The year's top 10 classical music and theater events in Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Tim Smith's best of Baltimore's classical music scene for 2014.

It is always tough trying to decide on a top 10 list. For that matter, it's tough not to hate the very idea of top 10 lists.

But here it goes, anyway -- the top 10 classical music and theater peaks I experienced in Baltimore during 2014. I limited myself to only five from each genre, just to make it harder to choose, and because a top 20 wouldn't be any easier.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

1. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 (November, Meyerhoff Hall ).

The autumn of 2014 revealed in no uncertain terms how far the BSO and its music director have journeyed together in seven years. That their musical rapport is stronger than ever could be felt week after week, nowhere more compellingly than when they delved into Shostakovich's Fifth to communicate its aches and worries, irony and poetry, defiance and hope, all with fresh force.  

Runner-up: This was a great year for Alsop, the BSO and Shostakovich, so I could just as easily have given the No. 1 spot to their gripping performance of the composer's Symphony No. 12 ("The Year 1917"), never previously programmed by the orchestra.

2. Baritone Gerald Finley, pianist Julius Drake: Schubert's "Winterreise," Shriver Hall Concert Series (February, Shriver Hall).

It wasn't just the meteorological coincidence of snow and sleet outside that made Gerald Finley's account of Schubert's song cycle about a soul's bleak wintry journey seem so palpable inside Shriver Hall. It was the bass-baritone's total immersion into melody and text, his way of making you see and feel the emotional weight of each step and sigh of "Winterreise." Drake's piano playing was no less inspired.

Runner-up: This slot could also go to the Shriver Hall recital in May by pianist Emanuel Ax, who brought superb expressive nuance to one of the year's most intriguing and rewarding programs -- a mix of Brahms and works by contemporary composers Brett Dean and Missy Mazzoli that revealed links to Brahms.

3. Baltimore Concert Opera: Franco Faccio's "Amleto" (October, Engineers Club).

It wasn't the best way to encounter a 143-year-old ghost -- no staging, only piano accompaniment and an uneven cast -- but Franco Faccio's long-neglected "Amleto" still provided a valuable, engrossing experience in its presentation by Baltimore Concert Opera.

Conductor Anthony Barrese's longtime obsession with unearthing this 1865 work based on "Hamlet" and last performed anywhere in 1871 paid off handsomely. His sensitively shaped performance made it easy to appreciate the imaginative, forward-thinking score and envision what it could be when fully decked out in an opera house. All in all, a cool service to opera history.

4. Convergence Maximus: Concert Artists of Baltimore and Baltimore Rock Opera Society  (November, 2640 Space).

This mash-up of a professional orchestra/chorus and a DIY troupe that creates its own rock operas could have easily been hideous. But the genres collided with mutual respect and terrific flair, creating a giddy, thoroughly entertaining event that drew packed houses. I doubt it made classical fans out of rock ones, or vice versa, but the two sides sure did come together heartily for a couple hours. 

Excerpts from splashy BROS works got an intense workout, enhanced by orchestral arrangements. As for the classical portion, conductor Ed Polochick, who gamely donned heavy metal makeup and costume, deserves extra credit for not programming a note of "Carmina Burana." Who knew a rock crowd would go wild for Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" (soprano Alayna Roby had a ball with it), or Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances"? (I enjoyed seeing some BROS members chug beer in time to the dances.)

The disparate forces had a field day fusing the finale to Beethoven's Ninth with part of the rock opera "Valhella" -- in this context, the symphony's emphatic message "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" could be translated as "All men shall become BROS."

5. Concert Hall, Performing Arts and Humanities Building, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (fall 2014).

The debut of this venue in the fall was as noteworthy as any local performance during the year. The warmth and intimacy of the Concert Hall design -- think mini-Strathmore -- makes a major statement in itself. Judging by the single performance I heard there, a chamber music program in November, the space also boasts excellent acoustics. The hall is sure to give UMBC's musical life a big boost, and make the school's many concerts there all the more enticing to the public. 

THEATER

1. "Crimes of the Heart," Everyman Theatre (January).

This company started the year on a roll with "Crimes of the Heart" and never really stopped rolling. Time and again, productions offered well-knit casts, imaginative direction and spot-on scenic design. I don't know about you, but I left each show eager to be back for the next.

Affixing the No. 1 designation to a single Everyman venture wasn't easy. I finally settled on "Crimes of the Heart." The company delivered a brilliant staging of Beth Henley’s dramedy about Southern siblings. Director Susanna Gellert had the action flowing with a sure touch through every inch of Debra Booth's evocative set. And there were finely nuanced performances all around.

2. "Deathtrap," Everyman Theatre (December, and still running through Jan. 11)

Everyman's romp through Ira Levin's "Deathtrap," crisply directed by company head Vincent Lancisi, made the thriller seem freshly clever, not to mention very, very funny. And the work provided a fine showcase for the resident artists -- Danny Gavigan, Deborah Hazlett, Beth Hylton, Wil Love, Bruce Randolph Nelson -- who munched happily on the dialogue and the vivid scenery. 

Runner-up: The affecting "Tribes" with the local debut of deaf actor John McGinty. Wait a minute. There was also that wonderful "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," featuring all the cool stuff on film, the glowing performance by Dawn Ursula and hilarious supporting work from Kelli Blackwell. Oh, yeah, and Megan Anderson's tour de force in "Grounded." And what about ... You get the idea. Everyman owned 2014.

3. "Twelfth Night," Center Stage (March)

This Shakespearean venture found Center Stage in very stylish form. The glamorous update to the 1930s clicked strongly (David Burdick's costumes were a visual feast), and the cast, directed by the company's associate artistic director Gavin Witt, got fully into the spirit -- in this case the spirit of a vintage Hollywood screwball comedy. The humanity, as well as the humor, came through beautifully.

Runner-up: Center Stage also earned high marks for its well-oiled co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre of Christopher Durang's ingenious Chekhov send-up, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Here, too, was a great example of how gifted performers can milk laughs as nimbly as they can get at truths lurking beneath the comedy.

4. "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade,” Annex Theater (July)

The gritty, unnerving work by Peter Weiss seemed to put this DIY company into creative overdrive. The in-your-face staging, directed by Sarah Heiderman and Philip Doccolo, meant that the cast was deep into character well before and after the play, not just during. The mood was so vividly sustained that the whole dreadful world of an 18th century asylum got conjured up with a visceral power that underlined the many-layered text at every turn.

5. "The Memo," Single Carrot Theatre (April)

Vaclav Havel's decades-old satiric play skewering bureaucracy and corporate-speak hasn't lost its relevance in our high-tech world. Director Stephen Nunns sent the Single Carrot cast digging vibrantly into the material to extract its quirky humor, sporting Leslie Yarmo's delectably oddball costumes as they went. And the production took full advantage of the company's fine new digs with a cool revolving set by Rick Gerriets.

P.S. The theater category includes only local producing companies. If I put the touring shows at the Hippodrome in the mix, I'd make a slot for the exceedingly clever, superbly performed "Peter and the Starcatcher."

 

 

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