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July 24, 2010

Baltimore Symphony's Zappa, Glass, Shodekeh concert generates great vibes

The tattoos offered the first clue. The congregation of smokers outside at intermission – at least four times the usual number – provided another strong signal: That wasn’t the routine Baltimore Symphony crowd Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

I hope the BSO is already hard at work on figuring out how to lure them back in the future with more of the left-field programming that drew such an age-, race- and everything else-diverse group of engaged, enthusiastic people. The vibes were great in that house.

Music director Marin Alsop devised this summer concert as a Baltimore-centric exploration of stylistic cross-pollination – works by two major innovators born here, Frank Zappa and Philip Glass; and a guest appearance by Baltimore’s favorite beatboxer, Shodekeh. (I loved encountering a senior citizen during the interval on his cell phone – he was one of the few who did look every bit the traditional symphony-goer – telling someone that he had just heard the most “amazing,” “unbelievable” performance by a person called a beatboxer.)

Zappa’s orchestral works are surprising in many ways, sometimes almost Second Viennese School-ish in the application of brief, dense clusters of harmony and instrumentation; sometimes unmistakably infused with the idioms of pop music. Alsop, who set off a surprising, sustained ovation from the audience when she praised her musicians for charging into this material with such spirit, drew crisp and colorful performances of “Dupree’s Paradise”; “Be-Bop Tango” (complete with yelps from the players and the audience); “Outrage at Valdez” (rather mild outrage, but making haunting use of an Alpine horn); and a particularly rollicking “G-Spot Tornado.”

Glass was represented by four of the six movements from

his Symphony No. 4, titled “Heroes,” a work based on the Brain Eno/David Bowie album of that name. This is not necessarily Glass’ strongest stuff. There are absorbing passages -- the “Neukoln” movement, with its moody descending theme and shimmering instrumental background, is wonderful – but also moments when the music seems curiously earthbound and constricted. And what’s up with the Tchaikovsky-like, big unison ending for the otherwise Glass-y last movement? It comes off as awfully tacky.

That said, it was great to hear this music in the concert hall, and to hear the BSO spinning out the composer’s trademark reiterative patterns with such a warm and beautifully nuanced sound.

As for Shodekeh, well, he brought the house down with his virtuoso vocal acrobatics, applied first in a modest little concerto for beatboxer and strings called “Fujiko’s Fairy Tale,” by Finnish composer Jan Mikael Vainio, who was on hand to take a bow.

What Shodekeh does is quite brilliant. On one level, the technique constitutes a human percussion-generator and is plenty impressive for that alone. But it’s the array of character that Shodekeh brings to the device -- all the subtlety, surprise and humor in his propulsive and evocative sounds (my favorite suggested an approaching plane) -- that turns it into a more personal kind of music-making. He had a field day in the concerto, providing so much texture and action that Vainio’s score began to sound more interesting.

Shodekeh returned to the stage after intermission to provide a lead-in to the Glass symphony with a solo improv. Taking a leaf from Bobby McFerrin, he tried added some group participation stuff along the way, starting with the BSO players, who gamely tried emitting various vocal noises, then bringing in the audience. It went on a little too long, but certainly had its moments, especially those involving Alsop’s baton, which Shodekeh commandeered.

After the BSO concert, I headed to the Windup Space to catch Mobtown Modern’s presentation of some cutting-edge UK artists – composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei), pianist GeNIA and percussionist Joby Burgess (leader of the ensemble Powerplant).

I particularly enjoyed the kinetic performances Burgess gave of the “Fanta” movement from Prokofiev’s “Import/Export” (who knew a Fanta soda bottle could be so versatile?) and of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” on a “xylosynth.” Late in the evening, Shodekeh dropped by and did a bracing, anything-you-can-beat-I-can-beat-faster-and-louder jam with Burgess (now on drum set).

For all I know, the session went on until dawn, but, with midnight approaching, I slipped away, nearly overloaded from more than four hours of cool sounds.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:16 PM | | Comments (2)


I can only applaud Maestro Alsop for taking the risk and exposing her audience to these works. It is a performance I will long remember. Ever hear of a lyrebird? Shodekeh reminded me of one. Will the work by Jan Mikael Vainio "Fujiko's Fairy Tale" be recorded by the BSO with Shodekeh? I hope they do. It will be very popular.

Thanks for commenting. TIM

Show was great. More Zappa at the BSO!!

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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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