Monday, July 14, 2008

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Fascinating intersections between highbrow and lowbrow music have surprised listeners for centuries; Bach, for instance, wove a catchy pop melody into his "St. Matthew Passion."

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concocted a potent little high-low mixture itself Friday at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and BSO string players presented eight seasons, interweaving Vivaldi's venerable "Four Seasons" with the tango-infused "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" by Astor Piazzolla.

Piazzolla's music itself is a hybrid, blending lowbrow tango (rooted in Buenos Aires's seedy suburbs) with highbrow splashes of Bartók and Stravinsky, transforming Argentina's traditional dance into something dressed for the concert hall.

Since his death in 1992, Piazzolla's revamped tango has caught fire with both jazz players and hard-core classical musicians -- and, apparently, music lovers in Baltimore. They cheered wildly for violinist Carney, whose energetic, elegant playing was showcased all evening.

Beginning with "Spring," Carney and company alternated between Vivaldi's colorful concertos and Piazzolla's steamy tangos, brilliantly arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov.

The Vivaldi was solidly yet politely played. "The Four Seasons" contains ferociously evocative music, and a more risk-taking performance would have made the connection to Piazzolla's "Seasons" (which contains Vivaldi quotations) even stronger.

Yet there was much to delight in: big moments, when Carney's lightning-bolt runs capped off the storm in Vivaldi's "Summer," and subtle scenes such as the harpsichord delicately tiptoeing through dreamy, muted strings in "Autumn's" portrait of snoozing drunkards.

Carney and his players seemed more energized each time they switched to Piazzolla. "Autumn," with its smoldering melancholy, showed the ensemble at its best, from the percussive scraping sounds and whiplash sliding notes to cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn's luscious solo and Carney's catalogue of violin special effects.

-- Tom Huizenga

National Symphony Orchestra

There were moments in Kiri Te Kanawa's concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap on Friday when the soprano sounded miraculously like her younger self -- her gorgeously floated pianissimos in Strauss's song "Morgen," for instance, or the soaring lines of the aria "Donde lieta usci" from Puccini's "La Bohème," which were made to blossom with ever more refulgent tone as the piece progressed.

But the sad truth is that age is no friend to sopranos. At 64, Te Kanawa must maneuver her voice with great care to approximate the sound we remember from her storied past. Some of the shimmering texture is intact, as are glimmers of her uniquely honeyed timbre. But the voice is more forwardly placed now, the tone more spread. Her once purring lower register barely registers at all, and the creaminess and glow in her high notes have been replaced by a more pinched and ordinary sound.

But her artistry remains intact. As cautiously as she navigated songs by Strauss and Canteloube, her phrasing was unfailingly apt and idiomatic. In arias from the operas "Adriana Lecouvreur" and "Die Tote Stadt" -- which best suited her current vocal estate -- her voice hinted at its past warmth and expansiveness. And, as always, she looked like a million bucks.

Conductor Emil de Cou partnered her with sensitivity, and drew breezy readings from the NSO of "pops" bonbons by Strauss, Auber, Meyerbeer and Ponchielli.

-- Joe Banno


Can opera really be in danger when small companies and improbable ventures are performing it on a shoestring in small theaters and church sanctuaries? The American Center for Puccini Studies presented a low-budget concert version of Puccini's "Tosca" on Saturday night at Rockville Christian Church. The project included the recitation, on the previous evening, of a new translation of the Sardou play that was Puccini's source for the opera.

Soprano Kay Krekow, who is director of music at the church as well as one of the directors of ACPS, brought a puissant, dark voice to the title role. Cavaradossi's high notes were beyond the company's founder, tenor and musicologist Harry Dunstan. And the best vocal work of the evening came from baritone Bryan Jackson, who was a snarling Scarpia, wavering only at his highest note.

Another laudable goal of this company is to give young people the chance to sing opera. Of several heard in the chorus and in minor roles, recent high school graduate Keith Schwartz had a promising voice as Angelotti, a good basis for the further study he plans in the fall. The evening was accompanied by harsh-edged piano, but with clever use of the church organ in the Act 1 procession and some hand bells as the Act 3 church bells.

-- Charles T. Downey

Con Brio!

Friday night in Georgetown, several players from President Bush's house band, the Marine Chamber Orchestra, had a chance to be soloists instead of scenery. Led by flutist Shaughn Dowd, the Con Brio! ensemble presented a remarkable program of baroque music, the fourth of five performances at Grace Church's 15th annual Bach Festival.

These eight musicians proved consummate professionals, able to perform unfamiliar music as a unified ensemble. Dowd and her colleagues played two Bach sonatas, plus a few more obscure works written around 1750, most notably a striking sonata for two violins and continuo by Johann Joachim Quantz. Kim Miller, a recently retired orchestra concertmaster, and Erika Sato, a current member, deftly negotiated close, post-Bach harmonies that occasionally diverged into counterpoint. Lawrence Molinaro provided sensitive accompaniment on harpsichord, plus entertained the crowd with a calliope-like organ sonata by Bach's son C.P.E. Bach.

The concert concluded with another work by the younger Bach: the Concerto in D Minor for Flute, Strings and Harpsichord. The string players, who used modern instruments and bows, maintained consistent tone, vibrato and shifts in dynamics -- quite a feat for an ad hoc ensemble. Dowd soloed with sincerity and poise, recovering nicely from a shaky sonata that opened the concert.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel

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