Lament for lost opportunities for concert lineups this year


Look to calendars to see if composer's time has come

December 28, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Folks tirelessly trying to market classical music these days will settle on almost any hook to lure customers, from martini bars in lobbies and cutesy program titles to that reliable, when-all-else-fails measure, the deeply discounted ticket price.

I'm just old-fashioned enough to prefer come-ons that actually have something substantive to do with the music itself, and I'm a sucker for promotions that involve historic pegs - the anniversary of a composer's birth or death, or of a composition's first performance, for example.

Almost every calendar year contains such built-in musical hooks, notable dates from the past worth acknowledging in some form, from a single concert to a whole festival.

This is hardly news. In fact, it's bleedin' obvious. But, aside from a memorable, cross-genre celebration of St. Petersburg's tri-centennial in 2003, Baltimore's music community hasn't revealed much interest in using historic angles to spice up a season and get people thinking more, not just listening.

Consider 2004. It's about to slip away with hardly any local notice having been paid to two milestones involving Czech composers - the 150th anniversary of the birth of Leos Janacek and the centenary of the death of Antonin Dvorak. What a missed opportunity all across Baltimore's musical board.

Yes, there were a few nods in the direction of these guys in the occasional recital or chamber music program by local and visiting artists, as well as in at least one choral concert. But nothing major, and nothing to speak of from our biggest musical guns.

As for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it programmed a little bit of Janacek and Dvorak - in 2003, not 2004.

This year would have provided a great excuse for the BSO to dig out Dvorak's delectable, under-played early symphonies, along with the likewise under-appreciated Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto. Not to mention Janacek's terrific orchestral showpieces Taras Bulba and (now that the horn section is getting sturdier) the Sinfonietta.

And wouldn't it have been cool if, say, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society had decided to tackle Dvorak's stirring Stabat Mater or Te Deum, or Janacek's spectacular Glagolitic Mass? And if Baltimore Opera had tried out Dvorak's enchanting Rusalka or Janacek's gripping Kat'a Kabanova (more on that work in a moment)?

Imagine how rewarding it could have been for listeners if such samplings had been scheduled during the same few weeks, festival-style, by large and small organizations alike, providing a deep immersion into two brilliant musical minds.

For that matter, imagine what could - and should - have happened here during 2003, the birth bicentennial of the revolutionary Hector Berlioz.

Of course, some anniversaries lend themselves more easily to widespread notice than others. I certainly didn't expect much fuss here over 2004's birth centenaries of Dmitri Kabalevsky and Luigi Dallapiccola. But Janacek, who wrote such distinctive and potent music, much of it unfamiliar to today's public, was an ideal, compelling candidate for extensive exposure and celebration.

At least it's not too late to plan for forthcoming milestones.

I won't hold my breath for a local focus on the late, quirky English composer Michael Tippett, whose birth centennial is 2005 and who really deserves the attention. But I do expect the Dmitri Shostakovich centenary in 2006 to be marked, and by more than the BSO.

The year 2007 is the death centenary of Edvard Grieg, who is too often taken for granted or, worse, viewed as second-tier. That anniversary provides a perfect excuse for a thorough evaluation of the composer.

Same for 2007's 50th anniversary of the deaths of Jean Sibelius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Hearing lots of their work, not just the most obvious items, would enliven the scene.

And the mind spins wildly at the thought of what imaginative, fearless planners around here could do in 2008 with four big anniversaries: the death centennials of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the sadly underrated Edward MacDowell; the birth centennials of the extraordinarily challenging Elliott Carter and the in-a-divine-class-by-himself Olivier Messiaen.

No, you don't need an anniversary as an excuse to program pieces by any composer. But by seizing on possibilities the calendar offers, a great deal of music can be chosen, performed and marketed in many a stimulating way. And the classical music biz can hardly afford to pass up any shot at stimulation.

Janacek at the Met

Janacek's stage works remain a rarity here. Baltimore Opera has presented only one, Jenufa, in 1982; Peabody Opera offered the most recent example, The Cunning Little Vixen, in 1998. Audiences feeling sorely deprived of the Czech composer's operatic genius shouldn't miss the remaining performances - tomorrow or Saturday - of his Kat'a Kabanova at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

This 1921 work didn't reach the Met's stage until 1991 in a spare, but highly effective, production designed by Robert Israel and directed by Jonathan Miller. Its brief revival this month offers, above all, a performance of startling vocal beauty and emotional depth by soprano Karita Mattila in the title role of a Russian wife driven by a cold marriage and horrific mother-in-law to temptation and, ultimately, suicide.

The rest of the sturdy cast ably fills in the details of this taut tragedy of mid-19th-century manners and morals. Conductor Jiri Belohlavek leads a revelatory account of the darkly lyrical score. For ticket information, call 212-362-6000.

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