Steven Harrison and Ermonela Jaho in the Baltimore Opera's faithful production of
Steven Harrison and Ermonela Jaho in the Baltimore Opera's faithful production of "La Boheme." (By Michael Defilipp)
Monday, May 1, 2006

'An Orchestra's Guide to the Universe'

For the University of Maryland's 150th birthday Saturday, the arts and children were celebrated resoundingly in and around the Clarice Smith Center. There were balloons everywhere, a band of drummers over by the stadium, a brass ensemble playing on the center's front patio, dancers in one of the theaters, an "instrument petting zoo" in the band room, and other enticing activities scattered about.

Dekelboum Concert Hall played host to the morning's pièce de résistance -- the premiere of "An Orchestra's Guide to the Universe," a musical theater piece for orchestra, children and video projection, written by Arthur Bloom. Performed by the university's symphony orchestra, about 90 fifth- and sixth-grade students from Berwyn Heights Elementary, African drummer Medoune Yacine Gueye and video producer Michael D. McClare, it was conducted by James Ross of the university's music faculty.

There was a loose story line in which a young girl wakes up from a doze in the middle of an orchestral performance of the overture to Mozart's "Magic Flute," commandeers the orchestra, and takes it on a trip through the universe with adventures in a black hole and the big bang along the way, returning just in time for the final cadence of the Mozart. They are accompanied on the journey by a children's chorus of "Cosmic Background Radiation" and encounter on their celestial voyage young poets who read their own poems, aspiring "Universe Idols" who sing their own songs, and a pulsar African drummer.

The orchestra got to play much of the Mozart and parts of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and Ravel's "Bolero" before decomposing into periods of chaos. And the chorus declaimed, chanted and rapped its way through facts about the history and structure of the universe.

The girl who makes all this happen, "the main kid," was Maya Taylor, who handled her role with cool poise and never missed a beat. The chorus sounded prepared and enthusiastic. Its members were expected to do quite a lot of shouting and they did this very well. Ross kept everything moving smoothly and his orchestra bounced confidently from one idiom to another.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Baltimore Opera: 'La Boheme'

For those who have yet to see Puccini's "La Boheme," it's well worth a trip to the Lyric Opera House, where the Baltimore Opera Company's moving and faithful production is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the ears. Saturday night everything onstage, from the Parisian scenery and sets to the colorful costumes and lighting, reflected the libretto with elegance. Binding it all together was Puccini's score, lovingly brought to life by conductor Andrea Licata through a solid cast and robust orchestra.

As Rodolfo, tenor Steven Harrison sang with a natural sense of romance. His nimble voice, sweet and golden, fit the role well. Ermonela Jaho's shapely soprano made a success of Mimi in the expressive arias, where it hovered effortlessly on dulcet notes. Her command of phrasing gave Licata much freedom to extend or curtail the music as he saw fit.

Jeffrey Kneebone's portrayal of the painter Marcello was appealing, his baritone assured in sound and character. Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, on the other hand, turned the flirt Musetta into a caricature, singing with a jeweled tone of singular hue. Bass Christian Van Horn's rich rendition of "Vecchia zimarra" was among the production's finest arias.

In the first two acts, the orchestra had a tendency to tower over the core performers, though the chorus, as bustling townspeople, proved a fine match. The instrumentalists played sensitively and with emotional power, especially in the final two acts.

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