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March 23, 2012

At the BSO: Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is a smash

Just a hunch on my part, but I think that West Coast audiences are going to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s visit that starts next week.

A sample of what’s in store for folks in California and Oregon is contained on the program the BSO performs this weekend at Meyerhoff Hall. One item, in particular, is bound to go over well out there, just as it did Thursday night at the Strathmore Center -- Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto.

Higdon, one of the contemporary composers regularly championed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, writes in a style that is easily accessible to those whose ears are happily stuck in the 19th-century.

But Higdon is also solidly, naturally connected to the sound-world of pop/rock music, so listeners from that side of the aisle can feel thoroughly comfortable with her work.

In this concerto from 2005, Higdon unleashes a kinetic storm of urban beats, balanced by ...

passages of Asian-influenced musings that exploit the most seductive qualities of the diverse percussion instruments assigned to the soloist.

Adding an unusual layer to the work is Higdon’s decision to treat the orchestra’s percussion section as a second protagonist. That means a whole lot of beating going on at times.

The result is that the rest of the orchestra, all those strings and things, sometimes seems like an afterthought. But that doesn’t much matter in the end, for the concerto is filled with absorbing musical ideas that are taken in interesting, often foot-stomping directions.

The piece was written for Colin Currie, a magician with a marimba, a devil with a drum. You can tell how much Higdon enjoyed putting him through his paces; he has to dart across the stage from one set of instruments to another, usually with mere seconds to spare. She also took full advantage of Currie’s expressive abilities, which are as impressive as his technical wizardry.

On Thursday, the soloist’s brilliant performance was complemented by the flair of the BSO’s percussionists. There was some lively work from the orchestra, too, along the way, and Alsop kept all the forces on the same tight track.

The other big item on the program is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. By now, ears should be accustomed to Alsop’s approach to this composer, vastly different in many ways from that of her predecessor Yuri Temirkanov, yet persuasive on its own terms.

Where Temirkanov found cosmic struggles and dark shadows, not to mention broad tempos, in the Fifth, Alsop takes a lighter, faster view overall. But she hardly slights the fundamental drama in the score. It’s more that she lets you feel early on everything can and will turn out all right.

Thursday's performance had an engaging sweep and abundant character. The waltz movement, for example, was shaped with considerable gracefulness, while the finale surged forward on an increasingly potent electric charge.

The orchestra sounded terrific, with lots of warmth from the strings and vivid color from the woodwinds and brass. In the second movement, there were glowing solos from principal horn Phil Mjnds principal oboe Katherine Needleman.

At the start of the concert, Alsop offered one of her favorite pairings: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” They both sounded just a little shy of spot-on.

The concert is repeated Friday and Saturday at the Meyerhoff.
Posted by Tim Smith at 1:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Thank you for this mostly wonderful review of some wonderful works. But I do wish you reporters could avoid exaggerating. I saw this concerto at its UK première, and Colin Currie did not have to run across the stage. Unless the stage that the BSO was on was the size of a football field, I see no reason to talk about running or dashing.

The reviewers of the UK concert were no less guilty of hyperbole. According to one reviewer, Currie had to negotiate a "forest" of microphones (those which recorded the performance for the CD that came out in 2008). I counted four.

That same reviewer went on to comment on Rite of Spring, which followed. He said the Maestra was "gyrating" on the podium. "Gyrating" means turning on one's axis: the Meastra does not turn her back to her players while they are playing.

Another reviewer said that she was "swiveling her hips" while conducting. The Maestra can correct me if I'm wrong, but from the body language that I've seen on the podium, I do not believe that her hips can swivel.

Do keep giving us wonderful reports but do keep them in reality.

The performance on Friday night of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. was even more impressive because Maestra Alsop conducted the entire piece without a score at the podium.

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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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