssohn portion of the program opened with something from that composer's 21st year, a setting of Psalm 115. It's not exactly an earth-shattering score, but it has a vibrant urgency that Polochick seized upon. The choristers and instrumentalists again did sturdy work; the soloists made their contributions effectively.

To close, Mendelssohn's ever-popular Violin Concerto, with former BSO concertmaster Herbert Greenberg as soloist. He gave a mostly tidy performance that could have used, especially in the transition between the second and third movements, a splash or two more of color and charm. Polochick and the ensemble provided smooth support.

A little while later, the Brentano String Quartet opened the 2012-13 Shriver Hall Concert Series in brilliant fashion.

The group's account of Haydn's "Joke" Quartet was so supple and wry, the players so beautifully meshed in tone and temperament, that the program could have ended right there and I would have considered it a full evening.

It was a great demonstration of the Brentano's abilities, not to mention a reaffirmation of Haydn's genius and geniality (you just know Haydn would be the most fun among all the music giants to have a beer -- in my case, a gin and tonic -- with).

Ferruccio Busoni was such a big deal, as pianist and composer, in the late 19th-century and first two decades of the 20th, but only rarely acknowledged these days. The Brentano ensemble did its part to honor him by programming his Quartet No. 2, an intriguing work of dark lyricism and sometimes quirky paths.

The piece was played with conviction and character, not to mention technical finesse. Violist Misha Amory's rich-toned phrases proved particularly effective. (In what might be a mini-Busoni boom, pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is scheduled to play a work by the composer later this season at Shriver Hall.) 

There was much to savor as well in Brahms' A minor Quartet (Op. 51, No. 2), which found the musicians again producing a superbly cohesive sound, articulating with great clarity and communicative flair.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Monday Musings: The value of National Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach

So many factors go into the choice of an orchestra's music director these days. It often seems that music is actually pretty far down on the list.

I still recall with horror witnessing a League of American Orchestras session in 2004 when a panel of industry folks did a role-playing exercise to see how a fictional orchestra should deal with a fictional conductor.

His transgressions included being Russian-born with a limited command of English, limited interest in fundraising activities, limited knowledge of American repertoire, blah blah.

Oh, yes, he was also a great musician who really inspired the orchestra.

The prevailing attitude during the exercise was how that the guy had to go since, despite the artistic quality, he was obviously not a model modern music director for an American orchestra.

I have never forgotten that awful event -- and the badly disguised reference to then-Baltimore Symphony music director Yuri Temirkanov. But it was instructional about non-artistic agendas in the classical music business, agendas typically driven by the endless need to find money and build up audiences. Many people are willing to put music-making aside if it means an advantage in marketing, development, p.r., etc.

I am still old-school enough to believe that ...

the art should always come first. But I also recall how the BSO faced declining audiences and contributions during the Temirkanov era, despite all the galvanizing performances he generated. So I know it's tricky to strike a balance of goals and needs.

All things considered, I'd say the BSO found a workable balance with Marin Alsop's appointment. I'd say the National Symphony did, too, with the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach.

What I especially like about Eschenbach's arrival is that his selection seems to have been made almost exclusively from an artistic perspective, focusing on what he could do for and with the musicians. (I know there's was more to it -- there always is -- but I did say almost exclusively.)

And what Eschenbach has been doing is make the orchestra sound better. It seems to me, each time I make the trek to the Kennedy Center that the NSO is firmer, warmer, more full of personality. Sure, there still may be a ragged entrance here, an unfocused tone there, but the overall level is higher.

Eschenbach's value goes much deeper, though, at least in my book. There are other conductors who could get the orchestra to improve in various and important technical ways. But this man is also able to generate unusually interesting results onstage, thanks to a strongly individualistic streak.

You are not likely to mistake Eschenbach's Beethoven of Tchaikovsky for that of, say, his NSO predecessor, Leonard Slatkin, or Alsop or any number of others. Invariably, something happens that reveals Eschenbach's imprint on the score, not just the composer's.

Horrors, you say? Yes, I know some of you hate the notion of interpretive freedom. Sorry, but I see music as perpetually damp cement, always ready to accept a fresh signature that will then be wiped clean, waiting for the next interpreter.

I confess that I just love detecting Eschenbach's signature, even when it is relatively small -- perhaps a softer pianissimo than usual (like the one he called for a couple weeks ago early in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet"), or a louder fortissimo, or a slightly broader pacing for a lyrical phrase in a score.

Invariably, I find myself affected, feeling more involved with the music, more grateful to be hearing it. That's how it was with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 the other night.

In this case, it wasn't so much that Eschenbach, conducting from memory, applied all sorts of surprising personal touches to the music. The difference came in how deeply immersed he became in the notes, how he made them speak in freshly compelling ways.

The Adagio, which he molded with great sensitivity and a natural flow, proved emotionally gripping, with a terrific build up to the cymbal-accented climactic point. The Scherzo had terrific drive, the trio section remarkable charm. The outer movements bristled with drama.

In the end, the long symphony felt short. I'd call that a kind of magic, and further evidence of Eschenbach's artistic power.

It was wonderful, too, to hear Henze's orchestration of Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," especially given how sensitive Eschenbach was to the subtle Mahler-like coloring in the arrangement (contralto Nathalie Stutzmann was the subtle, penetrating soloist)

The evening was rewarding on many levels, even if there were some passages that would have been re-taken if this had been a recording session. Like I said, the NSO in not a flawless band (are there any?). But for intensity of focus, for expressive energy, this was a telling example of the orchestra's current level.

It was also one more example of how potent Eschenbach's guidance from the podium can be, how pivotal an agent he is in producing musical chemistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:48 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

October 12, 2012

'Wicked' cast members in benefit for Moveable Feast, Broadway Cares

Cast members from the dynamic national touring production of "Wicked" running through Nov. 4 at the Hippodrome will head across town one night next week after a performance to take part in a great cause -- a fundraiser for Baltimore's Moveable Feast and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

The cabaret, "Witches' Night Out," is set for at 11:30 p.m. Thursday at Grand Central in Mount Vernon.

Company members have a long history of lending their support to charitable causes, raising more than $2 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and local community AIDS charities during the seven years "Wicked" has been touring.

With "Witches Night Out," the performers have devised a showcase to display their beyond-Oz talents.

Admission to the Grand Central show is $20 ($40 for front row "VIP" seating), available at the door, which open at 11 p.m. Tickets are tax-deductible; all proceeds will benefit the charities.

A live auction will also be part of the event. Goodies being auctioned off include backstage visits to the Hippodrome to see Elphaba get her green coating applied, and a chance to be have your very own green-over from a "Wicked" makeup artist.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Hippodrome

October 11, 2012

Review: Single Carrot presents politically charged play by Caryl Churchill

It's quite the political season onstage in Baltimore. Two plays provide extremely different experiences while striking a few of the same chords about government, corruption, duplicity.

"An Enemy of the People," the vintage Ibsen/Miller drama at Center Stage, takes a couple hours-plus and lots of long paragraphs to make its loaded points. Over at Single Carrot Theatre (it's temporary MICA home, that is), Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" from 2006 packs its hefty sermonizing into about 45 minutes of single words and sentence fragments.

Neither work is entirely satisfying in structure and content, and both tend to hammer their points heavily. But the compact, two-character Churchill piece does so in a most intriguing manner, adding a layer of sexuality to the discourse.

The playwright focuses on -- takes aim at, most of the time -- the United States and its policies, using a character named Sam (as in Uncle) as a stand-in. Another man, called Jack in the first version of the play, leaves his wife and children to live with Sam.

Concerned that audiences envisioned the play as a reference to ...

the bromance between George W. Bush and Tony Blair (remember that?), Churchill changed Jack -- easily associated with Union Jack -- to Guy. In this version, the play reached New York in 2008.

The essential element of one man's love affair with America, which becomes the inevitably dominant partner in the relationship, remains the same. The odd mix of elements at work here produce some fascinating exchanges, like this one, alternating between Guy and Sam:

love it when you say

most destructive power ever in the history of the

yes yes

and now space


eternity filled with our

love you so

more and more

The Single Carrot production, directed with a vivid touch by Ben Hoover, seizes on the sensual element in all of this. There is nothing coy about the depiction of these two men, no attempt to keep everything on some heady, symbolic plane. Sam (Elliott Rauh) and Guy (Dustin C. T. Morris) are all over each other from the start.

The whole progression of an affair -- from being easily physical to easily hurt and back again -- unfolds in telling detail, played out on a simple set. And several lines that might pass by innocently enough (not that there's a totally innocent line in this sparse text) get the most suggestive reading possible.

But the sexual tension in the play is a ruse, a disguise for the main business of dissecting American foreign policy, especially relations with dictatorships around the world.

In staccato, often graphically descriptive bursts of dialogue, several decades' worth of events are conjured up, from Vietnam to Libya (Churchill could not have known when she wrote this how some of phrases, such as "explosion at the embassy" or "Afghanis turned against us after all we," would carry so much additional weight today).

Rauh and Morris are admirably adept at the play's distinctive patter, where thoughts need only be partially expressed by one character and finished by the other. This process could come off as a pretentious word-association game, but the actors achieve an easy, natural flow with it.

They also put across the relationship element with equally impressive nuance. Rauh vibrantly captures the seductive, controlling side of Sam. Morris nails Guy's jumbled bursts of doubt, guilt and puppy-like determination to please.

There are some strong visual images along the way -- Rauh, alone onstage, reciting an angry litany of torture practices as he furiously slices a couple of carrots; Morris constructing two piles of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that seem of no consequence at all, until the phrase "no no no the towers" is suddenly spoken.

"Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" runs through Oct. 21. The first several performances were at MICA's Brown Center; the show moves Friday to MICA's Studio Center.



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

SONAR, Evolution provide contemporary lift to Baltimore's 2012-13 season

Baltimore's new music scene lost a valued player this season with the suspension of Mobtown Modern, but that still leaves some other great activists, including SONAR and the Evolution Contemporary Music Series.

SONAR has somehow slipped under under my radar (rim shot, please) in recent years, but I hasten to give a shout out to the ensemble's 2012-2013 season, which opens Friday with a program that runs the gamut from A to Z -- literally, as Joe Biden would say.

The group, founded in 2007 by violinist Colin Sorgi, focuses on American fare in this concert, including John Adams' "Road Movies," John Cage's "Variations IV," Elliott Carter's "Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux," Aaron Copland's Sextet, Kevin Puts' "Credo," and´╗┐ the premiere of ...

"Fractal Miniatures" by SONAR's composer-in-residence Roger Zare.

This intriguing lineup will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday Old St. Paul's.

SONAR's season continues Nov. 29 at the Pratt Library with string quartets by George Crumb and Georg Friedrich Haas (the latter's Quartet No. 3 will be performed, as instructed, in darkness).

Also slated this season from SONAR: Music of Steve Reich and John Harbison in February; an April concert devoted to pieces by six composers studying at Peabody (the audience favorite will be commissioned to write a work for SONAR); and a celebration in May of Gyorgy Ligeti.

The Evolution Contemporary Music Series, founded by composer Judah Adashi, opens its eighth season with a program devoted to the equally cerebral and sensual music of Kaija Saariaho on Oct. 30 at An die Musik.

Each subsequent presentation will likewise offer a variety of works by a provocative composer: Gyorgy Kurtag in February, Missy Mazzoli in March, and John Luther Adams in May. Mazzoli and Adams are slated to participate in person.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

October 10, 2012

Midweek Madness: Rare bubblegum, funk from Barbra Streisand

This week's tantalizing event for Barbra Streisand fans -- of which there are none more devoted than moi -- is the just-out "Release Me," a collection of decades-old tracks that never saw the light of an album.

I will have much more to say about this fascinating CD later -- OK, I have to say right now that it would be worth having if only for "Willow Weep For Me," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and the "Finian's Ranbow"/"Brigadoon" medley.

But, this being Midweek Madness day, and what with Fab Babs firmly on my mind, I could not resist sharing a couple of really off-beat mementos of her musical past.

From her mercifully brief bubblegum period, a single released in 1968: "Our Corner of the Night."

This sounds like something left over from a Petula Clark or Leslie Gore session. Yes, it is kind of awful, but, hey, it's Streisand, so I have a strange affection for it.

Then, how about some get-down-and-get-funky Barbra from the '70s? Lawdy, this excerpt from a recording session leaves me simply speechless.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

October 9, 2012

Sarah Brightman to perform at Modell/Lyric in February

Sarah Brightman, the popular, silvery voiced soprano and actress, will give a concert Feb. 19 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric.

Brightman, who originated the role of Christine in her then-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," went on to become an international star of the stage and of recordings (more than 30 million sold).

Tickets to the concert go on sale Monday at 10 a.m. through and by phone (800-745-3000).

Brightman's Baltimore stop is part of a world tour tied to a new album, “Dreamchaser,” scheduled for release in January.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

October 7, 2012

Like the Nats and Orioles, the NSO and BSO score home runs

The Nats and the Orioles aren't the only ones who have been doing impressive work lately.

Washington's orchestral team, the National Symphony, hit a couple right out of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Friday night. On Saturday, the Baltimore Symphony did the same at Meyerhoff Hall. In both cases, the coach had a lot to do with the results.

The combination of keen intellect and emotional warmth that Christoph Eschenbach brings to the NSO podium as music director could be felt at every turn in a program built around a theme of intense love.

The tragic passions at the heart of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and two Tchaikovsky tone poems, "Romeo and Juliet" and "Francesca da Rimini," were balanced by the haunting beauty of the late Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs."

The latter carries its own tragic layer. The composer set five of Pablo Neruda "One Hundred Love Sonnets" to music expressly for his wife, revered mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She died from breast cancer in 2006, a year after performing the premiere; Lieberson died from lymphoma in 2011.

It is impossible ...

not to feel a shiver hearing the first lines of the last song in this subtly textured work: "My love, if I die and you don't/my love, if you die and I don't/ let's not give grief an even greater field." This poem inspired the composer to fashion a melodic line of particular eloquence and an orchestral fabric that generates a haunting glow.

Kelley O'Connor, who worked on the songs with Lieberson, was the NSO's admirable soloist, attentive to nuances of text and communicating intimately. A memorable example came in the third song -- the way she subtly underlined the emotion of the plea "No estes lejos de mi un sola dia" ("Don't go far from me for a single day"); and the deep tonal beauty she summoned to caress the slowly repeated word at the end, "muriendo" ("dying").

Eschenbach proved a supple, attentive collaborator and drew from the orchestra radiant playing. The slow fade-out of that third song and the shimmering colors of the subtly Latin rhythm-inflected fourth were achieved with particular sensitivity. The orchestra's final sounds in the work seemed to envelop the hall in a gentle embrace.

The rest of the concert reconfirmed Eschenbach's distinctive musicality, starting at the top with the "Tristan" Prelude and Liebestod, which he took at exquisitely slow tempos, without letting the tension sag. You just don't find conductors willing to choose tempos like that every day. This is what I call rapture.

The orchestra's playing, alas, was somewhat ragged here, especially in the opening few minutes. But the musicians may have had trouble focusing, what with the rude cell phone and, even worse, positively Vesuvian eruptions from innumerable coughers in the audience.

The second half of the program, devoted to the pair of Tchaikovsky sound-dramas, yielded intense rewards.

Again, the conductor offered decidedly individualistic approaches, filled with telling gradations of tempos and, in particular, dynamics (Eschenbach never met a pianissimo he couldn't bring down an extra shade). He had the famous love theme in "Romeo and Juliet" surging mightily; his spacious shaping of the coda carried great emotional weight.

Eschenbach plunged into "Francesca da Rimini" with equal conviction. It's common to hear this work denigrated as inferior Tchaikovsky, but I suspect that's because most people don't encounter performances that are as alive with impassioned character as this one. The NSO sounded splendid, with sumptuous strings, colorful winds, fearless brass and percussion.

Friday's encounter gave me such a rush I did not expect to experience another one anytime soon. Darned if I didn't.

On Saturday, the BSO offered one of those fun sleeper concerts -- ho-hum on paper, visceral in person.

Two German artists, making their BSO debuts with this program, impressed greatly -- conductor Markus Stenz, who proved to be a galvanizing presence; and violinist Kolja Blacher, who brought a mellow Strad and abundant musicianship with him.

The orchestra was reduced in size for the concert to match the works at hand with historically appropriate forces. The smallest group performed "Chaos," the opening movement of a 1730s "choreographed symphony, "The Elements," by Jean-Fery Rebel, one of the more obscure baroque composers.

As Haydn would do decades later at the start of his oratorio "The Creation," Rebel used unsettled harmonies to depict the diffuseness of nature before things took their present shape (the opening dissonance is sort of like a baroque version of the Big Bang Theory). Stenz had the musicians churning nicely through Rebel's unsettled waters, articulating colorfully as they went.

Schumann's infrequently performed Violin Concert gets a bad rap. It is supposed to reflect the composer's declining mental state and represent a pale reflection of what he might have achieved. Oh, please. It's a serious, thoughtfully constructed work that, in the slow movement, achieves a rare, bittersweet beauty that captures Schumann at his most personal and affecting.

Blacher played the heck out of the concerto, not just handling technical matters with aplomb, but digging into the melodies with a dark beauty of tone and phrasing full of lyrical vibrancy. Stenz and the BSO backed the soloist fully.

With Beethoven's "Eroica," the program moved into war horse territory. But there was not a single routine thing about the performance. It was one of the most exciting accounts of this symphony I've heard in years (too bad there was such a modest turnout).

Stenz combined a period instrument outlook -- modest ensemble size, a tamping down of vibrato, generally fleet tempos -- with what came close to old-fashioned romanticism. The conductor never just switched the metronome on, but allowed a good deal of rhythmic flexibility. Phrases spoke with an involving directness and carried an electric charge, as much in the sobering funeral march as in the whirlwind scherzo.

Stenz made a thrice-familiar score newly gripping -- this should be every musician's goal each time at bat, but it just doesn't work out that way very often -- and he clearly bonded with the BSO.

The players had an on-the-edge-of-their-seats look you don't see from them too often onstage (they applauded Stenz as heartily as the audience after the performance). Each section revealed solid strengths; even the subtlest solos emerged with vivid personality.

The reason some of us keep going to concerts, rather than stay home with our favorite recordings, is for the possibility of being shaken up with white-hot music-making. Being shaken two nights in a row was a very cool experience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, NSO

October 5, 2012

Review: 'Wicked' tour features strong cast in its return to Baltimore

Equal parts nostalgia and hipness, satire and sentiment, one-liners and philosophy, the hit musical “Wicked” remains a potent brew. Bewitching, even.

This tale-spin about life in Oz, before that rude girl from Kansas crashed the place, is neither quite as profound as its most ardent champions would aver, nor quite as empty as its detractors have charged. But the work’s component parts certainly come together snappily in ways that create entertainment writ large.

“Wicked,” which has been aging nicely on Broadway for nine years and touring almost that long, first visited Baltimore in 2007. The second national tour has settled into the Hippodrome for a month-long residency, giving off remarkably fresh vibes.

Nothing screams “road show” here. Newcomers should find this production a worthy introduction; “Wicked” groupies ought to find plenty here to keep them engaged one more time.

The plot, adapted by Winnie Holzman from the Gregory Maguire novel, presents a back-story for the peculiarly green woman we last saw in a puddle — the Wicked Witch of the West, who tried so darn hard for the return of those jeweled slippers in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

Various details we accept as gospel from that movie get some interesting twists (better to ...

forget what you remember Margaret Hamilton’s iconic witch doing to the Scarecrow). And, like in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” characters are apt to shift between good to evil without warning.

Oz, it turns out, is not entirely Eden-like. The Wizard happily tells his people lies, because “they were lies they wanted to hear.” Prejudice, intolerance, suspicion of the “other,” power-hunger, fast-flying rumor — it’s all happening in or around this emerald-tinted world.

Some of these issues, especially a campaign against talking animals (a chilling classroom scene is fully Third Reich-redolent), could use more depth. But the fast-moving, if opera-length, show stays primarily focused on the emotional journey of the supposedly wicked witch, Elphaba, how and why she moved toward the dark side.

Arriving at Shiz University and promptly scaring everyone with her greenness, Elphaba meets her match —the decidedly blond Glinda, an apparently distant relative of the perky heroine in “Legally Blonde.” It’s a classic set-up of opposites, with no easy path to attraction.

One of the tricky things about “Wicked” is how to keep the Glinda character from tilting the musical her way; she spreads glitter from the get-go and could go on to steal any scene.

The touring production boasts terrific balance and chemistry between the two leads — Christine Dwyer’s sensitive, wry Elphaba and Jeanna de Waal’s iridescent Glinda. Both are nuanced actresses who manage to tap into something genuine about the characters. Their unlikely friendship, the bond that changes both women “for good,” resonates strongly here.

Dwyer doesn’t just nail the glum, glib side of Elphaba, but unleashes the eager little girl beneath. Even in her most theatrical moments, she doesn’t lose a touch of humanness.

De Waal jumps into the bubbly, hair-flinging shtick with elan and delivers her comic lines deliciously. Some of the biggest laughs come from her deft way with physical gestures, like a quick allusion to “Evita” or sudden burst of baton-twirling. But she is just as winning when it is time to reveal the serious side of this bright coin.

The two performers also bring admirable vocal chops to the show. Dwyer’s rich low register gives added weight to her affecting phrasing in “I’m Not That Girl.” When the score calls for the inevitable, tired old ‘Idol-style’ wailing, she rises sturdily to the occasion.

De Waal’s soprano floats securely and sweetly as needed, and she delivers one of the musical’s best-known numbers, “Popular,” with a disarming flourish.

Would that Stephen Schwartz’s score contained a few more items of that cleverness. A lot of the songs are in generic pop mode, spinning their wheels over well-worn harmonic paths and failing to generate a really strong melodic hook.

The supporting cast does uniformly persuasive work. Paul Kreppel makes a disarming Wizard, Gina Ferrall a colorful Madame Morrible. Billy Harrigan Tighe has the fresh, all-Ozian looks and smooth swagger for Fiyero, the man who lights a spark under Elphaba and Glinda.

There are endearing contributions from Michael Wartella as the naive Munchkin Boq and Jay Russell as Doctor Dillamond. And Catherine Charlebois finds some texture in the thinly written character of Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. (UPDATE: Earlier, I inadvertently credited Zarah Mahler here; she takes over the role starting Oct. 12.)

The ensemble exudes personality and executes the choreography nimbly. Conductor Valerie Gebert provides firm guidance from the pit.

Joe Mantello’s imaginative, propulsive direction has been maintained for the tour. Eugene Lee’s sets still exude plenty of visual virtuosity; same for Susan Hilferty’s finely textured costumes. The finishing touch comes from Kenneth Posner’s lighting, a triumph of myriad gradations and stylish angles.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

BSO, Concert Artists offer 'passports' to younger demographic

A demographic highly coveted by most performing arts organizations — ages 21 to 40 — is getting fresh offers this season from the Baltimore Symphony and Concert Artists of Baltimore.

Priced at $75, the “BSO Passport” will provide unlimited admission to 90 percent of the orchestra’s concerts for the remainder of the 2012-13 season at both Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

Passport holders will be given the best available seats the day of the performance.

“We recognized that, like many orchestras around the country, we were not adequately serving the young professional age-demographic,” said Eileen Andrews, the BSO’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“The BSO Passport seeks to bridge that gap and cater to the busy professional’s lifestyle needs.”

The passport will be on sale from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15 for those 40 or younger. Sales of passports and tickets will be handled only online, but tickets must be picked up in person with the passport and valid ID at the box office. Passport holders may purchase guest tickets for $25.

To mark its 26th season, Concert Artists of Baltimore recently introduced ...

the “26 Club Passport,” which offers admission to all nine of the ensemble's concerts for $26. The passport is available to those age 26 or younger.

The concept of a season pass of some kind -- long popular among museums -- has been gradually spreading in classical music circles across the country.

Great deals out there include one rolled out last year in Michigan, where the Detroit Symphony Orchestra now offers a student card that provides access to unlimited concerts all season long for a one-time fee of $25; 1,300 of the cards have been sold. UPDATE: As a reader has pointed out, another terrific example, closer to home, is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which also offers a $25 pass for students; access to more than 80 concerts is included.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:32 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

Baltimore Symphony's first Mahler CD a sturdy contender

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies never lack for attention on disc, even in what is supposed to be the twilight of the classical recording industry.

This crowded field just got a little bigger with the release of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first commercial Mahler album, aptly devoted to the Symphony No. 1, conducted by music director Marin Alsop.

This Naxos CD, recorded live during concerts at Meyerhoff Hall in 2008, has some hefty competition among recorded Firsts.

Although it will not knock out such defending champions as the New York Philharmonic versions from 1950s with Bruno Walter or a decade later with Leonard Bernstein, the BSO’s entry is a serious contender.

I do wish, though, that the recording had been made more recently. Today’s BSO is playing at an impressive step above four years ago, with a richer tone, especially in the string department, and even tighter articulation.

That said, the warmly recorded release certainly captures a major American orchestra operating on all cylinders, digging vibrantly into the score as Alsop leads a solid, communicative interpretation.

She passes what, for me, is a key test in Mahler’s First — ...

the gentle, folksy waltz in the middle section of the Scherzo. It’s a passage that can be thoroughly enchanting if given enough sensitivity and metronome-free pacing, as you can hear from, say, Bernstein or James Judd on a Gustav Mahler Society-winning disc with the Florida Philharmonic.

Alsop does not go as far with bends in the rhythm as they do. But she shapes the music lovingly, allowing phrases to breathe and sigh and smile, and she draws colorful contributions from the woodwinds, a silken sheen from the strings. (This is not how I remember things going at the 2008 performance I attended. Perhaps the take on the recording comes from another night in the run.)

The conductor taps nicely into the eerie, shifting moods of the third movement. Note that she calls on the bass section, rather than just the principal bassist, at the start of this movement to play the funeral march melody (a minor key version of “Frere Jacques”).

A controversial recent edition of the score concludes that this was Mahler’s intention, but I think the best evidence — including accounts of Mahler conducting the symphony — supports the use of a single bass. It’s certainly much more surprising and piquant that way.

As for the rest of the score, Alsop effectively generates atmosphere, lyrical warmth and subtle tension in the first movement. The aggressive opening of the finale rips and grips, while the subsequent moments of nostalgia and yearning are beautifully realized.

And, with brass and percussion fully charged, the coda surges forward with a bracing exultation to cap this ultimately worthy addition to the Mahler stockpile.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:54 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

October 3, 2012

Impressive production of 'Breaking the Code' from Performance Workshop Theatre

On the tomb of Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran who fought unsuccessfully in the mid-1970s to remain in uniform while out of the closet, there is an inscription: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

I thought of that line while attending Performance Workshop Theatre’s impressive production of “Breaking the Code,” Hugh Whitemore’s play about math genius Alan Turing.

When he worked for the British government at hush-hush Bletchley Park during World War II, Turing was hailed for saving thousands of men by deciphering the German’s Enigma machine, which gave the Allies crucial advantages.

But in 1952, Turing, who by then was a major pioneer in computer science at Manchester University, was arrested for a homosexual liaison. In lieu of jail, he was ordered to take estrogen injections. Death, from an apparent suicide, followed two years later. He was 41.

There is no end of irony in the story of a man breaking one code to approbation and another to condemnation. There’s an uncomfortable twinge of tragedy, too.

Whitemore gives us a decidedly sympathetic portrait of Turing as a naïve genius, perpetually awed by ...

the sheer beauty of mathematics (Godel's theorem gives him downright sensual pleasure), yet just as delighted, and haunted, by the animated movie “Snow White.”

Turing seems to have worked out for himself the problem of his sexual orientation, deciding that, for one thing, it wasn’t a problem. But, given the paranoid mood of the ’50s, when gays were so often linked with communists and other nefarious threats, his chances of getting the police to think the same way were slim at best.

“Breaking the Code” is a challenging play on many levels. It’s long, slow and talky. Folks expecting flash may find it a tough sit (a group sitting behind me chatted, giggled and tapped their feet rudely through all three hours, rather than slip out at intermission).

Extensive discourses on math and computers are beautifully written, but that doesn’t necessarily make for taut theater. Whitemore’s structural device — a large number of scenes that keep moving back and forth in time — also works against tension.

But all that is easy to overlook, given the fascinating character of the rumpled, tweedy Turing, with his stammer and nail-biting, and the extraordinary life he led.

The role of Turing was indelibly created in 1986 by Derek Jacobi, who performed it on the London and New York stages and went on to do a film version. It’s a tricky assignment, starting with the stammer (Jacobi had that down fabulously from having starred in “I, Claudius”), and the fact that Turing is onstage nearly all the time.

Marc Horwitz, co-producing artistic director of Performance Workshop Theatre, takes on the challenge with assurance and sensitivity. It’s a portrayal that rings true at every turn, right down to the tics, which Horwitz does in persuasive fashion, never drawing attention to them.

Dianne Hood gives a touching performance as Turing’s mother. Michael Donlan captures the charm and smarm of Ron Miller, the working class bloke who meets Turing at a pub and accepts an invitation to dinner.

There is fine-tuned work from Tony Colavito, as the detective who discovers more about Turing than he bargained for; and Rodney Bonds, as the knowing, sympathetic Bletchley Park official.

Katherine Lyons could use a little more spark as Pat Green, who falls for her fellow cryptographer. Christopher Kinslow shines subtly in the roles of two young men at opposite ends of Turing’s life.

Accents, coached by Horwitz, are remarkably convincing. The production, directed by Marlyn Robinson, flows fluently on Sean Urbantke’s soft-grained set. (Some sort of sonic distraction would be welcome to fill all the air between the many scene changes.)

Turing, born 100 years ago, proved invaluable to a war effort and to science, but he just “couldn’t play the game.” “Breaking the Code” reveals what a cruel, senseless penalty he paid.

Performances continue through Oct. 28.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: A pre-'Glee' reminder of how to sing harmony

OK, so I admit I have been catching this season's "Glee," if not exactly gleefully. I mean, enough with Britney already. And all those constantly changing affections.

I still like a lot of the musical performances, though, even if most of the songs end up being it's-all-about-me showpieces for a few chosen characters. "Glee" is only occasionally interested in traditional glee club singing, with tight harmonies and all that. More's the pity.

The other day, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the only truly reliable and consistently rewarding channel in all of cable-dom, I caught a vintage clip of the Mills Brothers and felt instantly better. Now that's harmony -- and imagination and style and just plain magic. And they never needed more than a guitar for accompaniment. Cool.

For this Midweek Madness installment, here's a little dose of the Mills Brothers, which ought to help the rest of the week go down a whole lot smoother:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

October 2, 2012

Single Carrot to move into Everyman Theatre space this winter

Single Carrot Theatre has found a venue solution for the remainder of its 2012-2013 season.

As you will recall, the surprise closing of Load of Fun Gallery, where the company made its home (along with several other artistic tenants), left Single Carrot scrambling for a place to present its productions.

MICA came to the rescue for this weekend's season-opener, Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?"

For the remainder of the company's sixth season, Single Carrot will occupy the Charles Street home of Everyman Theatre, which is heading across town this winter to a newly restored space on Fayette Street.

"We're looking to start our move in January to what we're referring to as the soon-to-be-former Everyman Theatre," said Single Carrot artistic director Nathan Cooper. "We'll be moving our entire operations there. This is a nice way to keep a performance venue in Station North, which I think is good for the whole neighborhood. We're calling it ...

'Single Carrot on Charles.' "

Three Single Carrot productions are slated for this location: "The Tropic of X," by Caridad Svich; "The V.I.P.," by Single Carrot member Aldo Pantoja; and "A Sorcerer's Journey," a company-wide creation based on the works of Carlos Castaneda. Dates are to be announced.

The company has been used to performing in a 55-seat space at Load of Fun. The Charles St. location has 175 seats. "It is imperative to us to maintain as much of our level of intimacy as we can," Cooper said.

He and the other company members will be touring the facility in the days ahead to see how that goal can be be achieved.

There is another issue for the Carrots to consider -- higher rent. "That is a challenge," Cooper said, "but it's not a big financial burden for us."

Don't get too used to the idea of Single Carrot on Charles, or pine for the company to return to Load of Fun. If all goes according to plan, the company will realize its long-held goal of having its own permanent space starting next season.

"This has been in the works for three years," Cooper said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the recent events at Load of Fun. We recognized early that the seating capacity there created certain budget constraints in terms of growth.

"It's a little too early to announce specifics," Cooper added, "but we love Station North and are trying to stay as close as we can to the corner we have been playing on." 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:24 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre, Single Carrot Theatre
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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.
View the Artsmash blog

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