Current events underscores works

Opera double bill warmly celebrates those who raise voices in protest

Music Review

January 27, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The issue of political dissent never loses its timeliness. Just now, with voices of opposition to all sorts of governments around the world getting louder by the day, that issue is particularly pertinent. It provides an extra degree of power to Peabody Chamber Opera's exceptional double bill at the Theatre Project - Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel and Udo Zimmermann's White Rose.

Weill's short, biting piece of cabaret-style entertainment from 1927 took effective pot shots at the unsettled post-World War I scene in Germany and beyond, a time when "there is no peace in us, and no compassion, and there is nothing a man can depend upon." Illusion and delusion are everywhere.

The remarkable heroics of two siblings in Nazi Germany, Sophie and Hans Scholl, guillotined for passing out anti-Reich leaflets, inspired Zimmermann's 75-minute, stream-of-consciousness drama from 1985. The composer finds in their short-lived struggle the essence of the battle between morality and evil and presents it in an alternately bracing and achingly beautiful expressionistic style.

Roger Brunyate has designed and directed a provocative staging of these two works, with minimal props and maximum intensity.

On Friday night, Arsenia Soto (Sophie) and Joseph Cole Regan (Hans) thoroughly inhabited their roles; their acting had a disarming naturalness. They both negotiated the complex score with aplomb; Regan's voice had an especially warm, affecting tone. Conductor JoAnn Kulesza led a taut, assured account of the score and had the orchestra responding firmly.

The six-member cast of Mahogonny Songspiel caught the spicy flavor of the piece, vocally and theatrically. Mariatana Salerno and Beth Stewart delivered the intoxicating Alabama Song with considerable flair. Kulesza's conducting was again admirable; so was the instrumental contribution.

The double bill will be repeated Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Call 410-752-8558.

Soundtracks Festival

When conductor Leonard Slatkin gets an idea for a festival with his National Symphony Orchestra, you can count on something hot. His latest - "Soundtracks," continuing through Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall - looks into the dual world of music and film. Ordinarily, movie scores are considered secondary in classical music circles, mere fodder for pops programs, just not high-art enough for anything else. Slatkin, whose parents were immersed in Hollywood studio orchestras, grew up without that silly prejudice.

You only had to hear the rapturous Scene d'Amour from Bernard Herrmann's score to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo on Friday afternoon to appreciate Slatkin's point of view. This music, steeped in Wagner's Tristan, exudes a sophistication and refined beauty that needn't take a back seat to any classical repertoire.

That Herrmann selection, along with works by Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner, were conducted with obvious affection by today's reigning film score writer, John Williams, who drew consistently stylish playing from the NSO. Earlier, Slatkin led a sizzling performance of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront.

Saturday night introduced visuals to go with the music, starting with a montage from silent movies, spiritedly accompanied on an upright piano by Slatkin and Williams (the latter wrote the witty score for the occasion). Things got wonderfully detailed later when Williams demonstrated the process of film scoring, using a four-minute clip from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It was shown first without sound, then with the NSO playing Williams' music in synch with the "click-track" (heard by the musicians on ear phones) and "streamers" (visible on the screen) - just as in a film studio.

Williams' craftsmanship was even more apparent when he led the orchestra through the exhilarating final minutes of E.T., again perfectly timed to the actual footage from the movie. This music works its emotional magic as surely as any score by Puccini does; hearing it played so beautifully in a concert hall made it seem doubly inspired.

The program's other treats included excerpts from classic Hollywood musicals directed by Stanley Donen, on hand to introduce them. (He had the bad taste to repeat an anti-gay anecdote about the making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but was otherwise a delight.)

Throughout, technical/visual details were as admirably executed as musical ones. My only quibble is with the images that went with a medley of scores to salute "Monsters, Beauties and Heroes." How on earth did Farrah Fawcett and Sylvester Stallone get in there (he more than once), when Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, just to name two immortals, were absent?

Wrong `Requiem'

Last week's cold spell was more damaging than I thought. That's the best excuse I can muster for how my brain cells were so weakened that I hallucinated one of the composers in Saturday's review of saxophonist Branford Marsalis performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The Pie Jesu he played was, of course, from Gabriel Faure's Requiem, not Andrew Lloyd Webber's.

No idea why I wrote Webber's name (though his piece is at least similar in melody and mood to Faure's). But the point I was trying to make about this selection not quite fitting with the underlying jazz theme of the program still fits.

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