Leshnoff's CD among many strong local offerings


April 02, 2009|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Jonathan Leshnoff's Violin Concerto struck me as a major addition to the repertoire when I first heard it in 2006. I'm even more convinced of that quality, having revisited the work on an all-Leshnoff CD from the Naxos label that features violinist Charles Wetherbee and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar.

Leshnoff, a Towson University faculty member whose international career has been developing rapidly, found inspiration for the concerto in a chilling tale he heard from a Holocaust survivor - how inmates, forced by SS guards to sing Nazi propaganda songs, subtly wove prayers into the music.

The concerto is richly layered and almost painfully beautiful; the violin's soaring, searing lyricism in the second movement and haunted introspection in the finale are but two examples. Deep implications seem to lie behind each dab of orchestral coloring, too, adding to the work's cumulative power. Wetherbee is a persuasive and engaging soloist; the BCO, sensitively led by Thakar, sounds polished and deeply involved.

The dark lyricism of the concerto is also presented in the atmospheric Deep Reflections (2003), for violin, piano, string orchestra and off-stage string quartet. It receives a strong performance on the disc, as does the 2006 String Quartet No. 1, with its eventful movements named for the four seasons.

All in all, it's a strong addition to the "American Classics" series from Naxos and a timely reminder of the BCO's worth. Financial pressures caused the ensemble to suspend operations for the second half of this season, but latest word is that things are looking up for a return in the fall.

Three essentially self-produced CDs with Baltimore connections also caught my ear.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is on composer Mark O'Connor's label, performing his Americana Symphony, conducted by Marin Alsop. A dynamic fiddler who has successfully transplanted his bluegrass roots in classical fields, O'Connor is perhaps best known as a composer for his bittersweet Appalachia Waltz, which provides the thematic basis for expansive, colorfully orchestrated variations in his symphony.

The score sometimes settles into a kind of Copland-lite boilerplate, or suggests a soundtrack-in-waiting for the right Ken Burns documentary, but it has an engaging emotional directness that Alsop effectively unleashes, and the BSO gets into the spirit vividly.

Appropriately for the Lenten season, I savored a Peabody Conservatory-centric recording of eloquent settings by Vivaldi and Pergolesi of the medieval text Stabat Mater, which describes the grieving Mary by the cross. The poetic beauty of both scores is warmly captured on this CD, featuring current and past Peabody students and faculty.

Silvery-voiced soprano Ah Hong sings exquisitely. Peter Lee is somewhat limited in projection and roundness of tone, but the countertenor matches his colleague's musicality. The Baltimore Baroque Band offers a good deal of fluency and nuance.

I just caught up with a no-longer-new CD by Brian Sacawa, the saxophonist behind the stimulating Mobtown Modern ensemble at the Contemporary Museum. The disc makes quite a statement about his virtuosity and curiosity in repertoire by the likes of Philip Glass, Christopher Theofanidis and Erik Spangler. Sacawa approaches the wide diversity of styles with equal panache, right down to the heavy breaths and grunts called for in Keeril Makan's Voice Within Voice.

Alternative 'Barber'

This week, if all had gone as it should have, the Baltimore Opera Company would be halfway through a run of a production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Instead, the company is in liquidation, leaving a lot of questions and disappointment in its wake. Meanwhile, by a coincidence of scheduling, The Barber of Seville is onstage this weekend, albeit beyond the immediate Baltimore area.

The Virginia Opera's production of the popular comedy will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, Braddock Road and Route 123, Fairfax. Tickets are $44-$98. Call 888-945-2468 or go to tickets.com.

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