Cultural scene holding its own

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Few speak of Annapolis' cultural life with greater authority than Anna Greenberg.

A self-described "professional volunteer" who has twice served as president of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's Board of Trustees and continues to be active on other local advisory boards, Greenberg is passionate about her city's history of strong and independent support for the performing and fine arts.

"Annapolis has always felt the need to have an authentic arts community of its own," she says. "We never sat back and depended on Baltimore and Washington, because the people of culture who've settled here, for the most part, haven't been from Baltimore and Washington.

"They've come from places like New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania," she adds, "and one of the things that drew them here in the first place was the culture available on our two wonderful college campuses and in the larger community. They wanted it, they got it, and they supported it."

Culture in and around Annapolis took a leap forward a couple of decades ago when the old Annapolis High School at 801 Chase St. was refurbished into about Maryland Hall offerings: 410-263-5544).

Lightning struck twice in Anne Arundel County with the opening of the Chesapeake Arts Center, another recycled school, at 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park.

A musical version of Dracula in the complex's Studio Theatre, big-band jazz on the Main Stage and interactive an "whodunit" in the Main Stage Gallery were among the recent offerings. (Information about Chesapeake Arts Center programs: 410-636-6597).

In recent years, arts organizations nationwide have suffered trying times as traumatic events and the slumping economy diminished audience support and the volume of corporate donations flowing into the coffers of orchestras, opera houses, museums, ballet companies and choral ensembles.

The local arts community has not been immune from these forces, says Pamela Godfrey, general manager of the Annapolis Chorale.

"I think we're all being very careful," she says, "trimming here and there, doing more with less, maybe giving one concert instead of two. Still, most of us seem to be holding our own so far."

Among the organizations that continue to flourish in the county arts scene:

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Born four decades ago as an amateur community orchestra, the ensemble today is largely a professional group comprised of gifted area free-lancers and members of the various military orchestras and bands that dot the region.

How good are these players? The principal trumpet of a couple years back is now with the Chicago Symphony. The ASO's current principal flutist, Kim Valerio, will be returning to Annapolis this year after spending a season with the world-class St. Louis Symphony.

2003 has been a year of dispute for the ASO, whose board of trustees voted in November not to renew the contract of conductor Leslie B. Dunner after the charismatic African-American maestro's commendable five-year tenure on the Maryland Hall podium.

Terminating the employment of the popular leader who had heightened the orchestra's artistic and public profile while earning favorable reviews for his buoyant brand of music-making unleashed a storm of criticism in the community that divided and unnerved many orchestra supporters.

In the end, the board stuck to its guns. Dunner is gone, so the coming two seasons promise to be a time of transition for the orchestra.

Subscription concerts in 2003-2004 will be handled by five visitors (three of them with past or present ties to the Baltimore Symphony), who may or may not wind up vying to become conductor of the local orchestra.

The 2004-2005 season will be given over to the ASO's formal conductor search, with Dunner's successor being named in time to take control of the orchestra's fortunes in fall 2005.

Guest conductors for the coming season include Daniel Hege of the Syracuse Symphony, David Lockington of Michigan's Grand Rapids Symphony and three of the country's up-and-coming associate conductors: Rossen Milanov of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Emil DeCou of Washington's National Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony's Lara Weber.

Repertoire highlights will include Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist Jon Nakamatsu, an evening of concertos by Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven with a solo trio anchored by pianist Nava Perlman, daughter of violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, and the galvanic 5th symphonies of Beethoven, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky.

Information about the Annapolis Symphony's subscription season: the orchestra, 410-269-1132 or 410-263-0907, or www.annapolissymphony.org.

Annapolis Chorale

The days when American choral societies sat dutifully by, awaiting a Christmas concert or an annual appearance with a local orchestra are over.

Thanks to a couple of generations' worth of energetic, enterprising vocal music specialists, choral organizations have become musical hubs of their communities, offering full concert seasons of their own, often in tandem with their own orchestras.

In Annapolis, that role is filled by conductor J. Ernest Green and his Annapolis Chorale.

Poised to celebrate his 20th year at the helm, Green presides over a choral outfit that isn't one group or one concert series, but several.

For Maryland Hall performances of masterworks of the choral repertoire such as Giuseppe Verdi's grand, operatic Requiem, or Francis Poulenc's Gloria, there are the massed 150 voices of the full chorale.

For programs of a cappella choral works, Green and his Chamber Choir of 35 may well head for the more intimate confines of historic St. Anne's Church in the center of Annapolis. A first-rate chamber orchestra is on call to accompany both.

Concert venues aren't the only things that alternate for these singers. Often, they change musical idioms as well, offering concert performances of great Broadway musicals such as Camelot, The Secret Garden, and Fiddler on the Roof.

The chorale has begun sponsoring visiting artists as well, as they did this past year in performances by the Washington Symphonic Brass.

"The point," says Green, "is to reach out to everyone with all kinds of music."

Information about the Annapolis Chorale's 2003-2004 season: 410-263-1906 or www.annapolischorale.org.

Ballet Theatre of Maryland

Baltimore soaked up kudo after kudo in the national press this past winter for Vivat! St. Petersburg, the three-week citywide festival of the arts that honored the 300th birthday of one of Russia's most beautiful and most cosmopolitan cities.

Performing at the center of this extraordinary outpouring of talent was the Capital City's own Ballet Theatre of Maryland (nee Ballet Theatre of Annapolis), which dazzled viewers at the Baltimore Museum of Art with Inspirations of the Ballet Russes, a tribute to the genius brought to the Paris stage nearly a century ago by the great Russian choreographer Serge Diaghilev and his legendary dancers.

Still based in Maryland Hall, the local company that made a national audience take notice has taken on more of an international dimension in recent years.

Prima ballerina Zhirui Zou was one of only three principal dancers elevated to the fore by the National Ballet of China. Sergei Vladimirov, the company's principal male dancer, trained at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, while BTM's American dancers boast affiliations with premier institutions like the Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre, Jacob's Pillow and the North Carolina School for the Arts.

BTM suffered a great loss this year with the death of Edward Stewart, the company's founding artistic director whose imprimatur can still be found on every aspect of the ensemble's 23-year history.

Information on BTM's 2003-2004 season: 410-263-8289 or www.btmballet.org.

Annapolis Opera

Washington and Baltimore may maintain opera houses stocked with talent, but that hasn't stopped the Annapolis Opera from carving out a niche for itself over the past three decades.

Conductor Ronald Gretz and stage director Braxton Peters have seen to it that the company's talent pipeline stays in fine working order, as it was during last season's spring production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata.

Yali-Marie Williams, a product of both Juilliard and Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, gave a performance as Violetta possessed of personal dignity and sumptuous vocal tone. She was complemented exceptionally well by Thom King, a Baltimore-based baritone who sang gorgeously as Old Man Germont, the over-protective father who does his son's girlfriend wrong.

This ability to identify and blend talent, both national and local, is what makes the local company so rewarding to follow.

Many of these up-and-coming young voices are on display at Annapolis Opera's annual vocal competition held at Maryland Hall in early February.

Audiences get to vote for their favorites with the judges, and there's a good chance that the unknown who wows the listeners that day may wind up starring in a future production.

The company augments its two full-length productions with thematic operatic soirees such as "Mozart by Candlelight" and "Pasta, Puccini and Verdi, Too."

In the past, such occasions have been staged at area restaurants and historic sites. Information about Annapolis Opera's 2003-2004 season: 410-267-8135 or www.annapolisopera.org.

Other companies

Theater lovers in the area may head for Washington's Kennedy Center and the Lyric and Mechanic theaters of Baltimore on occasion, but they do so because they want to, not because they have to.

For well-crafted musicals and plays, the Annapolis area lacks for nothing.

Since 1949, the drama center of the Capital City has been Colonial Players of Annapolis, which performs a five-play season in its intimate, superbly equipped theater-in-the-round on East Street, just off State Circle in the heart of the Historic District.

The company attracts some of the best actors around, which means the shows are almost always good, sometimes stunningly so. Musicals in recent years have been marginally less impressive than the straight plays. The most recent tour de force was last season's brilliant production of A Shayna Maidel, Barbara Lebow's heartbreaking yet uplifting play about a Polish family decimated by the murderous excesses of Hitler's Third Reich.

Diversity is key at Colonial, as next season's offerings attest. The 2003-2004 season begins with Joe Depieto's Over the River and Through the Woods, a warm, funny play about Italian grandparents not entirely willing to let go of their progeny.

The rest of the season will include The Piano Lesson, August Wilson's intense intergenerational drama about families and their legacies; A.R. Gurney's comedy, Silvia, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, a mysterious tale of love turned to hatred and deceit.

Next season's musical will be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the riotous 1950s farce full of the young Stephen Sondheim's comedic takes on ancient Rome.

For Colonial Players dates and subscription information: 410-268-7373 or www.cplayers.com.

Another troupe worth following is the hard-working Pasadena Theatre Company, which puts on quality shows, often on the move in different settings across the county (410-975-0200, www.pasadenatheatrecompany.com).

Don't let the weather fool you. It is summer, which means it's time for theater under the stars at the Summer Garden Theatre, located at the confluence of Main and Compromise streets just across from the Annapolis City Dock.

Offerings this summer include Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, and the Lerner and Loewe classic, My Fair Lady. (410-268-0809, www.summergarden.com)Theater for the younger set is available from Children's Theatre of Annapolis, which produces two shows per year, one with older kids and the other with the youngsters.

The 12- to 18-year-olds will be on display this fall in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. (410-757-2281, www.childrenstheatreofannapolis.org)Finally, Annapolis lays claim to one of the area's nicer dinner theaters, the Chesapeake Music Hall located just east of Annapolis at 339 Busch's Frontage Road. Oliver, the tuneful musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is the current attraction, with the sizzling period piece Chicago and the sumptuously melodic Camelot looming on the horizon. (410-626-7515, www.chesapeakemusichall.com)

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