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February 25, 2013

Clef Notes and Drama Queens is morphing into new blog

Hey, devoted (or annoyed) readers of my Clef Notes and Drama Queens blog: You will now find me on the newly created Artsmash blog, which gives me a chance to pontificate on even more subjects. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:14 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

February 20, 2013

Midweek Madness feels the pain of cold-sufferers

Having succumbed at long last to a winter cold, I felt I would dedicate this Midweek Madness installment to my fellow sufferers. I suggest we all sing through our pain, with the help of Betty Boop and that profound ditty "I Got a Cold in My Nose." (Her performance makes me want to dig out "Funny Lady" again to hear Streisand's fun version.)

Grab a Kleenex and chime in:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:14 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

February 18, 2013

Mezzo Magdalena Kozena, pianist Yefim Bronfman give recital at Shriver Hall

Vocal recitals are rare enough in Baltimore that even a program of familiar lieder would qualify as a novelty. A program of way-off-the-beaten-path songs? That's beyond cool.

Magdalena Kozena, the high-profile, Czech mezzo-soprano, and her equally high-profile accompanist, the Russian-born, Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, chose a fascinating sample of repertoire for their recital Sunday night presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

Four of the five composers on the bill came from the mainstream, but the works selected for this occasion did not.

In Mussorgsky's song cycle "The Nursery," which evokes the alternately animated, awed and mischievous mindset of a child, Kozena offered an abundance of colorful vocal touches -- even a nose-thumbing gesture for good measure. Bronfman articulated the subtly brilliant keyboard part with terrific flair.

The exquisite, often wry sound world of Ravel's "Histoires Naturelles" likewise found both artists doing finely communicative work, especially in the lovely languor of "Le Martin-pecheur."

Kozena's dark, evenly produced tone found another great outlet in the six songs of romance and nature from Rachmaninoff's Op. 38.

Bronfman likewise summoned expressive power every step of the way, digging into the richly woven accompaniment. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff frequently ended art songs with elongated codas for the piano, and these passages took on extra value in Bronfman's hands.

Bartok's earthy "Village Scenes," with their deliciously spiky rhythms, inspired another burst of vivid music-making.

All of this would have been enough to make the recital distinctive, but there as more -- the local premiere of "Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound" by French composer Mac-Andre Dalbavie, a work co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall and Shriver Hall Concert Series.

The text, "The Unmoving Cloud" from Pound's "Cathay," has inspired a transparent, finely detailed setting from Dalbavie.

The vocal lines, sensual and elegant, convey the imagery of rain, loneliness, the comforts of nature and wine.

There are hazy hints of Debussy and Ravel along the way; even, in Melodie II, a touch of Rachmaninoff in the piano's dark harmonies. A keyboard motive that descends in the first song and ascends in the last provides a telling thread.

Kozena sang the music sensitively and articulated the English works more clearly than many a singer whose first language actually is English.

There was an affecting encore -- Schumann's "Wehmut" from "Liederkreis," which includes the line, "I can sometimes sing as if I were happy. But, in secret, tears well up ... no one feels the pains, the deep sorrow in the song."

Kozena produced her tenderest vocal shading of the evening here, reaching the lied's poignant heart, while Bronfman matched her nuance for nuance.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Center Stage adds performance of 'Mountaintop'; Annex Theatre extends 'Equus'

It looks like a full-fledged trend -- Baltimore theater companies adding performances of productions thanks to popular demand this winter.

First to announce was Everyman Theatre, which extended the run of "August: Osage County." Two more companies have likewise found themselves with hits.

Katori Hall’s "The Mountaintop" isn't for everybody, but this serious/humorous/surreal look at Rev. Martin Luther King's last night, April 3, 1968, has turned out to be "one of the highest grossing plays" in the 50-year history of Center Stage, the company reports.

Although the production, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, still has to close on Feb. 24 as originally scheduled, an extra performance has been added that day -- 7:30 p.m. (Scheduling conflicts prevent a longer extension.)

Meanwhile, Annex Theatre, one of the city's young, intrepid troupes, reports that, "due to an extremely positive audience reaction," two more weekends have been added to its production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus." 

The show, directed by Mason Ross, opened Feb. 7 at the H&H Building downtown and was slated to finish up on the 17th. It will instead continue there through the weekends of Feb. 23 and March 1.

(You may recall that the Annex Theatre had hoped to be in a new, permanent home on North Avenue in a renovated fast food place, but there have been delays in the renovation process.)

PHOTO (Myxolydia Tyler, Shawn Hamilton in 'The Mountaintop') BY RICHARD ANDERSON

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

February 16, 2013

Opera Philadelphia offers East Coast premiere of Kevin Puts' 'Silent Night'

The last pope to take the name Benedict, before the one who made history this month announcing plans to retire, assumed his duties a few weeks after the outbreak of World War I.

As Christmas 1914 approached, Benedict XV, who described the war as “the suicide of Europe,” pleaded for a Christmas truce. The military leaders refused, but somehow, at several points along the trenches, a surreal cease-fire broke out anyway.

That short, peaceful spell inspired the 2005 film “Joyeux Noel,” which focused on the experiences of some Scottish, French and German troops on a battlefield in Belgium. That film, in turn, inspired “Silent Night,” an opera by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Institute faculty member who received the Pulitzer Prize in music last year for this extraordinary work.

Opera Philadelphia is presenting the East Coast premiere of “Silent Night” at the Academy of Music in an impressive co-production with Minnesota Opera, which commissioned and unveiled the piece in November 2011. (The final performance is Sunday.)

Music history is not ...

strewn with examples of successful first-time operas, so Puts’ debut in the genre is doubly persuasive.

There are a few weak spots here and there (and maybe too many growling brass chords), but the score for “Silent Night” delivers. The composer’s fundamentally tonal style communicates directly; his orchestra achieves prismatic power.

Puts writes well for the voice and has the advantage of a text by Mark Campbell, the librettist of choice for several composers. Campbell writes with a naturalness and concision that keep the plot and characters clear, the pacing effective.

(The two men have been commissioned by Minnesota Opera for another work, this one based on the vintage thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.”)

Everything about that unlikely Christmas truce is fascinating. And, as was the case with the film version, the opera personalizes the event with telling glimpses into the lives that intersected on that gruesomely scarred countryside.

"Silent Night" grabs hold from the Prologue, which introduces the primary characters from each country at the moment when the war first touches their lives. As their nationalistic pride heats up, Puts creates a Charles Ives-worthy clash of harmonies to go with it.

In short order, those characters become multilayered and sympathetic. How they end up — death, defection, transfer to other hideous fronts (punishment from top brass for the fraternization) — hits home. There is much left in the snowy air as the final curtain falls.

Two key characters are stars of the German opera stage — tenor Nikolaus Sprink and his Danish lover, soprano Anna Sorensen. They both find themselves at the front that December 1914, he in uniform in the trenches, she to perform for the nearby German high command.

Anna uses her connections to join Sprink on Christmas Eve and becomes part of the unexpected suspension of hostilities. When she sings “Donna nobis pacem” after a multinational Mass, the effect is riveting. The whole amazing scene, with all of its impossible hope, becomes focused on a single, plaintive voice.

That is just one of the many highlights in a work that gains strength from several little vignettes — a letter-writing scene, an officer getting a haircut, a man clutching the corpse of his older brother. With each turn of the revolving stage, something fresh is learned about the people trapped in the war that couldn’t possibly end all wars.

The atmospheric set (Francis O’Connor) is complete with bunkers, the ruins of a church and a no man’s land where Sprink dares to tread, singing a song and inviting his foes to join him.

The sturdy cast, directed with a fine eye for subtle detail by Eric Simonson, includes a stirring performance by William Burden as Sprink. The tenor is especially affecting during his eloquent expression of despair about the war, sung against a long-sustained note in the orchestra.

Kelly Kaduce does a vibrant job as Anna. A more tender tone would be welcome in some of the high-reaching melodic lines, but the soprano’s phrasing is emotionally telling throughout. Also on the German side, Craig Irvin gives a compelling performance as Horstmayer, the Jewish officer determined to serve the Fatherland.

Liam Bonner’s mellow baritone and nuanced acting flesh out the French officer Audebert, who has one of the opera’s finest moments — as the lieutenant writes up the casualty list, a litany interspersed with thoughts about his wife, the vocal line spins gently over a haunting accompaniment of harp and strings.

Andrew Wilkowske shines as Audebert’s droll aide, Ponchel. On the Scottish side, Zach Borichevsky sings stirringly as Jonathan Dale, a young soldier who cannot stomach this strange truce. Troy Cook is an urgent presence as the Scottish chaplain.

Michael Christie conducts the score with great sensitivity and draws beautifully detailed playing form the Opera Philadelphia orchestra.

“Silent Night” should be staged in Baltimore. How about a collaboration between Lyric Opera Baltimore and Peabody Opera in 2014, the centennial of the war and the Christmas truce? It would make an uplifting challenge for both organizations, and a fitting way to honor an extraordinary composer teaching in our midst.



Posted by Tim Smith at 5:11 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

The Baltimore Symphony delivers vivid Wagner program

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chose some of Richard Wagner’s most radiant and involving music for a program this weekend to mark the composer’s bicentennial year. The results were pretty radiant, too, Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and will likely be even more so in the repeat performances, as things settle in more firmly.

As a person, Wagner was deplorable — vain, arrogant, manipulative, viciously and relentlessly anti-Semitic. As an artist, he reached the highest peaks. His importance to the evolution of Western music cannot be overstated; the fusion of intellectual brilliance and emotional power that propels his works cannot be overvalued.

The best way to appreciate this achievement is in an opera house enjoying a full staging of a Wagner music drama, but that opportunity is not going to arise in Baltimore any time soon. The BSO is offering the next best thing — a complete act from “Die Walkure” in concert form, with three excellent singers.

As a warm-up, there are samplings from “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger.” And warm was the word on Friday.

Conductor Marin Alsop emphasized the grandeur and humanity of the “Meistersinger” Prelude in equal measure. There was propulsion, but not haste, in her approach, and that helped the ingenious counterpoint in the score to shine through. The ensemble sounded sure and robust.

The BSO’s previous performances of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan” over the past decade have been orchestra-only. This time, there was a soprano in the house to do the honors in the “Liebestod” — the opera’s soul-stirring conclusion, when Isolde, having lost her beloved Tristan, essentially dies of love.

As in previous performances of the Prelude I’ve heard her conduct, Alsop ...

did not tap all the emotive possibilities of the score’s silences, or allow for much in the way of tempo-bending. I would have loved a finer pianissimo dynamic level, too. Still, the conductor unleashed much of the intensely poetic nature of this harmonically restless music, aided every measure of the way by the BSO, especially the strings.

In the “Liebestod,” Heidi Melton didn’t sound fully warmed up; top notes lacked ease. But the soprano’s phrasing communicated Isolde’s internal rapture vividly. Conducting this music for the first time with a vocalist, Alsop provided sensitive partnering. She kept the orchestra from swamping the singer, but hardly held back on passionate sweep.

Alsop was also leading a full act from a Wagner opera for the first time. What she achieved here suggests that she should consider doing more.

It is possible to extract more detail and nuance from Act 1 of “Walkure,” the second of the four works that make up Wagner’s towering “Ring of the Nibelung.” But Alsop kept singers and orchestra on the same tight wavelength as she shaped this hour-long scene, maintaining a strong inner pulse that still allowed room for breadth.

This act introduces three pivotal characters of the “Ring” — the heroic Siegmund who seeks refuge in a house that turns to be that of his long lost twin sister (soon-to-be lover) Sieglinde and her unpleasant husband, Hunding.

Brandon Jovanovich, as Siegmund, revealed a bright, warm tenor and an eloquent manner of phrasing. His top notes could have used a little more weight and stamina, but this was impressive Wagnerian singing just the same.

Melton blossomed as Sieglinde. Her vibrant, focused tone and attentiveness to text yielded a beautifully nuanced portrayal. She and Javonovich produced terrific intensity in the exultant closing minutes.

As Hunding, Eric Owens towered over everyone else onstage and unleashed a deeply resonant voice to match. His superb diction gave each word menacing impact.

Except for a wince-inducing slip or two in the brass section, the BSO delivered the goods handsomely, right from the dark, galloping music that opens the act. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski — the whole cello section, for that matter — made particularly subtle contributions in the score’s most tender passages.

The gradually diminishing coughs during the performance and the rousing ovation afterward made it clear that there is an audience eager here for Wagner. How about the complete Act 2 of “Tristan” next?

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:52 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 15, 2013

Signature Theatre stages brilliant, bracing 'Shakespeare's R&J'

In its nearly two dozen years, Signature Theatre has presented a rich variety of works, but none by the Bard -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The Tony Award-winning company has now taken the plunge in a terrific way.

"Shakespeare's R&J" examines the star-crossed lovers of Verona through the unexpected prism of a repressive, all-male Catholic boarding school. This brilliant and provocative work, created by Joe Calarco, first appeared in the late 1990s and has been widely performed since.

Calarco recently revised the piece, and that new version is receiving its North American premiere in a bracing, in-the-round production that he has directed with considerable flair.

The piece is wonderfully minimalist -- just four actors (the characters are unnamed), no set or costumes (save for preppy school uniforms), hardly any props (a long red cloth gets versatile use). The attention here is all on text and subtext.

The students are ...

overloaded on rote-learning of things like Latin (the recitation of "amo, amas, amat" sounds strangely menacing), math and absurd lessons in the differences between the sexes. Clandestinely and gleefully, they break out a copy of "Romeo and Juliet," as if it were stashed-away porn, and begin to immerse themselves in the world of teen love, anguish and bravado.

They divvy up the parts and, bit by bit, slip fully into character. The comic and suggestive lines in Shakespeare's text get the amusingly crude delivery you would expect from teenage males. Each shift toward tragedy seems freshly compelling.

And what of the love story? Sure, boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's time, but that's not what this version is about; there is no imitation of a girlish voice or physical mannerism for Juliet.

Here, the dangerous situation Romeo and Juliet are in, defying the rules of their strictly demarcated society, is reinforced by the sight of two young men embracing those roles. The distinctions between play-acting and reality blur just enough to shake up everything.

Calarco neither pushes nor avoids homo-eroticism as the work proceeds. He merely puts an extra current in the air, adding one more dimension to a familiar tale of forbidden love that unfolds in an environment where that tale itself is forbidden.

As the students reach the end of their Shakespearean escape (references to "A Midsummer Night's" and the sonnets also pass tellingly through the piece) and prepare to return to the conformist, faceless grind, the Romeo hesitates. He is not ready to break the bond formed with his Juliet.

It's a brief, exceptionally poignant moment. On one level, it speaks to the issue of teens struggling with same-sex attraction, of course, but it's more about how all parting -- of friends, lovers, expectations, dreams -- is such (bitter)sweet sorrow.

Calareco gets admirable, finely polished work from the cast. Alex Mills leaps into the Romeo role with a disarming naturalness, matched by Jefferson Farber's vibrant take on Juliet. Rex Daugherty does colorful, nuanced work throughout, especially when portraying the Nurse. Joel David Santner completes the quartet in dynamic form.

Between them, scenic designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Chris Lee create visual magic at key moments, adding exquisitely expressive layers to the proceedings.

Matt Rowe's sound design plays a valuable role, too. But the most compelling sound -- other than the potent delivery of Shakespeare's language -- comes each time the students stop suddenly to gasp loudly for air, as if preparing to dive into deep, scary water.

"Shakespeare's R&J" rungs through March 3


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 14, 2013

'Flashdance -- The Musical' has flash, dance, little substance

Somewhere, a halfway decent adaptation of the 1983 hit movie “Flashdance” is fighting to break away from the amiable, strongly performed mess of a show that has arrived at the Hippodrome. Instead, we get an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink mishmash.

It’s partly a traditional musical, with at least the thread of a plot — a woman who welds by day but would rather dance — and new songs that advance the storyline, more or less.

It’s partly a jukebox musical, with emphasis on the vintage songs that helped make the film so popular.

It also wants to be just a big old dance celebration, with kinetic routines breaking out at the drop of a cliche.

As the show bumps and grinds across the stage, it seems, above all, to have been created for those with short attention spans. Things never settle down long enough to allow for such silly little things as character development or dramatic tension.

You would think that with such a strong, recent example of how a need-to-dance movie can make a good stage musical — see “Billy Elliot” — someone might have wanted to give “Flashdance” a few layers thicker than the loose sweatshirt the lead character wears.

The flimsy premise of this tale could use some filling out and suspense — anything to pump up the journey made by Alex, the mill worker with the hankering for ballet lessons.

“Flashdance,” with a book by Tom Hedley and Robert Cary, is content to stay on the same superficial level of the original source material.

This would have been a good time to try out some fresh dialogue, for a start.

And lyrics? Oh, my. Alfred Tennyson must be chuckling in his grave at this howler: “It’s better to leap and fall than never leap at all.” (Robert Roth wrote the music and shares credit for the lyrics with Robert Cary.)

I wonder if a campier course might have been more fun, given how brilliant, in its own crazy way, the stage adaptation of another dance-filled movie, "Xanadu," turned out. Oh well.

"Flashdance," expertly directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, may rely too much on nostalgia. The expected scenes from the film are recreated, though in a curiously dutiful fashion.

When the lithe and spirited Emily Padgett, who stars as Alex, removes a bra without lifting her sweat shirt, or gyrates while being doused with water, just like Jennifer Beals did in the film, it feels like she is merely following a to-do list.

There’s nothing remotely sexy about that bra business — Matthew Hydzik, as Alex’s boss-turned-boyfriend, Nick, looks like he’s watching the nightly news.

And the water number, used to bring down the Act 1 curtain, certainly looks fabulous (Klara Zieglerova’s scenic design and Howell Binkley’s lighting deliver plenty of sizzle throughout the production), but the whole thing is over in a splash. It feels tacked on, just a sop to the fans of the movie.

Superficiality does have its place in the theater world, of course, and there’s a certain guilty-pleasure element about this glossy vehicle, which tries so hard to entertain. (I still wouldn’t count too heavily on the show’s success if it ever makes it to Broadway — the Baltimore visit is part of a pre-New York national tour.)

In addition to the fluent stagecraft, the level of performing is high. Padgett manages to look fresh at the end of the two and a half hour musical, despite one frenetic dance after another (the choreography devised for her could use a bit more of the aesthetic and bit less of the athletic). She sings sturdily as well. If she can’t quite give Alex depth, she manages to give her some personality.

Hydzik glides smoothly through the role of Nick and, especially in the calmer numbers, proves to be a confident, stylish singer. He’s especially effective blending with Padgett in “Here and Now,” one of the more appealing songs in the score.

Not content to focus on one character’s journey toward artistic fulfillment, the show spends a little too much time with others. There’s Alex’s dancing buddy Gloria (a perky Kelly Felthous), who ends up in a sleazy club. And Gloria’s boyfriend, Jimmy (David R. Gordon), whose boy-meets-dream, boy-loses-dream, boy-gets-song progression proves only mildly diverting.

JoAnn Cunningham, as Alex’s wise old muse, Hannah, makes a valiant effort to give the character some depth, but she isn’t helped by the writers.

Supporting players make a considerable effort to spice things up. The ensemble of dancers/singers moves through its paces in polished form. But they would be better served by a few really grand production numbers, rather than an assortment of brief routines that often don’t have enough time to get off the ground.

On the plus side, “Flashdance” does deliver in the closing moments, when Alex finally gets her audition for the stuffy academy and the strains of “What a Felling” start to fill the house. There really is bit of a thrill at that point, but it’s just a little late.

The production runs through Sunday.

Photo by Kyle Froman

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 13, 2013

Single Carrot Theatre breaks in new digs with 'Tropic of X'

People anxious about seismic demographic shifts already under way in the Western Hemisphere may be a bit unnerved by Caridad Svich’s futuristic drama “The Tropic of X,” receiving its English-language premiere from Single Carrot Theatre — the company’s first venture in its temporary headquarters in the former home of Everyman Theatre.

The playwright’s vision conjures a world where North and South America have fused into a strange melange where languages and longings converge, or collide. The crudely hedonistic society that results comes with a violent undercurrent that some vague authoritarian power is ready to smash or exploit.

Amid the grime and slime of this cruel tomorrow, the old human impulse toward love and union can still break through, bringing with it the faintest tint of hope.

The intriguing, if not entirely persuasive, work has a little “A Clockwork Orange” in it, though with a Latin beat instead of Beethoven — a DJ spinning tracks, and official government lines, provides a connective soundtrack.

The staging, directed by Nathan A. Cooper, also suggests a touch of the vintage “Batman” TV series in the stylized fight scene early on (there’s even a baseball cap emblazoned with word “pow” on the brim).

With her Cuban, Spanish, Argentine and Croatian background, Svich obviously brings a keen perspective to issues of assimilation and alienation. “The Tropic of X” is all about identity — national, social, economic, and, most provocatively, sexual (gender-bending plays a major role here) — and how the things that define us can get pretty slippery.

What Svich doesn’t do is ...

build a satisfying structure for her ideas. As theater, the piece tends to sag or wander just when things get interesting. Scenes that seem headed toward something big or boggling are apt to fizzle and fade.

There isn’t that much spark or surprise in the surreal world being imagined here; with allusions to video arcades and the use of a Nerf gun, it has an odd retro quality.

The dialogue could also use more vibrancy (“Peel my grape” doesn’t seem like the most sexually suggestive line kids of the future would be using). When the play takes its darkest, most surreal turn, the language remains stubbornly flat.

That said, the Carrots plunge into the material with their usual, wholehearted commitment, which helps lift even the less effective stretches.

As two deadbeats who flit from video games to mugging tourists, when they are not thinking sex and drugs, Genevieve de Mahy (Maura) and Nathan Fulton (Mori) do vibrant work.

They both could use a wider range of physical gestures to convey youthful bravado, but they bring out the nervousness underneath the characters’ attitude and make it possible to sense the tenuous bond of affection between them.

Fulton is especially strong when, having fallen afoul of the law and forced to undergo the ultimate transformative therapy, he repeats the mantra he has been taught: “I want to forget. I want to cry. I want to dream ...”

As Kiki, the transgender hooker and drug dealer resigned to the pervasive obscenity of this grave new world, Jessica Garrett struts confidently and conveys an inner vulnerability. Paul Diem moves easily from seemingly innocent guy to scary guy. And Aldo Pantoja, gyrating in his perch above the stage, handles the DJ role with flair.

A committee of costumers devised the slightly offbeat outfits, and Lisi Stoessel designed the compact, graffiti-flecked set (sensitively lit by Lana Riggins).

The performance area has been configured to approximate the intimacy of the company’s former North Avenue location. Single Carrot will eventually move to a new venue taking shape in Remington, but the old Everyman space on Charles Street makes a great home for the time being.

"Tropic of X" runs through March 3.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

Midweek Madness just can't get 'Downton Abbey' out of the mind

With the season finale of "Downton Abbey" approaching on Sunday, I couldn't resist devoting one more Midweek Madness entry to the show -- the perfect addition to your paper doll collection:



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

Fine concerts from Music in the Great Hall, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

It was all happening Sunday afternoon on Dulaney Valley Road.

I started at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, where the Music in the Great Hall series presented the Trio Cloisonne -- flutist Marcia Kamper, violist Karin Brown, harpist Sarah Fuller -- in a colorful program.

Debussy is generally credited with generating interest in this combination of instruments; his Sonata was featured on the second half of the concert, by which point I had moved down the road to another performance.

What I did get to hear was quite rewarding, especially Toru Takemitsu's "And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind." The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem ("Like Rain it sounded till it curved/ And then I knew 'twas wind ..."); the music comes from a magical place where French and Japanese harmonic idioms seem to converge.

The players, all affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony, articulated the atmospheric score with ...

admirable finesse, subtly bringing out the sensual tone coloring.

The Elegiac Trio by Arnold Bax also owes something to the sound world of late-19th, early-20th-century French music. The concise, beautifully constructed piece received a supple performance.

The Trio by Harold Genzmer, a work full of charm, where flirtations with dissonance are invariably resolved peacefully in the final chord, a la Hindemith. The concluding folk song variations -- the wry coda is especially fun -- found the players in vivid form.

I made a dash for it at intermission to Kraushaar Auditorium for the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's concert, which was in progress when I arrived.

The portion of the Mozart Divertimento I caught found the ensemble's fine string section maintaining a cohesive tone and phrasing with a good deal of nuance. On the podium, Markand Thakar demonstrated the art of the unobtrusive conductor -- minimal gestures, maximum expression.

Things were likewise polished and vivid at the program's close in the deliciously neo-baroque Concerto Grosso No. 1 by Bloch. Thakar had the ingenious music percolating nicely and drew finely detailed efforts from the orchestra and the various soloists within.

The rest of the program showcased guest artist Katherine Needleman, whose work as principal oboe of the BSO has long been admired.

She soared through Bach's A major Concerto for oboe d'amore as if on one breath, sculpting the melodic lines with great flair. The strings, led by the concertmaster, backed the soloist sensitively; the gently rocking second movement emerged with particular warmth.

Needleman was even more impressive in Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto. The piece, much of it in the composer's "Lark Ascending" mode, inspired exquisite, mellow-toned phrasing from the soloist, while Thakar and the ensemble provided stylish partnering.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:12 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 11, 2013

Everyman Theatre extends run of 'August: Osage County'

The terrific inaugural production of "August: Osage County" at Everyman Theatre's new home has been such a success that the run is being extended.

Instead of Feb. 17, the new closing date will be Feb. 24.

There are many reasons to catch this show, starting with the brilliant play that Tracy Letts wrote. In peeling away layer after layer of a heavily troubled Oklahoma family, Letts uncovers unsettling things about all of us.

Those uncanny insights into human behavior, not to mention a wonderful streak of humor, earned Letts a Pulitzer and Tony Award for "August."

Everyman's staging -- the Baltimore premiere of the 2007 work -- features an excellent cast headed by the wonderful Linda Thorson in her company debut as the messed-up matriarch.

There are extraordinary efforts as well from Nancy Robinette (another company debut) and such Everyman veterans as Deborah Hazlett and Wil Love, to mention just a few.

The all-out ensemble effort reaffirms Everyman's quality and value to Baltimore's theater scene, while the handsome staging shows off the company's new venue to great advantage. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:19 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

February 8, 2013

BSO joined by conductor Hannu Lintu, pianist Stephen Hough in rich program

Hannu Lintu’s debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra almost three years ago caused a sensation. The Finnish conductor ignited the ensemble in a way that few podium guests had, and the results were exhilarating.

On that occasion, Lintu led the ensemble in the most famous piece of classical music from his homeland, Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” For his return this week, the conductor is offering the second most famous — Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

From the first measures of that symphony Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, Lintu signaled that his would be a brisk and bracing account.

Some conductors, at least non-Finn ones, take heaps of time to let this earth-colored, yearning-filled music sink in (think Leonard Bernstein). They may be off-base, but they can't help but conjure up dark forests and, of course, the forbidding peaks of mighty fiords.

Lintu let the sun seep continually into the score. There was a fresh breeze, too, behind his scherzo-like tempo for the first movement, not to mention his whirlwind pace for the actual scherzo later on.

The conductor hardly stinted on the symphony’s intense drama, though. The unsettled and unsettling second movement, for example, emerged with particularly effective tension.

Lintu kept the finale moving along. He still gave the grand, anthem-like theme its expressive due, even if, like Veda in “Mildred Pierce,” the conductor seemed to be saying, “But let’s not get sticky over it.”

Throughout the symphony, he called for telling nuances from the musicians, especially ...

at pianissimo level, so that surges of orchestral power had even more impact. A slippery moment in the Andante aside, the BSO’s performance proved highly impressive.

The strings summoned a great deal of tonal warmth; basses and cellos articulated the pizzicato start of the Andante with great sensitivity. That Andante also found the brass producing walls of sound with remarkable gravity and tonal richness.

There were colorful contributions from the woodwinds as well. And Katherine Needleman delivered the third movement oboe solo with her usual sensitivity.

Other strong examples of musical romanticism filled out the program.

Tchaikovsky’s stormy “Francesca da Rimini” received a taut account at the top of the evening, with Lintu stressing momentum and structural cohesion.

A sense of abandon would have been welcome during the final moments, and maybe one more notch of explosive power here and there, but this was still an impressive take on the score, and the orchestra was in superb form. Steven Barta’s clarinet glowed eloquently.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the composer’s most inventive creations, provided — at least in this context — a lighter mood. Which is not to say less consequential.

Having the brilliant English pianist Stephen Hough as soloist guaranteed an absorbing performance. His playing was not just precise and pristine, but full of telling detail as he dug into the ingenious thematic metamorphosis that makes the concerto such a gem.

Lintu was a supple collaborator. Other than some questionable intonation at the start, the orchestra was again in fine form. Dariusz Skoraczewski delivered the cello solo tenderly.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:37 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 7, 2013

Belated report on Pro Musica Rara's SuperBach Sunday

Pro Musica Rara had a great quarter-Bach for its concert on Super Bowl Sunday -- Johann Sebastian.

The early music/period instrument group has an annual tradition of presenting a wintry program scheduled around or, as it turned out this time, exactly on the day of the biggest football game of the year.

Billed as SuperBach Sunday, the concert typically has a unifying theme. This one, which drew a good-sized audience to Towson University's Center for the Arts, found a particularly interesting hook.

It centered on the court of Frederick the Great and featured one of Bach's monumental exercises in contrapuntal ingenuity, "The Musical Offering," based on a slithery theme supposedly devised by the king himself.

Hard to believe that the revered monarch who could come up with such a harmonically challenging melodic line was the same guy who wrote the mundane march played on the first half of Sunday's concert. I guess even supreme rulers have their off days.

Still, it was fun hearing that ditty and the more substantive and elegant Flute Sonata No. 9, not to mention the fine Flute Quartet No. 1 by Quantz, one of Frederick's favored composers.

The Quantz work, in particular, inspired ...

a smooth, colorful performance from flutist Sara Nichols, violinist Greg Mulligan, violist Sharon Pineo Meyer, harpsichordist Dongsok Shin and cellist and Pro Musica artistic director Allen Whear.

But the main event, in terms of music and music-making, came in the second half as those five players, plus violinist Ivan Stefanovic, offered the "Offering."

It's a long, complex work made up of more than as dozen individual components, so Whear sensibly provided introductory remarks to each, accompanied by quick demonstrations of things to listen out for. I often lose patience with chitchat during concerts, but Whear kept his remarks brief, enlightening and spiced with a wit drier than the driest vermouth.

A few frayed edges aside, the playing was quite nimble and expressive, with many a telling detail, such as Nichols' downright sensual phrasing at the start of the "Canon a 4."

She, Stefanovic, Whear and Shin did shining work in the darkly beautiful Trio Sonata that, as Whear pointed out, demonstrated that Bach could write as well for the heart as for the mind, all the while extracting still more mileage out of the royal theme.

And all six musicians rose to the challenge of the concluding Ricercar, tapping into the score's almost spiritual immersion into the intricacies of fugal thought.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 6, 2013

Baltimore Symphony launches Music Box Series for the very young

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has a long track record of educational outreach, is adding a new demographic to its list with the launch of the Music Box Series, designed for the six-month to three-year-old set.

BSO vice president of education Carol Bogash calls the project "the final piece in the BSO’s educational framework" and cites a McMaster University study indicating that "early musical training benefits children even before they can walk or talk."

The Music Box Series will feature actress, dancer, storyteller and Baltimore School for the Arts instructor Maria Broom (pictured) as host of the 30-minute programs, which will be held Saturday mornings in the lobby of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The concerts are designed to promote "musical, motor and language development through bouncing, clapping, listening, singing and other hands-on activities," according to the BSO's press release. There will be pre-concert activities as well.

The lineup:

-- "Birdie Melodies" April 13 (Mozart, Beethoven; emphasis on flute, violin, viola and cello)

-- "Great Big Animals" May 4 (Handel, Brahms, brass quintet)

-- "Life in the Water" (Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, et al.)

For ticket info, call 410-783-8000 or check out the BSO's Web site.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Midweek Madness peers into 'Uptown Downstairs Abbey'

OK, I admit it. While the rest of the civilized world was glued to the Super Bowl, the TV in our house was emanating the glow of period drama -- the irresistible "Downton Abbey" on PBS. (I still think the Most Valuable Player Sunday night was Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper who managed to tackle sexism, anti-Catholicism and smug-ism all in one fabulous game.)

For the benefit of those who have not yet caught onto the Downton phenomenon -- and even more for the benefit of those who have -- Midweek Madness offers this unique introduction/recap/documentary:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

February 5, 2013

Wolf Trap Opera to offer 'Traviata,' 'Falstaff, 'Viaggio a Reims'

If it weren't for Wolf Trap Opera, summers around her would get awfully dull for some of us.

The company, which features young, up-and-coming artists in productions that typically generate musical and theatrical sparks, will concentrate on Italian repertoire for its 2013 season.

This being the Verdi bicentennial year, two of that composer's masterpieces will be featured:

-- "La Traviata," in a presentation with video-projected scenic design July 19 at the Filene Center; the National Symphony Orchestra will participate in this event, conducted by Grant Gershon;

-- "Falstaff," conducted by Dean Williamson and directed by Tomer Zvulun, presented in the Barns at Wolf Trap August 9, 11, 14 and 17.

Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims," conducted by Gary Thor Wedow and directed by David Gately, will open the season at the Barns June 21, 23 and 29.

Other events include another imaginative program organized and accompanied by pianist Steven Blier, this one called "Wonders To Wander To: Songs and Stories of Faraway Lands," July 6 and 7 at the Barns.

And company director Kim Witman will be at the piano to accompany what is billed as an "Aria Jukebox," with vocal artists singing audience-selected numbers, July 14 at the Barns.

Tickets to the Wolf Trap Opera season go on sale March 16.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

February 1, 2013

Tortelier fires up Baltimore Symphony in works by Hindemith and Mussorgsky

Every visit by conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier seems to ignite the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Audiences get pretty worked up, too.

Tortelier is back this week with a program that includes Mussorgsky's perennial "Pictures at an Exhibition" and a much rarer sampling of the Hindemith work list, the bracing Concert Music for Brass and Strings.

In between, some comforting Mozart -- Piano Concerto No. 27, featuring another welcome returning guest artist, Orion Weiss.

I had the most fun Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall during the Hindemith at the top of the concert. For one thing, this fascinating composer does not get much attention these days. For another, this particular score has ...

a potent muscularity that Tortelier flexed persuasively.

The conductor kept the pacing taut and ensured that the multiple melodic lines emerged clearly. If the last note lacked the ultimate in impact, that was partly the fault of Hindemith; his habit of wrapping things up with a straightforward consonance, no matter how spicy the harmonic action preceding it, can get anticlimactic.

Remaining performances are likely to be smoother, but this was still impressive music-making. And it sure was fun to hear enthusiastic cheers and whistles from the audience on Thursday. Who knew there were Hindemith fans in this town?

The brass players, who delivered some vibrant waves of sound in the Concert Music, stepped up their game in the Mussorgsky classic. They gave the deep, dark chords in the "Catacombs" section a wonderful, menacing presence, and they were more than ready when the "Great Gate of Kiev" loomed in the finale.

Admirable contributions came from the rest of the orchestra -- terrific sparks in the "Tuileries" and "Unhatched Chicks" passages; smoky sax solo by Steven Temme in "The Old Castle," etc. -- as Tortelier fashioned an invigorating visit to Mussorgsky's sonic gallery. The performance, conducted form memory, had a remarkably spontaneity and sweep.

The Mozart concerto was rather dwarfed in this context, perhaps more than necessary, since Tortelier cut the orchestral forces down considerably. I'm all for trying to achieve historically appropriate balance in the presentation of 18th -century repertoire, but, after all, a modern grand piano is not exactly historically appropriate.

Weiss, who has given extraordinarily fresh and nuanced accounts of concertos by Grieg and Ravel with the BSO over the years, seemed a little faceless this time around. Articulation was pristine, phrasing elegant, but I would have welcomed a more distinctive stamp.

Tortelier provided proficient partnering. And, aside form some scrawny sounds from the violins, the ensemble held up its end of things nicely. The woodwinds, in particular, produced a colorful glow.

Remaining performances are Friday night at the Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

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

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