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June 3, 2011

Baltimore Symphony delivers colorful program of Golijov, Britten, Brahms

The penultimate program of the Baltimore Symphony's season balances feel-good orchestral pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Benjamin Britten against a piano concerto by Johannes Brahms packed with darkly emotional drama.

It makes for an engrossing combination.

The orchestra-only portion includes the local premiere of "Sidereus" by Golijov, the Argentine composer with Russian Jewish roots and a knack for writing music of uncommonly broad appeal.

The BSO was among nearly three dozen orchestras involved in commissioning the work, first performed in Memphis last fall (given the score's brevity, it presumably didn't strain the budgets of any of those ensembles).

The forbidding title comes from Galileo's "Sidereus Nuncius" of 1610, a treatise on the astronomer's telescopic observations of our moon and the moons of Jupiter. You might expect such source material to ...

inspire music along the lines of, say, Holst's "The Planets," but Golijov wouldn't be so obvious.

Yes, the opening brass chords evoke something vast and deep, very outer space. And, yes, the ensuing ripples from the strings suggest shards of starlight. But the piece soon settles into a more familiar, earthier groove. As conductor Marin Alsop joked in remarks to the audience Thursday night at Strathmore, "Sidereus" combines "minimalism with a tango lesson."

Golijov employs gently pulsating, repetitive patterns and sensual shifts of melody and harmony to develop an increasingly gorgeous sonic fabric. There's no grand statement here, just a kind of warming glow, the sort you might feel when you get a crisp view of a night sky with a full moon.

Alsop, who connects to minimalist idioms with second-nature assurance, shaped this modestly scaled tone poem sensitively and drew stylish playing from the orchestra.

"Sidereus" served as a nice warm-up for Britten's brilliant showpiece, "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Although composed for the purpose indicated by the title, this is way above Music 101.

Britten spins variations and a fugue out of a theme by Henry Purcell, creating in the process an imaginative, often witty exploration of what makes an orchestra tick. At the opening and close, everyone is on deck, digging gleefully into the material. In between, each section gets a chance to shine on its own or in dialogue with other sections.

The score provided a fine opportunity for the BSO to demonstrate its current state. Alsop's stewardship since 2007 has resulted in what you might call a lean, mean machine (some of the leanness stems from the fact that the orchestra can't afford an ideal strength of 100 or so members). There is a discipline and attentiveness to the playing, week after week.

Those qualities were much in evidence on Thursday as Alsop led the musicians through Britten's colorful workout. The brass players came through with particular vitality.

After intermission came the mood-shift. There is nothing quite so ominous as the opening of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1; the music doesn't so much start as erupt. For all of the lyricism that emerges subsequently, including in the sublime Adagio, a feeling of volatility is never far from the surface. This is very eventful stuff.

The titanic concerto requires, first of all, a soloist with a formidable technique and a fertile artistic mind. That the BSO has in Emanuel Ax. He's the thinking man's virtuoso, a pianist who doesn't mistake bravura for bravado. He uses his digital might solely in the service of the music, never himself.

Ax held his power in reserve on Thursday, so that each explosive passage registered all the more strikingly. And while the force was certainly impressive, especially in the urgent finale, the level of intimacy that the pianist achieved in the first two movements proved equally remarkable. Ax burrowed into the music, extracting poetic ore as he went.

Alsop was a committed partner on the podium. She took her time with the long orchestral opening of the concerto, allowing the main themes to be expressed with considerable weight, and she proceeded to maintain supple coordination between soloist and ensemble. The BSO again sounded firm and vibrant, with some beautifully molded contributions from the woodwinds along the way.

Other pianists, conductors and orchestras have been known to deliver this work with more visceral impact (the music can certainly handle a more aggressive approach), but this performance had an eloquent surge that generated its own highly satisfying rewards.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall. 

PHOTO (by Maurice Jerry Beznos) COURTESY OF OPUS 3 ARTISTS

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

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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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