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MacMillan Leads BSO

James MacMillan, conductor and composer
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-long exploration of the Beethoven symphonies is drawing to a close. This week, it was Scottish composer James MacMillan's turn at the podium, after Marin Alsop (nos. 5 and 6) yielded the floor to John Adams (no. 7) and HK Gruber (no. 8), with Thomas Adès (nos. 1 and 4) still to come. Alsop has kept arguably the two most beloved Beethoven symphonies, nos. 3 and 9, for herself to conduct, in the last few weeks of the season.

MacMillan opened the second symphony, a dark-horse favorite of mine, with a brash first movement, emphasis definitely on the brio of the fast section, even speeding up the tempo at the opening of the development. The long second movement also proceeded at a good clip, a Larghetto approaching Andante, but suffered from a limited dynamic range at the soft end. The rollicking tempo preferences impacted the third movement the most, as the orchestra struggled to keep the B section clean at that demanding pace. Only in the final movement (Allegro molto) did MacMillan's haste seem appropriate, although even there the running notes of the main subject were cluttered at times, leaving little room for the coda in terms of speed. The BSO mostly rose to the challenge, with furious and technically thrilling playing.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Musical evening is Second to none (Baltimore Sun, April 5)

Mark J. Estren, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, April 5)

T. L. Ponick, Affecting MacMillan thrills (Washington Times, April 5)
The concert began with two of MacMillan's own compositions, a little overture called Stomp (with Fate and Elvira), composed for the 25th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra's Barbican Center in 2007. We have generally been impressed with MacMillan's music at Ionarts, and this short work provided much more substance that its occasional nature might suggest. MacMillan ingeniously wove one of his signature Gaelic tunes together with themes from the other two pieces also on the program at its premiere, the fate theme of Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony and Mozart's K. 467 piano concerto (the so-called "Elvira Madigan"). The piece relied heavily on the low brass, and those players responded with verve and crackling sound (after all, they went home early). The Mozart quotations were often obscured as the sound clustered, as if the score were being smeared on a wall.

Less successful was MacMillan's second piano concerto, a score that was actually created not for the concert hall but for the New York City Ballet. Without the corresponding visual diversion, the musical ideas held attention for only about two-thirds of the work's duration. Again there were jigs and other Gaelic tunes, both clumsy and elegant, as well as quotations from older music, hallucinatory bits from the heroine's mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. British pianist Rolf Hind was more than equal to the technical challenges, the romping flat-handed clusters and even the drum-like pounding on the body of the Steinway. It was a set of fascinating noises that could have benefited from a few more clarifying edits.

Compare James MacMillan's piano concerto with John Corigliano's piano concerto next week, when Marin Alsop conducts the Eroica symphony and two works by Corigliano (April 17 to 19). The composer will speak on the Composers in Conversation series next Wednesday (April 16, 7:30 pm).

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