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An opener for Community Concerts, a preview for Lyric Opera

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

11:39 AM EDT, September 25, 2013

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Community Concerts at Second, which offers a remarkable range of free and substantial programs each year, drew a big house for the opening of its 27th season Sunday afternoon showcasing the Aspen String Trio, plus one.

On the first half of the bill, the Aspen players delivered a finely articulated, expressively shaped account of Beethoven's String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2.  The dark lyricism of the Andante, which gives a hint of where the composer would be heading a few years later, emerged with particular effectiveness. (All three trios of Op. 9 will be performed by the ensemble on Oct. 8 at the University of Baltimore.)

Martinu's spicy/sweet Trio No. 2 was delivered with a good deal of flair, aided by violinist David Perry's vibrant phrasing.

The string players were joined by pianist Boris Slutsky for a passionate performance of Dvorak's Piano Quartet No. 2.

Although Perry's tone frayed in heated passages, he again proved a vivid presence. Michael Mermagen's cello sang out beautifully in the Lento, and Victoria Chiang ensured that the viola lines emerged warmly throughout the piece. For his part, Slutsky offered pristine technique and communicative phrasing.

At the gentlest moments in the score, subtler dynamic levels would have been welcome from all of the musicians, but the intensity and spontaneity they generated carried the day.

On Sunday evening, Lyric Opera Baltimore presented a free preview of the 2013-14 season before a small, but appreciative, crowd.

Company artistic director James Harp was the enthusiastic host ("Don't you just love opera?") and the fine piano accompanist in excerpts from Verdi's "Nabucco," Puccini's "Tosca," and an assortment of French operas. The singers included some who will be featured during the season, along with new and longtime friends of the company.

The program's peak was reached when soprano Francesca Mondanaro served up Abagaille's music from "Nabucco"  -- she will sing that role with the company in a production this spring.

Mondanaro has a startling voice; at full-throttle, the impact is extraordinary. It's not the most even instrument, nor the most beautiful. But there is terrific color and flair, from gutsy low notes to pretty exciting highs. This singer is likely to make the "Nabucco" staging awfully interesting.

Jill Gardner, who will have the title role in Lyric Opera's "Tosca" in November, left a less promising impression. Her phrasing in selections from that opera had expressive spark, but intonation wasn't always sure (she landed well short of the mark at the climactic point in "Vissi d'arte").

Gardner was joined in the Act 1 duet by tenor (and former pro football player) Ta'u Pupu'a, who kicked off the concert with "Recondita armonia." He wasn't always spot-on with intonation, and he favored one all-out volume, but the passion in his delivery proved effective.  

In the evening's sampling of a French opera concert that will be given in April, soprano Colleen Daly gave a shimmering account of "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's "Louise"; Yu Li tenor gave notice of a very promising tenor voice with his elegant, vibrant-toned performance of "Ah! leve-toi soleil" from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette"; and violinist Nicholas Curry acquitted himself well in the Meditation from Massenet's "Thais."

Elsewhere on the bill, Timothy Mix did not summon quite enough tonal beefiness for "Tosca" and "Nabucco" items, but he shaped the music stylishly. Same for Oren Gradus in a passage from the Verdi work.

An especially appealing portion of Sunday's event turned out to be the preview for Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," which Peabody Opera will produce in November as part of the Lyric season.

There was only a brief excerpt of "Dialogues," but enough to whet the appetite. And, eloquently accompanied by pianist Celeste Johnson, Alexandra Razskazoff and baritone Fitzgerald St. Louis brought a good deal of nuance to a couple of songs that revealed Poulenc's distinctive, affecting lyricism.