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January 29, 2012

BSO takes nature walk with Beethoven, Frans Lanting, Philip Glass

Music can tell stories as riveting as the best literary texts, can paint images as vivid as the finest works on canvas. That message is reinforced on the first half of the latest Baltimore Symphony program, and then, to an extent, reversed on the second.

The sonic-only pictorial lesson comes from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the composer’s extraordinary evocation of a visit to the countryside, complete with babbling brook, tipsy farmers and a cool thunderstorm.

This classic is matched with a multimedia production, “LIFE: A Journey Through Time,” with an evolutionary tour of nature through the work of National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting, matched to music by Philip Glass.

Here, the sounds serve as complement or counterpoint to the imagery. The accompaniment was not created with the visual in mind, but matched to it subsequently. The pictures clearly could stand on their own without a note, but the match-up provides an extra kick. 

Marin Alsop, who was instrumental in generating the Lanting/Glass epic, introduced it to the BSO in 2007. Given all the other music available by Glass, one of Baltimore’s most famous sons, and given that his 75th birthday will be observed on Tuesday, it’s disappointing that we didn’t get something new to the BSO repertoire. “LIFE” is a compilation of previously existing pieces (arranged for orchestra by Michael Riesman). A symphony by Glass would have been very welcome.

Leaving that aside, it was impossible not to be impressed by ...

the performance Alsop drew from the ensemble Friday night at Meyerhoff (where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon). The tight rhythmic pulse and vibrantly nuanced melodic patterns produced a suitably absorbing sound-world to take in Lanting’s brilliant images on a giant screen.

The Beethoven symphony at the start found the BSO in likewise disciplined, sensitive form. Alsop shaped the score with evident affection. She stayed on familiar paths, in terms of tempo and phrasing, but breathed a good deal of freshness into the performance with beautifully shaded dynamics and lyrically shaped phrases. The orchestra played admirably. Woodwinds added to the aural landscape with particular charm.

Here's an excerpt from "LIFE," filmed at the Cabrillo Festival premiere in 2006:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Fair and generous comments on BSO and Beet/Glass program, espec suggestion that more should have been done for 75th b'day. Nice praise for the Lanting photos. But they would be little to this program were it not for the brilliant "visual choreography" by Alexander V. Nichols. With many creative techniques, he made still photos appear to have movement--and all to the beat of the Glass music. No wonder he was hired to do the onstage visuals for Hugh Jackman, Back on B'way.

Thx for ac'knwl'dng Nichols' exc'lnt contrb. TS

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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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