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May 9, 2009

National Symphony plunges into CrossCurrents with Oliver Knussen

The Kennedy Center has been awash in CrossCurrents, a remarkable week of contemporary music created by composer Oliver Knussen and pianist Joseph Kalichstein. The festival wraps up Sunday.

I wish I could have gotten down there for a lot more of it. My only opportunity to get caught up in the riptide came Friday night, when I heard Knussen conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in the kind of program that would be unthinkable and unsellable in Baltimore: Four works, the oldest one from 1993, the others from the 21st century. Not that it it a fire at the NSO box office; judging by the modest turnout Friday, you wouldn’t have trouble getting tickets for the final presentation Saturday night – and it’s well worth checking out.

This is, for starters, a good chance to hear music by composers who don’t tend to pop up on the Baltimore Symphony’s radar – two Americans, Gunther Schuller and Augusta Read Thomas; two from the UK, Julian Anderson and Knussen. The latter was represented here by his 2002 Violin Concerto, a taut, concise work that effortlessly fuses lyricism and spice. It’s at once a virtuosic and anti-virtuosic concerto, more about intercommunication of soloists and orchestra than audience dazzle, more about intimacy and complexity of musical discourse than grand statement. Leila Josefowicz was the brilliant soloist, playing from memory (that was impressive in itself) and articulating the often intricate, high-lying melodic lines with ...

great finesse. Her obvious commitment to the material was matched by finely detailed playing in the orchestra.

Anderson’s Imagin’d Corners from 2002 (the title comes from a John Donne verse) was a terrific opener. Here, the principal action is in the horns, called upon to use natural overtones, sounds we think of as unnatural – the microtonal notes between “normal” notes. The effect wasn’t jarring, but tingling, especially when the finely executed horn bursts were balanced by a brilliant array of percussive colors in the orchestra. A final horn yelp ended this cool piece with a refreshing jolt.

Thomas’ Helios Chorus I (2006), an exercise in gradual crescendo that involves lots of intricate activity in each section of the ensemble, utilizes a freely dissonant language with a disarming naturalness.

Schuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993) is the composer’s response to the death of his wife. The emotional force at work is unmistakable, especially in passages of aggressive percussion and biting brass. The middle of the imaginatively structured score’s five, unbroken movements, is quite affecting, with the woodwinds introducing a gentle rocking theme that creates a bittersweet calm. It’s not entirely a dark piece; there are moments of great brightness and rhythmic jauntiness as well. The NSO gave a solid account of the work.

Throughout the concert, Knussen provided straightforward guidance. As his amusing remarks to the audience made clear, he’s quite the character, but his conducting tended to be more about efficiency than personality. I wouldn't have minded more kick and push at times.

In addition to the repeat of this program on Saturday, Knussen will lead members of the NSO Sunday night in a chamber music program that offers works by Anderson, Thomas, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Sean Shepherd and, of course, Knussen.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:08 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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