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BSO Blisses Out

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Scriabin, Complete Symphonies / Le Poeme de l'extase, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, V. Ashkenazy
(Decca, 2003)
This weekend's program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was tops on my list for the month, and it did not disappoint in the hearing on Thursday night. Considering that the evening's three works called for a massive orchestra, something that is rarer and rarer in these financially strapped times for the BSO, it was a shame that they are scheduled to perform the entire program only twice, with two nights given over to lecture-concerts on only one of them, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. It was even more of a shame that Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was not more full than it was. The three pieces together produced an overwhelming effect, sating the ears with a riotous palette of tonal color, with two rarely heard works by Christopher Rouse and Alexander Scriabin as lead-ins to Strauss.

Rouse, who has a long association with Baltimore and now lives there, was on hand to hear this performance of his tone poem Rapture, one of his "most unabashedly tonal" works. A slow-burning crescendo, of tempo and orchestration as well as dynamics, and mostly in triple meter, it recalls Ravel's La Valse and Bolero in profile, a gorgeous slow opening tinted by a bloom of Wagnerian brass, the addition of a percussion-heavy pulse, and pastoral woodwind solos, including striking bird calls in the flutes. A particularly nice touch was the violin solos, given not to the concertmaster but to players in the back seats of the second violin section, where hidden from view, they produced an unexpected effect. Overall it remains smooth and meditative in quality until a swath of metallic percussion signals greater movement, leading to a wild rumpus of a conclusion, with sudden crescendo swells of sound, meter-unsettling syncopation, and thunderous percussion. Following on the works of Rouse's Death Cycle in the 1990s, this piece, premiered in 2000, "inhabits a world devoid of darkness," as Rouse put it in his program note.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A feast of sonic showpieces brings out the best in Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony (Baltimore Sun, October 24)
Rouse was paired beautifully with Scriabin's Le Poème de l'extase, premiered in 1908, a lushly chromatic fever-dream equal parts cheesy theosophy and Tristan-esque Love-Death. It also opens in a slow, amorphous way, with single celesta notes topping harp arpeggios in a delicate web of sound, with lots of moaning and sighing motifs. The music turns more dark and stormy, tinged with minor harmonies, toward the middle but inexorably mounts toward a climactic conclusion, marked by bell strokes and the clangor of a large battery. After that first half, the heroic charge of the opening of Ein Heldenleben was bracing. The sound of the violin section soared, especially in the conclusion of the Strauss, while the woodwinds carped stridently as the voices of the music critics. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney seduced and cajoled playfully in the violin solos, representing Strauss's soprano wife, Pauline, bringing the orchestra back to life with her raucous laughs after the hero seemed to succumb to the ever-present critics. As one listens to Strauss quote some of his own compositional successes in the victory section of this tone poem -- themes for Don Quixote and Sancho, Till Eulenspiegel, the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra woven into the ending -- it is remarkable to realize that at this point in his life, in 1899, Strauss had not yet even composed his greatest operatic triumphs.

This program repeats on Sunday afternoon (October 26, 3 pm) at Strathmore.

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