Baltimore Symphony's latest circus-theme program is a blast
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 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.
PHOTO OF JOHN COIRGLIANO (by J. Henry Fair) COURTESY OF JOHNCOIRGLIANO.COM