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Celebrating John Harbison

DERWOOD - Hundreds of local musicians and friends attended a tribute to local musician John Harbison Thursday night at the Outta The Way Cafe. Harbison died last week of a heart attack.

Charlie Plunkett hosted the event and performers played until the early hours of Friday morning. "It was a moving tribute to a great friend," said Chip Berman, the owner of the Outta the Way Cafe.

Among those playing Thursday was Stu Judd, Plunkett, Sandra Dean who played with Plunkett on a rendition of "I'll follow the Sun," as well as Barry Fantale, Stoney Johnstone, and the Rock n' Roll Relics.


Apparently this is what women want

So what do women want?

 “Heartstrings and Shoestrings” is a dance/performance piece that intriguingly plays around with that question. Currently being performed at the Cultural Arts Center on the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College, , it offers up a number of stereotypes for our inspection and then busily demolishes them whenever it gets the chance.

This demolition job is handled in two ways.  First, the six performers of Uprooted Dance Company play into and then back out of one’s expectations. They may sashay demurely before us but then go off on a verbal tirade about their disappointments in relationships.  They may call a guy from the audience for him to select one to dance with (shades of cheesy reality shows here) only to never get around to actually dancing with the guy.


Dvorak via the shores of lake Gitche Gumee

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee…” 

That use to be a familiar line from one of the most admired epic works in American literature, and now it is often used as a punch line for mediocre poetry. 

And in one of those weird convergences of history, Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” was written at a time when America was coming of age in the nineteenth century and looking for some cultural status of its own.  As another part of that effort, the National Conservatory of Music in New York scored a major coup when it brought over admired European composer Antonin Dvorak as its director. 


Ganz, here's your Chopin worth playing

It is quite common to see the music of Chopin featured on a piano program, and all Chopin recitals are not unusual.  Chopin is the composer of the keyboard, but there is nothing ordinary about the multi-year project pianist Brian Ganz has currently embarked on at Strathmore.

Presented by the National Philharmonic, Ganz’s Chopin project is a decade long exploration of the entire solo piano works of Chopin.  That is basically the bulk of the composer’s output – Chopin only wrote a handful of chamber pieces and works for piano and orchestra.    Ganz proves a valuable guide through this forest which contains many well-known works and more than a few hidden gems along the way.

This third concert was entitled “Small Worlds” and showcased the composer’s love of miniature forms.  Miniature is a relative term – the pieces selected kept getting longer and more complicated, and the final set of miniatures took up the entire second half of the recital.


The often neglected film score scores big

With the Oscar nominations recently unveiled, and the movie awards season well underway, the Baltimore Symphony was recently at Strathmore showcasing an often neglected art form – the film score. 

While a popular song may come out of a film, and the occasional suite, no one really performs film scores and yet it is a quintessential American art form, as much as jazz.  To kick off several programs devoted to film music, conductor Marin Alsop began with what many critics consider the best movie score of all time – Sergei Prokofieff’s music for the Sergei Eisenstein film “Alexander Nevsky.” 

“Nevksy” lives in a strange twilight world.  Film director Eisenstein himself is best remembered for his silent films, especially “Battleship Potemkin” which features the much admired (and much parodied) Odessa Steps sequence, a classic example of film montage.  Meanwhile, Prokofieff turned the best pieces of his score into a dramatic cantata and that is how the music is usually performed these days.   In fact, it is one of Prokofieff’s most popular works, but what about the original film score?

For the concert, the BSO had a large screen above them, and projected the entire film while playing all of Prokofieff’s music live.  The concert was a revelation in many ways, not least in that this is an early talking film, but its approach to music and dialogue is very different from contemporary film making. 

We are so use to film music underneath the action and dialogue, very subtly cuing us to certain emotions, which turn many modern film scores turn into background music.  Eisenstein structured “Nevsky” with dialogue rich scenes with no music and then silent movie style scenes where Prokofieff’s score is given free reign.  It is a very different approach to movie making, but at least for this film, it is a valid approach.

“Nevksy” is sometimes written off as a mere propaganda piece.  Medieval Russia is having problems on a number of fronts but their biggest concern is with the invading Germans.  Now why would any Russian film from 1938 picturing the Germans as invading barbarians be considered political?  “We signed peace treaty with them,” one Russian citizen says about the Germans.  See, no political agenda here.

Despite being a nearly 80 year old film “Alexander Nevsky” moves at a lightning pace.  Nevsky himself would rather tend his farm, but his country calls him to battle.  There is also a subplot involving two soldiers in love with the same girl, which provides some comic relief but the emphasis is on the upcoming battle.  It all comes to a climax with the extended combat scene at Lake Peipus, a battle on a frozen lake that used hundreds of extras and then state of the art film techniques.

Marin Alsop used monitors to keep the orchestra and Baltimore Choral Arts Society in sync with the film images.  While occasionally the orchestra volume did swamp the movie, the dialogue is all in Russian with English subtitles, so this was a minor flaw.  Both orchestra and chorus performed with dramatic flair and mezzo soprano Irina Tchistjakova did a great job from the Strathmore balcony singing the famous dirge near the end, where the film shows a battlefield littered with fallen soldiers. 

While definitely a masterpiece, “Nevsky” the film has aged over the years.  Everyone in this film seems to be blonde (or wearing an obviously blonde wig) and some of the outdoor shots look clearly stage bound.  But those battle scenes remain amazing for all their action and scope while not falling into chaos.  At other times Eisenstein was quite bold: in a scene where the Germans massacre an entire town, his camera did not flinch from showing the enemy’s cruelty to old people and children. 

While the movie itself influenced many later films, Prokofieff’s score may be even more trend setting and echoes can be heard in nearly every epic film in the past 60 years.  The next time you see one of the “Star Wars” films, listen to the John Williams score. Those dissonant marching chords for the enemy and those soaring chorales for the heroes were all done in “Alexander Nevsky” decades earlier.     

This kicks off a very busy winter season for the BSO at Strathmore.  Upcoming concerts include a concert performance of “Hairspray” on January 24, an all Wagner concert on February 16, and Mozart’s Requiem on February 28.

For more information on the BSO season, call 1 (877) BSO-1444 or go online to

3 stars

By David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic

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