Livening up the local scene


The continuing struggle to reinvigorate the classical-music scene has led to some interesting and rewarding new vehicles for the art form.

A notable example in Baltimore is the Soulful Symphony, founded in 2000. This orchestra of African-American musicians plays an imaginative mix of repertoire, much of it freshly written to the strong beat of the contemporary world.

In the Washington area, the Post-Classical Ensemble, formed in 2001, has been livening things up with an embrace of a broad cultural spectrum, including film, dance, folk music and poetry.

In one program earlier this season, the group celebrated the vibrant music of Mexican composers; another offered traditional Chinese music and a chamber version of Gustav Mahler's Chinese poetry-inspired Das Lied von der Erde.

On Saturday, the group presented its audience with a rare opportunity to see two acclaimed New Deal-era documentaries by Pare Lorentz, performed with live orchestral accompaniment at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) studies the slow erosion of the Great Plains that led to the catastrophic 1930s drought. The River (1938) traces the equally worrisome history of the Mississippi River and offers a spirited defense of the Roosevelt administration's dam-building efforts.

Post-Classical's artistic director Joseph Horowitz, author of this year's provocative must-read Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall, devised the event as a means to revive appreciation of the scores Virgil Thomson wrote for these films, scores that can't make their full impact in the original mono soundtracks.

The documentaries rose far above the slick and shallow level of most propaganda. Thomson's contributions helped in that elevation, his distinctive brand of Americana, leaner and a little rawer than Aaron Copland's, underlining their uncluttered visual beauty.

Angel Gil-Ordonez, music director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, led a tightly in-synch performance that unlocked the score's expressive potency. The playing wasn't always polished, but had considerable character. The original, often quite poetic narration of both films was also performed live, delivered by Floyd King, a veteran of the Washington Shakespeare Company.

An die Musik

An die Musik has been one of the busiest concert venues in the region all season, and it's still a hot spot. Consider this promising lineup of three programs in five days:

Baroque music will be the focus at 8 p.m. Thursday, when Jerome Hantai and Kaori Uemura perform viola da gamba duets by Couperin and Locke. This versatile and colorful string instrument, played somewhat like a cello, is ideally suited to An die Musik's intimate performance space. Tickets are $20; $18 for students and seniors.

Award-winning pianist Enrico Elisi, a former student of Leon Fleisher, will play piano works by Bach, Mozart and Chopin at 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12; $8 for students and seniors.

And for something completely different, there's the Trio La Milpa -- an ensemble of two oboes and an English horn. The players: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Katherine Needleman, fellow BSO oboist Michael Lisicky and Sandra Gerster, former principal oboist of the Hartford Symphony in Connecticut.

This concert, at 7:30 p.m. June 21, includes the signature piece for two oboes and English horn, Beethoven's Trio in C, Op. 87. Tickets are $12; $8 for students and seniors.

An die Musik is at 409 N. Charles St. Call 410-385-2638.

Summer operas

As the region's biggest opera companies go into summer hiatus, smaller ones step in to keep the arias flowing.

Wolf Trap Opera, which enjoys an exceptional reputation for grooming fresh talent and creating imaginative productions, opens its 2005 season this week with Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a savory pie of horror, comedy, indelible songs and brilliant wordplay. It should find a comfy fit at The Barns at Wolf Trap during the next two weekends in Vienna, Va.

The cast will be drawn from Wolf Trap Opera's ensemble of Filene Young Artists. Joe Banno is the director, James Lowe the conductor.

Not surprisingly, all performances are sold out; Sondheim is surefire box office. For information on possible ticket returns, call 703-255-1868 or 877-965-3872.

Meanwhile, Summer Opera, long in residence at Catholic University in Washington, has opened its season with an updated production of Jules Massenet's charmer Cendrillon.

This staging, directed by David Grindle and designed by Christopher Ash, places the ageless fairy tale of Cinderella in the nation's capital, where the prince is now a president's son and some of the action unfolds beneath D.C.'s cherry blossoms.

Hajime Teri Murai, conductor of the Peabody Conservatory's orchestra, leads the cast. The production, which opened Sunday, continues at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hartke Theater, 3801 Harewood Road N.E., Washington. Call 202-319-4000.

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