Classical Music Buzz > Clef Notes and Drama Queens
Clef Notes and Drama Queens
Classical music and theater in Baltimore: Critic Tim Smith writes about classical music, opera, theater, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Centerstage, and more
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Yes, I know it's way past midday on Midweek Madness day as I post this. So sue me. I had stuff to do. Big, important stuff. And at least two boxes of bonbons to get through.

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

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

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

Still, if you're going to do a movie of the musical, shouldn't you at least cast it with a star who can sing? Lucy gives it her all, I suppose. And, every now and then, she does ... register something genuine (even if it is hard to see, given that she was filmed through linoleum). But she's no Roz Russell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Here's the trailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO OF GEMMA NEW: Britt Olsen Ecker Photography


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The snowbound folks in Grace's Diner travel quite a distance, emotionally and physically, while cooped up for a long night in 1955 somewhere outside Kansas City. Things won't necessarily be smooth for all of them once the roads are finally cleared.

What transpires in that nondescript roadside eatery provides potent fuel for "Bus Stop," the classic dramedy by William Inge that has received a welcome and satisfying revival from Center Stage.

Inge had a knack for generating extraordinary theater out of ordinary people, places, passions and, especially, illusions. In this case, he brings together well-known types -- cowboy, sheriff, waitress, alcoholic and the like -- and gives them fresh and unexpected turns, all the while avoiding easy sentimentality or blatant melodrama.

On the surface, "Bus Stop" ...

does not have much of a plot, but this slice of American life is deftly carved to reveal a lot of layers, little insights into what makes us crave affection and how we can so easily mess up the process of finding it.

March isn't the only thing that comes in like a lion as the play starts. First off the bus is the anxious, self-proclaimed chanteuse Cherie. She's hoping to escape from another passenger, Bo, the young Montana rancher who has taken a shine to her and, it appears, has kidnapped her -- though with the intention of matrimony.

There's something deliciously incongruous about Cherie, looking way too showbizy for a bus trip, let alone a blizzard, and barely concealing her Ozark roots. Her presence transforms and unbalances the whole diner.

Her story is so sweet, her predicament so curious, that Inge could have centered the play solely on her and still had plenty of material. That's what happened with the movie version of "Bus Stop" (Inge collaborated on the screenplay). The emphasis was understandable, since the film was a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but that meant trimming characters and incident.

The original version requires an actress who can hold the spotlight, but still leave plenty of room for the others, and that's what Center Stage offers in the shapely form of Susannah Hoffman.

The actress is a thoroughly endearing Cherie. She makes you believe in this half-flighty, half-purposeful woman, who has been around the block several times, but never could find her way.

Hoffman ensures that the character's fragility and doubt register as keenly as the naive faith in her abilities as an entertainer. And what an entertainer. In one of the play's funniest scenes -- an impromptu floor show organized by the young waitress Elma to help pass the time -- Cherie gets her chance to go all out.

Changed into a slinky, very-Marilyn gown (Clint Ramos designed the costumes), Hoffman seizes this moment, performing her number in a thin, slightly off-pitch voice and with all sorts of awkward, over-sized gestures. It's the most wonderfully bad act since Mary Richards tackled "One More for My Baby" in Lou Grant's office on an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

You can't help but laugh, but you can't help but feel affection, too. Hoffman generates a similar reaction delivering Cherie's disarming response to the refined speech of fellow passenger Dr. Lyman: "I don't understand anything you say, but I just love the way you say it."

And keep an eye on Hoffman's final moments onstage, when she turns to Grace and Elma to declare, "I'm going to Montana." The expression on her face is worth a thousand play scripts.

There are many other small and telling details in the production, smoothly directed by David Schweizer (only his idea for the opening sequence, which involves live music, fails to convince, trying a little too hard to set the mood).

The rest of the cast has much to offer, and will likely get even tighter as the run continues. Maybe Jack Fellows, as Bo, will get subtler, too. Judging by opening night, he's inclined to overdo the Jethro Bodine side of the terribly immature rancher, here dressed in pristine cowboy duds (Inge envisioned a gruffer appearance).

And, as awkward as Bo may be about the ways of love and what-not, he needn't move quite as stiffly as Fellows. Still, the lanky actor leaves his mark, especially in the scenes after the inevitable humbling experience that Bo must endure.

As Virgil, Bo's older, slightly wiser, guitar-pickin' buddy, Larry Tobias does excellent work, fleshing out the character nicely and handling the musical requirements of the role with a tender touch. (The original score for this production by Lindsay Jones had input from Tobias.)

Pilar Witherspoon is authentic as Grace, a lonely woman who needs to serve more than coffee once in a while, and who always likes to see a good fight.

Kayla Ferguson makes a charming Elma, effectively revealing the high schooler's mix of brains, dreams and innocence, her desire to be noticed and taken seriously. And Ferguson's comic instincts sparkle during the let's-put-on-a-show scene, reciting Shakespeare in a great, giddy whirl.

Elma's would-be Romeo, Dr. Lyman, is played by Patrick Husted. Some lines could use finessing, but he reveals considerable flair along the way and opens a sympathetic window into the drunken, much-married dirty old man who holds a smidgen of nobility tucked inside his rumpled self.

Filling out the cast ably are Malachy Cleary, as the hardy bus driver, and Michael D. Nichols as the no-nonsense sheriff (he could use a more believable beard).

James Noone's scenic design warmly evokes the diner, where so many things, big and small, petty and serious, are on the menu one blustery night in March.

"Bus Stop" runs through Dec. 23.

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