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28.10.07

Babi Yar and Sibelius

Conductor James Ross understands the privilege of his position, conducting an excellent collegiate orchestra, the University of Maryland Symphony. The combination offered by the youthful energy and enthusiasm of apprentice musicians and the lack of conventional repertoire expectations that come with dependence on ticket revenue (the house at the Clarice Smith Center was full on Friday night) brings an important programming opportunity. By choosing to perform under-represented works, the didactic benefit is multiplied: the musical expertise of the students is extended, and audiences can learn that there is good listening beyond a limited repertoire. Both musicians and audience will then hopefully carry that knowledge into the professional concert world.

Jean Sibelius, like Leoš Janáček and Richard Strauss, is one of those composers with roots in the Romantic style whose music ended up being thoroughly representative of the early 20th century. Sibelius's seventh symphony, from 1925, is a sweeping, glacial single movement, based in C major but overcast by folk inflections and other clouds of tonal contrasts. (It is also, although I had not made the connection before, the source of the little sonic tag that plays when you open the older versions of the music notation software that bears the Finnish composer's name.) Ross led his musicians through a stately performance, with a slow, gray opening featuring broad crescendos to climactic points. There were minor problems of intonation, especially from the reeds, and ensemble in the faster scherzo-like section, but this was a pleasing performance, particularly from the solid trombone and other low brass, so important to that cold, somber Sibelius atmosphere.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, poetThe meat of the evening, however, was on the second half, a moving performance of Shostakovich's 13th symphony ("Babi Yar"), a monumental and awe-inspiring song cycle. Texts from the impassioned poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko are set for a bass-concentrated ensemble of orchestra, baritone soloist, and male chorus. In 1961, Yevtushenko drew public attention to the Nazi massacre of Jews at a place called Babi Yar in Ukraine, a part of history that the Soviet government wanted to ignore. (Yevtushenko is still a kind of pop cultural star in Russia. A new rock opera based on his poetry will be premiered this December, in honor of his 75th birthday.) As Yevtushenko has done on several recent performances of the 13th symphony (at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in the two-piano version, and with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), the poet was on hand to give an introduction and read the poem set by Shostakovich in the first movement. So much of the strength of the work rests on the baritone soloist, a role that would benefit from a larger voice than what was heard from David Brundage, generally capable but not overwhelming.

The piece is a chimeric combination of moods, from the chiming bells to martial violence, and from the baritone's otherworldly duet with the celesta and circus-like march -- all in the first movement. The Men of the University of Maryland Choirs, seated in the rear balcony, had been well prepared by chorusmaster Gary Seighman, with clear diction and stentorian presence even at a distance. The orchestra moved with facility through the shifting landscape, able to create spectral colors as well as crisp, rhythmic definition. The second movement's irony, set to Yevtushenko's poem Humor, came through in clownish riffs from the piccolo, sneering winds, and snorting contrabassoon and trombones. The third movement ("In the Store") was oppressive and sober, with the barren woodblock clicking mindless as the accompaniment of weary women at their shopping, and the fourth movement ("Fears") incarnated the gnawing menace of terror, especially in the soft, heart-rumbling trio of tuba, gong, and bass drum. Shostakovich managed to capture the sardonic tone of Yevtushenko's poem Career, with music that is at once pastoral and beautiful, yet undermined with sarcasm. All-around top-notch playing was capped by fine contributions from the opening flute duet and an incredibly suave pizzicato string serenade.

Hear another collegiate orchestra playing an all-20th-century program this week, when Marin Alsop, as part of her new community initiative at the BSO, conducts the Peabody Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday (October 31, 8 pm). When else are you likely to hear John Adams (Short Ride in a Fast Machine), Leonard Bernstein (Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”), and Dmitri Shostakovich (Symphony No. 5 in D Minor).

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