Last night, Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and percussionist Colin Currie in the U.S. premiere of Steven Mackey’s mesmerizing Time Release. Exploiting the unique resonance and plethora of overtones of the marimba, Mackey, a professor at Princeton University with a background in rock music, structured the work so that the orchestra reinforces the rather short life of the marimba note. Mackey remarked that his aim was to create a musical synthesis of the type found in Mozart’s piano concertos, where “the music is not the vehicle for the instrument but rather the two are merged so that my primary awareness is how the music sings.”
Photo of composer Steven Mackey by Alice Arnold
A hazily beautiful quality is sustained through the work’s four movements, allowing it to sail through a myriad of textures. Novel aural combinations of flute and marimba were most magical, while Currie’s periodic musings on instruments beyond the marimba – almglocken, cowbells, Peking opera gong, kick drum, samba whistle, etc. – provided spice. With a style full of detail, Scottish-born Currie performed every note and phrase with care, allowing nothing superfluous. Incidentally, during solo marimba interludes, Maestra Alsop reveled in the moment by exhibiting hints of her side-to-side podium dance. One is keen to experience Mackey’s current project: a violin concerto (to be premiered in St. Louis) for Leila Josefowicz, a violinist Alsop and the BSO captivatingly worked with last season.
A high-Romantic cartoon, Strauss’s comedic tone poem Till Eulenspiegel, featured superbly uniform, no-nonsense playing from the BSO. Performances exuding this much sober conviction will always garner top marks. Till’s snickering laughter was all the more fun because of the intense technical focus and cool virtuosity of the BSO musicians, as well as the mutually respectful rapport between Alsop and the orchestra. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite shared the somewhat fragmented second half of the program. While Debussy’s placid beauty pleasurably complemented Mackey’s Time Release, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite perhaps overloaded the program in terms of contrasting styles – the audience had been warmed up for a symphony.
Tim Smith, BSO shines in standards and Mackey concerto (Critical Mass, February 8)
Mark Mobley, Orchestra tries a different beat (Newark Star-Ledger, February 8)
This concert repeats tonight (February 8, 8 pm), in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, and Saturday night (February 9, 8 pm), at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.