January 24, 2013

Oestreich stepping down as New York Times classical music editor

Big news in the classical music field -- James R. Oestreich is stepping down as New York Times classical music editor at the end of the month. He is taking a buyout from the paper of record, which he has served for 24 years. He still plans to contribute to the paper after his departure.

For quite a few of us in the ever-threatened business, Jim has been a great influence and inspiration. Count me among his ardent admirers.

I am biased, of course, especially since ...

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 5, 2012

Classical concert round-up: NSO's 'Missa Solemnis,' Poulenc Trio, Europa Galante

The last several days have been something of a blur, running from performance to performance (or portions thereof), leaving me little time to pontificate about them. I will try to make up for some of that now.

Let me concentrate here on the classical concerts I caught during this particular whirlwind, which started with the National Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Beethoven's epic "Missa Solemnis" Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

This piece tends to divide listeners, even those who consider themselves major Beethoven fans. OK, so it is a bit unwieldy, long-winded and theatrical (Verdi isn't the only one who can be accused of writing an opera in the guise of a liturgical work). But count me among the believers.

I think even skeptical types might have been tempted to convert after experiencing the NSO's account with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, and featuring the superb Choral Arts Society of Washington (Scott Tucker director) and vivid, well-matched soloists.

The soulful power of the "Missa Solemnis" could be felt at every turn, along with ....


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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, NSO, Shriver Hall

January 31, 2011

Welsh soprano Margaret Price dies at 69

The vocally radiant soprano Margaret Price -- Dame Margaret Price since 1993 -- died Jan. 28 of heart failure. Her death at the age of 69 was in her native Wales, where she lived with her three dogs since her retirement a little more than a decade ago.

The singer's much-admired international career started with the Welsh National Opera in 1962. Price was especially loved for her interpretations of Mozart and lieder, but her range was considerable. One of her greatest achievements was the Carlos Kleiber-conducted recording of "Tristan und Isolde," an opera she never performed in the opera house.

Price was perhaps not as widely known as she should have been, but she touched many a vocal music fan with her exceedingly beautiful tone and unfailingly communicative phrasing, as you can hear on these examples of her remarkably artistry:

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Categories: Classical, Opera

January 14, 2011

Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh: Another (musical) side to the rivalry

Sorry, but I’m having a little trouble getting all anti-Pittsburgh this week, even if the rest of Baltimore has turned into a nest of evil-wishers. I can’t help it. I kind of like Pittsburgh. It’s got such a cool location on the rivers, such interesting neighborhoods, such friendly people. Just because they have a football team that isn’t worthy to stand in the same arena as the noble Ravens, there’s no reason to hate all Pittsburghians (Pittsburgh-ites? Pitts-ters?).

But with this football rivalry thing in high gear, I figured it was a good time to see how the two cities’ major classical music teams stack up against each other.

I think it would be neat if the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra could have a real battle of the bands at halftime during Saturday’s big game. That way we’d really find out who can kick Beethoven down the field with the biggest fortissimo. Meanwhile, let’s see how some of the stats measure up.

The BSO and PSO both have music directors with two-syllable first names beginning with ‘Ma-’ – Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh, Marin Alsop in Baltimore. Spooky. They are both good talkers about music, and they both can generate exciting concerts, but the edge clearly goes to Alsop because – well, ‘A’ comes before ‘H.’ And, besides, at 56, she’s four years older than Manfred, and everyone knows conductors get more distinguished and eminent as they age, so we’re talking a 4-point advantage: Baltimore.

Let’s look at some finances. The PSO has a budget of about

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

January 11, 2011

Sunday round-up: Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Pro Musica Rara

Sunday afternoon offered some pleasant listening.

I started out at Goucher College, where the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra presented one of those Viennese New Year's Day-type programs of froth and mirth. I happen to be rather partial to such things myself, although I sort of understand how the "light" classics of Johann Strauss, et al., might leave some folks unmoved.

Personally, I think Strauss' "Emperor Waltz," to mention only one example, deserves a place right alongside any of the "heavy" classics. It's a masterpiece of melody and also of mood, tinged with nostalgia and bathed in a kind of autumnal glow. Hardly mere dance music. Conductor Markand Thakar shaped that score nicely on Sunday, attentive to rubato and dynamic contrasts. The orchestra encountered occasional roughness, but conveyed the spirit of the work effectively, even getting in some of the distinctive off-beat rhythm of the authentic Viennese waltz.

The first half of the program included more Strauss -- a colorful, straightforward breeze through the "Fledermaus" Overture and a somewhat rocky, but energetic, "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka."

Interspersed with the schlag were a couple of

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 10, 2011

It's an unofficial Philip Glass week in Baltimore, thanks to BSO, Mobtown Modern

Nothing like a little synergy.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has one of its cool programs of the season on the schedule for the weekend at Meyerhoff and Strathmore, featuring the multi-media work "Icarus at the Edge of Time," based on the popular children's book by science-demystifier Brian Greene.

Glass composed the score for the 2010 piece, which has a narrative devised by Greene and celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang and a film created by the imaginative British team known as Al and Al. Marin Alsop conducts. NPR's Scott Simon will narrate.

You can read more about "Icarus" elsewhere on the Sun's Web site.

To help you get in the mood for that program, Mobtown Modern will offer some cool Glass, too, Wednesday night at the Windup Space. The program is devoted to a complete performance of

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

Good vibes at Philadelphia Orchestra with music director designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Yannick Nezet-SeguinOn Saturday evening, I zipped up to Philadelphia (the rail gods were smiling benignly) in time to sample the buzz being generated by a 35-year-old French-Canadian conductor.

He's Yannick Nezet-Seguin -- or just plain Yannick, as he apparently prefers to be called -- and he was recently named the next music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This being the era of the unusually young music director (see: Dudamel, Gustavo), it's also the era of skepticism. I understand the tendency to doubt, to be wary of each fresh new face touted as the next savior of one institution or another, if not all of classical music. But, if a single live encounter is a valid measuring stick, I'd say that Nezet-Seguin has what it takes to  light quite a fire in Philadelphia (he officially starts in the 2012-13 season, with a few weeks of concerts each season beforehand). It should be just the thing to help everyone get past various administrative and financial bumps at the orchestra in recent years. 

I'd also say that Nezet-Seguin is going to deliver a lot more than surface appeal, for Saturday's performance provided strong evidence of a keen musical mind, a distinctive flair for interpretation and an ability to inspire an orchestra.

The concert was intriguing in content -- Debussy's "Nocturnes" on the first half and

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 4, 2011

Innovation rewarded: Post-Classical Ensemble receives $200,000 Mellon grant

The Post-Classical Ensemble has done some very interesting work in the area, trying out innovative ways of re-packaging familiar works and dusting off lesser known fare, often in multi-media formats. The D.C-based organization just received $200,000 to help keep the innovation flowing.

The grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation "feels like a big imprimatur for an organization with a budget of under $500,000," says artistic director Joseph Horowitz, who co-founded Post-Classical with music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez in 2003.

The money will support programming, touring, and the making of a DVD on the Naxos label (the group's third).

Post-Classical is "establishing a triangulated relationship," Horowitz says, with the Music Center at Strathmore "as 'Artistic Partner,' Georgetown University as 'Educational Partner,' and

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

A tough battle for 2011: Fighting the anti-cultural crowd

If you want to keep your blood pressure under control, better to skip the comment sections on stories and opinion columns on most newspaper Web sites.

Comments posted on personal blogs (even this friendly little one) certainly can turn rude, crude and mean-spirited, too, but nothing, it seems, brings out the venom like a regular news story or an op-ed piece. (The few times I've been tempted to see how readers are reacting to something my favorite political writers have written, I end up getting depressed.)

One topic guaranteed to ignite angry, suspicious, resentful, spiteful types is an article about problems faced in the arts world. Just the mere reporting of an orchestra struggling with budget woes, for example, is blood in the water to the anti-cultural sharks in any community.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I checked out a news report in a Kentucky paper about the troubled Louisville Orchestra, which has been sadly sliding into bankruptcy.

Here is a sample of opinions proudly posted by Louisville citizens:

An unpopular music genre doesn't make a city 'world class' ... The phrase 'world class' is

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 31, 2010

My Top 10 classical music events of 2010 in Baltimore and Washington

Since the performing arts world is more about seasons than the standard Jan-Dec calendar, I don't usually think about Top 10 lists at the end of the year.  But, hey, people love lists, so here goes: My favorite musical moments on the Baltimore/Washington classical music scene during 2010 -- in chronological, not qualitative, order. Please feel free to tell me yours (and to dispute mine to your heart's content.)

Jan. 17: The recital by Peabody student Hans Kristian Goldstein for Music in the Great Hall. It was fun hearing a cellist so young with the artistic and technical chops to launch a serious career. Great tone, great musical feeling.

Feb. 6: Recital by pianist Till Fellner presented by An die Musik at the BMA. First, it was cool that the event happened at all, since we were still all coping with the blizzard that ate Baltimore. Then, there was the enjoyment of hearing a very intellectually and technically gifted artist exploring Beethoven sonatas in such vivid, absorbing style.

Feb. 15: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Mariss Jansons and violinist Janine Jansen, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. There was an electrifying performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, filled with fascinating details and earthy emotion. I also loved Jansons' sumptuous, no holds-barred account of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. A magical night.

Feb. 21: Pianist Yefim Bronfman in a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. It's always rewarding to be in the presence of this keyboard tiger, but the extra fun this time was that he brought along the 30-minute, zillion-note Tchaikovsky sonata that hardly anyone ever plays in this country. He made as strong a case for it as you're likely to hear anytime soon. 

May 12: The Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern concert at Metro Gallery. Darryl Brenzel's jazz band version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" got beyond the expected snap to create a whole new way of appreciating the grit and power of the original score. And the Mobtown musicians were really smokin.'

June 4: Washington National Opera's production of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" at the Kennedy Center. Director/set designer Thaddeus Strassberger's Cold War-era setting was full of compelling visual touches. Liam Bonner looked the part of the Danish prince and acted the heck out of the role; the young baritone's beautifully nuanced singing proved just as expressively. Elizabeth Futral was the telling Ophelia.

Oct. 2, 15 (a tie): Two National Symphony Orchestra concerts with Christoph Eschenbach in his first weeks as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. On the 2nd, a gripping local premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s thorny "Herodiade-Fragmente" with the sensational soprano Marisol Montalvo; then, a freshly considered, deliciously romantic interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth. On the 15th, an intensely personal, affecting performance of 


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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 28, 2010

The downbeat side of 2010: Orchestras in peril

For a while, it looked like the worst of recession's effects had done their damage on arts organizations and 2010 would be the turnaround year.

But as the days on the calendar dwindle down to a precious few, the clouds have thickened considerably. Things are especially dark on the orchestral front.

The Detroit Symphony, an ensemble fully deserving of the term world-class, remains shut down by a musicians' strike that started Oct. 4, and the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever.

In early December, the Louisville Orchestra went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just shy of its 75th anniversary; the history of contemporary American music is tightly and richly connected to that orchestra.

Within a few days of the bad news from Kentucky, the Honolulu Symphony, having been in Chapter 11 for nearly a year, was heading into Chapter 7 liquidation after a remarkable 110 years of admirable service.

Compounding the loss for musicians and music lovers in those cities is the downright tragic realization that so few people seem to care about what has happened. No last-minute rescues, no sense of outrage. I guess we're all too used to this sort of thing by now.

I worry about an attitude that seems to be spreading inside some orchestra management and consultant circles, as well as among some music journalists -- an attitude that essentially dismisses professional musicians as

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 14, 2010

For the classical music lover on your holiday shopping list, Part 3

Jeffrey BiegelHere's an easy choice for music fans on your holiday shopping list -- assuming they like Bach, piano and Bach played on the piano.

A new CD titled "Bach on a Steinway" offers some nice novelty angles, too. It's the inaugural release of Steinway & Sons own label, which will be devoted to pianists of the past and present who favored this brand of keyboard instrument.

And this recording features Jeffrey Biegel, a musician who doesn't just play Bach with great technical and coloristic flair, but also adds more ornamentation than pianists typically do in this repertoire.

Biegel, you may recall, persuasively embellished Mozart sonatas on recordings for the E1 Entertainment label; that was one of my picks last year at this time. With Bach, Biegel is always tasteful, applying ornaments with an elegant, unfussy touch in a program that includes a couple of toccatas, two preludes and fugues, a partita and the French Suite No. 5.

To give you a taste of Biegel's embellishments, first listen to

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 10, 2010

For the classical music lover on your holiday gift list, Part 2

Vittorio GrigoloIf you holiday gift list includes an opera fan, might as well jump on the Vittorio bandwagon. Vittorio Grigolo, that is, the young, handsome singer who has the potential to move into the fast track for superstardom. His new Sony Classical release, "Vittorio Grigolo -- The Italian Tenor" -- is a winner.

I remember well Grigolo's 2007 Washington National Opera debut in "La Boheme" and return in 2008 for "Lucrezia Borgia." In both cases, he proved an exciting performer, with abundant personality onstage and a voice that had considerable presence.

I noted both times a tendency to strain on top notes and to maintain a mostly loud volume, signs that the tenor could end up shortening his time in the spotlight.

But the recording, devoted to arias by Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, finds Grigolo sounding very comfortable (the microphone loves his voice). The vocal production is natural, the dynamic inflections numerous.

Anyone who can pass my favorite tenor test, at least on recording (I rarely hear anyone come close in live performance), is OK by me. That test comes in this line from

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Opera

December 8, 2010

For the classical music lover on your holiday gift list, Part I

If you've got a classical music lover on your gift list this year, I've got some suggestions that might earn you an appreciative response. I'll be posting them over the next few days.

To start, how about something nice and local? There's a just-released recording by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

This one completes a Dvorak series for the Naxos label with a very appealing performance of the composer's Symphony No. 6.

Right from the start, it's a winner, as Alsop and the ensemble pull you gently, but firmly, into one of Dvorak's sunniest worlds.

This work doesn't get nearly the attention of the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, but it should. (Those pieces are on the BSO's first two Dvorak CDs.) The Sixth offers a feast of ingratiating melody and prismatic orchestration, qualities that Alsop brings out effectively.

Hallmarks of the music director's BSO tenure --

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:45 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

December 6, 2010

Peabody salutes Leon Fleisher's new memoir with talk, book-signing

"My Nine Lives" makes an apt title for Leon Fleisher's just-published memoir, written with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette.

The brilliant pianist's career took many a turn, especially after he lost the use of his right hand in 1965. The Baltimore-based Fleisher, now 82, built a formidable career as a left-hand keyboard artist, conductor and teacher.

In recent years, he managed to resume two-hand performs, thanks largely to Botox therapy, and that return was warmly celebrated throughout the music world.

Fleisher is a formidable force, shaped by a fascinating and eventful life that is recounted in the new book from Doubleday. In addition to all the expected biographical matters, the chapters are interspersed with Fleisher's extensive, compelling insights into piano works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Ravel.

Fleisher, a longtime faculty member at the Peabody Institute, will be joined by Midgette for a talk about the book at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Bank of America Lounge on the Peabody campus. A book-signing follows.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

December 1, 2010

Music to mark World AIDS Day from the great Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet

On this World AIDS Day, there's an unusual amount of optimism that important corners are being turned in the search for preventative measures, but that is small comfort compared to the appalling toll the disease has taken across the global. Members of the young generation are, thankfully, growing up without knowing the pain of losing friends and family members in rapid succession. The rest of us will carry those scars for the rest of our lives.

I will never forget the shock of hearing John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 for the first time. In that work from 1989, subtitled "Of Rage and Remembrance," the composer found exceptionally inventive and moving ways to memorialize many of his own friends, weaving their lives literally into the score. A particularly close pianist friend inspired the most haunting reflection in the symphony. Corigliano made use of a venerable keyboard chestnut, the endearing Godowsky transcription of Albeniz's "Tango," a favorite of his friend; the piece is played off-stage in the outer movements.

If you have never heard that symphony, please check it out. We may live in a less rage-driven time when it comes to AIDS, but the symphony's way of capturing the raw emotions of the '80s has hardly lost its power. World AIDS Day got me thinking about that symphony again, but I found myself focusing specifically on that subtly sensual, wonderfully nostalgic "Tango." And, if you'll pardon the convoluted reasoning, that's the piece I'd like to offer here as a musical reflection on this solemn day.

I found a superb interpretation of the Albeniz/Godowsky "Tango" played by

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Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 19, 2010

BSO cellist denied entry to UK to perform free concert with chamber group

While we're all busy obsessing over aggressive pat downs (a.k.a. gropings) at American airports, consider another kind of hassle experienced by Kristin Ostling, a cellist with the Baltimore Symphony.

Ostling is on leave from the BSO this season and, among other pursuits away from her pals at Meyerhoff Hall, expected to play a free gig at the University of Leeds in England with the Carpe Diem Quartet. But last weekend, she didn't make it past UK Border Agency officials at Heathrow.

The Guardian's Tom Service reports that Ostling

was questioned for eight hours by officials at Terminal 3 ... refused entry to the country, forced to sign written statements, and sent back on a plane to Chicago. The reason? Her performance at the University of Leeds ... for which she was receiving no fee, and no expenses, either, was deemed to be 'work', and she was therefore not allowed in on her visa. The extraordinary thing is that

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

A few suggestions for another musically overloaded weekend

Here we go again -- another weekend with too many musical goodies crammed into the same few hours. This happens so often that I've given up trying to provide recommendations every time I see such a pileup, but, since I've agonized myself over this particular one so much, I figured it was worth a shot.

Let's start with the Baltimore Symphony. Fresh back from a well-received Carnegie Hall visit last weekend (except for one out-of-town reviewer who allowed only that it sounded "pretty decent"), the orchestra has an extremely attractive program that is only being performed once at Strathmore, once at Meyerhoff.

The mysterious ways of BSO scheduling elude me sometimes, although I know lots of variables are in play when the calendar is planned. (This particular schedule is the main source of my own personal consternation over what to catch, and what will be missed as a consequence.)

Anyway, Gunther Herbig is back to conduct, always a reason in itself to attend, and he's tackling one of the greatest 20th-century symphonies, the Tenth by Shostakovich. The program also contains Ravel's "Mother Goose" and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Tianwa Yang).

Saturday night finds

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 16, 2010

Baltimore Symphony to offer second BSO Academy in June; free registration before Dec. 15

The first week-long BSO Academy -- the Baltimore Symphony's outreach to amateur musicians -- was a big hit with participants last June. Registration is now open for the second Academy, which will run June 12-18, 2011.

The schedule includes master classes, individual lessons and sectional and full orchestral rehearsals, culminating in a public concert at Meyerhoff Hall by Academy members and BSO musicians, conducted by Marin Alsop.

That concert will offer a hefty program: Bernstein’s "Candide" Overture; pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Hindemith; and nothing less than

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

A look at other reviews of Baltimore Symphony's Carnegie Hall visit

For any orchestra, a New York visit is a chance to shine (or, of course, bomb) in front of a different audience and different critics, as well as assorted industry bigwigs.

Not every ensemble gets more than one shot at this in a given season. It says something about the Baltimore Symphony's stature that it played two Carnegie Hall gigs over the weekend, offering more or less standard fare Saturday night, then a gospel version of Handel's "Messiah" Sunday afternoon.

The New York Times weighed in favorably on both. Allan Kozinn, covering Saturday's performance, said "The orchestra sounds terrific these days." In Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra, "the woodwinds played with uncommon richness and character, and the string sound was gracefully shaped." Kozinn described listeners "wrapped in the sheer beauty of the sound" during the BSO's account of Beethoven's "Eroica" in Mahler's arrangement ("a fascinating alternative view").

There were high marks, too, for Simon Trpceski's "galvanizing account" of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. As for Alsop, Kozinn found that

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

Baltimore Symphony heats up Carnegie Hall with gospel version of 'Messiah'

Computer woes kept me from filing a report on the Baltimore Symphony's second concert in New York over the weekend, but I'm finally back in business (my review of the first concert ran earlier). So here's the story on Sunday's event: 

Baltimore audiences were introduced to the gospel-ized version of Handel's "Messiah" -- "Too Hot to Handel" -- a few seasons ago. The kinetic work, a brainchild of BSO music director Marin Alsop given life by arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson in 1992, received its Carnegie Hall debut Sunday afternoon. It may be a little early to hear any version of "Messiah," a work that will be omnipresent closer to the holidays, but this take on the venerable oratorio is awfully hard to resist. If you don't find yourself getting at least a little buzzed by the beat, there's probably no hope for your musical soul.

Alsop has an extraordinary flair for genre-crossing; she's totally at ease in jazz, rock, gospel, you name it. That ability ensured a persuasive performance on Sunday. Even the weaker portions of the score, when some stylistic devices get repetitive or seem a little forced, gained strength under Alsop's astute guidance.

The BSO had a tremendous advantage in putting the piece across -- more than

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Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

November 12, 2010

Henryk Gorecki, composer of 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,' dies at 76

The remarkable Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, little known beyond his native country until the 1992 recording of his Symphony No. 3 caused a global sensation, died Friday at the age of 76. According to news reports, the end came in a hospital in Katowice after a long illness.

I like this phrase by Paul Griffiths describing Mr. Gorecki's work: "There was always a monumental simplicity about his music." This was especially true of that affecting Third Symphony from 1976, also known as the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." In three broadly paced movements, the composer creates a poignant sound-world, with a soprano soloist intoning a time-suspending chant; the texts, dealing with loss, include a message found scrawled on a Gestapo cell during World War II. (The Nonesuch recording that eventually sold over a million copies featured soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, and was conducted by former Baltimore Symphony music director David Zinman.)

To mark Mr. Gorecki's passing, here are two examples of his distinctively mystical style. First, the a cappella choral work from the 1980s, "Tutus Tuus," and then a movement from that well-known Symphony No. 3 in an extraordinary performance filmed at Auschwitz:

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Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 11, 2010

For Veterans Day, an excerpt from Britten's profound 'War Requiem'

On this Veterans Day, I wanted to share something from Benjamin Britten's profound "War Requiem." The composer interwove the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead with haunting poetry of Wilfred Owen to create a musical memorial to all those killed in all wars. The most affecting passage in the long, emotionally draining work comes at the end, when the tenor and baritone soloists sing a particularly powerful poem that imagines two soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict meeting after death:

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now . . . ."

Here is the finale, starting with that last line, in a moving performance conducted by

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 9, 2010

Belated weekend report: BSO analyzes Mahler; Baltimore Chamber Orchestra plays Mozart

Your humble scribe has been over-extended lately.

In the space of about 48 hours last weekend, I squeezed in a play Friday night in Baltimore, concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Baltimore (OK, I only did half of the second concert); and a musical in D.C. Sunday night. Oh yes, and a panel discussion at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg Saturday afternoon devoted to the state of classical music in the U.S. (that sure was uplifting), and another speaking engagement at Emmanuel Episcopal back in Baltimore Sunday morning (even with the favorable time-change, a 9 a.m. gig to talk about sacred music was a bit formidable).

I mention all of this merely to plead for a little patience from those of you clamoring for fresh blog food. I'll deal with the theatrical events a little later on, but will get to the classical concerts now:

The  Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest Off the Cuff program was called "Analyze This," a specially created product that included a reenactment of the historic meeting 100 years ago in Holland where Mahler, afraid he might lose his wife to another man, consulted with Freud. (There is no actual transcript of the four-hour session, but a good deal of circumstantial evidence to work with.) Interwoven with the scene was music from the composer and his wife, and a tad from Beethoven, along with some visuals.

What looked like a sizable, fairly age-diverse crowd turned out Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall for the presentation and seemed to be genuinely taken with it. With good reason. Somehow, the limitations and pitfalls of mixing dialogue and orchestral excerpts were largely overcome. Didi Balle, who co-created the show with BSO music director Marin Alsop, wrote a colorful script that managed to impart a lot of information without ever getting talky, and she directed the action with a fine sense of pacing.

It helped that Balle had

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 5, 2010

Baltimore Symphony performs music by Beethoven (sort of) and both Mahlers

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony tended to some unfinished business Thursday night -- the never-completed Tenth Symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler.

For good measure, there was also some new business, in the form of rarely heard songs by Mahler's wife and, just as rare, a Beethoven overture touched up by Mahler.

It added up to one of the BSO's most interesting programs of the season, yet it was performed only once at Meyerhoff Hall. Odd. All that effort for so little return. (Music by both Mahlers will turn up in this weekend's Off the Cuff program that includes a reenactment of Mahler's therapy session with Freud.)

Although I loved the novelty of Thursday's concert, I kept thinking of a more rewarding lineup. Instead of just the first movement of Mahler's Tenth, the movement he essentially finished, I wish we could have heard a version of the whole symphony as completed by Deryck Cooke (or one of the other musicologists who have taken the challenge), based on Mahler's substantial sketches.

Having a full Mahler Tenth as the main item on the bill would still have allowed room for Barry Cooper's conjectural attempt at fashioning the first movement of what might have been Beethoven's Tenth. Or, better yet, the companion piece could have been Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a fascinating work from 1989 that takes as its starting point sketches Schubert left behind for a Tenth Symphony. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Alsop got things started Thursday with

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

November 4, 2010

Illness forces Leon Fleisher to cancel concert at Peabody Conservatory

Famed pianist Leon Fleisher, scheduled to perform in a wide-ranging program Saturday night at Peabody, has canceled due to illness. No word yet on if/when the concert will be rescheduled.

Fleisher was to have been joined by his wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and several other Peabody artists in a program of Brahms, Ligeti and more.

Earlier this week, the BSO scrambled to replace an indisposed vocal soloist for tonight's program, while music director Marin Alsop was getting over her own bout with some flu-y bug.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

November 2, 2010

Indisposition season strikes early, affecting soloist for Baltimore Symphony program

Usually, illness-caused cancellations don't start hitting orchestras and opera companies until the winter, when flu bugs seem to target singers, instrumental soloists and conductors with particular vengeance. But the indisposition season has begun to affect our part of the world already.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday that mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has had to cancel her scheduled appearance with the ensemble and music director Marin Alsop on Thursday, when she was to have performed rarely encountered songs by Alma Mahler, wife of Gustav.

(Gustav famously made Alma give up composing when they married, but relented after a session with Sigmund Freud -- a topic that will be explored in greater detail over the weekend in a BSO program called "Analyze This").

Stepping in on short notice for Thursday's concert is

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:58 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes

October 27, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra launches ambitious Center for Future Audiences with $20 million

There's enough bad news in the classical music business that any good news seems extra good. So it is with word from the Cleveland Orchestra, which has launched something called the Center for Future Audiences, an initiative that aims to put into real action what so many people just talk about -- getting new and younger audiences into the concert hall.

With a $20 million lead gift from the Maltz Family Foundation of the Jewish Federation (a $60 million fund for the project is the goal), the center will remove some of the most common obstacles to attending orchestra concerts -- ticket cost and access.

A sobering fact mentioned in the announcement of the initiative is that the average ticket price to a Cleveland Orchestra concert in the historic Severance Hall has

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

October 21, 2010

Orchestras, concert presenters need to learn from opera and add supertitles

Earlier this week, I had an all-too-common experience at a classical concert that involves the sung word.

In this particular case, the performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 by the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, there were no texts provided in the program book, and that's an awfully text-filled piece of music. A few days before that, when Concert Artists of Baltimore performed Schumann's Mass at the Gordon Center, the texts were thoughtfully provided, but the lighting was thoughtlessly kept down, so the effect was the same as if there had been no texts. In both situations, I guarantee you that a substantial portion of the audience was left in the dark.

I know my Mahler and I know my Latin Mass, but I still enjoy the opportunity to follow along with a text if I feel like it during a live performance. But I suspect

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Posted by Tim Smith at 7:06 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 18, 2010

Weekend musical pleasures: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Emerson Quartet

The weekend's musical pleasures included an all-Schumann program from the Concert Artists of Baltimore on Saturday and an all-powerful performance by the Emerson String Quartet on Sunday.

The quartet's appearance launched the 45th season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore's primary presenter of leading classical soloists and chamber ensembles. A large crowd was on hand for the occasion. Except for the student in front of me in the balcony who checked his cell phone for some sort of update every few minutes, and other students across the aisle who were much more intent on taking pictures during the concert, the audience seemed to hang on every note of the music. No wonder.

For more than 30 years, the Emerson players have demonstrated superb technical control, persuasive style and uncanny inter-communication skills. So it was on Sunday, as violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawence Dutton and cellist David Finckel focused on works rich in challenging ideas and emotional content.

From the famous opening of Mozart's K. 465, with those weird dissonances throwing the listener off balance, to the rushing end of Schubert's positively schizophrenic D. 887, with its constant shifting between major and minor, the concert yielded intense rewards. The performance of Shostakovich's devastating Quartet No. 8 at the center of the program proved

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Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 11, 2010

Musical rewards in intimate spaces, with an emphasis on Schumann

My past two Sundays were spent in the company of great music and classy musicians performing in intimate settings. Schumann, this year's bicentennial boy, provided a neat little bookend to the week's span of chamber concerts.

It all started on the 3rd at the Cylburn Arboretum, where baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Eva Mengelkoch collaborated on Schumann’s richly layered song cycle, "Dichterliebe."

This was by far the finest singing I've yet heard from de Ryke, a familiar presence on the Baltimore scene for several years.

He's always been a highly expressive interpreter, and he is very much to the lieder born. Here, he burrowed deep into the texts of the Schumann songs with terrific intensity.

What sounded different to me was

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Posted by Tim Smith at 8:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

October 8, 2010

My picks for your weekend classical music fix

People occasional say to me that I need to clone myself.

I figure one of me is trouble enough (just ask my other half), but the thought does seem enticing whenever I'm spoiled for choice facing well-worth-checking-out performances scheduled on the same day, more or less at the same time.

Here comes another such occasion.

On Sunday afternoon, two events in Towson look awfully good. I recommend them both and leave it you to settle on just one.

Music in the Great Hall opens its season at 3 p.m. Sunday at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church with the fusion of three fine instrumentalists: clarinetist Anthony McGill, who holds a principal chair in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and teaches at Peabody; cellist Amit Peled, who has a busy concert career and also teaches at Peabody; and pianist Lura Johnson, who frequently has keyboard duty in Baltimore Symphony concerts and collaborates regularly with individual members of the orchestra in recitals and chamber music gigs.

The program includes


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Posted by Tim Smith at 1:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

September 29, 2010

Towson University's Weill Festival shines light on composer's classical side

The biggest draw of Towson University's ambitious and enticing Kurt Weill Festival is no doubt the production of "The Threepenny Opera" that runs Thursday through Saturday. But there was quite an attraction Tuesday evening at the Center for the Fine Arts, where the spotlight focused on Weill's classical side.

His rarely encountered Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra from 1924 received a remarkable performance, featuring Baltimore Symphony concertmaster Jonathan Carney as soloist and a well-matched ensemble led by Concert Artists of Baltimore's artistic director Edward Polochick.

The score bristles with dissonance in that very 1920s way, and, though a glimmer of jazz influence pops up here and there, the overall abstractness seems at times light years away from the more familiar Weill. The concerto is constructed in a clear-cut fashion, and its thematic ideas move in ever-interesting directions, creating a most eventful experience. The central movement, itself divided into three sections with hints of nocturnal imagery, recalls the three inner movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony (recently played by the BSO).

Tension, drama, elusive resolution -- they're all part of the work's expressive force. And the stark aural contrast of solo violin against a mass of wind instruments, percussion and double bass allows Weill to create a distinctive sound-world.

Carney has done some marvelous work over the years; this

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Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, 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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