Cue the Santas: BSO stages jolly holiday show


Music Column


Meyerhoff Symphony Hall could become the Radio City Music Hall of the Mid-Atlantic.

All right, maybe that's too much of a stretch. But the continuously expanding chorus line of tap-dancing Santas that brings down the curtain on the first half of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new "Holiday Spectacular" does have the kick of a vintage Rockettes routine.

If all goes well, it's a sight that will be repeated year after year.

For this inaugural "Spectacular," the Meyerhoff stage has been festively transformed with billowy curtains and a surprisingly attractive balcony built along the rear wall to hold brass and percussion players; the lobby, too, has received ample decoration.

The BSO is sharing the bill with a large cast of local and guest talent. Among the latter are vocalist Daniel Rodriguez (the former New York City policeman who is enjoying a burgeoning singing career) and Fred Garbo's Inflatable Theater Co. (an amusingly updated version of the kind of physical entertainment seen on old TV variety shows).

Patterned after the Indianapolis Symphony's enormously successful "Yuletide Celebration," this is one of the most ambitious projects the BSO has tackled. Whether it becomes an annual cash-cow, as in Indianapolis, remains to be seen, but box-office response has been strong enough to suggest that folks here are in the mood and the market for a holiday extravaganza.

If anyone can make this thing fly as an annual attraction, it's the BSO's (and the Indianapolis Symphony's) principal pops conductor, Jack Everly, one of the best hires the orchestra has made. He supervised this inaugural venture at the Meyerhoff, wrote many of the colorful orchestra arrangements and plans to conduct it next year. David Briskin is on the podium for the 2005 show.

Judging by what I caught of the dress rehearsal, this is, as usual with an Everly product, a thoroughly professional-looking and -sounding vehicle.

There's just enough Scrooge in me to make me squirm at some of the wholesomeness onstage, but anyone seeking a hearty dose of seasonal spirit should feel well-rewarded.

And for those participating in the great (if absurd) "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" debate, note that the production doesn't shy away from using the "C"-word, or even the "J.C." words (in traditional carols).

From "The Christmas Song" to "Winter Wonderland," to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" to "O Holy Night," the program touches just about all the bases. There's even a Hanukkah number in the mix.

Two more performances remain: 2 p.m. tomorrow and 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-783-8000.

Leslie Howard

There can't be too many pianists who get into the Guinness Book of World Records. Australian-born Leslie Howard did it by managing to record every piano work by Liszt on 97 CDs.

Howard stopped by the Peabody Conservatory last week to give a recital that may have broken a local record for sheer novelty of repertoire -- Liszt's fascinating Grosses Konzertsolo; Beethoven's own transcription of his orchestral monstrosity Wellington's Victory; Haydn's sparkly C major Fantasia; and Glazunov's over-wrought Sonata No. 2.

Even Grieg's delectable Holberg Suite, usually heard in its string orchestra arrangement, qualified as unusual fare.

Although his dynamics tended to range from loud to louder, the pianist's vitality paid off nicely, particularly in underlining the grandly lyrical themes of the Glazunov work. There's no way to redeem that flimsy, noisy thing by Beethoven, but it was fun hearing Howard try.

An die Musik

An die Musik must be Baltimore's busiest concert presenter. There seems to be a performance at the music retailer every few hours, and many of the events are decidedly novel. Last weekend provided two examples.

Jennifer Blades, a Peabody Conservatory-trained mezzo-soprano who has enlivened the local music scene in a variety of ways in recent years, offered an entertaining cabaret act Friday night that sampled the great American songbook and some holiday faves.

Her phrasing was always sensitive, if sometimes a little too straight; her tone always warm, if sometimes a little too operatic.

The singer was at her best in comic numbers, especially a 1966 novelty that provides a clever take-off on "The Girl from Ipanema," with music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (under the pseudonym Esteban Ria Nido). In a delicious deadpan, Blades managed to deliver, several times, the song's object of affection in a Spanish town: "The Boy From Tacarimba La Tumba Del Fuego Santa Maliga Sacategas Lo Onto Del Sol Y Cruz."

Throughout, the mezzo enjoyed unusually imaginative accompaniment from pianist Jerome Tan, whose sophisticated, often jazzy styling enriched each selection.

Turning the double bass into a full-fledged, let alone sensitive, soloist isn't easy, but, on Sunday afternoon, David Sheets, a member of the BSO's bass section, largely succeeded in demonstrating the instrument's versatility.

In his solo recital, Sheets gave an especially effective account of Vincent Persichetti's Parable XVII for unaccompanied bass, negotiating thickets of notes with bold clarity and, in contrasting moments, producing a singing line.

With the excellent pianist Amy Klosterman, Sheets also captured the mix of kinetic, dissonant energy and deep-throated lyricism of Hindemith's Sonata. Intonation slips caused minor trouble in those items, but became more damaging in a transcription of Grieg's A-minor Cello Sonata. Sheets compensated with consistently expressive phrasing that, matched by the pianist's intensity, unleashed the music's heated romanticism.

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