Weekend in review: Jonathan Carney and Lura Johnson; Viardot's 'Cendrillon'

Over the weekend, I took in couple of outdoor performances of Shakespeare plays and a couple of indoor concerts (one of the latter might as well have been outside, too, given the temperature in the venue). As for the music, the highpoint came Sunday evening.

Just the drive to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glyndon was a treat. I always get a lift seeing the Maryland countryside, which seemed especially inviting and peaceful on that hazy, humid day. There was a full house in the church hall for the recital by violinist Jonathan Carney (concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony) and pianist Lura Johnson. This was the final event of this season’s Music in the Valley series, an enterprise that has presented notable talent for a few years at St. John's, which occupies a particularly beautiful spot of Baltimore County.

Carney offered a meat and potatoes program of Mozart and Beethoven. The Mozart item was not a sonata, as might be expected, but the Violin Concerto No. 5, with piano reduction. Carney's playing of that work featured his usual refinement of technique and instantly communicative, consistently elegant phrasing. Johnson was a solid partner in the concerto and in Beethoven’s Op. 96, which Carney delivered with considerable flair.

The 2010-11 season of Music in the Valley will include a return by Carney, appearances by the Monument Piano Trio, the Mendelssohn Trio, the Canticle Singers and organist Victor Li.

On Sunday afternoon, I made the acquaintance of

the Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, a venture spearheaded by Robyn Stevens, a singing and acting teacher. She chose an intriguing vehicle as a showcase for local singers – Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon,” a modest, intimate operetta based on the Cinderella story and first heard in Paris in 1904. Intended for a salon environment (Viardot’s score calls for only piano accompaniment), the work fit nicely into a very warm Theatre Project (there was little evidence of a/c).

This semi-staging, performed in English, had a certain let’s-put-on-a-show feeling, and the quality of the vocalism, not to mention the acting, varied widely, but there was a certain charm about the effort. And it was interesting to hear this curiosity.

Viardot, a hugely famous singer in her day, was a minor composer. Some of the oom-pah passages in “Cendrillon” sound dangerously close to the level of “The Pleasant Peasant” from “I Love Lucy.” But Viardot always has a nice melodic line or neat harmonic shift around the next corner, and her crafting of ensemble numbers reveals considerable skill. A fully professional performance may uncover more substantive qualities in the piece than this one did.

Taleesha Scott, in the title role, offered the most impressive singing, with a gleaming tone, sensitive phrasing and admirable clarity of articulation. Andrew Spady, as Prince Charming, did some, well, charming work. Michael Rainbow camped it up heartily as Count Barigoule, but his voice needed more firmness. As La Fee (the fairy-godmother character in this version), Juliana Marin phrased expressively, if without quite enough tonal smoothness in the upper reaches.

Completing the cast were Tyson Upham and Dwan Hayes as the stepsisters, Daniel Gorham as the father. Michael Angelucci was the sturdy pianist.


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