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January 15, 2011

Baltimore Symphony explores the inner child and outer space in fun program

When people in the classical music industry say -- and they do -- that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra does cool stuff, the sort invariably tagged outside-the-box, they're talking about programs like the one this weekend.

Music director Marin Alsop put together a mix of repertoire inspired by thoughts of outer space, a mix that could have turned into something just a little, well, spacey. But it all held together Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall and seemed to connect strongly with the sizable audience. (There are repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.)

On paper, it looked like the sort of thing saved for outdoor summer concerts -- the Suite from "Star Wars" by John Williams; a multi-media work based on a children's book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time" by popular science guy Brian Greene, with a score by Philip Glass and a high-tech film by the British team of Al and Al; and, as a curtain-raiser, a recent work by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage that conjures up imagery of a menacing asteroid.

But this is a regular subscription program, and Alsop treats it as seriously as an evening of Brahms. As for "Star Wars," the conductor takes

 the same view as Leonard Slatkin; they don't see film music as second-class material to be scorned by of-so-proper classical types. Alsop gave the familiar Williams work the respect it deserves and had the BSO digging into it with a good deal of technical flair and expressive fire.

It was a good opportunity to be reminded again of how masterful Williams is at melody and orchestration, with an endless supply of hues and nuances. The only thing missing from his uplifting "Star Wars" soundtrack material, of course, is a little note somewhere that says something like: "Gustav Holst, William Walton and few other composers contributed to the making of this score."

The Turnage work, "Ceres," billed as an "Asteroid for Orchestra," packs plenty of action and atmosphere into a few minutes. It's got terrifically potent dissonances, eerie sound effects and a very effective sense of mass. The bold performance made me hope that Alsop will get some more of Turnage's challenging music into future seasons.

"Icarus" is an entertaining piece. I found Al and Al's the film the most impressive component, a finely crafted bit of live action and digital animation that richly conveys Greene's clever updating of the ancient myth. Here, a young Icarus leaves the spacecraft he was born on and heads off in a solo vehicle he designed to investigate the edge of a black hole, despite his father's warning. Icarus, forgetting about the slowing of time at near a black hole, returns to discover thousands of years have passed.

The story provides a neat introduction to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which Greene explained in entertaining fashion during remarks from the stage. With playwright David Henry Hwang, the author adapted his book for concert format, with a narrator woven into the musical and and cinematic framework.

I think it might be more effective if the narrative text were projected, subtitle-style, on the film, rather than recited; balances between spoken word and live orchestra are invariably tricky. But most of the text emerged cleanly Saturday night (NPR's Scott Simon was the narrator), and Alsop had the music churning along nicely.

Although there isn't a whole lot of freshness to the score, Glass employs his trademark idioms with typical deftness, especially in the passage where Icarus enters a slower time (low notes in the strings move a glacial pace), while the world back on the mother ship Icarus left behind continues at normal speed (woodwinds are abuzz with activity).

In remarks at the start of the evening, Alsop spoke about the program as a way of releasing the inner child in all of us, the desire to explore and seek adventure. Worked for me.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:24 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


The Icarus performance was wonderful. I am a near senior citizen and don't tolerate technology well, however this is probably the future of symphony based "theater." I wholeheartedly agree that the text should have been through subtitles as Mr. Simon's (or anyone's) reading distracted from the music.
Though the Star Wars music was entertaining and well performed it was missing the visuals.
Personally, I wish that the BSO would do more Glass and his ilk. A wonderful night.

Thanks for the comments. I'm all for more 'Glass and his ilk,' too. TIM

My compliments on the beautiful horn solo in the "Star Wars" suite. The soloist seemed to be using a vibrato, like horn players in the slavic countries. I've often wished to hear it used more in American orchestras. I'll bet Dvorak had a vibrato in mind for the horns in "Rusalka."

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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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