Saturday, February 09, 2008

Packaging the Provocateurs

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra @ Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD
Friday, February 8, 2008

Marin Alsop: conductor
Colin Currie: percussion

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, opus 28
Steven Mackey: Time Release
Claude Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite

With a sequence of compositions that is representative of what Marin Alsop has brought to Baltimore, the contemporary gem of Time Release was surrounded - and juxtaposed - with proven works from the early twentieth century that place these musical ideas within a compelling context and successfully makes the case for a balanced programming diet of new and old musics. This makes for an exciting time to hear live orchestral music in Charm City. This program will be repeated tonight at Carnegie Hall as this well-rehearsed ensemble and charismatic conductor play the provocateurs of the Eastern Seaboard.

My binge listening of Richard Strauss tone poems last weekend prepared these ears for the relatively light fare of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. The heavy, romantic hand of Strauss is completely restrained even as the music took several inventive turns along with some well-placed and satisfyingly dissonant passages. The Baltimore Symphony rendered a tight interpretation of this work that was occasionally rushed but exquisitely balanced.

Steven Mackey's Time Release, a concerto for percussionist and orchestra, was the clear focal point of the evening. The orchestral textures and harmonic materials were inventive and the formal internal logic of this composition was nearly transparent throughout. I could only envy the players for the chance they've had to live with this composition as I suspect a few more listenings would crystalize my positive impressions of the piece. Colin Currie gave a polished performance of a fiendishly virtuosic percussion part as Alsop led what was easily the most authoritative performance of the evening.

The "safe half" of the program began with Claude Debussy's excellent Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This whisp of a piece continues to impress me as one of Debussy's best on the startling beauty of that melodic line initiated by the solo flute at the onset. The impressionistic swirls of tonal color and quiet restraint make the live experience of this work extremely attractive.

Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite is another compelling draw to the concert hall. Much like the Afternoon of a Faun, it is the melodic line and its development make this such a fascinating piece. But unlike the more subdued Faun, Stravinsky brings some dynamic heat as the Suite makes its intensely satisfying forays into its "primitive" rhythmic drive and forceful orchestral stabs. The sudden jolt into fortissimo is a rich and beautiful sound to experience in person. After nearly a century, the Firebird Suite still manages to soar.

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