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BSO Gets Bloggy with It

Well, it's happened, blogging really must be dead, because the press offices of arts organizations all around the country are courting bloggers as part of their new media outreach. It must be why publicists for performers and recording companies are now asking to meet me for coffee when they come through Washington. Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra joined the trend, hosting a Bloggers' Night at Meyerhoff Hall before the opening concert of its regular season. Food and drinks were consumed, business cards and URLs were exchanged, and a panel including Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, and yours truly spoke about the perils of blogging. It was a very enjoyable evening and will hopefully become an annual tradition.

Time for Three (Nick Kendall, Zach de Pue, and Ranaan Meyer) -- they must be cool
Marin Alsop opened the BSO's series of subscription concerts with another recent work by an American composer. This is the best reason to attend a BSO concert, other than the generally fine playing of this orchestra these days, the chance to hear contemporary music, often for the first time in the area. Philadelphia-based Jennifer Higdon is well on her way to becoming known as the Queen of the Concerto, as we have reviewed or will soon review her concertos for percussion, piano, and violin. (One cannot help but remember Karlheinz Stockhausen's refusal to accept concerto commissions.) For the most part to my ears, Higdon's music has melodic appeal, rhythmic verve, and interesting formal ideas, but with Concerto 4-3, premiered by 2007 and featured by the BSO on this concert, she may have crossed the line into pandering to soloists with specialty music. Higdon conceived the piece for the trio that premiered it and that played it in Baltimore, Time for Three, "a charismatic ensemble with a reputation for limitless enthusiasm and no musical boundaries" (so reads their bio boilerplate) formed by three students from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Higdon is on the faculty.

The group's shtick is crossover, fiddling around with bluegrass and country-western music, and Higdon went with that, seasoning the piece with a few blue notes, some folksy bends and open 5th drones, some down-home tunes. This harmless piece, uncomfortably close in feel to countless Windham Hill recordings and the film scores of Howard Shore, should be a huge hit on NPR although it was not as awful as Mark O'Connor. For some reason the trio played with amplification, although for the most part Higdon's large orchestra is kept to a minimum of sound while the soloists play. One of the risks for this kind of group dabbling in other music is that you have less time to keep your classical work honed -- I have noted it before and so have other critics. The trio's performance was viscerally exciting, cool and full of flair, but troubled by less than flawless intonation. They apparently played an encore after I left the hall to get an early start on intermission.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO opens subscription concerts with fiery Tchaikovsky and crossover concerto by Higdon (Baltimore Sun, September 25)

T. L. Ponick, Higdon's BSO triumph (Washington Times, September 28, 2009)

Joe Banno, The BSO and TF3: Time for Energy (Washington Post, September 28)
Ironically, for someone who generally tires of Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, I found the BSO's performance of the Russian composer's fourth symphony to be the evening's high point. From an ominous intro by the steely Baltimore brass section, to a suave, subtly shaded second theme in the first movement, to the melancholy oboe solo from principal Katherine Needleman that opened the second, it was played superlatively. Alsop's interpretation was, thankfully, the opposite of that heard from Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic last fall, more soft and varied than loud and with rubato applied judiciously rather than slathered on everywhere. The third and fourth movements were on the breathless, almost incoherent side because of Alsop's tendency to push tempi too fast, but it was exciting to hear. Not so much the Brahms's Hungarian Dances that opened the concert, a weird trio of bonbons likely chosen as a parallel example of folk music incorporated into a classical work. They did not serve either of their typical purposes as encore pieces, to give the light-footed feeling of dance or devilish flair, in spite of an over-zealously dinged triangle, which proved a little too much paprika in the Hungarian goulash.

This concert will be repeated tonight (September 25, 8 pm) in Baltimore and tomorrow night (September 26, 8 pm) at Strathmore.


Anonymous said...

The encore you missed was more of the same fiddle work, just like the concerto, just minus the orchestra. The Tchaik was certainly the high point of the evening, although "I think the bass drum won", but that kept it exciting.

Anonymous said...

pretty irresponsible for a critic to walk out before an encore. Next time perhaps consider doing your job well in stead of almost complete. I guess you should be credited however with not lying about the fact that you walked out. Oh and by the way, thanks once again for spreading more negativity in your writing - you should be proud.

Charles T. Downey said...

Actually, many critics never even mention encores, considering them as gifts to the audience and therefore not to be reviewed. There are some critics who always (or almost always) walk out at the end of the announced program so as not to hear the encores. I do generally stay for encores, writing about them sometimes but not always, and generally treating them differently as far as how I write about them.

Spreading more negativity? Should one never write anything negative in a review, for heaven's sake? Generally, a critic who finds only things to praise in what he reviews is not to be trusted. Either he is so poorly informed as not to know when something is bad, he has wishy-washy opinions about what he reviews and is not really sure what he thinks is good or bad, or he knows something is bad and is too spineless to say it.