Saturday, May 12, 2007

'Siegfried' Act 3 at U-Md.

There's a passage in Act 3 of Wagner's opera "Siegfried" in which the violins play a cruelly exposed sequence of long-held, stratospherically high notes that would test the mettle of the finest string section. But in a complete performance of the opera's final act at the Clarice Smith Center on Thursday, the students of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra nailed that passage with laser-focused intonation and an intensity that bordered on the febrile -- and were answered moments later with gorgeously burnished tone from the lower brass.

Under the sensitive and splendidly idiomatic guidance of conductor James Ross, the orchestra met challenge after challenge in this punishing, restlessly virtuosic score. There were, to be sure, patches of less-than-unanimous ensemble and emotionally charged phrases that emerged as merely literal. But to hold these college musicians to the standards of Europe's greatest philharmonics would be to underplay their astonishing achievement.

The composer was no kinder to his singers, handing the hero, Siegfried, and the warrior-maiden, Brunnhilde, some unconscionably strenuous singing at the end of a five-hour opera. But tenor David Smith and soprano Rebecca Teem had only Act 3 to contend with, and they knocked it out of the park. When did we last hear a Siegfried voice such as Smith's, with such a blend of warmth, baritonal solidity and sweetly ringing high notes? Teem matched him in the roundedness of her sound, and if she displayed a steelier edge in her upper register, it came with a lustrous glow and cannonlike force.

In the acting department, though, this poker-faced power couple proved less compelling. With Smith's head buried in his score and Teem's arms thrusting in halfhearted gestures, they rendered the rapture of the score amusingly incongruous. Mezzo Jennifer Roderer (as Erda) and baritone Jason Stearns (as Wotan) proved more complete performers. Roderer was able to convey a sense of Erda's dignity and world-weariness alongside a voice of low-end punch and gleaming projection. And Stearns showed himself a true creature of the stage, using his hefty mahogany timbre and confident delivery to engage and delineate character.

The singers come from the Wagner Society of Washington's artist-development project, the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program. The program is still experimenting with formats for its annual concerts -- an attempt at theatrical projections proved distracting, and a stage platform behind the orchestra was not acoustically helpful. But the program has made tremendous strides since the days when budding Wagnerians had to cluster around a piano in a makeshift embassy space.

-- Joe Banno

Ben Gibbard

There was no pressure when Ben Gibbard took the stage for the first of two sold-out performances Thursday night at the 9:30 club. The frontman of indie-rock romanticists Death Cab for Cutie (and also one-half of electro-pop darlings the Postal Service) was in town on a rare solo tour, and he took full advantage of the circumstances.

With no album to support and playing in front of mostly die-hard fans, Gibbard ran through a charming set that included a healthy dose of hits, rarities, covers and ruminations on reality TV.

The bespectacled, unassuming Gibbard performed alone on acoustic guitar, save for a few songs spent hunched over a piano. This stripped-down approach proved no hindrance for someone who gets by on his vocal melodies and wistful lyrics.

Audience members whispered along, careful not to overwhelm Gibbard's vocals, such as on the Postal Service hit "Such Great Heights" (technically an Iron & Wine cover). Deep catalogue cuts such as "Farmer Chords" and "Couches and Alleys" were also met with an enthusiasm that seemed to surprise even Gibbard.

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