Sunday, February 24, 2008

Only the Rhetoric is Odd

Casual Firebird: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra @ Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD
Saturday, February 23, 2008 (11:00am)

Richard Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman
Lukas Foss: Oboe Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven: "Largo" from Oboe Concerto in F Major
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite

The ink on conductor Andrew Grams' degree in conducting from the Curtis Institute of Music is barely dry having been earned in 2003. With a three-year term as assistant director of the Cleveland Orchestra under his belt and a one-year tenure as resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra under way he is clearly gaining experience through community performances, Coffee Concerts and morning matinee concerts such as this one. He is enormously talented and I hope there is success in store for someone with such an acute grasp of orchestral scores.

His easy, casual manner in addressing the audience between pieces is a bit of a throwback to the troubling presentation of modern works that stands in sharp contrast to the Marin Alsop approach. The Lukas Foss Oboe Concerto is a beautiful, if somewhat conservative work and Grams' enthusiasm for the piece is understandable. But why place bookends on either side of the performance declaring it to be "odd?" If "oddness" were a parameter I was interested in the Lukas Foss Oboe Concerto would hardly register a tick on the "odd-ometer." Telling an audience to perceive it as such places an unfortunate coloring upon the experience that may calibrate perceptions too easily shattered if something significantly more "odd" should come down the pike. With the understanding that an early morning audience of orchestral music may expect more sugar coating than I may care to digest, it should be possible to convey genuine enthusiasm for new music with descriptions and observations that highlight what is actually part of the experience.

The Beethoven Oboe Concerto is a curiosity. It is essentially a student work that has eluded Beethoven scholars for a long time. Only the "Largo" movement is available for performances and it has been largely reconstructed from sketches found in the 1990s. Without the surrounding movements this isolated "Largo" is a pleasant sounding work without the profound weight one finds in other Beethoven pieces.

The choppy seas conveyed in Wagner's Overture from The Flying Dutchman was the most balanced and convincing performance on the program. Grams has an excellent grasp on how to level off the dynamics of the dramatic turns in this music. When Anthony Braxton, a composer who deftly expresses so many enthusiasms I share, expressed a new-found passion for the music of Richard Wagner I have to concede that there is substance to be found there. Braxton even acknowledges how remote Wagner's music initially was for him before he finally discovered how valuable his ideas are. I am still on that distant shore that finds the German Romantic a bit too dramatic to digest. But willing to keep an ear on performances of this quality until that same recognition sets in.

Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite soars as it does through the tens of thousands of interpretations performed since its premiere in 1919. Grams was a little more tentative than Alsop's decisive presentation just a little over a week ago. It is amazing to me that that first orchestral stab can still jolt an audience (even one well into its A.M. java fix) after so many performances.

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