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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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, NSO, Shriver Hall

October 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is impossible ...

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

September 11, 2012

National Symphony announces outreach in DC neighborhoods

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

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

The program will include ...

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

June 26, 2012

National Symphony Orchestra adds Oman to 2013 tour

While still traveling on its first tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra has just added a stop to the next one.

Word arrived Tuesday from Sao Paulo that the NSO will be visiting Oman next February, becoming the first major American orchestra to perform at the Royal Opera House Muscat. The soloist will be violinist Dan Zhu, performing Mozart’s Concerto No. 5.

The Oman concert extends the previously announced winter 2013 tour that begins on Jan. 31 and includes stops in Paris, two cities in Spain, four in Germany. The NSO is currently wrapping up its Americas tour, which has involved visits to Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

June 11, 2012

Eschenbach, NSO cap season with searing account of Tchaikovsky's Fifth

Tchaikovsky sure got a workout over the weekend.

While his Violin Concerto was undergoing impulsive, idiosyncratic treatment from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in season-closing performances with the Baltimore Symphony, the composer's Symphony No. 5 was being given an extremely intense approach from conductor Christoph Eschenbach in his season finale with the National Symphony.

Both interpretations would have distressed listeners used to more mainstream choices of tempo and phrasing. I can't imagine anyone ending up feeling neutral about either -- and that's a good thing, surely.

Eschenbach's version of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Friday night at the Kennedy Center was notable, above all, for the way the conductor ratcheted up its soulful, surging qualities.

Slow parts were extra slow, fast bits extra fast, lyrical passages extra passionate, climactic spots extra forceful. (I was reminded more than once of Rostropovich's approach to this music then he led the NSO way back when.)

There was something very personal about this performance, a sense that ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

June 5, 2012

National Symphony to tour Europe in early 2013 with Eschenbach

For the second time in the space of only eight months, the National Symphony Orchestra will go on tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

The NSO will visit two cities in Spain and four in Germany before ending the trip with a concert in Paris. Repertoire will include works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Strauss.

Soloists will be violinist Julia Fischer in a Mozart concerto and pianist Tzimon Barto playing Bartok.

In a statement released Tuesday, Eschenbach said that, from the beginning of his appointment, he "wanted to bring this great orchestra to the attention of the world.

"To be making our second international tour so quickly after our first is tribute to the wonderful musicians of the NSO, and to our work together,” the conductor said.

Next week, the NSO heads off to visit Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in its first tour with Eschenbach, who, in his two seasons so far, has given the orchestra a considerable artistic boost.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

April 3, 2012

National Symphony's first tour with Eschenbach to include five Latin countries

The National Symphony Orchestra heads off in June on its first concert tour with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

Stops include Mexico City; Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago; Buenos Aires and Rosario in Argentina; Montevideo in Uruguay; São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The orchestra's first international tour was to South America in 1950. "It is especially pleasing that this tour visits a part of the world that occupies a very important place in the NSO’s history, as it does in mine," Eschenbach said in a statement Tuesday.

"One of my very earliest tours as a pianist included many of the same countries we will visit, and to this day I remember the warmth and welcome of the audiences. I’m sure that our concerts will be enjoyed by our audiences, and will contribute to greater international artistic friendship," Eschenbach said

Programming for the trip, June 12-27, includes Beethoven's Seventh, Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," as well as Lalo's Cello Concerto with soloist Claudio Bohórquez. A new NSO commission, "Blue Blazes" Sean Shepherd, will also be featured.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

March 19, 2012

Eschenbach, National Symphony present gripping 'Fidelio' in concert

Beethoven's link to the what, in some quarters, would be called liberal causes -- liberty from tyrannical states, the brotherhood of man, the power of love and justice -- may have been a bit exaggerated over time.

But this is how many people want to imagine the composer, and why he is embraced so heartily.

When Leonard Bernstein changed a beloved text from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom" in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth to mark the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, it seemed safe to assume that the composer would have approved.

After all, Beethoven had already revealed a firm commitment to freedom and the overthrow of evil forces in his single opera, "Fidelio."

That commitment registered anew in a gripping concert version of the opera offered by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director Christoph Eschenbach.

When the prisoners in Act 1 make their tentative steps out of their cells for a rare sight of sunlight; when Florestan, unjustly held in the jail, sings of his despair at the start of the second act; when a benevolent ruler arrives in the nick of time -- it is impossible to miss Beethoven's sympathies in such passages.

And when, at the end, everyone offers an ecstatic salute to the loyalty and bravery of Leonore, the good wife who risked her life to save her husband, Beethoven isn't just reinforcing the value of a strong marriage. He celebrates the greatness of the noble, selfless individual fighting against ruthless, immoral and amoral authorities.

Well, that's how I like to think of it, at least. And that's how I heard it Saturday night in the NSO's memorable performance at the Kennedy Center.

This was very much ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

March 6, 2012

Kennedy Center announces National Symphony, Washington National Opera 2012-13 seasons

The music portion of the Kennedy Center's 2012-2013 season, announced Tuesday, includes a rich assortment of repertoire led by Christoph Eschenbach in his third season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and a trio of dynamic sopranos fueling Washington National Opera's productions.

Just during his first few programs in the fall, Eschenbach will conduct Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," works by Wagner, Bruckner's Seventh, Dvoark's Seventh and Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" (with mezzo Kelley O'Connor), among other things.

Eschenbach will also participate in the Center's Nordic Cool 2013 festival, conducting works by Sibelius, Lindberg and Saariaho.

Symphonies by Shostakovich and Schnittke also are on Eschenbach's list; he and the NSO will take them to Carnegie Hall as well.

Guest artists include ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:29 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

January 30, 2012

Austro-German feast from Eschenbach, NSO; Jorg Widmann dazzles in debut

After a long period schedule conflicts (and the occasional fatigue) this season, I finally got a chance to catch up the the National Symphony Orchestra and its brilliant music director Christoph Eschenbach over the weekend. It gave me quite a high.

Eschenbach cooked up an Austro-German feast that mixed standards -- Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 -- with a fascinating dose of new music by Munich-born composer and clarinetist Jorg Widmann, who was also the soloist in the concerto.

Widmann's "Armonica," from 2006, has a prominent part for the glass armonica, that ethereal instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin.

The device provides not only sonic interest here, but also a way for the composer to treat the rest of the orchestra. Waves of sound emerge, gradually, pulsate and dissipate.

In addition to the exotic flavor of the armonica, the orchestra is enhanced by such unexpected instruments as ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

January 23, 2012

Baltimore, National symphonies to play Carnegie Hall's 2013 Spring for Music

Carnegie Hall seems more than ever to be the epicenter of classical music life in this country, what with the Achievement Program already launched and the National Youth Orchestra of the United States being created there in 2013.

Another of the many initiatives that keep Carnegie Hall so interesting is a festival called "Spring for Music," which bowed last year.

This annual event in May focuses on "the quality and creativity of North American orchestras." With tickets popularly priced at $25 and repertoire that emphasizes the off-beat, the festival has obvious appeal.

The two major orchestras in our area will be showcased during the 2013 Spring for Music.

Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony May 6, 2013, in a program that includes ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 2:50 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, NSO

September 25, 2011

Christoph Eschenbach extends contract with National Symphony Orchestra

The extraordinary German conductor Christoph Eschenbach has extended his contract as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center through the 2014-2015 season. The extension, announced Sunday at the NSO's annual season-opening ball, adds two seasons to his original three-year contract.

“This artistic home has been even more welcoming and rewarding than I had imagined,” Eschenbach said in a statement.

The Eschenbach magic has been evident -- at last to some of us -- from his first concerts with the NSO, so the news of his intensifying relationship with the orchestra and the center is most welcome.

So is some more news made at Sunday's gala: Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, who has already donated more than $25 million to the institution, announced yet another gift, this one to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

August 31, 2011

Kennedy Center celebrates 40th year with free ticket giveaway

The Kennedy Center turns 40 in September (I'm always happy to bore anyone with my memories of attending the very first public performance there -- at an impossibly young age, needless to say).

To mark the birthday, two free tickets will be offered to every Kennedy Center– presented performance during the 2011–2012 season.

This generous gesture coincides with the launch of something called MyTix, a project aimed at helping more of the 18-to-30-year-old set, active duty armed services personnel and other under-served members of the community gain access to Kennedy Center events.

MyTix is part of the broader Rubenstein Arts Access Program, funded by Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and his wife Alice Rubenstein.

The good news for those who don't meet the target demographics of MyTix is that the birthday blast ticket giveaway is "open to all," according to the press release out today. So go for it.

(If they threw in the $20 parking garage fee, it would be an even better prize, but freebie recipients can't be greedy.)

Here's what you have to do for a chance at winning some tickets:

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, NSO

August 22, 2011

Remembering Darthea Redding Kerr, who worked for Baltimore and National symphony orchestras

Darthea Redding Kerr, who died last week from cancer at the age of 61, was a valued member of the administrative staffs of our region's two major orchestras. Her obituary ran in Monday's Sun.

She served for several years as assistant personnel manager at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (her surname was Olander then).

She went on to serve as executive assistant to the National Symphony Orchestra's music director Leonard Slatkin (she left that post when he took the helm of the Detroit Symphony a few years ago).

Dottie, as she was widely known, was prized in both organizations for her warmth and dedication, and her death has no doubt affected many people.

From an outsider's perspective, I can attest to Dottie's charm. I especially enjoyed seeing her whenever I stopped by the NSO to do an interview with her boss. On one occasion, she took me aside and said something that gave me a particular lift (no, I can't tell divulge it). I'll always enjoy that memory.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:19 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, NSO

June 22, 2011

Thomas Hampson joins lineup for National Symphony/Kennedy Center season-opener

The National Symphony Orchestra already had a big name, violinist Joshua Bell, on the roster as guest artist for the concert on Sept. 25 that launches the ensemble's 80th season and the Kennedy Center's 40th. But one good star turn deserves another.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has been added to the lineup. He'll sing some of Copland's "Old American Songs" on the program, which also features Bell in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Rounding out the NSO concert, led by music director Christoph Eschenbach, will be Dvorak's "Carnival" and Ravel's "Bolero."

There's a reason for all those musical chestnuts -- the event is a prelude to NSO's annual ball, a major fundraiser.



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

June 13, 2011

Taking the measure of National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach

I started my weekend Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in order to hear Christoph Eschenbach's last program of his inaugural season as National Symphony Orchestra music director.

It proved to be an extraordinary experience -- which is to say a typical Eschenbach concert.

Something about this man's musicianship, with its unapologetic individuality, first impressed me a long time ago, which is why I thought it was such great news when he got the NSO post.

I won't presume to speak with great authority (which is unusual for me), since I have not been able to catch all of Eschenbach's performances this season (if Baltimore and DC were connected, as they should be, by a high-speed, round-the-clock rail/metro system, you couldn't keep me away). But I will say that each encounter has made me feel that the NSO sounds better than ever.

It's not just a matter of technical improvements, although they have been noticeable -- greater clarity of articulation, smoother responses from sections, a more pronounced cohesiveness. It's also a sense of musicians zeroing in tightly on Eschenbach's distinctive wavelength and going along with him fully for the ride.

That ride was especially captivating on Friday during the Adagio of ...

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

March 14, 2011

Bryn Terfel, Placido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach and Olivier Messiaen create hot night in D.C.

Saturday night offered such tantalizing musical prospects in D.C. that I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all.

At 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera presented the stirring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert conducted by giga-star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo.

At 8 p.m., a few yards from the opera house, the National Symphony Orchestra offered Olivier Messiaen's monumental "Turangalila Symphony," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Thanks to the fact that the NSO devoted the first half of its program to a discussion of the Messiaen work, I managed to catch nearly all of Terfel's performance and then all of "Turangalila."

I left both events on a high.

Terfel remains one of the most compelling vocal artists of our time. If more opera singers had his combination of musicality and audience-embracing personality, the art form would be a lot more popular.

The program, part of WNO's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, contained the usual assortment of chestnuts, but the delivery was anything but routine. For one thing, Terfel started off with

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Posted by Tim Smith at 1:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO, Opera

March 10, 2011

Big musical draw in Washington this week: NSO performs Messiaen's 'Turangalila'

As usual, there's so much going on musically that it's hard to know where to turn. Well, let me nudge you ever so slightly to consider one particular offering from the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday, Friday or Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

Christoph Eschenbach leads the ensemble in Messiaen's fabulous "Turangalila" Symphony, which the NSO last performed a decade ago with Leonard Slatkin on the podium. In some places -- Hello, Baltimore! -- you might wait a lot longer to experience this masterwork. On the first half of each performance, Eschenbach will take part in a discussion of Messiaen and "Turangalila," joined by guest artists C├ędric Tiberghien (piano) and Tristan Murail (ondes martenot) and moderated by Joseph Horowitz.

There's nothing else quite like "Turangalila" in the repertoire. Messiaen created here something at once intensely sensual and intensely spiritual, a work filled with joy and wonder and incredible splashes of orchestral coloring. Here's a snippet:

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

January 23, 2011

National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work

The 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration is the focus of much attention this month at the center in Washington that bears his name and carries on his belief in the value of the arts.

Last Thursday, during a big, starry, multi-genre program, the National Symphony Orchestra premiered "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)" by Peter Lieberson. On Saturday night, the NSO repeated the new work, commissioned for the anniversary, and rounded out the program with some favorites by Gershwin and Bernstein. (This program has another performance Monday night.)

I have never been a huge fan of orchestral music with narration. The combination certainly can pay off with heightened drama, as in Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw," or straightforward entertainment, as in Copland's plainspoken "Lincoln Portrait." Lieberson's effort struck me as, well, wordy.

The composer chose excerpts from three great Kennedy speeches -- a speech from early January 1961 in Massachusetts, the defining Inaugural Address, and the brave American University Commencement Address of 1963.

Lieberson surrounds the orations with a lot of vividly colored, atmospheric, emotionally telling material for the orchestra. As in film music, descriptive devices underline the mood or imagery of the text in ways we instinctively respond to; mention of war, needless to say, means outbursts of ominous harmony and menacing brass and/or percussion.

From a single hearing -- I'm glad I'll get a chance to revisit the piece when the NSO's recording comes out in a few months -- it seemed to me that the music

Continue reading "National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work" »

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

January 19, 2011

National Symphony returns to recording arena with Eschenbach, American program

Yes, I know the classical music recording industry died, like, 10 or 20 years ago. But tell that to all the companies that keep releasing products . Or the orchestras that keep getting back into the act after a hiatus.

Latest case in point: the National Symphony Orchestra, led by its new music director Christoph Eschenbach, is about to make its first recording in a decade, launching a relationship with the Finnish Ondine label.

The recording will be done during live concerts at the Kennedy Center commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration; the NSO performances are Saturday through Monday. The release date for the CD is already set: May 31.

The program includes Peter Lieberson’s "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)," with Richard Dreyfuss as narrator. The first performance of this NSO commission will be given Thursday with Morgan Freeman narrating, part of a multi-genre, long-sold-out celebration of Kennedy's presidency.

 Filling out the Ondine disc will be Leonard Bernstein's

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO
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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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