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June 8, 2012

BSO showcases Kevin Puts, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and itself

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is wrapping up its 2011-12 season in extraordinary fashion with a program rich in musical substance -- and some good old-fashioned, over-the-top entertainment value.

The big news is the local premiere of Symphony No. 4 by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Conservatory faculty member who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music. The BSO has featured his work a few times before, but shorter pieces. It was rewarding to get a substantive dose this time.

The Fourth Symphony, from 2007, has an intriguing origin.

Subtitled "From Mission San Juan," it was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, headed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, and intended to honor a patron's ailing wife. Written expressly for performance in the San Juan Bautista Mission, the music is loosely based on songs of the Mutsun people who were there before the Spanish came.

It is easy to savor this lushly lyrical work without knowing any of that background, for Puts writes in such a clear-cut, instantly engaging manner, and organizes his thoughts into such sturdy structures.

The symphony offers quite an atmospheric experience. It is perhaps too cliched to talk about a journey, but that's what the work suggests, a sometimes bittersweet journey at that, but one where darkness is satisfyingly swept aside by a palpable radiance in the end.

The composer's mastery of orchestration is revealed at every step of the way, especially his ability to produce glittering effects.

The Prelude opens in mist, with ...

a plaintive theme emerging in a deliberately blurry manner (Puts intended to capitalize here on the mission's reverberation); it's as if memories are being slowly jogged. Low brass chords of Wagnerian portent flash out along the way, a contrast to Vaughan Williams-like lushness from the strings.

The narrative shifts gears in the second movement, with the arrival of folk dance rhythms and piquant instrumental coloring, evoking Mutsun culture. The way the increasingly lively material is eventually challenged by a stately hymn tune suggests that the pagans are determined to get one more good romp in before the missionaries clamp down.

The symphony then turns ruminative in an Interlude, with reflections on themes from the opening. A gradual increase in tension leads into a striking passage of turbulence that finds the strings practically screaming against an assault of brass.

This provides the set-up for a striking contrast, "Healing Song," which brings with it a genuine OMG moment.

Puts offers here a long, darkly beautiful melody that starts in a low register and keeps winding around the first note -- it's Rachmaninoff-meets-Native American, and it's incredibly stirring. Maybe even healing. This music sure does sound like it would be good for whatever ails you.

Alsop, who conducted the premiere of the symphony at Cabrillo, led an absorbing performance with the BSO Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall. Reflective passages were spaciously shaped; the second movement's burst of energy crackled nicely. The orchestra responded with playing of considerable expressive weight.

(Harmonia Mundi is recording the Puts symphony during these concerts. Alsop's request that the audience pause a couple seconds before applauding at the end, so the producers could get a clean take, when unheeded Thursday.)

The remainder of the program is devoted to chestnuts, each given a memorable performance.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto provides an opportunity to be reminded of just how out-in-left-field Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg can be.

During the orchestral introduction, the violinist suggested an anxious batter waiting for the pitch, rolling her shoulders and  shifting her feet before playing her first notes in the concerto. And what notes they were.

Salerno-Sonnenberg has always been a provocative musician, unafraid to twist a melody this way and that, to rush or slow a tempo as the mood strikes. Volatility is her strength (those who can't stand artistic license would call it her failing).

She milked the opening solo for all it was worth, making everyone wait for the orchestra to come back in -- just the first of the exaggerated effects. She proceeded through that movement with an abundance of slides, enough for a dozen fiddlers, and no end of phrase-bending before stretching out the cadenza to a glacial pace.

All of this is quite normal for Salerno-Sonnenberg. There's a sense of danger when she plays -- will she go too far? will she leave conductor and orchestra in the dust? -- and that's something you just don't find every day in the concert hall.

You don't see a standing ovation every day after the first movement of a concerto, either, and you shouldn't. But you also couldn't blame all the folks who jumped up Thursday night at the wrong time. It must have seemed like a whole concerto had been played, since so much wild, eventful stuff had happened.

The violinist yelled out, "Sorry, but the piece isn't over," and got back to business, delivering a rapt account of the Canzonetta and then tearing into the finale at a ferocious clip.

From her pianissimos of startling refinement and sweetness to her brutal slashes of the bow, Salerno-Sonnenberg made Tchaikovsky's well-worn concerto sound wildly new, even radical. (The way the violinist's hair covered up so much of her face as she played, making her look rather like Cousin Itt from "The Addams Family," only added to the unconventional effect.)

I wouldn't want to hear the piece played this way all the time, but there should always be a place for artists who want to choose their own path. Alsop, who had no apparent difficulty going along with the violinist, drew taut, vivid work from the BSO.

Stravinksy's "The Rite of Spring" closed the concert. All season long, it has been possible to sense a strengthening of the musical rapport between Alsop and the players. Thursday's performance was the most compelling evidence yet.

The confidence and virtuosity from the podium and the stands alike came through with each quick shift of tempo or dynamics. But this was much more than a case of technical precision.

There was visceral passion in this performance, a sense of spontaneity and just plain enjoyment emanating from the stage. An extra intensity in the articulation, an extra kick behind the phrasing helped make the score sound freshly revolutionary and primordial.

The concert repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff

KEVIN PUTS PHOTO BY R.R. JONES; NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN STEINER

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:35 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

Comments

Your review is excellent! We saw this concert at the Strathmore on Saturday. You captured the tension of Nadja's performance perfectly. She had me sometimes laughing, sometimes on the edge of my seat expecting a disaster, and often with the hair on my arms literally standing on end because of the chill of her sweetness of playing. I kept thinking the audience must have felt this way when they first heard the concerto - it was radical.

Thanks for the report from Strathmore. Glad you had the same wild experience. TIM

Thank you for so beautifully expressing the feelings evoked by the Kevin Puts symphony. Rarely during concerts does a movement such as his fourth evoke tears whenever heard. As with his 2nd Symphony (both of which I've heard before during the Cabrillo Festival of Modern Music in California), the harmonies never fail to place me somewhere else that is full of both sadness and then peace. The ultimate symphony experience. What a talented young composer!
Bette H.

Thanks you very much for sharing your thoughts. I sure agree this guy's talent is something special. And that finale of the Fourth has tremendous emotional weight. TIM

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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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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