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Best on Baltimore stages in 2013

Critic's picks for standouts in theater, classical music

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

6:20 PM EST, December 20, 2013

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The arts world tends to think in terms of September-to-June seasons, rather than calendar years, but it's still fun to look back on the past 12 months and relive the performances that offered extra satisfaction.

Although I may have missed some great stuff along the way — it's pretty near impossible to catch everything packed into a given year — I experienced plenty of rewarding activity on the classical music and theater scenes.

Here are my picks for the best performing-arts events in Baltimore during 2013.

January

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: "Hairspray." With John Waters serving as narrator, you just knew this concert version of the hit musical was going to be fun. He provided fresh humor and cool insights into the show, while the BSO and a terrific cast, deftly conducted by Jack Everly, performed with contagious spirit.

Everyman Theatre: Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." The company inaugurated its handsome new venue with this juicy play about a supremely dysfunctional family. Directed by Everyman's guiding light, Vincent Lancisi, the vibrant staging showcased the fine resident ensemble, along with marvelous guest artist Linda Thorson as the manic matriarch.

Shriver Hall Concert Series: Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. This recital by one of today's most insightful and technically gifted keyboard artists included soaring Bach, incendiary Rachmaninoff and a brilliant, droll piece by Hamelin himself. Every one of the piano's 88 keys seemed to get a vivid workout.

February

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra: Oboe Concertos. The ensemble, led by Markand Thakar, welcomed the BSO's principal oboist, Katherine Needleman, who gave radiant accounts of concertos by Bach and Vaughan Williams. And on its own, the orchestra did shining work in music by the under-appreciated Ernest Bloch.

BSO: Act 1 of Wagner's "Die Walkure." Marking the Richard Wagner bicentennial, the orchestra offered a stirring hour of the composer's mammoth "Ring" Cycle. Singing by soprano Heidi Melton, tenor Brandon Jovanovich and, especially, bass-baritone Eric Owens hit the spot. BSO music director Marin Alsop was at her most dynamic, and the ensemble did some potent playing.

Shriver Hall Concert Series: Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, pianist Yefim Bronfman. Two major international stars on a single bill yielded superb results in an unusual recital of songs by Mussorgsky, Bartok, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Marc-Andre Dalbavie. Richly communicative at every turn.

Pro Musica Rara: "The Musical Offering." An intriguing look at connections between Bach and Frederick the Great culminated with Bach's complex "Musical Offering," based on a theme attributed to the monarch. Cellist Allen Whear, the ensemble's artistic director, provided exemplary commentary on the music; he and his colleagues communicated its contrapuntal richness warmly.

March

BSO: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 ("The Year 1905"). In his BSO debut, conductor Dima Slobodeniouk tore up the place with a penetrating account of this evocative, disturbing piece, and he got the most soul-shaking playing out of the orchestra since its best days with former music director Yuri Temirkanov.

Hippodrome: Matthew Lombardo's "Looped." This lightweight play finds the divine, ever-so-slightly difficult Tallulah Bankhead trying to do post-production work on the 1965 movie "Die! Die! My Darling!" Veteran actress Stefanie Powers, who actually costarred with Bankhead in that movie, had a field day impersonating her, and also tapped into the complex woman beneath all the gravel-voiced "Dah-lings."

April

Peabody Conservatory: "Defiant Requiem." This shattering multimedia production created by Baltimore-born conductor Murry Sidlin commemorates Jewish prisoners who performed Verdi's "Requiem" in the Terezin concentration camp. With forces from Peabody and guest artists, Sidlin delivered a potent account of the Verdi work, interwoven with commentary and video of Terezin survivors.

Center Stage: Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park." This sequel of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is hardly the last word on race, but the sharp-edged play cuts into of a lot of troubling contemporary issues. A strong cast, directed by Derrick Sanders, brought out the work's many strengths.

Concert Artists of Baltimore: Scott McAllister's "X." Edward Polochick led the vibrant ensemble in a typically imaginative program of Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Ginastera. The kicker was a sizzling performance featuring principal clarinetist David Drosinos in McAllister's cool concerto "X," which manages to incorporate Mozart and Kurt Cobain.

Music in the Great Hall: Fleisher Duo. Any opportunity to hear eminent pianist and Baltimore icon Leon Fleisher is a big deal. His recital for the Great Hall series, shared with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, was especially memorable for his playing of Leon Kirchner's "L.H." Together, the Fleishers offered exquisite Schubert and surging Ravel.

May

Performance Workshop Theatre: Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker." The company, which has helped brighten Harford Road, gave an effective staging of this unnerving play, directed by Marlyn G. Robinson. Marc Horwitz, the company's featured actor, burrowed into the central role of a crusty homeless man. (In the fall, Horwitz went on to demonstrate his virtuosity in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas," a one-man play about a theater critic and vampires -- no, they're not the same thing.)

June

BSO: John Williams: The celebrated film composer made his BSO debut conducting a sensational concert that drove the audience wild. Williams, who donated his services for this musicians' pension benefit, led a terrific sampling of his works for the screen and had the orchestra playing it with an electrifying edge.

Vagabond Players: Noel Coward's "Private Lives." In a bright reminder of the good work community theater companies do around town, this polished staging set off genuine sparks. Directed by Sherrionne Brown, an able cast delivered the zingers and physical comedy with aplomb.

October

Acme Corporation: Sam Shepard's "Killer's Head." This adventurous DIY company really turned on the juice in this 10-minute monodrama that captures a convict's last thoughts before execution in an electric chair. Director Stephen Nunns placed the play in a cell-like room that put the audience inches away from the condemned man, potently portrayed by Chris Ashworth.

November

BSO: Britten's "War Requiem." Alsop marked the Benjamin Britten centennial leading this epic fusion of liturgy and anti-war poetry. Some moments lacked impact, but this was still a noble account of a deep, important work. Tenor Nicholas Phan, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and soprano Tamara Wilson sang superbly. Great contributions from University of Maryland Concert Choir and Peabody Children's Chorus, too.

Everyman Theatre: John Logan's "Red." It's not every day a play makes the philosophy of art the basis for an engaging theatrical experience. The company's stirring production, directed by Donald Hicken, featured exceptionally nuanced performances by Bruce Randolph Nelson as pathbreaking painter Mark Rothko, and Eric Berryman as his unsuspecting assistant.

Center Stage: Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas." What a great year-end treat (the last performances are today). Vogel's panoramic look at Washington and its environs, December 1864, magically fuses history, fiction and music. This production, directed by Rebecca Taichman and gently choreographed by Liz Lerman, has a versatile, engaging cast that communicates the subtle message of hope glowing at the center of this remarkable work.

tim.smith@baltsun.com