Posted tagged ‘music center at strathmore’

Prokofiev and Prose: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 1, 2011

April 3, 2011

This year, the Baltimore Symphony and music director Marin Alsop scheduled four “Off the Cuff” concerts, which experiment with mixing music and words to create something with more context than the usual program notes can provide. Friday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore had Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite as its centerpiece. Alsop gave about 15 minutes of biography and musical examples before ceding the microphone to four undergrads from Johns Hopkins University, who took turns reciting parts of their own retellings of the Cinderella story. Alsop and the BSO then traded selections with the writers as the evening progressed.

"I will tell you a magical tale from your childhood": Sergei Prokofiev

Alsop and the BSO typically do really well when the music they play calls for color and fantasy, as the suite’s Introduction showed, full of lively and well-shaped melodies and luxuriant sounds. But then each of the writers read the first several sentences of his or her take on Cinderella, enough to get an idea of the setting and character’s names, and by the time the BSO came back for the Pas de Châle the mood created in the Introduction had dissipated completely.

It didn’t help that the writers did not interpret the Cinderella story as eloquently as Prokofiev did. Each has a different background and drew on it to re-imagine the story: Doyeun Kim set her tale in 1800s Korea, Sophi Glazycheva in 1890s Russia, Ana Giraldo-Wingler in modern-day Bogota, and Akif Saifi in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that sounded an awful lot like Dubai. The students clearly have some talent, but they have not yet learned to discipline it; I found myself mentally deleting unnecessary words and correcting usage errors while they read. (One example of a sentence in need of editing: “Thinly veiled Communism seized his company.” Quick! Someone arrest that ideology! I hope we can still pick it out of the lineup while it’s wearing that veil! Another described two sisters eating the best meal “their bellies had ever had the pleasure of enjoying.” Most of the words in that sentence are unnecessary.) Saifi read his text confidently, but the others spent some time stumbling over their own words, which didn’t help.

So not all the ingredients in this concert were up to snuff. I also question the recipe. Prokofiev’s score is extremely European, right down the middle of Western Tradition Road, and no sidebar commentary is going to change the images it evokes in listeners’ heads, although the pauses did prevent those images from cohering into their own musical narrative. (Although the concert was advertised as providing a multicultural perspective on the Cinderella tale, the audience Friday night was the normal Caucasian monoculture.) The other narratives were fractured too — we didn’t hear all of anyone’s tale, just the beginning and end, plus a selection of interstitial plot development, presumably to ensure that the concert ended at a reasonable hour. It all led to confusion, not illumination.

If orchestras don’t explore new ideas for presenting their concerts, as the BSO is doing with these “Off the Cuff” concerts, they’re never going to figure out how to get audiences packed into the hall and buzzing with anticipation, which happens all too infrequently. A part of this process is trying ideas that don’t work, and so I’m fine with the BSO having tried this. I do wish I could hear Alsop and the BSO perform the Cinderella Suite straight through, though, because that could be part of an excellent night at the symphony.

Romantic and Romantic-er: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, February 10, 2011

February 13, 2011

Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert, with Yuja Wang on the keys and Juanjo Mena on the podium. I would speculate that the audience heard its opening notes with much more excitement than it brought for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, which rounded out the program post-intermission. The Rach 2 has achieved its popularity on the basis of its big tunes, in between which there is also some music. Pianists sometimes rumble through this non-big-tune music with a kind of carelessness pretending to be imperiousness, attempting to make the audience as impressed with the pianists as they themselves are; other times, the non-big-tune music serves as a kind of atmospheric Romantic haze from which the big tunes emerge like ships approaching shore through a fog. Either way, everything slows down when the tunes arrive, like how Neo in The Matrix reaches a heightened plane of fighting ability and can stop time as he beats people up. I enjoy Rachmaninov’s music a lot, but the second of his piano concertos (as well as the second of his symphonies) inspires some frustrating performances.

On Thursday, though, Wang and Mena attended closely to every bar of music, both in shaping the melodic lines and producing variegated and intoxicating colors, and while the big tunes got their due, their prominence flowed naturally from the score. For example, the solo-piano opening, with a gradual crescendo of chords eventually climaxing and crashing, typically provides an occasion for dude pianists to thrash the keyboard mercilessly towards the end of the crescendo and show you what exceptional badasses they are. Wang instead increased the volume scrupulously and excruciatingly slowly, so the opening felt genuinely menacing; I confess I was waiting for a little Star Time but instead got walloped by the music. Later in that first movement, as the BSO’s lower strings accompanied melodic figuration, Mena got a spine-tingingly chilly sound from them, evoking a sere landscape in winter and reminding me (at least) that Rachmaninov is a more Russian composer than is sometimes supposed.

Wang used just a touch of rubato on her slower melodies, and Mena and the BSO followed her closely, with handoffs between piano and orchestra 99 percent seamless. When the big tunes came, she made the big tunes memorable not with agogic hesitation but by her incredible attention to the dynamics within phrases; one could almost hear the melodies breathing. As noted, she also knows how to modulate her tone colors; much the first movement came across with a chilly tone, but the rising joy of the third movement brought with it brighter sounds from the keyboard. Mena and the BSO matched her in their attentiveness, tracking her well and playing with authority; one of the joys of hearing Mena conduct the BSO is how gorgeous and focused the orchestra sounds, and Thursday’s concert was no exception to that rule.

Yuja Wang in a hot red dress

Approximately what we were seeing Thursday. By Xavier Antonnet, from Yuja's site, linked earlier

Wang also won the crowd over by wearing a bright red dress similar to the one she wears on the cover of her latest CD, what looked to be four-inch heels, and a shag haircut that reinforced how attractive she is by still looking good on her somehow. (Person behind me at intermission, to her husband: “I didn’t realize the pianist would be so beautiful!” I’m not sure whether she would have urged them to attend another concert with that info in hand.) She did not play an encore, which meant that we launched straight into Bruckner post-bathroom break.

I’m on record as not enjoying Bruckner’s music, but before Thursday, the last time I had heard a Bruckner symphony live was in 1997 (I counted), and I thought it would be a good idea to try again. I was ready to indulge him his longeurs, his habit of unhurried ruminating, and find the profundity in the unique journey his music provides.

Yet I found that, even with hope in my heart and acceptance in my head, something in my constitution is repelled by Bruckner’s music. None of his tunes is memorable in any way, and then he almost immediately abandons them anyway for passagework that takes us on harmonic journeys so extended and far-ranging that their ultimate purpose is lost.

I’m all for more super-serious Romantic music in the concert hall, but before we trot out Bruckner again, let’s give some time to Max Reger. At least he knew that he had difficulty writing a tune, so he had the sense to steal one in his very listenable Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart. Ripe textures? Check. Improbable harmonic journeys? Check. Plus you get an enjoyable fugue at the end whose subject just so happens to fit into perfect counterpoint with the theme. I’m rambling a bit here, but Bruckner rambled at me for an hour on Thursday, and frankly I still don’t think we’re even.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler in the Post.


I took my girlfriend to this concert, and I cannot imagine a worse ending to a date-night concert than that symphony. I know there are some smart folks out there who are also committed Brucknerians, but this music — low on memorable tunes and distinct rhythms, high on leisurely paced explorations, at lengths that defeat attempts to intuit a structure — strikes me as a solo pursuit, something in which one might immerse oneself and, after long, ardent study, eventually come up for air. Nothing in there seems easy to share — how would you even talk about something so devoid of milestones? Plus I think my girlfriend was feeling actively malevolent towards Bruckner around the time the Scherzo music repeated, and since Bruckner was not nearby, the malevolence downgraded to annoyance and spilled on everything present, including me.

I’m reconsidering taking her to Turangalîla next month.

All Talk, All Action: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, January 21, 2011

January 24, 2011

For the second of its “Off the Cuff” programs this season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its music director, Marin Alsop, talking about and leading the orchestra in illustrative examples from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony for twenty-five minutes before an attentive Friday-night audience at the Music Center at Strathmore, followed immediately by a full performance of the work. This programming idea worked well. Shostakovich’s Fifth creates a musical world that does not need to be augmented with an overture and concerto in order to feel like a full evening’s worth of music, and there’s certainly plenty to say about the symphony, especially when you’ve got the personable Alsop doing the talking.

A few quibbles to get out of the way: Her discussion came a little top-heavy with biographical details and history that would have been familiar to anyone who read the note in the program for Friday’s concert. Presumably the “Off the Cuff” series is designed to educate people who know less than carping-prone music critics, but it would have made the talk more special if Alsop had dropped some semi-novel knowledge on us, other than the good-to-know fact that Shostakovich’s first composition, at age 11, was titled “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” (Also, the microphone into which Alsop spoke should have been placed below her face, not in front of it, and Alsop could have cut back on the “um”s a bit during this exposition-y section.)

Alsop’s discussion of the work itself, however, and her selection of choice moments for the orchestra to play foreshadowed the reading that was to come: muscular but essentially lyrical, sensitive to color, rhythmically vigorous. For example, Alsop named a different bit of the opening of the first movement as its melodic seed than did the program notes, selecting not the severe opening canon but a melodic fragment coming after it. Showing a personal enthusiasm, Alsop led the BSO in the opening of the Scherzo from Mahler’s First Symphony and then the opening of the Scherzo from the Fifth, which she called “Mahler with more attitude”; it was easy to see the likeness.

In other places, the excerpts Alsop chose proved a pretty accurate guide to where she and the BSO would find climaxes in the actual performance: an impassioned melodic outburst in unison strings in the first movement, another anguished passage for strings in the Largo slow movement with punctuating chords from the double basses that Alsop likened to stabs, a descent from rah-rah marches into bleakness in the finale. Hearing those moments isolated before the performance itself likely helped newcomers to the work locate themselves as Shostakovich’s vast canvas spread itself out before them. On my part, I noticed that Alsop’s extract of the first-movement unison strings passage omitted the cacophonous two-chord outbursts that immediately follows, and the omission showed where Alsop wanted to take the symphony.

Not that the cacophony, when it eventually came, lacked impact. Just before turning from the mic to drop the downbeat, Alsop gave one last word of praise for the BSO’s playing, and every desk of the orchestra put every ounce of effort and emotion into this performance. During the performance, my thoughts occasionally turned to just how much the BSO now seems to like playing under Alsop; they shape melodies in her style with no apparent effort, they follow her pacing closely, they balance the sections so well that you only realize how good the balance was after the performance. In the live acoustic of the Music Center, every string-driven lament sang out clearly, every brassy march seethed with menace, the celesta twinkled with magnetically quiet notes, every flute solo floated tangible and poignant into the hall. (There seemed to be a lot of memorable flute solos in this performance.)

In her introductory remarks, Alsop referred to the Fifth’s finale as a “march of suffocation,” in keeping with the belief that Shostakovich’s Fifth secretly ridicules the desires of the Soviet authorities for lotsa patriotic rousing stuff. Being a contrarian, I have always pointed out in such discussions that the finale of the Fifth is, in fact, rousing, and if you don’t respond at some purely physical level to its dynamic energy you pretty much don’t have a pulse. Still, hearing Alsop explain and illustrate her view made it come over even more forcefully in this performance, and though my pulse quickened with pure excitement, the sheer wall of sound from the massed brass clenching its martial fist stopped me short as well. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that showed just how illuminating musicians like Alsop can be when they let the audience get a peek at their craft.


I am becoming increasingly convinced that a lot of concerts would be better if they just featured about an hour of music and concentrated on playing it really, really intensely, which (whatever the intention) was what happened on Friday. You don’t have to spend intermission deciding whether to get a drink or some Junior Mints and forgetting whatever happened beforehand and immersing yourself in another emotional world. You have a memorable experience and then get to wander around committing it to memory. Of course, immediately after this concert I went to the Mansion at Strathmore for Friday Night Eclectic (X.O., baby!), so I may not be the one to talk.

A Young Man’s Game: Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, October 16, 2010

October 17, 2010

In July the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented two 15-year-old concerto soloists. Attaining such heights at such a young age requires ungodly talent and work, but others have achieved the feat — you see such youngsters pass through center stage orchestra every so often, and rarely see them again when they’re old enough to drink (legally).

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimoreans played under the leadership of a 17-year-old conductor, Ilyich Rivas, from the great young-conductor-producing nation of Venezuela. This seems a rarer thing, because the prodigy conductor not only has to master every aspect of a score in order to create a unified whole (and, hopefully, take an interesting point of view on the frequently performed works he leads), but also must convince, cajole, assuage, and inspire a hundred or so musicians who excel him in both experience and just plain age. I can conceive of being ready to play a concerto with a major symphony at the age of 15, if I was talented and had enough support. It baffles my mind that a 17-year-old could lead an orchestra, though one must keep in mind that I was an exceptionally immature 17-year-old.

Saturday’s program featured three works by Composers as Young Men. Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” which led off the evening, was the only exception, although JoBra learned the musical material for his pomp-and-circumstantial orchestration of university drinking songs when he was 20. In my opinion, the three top things needed to successfully perform the AcFest are rhythmic vitality, rhythmic vitality, and rhythmic vitality, perhaps with a side of burnished Brahmsian tone-colors. Rivas and the BSO proved more than capable, with Rivas keeping a steady, lively beat and the BSO making a clear yet luminous sound for him (after some early muddiness in the lower brass). They missed some of the over-the-top exuberance of the closing pages, but so far, so good.

Markus Groh (warning: autoplaying audio at link) joined Rivas and the BSO for Ludwig van Beethoven’s second piano concerto, whose first draft started pouring from his pen when Ludwig was a teenager. This ain’t the archetypal tortured-heroic soul Beethoven from the middle period, and both Rivas and Groh seemed unsure how to approach the unassuming first movement; it sounded prosaic rather than graceful, and nary a hint of Beethoven’s cheeky youthful humor surfaced. That is, until the cadenza, when Groh suddenly seemed to wake up and engage the music, playing with more and more intensity as it moved further and further afield. And lo, Rivas led the BSO in an appropriately intense reading of the slow movement, a little anachronistically Romantic in outlook but highly involving, with Groh taking the spur and meeting the BSO’s intensity. The finale’s skipping 6/8 rhythm gave it a little more pickup, and both Rivas and Groh seemed to enjoy letting their hair down a bit and navigating its quick twists.

In “Blumine,” a typical piece of Gustav Mahler liquor-soaked pound cake excised from his first symphony for unknown reasons, Rivas and the BSO produced a bunch of pretty noises: violins isolated above the stave sounding sweet and longing, swells and details in the winds, and of course the ever-present trumpet intoning the opening melody with gentle grace. But these sounds did not cohere into a performance of any ardor or passion; this was time-passing Mahler. (Not that I am a huge Mahler fan in any circumstance, so some redeeming aspect of this performance may have eluded me.)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s first symphony, though, showed Rivas and the BSO at the top of their game. The 18-year-old composer always liked to play provocateur, and he showed himself to be a prodigy in that right with this symphony, which has a fierce, sardonic Scherzo worthy of, well, mature Shostakovich, plus numerous grotesqueries in the melodies and wild screeches into halts that seem both gross and entirely necessary in the scheme of things. Here Rivas showed an ability to keep a potentially confusing welter of elements together and moving toward a goal, and that crisp, lively beat proved extremely helpful both in digging into the riotous finale and keeping aloft the slower melodies, particularly those played solo by associate principal cello Chang Woo Lee.

The BSO, for its part, seems especially comfortable with hard-driving modern scores where a lot is going on every second, and they gave Rivas some admirable playing. Shosti’s first isn’t a young man’s game exactly, but it was good to hear a young man’s take on it. I both greatly enjoyed this and the Brahms and look forward to hearing Rivas in the future as he gets a better handle on certain aspects of his chosen profession. He’s got a lot of time to learn.


Groh played an encore after the Beethoven concerto, announcing that it was his “wedding day” (I assume he meant anniversary, given that he was working Saturday night) and that his wife was in the audience, and proceeding to play Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 for her, kindly allowing the rest of us to listen in. This immediately made all attached males in the audience into unromantic slackers, in their mates’ eyes. We need a new Man Law #117.1: No giving life partners unrealistic ideas about what to expect when anniversaries roll around. Play your Brahms for your lady in private.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith (reviewing Thursday’s performance at Meyerhoff). Updated to add Alfred Thigpen (reviewing Saturday’s performance).

Needs More Time to Rise: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, July 17, 2010

July 19, 2010

Sirena Huang and Conrad Tao are both 15 years old. On Saturday night with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in the Music Center at Strathmore, Huang and Tao performed Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and first piano concerto, respectively. When I was 15 years old,  about the most complex thing I could do was drive terribly on my learner’s permit. So even being able to get up on stage and play with the Balmer Symphony redounds to their credit and testifies to the work Huang and Tao have put in thus far. Yet both of the concerto performances showed what these young artists will have to develop to go from being “Rising Stars” (in the BSO’s title for the concert) to being stars, period.

For its part, the BSO sounded great on Saturday, led by assistant principal violist Christian Colberg. Colberg, who also plays violin and composes in his spare time, has a very conductor-y mane of silver hair and a batonless podium style that untutored me could follow very easily; his gestures expressed enthusiasm for the cool parts of the scores, and the BSO responded with equally excited playing.

In the concert-opening “Capriccio italien,” the BSO’s opening horn fanfares glowed like the dawn, while the strings shaped their melodies with the kind of dusky, display-oriented passion called for by the score. It was just the work for a conductor who knows exactly what the orchestra can provide, and Colberg brought out its strengths. Hearing Colberg lead the BSO through an entire program of colorful, lush pieces (Rimsky-Korsakov, Resphigi, Dvorák?) would likely be a lot of fun.

I realize Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is universally accepted as a Best-Loved Classic, but for me the first movement goes on freaking forever with endless repetitions of two main themes that don’t bear the extended scrutiny. A violinist working through such longeurs needs to be able to make the theme fresh every time it’s heard, through different phrasing, tricks of tone color, varying the intensity of the rhythm, or something. Huang seemed to trust Tchaikovsky’s two-track mind too much for my taste, producing undifferentiated takes on the melody as it spooled out again and again and again. She took a cool, matter-of-fact approach to the Canzonetta second movement, missing some of its hushed intensity. The high-energy rondo finale perked her back up, but here technical struggles came to the fore; throughout the concerto, she had trouble hitting the high harmonics Tchaikovsky often demands at climaxes, and though she continually looked to Colberg to keep tempos synched, she and the BSO often diverged slightly.

After intermission, from the first notes crashing up the keyboard, the main problem with Tao’s performance of the first piano concerto was obvious: He had a lot of trouble getting a nice sound out of Strathmore’s Steinway. Tao’s fingers frequently made the piano clang in fortissimos and plunk ungracefully like a music box at the top of the keyboard. (I will note that it was stiflingly humid on Saturday, as it has seemingly been every other day this summer, which can’t have done much for the piano.) Like Huang, he showed little sensitivity to color, and he rarely brought more to the poetic passages than was in the score. Tao got through this extremely difficult opus without any major calamites befalling him, but rarely did the performance go beyond that.

As noted, the BSO packaged this as a “Rising Stars” concert. While the classical music world’s fascination with young people who can play creditably knows no bounds, I submit that it might be more interesting to hear, in a “Rising Stars” concert, talented adults who have somehow been bypassed by the classical star-making apparatus — perhaps someone too unconventional for most orchestras, perhaps someone who just matured late. Doubtless, Huang and Tao each have many good Tchaikovsky concerti in them, but on the basis of Saturday’s concert, they need to think about how best to present those works for a few more years.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.

Triple Players: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, April 15, 2010

April 16, 2010

Occasionally, I complain that orchestras do not program with a coherent theme in mind for the works they perform in a concert. After having attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance under guest conductor Juanjo Mena at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night, I realized that the somewhat incoherent-seeming program actually explores the theme of Works With Open, Ambiguous Harmonies Developed and Resolved in Interesting Ways. Advertising such a theme to the public would daunt even the most stalwart public-relations guru, but under Mena’s baton the connecting thread emerged plain as day. And, just as I always hope, hearing these three works together gave a new dimension to the whole concert — especially given the outstanding performances of each of the works themselves.

Ottorino Resphigi’s third suite of transcriptions of Ancient Airs and Dances (or, as he likes to number it in Ye Olde Style, “No. III”) begins with a sweet, gentle string-orchestra rendition of an anonymous 16th-century lute piece — not your normal orchestral showcase, but the BSO strings under Mena played with such effortless delicacy and made such gorgeous shades of tone-color that it sure sounded like one. The viola section had the most arresting moment with its melodic statement at the beginning and end of the second movement, so dark and burnished it seemed to be hiding some secret ardor beneath its own surface. Yet the strings played with bite when called for as well, notably in the broad multiple-stopped chords of the fourth movement Passacaglia.

You may remember Joaquín Rodrigo from the Concierto de Aranjuez, by far his most popular work, and if you like that one, you’ll probably like Concierto de Estió, for violin and orchestra, for which BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney took on soloist duties on Thursday. Like the one straight outta Aranjuez, the one from Estió features light scoring for an orchestra that mostly stays out of the soloist’s way, either playing a main theme underneath virtuoso figurations, accompanying a solo exposition of the main theme, or simply giving the soloist a breather. This last proves especially crucial in the Concierto de Estió, whose solo part in the outer movement demands skein after skein of highly rhythmic, fast notes to be projected over the orchestra; Rodrigo gives just enough breaks to avoid a worker’s comp claim from the violin soloist. All this bustle ultimately left a kinetic impression, rather than a melodic one (there is a reason why Aranjuez is more popular). However, Carney seems to best serve music that requires some swagger, and those movements sure do depend on the soloist’s ability to saw it out with style.

Like Aranjuez, the Concierto de Estió hit its emotional highs in its slow movement, and here Carney wore his heart on his sleeve in deft variations on a dark, graceful Siciliana theme, even as he continued his swaggerific domination of the musical soundscape. Mena admirably managed the accompaniment, gauging it to Carney’s sound and the liveness of the hall, helping create an aching climax before Carney’s big cadenza, in which Rodrigo proves he just can’t resist a pointless idea by forcing together the theme of the first movement and the Siciliana. Still, for all my reservations, I enjoyed making the acquaintance of this concierto, particularly in this performance.

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” followed intermission. (OK, let’s step back: Even without the theme I discovered, doesn’t this sound like a cool program? Three 20th-century works, written by composers whose music was characteristic of their respective national origins? Maybe it’s just me, although the Music Center was surprisingly full on Thursday.) The through-composed work allowed Mena the opportunity to explore a larger landscape full of incident that develops into an abstract plot as the work progresses: the victory of the titularly inextinguishable E major over a murky, dangerous-sounding D minor.

Mena’s reading didn’t emphasize the structure, preferring to vividly characterize each passing moment, a strategy that succeeded thanks to Mena’s previously mentioned ear for color and the fine-grained, sensitive playing the BSO provided under his direction. Occasionally I felt that Mena could have pulled back a little and let the music blossom organically, but no one could complain about the spine-tingling quiet strings that led us from the first movement to the second, or the aggressive twists and turns in the finale, complete with overwhelming power from the Battlin’ Tritone Timpanists that propel this work’s closing moments.

The concert repeats Saturday and Sunday, and it’s worth the trip for anyone with the slightest curiosity about the three underexposed works on this program, ’cause you ain’t gonna hear them played much better than this anywhere.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith.

Quickie: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010

As always, when repeats of a concert are imminent and bedtime does not allow me to post a full review the same evening, I am providing a foretaste of the review to come for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert under guest conductor Juanjo Mena on Thursday (i.e., today, as this will be posted). It was great! More specifically, the BSO played extremely well for Mena, whose ear for color and feel for the dramatic aspects of musical structure helped him find common threads in a mixed program of lesser-heard works: Resphigi’s third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances, Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de estiô for violin, and Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. Throw in the bonus of BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney having a great time playing solo in the  Rodrigo, and you’ve got yourself a concert well worthy of attendance, at the Meyerhoff on Saturday or Sunday.

But you should still come back and read the full review, as it will have witticisms and stuff.

Making It New: Robert Levin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Music Center at Strathmore, February 27, 2010

March 1, 2010

How do you get people excited about hearing works they’ve already heard dozens of times? Tell people you’re not going to play those works like you normally do. Heck, even take some risks — make something up on the spot. It’ll draw a crowd, for the same reason that the high-wire act draws a crowd while watching cars drive over a bridge remains a lackluster spectator sport. (And people did indeed pack the houses where Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven improvised, those flights of fancy now surviving only in contemporary accounts of the blown minds left in their wake.)

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought in guest conductor Nicholas McGegan and pianist Robert Levin to flip the script, calling the program “Beethoven & Mozart With a Twist.”

Other pianists approach a performance as a perfectible endeavor, hewing closer and closer to an inviolable score; Levin approaches his performances first as creative endeavors, getting into the spirit of the music by improvising in and around it, as his forbears did. Levin made his name in period performance, but on Saturday night in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, he used a Steinway to whip up a spirit that felt Beethovenian to these modern ears.

Levin noodled along with the orchestral tutti parts in the same manner Beethoven is reported to have done, playing the bassline like a classical-period continuo or underscoring a forte unison with a little pounding. He threw in some tasteful ornamentation, giving passagework a little extra spice. He improvised his own cadenzas in the first and third movements, taking enough risks in the latter to run off the rails with some overpercussive keyboard-storming and then regaining his balance with quiet noodling on a tiny little figure to lead into the tutti. He was more surefooted in the first-movement cadenza, whipping together an effective blend of the movement’s principal motives in stormy Beethovenian style, but the fact that he was willing to take enough risks to screw up the third-movement solo separates him from almost every other classical performer out there.

Of course, Levin commands more conventional pianistic virtues too. He and McGegan adopted quick tempos, with the Rondo finale just this side of breathless in its exuberance, yet kept a head-nodding lilt in the main melody. Even while speeding along, Levin’s articulation of Beethoven’s virtuoso figurations (and his own additions) remained clean and bright. He spun out some lovely melodic playing in the slow movement, at times looking directly at principal clarinet Steven Barta as they traded melodic phrases, not relying on McGegan to mediate. Levin threw in a touch of rubato at times, caressing the melodic contour without manhandling it. Levin has the chops to do a compelling conventional performance of Beethoven 1, but he also wants to take it someplace new each time he plays, and more power to him for that — it’s what made me excited about attending this concert.

Levin’s love for risk-taking manifested itself most strongly in his improvisations in the style of Beethoven, based on some rather boring themes suggested by Saturday’s audience. (To be fair, Beethoven set that bar pretty high.) Though he couldn’t make a silk purse out of those four sow’s ears, Levin showed his Beethovenian chops here too, fleshing them out with flashy rhetoric and some surprising transformations. The willingness to try something and potentially fall flat made for a tension and excitement you just don’t feel at many symphonic concerts.

McGegan contributed to the twisting of Beethoven and Mozart by getting the Balmer Symphony to play with minimal vibrato and a smaller, more clear sound than usual, a period-performance style on modern instruments. The leaner BSO still produced enough volume to fill the Music Center, especially in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, which closed the program. McGegan’s fast tempos hustled the Mozart forward without robbing it of the grandeur this symphony’s nickname suggests. (The strings did occasionally have trouble keeping up in the faster passagework.) The slow-movement melody still sighed with poignant rests, even if the silences were a little shorter than usual; the minuet, at a tempo fast enough to (theoretically) dance to, sounded like music of the spheres in the “Blue Danube”/”2001″ mold.  The clarity of the BSO’s sound made the finale’s counterpoint extra thrilling; what normally sounds like warm bustling in modern-instrument performances here revealed the myriad gears that power this irresistible locomotive. My only regret is that McGegan did not take the repeat of the finale’s development and recapitulation, which (when taken) allows the audience to nearly double its listening pleasure in the last movement.

I admit that hearing Levin and McGegan take on ultra-familiar classix made their efforts at defamiliarizing more dramatic. Still, given all the unconventionality in the rest of the concert, you’d think the BSO could have programmed some curtain-raiser besides the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which MeGegan secured vigorous rhythmic playing but not the ensemble string articulation needed to make the overture sizzle. I can’t imagine that anyone decided to come to this concert because this overture was on the program; why not try an overture to a different Mozart opera? Or an overture by a different classical-period composer? Perhaps that would have been a risk too far, but in context, it would have been fitting to take it.


This may be a good time to note that Levin was the piano soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic when I saw them in Berlin. I was 15, and the concert remains lodged in my memory as the best one I’ve ever heard. I kept a travel diary in which I discussed this concert (among the other highlights of my family’s Berlin trip), and at some point I thought I was going to quote extensively from that diary, but it appears I am too embarrassed by my youthful ignorance and stylistic infelicities to do that. Still, this quote continues to apply 17 years later:

I have never heard anyone have that much fun with a piece. “Fun,” though, has too many connotations; how about “He was the quintessence of the direction con brio“?

Yes, writing improves with practice, but memories like that get better with age.

Other People’s Perspectives on Thursday’s performance of this program: Anne Midgettte, Tim Smith.

Solid-Gold Carmen Hits: The National Philharmonic at Strathmore, Saturday, January 9, 2010

January 11, 2010

Mezzo Kendall Gladen single-handedly elevated the National Philharmonic‘s concert performance of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night from pleasant to compelling by playing the title character with her entire body. She commanded the stage physically, standing almost as tall as both her suitors, Daniel Snyder as the officer Don José and Dean Elzinga as the toreador Escamillo, and moving with force, confidence, and purpose at every moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, Gladen is pretty hot as well, and she embodied opera’s most celebrated seductress with flashing eyes, swiveling hips, languorous lounging, and a couple moments when her dress seemed about to malfunction in an attention-grabbing manner.

Happily, Gladen can really sing the part too, with a voice that rises to a clear top, falls to a thrillingly husky low register, and moves lithely in between. Occasionally, she dropped a note or lagged behind the orchestra in a diva moment, but she made lovely noises the whole time, and any temporary slip of control contributed to the overall conception of her character, as deep as it was.

For this was, as noted, a concert performance, and furthermore one that featured only the biggest “Carmen” hits, with Strathmore’s president and CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl providing narration to connect the story’s dots. (The intro text he read referred to presenting only the “best of the best” and described recitatives as making an opera “last until the wee hours of the morning,” which seemed overstatements of the case.) The selections highlighted only the broadest motivations of the characters: Carmen the sexpot, Don José the wavering weakling, Micaëla the innocent peasant, etc., allowing for little subtlety in characterization. It also had the effect of getting the audience in and out in a little under two-and-a-half hours, which I must admit has some appeal for me, even on a Saturday night. (I am getting older, and lamer, every day.)

The stage direction of Chia Patiño helped make the Carmen All-Stars (the Habanera, the Seguidilla, the Flower Song, et al.) as big and compelling as they could possibly be. Patiño, whose other work I have really enjoyed (1, 2), did a whole lot with just some generic costumes (Gladen in flattering dresses, Don Jose in formalwear when with his regiment, etc.), a strip of stage at the front, and some risers onto which the characters could climb (or lounge, in Carmen’s case). Though Gladen, appropriately, had the most arresting moves on Saturday (particularly in the Gypsy Song, where she was shaking it like a Polaroid picture), Snyder wandered around and turned about to emphasize Don José’s indecision, Theresa Santiago moved slowly to make Micaëla’s pleas more plaintive, and Elzinga stood ramrod-straight to make him an object around which the endlessly flittering Carmen could orbit. The interlude in which Carmen sang for Don José was (again, not to put too fine a point on it) damn sexy, making it a shock when the Don heeds the call to return to his precious regiment, with Gladen pouring on some remarkably vivid scorn. (The lack of supertitles did not in any way prevent Gladen from being in constant communication with the audience.)

No one else quite matched the vividness of Gladen’s singing on Saturday either. Still, Snyder has a fine voice and spun out his lines with style, while Santiago ably embodied her character with her pure soprano; both shone brightest in their Act I duet, “Parle-moi de ma mère,” their last renewal of tenderness before the Carmen explosion. Elzinga sounded a little strained at times but belted out “Toreador” with panache, and baritone James Shaffran did solid work took a couple minor characters.

The Nat Phil’s music director Piotr Gajewski kept it all running smoothly, shaping these well-known tunes with few surprises but with affectionate sensitivity. He got a typical pretty-good performance from his orchestra, with occasional lapses in ensemble balanced with moments of eloquence, particularly among the winds. The Nat Phil Chorale was weaker, frequently drowned out by the orchestra and singing without much body or precision when it wasn’t.

Still, one has to be grateful to the National Philharmonic for giving us Gladen; she’s done Carmen a bunch of other places, but not D.C. until Saturday night (as best I can tell). If someone wants to put Gladen in a full-scale production ’round these parts, I’d sure go see it, particularly if Patiño directed. I’d even sit through all those pesky recitatives!


“Joe, you just gotta love the adjustments these guys made at halftime, to really pull back on the percussion when they realized it’s just not going to work in this hall, this hall is too live for them to play the percussion like that. Those percussionists have a lot of heart and they want to contribute to the team, and they went out there and played more soft so the balance of the team could be better. And Joe, you just gotta love how those guys want to play as a team and really work to make this performance successful. Joe.”


I need to get this out there. I am from Silver Spring, which is in Montgomery County. I am proud of this. The National Philharmonic is a local-level orchestra located in Montgomery County, but rather than take a name reflecting that fact (like the Annapolis Symphony, or the Arlington Symphony, or the Prince George’s Philharmonic), they have for some reason chosen a name reflecting an ambition that is beyond their grasp. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a fine local orchestra, as the Nat Phil is, and even less wrong with being from Montgomery County. Call it the Montgomery Symphony and rep where you’re from.

O.P.P.: Joe Banno for the Post. Mr. Banno knows a lot more about opera than I do.

Sizzling: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, December 10, 2009

December 12, 2009

You might be excused for being a little skeptical about the potential artistic and entertainment value of “Too Hot to Handel,” which brings the indelible melodies of “The Messiah” into the realm of black vernacular music, when you see advertisements like this:

Handel wearing sunglasses

A grabby image, but also emblematic of many of these ventures: A patina of soul sitting uneasily atop an essentially unchanged base of classical, the latter sounding all the more dusty for the contrast. But “Too Hot to Handel,” conceived by the mind of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and born of arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, gets into the bones of “The Messiah.” In line with current scholarship, Christianson and Anderson found plenty of room for solo showoffs, imaginative harmonic recasting, and on-the-spot inspiration. The resulting work sits in the sweet spot of sacred inspiration where Baroque and gospel intersect, with tinges of jazz, blues, and funk on the side.

On Thursday night, Alsop brought the Baltimore Symphony together with the Baltimore City College High School Choir and with pop musicians skilled enough to find that sweet spot as well, and they tore the roof off the Music Center at Strathmore. To every valley should this performance be exalted.

How did Christianson and Anderson marry these styles so convincingly? A hint came in the opening Sinfonia, when the original instrumentation dropped out after the opening flourishes — drummer Clint de Ganon began spanking out a hard backbeat over which the BSO’s brass section unfurled the fugue in swaggering fashion. Though the counterpoint remained pointed, the music focused more on rhythm and how melody played within and against it. The other clear sign came next, in “Comfort ye my people,” where tenor/Broadway veteran Lawrence Clayton sang in true gospel fashion, with freedom to embellish and extend at his whim: The arias in “Too Hot to Handel” belong to the soloists, as they would have in Handel’s day, where vocal superstars drew crowds and operas and oratorios served to some extent as canvases upon which they could make their improvisational mark.

If you make the recitatives and arias into star vehicles, it helps to have stars who can drive them hard, and Clayton certainly did; he gave a rousing swing to “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” and, in “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” turned “Surely” from a throwaway assurance into a mantra with his increasingly fevered repetitions. Yet he was joined by equally fine ladies of song. Mezzo-soprano Vaneese Thomas (daughter of Rufus Thomas!) gave me goosebumps with her throaty low note, daringly extended and whipped into a passion, at the end of  the phrase “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.” Cynthia Renée Saffron took her goosebump-giving turn with her ecstasy over the words “Wonderful, Counselor” in “For unto us a child is born,” and her turn on a bebop-style arrangement of “Rejoice greatly” had a rhythmic sharpness and command that made the already-swinging melody feel almost dangerously exuberant.

The only weaker numbers smoothed out edges in the original; making “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” into a midtempo ballad removed the preinstalled Handelian swing for no obvious reason, and “But who may abide,” in a similar reconfiguration, lacked a scouring edge, though Thomas made it fairly convincing anyway. Mezzo Kimberly Michaels, who made her BSO debut Thursday after impressing at an open audition, had a little trouble opening up the melodic line at the beginning of “He shall feed his flock,” but that only made it all the more satisfying when she really got cooking at the end.

In the regular “Messiah,” Handel’s counterpoint makes his choruses lift off; in Christianson and Anderson’s hands, an equivalent lift comes from gospel rhythms, which sound perfectly natural when allied to these Biblical texts, and especially when sung by the Baltimore City College High School Choir. They made a warm, clear sound that reached to the rafters in “Glory to God,” but they also could sound incisive and tough; they made you hear the meaning behind the words “an offering of righteousness” in “And he shall purify,” and “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him” had all the sternness it needed.

Emboldened by the addition of a jazz quartet, Christianson and Anderson added some material to show it off; pianist Clifford Carter got to noodle out an evocative solo before “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” establishing the miraculous mood, and Christianson himself laid down some rich, moody solos on his Hammond B3 organ when not playing a traditional continuo role with alert bassist Mike Pope. Alsop ensured that everyone else sounded equally spontaneous while keeping things together and moving; the vocalists showed awareness of how many bars they had to work with, but Alsop encouraged them to keep going when they found something good. (The only complaint about how it all fit together is that the strings were so low in the mix as to be intermittently inaudible, a problem worsened by Strathmore’s super-live acoustics.)

And because Christianson and Anderson simply skipped Part 3, as everyone who has ever sat through the complete Messiah in the concert hall has thought about doing at some point, we ended with the almost universally agreed-upon climax, your favorite and mine, ladies and gentlemen: the Hallelujah Chorus. With the City College high schoolers singing out and swinging hard, the soloists moved to even more impressive feats of melisma than before, and the jazz combo cooking alongside the Baltimoreans under Alsop’s baton, it no longer mattered where this music came from: It was, as Trendy Sunglasses Handel would doubtless tell us, where it’s at.


Cynthia Renée Saffron is good-looking.

Best name from the Balmer City College high schoolers: Imhotep McClain.


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