A year ago, the Baltimore-Washington cultural scene received a boost from the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore.
For the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which had a pivotal role in getting the venue off the ground, the new center has provided a second home. The orchestra plays to an average capacity of 88 percent there; it's closer to 60 percent at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.
"It has been a wonderful success, better in most ways than we could have hoped for," says Michael Mael, BSO vice president for Strathmore.
There are challenges. It costs $15,000 to $20,000 each time the BSO performs there -- hall rental fees, transportation for musicians and equipment, stagehand fees.
"It's easier to do concerts in Baltimore," Mael says, "but I'm convinced that success at Strathmore is essential to the long-term success of the Baltimore Symphony as a world-class orchestra."
Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore's president and CEO, also sounds upbeat 12 months after the $100 million center opened. More than 200,000 people have attended events in the 1,976-seat hall, with an average capacity of 84 percent. (Several organizations rent the hall and Strathmore presents its own events.)
"We were stunned by the demand for tickets," Pfanstiehl says of Strathmore's inaugural half-season, last February to May. "That did level out this season, but we're still extremely pleased."
Although the acoustics were impressive last year, they have since been tweaked, making the BSO sound even better. Next will come improvements to amplification, with $250,000 worth of speakers.
"Those who thought the orchestra couldn't go into a second market have been proven wrong," says Pfanstiehl.
NSO's `Missa Latina'
The National Symphony Orchestra continues to be the region's leading source for new, large-scale music. The latest example is Roberto Sierra's ambitious Missa Latina, commissioned by the NSO, Choral Arts Society of Washington and Hechinger Commissioning Fund.
In addition to portions of the Latin Mass usually treated by composers, the Puerto Rico-born Sierra has included a few others that underline his main message -- a plea for peace. He conveys that message in a tonal style that ranges from neo-romantic richness to Latin pop.
On Friday night at the Kennedy Center, I wasn't entirely convinced by this mix of musical languages. The Latino infusions tended to be too brief or too awkwardly placed to make for a smooth aural ride; the ecstatic, near-salsa finale, for example, had an infectious kick, but came out of nowhere.
Still, the score exerts a considerable pull, thanks to the lyrical power that Sierra summons.
Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy used her celestial tone to exquisite effect. Nathaniel Webster's baritone sounded thin, but he matched Murphy's ardent phrasing. The chorus excelled, as did the NSO, under the guidance of conductor Leonard Slatkin, who tapped into the strong rhythmic and emotional current that propels this intriguing Mass.
Two university music faculties celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth over the weekend, showing off wonderful venues on each campus.
The recital halls at Towson University's Center for the Arts and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park have in common intimacy, inviting ambience and excellent acoustics.
At the new Towson hall, a full house Sunday afternoon heard works from the last decade of Mozart's life.
Pianist Reynaldo Reyes had trouble articulating cleanly, but his refined musicality came through, especially in the D major Rondo, K. 485. Violinist Zoltan Szabo, who also served as a long-winded introducer of the program, needed firmer pitch and more distinctive phrasing in two sonatas and the B-flat Trio, K. 502. In the latter, he and Reyes enjoyed solid collaboration from cellist Cecylia Barczyk.
The UM program started with works inspired by Mozart. Violinist James Stern did not have all the technical elan necessary for Sarasate's Concert Fantasy on themes from The Magic Flute, but got the spirit across. Stephen Wilbur made a crowd-pleasing entrance in a Mozart costume, then took a totally disastrous stab at Lizst's Reminiscences of Don Juan.
On the plus side: four- and eight-hand arrangements of popular Mozart pieces, featuring Larissa Dedova, Mikhail Volchok, Rita Sloan and Suzanne Beicken.
The droll cantata Knock, Knock by P.D.Q. Bach (the "composer" invented by Peter Schickele) would make more sense on a Handel tribute, but no matter. Edward Maclary drew a vibrant, very amusing performance from the UM Chamber Singers.
For real Mozart, there were opera excerpts featuring very promising student voices from the Maryland Opera Studio.