Musical rules were made to be broken at An die Musik event


Music column

July 22, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Music history is filled with composers who methodically followed the rules - this chord can't follow that chord, this type of theme must be balanced by that type of theme, this structure must be built only that way.

Such by-the-book types typically wind up relegated to footnotes, leaving the spotlight on the composers who recognized the occasional need to bend, break or simply ignore the rules.

On Sunday night at An die Musik, Peter Minkler, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's acting assistant principal violist, and Lura Johnson, a fine pianist based in the area, gave a rewarding recital packed with works by an impressive assortment of rule-flouters.

Consider Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae, described as "reflections" on a song by Renaissance composer John Dowland. Instead of presenting Dowland's melodic material first and then developing it, as would be the normal procedure, Britten begins instead with the variations. (Imagine jazz players improvising on a tune that doesn't actually get played until the end.)

Arvo P?rt uses the simplest of elements in Spiegel im Spiegel - slow arpeggios in the piano, the barest of melodies in the viola - and confounds any number of expectations about form and function (though essentially minimalist, it doesn't even conform to conventions of minimalism). The result is a hypnotic, time-stopping experience.

George Rochberg famously turned against the strict, complex principles of serialism that he had followed and set his own rules, which allowed a richness of tonality. His compact Viola Sonata effectively reflects this intently lyrical side of his thinking.

The Britten, Part and Rochberg pieces inspired a good deal of expressive eloquence from Minkler and Johnson (technical roughness here and there proved negligible).

Also on the program, which the two musicians will record shortly, was the profound Viola Sonata by Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who never met a musical rule he couldn't tweak, at the very least. This is his final work, a long, haunted, glance over the shoulder.

Beethoven's most popular piano sonata, the Moonlight, is quoted by Shostakovich in the Viola Sonata. To underline that link, Johnson performed the Beethoven sonata first. Her playing was a little short on bravura and personality, but she went on to provide exemplary partnering during the Shostakovich opus, which found Minkler digging deeply into the emotional well of what could be called Shostakovich's Twilight Sonata.

Opera at Artscape

Baltimore Opera Company and Opera Vivente came up with witty stagings of offbeat fare for Artscape.

On Saturday afternoon at MICA's Brown Center, Baltimore Opera offered Ravel's delicious romp, L'heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour), the tale of a clockmaker's wife who passes the time with male company when he's away.

James Harp, who prepared the cheeky English translation, directed the action in fluent, amusing fashion. He also did admirable work as a one-man orchestra at the piano, although it was impossible not to yearn for the rich, exquisite detailing of Ravel's original instrumentation.

The onstage antics were carried out nimbly by a cast that had the particular benefit of Jessica Renfro's bright soprano as Concepcion, and David Kirkwood's stylish phrasing as her poetry-dribbling lover, Gonzalve.

Paul Corujo easily fit the tall-dark-and-handsome bill for Don Ramiro, the muleteer whose need for a watch repair sends the plot spinning, but could have used a little more vocal heft.

For Opera Vivente's Artscape entry, director John Bowen cleverly linked and dramatized a pair of early baroque cantatas: Michel Pignolet de Monteclair's Pyramus and Thisbe, and Handel's Apollo and Dafne.

To provide a theatrical thread, the narrator of the former got slowly inebriated and then turned up as out of control as Apollo in the latter. Handel's work was set in a coffee shop, where details of the original story took on fresh overtones (when the Dafne here professed devotion to Cynthia, virgin goddess of the moon, she had in mind a recognized-in-Massachusetts type of relationship).

I'm not convinced that Handel's music makes a tight fit for all the campy shtick it got here, but the results certainly proved entertaining.

On Sunday evening, Ryan de Ryke, who can always be counted on to inhabit a role and get fully into a theatrical concept, relished the dual Narrator/Apollo assignment. His singing was full of sensitive shading.

Lisa Eden brought a vibrant soprano to the roles of Thisbe and Dafne. As Pyramus, tenor Karim Sulayman sang earnestly, if not always smoothly, and then hammed it up mightily as a nonsinging coffee shop clerk. The fine early instrument ensemble Harmonious Blacksmith, led by Joseph Gascho, added considerably to the production's value.


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