A beautiful blend of film and song in timeless - and timely - context

MUSIC

May 25, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Every so often, one great work of art inspires another great work of art. Shakespeare's Othello and Verdi's Otello, for example. Or Carl Dreyer's stunning silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc and Richard Einhorn's mesmerizing oratorio Voices of Light.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society brought that movie and that music together at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Sunday night and produced one of the season's most memorable experiences. Einhorn's 1995 score, an exquisite mix of medievalism and minimalism, is not a frame-by-frame match for Dreyer's 1928 classic. It was not intended as a conventional soundtrack, but rather as an independent piece that follows the outline of the film and can fit neatly and tellingly to a showing of it.

To make this particular presentation all the more striking, Choral Arts engaged Anonymous 4, the peerless vocal quartet featured on the best-selling recording of the oratorio.

The performance achieved a profound beauty as involving as the painful, poignant images on the screen. The painful parts of Dreyer's film register in unexpectedly contemporary, downright eerie ways right now, when we are steeped in images of tortured prisoners and executed innocents, and when we are even hearing talk of communion being withheld from politicians who stray from church teaching. Strange how The Passion of Joan of Arc isn't just timeless, but timely.

I suspect Einhorn's music will prove long-lasting, too. (He was on hand to share in the sustained ovation from the large crowd.) His brilliant choice of texts, drawn from Joan, mystics and the Bible, provides context and depth; chant-like melodies and bittersweet harmonies enrich the words.

Those words emerged with all their emotional truths on Sunday. The chorus sang with great sensitivity and discipline. Anonymous 4, lamentably soon to disband after 18 years, produced ethereal, affecting, seamlessly melded sounds.

Among the other vocal soloists, tenor Mark Bleeke and baritone Francois Loup did especially vivid singing. The orchestra was in excellent form; violinist Kenneth Goldstein and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski did stellar solo work. Tom Hall conducted with extraordinary care.

Sight and sound rarely come together so potently.

Municipal's `Butterfly'

Like the average community theater troupe, the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore has unlimited enthusiasm, but limited resources. I've caught several productions over the past few years that benefited considerably from that enthusiasm, and some that were largely defeated by the limited resources. Saturday night's presentation of Puccini's Madame Butterfly at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church was one of the latter. (I stayed for two of the three acts.)

An indisposed tenor in the role of Pinkerton was replaced at the last minute by a singer who had to walk through the opera with score in hand, dampening theatricality. Although Kevin Perry won points for taking on the assignment, he wasn't quite up to the vocal demands. Clunky piano playing was another drawback (the company can't afford an orchestra).

Nakia Verner proved to be more chrysalis than Butterfly. She revealed a very promising low and middle register, but top notes were harsh and weakly supported. Phrasing, too, was uneven, sometimes nicely inflected with telling nuance, too often generalized (like the soprano's acting).

Nicole Farbes-Lyons was a winning Suzuki, with an ease of movement and gesture matching vocal power and polish. As Sharpless, Chris Steward's warmly expressive baritone compensated for occasional tentativeness of articulation.

Canticle concert

I caught the first half of the Canticle Singers of Baltimore's concert Sunday afternoon at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, led by director Wendy Wickham.

Although they tended to lose a firm grip pitch in a cappella selections, the ensemble of about two dozen women maintained admirable control otherwise. Their overall tone - bright, clear and beautifully blended - proved particularly effective in the Three Sacred Choruses by Brahms and David N. Childs' nearly sappy ballad Weep No More, based on a Keats poem. And Unto the Hills, by Michael Hopkins-Gross, a clearly talented junior at the Friends School with an ear for attractive harmonies, was an engaging item.

Schubert's Gott in der Natur, ably accompanied by pianist Jane Donnelly, received a dynamic account well-suited to the church's rich reverberation.

American song recital

Two of the most engaging vocalists based in the area, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Blades and baritone William Heim, will focus on "The Nature of Song ... and Love" in an all-American recital as part of the new An die Musik LIVE! series.

The title of the program comes from a featured item on the recital, Arias and Barcarolles, Leonard Bernstein's last completed work. This song cycle for two singers and piano duet contains some of his most inspired and affecting music.

Also on the program will be songs by Paul Bowles, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Richard Rodgers and Jake Heggie. Joining the two singers will be pianists JoAnn Kulesza and Jonathan Moyer. The concert is at 8 p.m. June 4 at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $15; $12 for seniors, students and Musik members. Call 410-385-2638.

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