The winter that just faded into spring held quite a few noteworthy concerts in Baltimore. Here is a brief report (in alphabetical order) on the music I got to hear during the past several weeks.
Baltimore Choral Arts Society
To wrap up his remarkable 35-year run as music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Tom Hall gave a farewell concert drawn largely from repertoire with religious texts. On March 11 at Kraushaar Auditorium, the ensemble honored Hall with singing of technical poise and communicative nuance.
Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass, one of his greatest achievements in the genre, received a vivid performance not only from the chorus, but also the excellent soloists -- notably soprano Hyunah Yu. The orchestra did mostly solid work.
The rest of the extensive program was devoted to a cappella and piano-accompanied pieces (Choo Choo Hu and Leo Wanenchak shared the keyboard duties admirably).
"Before I was just playing the music, now I am playing the emotions, the feelings that I feel and I want you to feel," says classical guitarist, Meng Su. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
If there was a little too much similarity of mood and arrangement (lots of hushed endings), it was hard to complain in light of the tender sounds from the ensemble, the sensitive phrase-molding from Hall.
Highlights included Charles Villiers Stanford's "Beati Quorum Via," Morten Lauridsen's "Sure on This Shining Night," and that perfect American folk song "Shenandoah." Billy Joel's bittersweet ballad "And So It Goes" also struck home with its naturalness of phrase and honeyed blend of voices (chorister John Cain sang the solo lines smoothly).
There was a surprise world premiere, too. "Look For Us Again" was commissioned by the chorus (and rehearsed in secret) as a parting gift to Hall. The composer, Caroline Mallonee, participated in the first year of a student composer project Hall launched 25 years ago and has a well-established career.
With a text by Carl Sandburg, the piece is deftly written to produce abundant color from the voices and gently spiced harmonies. Wanenchak led a supple performance that, in words and music, fit the occasion beautifully.
On Feb. 16 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the main event was Dvorak's Cello Concerto featuring Johannes Moser as soloist. He summoned a big, gorgeous tone and shaped the music with a deep appreciation for the bittersweet thread running through the piece (how superbly he caught the lump-in-the-throat quality of the little downward motive in the Adagio).
Moser's radiant playing found a supple counterpart in concertmaster Jonathan Carney during the rhapsodic duet in the finale. The whole orchestra, for that matter, seemed to share the cellist's lyrical wavelength (a few smudges mattered little). And Alsop was at her most impassioned. Terrific music-making across the board.
The all-American first half of the concert included a surging performance of Barber's compact Symphony No. 1 and, nicely timed to President's Day, a stirring account of Copland's durable "Lincoln Portrait." The latter was narrated with telling subtlety by mellow-voiced Barry F. Williams.
And to start, the premiere of another BSO Centennial Commission, Jonathan Leshnoff's "Dancin' Blue Crabs." It's brief, propulsive, vibrantly orchestrated (a John Adams-ish features woodblock prominently), and quite witty (the ending is particularly wry).
Leshnoff's music can be very serious, deep and dark, so it was fun to hear him show off a much lighter side -- and to find a perfectly kosher method of dealing with shellfish.
Alsop also was on the podium for a strong program March 3 that featured Helene Grimaud in a commanding account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.
The pianist summoned waves of rich sound from an instrument brought in especially for the occasion; you don't often hear that much from a keyboard inside the Meyerhoff. But Grimaud provided much more than sonic weight. She made the piano speak and sing and sigh, achieving a poetic impact throughout.
In the third movement, the pianist's downright dreamy phrasing seemed to envelop the hall. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski offered his own considerable beauty of tone and expression in that movement's duet passages.
Alsop's astute partnering assured a well-knit performance from the orchestra. Earlier, she achieved impressive results with Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony, generating a vibrant pulse and drawing a dynamic response from the BSO. The horns made memorable contributions.
The program opened with an affecting piece by Anna Clyne, "Within Her Arms," a reflection on the death of the composer's mother. Scored for 15 strings, the music ranges from the quietest of murmurs to lush Vaughan Williams-like surges.
A significant descending theme in the work suggests a heavy heart. Near the close, a remarkable passage anchored by long-held bass notes makes a profound effect, evoking a last embrace.
(The performance was being recorded live so, naturally, many in the audience ignored Alsop's request for silence and heartily coughed throughout.)
Two artists new to the BSO guest list left their mark March 10 at the Meyerhoff (I attended the first half of the concert). Conductor Paul Goodwin led a crisp, jaunty account of Stravinsky's neo-classical, chamber-sized gem, the "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, that showcased a well-knit ensemble of orchestra players.
But the big news was pianist Jan Lisiecki, making what I'd call the debut of the season so far, maybe several seasons. He brought superb technique and disarming beauty and breadth of phrasing to Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, making the over-exposed music sound incredibly fresh, vital, spontaneous.
There was plenty of drama from Lisiecki in the first movement, exquisite pianissimo shadings in the Adagio, and terrific variety of dynamics in the extra-speedy finale. The pianist enjoyed tight support from Goodwin, who had the BSO phrasing with heightened attention to nuance and contour.
The house knew something special had happened, and the roaring response earned an encore from Lisiecki -- Chopin's C minor Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1. The pianist's prismatic articulation and insightful molding yielded a mesmerizing performance. Chopin played with such soulful beauty is a rare thing today.
Community Concerts at Second
An invaluable gift to Baltimore music lovers has been the 30 years of free performances, covering an admirable range of artists and repertoire, presented by Community Concerts at Second.
The program Feb. 26 provided a great vehicle for two excellent talents -- flutist Marinina Piccinini, a well-established artist on the international scene and a Peabody Institute faculty member; and fast-rising, Peabody-trained guitarist Meng Su, who seems assured of a major career.
The all-Bach first half of the concert gave Piccinini an opportunity to reveal her stellar technique in two sonatas -- spot-on intonation, clarity of articulation at any speed, exceptional dynamic range (including an ethereal pianissimo), endless breath control.
These gifts combined with refined musicality to produce interpretations alive with expressive inflections and, in the fast movements, good old-fashioned joy.
Meng Su, who provided supple partnering for the flutist in those sonatas, also took the spotlight for Bach's E major Lute Suite. More rhythmic nuance would have been welcome at the endings of individual movements, but the warmth and clarity of the playing hit the spot.
I had to leave during the program's second half to get to Shriver Hall, but not before hearing the selections from Robert Beaser's wonderfully atmospheric "Mountain Songs." Flutist and guitarist offered especially eloquent phrasing in "Barbara Allen" and "He's Gone Away" (the latter capped by a poignant, long-held note from Piccinini).
And it was treat to hear "Wild Riot of the Shaman's Dreams," an absorbing tone poem for solo flute that's also one heck of a technical tour de force, written for Piccinini by Michael Colgrass.
Inspired by tales of an eccentric shaman in arctic Canada named Kakumee, the eventful piece ranges from nearly inaudible whistling effects to a genuinely "wild riot" of pyrotechnics. Piccinini delivered it all in brilliant, riveting form.
Peabody Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, who succeeded one of her prime mentors, the late Gustav Meier, as director of graduate conducting at the Peabody Conservatory, led a tribute concert to his memory Feb. 4.
The program, packed with emotion-rich pieces, revealed an easy rapport between Alsop and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, which delivered expressive, generally on-target playing throughout.
The conductor took a dry-eyed approach to Barber's Adagio for Strings, but gave Strauss' "Don Juan" admirable sweep and poetic subtleties.
If Alsop's account of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 didn't have quite the intensity of her last performance of the piece with the BSO, the results still proved highly communicative.
Pro Musica Rara
You can depend on Allen Whear, the fine cellist who serves as Pro Musica Rara's artistic director, to devise programs that deliver interesting history lessons. "Bach in Berlin," offered March 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, was a good case in point.
In addition to Bach the father, the lineup included works by two of his sons and their contemporaries. The common thread was Berlin and the court of the King of Prussia (and decent flutist, as he was no doubt told frequently by his subjects), Frederick the Great.
I took in the concert's first half, which included harpsichordist Adam Pearl's nuanced account of Bach's harmonically unconstrained "Ricercar a 3" from "The Musical Offering."
Whear and Pearl found charms in a long-winded sonata by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. The cellist and flutist Sara Nichols delivered a sonata by C.P.E. Bach with an elegant touch. And the three musicians offered suave phrasing in a well-crafted, breezy trio by Carl Friederich Abel.
Shriver Hall Concert Series
The starry 51st season of Shriver Hall Concert Series showcased three top-notch artists Jan. 22 -- pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Anthony McGill (principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic) and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
They have not been collaborating for very long, but sounded as if they had decades of playing together behind them. The expressive cohesion was complemented by exemplary technical polish.
There was much to savor in their account of Beethoven's B-flat Trio, especially the elegant phrasing in the Adagio. Barnatan's articulation of the gentle keyboard cascades in that movement proved especially poetic.
At the center of the program came the welcome Baltimore premiere of a gem by Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman, "short stories." The five movements, each a mini-tone poem, added up to an absorbing experience.
Throughout the piece, Hallman impresses with his keen ear for textures, his spicy harmonic language and his ability to create richly layered atmosphere.
In "the breakup," for example, fractious chords and disjointed melodic lines compete with bursts of what sounds like sharp regret. The keyboard writing here is particularly evocative, and Barnatan made the most of it.
Among other arresting elements: Hallman's creation of a nostalgic harmonic haze in "familial memories at a funeral" (McGill's clarinet work here was exquisite); the bluesy lyricism in the "regret is for the weak" movement; the pointillist dabs and splashes of instrumental color elsewhere.
A very cool work, impressively delivered.
Speaking of very cool and impressive, that was the effect of a program presented at Shriver Hall Feb. 26, when the incisive pianist Jonathan Biss and the excellent Brentano String Quartet delved into the later-year style of composers from several centuries.
The strings offered excerpts from Bach's starkly beautiful Art of Fugue, played with minimal vibrato; and Britten's quite profound String Quartet No. 3.
The latter, composed the year before Britten's death in 1976, reveals the astounding breadth of his imagination. The Brentano players showed off superb ensemble skills and individual strengths here. Phrasing in the haunted third movement, especially from first violinist Mark Steinberg, was compelling; the time-suspending final moments cast quite a spell.
Biss negotiated the technical complexities and intellectual depths of selections from Vol. VII of Kurtag's "Games" with disarming subtlety and poise.
He had the second half of the unusual concert to himself, devoted to Beethoven's final piano sonata, Op. 111. It received a taut, absorbing account that might have left an even greater mark had the pianist's articulation revealed a little more warmth and variety of tone.