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November 16, 2012

BSO offers dynamic program of Dvorak and Brahms

There are three great reasons to hear the remaining performances of this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall or Saturday night at Strathmore.

First, you will hear a vibrant account of Dvorak's Symphony No.8. Second, you will hear an extremely impressive delivery of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.

Lastly, you will not have to sit anywhere near the rude, crude senior citizens who filled Row Y (orchestra left) behind me Thursday night at the Meyerhoff.

If there is any justice in the world, they will be confined henceforth to a maximum security twilight home, where they can only annoy each other. I've seen six-year-olds behave better at concerts than this lot, who chatted, argued, rustled, and hacked their way blithely through the evening (I wonder if the severely guttural gentleman in this mini-mob of mature miscreants finally found a spittoon).

OK, I feel better now. I just had to get that off my chest. Now, I can talk about the music.

A Brahms-Dvorak pairing works well on many levels, starting with the fact that ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

November 15, 2012

Guest blogger/trumpeter reports on BSO's Rusty Musicians event

My thanks to Bruce Burgess for providing this colorful report from Tuesday's Rusty Musicians event, the Baltimore Symphony's popular outreach program where amateur players get to rub music stands with BSO pros in sessions conducted by Marin Alsop. -- TIM

The Best Seat in the House

By Bruce Burgess

The downbeat came swiftly. Marin's baton cut through the air instantly slicing my confidence into tiny pieces. The second movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth is in 5/4, but I didn't see five beats being counted, just indistinct but vibrant musical expression emanating from the podium.

I had many measures of rest ahead, but what was the count? Panic set in. I leaned toward my "pro" for reassurance. Before he could respond, BSO music director Marin Alsop mercifully lowered her baton for a restart as she offered guidance to the string section.

This is Rusty Musicians, an outreach program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conceived by Marin Alsop in 2010 as a way "to attract new audiences through participatory opportunities for engagement as well as to enhance the BSO's position as an educational and social community resource."

The "rusties," as successful applicants call themselves, are non-professional adult instrumentalists and vocalists whose career paths ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

November 9, 2012

BSO gives East Coast premiere of sensational symphony by Christopher Rouse

Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse writes some of the most consistently provocative and rewarding music of our time. A sensational case in point is his Symphony No. 3.

The piece is the product of a global commission from the Saint Louis Symphony, which gave the first performance in 2011; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is delivering the East Coast premiere in its latest program; and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Singapore Symphony.

Rouse’s Third makes a substantial addition to the orchestral repertoire. It leaves you almost reeling — in a good way — from an assault on the senses.

The composer has always been capable of summoning massive orchestral firepower, and he does so here in fiercely aggressive fashion. But he ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 4:19 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

October 5, 2012

BSO, Concert Artists offer 'passports' to younger demographic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltimore Symphony's first Mahler CD a sturdy contender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 22, 2012

Baltimore Symphony celebrates American music in season-opener

Who needs the three B's when we've got two B's and a C?

Not that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra intended some grand, huzzah-huzzah patriotic statement or anything, but wasn't it nice to hear the season open without a single piece by a dead white European?

(OK, so the program features works by dead white Americans, but, still.)

Music director Marin Alsop chose three of the finest examples of 20th-century, tonally-grounded American classics -- Copland's Symphony No. 3 (I think of it as our Brahms' First), Barber's Violin Concerto (I think of it as our Bruch's G minor), and Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Warterfront" (I think of it as our Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Waterfornt").

And wait -- there was a living American composer on the bill, too, after all. That would be ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:33 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

September 16, 2012

Renee Fleming lights up Baltimore Symphony gala; nearly $900,000 raised

Never underestimate the power of a diva -- the genuine artistic article, not the posturing kind.

The uncommonly gifted and gracious soprano Renee Fleming proved to be quite a magnet Saturday night for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala.

Meyerhoff Hall was well-packed with the well-heeled, as well as just plain folks; the concert, conducted by music director Marin Alsop and also featuring an appearance by a contingent from the BSO's education project OrchKids, raised nearly $900,000 for the orchestra.

The turnout was rich in state and local officials, including members of Congress; Baltimore's mayor (looking downright fabulous, by the way); and a certain country executive who chatted repeatedly with his constantly fidgeting companion through the first part of the program, then ducked out early after attending to his cell phone while Fleming gave a vivid account of "Vissi d'arte."

The soprano, radiating glamor in gowns by Douglas Hannant, offered several other familiar arias, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites and an exquisite surprise -- ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

September 13, 2012

Marin Alsop, BSO launch pilot program with Parsons School to design new concert attire

Could the end of white tie and tails be in sight for orchestra musicians? Will a hip new form of concert attire spread through the classical music world? Stay tuned.

The Baltimore Symphony announced Thursday that music director Marin Alsop has funded a "pilot partnership" with the New York-based Parsons The New School for Design to devise an updated wardrobe for orchestral players in the 21st-century.

The project will involve 16 Parsons students from an interdisciplinary class this semester. They will travel to Baltimore to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

May 12, 2012

Baltimore Symphony performs romantic gems by Rachmaninoff, Elgar

May is turning out to be a great month for the Baltimore Symphony.

A week after a potent combination of a Ravel concerto and a Shostakovich symphony, the orchestra has put a Rachmaninoff concerto and an Elgar symphony together to form another satisfying and well-delivered program.

Of course, you have to be in the mood for sweeping lyricism and grand statements. This lineup is not for the cold of heart.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, before tackling Rachmaninoff's much-loved Concerto No. 2, Andre Watts came onstage to receive the National Medal of Arts.

The pianist had been unable to attend the White House ceremony in February due to a concert engagement (among those receiving this year's medals were Al Pacino and Mel Tillis). So Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the NEA, took this opportunity to make the official presentation.

BSO music director Marin Alsop read the certificate, signed by President Obama, that praised Watts for his ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

May 4, 2012

Magnetic performances from Marin Alsop, Leon Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony

Meyerhoff Hall was the place to be Thursday night.

In a Baltimore Symphony program of Ravel and Shostakovich conducted by Marin Alsop, the intensity started early and never really let up.

The result was music-making that rivaled the hottest nights of the orchestra's years with former music director Yuri Temirkanov.

Local favorite -- heck, local hero -- Leon Fleisher helped light the fuse at the top of the program as soloist in Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand.

The pianist was greeted with ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

April 5, 2012

Out West with the BSO: Marin Alsop provides end-of-tour blog post

The final guest post from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's West Coast tour comes right form the top -- music director Marin Alsop:

With the tour barely over (I'm writing this as we wend our way homeward), I'm still on a high from our thrilling final concert last night! (And feeling a bit exhausted from no sleep and too many hours in the plane, too!)

Ending our first tour together in Eugene, Oregon—where I served as Music Director from 1989-1996—was a real treat for me. Eugene is an ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:59 AM | | Comments (0)
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April 4, 2012

BSO to give co-premiere of 'Overture for 2012' by Philip Glass

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 will be commemorated musically with a new work by Baltimore-born Philip Glass, the celebrated minimalist composer.

His "Overture for 2012" will receive a simultaneous world premiere in June by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The Glass work promises to provide an appropriately American alternative to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," which has become a favorite in this country during Fourth of July celebrations, despite the fact that its depiction of a Russian defeat of Napoleon's forces.

The Baltimore bow for "Overture for 2012" will take place on ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

April 3, 2012

Out West with the BSO: Guest blog post from violinist Ivan Stefanovic

Here's another report from the Mild West, where the Baltimore Symphony has been touring. Violinist Ivan Stefanovic offers this report from the weekend the orchestra spent in Berkeley:

Dear blog readers, greetings from a land of huge eucalyptus, old olive, stately pine and tropical palm trees, town of many incredible farm-to-table restaurants, unsavory but entertaining characters on the sidewalks, ever-present fog and mist in the hills, and, of course, great coffee shops.

The BSO arrived in Berkeley on Thursday evening after battling rush-our traffic and crossing a bridge (not the Golden Gate) that, height-wise, makes our own Bay Bridge look like child's play.

The town is not very big, and the hotel we're staying in is near University of California at Berkeley, whose campus is adorned with the aforementioned beautiful tree specimens.

The campus paths are strangely empty and quiet this week, as most students are gone for their Spring Break.

On Friday morning, the BSO had ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 5:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

April 2, 2012

Out West with the BSO: The critical view from the Bay Area

Here's a sample of the critical reaction to the BSO's weekend concerts presented by Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley:

 

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle: [The] weekend's most sustained achievement came during Friday's robust and pointed rendition of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. This was also, not coincidentally, the best opportunity to assess the current state of this orchestra, which has not performed live in the Bay Area in at least a quarter of a century.

To judge from the Prokofiev, at least, things are ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

Out West with the BSO: Guest blog post from violinist Greg Mulligan

The Baltimore Symphony spent the weekend in a fabled counterculture center (lots of regular culture there, too, of course). Here's a report from violinist Greg Mulligan on Saturday's multimedia performance fusing a 1928 silent film about Joan of Arc with a contemporary score by Richard Einhorn, part of the BSO's mini-residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tonight's concert in Zellerbach Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley was mesmerizing, as it was in Baltimore a few weeks ago.

Richard Einhorn's score beautifully magnifies the intense emotion contained in the silent film from 1928, "The Passion of Joan of Arc." The audience watched and listened silently, befitting the quiet intensity of much of the film, and gave all the performers a nice ovation.

This time the BSO performed with the women and men of the UC Choral Ensembles. I enjoyed their beautiful singing, especially the many sections reminiscent of very early vocal music, with one voice's melody chanting over a static pedal in another voice.

Kudos to Marin and to our staff for making all the arrangements with the local singers, and for creating and leading a cohesive ensemble for the audience's (and our) pleasure.

As a side note, ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

March 30, 2012

Out West With the BSO: The critical view after the first concert

And now a few words from the Southern California critical community about the Baltimore Symphony performance Wednesday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with Marin Alsop conducting, percussionist Colin Currie as soloist:

Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register: Jennifer Higdon's Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto took the center spot in the program.

It certainly is an entertaining show, especially with percussionist Colin Currie as soloist, running around stage to his various set ups and pounding the living daylights out of them ...

Alsop led it enthusiastically.

Her moment, and the orchestra's, to shine, though, came ... with a performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. We've heard this work a few times in recent seasons here, including with some world class ensembles. If this performance didn't quite reach the sheer luxury and virtuosic brilliance of those others, it had plenty going for it.

The Baltimore Symphony sounded ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 1:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

March 29, 2012

Out West With the BSO: Guest blog post from percussionist Colin Currie

I would love to be out on the West Coast with the Baltimore Symphony, reporting from the front lines of the orchestra's first tour with music director Marin Alsop, but I am delighted that some of the participants have volunteered to file occasional guest blog posts. The first comes from Colin Currie, the brilliant percussionist who brought down the house last week performing Jennifer Higdon's concerto. He is being featured in that work at some of the stops on the tour, which opened last night in Costa Mesa, California:

Greetings from Orange County, where the beautiful Chesapeake cherry blossom of last week 

is swapped for the palm trees of California, and furthermore, a feathered friend at our hotel in Costa Mesa!

I enjoy travelling to the West Coast as one can look forward to what is, in effect, a fairly indulgent lie-in (courtesy of the time change), rising lazily at around 7am local time to a full morning of activities!

I locate a conference room for myself and my darabuka (a kind of hand-drum) to work on next month's premiere of Kalevi Aho's Percussion Concerto with the London Philharmonic (would love to bring this work to the BSO!) then dutifully adjourn to the treadmill for a time.

Mr Mallard has shuffled round to poolside at the deep end, slumbering in the sunshine, his beady eye opening only momentarily to impart mock disdain at my diving skills.

The afternoon is relatively easy-going (a nap!) until 4pm when I get to the hall to fine-tune my equipment and do Higdon warm-up.

Pre-concert warm-up is always the same for me, a good couple of hours playing most of the piece under-speed, with occasional phrases at full speed, repeated many times to make sure they are functioning at full throttle.

I like the hall and it reminds me of the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, UK, although discrepancies between the surrounds environments and climate are noted.

I have a very brief but efficient sound-check with the orchestra at 7pm and time for ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 11:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

March 23, 2012

At the BSO: Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is a smash

Just a hunch on my part, but I think that West Coast audiences are going to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s visit that starts next week.

A sample of what’s in store for folks in California and Oregon is contained on the program the BSO performs this weekend at Meyerhoff Hall. One item, in particular, is bound to go over well out there, just as it did Thursday night at the Strathmore Center -- Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto.

Higdon, one of the contemporary composers regularly championed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, writes in a style that is easily accessible to those whose ears are happily stuck in the 19th-century.

But Higdon is also solidly, naturally connected to the sound-world of pop/rock music, so listeners from that side of the aisle can feel thoroughly comfortable with her work.

In this concerto from 2005, Higdon unleashes a kinetic storm of urban beats, balanced by ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 1:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

March 7, 2012

Marin Alsop opens Sao Paolo Symphony season with live webcast

Marin Alsop opens her inaugural season as principal conductor of the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra at 2:30 p.m. EST Saturday with a program that will be broadcast live over the Internet.

The program includes Clarice Assad's "Terra Brasilis," Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 (with David Fray as soloist), and the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich.

Last February, Alsop signed a five-year contract with the Brazilian ensemble, which has a season that runs from March through December. She remains music director of the Baltimore Symphony; her current contract with that orchestra extends to August 2015.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:49 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

March 3, 2012

BSO presents memorable combo: 'Passion of Joan of Arc,' 'Voices of Light'

There are so many amazing elements in "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the 1928 silent film the Baltimore Symphony is presenting this weekend with an affecting musical score, Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light."

The unblinking closeups used by director Carl Theodor Dreyer in the movie are justly famous -- the looming faces of the judges; the dazed Joan, tilting her head upward, looking in vain for genuine sympathy; the eager jailers and torturers.

Occasional overhead shots are likewise startling; you can feel the ground shifting as the forces against Joan unite in their unshakable need for her confession or her death.

What I think is most astonishing of all about the film is how it still speaks to us, even in our digital movie age. The black and white is as searing as any 3-D, high-gloss color extravaganza today. More significant still is how the issues depicted in Dreyer's film (he used the trial transcripts as the basis for the project) have an uncanny way of feeling very contemporary, sometimes disturbingly so.

In 2004, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was offered in tandem with Einhorn's 1994 score by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, I was struck by how it conjured all-too-fresh realities from our world at the time -- "when," as I wrote, "we are steeped in images of tortured prisoners and executed innocents, and when we are even hearing talk of communion being withheld from politicians who stray from church teaching."

In 2012, not much seems to have changed, as I was reminded Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, when ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 2:28 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

February 28, 2012

Renee Fleming, John Waters, Claire Bloom, and Wagner spice BSO's 2012-13 season

From Renee Fleming to Claire Bloom and John Waters, from Wagner's "Ring" to a new symphony by Christopher Rouse and a lot of classic film scores, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2012-2013 season promises a notably diverse and interesting diet.

For her sixth season as BSO music director, Marin Alsop will zero in on several themes. Movie music is one, which explains why the season announcement was made Tuesday at the Charles Theater.

Alsop will conduct the orchestra in live soundtracks to three acclaimed films: Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" (post-"The Artist," this presentation of a silent movie may be a bigger event than expected); Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," with its gripping score by Prokofiev; and "West Side Story," the brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical. Bernstein's contribution to the movies will also be acknowledged with his Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront."

In another nod to cinema, the 25th anniversary of the kinetic Waters hit, "Hairspray," will be celebrated with a concert version of the musical it inspired. This event, part of the BSO SuperPops series and led by principal pops conductor Jack Everly, will feature Waters as narrator.

American music has been a priority of Alsop's from the start, and next season will contain a fair share. The conductor will give particular attention to ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

February 24, 2012

Alsop leads BSO in high-voltage works by Prokofiev, MacMillan

Music from the 20th century gets the lion's share of attention on the latest BSO program -- the operative word is lion.

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony and James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" are meaty, sometimes fierce works that provide everyone -- conductor Marin Alsop, the orchestra and listeners -- with quite a workout.

A curiously small audience turned out for the encounter Thursday night at the Meyerhoff.  Perhaps more people will show up for Sunday's repeat. (The "Off the Cuff" concerts tonight at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff will focus solely on the Prokofiev symphony.)

MacMillan, a Scottish composer who brings a set of strong religious beliefs (Catholic) and a social conscience to his music, was seized by the pitiful story of Isobel Gowdie.

She was one of the many women in Scotland who faced the hideous fate of being accused of witchcraft. Her astonishing confession in 1662 has been widely studied and discussed from many angles.

For MacMillan, this is a case of intolerance and misogyny -- Alsop told the audience that that the composer was speaking out against "persecuting people because they're different" -- and requires some act of atonement. His arresting score attempts to provide it. 

"The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" achieves ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

January 29, 2012

BSO takes nature walk with Beethoven, Frans Lanting, Philip Glass

Music can tell stories as riveting as the best literary texts, can paint images as vivid as the finest works on canvas. That message is reinforced on the first half of the latest Baltimore Symphony program, and then, to an extent, reversed on the second.

The sonic-only pictorial lesson comes from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the composer’s extraordinary evocation of a visit to the countryside, complete with babbling brook, tipsy farmers and a cool thunderstorm.

This classic is matched with a multimedia production, “LIFE: A Journey Through Time,” with an evolutionary tour of nature through the work of National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting, matched to music by Philip Glass.

Here, the sounds serve as complement or counterpoint to the imagery. The accompaniment was not created with the visual in mind, but matched to it subsequently. The pictures clearly could stand on their own without a note, but the match-up provides an extra kick. 

Marin Alsop, who was instrumental in generating the Lanting/Glass epic, introduced it to the BSO in 2007. Given all the other music available by Glass, one of Baltimore’s most famous sons, and given that his 75th birthday will be observed on Tuesday, it’s disappointing that we didn’t get something new to the BSO repertoire. “LIFE” is a compilation of previously existing pieces (arranged for orchestra by Michael Riesman). A symphony by Glass would have been very welcome.

Leaving that aside, it was impossible not to be impressed by ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)
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January 21, 2012

Alsop leads BSO in blockbusters; Olga Kern featured in Tcahikovsky concerto

It is possible to quibble with the idea of cramming three blockbuster works into a single program, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra carries it off.

Ravel’s “Bolero,” that brilliant study in rhythmic and melodic reiteration, not to mention crescendo, is more likely to serve as a concert finale than a curtain-raiser, leading into Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming Piano Concerto No. 1. But here they are, back to back.

And after two of classical music’s Greatest Hits, why not one more? Well, at least one of classical music’s Greatest Minutes — the introductory passage of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” forever identified as the theme from the sci-fi classic “2001.” The rest of Strauss’ ambitious reflections on the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may not be quite as popular, but the whole thing is a marvelous showpiece.

What makes these three war horses well worth trotting out together is the terrific music-making they inspire. On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the connection between music director Marin Alsop and the BSO sounded like it had reached a tighter, more spirited level. This was especially evident in “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Of course, there was an instant let-down at the very start. The indelible opening, with its gradual sunburst of C major, should rattle your chair, tingle your spine. It has a lot better chance to do that when ...

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Posted by Tim Smith at 6:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

November 22, 2011

Verdict is in on Baltimore Symphony's 'Jeanne d'Arc' at Carnegie Hall

Marin Alsop may not single-handedly reverse the fate of Arthur Honegger's neglected oratorio "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher," but the conductor is certainly giving it a valiant try.

Alsop championed it over the summer at the Oregon Bach Festival, then in London, Baltimore and New York this month.

It is easy to understand Alsop's interest in the score, which combines a whole mess of styles and hefty ideas.

It's also easy to understand why some folks resist the score, precisely because it combines a whole mess of styles and hefty ideas.

Although I am not convinced by all of the music or the text, I think there's some great stuff in there. This is not just an oratorio, but an experience. I found that experience absorbing and, ultimately, rewarding last week when Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony, soloists and choristers in "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher" at Meyerhoff Hall.

It was fun getting to hear in person a piece I only knew from recordings and music history books, and to hear it performed with such commitment and quality.

But you don't need to read more of my opinions. You want to know what the Big City critics thought after the BSO's presentation Saturday night at Carnegie Hall (I did not get to make the trip). So here's their verdict:

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Posted by Tim Smith at 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)
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November 18, 2011

BSO makes case for Honegger's quirky oratorio 'Joan of Arc at the Stake'

Joan of Arc did not get a fair trial. But she did received a pretty decent form of posthumous vindication -- sainthood.

Arthur Honegger's 1938 oratorio about the hypocrisy and cruelty surrounding the 15th-century French heroine's fate initially enjoyed a brilliant success for several years. But "Jeanne' d'Arc au bucher" gradually faded into rarity status, if not downright obscurity.

Now comes Marin Alsop, bounding onto the scene, not with a sword, but a white baton, to give Honegger's ambitious work a fresh hearing.

The oratorio is the conductor's calling card du jour -- she has performed it in Oregon and England recently -- and her commitment could be felt every minute Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, where Alsop presided over a large assemblage.

Joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, Concert Artists of Baltimore, and Peabody Children's Chorus; two actors; several solo singers; and an ondes martenot player (this early electronic instrument plays a valuable role in the prismatic score).

Alsop is ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

November 11, 2011

Baltimore Symphony program showcases American music, familiar and rare

Marin Alsop's dedication to American music is well known and justly admired. Her interest in Edward Collins' contributions to American music is, I suspect, much less familiar -- just like Edward Collins himself.

Alsop, who has recorded many works by Collins, chose one of them to balance the standard fare by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland in the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program. It's a particularly timely choice, too, given Veterans Day.

The "Tragic Overture," dating form the early 1920s, sums up Collins' response to his experiences fighting in World War I -- he first titled the piece "1914." The score has a dramatic punch, alleviated occasionally with sweeter material, but references to "Taps" near the end leave no doubt as to the underlying message of the music.

The Illinois-born Collins, who died in 1951, enjoyed modest success during his lifetime and may enjoy a degree of renewed interest at some point.

Alsop certainly gave every indication of commitment to the man and his neo-romantic, expertly crafted music Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Hall. She drew from the BSO a dynamic performance of the "Tragic Overture" that needed only ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

October 24, 2011

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program expands to third school

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's nationally recognized educational outreach project, OrchKids, is expanding to a third location, Mary Winterling Elementary School.

The pre-K through 5th-grade public school is in the Lexington neighborhood, close to the largest OrchKids operation at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School.

"We're trying to create a linked neighborhood and create an OrchKids campus in West Baltimore," said Dan Trahey, OrchKids director of artistic program development.

"Mary Winterling and Lockerman Bundy are very near to each other. There are some things that Mary Winterling has that are going to be great for the program, like a 500-seat theater and a place where it would be easier to hold outdoor concerts.

"My dream is ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

September 24, 2011

BSO premieres work by James Lee III about Harriet Tubman

In addition to such things as new recording contracts and a nationally recognized education program, Marin Alsop’s influence as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can be seen in the programming each season.

She typically weaves connective threads through concert repertoire. For 2011-12, that thread involves commemorating extraordinary women, including Joan of Arc in Novembver.

This weekend, Harriet Tubman is the focus, via the premiuere of a work by James Lee III, a Morgan State University professor whose finely crafted music has been gaining increased exposure nationally.

The 12-minute “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” was greeted warmly by the audience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon.

“Chuphshah” (Hebrew for “freedom”) provides a whirlwind portrait of Tubman’s life and struggles, with quotations from vintage tunes that provide guideposts for listeners. Those quotations can’t help but bring to mind Charles Ives, this country’s first great composer; Ives packed his music with melodic reminiscences of Americana.

Lee references spirituals and, to conjure images of the Civil War, snippets of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.” If the device tends to make the music sound like a soundtrack in search of a documentary, the piece nonetheless succeeds on it own. The orchestration is consistently vivid; harmonies are often richly layered; spicy dissonances here and there deliver a bracing kick.

On Friday, Alsop led the BSO in ... 

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September 20, 2011

'Million Dollar Concert': MacArthur Fellows Marin Alsop, Alisa Weilerstein with BSO

This weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra unexpectedly will have two recipients of MacArthur Fellowship Grants onstage -- cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is among the 2011 winners; and conductor Marin Alsop, who earned her distinction in 2005.

As you will recall, this award -- commonly called the "genius grant" -- recognizes "originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society through your work" and comes with $500,000 for the recipient.

That gives the BSO engagement, when Weilsertsin will perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto, an extra cache. "The million dollar concert, right?" the cellist said with a laugh from New York a few hours before the 2011 MacArthur Fellows were announced.

Weilerstein, 29, has been guarding the news of her good fortune since being informed on Sept. 7. She was in Jerusalem at the time.

"It was completely out of the blue," she said. "I was completely floored. I swore loudly on the street when they called me," she added with a laugh. "I figured ...

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September 16, 2011

Marin Alsop, BSO open season with Mahler's epic 'Resurrection' Symphony

The most devout agnostic might easily be shaken to the core by the emotional force of Gustav Mahler's epic Symphony No. 2, nicknamed "Resurrection," the sole piece on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first subscription program of the season.

In the space of roughly 80 minutes, the music takes the willing listener from dark places, where suffering and death hover, into sunlit vistas, only to plunge again into even more grave-like depths.

Finally, after cataclysmic outbursts, tortured reflections and almost palpable pain, Mahler offers a mesmerizing, humbling glimpse of "a light that no eye has yet fathomed." In a magical effect, that light is gently spread by a chorus entering pianissimo to sing about how, after a short rest, we shall all rise again.

Whether one embraces that message or not, it is impossible to miss the monumental nature of this work from 1894, which reflects in every possible way the composer's belief that a symphony should encompass a whole world. And in a good performance, it is impossible not to be absorbed in -- and difficult not to be moved by -- the musical drama.

The BSO has done well by the "Resurrection" Symphony over the past decade or so. Former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov opened (in 2000) and closed (in 2006) his tenure with the piece. His successor, Marin Alsop, who has conducted several Mahler symphonies since taking the helm in 2007, is offering her first local performance of the Second in this week's concerts.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she led ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

September 11, 2011

Baltimore Symphony kicks off season with eclectic gala concert

The annual Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gala gives each new season a jolt of cash and energy.

Saturday's event at the Meyerhoff raised $750,000, which has a nice ring to it ($1 million would sound even nicer, but we're still struck in a recession, after all). It also provided a good deal of musical refreshment.

This wasn't the most cohesive of programs, but the eclectic mix chosen by music director Marin Alsop held its rewards.

There was one big classical work, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, featuring Baltimore's favorite daughter, Hilary Hahn, as soloist. And there was a significant premiere, David T. Little's arresting salute to Baltimore, "Charm."

These items were book-ended by fanfares from Aaron Copland (his saluting the "common man") and Joan Tower (hers saluting the "uncommon woman") at the start, and, of all things, a gospel version of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" at the close.

There was room, too, for ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

August 25, 2011

Live stream of concert with Marin Alsop conducting Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop, recently named principal conductor of Brazil's Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, will lead that ensemble's first live-via-Internet concert this weekend.

The performance, from the Sala Sao Paulo, will feature Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush Violin Concerto, with Renaud Capucon as soloist, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

The live stream is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. EST. (Fans of Alsop in Baltimore, where she is music director of the BSO, may have their hands full with a certain hurricane that day.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

July 21, 2011

Baltimore Symphony's 'Rusty Musicians' outreach coming back to Meyerhoff Hall

Time to get those instruments out of attics and basements and start tuning up for the second annual "Rusty Musicians" night with the Baltimore Symphony at Meyerhoff Hall.

Amateur players age 25 or older who can read music and play any standard orchestra instrument are welcome -- after going through the official application process, of course.

They will join BSO members and music director Marin Alsop in a rehearsal and performance of Tchaikovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet" and a couple of numbers from Bizet’s "Carmen" Suite No. 2.

The event will be held on ...

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June 22, 2011

Lee Mills receives BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship

Montana-born, 24-year-old Lee Mills, will be the third recipient of the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship, starting in September.

The fellowship, a unique project founded in 2007 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Peabody Institute, provides a full tuition scholarship to Peabody and mentoring from BSO music director Marin Alsop.

Mills, who just received a graduate performance diploma from Peabody, will earn an artist diploma after the one-year fellowship.

The young conductor has done fine work in the area in collaboration with various Peabody ensembles, including Peabody Opera Theatre. He also managed to assemble the necessary forces on campus to conduct Beethoven's Ninth and other big works last season, no small feat. 

Mill will make his public BSO conducting debut during ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

June 10, 2011

Verdi's 'Requiem' brings Baltimore Symphony season to a memorable close

OK, so a requiem isn't the most obvious way to end a season. Something of a downer, all that singing in Latin about judgment day and eternal rest.

But when you're talking Verdi's "Requiem," you're talking one of the mightiest of masterworks, a fusion of solemnity and all-out operatic drama.

The alternately roaring and whispering score, Verdi's response to the death of his great hero, Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, hasn't lost a bit of its awesomeness since the premiere of 1874.

That point is being reinforced this week at the Baltimore Symphony's closing concerts of the 2011-12 season. The roughly 80-minute "Requiem" is the sole item on the program.

Verdi was not a religious man in any conventional sense. He may not have believed in a word of the ancient Mass for the Dead. But he turned those words into a music drama so vivid in its pictorial representation, so deep-felt in its examination of what it means to face death, that it could send a shiver through even the most intrepid atheist.   

Thursday night's performance at Meyerhoff Hall started off ...

 

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

June 1, 2011

Mobtown Modern, Baltimore Symphony celebrate music of Osvaldo Golijov

Osvaldo Golijov is one of several compelling contemporary composers who do not get nearly enough attention in Baltimore, so this week's little Golijov confluence involving Mobtown Modern and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is all the more noteworthy.

Mobtown starts it off at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Windup Space with a performance of "Ayre," the Argentine composer's song cycle reflecting on the 15th-century mingling in Spain of three cultures: Jewish, Christian, Arab.

As Golijov has written, "With a little bend, a melody goes from ...

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

May 14, 2011

Impassioned evening with Schumann, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony

Robert Schumann could have been the perfect poster child for musical romanticism.

He was intensely passionate about everything; capable of composing exceedingly beautiful and turbulent music; and prone to severe mood swings. That he also ended up certifiably insane seals the deal.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is peering into Schumann’s troubled mind with two programs — one all-music, the other a music-and-talk presentation complete with guest psychiatrist. The first was performed Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and will be repeated Sunday afternoon; the second will be given there Saturday night.

Even without any detailed discussion on Thursday, conductor Marin Alsop’s few words to the audience at the start of the concert neatly set the stage for considering Schumann in light of his mental illness. As she pointed out, knowing the composer’s fate — he died at the age of 46 in an asylum — makes it difficult to hear his music without sensing his bipolar personality.

It was quite fun on Thursday to wallow in Schumann’s anxieties, staring with the “Manfred” Overture, a piece inspired by the guilt-ridden hero — and celebrated romantic symbol — of Byron’s epic poem. This is wonderfully tense, unsettled music, and Alsop had the orchestra digging into that character effectively.

Schumann dubbed his Symphony No. 1 “Spring.” On the surface, it is all about the happy little buds and bees of May. But the slow introduction to the first movement suggests a bigger, deeper view of nature and its power, the sort of view that Gustav Mahler would explore decades later in his profound symphonies.

Speaking of Mahler, ...

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March 1, 2011

Baltimore Symphony to showcase 'revolutionary women' during 2011-12 season

"Revolutionary women," including Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman, will be showcased during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2011-2012 season, which also packs in music by some relatively revolutionary men, too.

BSO music director Marin Alsop, something of a revolutionary herself in a profession still dominated by males, will lead the orchestra in performances of Arthur Honegger’s rarely encountered 1935 oratorio “Jeanne d’Arc au Boucher” (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”) in November.

“The impetus for this is that 2012 is thought to be the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc,” Alsop said. “She fascinates me in a number of ways. It seemed to be the perfect time to program the Honegger work, which is such a cool piece.”

The oratorio, which will involve the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and Peabody Children’s Chorus, will also be presented at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Later in the season, the French visionary will again receive attention in a program that combines a showing of Carl Dreyer’s highly valued 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with the performance of a contemporary score by Richard Einhorn, “Voices of Light.”

That program will be featured on the BSO’s visit to Oregon and California in March 2012, the orchestra’s first domestic tour since 2000. The trip will include a three-day residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to promote the terrific orchestra we have,” Alsop said, “and to be ambassadors of our region to another part of the U.S.”

With Joan of Arc as a centerpiece for the season, “I then tried to build my programs from there, focusing not just on women’s issues, but issues of oppression and justice,” Alsop said, “and focusing on women in roles as creators or soloists.”

The struggles and aspirations of Harriet Tubman inspired “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan,” an orchestral work by Baltimore-based composer James Lee III that will receive its world premiere in September.

Next season will also see the BSO’s first performance of a 1990 work by Scottish composer James MacMillan, “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie,” which refers to a 17th-century Scottish woman who admitted to being a witch and was apparently burned at the stake (something of a subtext for the season).

Music composed by women is on the lineup, including Jennifer Higdon's 2010 Grammy Award-winning Percussion Concerto and a piece that could serve as the season’s motto: Joan Tower's “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”

Alsop will tackle several hefty works from the standard repertoire, including

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Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop
        

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
        
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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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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