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December 31, 2012

For New Year's Eve, a musical toast to brotherhood and sisterhood

I can get pretty sentimental on the last day of the year, and I thought some of you might be the same. So here's a little sentiment for New Year's Eve, courtesy of Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus."

There is a wonderful moment in Act 2 when all of the mirth and slapstick of the operetta gives way to something gentle and, I think, quite genuine.

This number, "Brüderlein und Schwesterlein," sends a message that boils down to: Let's all promise to get along tomorrow after having so much fun tonight -- a message perfect for a New Year's Eve toast. This scene inspired Strauss to exceptional melodic heights -- the ultimate peak in his greatest work for the stage.

I've posted two versions here, because you (OK, I) can never get enough of this gorgeous music. I also thought that ...

the contrast in interpretations might intrigue you.

The first version, which moves along nicely, is led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The more spacious second clip finds Carlos Kleiber in sublime form on the podium (the camera understandably spends a lot of time on him). The Kleiber video continues after "Bruderlein," so you can enjoy more of festive "Fledermaus" if you like.

So here's my New Year's Eve wishes for brotherhood and sisterhood:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

December 28, 2012

Some music to help prepare for falling off the fiscal cliff

As a public service -- because that's the sort of caring, sharing person I am -- I thought I would offer some appropriate music to help you brace yourself for the plunge off the "fiscal cliff."

(If such a horrid fate is magically avoided at the last minute, this is still worth a listen.)

Here is the finale of Alfredo Catalani's "La Wally," an under-appreciated opera from 1892 that just happens to end with an avalanche (don't ask) that sweeps the tenor off an Alpine peak to his death, which upsets the soprano no end, so she, naturally, leaps after him. Perfect fiscal cliff-plunging music, if you ask me.

Sorry there's no visual to go with this clip, but the sound effects are good enough to let you know exactly when the fatal denouement arrives for the opera's hapless couple. Feel free to imagine certain politicians joining them:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:18 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 26, 2012

Midweek Madness keeps that special holiday feeling flowing

For your Midweek Madness drollery, I have -- yes -- once again gone to the SCTV well, this time to pull up a holiday-theme gem. You may thank me later.

Here's the attempted filming of promo for a 'Liberace' Christmas Special with a very temperamental 'Orson Welles' as guest star:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

December 24, 2012

Barbra Streisand and the ultimate 'Silent Night'

Being a veteran Streisand fanatic, I cannot think of a better way to send Christmas greetings to my blog readers than with her incomparable version of "Silent Night" from the 1960s.

I think this performance beautifully underlines the universality of music and the eternal, if ever elusive, hope for peace on earth:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

Washington National Opera delivers family-friendly 'Hansel and Gretel'

For most people, the attractions of Christmas do not include the possibility of children roasting over an open fire. But that has not kept Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" from becoming a favorite opera at Christmastide.

Based on a vivid tale by the Brothers Grimm and first performed Dec. 23, 1893, Humperdinck's most famous opera does, of course, feature lots of talk and images of sweets, notably gingerbread.

So it's easy to make a seasonal tie-in, which is what Washington National Opera did over the weekend with a revival of its 2007 family-friendly production.

This abridged version of "Hansel and Gretel" drew lots of attentive and, as far as I could tell, well-entertained kids -- and adults -- to the Saturday matinee at the Kennedy Center's cozy Terrace Theater.

This sort of production, which keeps an eye on budget as well as the clock, invariably involves ...

compromises. In this case, the compromising started with a truncated version of the overture, a superb example of how Humperdinck's applied Wagnerian principals of thematic development.

I missed hearing the whole thing, but I understand the decision to trim (I have attached the complete overture at the end of this blog post in case you'd like to savor its richness).

The compromises also included the forces assembled in the pit to play that overture and the rest of the score -- an eight-member ensemble in place of the lush orchestra Humperdinck wrote for.

That really didn't matter too much, though, since the WNO players were in great form throughout, delivering this salon-style arrangement with considerable warmth and color under then sensitive guidance of conductor Michael Rossi.

The cast, drawn from current and alumni members of the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and sensibly directed by David Gately, likewise revealed respect and affection for this gem of an opera.

Bright-voiced soprano Shantelle Przybylo made an endearing Gretel. Mezzo Julia Mintzer summoned a good deal of spirit as Hansel.

As the Father, Norman Garrett made his mark with a sturdy baritone and vibrant phrasing. Sopranos Maria Eugenia Antunez (Mother) and Jessica Stecklein (Sandman/Dew Fairy) fulfilled their assignments vividly.

The production followed the now fairly common practice of turning the Witch into a drag role for a tenor. Corey Evan Rotz jumped into the assignment amusingly and sang colorfully.

Robin Vest's set, with a little hint of Sendak in it, worked well, as did Timm Burrow's costumes (including an unexpected Sandman-as-aviatrix outfit).

Now here's that wonderful overture, complete:


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 21, 2012

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' hits holiday spot at Kennedy Center

Anyone interested in time travel need not settle for an episode of “Dr. Who.” You can be whisked back to the 1950s in a flash just by catching the production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Kennedy Center.

You have to check a lot of baggage first, though.

For a start, you can’t take aboard any prejudices against mid-century musicals with snowflake-thin, surprise-free story lines and songs that do nothing to advance the plot or provide character insights. You also can’t carry on your usual cynical antipathy to cornball humor, tap-dancing routines or precocious kids onstage.

Follow those simple instructions, and you should have a pleasant trip.

It’s reassuring to know that ...

there’s still an audience left for such old-fashioned stuff (there was hearty cheering from the crowd the night I attended), and to know that there still are performers who can deliver it with panache.

“White Christmas” is based on the 1954 film of the same name, starring Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye. (The movie title did not include the words “Irving Berlin’s,” of course — this business of attaching the composers to their show titles is a more recent, and annoying, trend in theater.)

In a nutshell, the action involves some World War II buddies who also happen to be song-and-dance men. Back in the States, they successfully get into show biz and, along the way, team up with a sister act.

As various romantic possibilities are pursued and various lines of communication crossed, the four entertainers end up at a Vermont inn run by the guys’ old general, who is having a tough time keeping the place going — not enough snow. The only course of action is to put on a show and, as you might have guessed, hope for a white Christmas.

With a book by David Ives and Paul Blake, the stage version of the movie originated at the Muny in St. Louis 12 years ago. It toured around the country for while, landed on Broadway in 2008 for a brief visit and returned the next year.

The production has been touring since and seems to have legs. Lots of cities hankering for fresh holiday fare are likely to welcome it. And there really is something fresh about it, even if the actual material may have passed its sell-by date.

What makes it all work is the presentation. Attentively directed by Norb Joerder and vibrantly choreographed by Randy Skinner, the show conjures up another era in deft strokes, as much through the costumes (Carrie Robbins) as through sets (Kenneth Foy) that might wobble if bumped into, just as you would have expected them to do in the ’50s.

Although I understand how easy it would be for some folks to dismiss “White Christmas” out of hand, it is so darn cute and so darn eager to please that it is even easier to surrender, to squelch your inner Scrooge for a couple of hours and go with the tuneful flow.

Not that this is an entirely top-drawer Berlin score. The title song, sure, but such numbers as “Snow” and, especially, “What Can You Do With a General?” must have been written in the songwriter’s sleep. A deep sleep. (Perhaps to compensate, the creators tucked a few Berlin classics into the mix.)

The finishing touch on this nostalgic venture is applied by an effervescent cast that jumps into the musical as if it were newly minted, as if every note, every line of dialogue, were golden.

The engaging James Clow brings a firm voice and smooth phrasing to the role of Bob, the ex-soldier with a cool head for show biz and, it seems, a cold heart for romance. As Bob’s roaming-eyed pal Phil, David Elder demonstrates comic and terpsichorean snap.

Stefanie Morse (Betty) and Mara Davi (Judy) offer personality and finesse as the Haynes Sisters. Ruth Williamson tackles the obligatory, Mary Wickes-type role of Martha, the inn’s manager, and runs through the sassy-to-sentimental gamut with great flair.

Joseph Costa is the blustery General Waverly. Andie Mechanic (alternating with Shannon Harrington) reveals promise and manages to keep the role of the general’s granddaughter from turning terminally cute. The remaining supporting players get the job done nicely. In the production numbers, notably “I Love a Piano,” the ensemble moves through its paces with elan.

The ever-reliable Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led by Michael Horsley, sounds terrific, putting sparkle into even the weakest spots of the score.

With its vintage look and dollops of unapologetic schmaltz, “White Christmas” is holiday comfort food for the eyes and ears.

Performances continue through Jan. 6 at the Kennedy Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

A few more thoughts on 'Billy Elliot: The Musical'

As someone who loved the 2000 movie "Billy Elliot," I had doubts that it could be turned into a stage musical.

I figured too much of the gritty mining town atmosphere of the original would be lost, for a start.

And I was suspicious that the many touchy subjects in the story -- masculinity, sexual orientation, the value of the arts, etc. -- could survive the transformation.

I feared there would be too much watering down, maybe even dumbing down.

Instead, as I was happily reminded this week ... 

seeing "Billy Elliot" again when it arrived at the Hippodrome, the result is remarkably effective.

The creative team, which included the film's screenwriter and director, preserved the original flavor, right down to the specific regional accent of the characters in this potent story and right down to their vulgar language.

(Some unsuspecting folks are startled by that vulgarity, which frequently comes out of the mouths of kids in the show. Others struggle with the accent issue, but, as an idiotic Anglophile who enjoys deciphering the lingo on "EastEnders," I guess I just assume everyone can catch on to anything.)

The music is impressively integrated into the show. Yes, I do wish Elton John had created more distinctive songs, but they do the job and, in the best cases, do so with considerable expressive weight.

Above all, the musical "Billy Elliot" is a brave musical.

I think it's important that audiences get to see the adverse effect of narrow-mindedness about the arts, how prejudices and ignorance lead to a kind of bullying that scars Billy.

I think it is valuable that audiences get to see how even preteen kids can become aware of their budding sexual identity and how at least some of them can be OK with it (the only two kisses in the show are chaste, affectionate ones between straight Billy and probably gay Michael).

And I think it will always be worthwhile making audiences confront the issues of unions, governments, solidarity, responsibility -- all the things that rip into Billy's community, leaving no one entirely unbruised (except maybe Grandma, but she's already been through plenty in her day).

I'm disappointed that actual ballet gets shortchanged in the show; the choreography is weighted to musical comedy routines. Still, I think that the big aesthetic message of "Billy Elliot" gets through -- that ballet, along with all of the arts are cool, and that kids should be encouraged to pursue any artistic impulse they have.

When you put that message together with all of the other stuff in the show about figuring out who you are -- sexually, morally, philosophically, politically -- you get a very potent theatrical fuel. And that's what makes "Billy Elliot" soar.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

December 20, 2012

Cool Yule song from Brian Sacawa of Mobtown Modern, US Army Field Band

If you need a moment to chill amid all the holiday pressure, I've got some music to help -- "O Little Town of Bethlehem," in a soft-jazzy arrangement by the top-notch US Army Field Band with Sergeant First Class Brian Sacawa as soprano sax soloist (Kenny G, eat your heart out).

Around Baltimore, Sacawa is better known for his work curating and often performing with Mobtown Modern, an imaginative new music ensemble that has gone on hiatus this season (seeing it bounce back would make a great Christmas gift).

Sacawa's suave playing of this vintage carol should help put some cool in your Yule:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Marriage undergoes volleys in Performance Workshop Theatre's 'Mixed Doubles'

A caption in King Vidor's silent classic from 1928, "The Crowd," reads: "Marriage isn't a word. It's a sentence."

The couples in "Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage," a multi-playwright piece from 1969 enjoying an effective revival at Performance Workshop Theatre, have all been altered in some way by the life-term aspect of matrimony, the weight of that whole for-better-or-worse thing.

It even affects the first twosome to appear, in "A Man's Best Friend" by James Saunders. Newlyweds Jackie and Pete, are still on a train heading toward their honeymoon, but already experiencing communication blips.

Pete's voice is prone to stammer, his foot to tap mindlessly. And he will do anything to change the topic of conversation, which Jackie keeps trying to steer toward sensual matters.

Over the course of eight short plays by British authors, "Mixed Doubles" provides a journey through the marital state, from first night to twilight years.

It's an often amusing view -- often uncomfortable, too, in the way it can cut close to the bone. By the time the aged couple in the final scene sits in a cemetery, talking in circles about tombstones and kippers, it's clear that after "I do" can come an awful lot of "I don't."

Things might have looked much different had there been more than one woman represented among the authors of this "entertainment." A skewed perspective seems unavoidable under such circumstances.

Still, the two sides of each duo depicted in these intriguing plays get an airing, in one way or another. And the ultimate take-home message is at least vaguely reassuring -- people may marry, or stay married, for the wrong reasons, but ...

there's a lot to be said for the effort.

Today, that effort can be undertaken in several countries, and several states in ours, by members of the same gender, a prospect unimaginable when "Mixed Doubles" premiered more than four decades ago -- or when Performance Workshop Theatre presented the work in 1995.

Company co-artistic director Marc Horwitz has taken note of the societal changes by persuasively tweaking one of the pieces this time around, Alan Ayckbourn's "Countdown," so that a same-sex couple can be included.

"Countdown" centers on a relationship that has long settled into routine, with little chance of surprise. Each of the characters breaks the fourth wall periodically to discuss his partner's annoying habits. But, gradually, it becomes clear that the bond beneath the bittersweet surface is, somehow, a little more sweet than bitter.

Tony Colavito and Michael Donlan bring out that deeper layer in "Countdown," while deftly handling the dry (OK, bitchy) wit in the script.

Donlan also shines as the jumpy Pete in "A Man's Best Friend," opposite Britt OIsen-Ecker's colorful portrayal of the eager bride Jackie. They put a good deal of bite into what could be just a Britcom scene.

These actors also get a good workout in "Score," Lyndon Brook's play centering on one half of a mixed doubles tennis match. The zingers fly during the game (the other couple is not seen or heard), as edgy Harry and deceptively ditsy Sheila work through a whole mess of tension, ambition, resentment and jealousy in between serves -- and, of course, faults.

In Alun Owen's "Norma," Donlan, again paired with Olsen-Ecker, is effective as a man grappling with the reality that he had a lot more invested in an extramarital affair than the woman in question.

Katherine Lyons and Colavito do impressive, subtle work in Harold Pinter's "Night," a brilliant little piece that presents a dark spin on the old Lerner and Loewe song "I Remember It Well," with a man and wife constantly correcting memories of their past.

But much more is at stake here than clarity of recollection, since each memory is so important. In compact, expertly chiseled phrases, Pinter peels away the surface of the relationship to expose the frayed nerve endings underneath.

Fay Weldon's "Permanence" presents the case of Peter and Helen, sharing their usual tent during their usual vacation. Helen has broken her glasses this time, which just might mean that she will begin to see clearly.

Lyons and Colavito could bring more drive to "Permanence" -- for that matter, the pacing of the whole production is a little on the deliberate side -- but they make this slender scene click.

The actors also delve potently into "Silver Wedding," John Bowen's scathing vignette. Colavito is excellent as the spring-loaded husband feigning nonchalance as he arrives late on his anniversary night. Lyons conveys the wife's stoicism and hurt with equal finesse.

This pair of performers gets the last word in "Mixed Doubles," performing David Campton's "Resting Place" with a good deal of charm, making it possible to believe that, sometimes, a good cup of tea with a life-partner can be enough.

Greggory S. Schraven's efficient, minimal set is smoothly lit by Jonathan Dillard.

As he did in his 1995 production, Horwitz uses live cello music to provide a connective thread between the plays (the work originally incorporated monologues by a ninth writer). While the company's fine staging of "Breaking the Code" in September might have benefited from music between scenes, "Mixed Doubles" might be better off with a little less of it.

Cellist Tim Anderson, perched in a subtly lit spot upstage, offers plenty of expression, but much of what he plays is too long, glum and repetitive, establishing a Chekhovian tone that doesn't seem quite right.

In the end, though, this thoughtful production, with its well-paired actors, nets considerable rewards.

"Mixed Doubles" continues through Jan. 14.

PHOTO (of Katherine Lyons and Tony Colavito): Marc Horwitz/Performance Workshop Theatre

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

'Billy Elliot: The Musical' a welcome holiday visitor at the Hippodrome

It’s a particularly appropriate time to see “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” which has leaped into the Hippodrome for a welcome holiday visit. And I'm not just talking about the Christmas scene in Act 2.

Although the principal story in this Tony Award-winning show — a young boy’s unexpected journey into the world of ballet — remains front-and-center, equally compelling plot lines about unions and working-class solidarity jump out with an extra kick right now.

From the opening minutes of “Billy Elliot,” the audience is plunged into the tensions in an English mining town in 1984, when a strike is called to protest moves by Margaret Thatcher’s government against the coal industry.

That tension, which generates some of the most visceral music in Elton John’s score, seems uncomfortably relevant, given the emotional battles just fought in Michigan over legislation targeting unions. And when, by the musical’s close, the defeated strikers sense the extent of their loss, Baltimoreans may well find themselves thinking about the depressing saga of Sparrows Point.

The ability to touch multiple nerves is ...

what made the original “Billy Elliot,” a 2000 film by Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry, such an international hit. And it’s what gives such a potent spark to the musical version they fashioned a few years later.

Not everything works. Billy and his cross-dressing buddy, Michael, end up doing a tacky fantasy number better saved for a revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” After the subtle, affecting final scene, we get a tap-dancing routine for the whole ensemble that feels tacked on solely for applause-milking.

And while the creators clearly worked hard to catch the authentic flavor of the workers and their families, they couldn’t resist severe caricatures for cops and one-percenters.

But the hits greatly outnumber the misses in this opera-length musical, which finds heart, humor and a whole lot of life lessons in the tale of kid who stumbles into a dance class and is gradually, unalterably transformed.

Four performers are alternating in the role of Billy during the Baltimore run. One of them is Noah Parets.

He may be a little stiff as a dancer, but he has disarming energy. More importantly, he is an assured, persuasive actor. He nails the linguistic challenge (the Geordie accent of northern England) and conveys Billy’s internal conflicts tellingly.

Rich Hebert gives a rich portrayal of Billy’s coarse-edged father; his grainy, poignant account of “Deep into the Ground” is a highlight. Cullen R. Titmas is very effective as Billy’s volatile brother. Patti Perkins shines as salty Grandma.

Janet Dickinson does terrific work as Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed dance teacher. Jake Kitchin doesn’t reveal all the layers beneath the boundary-pushing Michael (another shared role), but he proves to be quite the charmer nonetheless.

Other standouts in the large cast include Joel Blum as the boxing coach who has a wee problem with phraseology and Patrick Wetzel as the dance school pianist and surprise dancer.

The production, originally directed by Daldry, flows with cinematic fluidity through Ian MacNeil’s atmospheric set.

Several scenes still startle — the mash-up of a ballet class and a miners-police clash, for example; the frantic holiday party that opens Act 2 with the wicked song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”; the miners, with the lamps on their helmets piercing the theater, as they head back to work.

There are times when the score finds John straining to pump up the drama. But most of the songs (Hall was the lyricist) do their job solidly, nowhere more so than in “Electricity,” when Billy tries to explain what it feels like to dance, to break free of the troubled world around him — and, at least in spirit, has the audience spinning right along with him.

"Billy Elliot runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:26 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

December 19, 2012

For Midweek Madness, one more chorus of 'Feliz Navidad,' Bette Davis-style

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy Christmas song.

Yes, you adorable Midweek Madness fans, I could not resist an encore of "Feliz Navidad," as the Yuletide approaches. And not just any "Feliz Navidad," mind you, but an interpretation to end all interpretations of this endless, annoying song.

This goes especially well with a martini:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

December 18, 2012

Hippodrome pursuing collaboration with Pennsylvania Ballet

The much-respected Pennsylvania Ballet may travel to Baltimore for a couple weeks every year for a residency at the Hippodrome Theatre. This collaborative project, which could start as early as next season, is being pursued by Hippodrome president Jeff Daniel.

"We should be doing more collaborations," Daniel said. "We should be an arts chamber of commerce for Baltimore. But this is not a done deal. I think I'm ahead of my skis. It is going to take ...

a warm reception from the dance community, funding community and the city."

It is not unheard of for arts organizations to develop secondary markets, which can expand funding opportunities as well as audiences.

A prominent example is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which offers full seasons in its home base at Meyerhoff Hall and in Montgomery County's Music Center at Strathmore. The Cleveland Orchestra goes to Miami for a residency every winter.

"I'm a big fan of second-city relationships," Daniel said. "It's a good idea."

Daniel and representatives of the Pennsylvania Ballet have been discussing the possibility of a Hippodrome season for some time. Further talks are scheduled later this week.

The Pennsylvania Ballet, a full time company with 40 dancers, was founded in 1963 by Barbara Weisberger, a George Balanchine protege who is also artistic advisor for the dance program at the Peabody Institute. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Hippodrome

December 17, 2012

Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah receives OBE from Prince of Wales

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage, was at Buckingham Palace last Thursday to be presented with the Order at of the British Empire from the Prince of Wales.

The official investiture came six months after the announcement that Kwei-Armah had been included on the list of the Queen’s Jubilee Birthday Honors.

His work as a playwright, director and actor has long been admire in his native Britain, and he has been winning ardent fans on this side of the Atlantic as well.

He is now in his second season at the Center Stage helm.

The OBE, established in 1917, is bestowed for distinguished service to the arts and sciences, public services, and charitable organizations.

PHOTO: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

December 14, 2012

BSO unveils wholesome Holiday Pops Celebration

Holiday programming can be box office gold for performing arts organizations, as any number of annual "Nutcracker" productions attest. 

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hoped to mine the seasonal market profitably for years and years with its Holiday Spectacular, a handsomely staged and costumed show that was introduced in 2005 and memorably featured a chorus line of tap-dancing Santas.

That expensive venture, essentially a transplant of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's long-running, hugely successful Yuletide Celebration, started strong, but attendance gradually diminished (maybe Hoosiers have a bigger appetite for this sort of thing than Baltimoreans).

After 2010, the Spectacular was put on what the BSO officially termed a hiatus.

To take its place last year, the orchestra tried out a cirque program that often looked cheesy, thanks to some awful video projections, but delivered the expected oohs and aahs.

This year, the symphony decided on a more straightforward product called Holiday Pops Celebration, with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and baritone Daniel Narducci (pictured below in red) joining the BSO. The wholesome result was unveiled Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore before moving to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for several performances through the weekend.

For the most part, the program ....


delivers the goods. Other than some colorful lighting, there is nothing fancy here (having a guy dressed as Santa stroll through the hall at one point only made one more nostalgic for the kickline in the Spectacular). The attention is on the music, which comes in short bursts and covers the usual bases -- traditional carols (some with audience participation), bits of Tchaikovsky and Leroy Anderson, holiday pop songs and movie scores.

Folks looking for a good, old-fashioned Christmas-y experience -- right down to "snowflakes" falling in the theater during the "White Christmas" encore -- should find that this one hits the spot.

Robert Bernhardt, the affable conductor (and unrepentant punster) who was at the helm for the 2011 holiday cirque, is back on the podium, maintaining smooth control. (He is pictured above.)

On Wednesday, he drew snappy playing from the BSO, especially during the in-one-ear-out-the-other, but richly orchestrated, suite from "The Polar Express."

The ensemble shone as well in a John Williams-esque version of "The Night Before Christmas" for narrator and orchestra arranged by Randol Alan Bass, who, as Bernhardt noted, makes it sound like Santa is meeting E.T.

There was real Williams on the bill, too -- vividly orchestrated, if not quite memorable, holiday songs from the composer’s scores to the first two “Home Alone” movies (the brass surged mightily in “Star of Bethlehem”).

The chorus, as usual, impressed with its disciplined articulation, balanced tone and supple phrasing all night. The singers even summoned a persuasive series of Macaulay Culkin fist pumps in one of the "Home Alone" items.

Fine choral efforts sparked "Christmas Time Is Here," one of the few contemporary additions to holiday fare that holds up well to repeated listening. Other highlights: Mack Wilberg's big, sweeping arrangement of "Joy to the World"; and Barlow Bradford's glistening treatment of "Carol of the Bells" (the Anacrusis Bell Choir chimed in vibrantly here).

Narducci's white-bread approach to “Go Tell It on the Mountain” didn't quite cut it, but his velvety vocal styling served him well elsewhere. He was at his most disarming in a gently phrased, genuinely nostalgic account of “Silver Bells.” He also delivered the narration for “The Night Before Christmas” with considerable elan.

Remaining performances at Meyerhoff will be at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

December 13, 2012

A Christmas remembrance of elegant soprano Lisa della Casa

The opera world lost another extraordinary artist this week with the death Monday of the radiant, Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa at the age of 93.

She was most celebrated for her superb interpretations of Mozart and Strauss, and if you have never heard her portrayal of the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro" or the Marschallin in "Der Rosenkavlier," not to mention the title role of "Arabella," you must promise me you will correct that soon. And don't forget her poignant account of Strauss' Four Last Songs -- still in a class by itself.

Lisa dalla Casa sang a lot more in her career, leaving an elegant mark on everything, including the Christmas music she performed on this 1960s TV show (many thanks to "coloraturafan" for uploading it to YouTube).

It's a beautiful example of her disarming artistry, and a fitting way to remember her at this time of year. Even folks usually resistant to Christmas music are likely to find themselves entranced:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 12, 2012

Midweek Madness feels the need for a little Christmas now

Yes, I know it's way past midday on Midweek Madness day as I post this. So sue me. I had stuff to do. Big, important stuff. And at least two boxes of bonbons to get through.

To lift your spirits, how about a little Christmas now? Oy, could we all use a little Christmas now.

I probably shouldn't have picked sharing this clip, since it really isn't quite awful enough to be thoroughly laughable -- well, maybe it is, at that -- and because I really do love Lucy (Ricardo more than Ball, if truth be told).

This is the "We Need a Little Christmas" scene from "Mame," the film version of the Jerry Herman musical that was based on the book, play and film "Auntie Mame." Now everyone knows that the "Auntie Mame" film is a masterpiece that cannot be bettered, thanks to the divine Rosalind Russell, but the musical does have its points.

Still, if you're going to do a movie of the musical, shouldn't you at least cast it with a star who can sing? Lucy gives it her all, I suppose. And, every now and then, she does ...

register something genuine (even if it is hard to see, given that she was filmed through linoleum). But she's no Roz Russell.

The movie is a tough slog (I can't share the enthusiasm of the person who uploaded the video clip), and this would-be rousing number sure does feel flat (partly, to my ears, because Herman already wrote something awfully similar, melodically speaking, in "Hello, Dolly" -- check out "It Takes A Woman").

I am not sure what is worse in this scene -- Lucy's basso not-so-profondo and stiff arm gestures? The cheap accent for the smiley servant ("neighbor-ry")? The washed-out look of the production?

Heck, I guess this does qualify for Midweek Madness after all. I sure hope it gets you in a great holiday mood:

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

December 11, 2012

Powerful, inspiring video spotlights Landfill Harmonic in Paraguay

The much-publicized El sistema in Venezuela is not the only admirable attempt to provide a musical outlet for underprivileged young people in Latin America.

This mesmerizing video, which has been making the rounds quickly (thanks to all those who alerted me), provides an introduction to the Landfill Harmonic.

This educational project involves the making of instruments out of recycled material from a landfill in an impoverished area of Paraguay. Pretty stirring stuff (there is information on making donations at the end of the video):

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 10, 2012

Lunar Ensemble performs 'Pierrot Lunaire' and new, related works

The 100th anniversary of Schoenberg's trail-blazing "Pierrot Lunaire" prompted ambitious commemoration by the Lunar Ensemble.

This impressive group, which draws its talent from the current students and alumni of Peabody Conservatory, launched the Pierrot Centenary Project.

In addition to performances of the Schoenberg score, Baltimore-area composers were commissioned to write works drawing on the same collection of "Pierrot Lunaire" poems by Albert Giraud that inspired Schoenberg.

Over the weekend, I caught the first of the Lunar Ensemble's two Centenary Project concerts at Shriver Hall, this one featuring the original Schoenberg and two of the commissioned pieces. It was a rewarding experience.

What amazing music "Pierrot Lunaire" is -- complex, perplexing, invigorating. In this sound world, the strangely vibrant language of Giraud's verses is delivered not in song, but song-like speech ("sprechgesang" or "sprechtstimme"), against a backdrop of intricately, deliciously dissonant instrumental writing.

On Friday night, conductor Gemma New led a ...

well-honed and absorbing performance of this 20th-century masterpiece.

Sopranos Danielle Buonaiuto and Lisa Perry shared vocal duty, each soloist providing terrific clarity and color.

Highlights included Buonaiuto's wonderful subtlety in "Der kranke Mond" and wistful, sighing delivery of the last word in the concluding "O alter Duft"; Perry's wry, seductive account of "Gebet an Pierrot" and prismatic rush through "Enthauptung."

Admirable technical confidence and expressive sensitivity characterized the work of the instrumentalists: flutist Stephanie Ray, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Katarzyna Bryla, cellist Peter Kibbe, pianist John Wilson.

The program began with two new works for voice and instrumental quintet.

Douglas Buchanan's "Eingang" is a setting of three sensual, highly atmospheric poems with music to match. The slippery string sounds and wild vocal leaps in the opening "Eine Buhne" exerted a strong pull, as did the fugal interlude between the last two songs and, in particular, the lyrical, chordal closing moments that suggested a gentle landing in a tonal zone. Perry was the vibrant soloist.

Buonaiuto was featured in Faye Chiao's "Moments Colores," four songs filled with lush images of nature, antiquity and absinthe and treated in an intriguing, cabaret-inflected style (waltz rhythms are deftly exploited). Buonaiuto handled the assignment, which includes some mild sprechgesang in a nod to Schoenberg, with finesse and charm. Chiao's instrumental writing, often exquisitely misty in coloring reached a Poulenc-like richness at the end.

The Buchanan and Chiao works inspired finely meshed playing from the group. And, as she did throughout this cool concert, New kept her forces on the same tight wave length.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 7, 2012

London production of 'I Stand Corrected' to be streamed live at Center Stage

Late-breaking: Center Stage is offering a free live stream of a production from London's Ovalhouse Theatre on Saturday afternoon. (See trailer below.)

"I Stand Corrected," by playwright Mojisola Adebayo and South African dancer Mamela Nyamza, is described by Time Out London as "a physical theatre piece ... about two black African lesbian lovers.

"Created as a response to the epidemic of 'corrective' rapes of gay women in South Africa, as well as the anti-gay marriage lobby in Britain, the piece uses text, dance, music and comedy to tell its story. Nyamza is an unconventional choreographer, using her background in ballet, contemporary and African dance to take on political themes.

The play will be streamed into the lobby of Center Stage at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.

Here's the trailer:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Good weekend for contemporary music lovers in Balitmore

It's not all "Messiah" and "Nutcracker" around here these days. I spotted a few events featuring contemporary music that will provide considerable contrast to the preponderance of holiday fare.

The Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble, a group founded in 2010 with strong Peabody Conservatory roots, will present a two-part "Pierrot Centenary Project" this weekend.

One of the biggest anniversaries observed this year was the centennial of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," a wild and brilliant work that had its first performance in Berlin on Oct. 16, 1912.

That doesn't mean the world was suddenly filled with commemorative performances of the piece -- today's music lovers aren't necessarily any more open to Schoenberg than his contemporaries were.

"Pierrot Lunaire" is a setting of 21 songs that are ...

delivered in "sprechgesang" -- "speech song" -- rather than in conventional melodic fashion. That vocal part remains a formidable challenge; the instrumental writing for an ensemble of woodwinds, strings and piano is no picnic, either. But it all adds up to an fascinating experience, a sort of futuristic cabaret for a future that has never arrived.

The Lunar Ensemble will perform "Pierrot Lunaire" at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Shriver Hall, conducted by Gemma New. The program also includes recent works that explore the same literary source material -- poems by Albert Giraud -- that inspired Schoenberg and that make use the same instrumentation.

A concert at 3:30 Saturday afternoon, also at Shriver, will continue the theme with another set a new works drawing on the Giraud poetry.

Composers represented in these concerts include Joshua Bornfield, Douglas Buchanan, Faye Chiao, Evan Combs, Sean Doyle, Natalie Draper, Lonnie Hevia and Joshua Pangilinan.

Sunday brings an all-Messiaen recital by pianist Matthew Odell, who did undergrad studies at Peabody now teaches at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and Juilliard.

Odell, a specialist in Messiaen's prismatic, complex, often deeply spiritual music, will focus on some of the lesser known repertoire, including the Préludes, the great composer's first published piano work.

Odel will also play the "Quatre études de rythme" and Messiaen's transcription of his orchestral work "Les offrandes oubliées," among other pieces.

The recital is at 2 p.m. Sunday at An die Musik.

PHOTO OF GEMMA NEW: Britt Olsen Ecker Photography


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:50 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 6, 2012

The refreshing power of Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony

If you ever need your batteries recharged, just get to a performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, led by its kinetic music director Gustavo Dudamel. You'll be hopping for days afterward.

Thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society, these irrepressible forces have made two appearances in this region since 2009. The second, Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, proved as memorable as the first.

(Might as well mention, for the thousandth time, that Baltimore has a major void in its classical music life -- the absence of visiting orchestras. We could sure use a version of WPAS here.)

The Bolivar Symphony is the most famous product -- along with Dudamel -- of the much-praised, much-studied El sistema music education program that involves some 400,000 young people in Venezuela, the majority of them impoverished. (The Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program in inner city schools has been greatly influenced by the principles of El sistema, founded by Jose Antonio Abreu.)

I've occasionally met people who are convinced this massive Venezuelan effort is ...

too good to be true, that it just can't be so darn successful all the time all over the country, that there must be failures somewhere. But when I hear the young musicians play, I find it easy to accept that this is everything it is cracked up to be, one of the greatest music education adventures anywhere, at any time.

I like the fact that the original title of the ensemble, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has been changed along the way. The level of musicianship is much too high to be pigeonholed by such a designation. Professional orchestras in this country could learn a lot from these players, who range in age from 18 to 28, starting with the physicality that is a part of a Bolivar Symphony concert.

Watching these guys in action is a kick in itself, especially when you are used to seeing the stiff playing style of American orchestras (especially in the back stands of string sections). Their bodies are totally connected to the arc of each melodic line or the pulse of a propulsive rhythm.

This is not just for effect, but it absolutely has an effect -- the music-making is so intensely committed and involving that only the smuggest of smug listeners could not help but be pulled into the energy field generated onstage.

(Every time I hear someone complaining about Baltimore Symphony concertmaster Jonathan Carney's expansive movements, I just wish they could see -- and hear -- these Venezuelans in action.)

Then there is the sound itself. It's not just a matter of volume, although that is obviously significant -- this orchestra is more than twice the size of our BSO. It's the quality of the tone, which Dudamel has helped to hone. The strings have a great deal of sheen, the woodwinds an impressive array of colors. The brass are capable of producing massive walls of well-controlled sonic power. The percussion section is fearless.

Dudamel, conducting from memory all night, led an action-packed, prismatic program that included Carlos Chavez's "Sinfonia India," Julian Orbon's "Tres Versiones Sinfonicas," Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony," and, for an encore, some Wagner.

The vivid Chavez work, with its piquant orchestration and harmonies (you can easily hear why Copland was such a Chavez fan), crackled mightily. I cannot understand why this piece is not performed more often by our own orchestras.

The Orbon score, with its lush sonorities and, in the finale, xylophone-propelled animation, inspired taut, expressive efforts from the ensemble.

With the over-sized, occasionally overwrought symphony by Strauss, his depiction of an ascent and descent in the Alps, the concert hit its, yes, peak. Dudamel held the sprawling score together, making each pictorial episode communicate clearly and absorbingly.

And because he could draw on an apparently bottomless reservoir of strength from his musicians, the conductor was able to avoid hitting an anticlimactic slide along the way. Each fortissimo seemed louder, deeper, more stirring than the last. Each gentle valley in this sonic journey likewise was masterfully shaded, so that delicate instrumentation emerged with telling clarity and nuance.

Even some Strauss fans find the "Alpine Symphony" a slog, but when you experience such a visceral account, the score's strengths easily outshine the weaker moments. This remains a sterling example of orchestration, and it was a keen pleasure to hear it fulfilled so viscerally by the Venezuelans.

This music also has a genuine emotional component, and it was likewise a keen pleasure to hear that side treated with such feeling by Dudamel. His conviction in the score registered at every turn.

After the hearty, sustained ovation that lasted through several bows, Dudamel finally agreed to an encore, though not the Bernstein "Mambo" that several audience members kept shouting for -- that former trademark of the orchestra would seem too much like kids' stuff now, certainly after a program like this.

Instead, the conductor led the players in something totally un-showy, something all about maturity -- the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." The rapturous performance signaled yet again what a tight bond Dudamel and the players share, and offered yet another demonstration of truly impassioned music-making.

It is awfully easy to believe in the future of classical music after an encounter with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

December 5, 2012

Single Carrot Theatre plans new home in former tire shop

Single Carrot Theatre, which was displaced this season when building code violations forced the closure of Load of Fun on North Avenue, has found a permanent new home in nearby Remington due to open in 2014.

The company will become the first tenant at 2600 N. Howard Street in a building currently housing a tire shop. The location is being renovated by Seawall Development "as a freshly rehabilitated historic building, focused on non-profits, performance, and dining," according to a press release from Single Carrot.

Company artistic director Nathan Cooper said the move "will allow Single Carrot Theatre to expand our programming, to serve a wider audience, and to strengthen the stability of the organization overall."

Plans call for a theater performance space seating just under 100, as well as rehearsal, storage and office spaces -- 6,500 square feet in all.

Seawall partner Evan Morville said that the company "has worked alongside us and selected this building as their new home. We can’t wait to see what they do with the space and for the neighborhood."

The first production is expected to open in early 2014 during the company's seventh season. Single Carrot, which has been a fixture in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, opened the 2012-13 season in MICA facilities. This season will continue in the space on Charles Street being vacated this month by Everyman Theatre, which is moving across town.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

For Midweek Madness, a critical look at a bold new 'women's play'

I thought something theatrical would be nice for Midweek Madness this time, especially since I thought of a clip that involves one of my jobs -- theater critic.

Here is the erudite, superbly named reviewer Bill Needle going after a new "women's play" written by and starring Libby Wolfson, the host of a fabulous SCTV chat show called "You" (which is really about her).

The title of the play is truly inspired, you have to admit: "I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It on Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me That It Ain't!" And the production? Clearly, no expense was spared for this wonderful premiere at a classy dinner theater.

In my professional experience, I can honestly say that I have never seen any theatrical experience to equal this one (and don't miss the ad at the end for Libby's next episode of "You"):

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

December 3, 2012

Weekend in review, including Baltimore Symphony, Piotr Anderszewski

The weekend's musical activity included another impressive performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by the always welcome guest conductor Mario Venzago, and featuring an exceptional cellist, Sol Gabetta, in her BSO debut.

The orchestra invariably plays well for Venzago, and it did so again throughout Saturday night's concert at Meyerhoff Hall.

The musicians looked like they were more closely grouped together onstage. Maybe that was just my imagination, but the sound sure seemed tighter and, despite the fact that the ensemble remains below ideal personnel size, richer.

There was a beautifully detailed, superbly articulated, very eventful account of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz to start things off, and an engrossing, downright electric performance of Franck's D minor Symphony to close. The latter piece gets maligned by some -- too overwrought for their ears, I guess -- but ...

I find Franck's way of developing and developing and developing his themes rather fun.

Venzago treated the once-popular score as if it were one of the greatest of masterpieces. His keen sense of rhythmic tautness, attention to dynamic shadings and willingness to let the big moments soar unreservedly paid dividends. So did his playing down of vibrato in the strings. The BSO did shining work.

In between the Liszt and Franck was the deeply poetic Cello Concerto by Elgar, which received an intensely expressive interpretation.

Gabetta's Guadagnini cello sang out the bittersweet melodic lines in a deliciously dark, warm tone as the 31-year-old Argentine-born soloist sculpted each phrase with lyrical power. Venzago was a sensitive collaborator who had the orchestra leaving its own rich mark on this elegiac concerto, one of the most affecting works in all of classical music.

Gabetta responded to the ovation afterward with a mesmerizing encore, the second movement of "Gramata Cellam," a 1978 for solo cello by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks.

This pianissimo movement, with wisps of sound and a central section that calls on the player to sing along wordlessly to a melancholic melody, is a specialty of Gabetta's. She delivered it with such introspective eloquence that even the coughing in the hall subsided. (You can check out this remarkable music below.)

Sunday evening found Piotr Anderszewski, the terrific Polish pianist, giving a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. In between two of Bach's English Suites came a splendid performance of Schumann's C major Fantasie.

Anderszewski summoned plenty of romantic sweep in the most outward moments of this enriching piece.

But he was even more compelling when he turned inward, as in the closing measures of the first movement, when the quotation from Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte" ("To the Distant Beloved") -- Schumann's not-so-coded message to his eventual wife Clara -- emerged with time-stopping beauty.

The pianist shaped the songful final movement with similar care and tenderness, establishing a haunting mood that could not entirely be shattered by the persistent cell phone that erupted twice toward the end (complete with recorded voice inviting the caller to leave a message).

For the bookend Bach suites, where he substituted a straight-backed chair for traditional piano bench, Anderszewski emphasized clarity of line and drew plenty of tone coloring from the keyboard.

In the G minor Suite, the delivery of the Sarabande proved especially rewarding. It became a study in diminuendo, gradually moving from fortissimo to pianissimo, with exquisite phrasing at every turn. Another highlight was the playing of the Gavottes in the D minor Suite, with gently sparkling articulation that cast quite a spell.

My weekend listening started Friday night at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, where Baltimore Concert Opera drew a packed house for Puccini's "Tosca." I wish I could share the audience's enthusiasm. When the best voice in Act 1 of "Tosca" is the Sacristan's, you know you are in for a long night (I lasted two acts).

I admire Baltimore Concert Opera's spirit and its strong connection to the community's opera lovers, but I have a problem understanding some of its choices of repertoire and artists.

In this performance, conducted by Michael Borowitz and accompanied by James Harp on a not-very-nice-sounding piano, the Cavarodossi had serious trouble with top notes (if he was indisposed, I missed the announcement). The Tosca encountered her own difficulty in the upper register, turning shrill and unfocused when pushing her basically lyric instrument into spinto territory. The Scarpia had enough volume, but not enough finesse and steadiness.

Yes, there definitely were effective moments from each of these singers, and moments when the power and passion of this opera could be felt. But I missed the sense of artists thoroughly at home in their roles and at one with the music.

That said, Jason Hardy was a truly wonderful Sacristan, turning a bit part into a scene-stealer with his warm tone and deftly shaded phrasing that helped the character -- the whole performance, really -- leap to life.

Here's Sol Gabetta performing that intriguing work by Vasks:


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:06 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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