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May 18, 2012

On the Record: Bartok from BSO/Alsop; works by Joel Puckett, Larry Hoffman

While we await the long-predicted — heck, long-declared — death of the classical recording industry, new releases continue to emerge, day after day.

Three with local connections are well worth a listen:

BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor (Naxos)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s admirable recordings with music director Alsop on the Naxos label have so far included a vibrant cycle of Dvorak symphonies and a sensational, Grammy-nominated account of Bernstein’s “Mass.” Now comes a burst of Bartok.

Although no recording of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is likely to supplant the gold standard, made in ...

the technologically ancient 1950s by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, there’s always room for one more.

Alsop misses a few opportunities to intensify atmosphere or character in the Concerto, but she still gets to the heart of the matter, negotiates tricky rhythms expertly and ensures that colorful details of orchestration get to the fore.

The BSO is playing even more cohesively nowadays than when the recording was made in 2009. Still, the engineers at Meyheroff Symphony Hall captured the BSO in sturdy form. The ensemble delivers the propulsive portions, especially the snarky Intermezzo and boisterous finale, with a good deal of bite, and does sensitive work in the rest.

The standout on the disc is Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This fascinating, intricately layered score inspires a terrific, involving performance. The conductor’s attention to atmosphere and subtle detail pays off handsomely.

The BSO strings produce a darkly beautiful tone that intensifies the moodiness of the first and third movements; their playing in the wild finale really sizzles. The percussion and keyboard players make their every contribution count.

By the way, the Alsop/BSO/Naxos relationship continues. Currently in the pipeline and due in the fall is a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (taped back in 2008). And plans call for a cycle of Bernstein’s three symphonies; the first to be recorded will be the “Kaddish” early next season.

And, for the Harmonia Mundi label, Alsop and the orchestra will record Symphony No. 4 by this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Kevin Puts, when that work is played during the season-closing concerts in June.

WORKS OF LARRY HOFFMAN: String Quartet No. 1; Blues Suite for Violoncello Solo; et al. Performed by Atlanta String Quartet, trumpeter Andrew Balio, et al. (DBK)

Baltimore composer Larry Hoffman started out self-taught, playing folk, blues and bluegrass on the guitar in the 1960s. The former Peabody Conservatory faculty member never lost his roots in the nonclassical arena, especially his affinity for blues, which can be keenly felt in this album of works written between 1986 and 2011 and recorded at various times and places.

His String Quartet No. 1 is even subtitled “The Blues.” It’s a big, juicy score with a kinetic beat, and it gets a hearty performance from the Atlantic String Quartet, made up of current and former BSO members.

The often subtle writing in “Blues for Harp, Oboe and Violoncello” (a deliciously unlikely combination for blues) is warmly explored by a stellar lineup that includes the late oboist John Mack of Cleveland Orchestra fame. BSO cellist Kristin Ostling offers a gutsy account of the solo “Blues Suite,” a straight-ahead use of the genre’s idioms.

If there is anything bluesy in the other pieces on the recording, it may only be imagined, but the composer’s keen sense of rhythmic motion remains. “Pages of Anna” (in a cool computer realization) and “Colors for Trumpet and Percussion” (featuring the BSO’s Andrew Balio and percussionist David DePeters) are lyrical and moody, filled with imaginatively developed ideas.

ARTIFACTS: Works by William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster, Joel Puckett and Bright Sheng. Performed by University of Michigan Symphony Band; Michael Haithcock, conductor. (Equilibrium)

This two-disc set provides a hearty sampling of engaging contemporary composers, including Joel Puckett, a Peabody faculty member.

As he demonstrated in “This Mourning,” a choral work commemorating the toll of 9/11, Puckett has an ability to turn grief into compelling music. After the loss of a child in utero in 2009, he wrote “The Shadow of Sirius,” a concerto for flute, flute choir and wind ensemble superbly played on this recording by soloist Amy Porter with the University of Michigan Symphony Band.

Inspired by the poetry of W. S. Merwin, the score attempts to “explore a virtuosity of expression.” That it does, grabbing from the first pulsating, haunting notes. It does not let go. The solo flute acts, Orpheus-like, as a guide into a soulful realm where exquisite tone coloring and rich harmonies provide a kind of solace.

Heard abstractly, the piece reveals remarkable ingenuity and integrity. Heard with Merwin’s verses in mind (the CD booklet contains the texts), the music becomes exceptionally affecting, nowhere more so than in the last movement, when Puckett makes it easy to feel the poignant impact of Merwin’s imagery: “O closest to my breath / if you are able to / please wait a while longer / on that side of the cloud.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 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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