Monday, March 9, 2009

Organ Music in Griswold Hall (and at Emmanuel: assembly required)

Is the Peabody Conservatory's Leith Symington Griswold Hall one of Baltimore's best kept secrets? I have seen it full to standing room only for some concerts (notably the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble's Christmas concerts), but sometimes it seems that more people should be aware of this beautiful room. Most of the time, the lovely pipe organ in its housing painted a creamy white to go with the hall's color scheme is a backdrop for concerts involving other instruments, but bring in an organist and a Titan awakens. Yesterday afternoon's recital by Peggy Haas Howell was only the third or fourth time I've heard this organ played, and I've been missing something wonderful here. If Howell's program had been limited to the Baroque, it would have been remarkable enough, but we had some Mendelssohn and some Louis Vierne (1870-1937), whose organ symphonies seem to be represented on most programs in only selected (but colorful!) movements. Finally, we also heard Pamela Decker's (b. 1955) "Tango-Toccata on a theme by Melchior Vulpius". Yes, I'm going to be looking for that one in a recording so I can hear it again. If you ever see it on a program for an upcoming recital, get yourself to that recital. (Truthfully, I also need to hear plenty of other organ music.)

I searched for a picture and more complete description of the organ and Griswold Hall. Here's a link to a page by Acoustic Dimensions, the company that remodeled the hall in the late 1990's. (Now I must look up "tracker organ".)

Meanwhile, the Emmanuel Episcopal Church a few blocks away has received its new organ. I asked about it while picking up a copy of the season program for Opera Vivente, which performs at the church, and I was directed to a pile of long cardboard crates behind a partition in the vestibule. No, I never imagined that a pipe organ was freighted complete to its destination, but it was so strange to see a new one of these huge instruments lying in pieces, waiting to be put together and brought to life again.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dutch and Baltimore Cityscapes

The current exhibit at the NGA, "Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age", was my main destination yesterday, and I definitely must visit it again. (It closes on May 3.) Do you ever find yourself basking in art? There were a couple of rooms in this exhibit where I entered, took a first cursory look round and then just stood there taking it in without focusing on a single picture. Eventually, I regained consciousness in a sense and started examining some of the pictures more closely.

The themes of this exhibit reminded me of another artist, closer in time and place, working in a different style and medium (watercolor), but on a mission similar to that of the Dutch artists: Martha Dougherty lives and works in Baltimore. I've seen her paintings in temporary exhibits at City Cafe, and later I realized that the paintings of various scenes in and around the Peabody which are hanging in that institute's grand arcade are by the same artist.

A good sample of Dougherty's work can be viewed on her web site:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Weekend of Two Cities?

Cultural opportunities are drawing me in both directions in the I-95 corridor.

My ticket for Opera Vivente's run of "The Coronation of Poppea" in Baltimore is for next weekend, but I'm really liking these dress rehearsal photos posted on the OV blog. (The first performance was last night, and the second will be this Sunday afternoon.)

Today, I think I'll head down to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for the exhibit of Dutch cityscapes, which opened recently. The big Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit closes in the middle of this month, so I might revisit it while I'm there.

This organ recital by Peggy Haas Howell on Sunday at 4pm at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory also entices. On the very varied program: Who can resist something called "Tango-Toccata on a Theme by Melchior Vulpius"? (Adult tickets, $15 each.)

If the cityscapes at NGA don't overwhelm me, before Sunday's organ recital at the Peabody I could visit the Walters Art Musuem and have a look at some current exhibits. That one about the 13th century illuminated manuscripts of "The Romance of the Rose" written in Old French looks interesting.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Opera Calendar: March 2009 in Baltimore

The Coronation of Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi, sung in English with Baroque ensemble at Opera Vivente, meeting hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Mar. 6, 8, 12, 14

La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Peabody Opera, Friedberg Hall of Peabody Conservatory with Peabody Concert Orchestra, Mar. 11-14. In this production, Violetta is sung by three different sopranos to match Verdi's varied writing for this role.

Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart. Baltimore Concert Opera at the Engineers Club in concert performance with piano accompaniment, Mar. 25.

All of these performances are in Baltimore's Mount Vernon cultural district. Based on my experience (even if Baltimore Concert is a new company), I recommend buying tickets in advance.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Upcoming Productions at Opera Vivente; High-Register Male Voices

I bought my tickets on line yesterday for upcoming productions by Opera Vivente in Baltimore: Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" (sung in English) coming up this week and next, then Britten's "Albert Herring" (sung in the original English!) in May. Britten's comedy will give us a look at a different side of this composer after the heavy stuff of "Peter Grimes" at Washington National Opera earlier in the spring.

I've seen a production of Poppea only once before, also in English, back in the late 1990's at the University of Maryland's Clarice Center. Do you remember that one? It was updated to modern Washington, DC, and portrayed Nero as a modern-day world leader. Nero was sung by a Greek countertenor, who I believe was the subject of a short feature in a recent issue of Opera News (or Gramophone?). That production was billed as one of the weekend's best bets for entertainment on the front page of the Post's Weekend section, so I think there were a lot of audience members attracted by that recommendation but unprepared for certain aspects of the show. For one, I recall an audible gasp among the audience when the countertenor first opened his mouth. I continue to meet music lovers who are not used to the concept of the high-register male voice, but I like to say, "Once you've heard a good high-register male voice, you'll never go back." (But I'm still a fan of Slavonic basses.)

Now we have male sopranos gaining recognition in recent years. Opera Vivente's upcoming Poppea will be my first time hearing any male soprano, and I am looking forward to hearing this singer, David Korn, as Nero opposite soprano Ah Hong as Poppea. As I understand the difference, countertenors train their voices to sing consistently falsetto, but a male soprano sings naturally in that range without modifying his voice. It could be a little more complicated than that, because a few countertenors claim they are singing naturally, as opposed to falsetto, in their register. Russell Oberlin, whose collection of Handel arias was remastered recently in Deutsche Grammophon's Spotlight series, was one such countertenor. Considering the variety among singing voices, it could, indeed, be true of some countertenors, but whatever is really happening inside the singer, the results we hear are astounding.

I rambled on here longer than planned, but I have been so excited by this area of singing and continue to be awed by it and intrigued by the difference in voice types even within this range. Some fine countertenors, including Peter Wen-Chih Lee, have studied at the Peabody Institute recently, and my opera and recital disc collection now includes the likes of David Daniels and Philippe Jaroussky.

Here is a link to Opera Vivente's current season page with cast and production details and hot buttons for buying tickets on line. (There is also a phone number, if you prefer that option.) I note that Harmonious Blacksmith's Joseph Gascho is conducting Poppea, and JoAnn Kulesza, who has conducted previous Britten opera productions at Vivente and Peabody, is conducting Herring.