Positive view for BCO's 26th season


Music Column

May 20, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A couple of seasons ago, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra faced financial pressures and an uncertain future. As the organization approaches tomorrow's 25th anniversary season finale, things are looking a lot better for the 26th.

"We pulled out of an ugly situation," says music director Markand Thakar. "Our financial health is OK, and the attitude at the BCO is positive."

Next season, the orchestra, which has an operating budget of $365,000, will make its New York debut, performing as part of the popular Bargemusic series presented on a "floating concert hall" moored beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The invitation came from violinist and Bargemusic director Mark Peskanov, who liked what he heard when he was a soloist with the BCO in October.

The orchestra has made two yet-to-be released recordings for the Naxos label, and more projects are in the works.

This doesn't mean that everything is all rosy at the BCO.

"Our audience this season wasn't as big as we wanted," Thakar says. "My mantra is, `Fill the seats, fill the seats.' Once you fill the seats, all things are possible."

To that end, single tickets for the 2008-2009 season will be cut from $35 to $25, with further reductions for subscribers. Students of any age with a valid student ID can get in for free, as in the past.

The orchestra's 2008-2009 season is a typical Thakar mix of the known and unknown. Heading up the known part will be music by Mozart, represented on all five programs; works include his Clarinet Concerto with eminent clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.

Gabriel Faure's Requiem (with the Handel Choir of Baltimore) and Randall Thompson's Place of the Blest (with the Peabody Children's Chorus), along with symphonies by Beethoven and Charles Ives, are scheduled. The premiere of the Trombone Concerto by BCO composer-in-residence Jonathan Leshnoff (with soloist Christopher Dudley) will also be featured.

The program that will be played in Baltimore and New York offers a piece by Matthew Quayle that will be heard in two versions, one realized on a computer and the other played by the BCO.

"I think that will draw a fair amount of attention," Thakar says.

The BCO's longtime Wednesday-night concert time slot at Goucher College will not hold for all of next season. "I don't think Wednesday is ever going to sell out for us," says BCO executive director Lockwood Hoehl. Three of the five programs will be moved to Sunday afternoons.

For more information about next season or tomorrow's concert of Haydn and Stravinsky, call 410-685-4050 or go to thebco.org.

Choral Arts' concert

El Nino, an evening-length oratorio from 2000 by John Adams, presents a fresh take on the Nativity story, using both accepted and Apocryphal texts, as well as poetry by Hispanic women and other literary sources. It is at once a retelling of Christ's birth and a celebration of all birth.

This thought-provoking work received its area premiere Sunday night at the Kennedy Center by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, led by its founding artistic director Norman Scribner. It was an engrossing experience.

I could have done without the accompanying silent film by director Peter Sellars, with its gritty scenes from Los Angeles and a Latino couple struggling to, more or less, find room at the inn (Sellars made the film for El Nino's premiere in Paris).

Even so, the screen imagery certainly added to the unusual theatricality of the presentation. The choristers, with tiny lights attached to their scores, became a comforting backdrop of stars.

Adams' signature minimalist idioms propel the score, which also finds the composer at his most lyrically expansive. The vocal writing is imaginative; the orchestra is called upon to create prismatic layers of sound and mood (including Psycho-style slashing string attacks to reference the Herod-ordered slaughter).

Although some details could have been tighter, Scribner's conducting yielded an impressive performance that found the chorus in vibrant form. Countertenors Brian Cummings, Paul Flight and Steven Rickards created an ethereal blend. Soprano Sharla Nafzinger, mezzo Leslie Mutchler and bass Christopheren Nomura did vivid work.

The Children's Chorus of Washington chimed in exquisitely for the gentle finale. The orchestra met its formidable challenges to often compelling effect.

Baroque time travel

Harmonious Blacksmith, the lively early music ensemble, filled the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion in Mount Vernon with sounds once heard at Zimmermann's Coffee House in Leipzig, Germany, when Bach and Telemann hung out there.

Naturally, the program included Bach's Coffee Cantata, a lighthearted look at caffeine and love. The work received a nimble performance, with particularly charming singing from bass-baritone Francois Loup and soprano Meghan McCall. Joseph Gascho produced considerable finesse and flourish at the keyboard in Bach's D minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052, with solid backing from a string foursome.

Even more impressive was the account of Telemann's Paris Quartet No. 6, with Gascho, violinist Elizabeth Field, cellist Nika Zlataric and Justin Godoy, whose technical bravura and range of expressive nuance on the recorder provided extra charm.


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