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March 19, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's latest circus-theme program is a blast

Check your fears and hearing aids at the Meyerhoff door this weekend and brace yourselves for one of the most stimulating blasts to come from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in years.

Even before the actual blast of a shotgun, John Corigliano's surround-sound Symphony No. 3, "Circus Maximus," delivers more un-amplified volume than anything I can think of off hand, even Mahler at his most heaven-storming. It's a stunner in so many ways, from the concept itself -- "a celebration and a warning," as the composer put it in remarks from the stage Thursday night at Strathmore -- to the construction.  

The work is scored for masses of woodwind and brass instruments, placed all over the hall; a marching band that actually marches around at one point; and an arsenal of percussion with enough fire power to start a small revolution. It's all perfectly suited, of course, to the BSO's nearly month-long circus-related programming.

Corigliano's symphony, taking its name from the celebrated mass-entertainment venue of ancient Rome, clearly took some folks by surprise (or storm) Thursday; I saw a few holding their hands over their ears, a few others fleeing the hall before it was over. The peak decibel levels sure got parts of me vibrating that aren't usually awakened at classical concerts. But trust me -- this is a must-hear event, a rare and visceral experience that will have you buzzing for hours afterward (hey, that can be a good thing, as rock club habitues will tell you). I just hope the aural effect will be as visceral at Meyerhoff; the smaller, more rectangular Strathmore is clearly ideal for this sort of thing.

It wouldn't be so memorable if Corigliano had only intended to shock and awe. But this composer has never been capable, as far as I can tell, of superficiality, and this symphony from 2004 is packed with explosive subtexts. As he explained to the unsuspecting crowd (maybe some people did suspect -- the turnout was noticeably smaller than I usually see for BSO's concerts at Strathmore), Corigliano was thinking about

the relationship between the graphic, shamelessly pandering Roman shows at the arena, with all the violence and spectacle, and "our need for entertainment and diversion" in the era of reality-TV and remote controls (one of the wildest movements is titled "Channel Surfing").

The score might evoke "Ben-Hur" chariot-race imagery (not the Miklos Rozsa soundtrack, mind you) one minute, big-city mayhem the next; the wailing of nocturnal animals one minute, glitzy advertisements the next. A mirror is held up to the appealing and appalling sides of life, and the listener is pushed and pulled every which way in the process. The penultimate, masterfully timed movement, "Prayer," momentarily stops the head-spinning to beg for some soul-searching, but the enticement of all that wildness out there is too great. The symphony throws the audience right back into the whirl for the ultimate circus stunt.

Corigliano's harmonic language incorporates the most vivid and bracing dissonance, yet it springs from a fundamentally tonal well and always speaks in a highly communicative fashion. His keenly developed sense of instrumental coloring is hardly limited here by the absence of a string complement; there's a marvelous range of sonic shading. It's simply a compositional tour de force.

Alsop marshaled her expanded forces with typical calm and assurance, summoning great swells of sound from the stage and players stationed along the back wall and in balconies and boxes (an assistant conductor was in one to do some cueing). But Alsop was equally interested in the softest portions of the score, ensuring, for example, that the atmospheric shimmer of the "Night Music I" movement emerged compellingly.

There may have been a little articulation fuzziness along the way, but the playing by members of the BSO, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and Morgan State University's Magnificent Marching Machine was consistently impressive.

The experience can best be summed up in one of today's most overused words -- awesome. If a hipper, younger crowd than usual turns out for the repeats Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, I would expect that word to be used a lot afterward.

There's cool circus stuff on the first half of the program, too. David T. Little's "Screamer" from 2002 evokes the multi-sensory world of a circus with what he calls a "three-ring blur" for orchestra. In the space of a few minutes, diverse melodic ideas charge into the fray to brilliant sonic effect; a droopy, scratchy recording of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" pops up now and then (as the composer explains, circus bands used to strike up that march as a distraction whenever an accident occurred). Given the pileup of ideas and a lot of humor in the piece, it sounds like something Charles Ives would be writing if he were around now (for that matter, so does "Circus Maximus"). Alsop had the music bounding along mightily and drew a high-spirited response from the BSO.

In between came Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," Alsop's invitation to the audience to "be kids again." The orchestra sounded somewhat less than sterling, but it was fun hearing the music outside its usual youth concert confinement. NPR's Scott Simon delivered the narration nicely. And hearing about that ravenous wolf (PETA would never sanction this fairy tale) unexpectedly provided a little link to what was to come later -- lupine sounds are among myriad riches that turn up in Corigliano's startling symphony.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:22 AM | | Comments (9)


Unfortunately, all this concert did was show off the fact that the musicians of the BSO are talented. The piece is terrible. This is loudness for loudness sake, and not good music. Alsop and BSO management need to find a clue and start programming some good music and good guest conductor or else the BSO is going to continue to not fill halls, not get donations, and will almost certainly declare bankruptcy.

Ha! Sounds like Mr. Sterling is reacting to "Circus Maximus" in the way that John Cage reacted to one of Glenn Branca's symphonies (the 13th?): very negatively! And, in both cases, the culprit is the cumulative sound of the aural experience -- or, in fact, the experience's transcendence _beyond_ just the ears, becoming something much more directly physical. ;^)

Mr. Sterling, if you think _this_ is awful, then Masami Akita (AKA "Merzbow") would absolutely _kill_ you.

(I was looking forward to your review Tim -- thanks, and I'm sorry I'm missing these concerts!)

What's Mr. Sterling talking about with bankruptcy? There is some new Facebook page alluding to the BSO stopping playing, too.

Hmmmmmmm. TS

I did not attend this concert but have one question. Why do musicians feel the need to blast the ears of their audience? The only thing "visceral" about such an experience is assault and battery of the sensitive hair cells of the inner ear. Why do we risk loss of our highly valued sense of hearing as musicians and music lovers?

Well, it's not like it was a steady diet, as at a rock concert. At this concert, in all, maybe 20 minutes of loud and maybe 10 minutes of super-loud within that. I don't think that would be enough to cause much damage. The continual assault of over-amplification at rock/pop concerts and some Broadway musicals is a whole different animal, of course. I guess I was influenced to a degree by going to the occasional rock or dance club in the winsome days of my youth. I remember thinking it was kind of cool having that vibrating sensation inside and that ringing sensation for a while after exiting. Perhaps this explains a lot of my subsequent weirdness. TIM

I specifically avoid rock concerts (especially in arenas) and/or clubs -- the relatively few experiences I've had thus far paint a pretty bleak & painful aural landscape (and I'm one who's "all about" subtlety in the quieter textures -- thus, my love of Morton Feldman's works and a great swathe of ambient electronic recordings).

We're definitely living in an over-amplified society, and I just don't understand it (unless you're trying to drown out the traffic noise and/or override any attempts at normal conversation where permissible). I can actually _feel_ when decibel and/or frequency levels approach the "danger zone" and will make every effort to cover and/or plug my ears (or simply leave the premises -- most regrettable!) in such situations. (Heck, you'll see me cover my ears when ambulances whiz by...)

The people who broadcast, project, perform, etc., at such audio levels are being absolutely stupid, if not downright negligent, and the folks who tolerate such nonsense are either outright foolish or need to be better-educated about their hearing.

A great test for listening with headphones (or those godawful things called earbuds, which you'll never, ever see me use): silence the audio for a moment and listen -- what, exactly, do you hear in the silence? If you hear anything, _especially_ ringing, then you've overdone it, so turn down the bloody volume!!! (And if you're in a club, give the DJ a piece of your mind -- politely, of course!)

And you have to always be wary of high frequencies -- they can be absolutely devastating.

Having said all of this, I'm sure that "Circus Maximus" didn't push the envelope too far. Someday, maybe we'll have arguments about its performance practice -- one school arguing, "Go for broke!" and another saying, "Not so loud now!" :^)

"Hear, Hear!!!"
I too had ringing in my ears after more than a few nights of dancing in a club in my younger years. I started wearing earplugs when attending shows performed by my sons' rock bands at the Recher. Unfortunately I have a mild hearing loss in one ear so I fiercely protect what hearing I have left.

120 decibels is the average of most music concerts. This is what's called the "threshold of pain". In less than 10 seconds permanent hearing damage is occurring.
At 110 decibels (racing car/indoor stadium events) it takes less than 1.5 minutes for permanent hearing damage to potentially occur.
My question is: does the BSO post any notifications of possible hearing damage as well make ear plugs readily available? I know, by law, that most music venues (like the Ottobar) have to have them available. They are usually for sale at the bar.
Also, there are studies regarding the effects of exposure to rock vs. classical music and hearing loss. There is no difference.
And for those attendees with hearing aids or other amplification devices it must have been excruciating until they turned the volume down.

As an audiologist I agree with Heather - you may enjoy the feel of very loud music but that may be short term since you will lose hearing and then not be able to enjoy the real beauty of music. The BSO should have published warnings of the potential damge to hearing and provide hearing portection when presenting very loud concerts. Their patrons well being should be first in the BSOs mind.

I was at this concert, I actually played in it! It was a great piece of music that definitely told the tale of our time. I think to overlook the very important message that Corigliano has put on the table for us to discuss as spectators, musicians, and patrons, we start to forget and lose the reason why we all attend these concerts in the first place. We are there to listen to a higher art form and to constantly challenge ourselves to "think outside of the box." What would Beethoven been if he did not bride the Classical and Romantic Eras? or Mahler raising the questions of shear emotional pain, and life after death? What if these composers chose not to push the envelope? I think we are charged to sit down and really think about what happened that night, OR even ask yourself a simple question. WHY? Why did he chose to write this piece? Why were you there that night to listen to it? Is it because you chose to just attend ANOTHER BSO concert to expect the same things over and over again, or was it the soul of the music that continues to draw you in and revitalize memories that we hold dear and love so much? Music, one of the highest art forms. Corigliano is just the messenger, look at WHY he wrote the piece, and what's going on in this world. My favorite quote from the Matrix... "...Do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead only try and realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you'll see it is not the spoon that bends; it is only yourself."

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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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