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BSO Ends Up All Wet

We have been fans of John Storgårds, who recently concluded his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, since his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The Finnish conductor's debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, was less auspicious. The fault was not with the conducting, which was incendiary in a house-crushing performance of Holst's The Planets, but with the programming, which opened with Tan Dun's pedestrian Water Concerto.

When the Chinese composer hit the big time, winning the Grawemeyer Award in 1998 for his opera Marco Polo, his use of Chinese instruments in works for European orchestra was revolutionary. Over the last twenty years, though, he has not had a great track record, often recycling similar ideas over and over. Christopher Lamb, principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, worked with the composer to create the range of water-based percussion used in the Water Concerto, premiered in 1998. Lamb returned to play it this week over a decade since his last BSO appearance, in 2003, when he also played -- you guessed it -- Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Lamb, assisted by two percussionists, bowed and splashed their way through the piece, using waterphones and a range of other objects splashed and submerged in big plastic bowls of water. (For long stretches, it was maddeningly repetitive, making me think of the gross Robot Chicken skit embedded below.) The woodwinds made duck calls with their mouthpieces, there was an erhu-like solo for the principal cellist, and largely heterophonic writing brought little of interest in harmony or orchestration. The effect could be achieved much more inexpensively with a small ensemble, rather than using up a symphony orchestra's time.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Storgards makes brilliant BSO debut (Baltimore Sun, May 21)

Joan Reinthaler, ‘Water Concerto’ splashes eloquently onto the BSO stage (Washington Post, May 23)
The string of world premieres, commissioned by the BSO for its 100th anniversary season, continued with a new piece by Libby Larsen, Earth (Holst Trope). It was created to fill a misunderstood lacuna in Holst's The Planets, which is not about the planets as heavenly bodies, but about their influence on humanity through astrology, meaning that Earth is not really germane (nor is Pluto for that matter). A Space Age vocabulary of sounds in a triple-meter pulsating texture was pleasant enough, until Larsen wove a cantus firmus into the piece, the hymn tune usually sung to the words "For the Beauty of the Earth." It was a gesture that unfortunately recalled P.D.Q. Bach's use of the tune Jesus Loves Me, This I Know in Iphigenia in Brooklyn.

The last time that we heard the BSO play The Planets, in 2008, there was a similar confusion about the piece. Unlike Alsop's interpretation back then, Storgårds clearly saw his targets and helped the orchestra hit all of them: the col legno strikes in the strings and apocalyptic brass in the death march of Mars, but with plenty of quiet space in the Mercury movement for the delicate solos of celesta, piccolo, English horn bass oboe, and others. Holst's piece is a manual on devastating orchestration, imitated for decades by John Williams and other film composers, and the comparison to the Tan Dun Water Concerto on the same program was damning.


Charles T. Downey said...

For those who want to know about obscure instrumentation, the BSO confirms that Hiram Diaz played the euphonium (tenor tuba) part in the Holst, although he was not credited in the program.

Anonymous said...

Also, I think you were referring to another weird beast, the bass oboe, rather than English horn, in Mercury.

Charles T. Downey said...

Right you are indeed. Wonderfully bizarre.