Handel Choir leader to combine old, new

MUSIC

July 20, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Handel Choir of Baltimore will take its cues from a new artistic director when it opens its 70th season this fall. Melinda O'Neal, a music professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and director of the school's Handel Society, becomes the ensemble's 12th leader, succeeding T. Herbert Dimmock III, who is now the emeritus director.

"I feel like it's opening a new vista for me," says O'Neal, 54. "I am at my most optimistic when I have challenges in front of me. I'm a builder. And I think I'm prepared for the work ahead."

As a community organization of amateur singers, the Handel Choir's artistic quality has varied, but it has enjoyed a loyal base of singers and listeners and maintained a significant place on the cultural scene. For one thing, it's responsible for the longest-running number of annual performances of Handel's Messiah in Baltimore, a tradition started in 1934.

O'Neal plans to continue that tradition, with a variation. She'll balance Part 1 of Messiah with a portion of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. A winter concert will likely focus on Brahms; O'Neal hopes to schedule a mass by Haydn on a spring program.

In recent years, the choir presented 10 concerts a season; the cutback to three for 2004-2005 reflects the same harsh reality faced by most performing-arts groups. "Finances are not at all robust," O'Neal says. "Fund raising has to be done strategically and in increments. Right now, we're looking for $5,000 to fund our spring concert."

The new director, a native of Bethesda, has moved to half-time status at Dartmouth so she can live in Baltimore from September to May. Her first priority is strengthening the choir, and not just by recruiting new members. Current members will be re-auditioned.

"I know there are skills to be built," O'Neal says. "I want to start afresh and build a core. Each member has to have something to contribute vocally and in musicianship."

O'Neal's goal is plain. "One of the most thrilling things on earth is to be able to sing great music," she says. "But the artistic content has to be compelling. We have to deliver."

Wine and music

Reluctantly eschewing the pre-concert libations in order to keep a cool ear, I can't vouch for the vino portion of Friday's Italian night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer Wine and Music Fest. But the music went down real smooth.

The concert would have been worthwhile just for the orchestra's first item, Notturno No. 1 by Giuseppe Martucci, an unfairly neglected figure from the late 19th/early 20th century, one of relatively few Italian composers to take a non-operatic path. This gentle, expertly crafted piece, a love duet without words, casts a beguiling spell.

Juanjo Mena, the affable Spaniard who is conducting most of the year's festival programs, shaped a sensitive, winsome performance that had the BSO strings purring seductively. The playing was just as refined in the third suite of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. Mena's flair for sculpting a lyrical line paid off handsomely there, while his fine sense of rhythmic motion yielded a nimble account of a Rossini overture.

The BSO's principal and associate principal horn players, Philip Munds and Peter Landgren, dusted off their valve-less horns to provide a more historically accurate approach to a dual concerto by Vivaldi. The notes that didn't quite emerge on target were a small price to pay for the fun of hearing the earthy timbre of these early instruments.

Munds and Landgren sported Italian football shirts -- the better to suit the rough-and-tumble sound of natural horns, they said -- while Mena donned a referee's outfit and used a whistle to signal the end of play (and to admonish folks who applauded between movements). Just the sort of lightheartedness this festival can use.

Both horn players also participated in the chamber music program earlier in the evening, joining three other brass section colleagues for a bright, all-too-short blast from the Italian Renaissance. Boccherini's D major Quintet, with its famous minuet, got a charming, mostly smooth reading by violinists Rebecca Nichols and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Christian Colberg, cellists Dariusz Skoraczewski and Pei Lu.

In the brief operatic portion of the orchestral program, James Westman's eloquent, golden-toned, thoughtfully nuanced performance of Di Provenza from La Traviata signaled an exceptional talent. Tenor Garrett Sorenson inserted a few too many sobs into Una furtiva lagrima from L'elisir d'amore, but his ardent phrasing hit home. The two men milked the Act 4 Rodolfo/Marcello duet from La Boheme in high style.

Judging by the unusually good mood in the hall all evening (the singers generated particularly wild ovations), maybe audiences should be well-primed with wine for every BSO event during the season.

Anderson tribute

The Baltimore Opera Company offered Artscapers a variety of musical and educational diversions over the weekend. One of them was A Legacy of Hope: The Marian Anderson Story, commissioned by the company's education department. I caught Sunday's matinee at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center.

For the most part, this is an effective aural/visual blend of bio, social history and music, honoring one of truly transcendent voices of the 20th century.

Conceived, written and performed by soprano Sabrina Coleman Clark, the program could use some tightening, smoother transitions and a fact-checking here and there. But Clark's ingratiating manner, innately expressive voice and appealing choice of repertoire make a strong combination.

The singer enjoyed elegant support throughout from Daniel Lau at an electronic keyboard.

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