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PERFORMING ARTS

Saturday, February 17, 2007

'Beowulf'

Intrepid fans of 10th-century Anglo-Saxon verse braved Nordic temperatures Thursday night and nearly filled the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium for an astounding recitation/performance of "Beowulf" by Benjamin Bagby. This unique artist is a medieval music scholar who teaches at the Sorbonne and founded the early music ensemble Sequentia. Over 15 years, he managed to memorize a full third of the epic in the original Anglo-Saxon, and now tours with it, delivering a viscerally dramatic performance in the ancient tradition of a "scop" (a bardic storyteller), at times breaking into song. He accompanied himself on a six-string lyre, reproduced from a 7th-century artifact.

With a translation projected directly behind him and a few spare lighting effects, a seated Bagby held his audience spellbound for 75 uninterrupted minutes with just his voice, face and a few gestures with one arm. He keened, growled, sang and emoted, all within the poem's precise metrics, constantly changing tone, pacing and character. The drunken challenge of Unferth was particularly droll, and the bloody combat with the monster Grendel was a tour de force.

An accomplishment of such magnitude and this specialized is not only unique, it is uncritiquable (I would just timidly note that "steel," as it appeared in the translation, hadn't been invented when the poem was written). This has been Bagby's lifework -- with a support system of scholars, linguists and coaches -- and those of us fortunate enough to experience it can only feel gratitude and awe at his achievement. The program mentioned that a DVD is available (at http://www.bagbybeowulf.com).

-- Robert Battey

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

With its program "La Mer and Le Corsaire" ("The Sea and the Pirate"), the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra endeavored to address subjects and sentiments beyond the typical maritime story. As it set out Thursday to perform Wagner's devotional "Siegfried Idyll" and Messiaen's airborne "Oiseaux Exotiques" in addition to Debussy's "La Mer" and Berlioz's Overture to "Le Corsaire," one wishes the BSO had been dissuaded from its far-reaching pursuits.

Debussy's "La Mer" was the high point of the evening in Meyerhoff Hall. Conductor Jun Maerkl skillfully shaped the ensemble, and the musicians successfully evoked the froth of forming waves, a placid sea and even a rarely noted folk character. The BSO displayed its usual energy and sensitivity, which were missed elsewhere.

"Siegfried Idyll," a birthday gift to the composer's wife, can be seen as Wagner Light. Unfortunately, under a more metronomic Maerkl, the BSO presented an oversimplified, unsatisfying version of the work for reduced orchestra, in which a serene mood was abruptly punctuated by heavy, tortured Wagnerian moments. When featured, the first violins effectively conveyed sweet, moody earnestness, but they were largely alone in this effort.

Similarly stranded was pianist Orli Shaham, who gave an arresting performance of "Oiseaux." Here, the orchestra was unbalanced, and the overlapping birdcalls were unintelligible.

Amid three lyrical pieces, the modal, percussive Messiaen was difficult to process. Furthermore, the rehearsal time required for the work doubtlessly shortchanged the Wagner and the competent, but hurried, Berlioz. The overture, a natural opening, was an illogical ending to a confused concert.

-- Ronni Reich

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