BCO offers techno novelty, new Leshnoff concerto
If there were a Most Novel Program of the Season Award, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra would probably win it hands down for the one it offered last night at Goucher College. (There were also performances over the weekend at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore and, marking the BCO's New York-area debut, at Bargemusic in Brooklyn.)
To begin with, there was a demonstration of Paul Henry Smith's Fauxharmonic, a computerized orchestra he can conduct, more or less, with a Wii remote. But that wasn't the most unusual aspect of the evening. There were two, count 'em, two brand new pieces on the bill, along with three far off-the-beaten-path repertoire items. This is the sort of programming that BCO music director Markand Thakar specializes in, and I thought this particular assortment was inspired. I mean, when's the last time you found an orchestra giving its audience a pair of premieres on the first half of a concert and ending with a bunch of adagios and fugues? Not exactly a box office magnet (attendance last night was much less than the season opener a few weeks before), but a worthy and engrossing mix.
At the center of the program was the Trombone Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff, the BCO's composer in residence. A full-orchestra version of the score is due next year, and it will be interesting to hear what new colors Leshnoff creates in the process of expanding the material. This version, for trombone and string ensemble, creates a fascinating juxtaposition of timbre and temperament as the composer explores ideas in a style that embraces tonality, but doesn't just take an easy, neo-romantic course. Something at once sophisticated and personal is always happening in the tightly constructed concerto, pulling the listener in.
The work's opening is like that of some Mahler symphonies -- expectant string tremolos prepare the way for an arresting thematic statement. Here, the trombone becomes a busy narrator, telling an eventful tale that passes through many moods and colors. An almost folksy middle movement, filled with darting ideas for the soloist, is framed by two darkly lyrical movements. The finale is particularly effective, with a long passage that rises melodically, harmonically and dynamically -- an emotional crescendo that gradually subsides into a kind of twilight world, the strings shimmering in a soft, high register as the trombone gradually lets go of its poetic enegry. Chris Dudley, principal trombone of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was the assured, vivid soloist. Thakar drew sensitive playing from the strings. I think the closing measures could have benefitted from a little more spaciousness, but the performance was nonetheless highly persuasive throughout.
I also found much to enjoy in Boston-based composer Matthew Quayle's Gridley Paige Road, named for a rual stretch in New York state where he spent his childhood. This new work is a tender adagio that unfolds with considerable expressive warmth (echoes of Barber's famous Adagio for Strings appear a couple of times). In terms of aural satisfaction, there was no contest: The BCO's live version of the Quayle score easily outshone Smith's computerized version, although the latter was certainly interesting to hear and closer to a natural sound than any electronically-generated strings I've yet encountered.
The rest of the concert held rewards, especially a tender account of Bruckner's Adagio from the F major Quintet, arranged for string orchestra. Some iffy intonation cropped up in Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, but there was a lot of elegant phrasing. And, although the orchestra encountered some rocky patches in Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, the music's perennially jolting originality came through strongly.
PHOTOS: Top right, Markand Thakar and Paul Henry Smith (courtesy BCO/Steve Sortino); above left, Jonathan Leshnoff (Baltimore Sun/Chiaki Kawajiri)