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BSO Dans La Lune

Michael Daugherty, composer
In my preview of the fall concert season in Washington, I admitted some disappointment about the looks of Marin Alsop's second season at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Her first official program this weekend showed that the bloom is not really off the rose, although the programming still seems a little less daring. At the heart of this program was the latest evidence of Alsop's devotion to living and American composers, the percussion concerto UFO by Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). It was commissioned for the National Symphony Orchestra's percussion festival ("Drums along the Potomac") in 1999, and the premiering soloist (and dedicatee), the Scottish percussion virtuosa Evelyn Glennie, played it yet again at Meyerhoff Hall on Friday night.

Alsop begins her season-long tribute to her one-time mentor, Leonard Bernstein, next week. Listening to Daugherty's extraterrestial-inspired work made me aware of several parellels with Bernstein's music: both are glossy, susceptible to cross-pollination with Broadway and jazz, occasionally vulnerable to fatal quirkiness. The piece's solo part, which calls for a stage-filling battery in several stations, alternates between a more traditional conception of percussion as meter-reinforcing pulse and an opposing range of improvised sounds noteworthy for its unpredictability. At various points, the slender, sorceress-like Glennie strode down the aisle with an amplified waterphone (so overused in The First Emperor), cranked a large siren, and frantically manipulated an endless variety of little noisemakers spread out on a mat. It was as cooky as the cultural phenomenon, UFO followers, it sought to embody.

Glennie's performance was astonishing to watch, especially in the more demanding movements that featured her primarily at the xylophone, vibraphone, and drum set. At times Alsop had her work cut out just to keep the orchestra in line with Glennie, which brought to mind that Glennie's accomplishment is all the more remarkable because she is hearing-impaired (she plays in bare feet, which she has said helps her sense vibrations more clearly). Regrettably, her recent forays into motivational speaking and jewelry design may make her become a parody of herself or just primarily a business. In any case, seeing her perform is still nothing short of stunning.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, The Baltimore Symphony's Space Adventure, Without the Cosmos (Washington Post, September 20)

Tim Smith, BSO ventures out of this world in season opener (Baltimore Sun, September 19)

Tim Smith, Quick Hit: Evelyn Glennie (Baltimore Sun, September 18)

Suzanne Collins, BSO Kicks Off Season With A Unique Sound (WBJZ, September 18)
It was a bit of a stretch to match a work about outer space with Holst's astrological suite The Planets, which is not about the cosmic bodies themselves but about their influence on people's lives. With more familiar repertory, Alsop tends to push the musicians harder, faster, and wilder, milking the work for its dramatic potential. Her Mars was fast and focused on the driving evenness of the pervasive beat rather than the sweep of melody. It led to an appropriately militant sound, with all of the crescendi and swells maximized. The perilous horn solos of Venus were all suave and sure, as was the intonation of the winds (moreso than the violin solos). Alsop did a good job of holding down the sound to emphasize unusual colors, like the celesta in Mercury, which was breathless and a little scattered.

The hymn in Jupiter, later known as Thaxted, was monolithic and congregational, almost uninflected. Uncharacteristically, the trumpets had a few imprecise attacks, and it was hard not to miss the organ part that is so memorable in the Uranus movement (yes, that's right, the organ in Uranus -- cue rimshot). The women's chorus in Neptune, made up of members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society under the direction of Tom Hall, were suitably atmospheric, as the final movement, in 5/4 like Mars, rounded out the mirror form of the work.

The only false note was the opening work, the immolation scene from Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The strings and indeed the whole orchestra had a massive sound, like a wall of cyclopean blocks -- none of that Boulezian transparency in Alsop's Wagner. Some of the sectional transitions were a little rough around the edges, something a little more rehearsal time would have improved. All in all, it was an auspicious start. At intermission I spoke to a young Baltimorean who was at his first classical concert. An amateur rock musician, a friend had given him a season subscription and he found himself pleasantly surprised. It was no coincidence that Glennie's performance and the Daugherty piece were critical to the good first impression.

We are looking forward to next week's program even more, because it will combine the first symphonies of Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor as soloist, on September 26 (Strathmore) and September 27 to 29 (Meyerhoff).

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