Monday, May 8, 2006

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Rearrange "diva," which literally means "goddess," and you get "vida," Spanish for "life" -- and prima donnas certainly bring operas to life. But "diva" is also an anagram of "avid," and the Baltimore Symphony's "Lure of the Diva" program was less avid and alluring than it could have been.

Mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer rose to the occasion at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night. She was riveting in "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila" and the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's "Carmen." But "Carmen's" final scene, with tenor Roger Honeywell an intense Don Jose, lurched into silliness, with Beer throwing a nonexistent ring before Honeywell stabbed her with an imaginary knife.

Soprano Emily Pulley was intermittently effective: excellent with Beer in a duet from Bellini's "Norma" and with Honeywell in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West," but only so-so in "Vissi d'arte" from "Tosca," unconvincing in "Come scoglio" from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," and often swamped by the orchestra.

Guest conductor David Alan Miller led a rousing "March of the Toreadors," but his "Cosi" overture was bloated, and the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Richard Strauss's "Salome" was a mismatch: seductive and brutal in the orchestra, but tame and decidedly unsexy as danced by Alice Wylie, who actually hid behind a chair at the music's climax.

Miller took on additional roles as genial emcee, which worked, and stand-up comedian, which didn't.

-- Mark J. Estren

Appalachia Waltz Trio

Mark O'Connor finds himself endlessly fascinating. The violinist/fiddler/composer wants to be sure the audience knows he wrote a piece for the Olympics that was heard by 3.5 billion people. His CDs are available in the lobby. He'll gladly sign them. He has a DVD, too. He runs a summer fiddle camp -- get information from his Web site. You can even download his sheet music.

An inveterate name-dropper, O'Connor regaled the audience at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday night with mentions of people he knows: Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Slatkin, Wynton Marsalis and many more.

Oh, yes: music. There was that, too. O'Connor essentially has one big idea: merging Nashville-style fiddle playing and country-music rhythms with classical forms. His Appalachia Waltz Trio, named for a piece he wrote in 1993, includes Carol Cook playing viola -- and sometimes literally second fiddle -- and Natalie Haas on cello. Both play very well but don't seem to have much fun (they rarely smile).

Buy his "Crossing Bridges" CD, said O'Connor, to hear most of what his trio played. Among the 11 selections were some real winners, including "Brave Wolfe," which took an 18th-century tune from dirge to hornpipe, and the technically demanding "Caprice for Three." But "Vistas," a nearly interminable canon with an interesting pizzicato middle section, was overblown, and two waltzes ("Appalachia" and "Misty Moonlight") barely acknowledged three-quarter time.

Most other pieces were pleasant and aurally unchallenging, befitting the background music for a two-hour infomercial.

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