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Classical review

Baltimore Symphony premieres musically, visually intriguing 'City'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The Strathmore audience reacted warmly to the BSO's premiere of Baltimore-centric "The City" last night.

"The City," roughly equal parts homage, nostalgia, celebration and warning, provided an intriguing musical-visual experience at its premiere by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

This creation of composer Kevin Puts and videographer James Bartolomeo, which prompted a hearty ovation at the Music Center at Strathmore, centers on Baltimore. It is certainly applicable in many ways to other cities, but I think it's safe to claim this work as ours.

Baltimore's history, people, buildings and public spaces pass by on the screen, leading up to last year's Freddie Gray-related rioting. At that point, the screen goes dark for a few minutes, allowing the orchestra to dissect the complicated emotional chords struck by the sight of the destruction.

When it resumes, the film gradually yields restorative images on the way to a tentatively upbeat close that suggests Baltimore will make it after all.

On first viewing, I found myself wondering about some of the image choices. I wasn't persuaded by the prolonged juxtaposition of fireworks and demolition of old edifices, for example, or the final moments, which skirted postcard/convention bureau territory.

Also, I've seen perhaps too many promotional videos of OrchKids, the BSO's educational program, to be able to savor fully another dose here.  And I’m not sure that music director Marin Alsop and the BSO need to have cameos, since they're right there onstage making the music beneath the screen.

(On behalf of my employer, I feel I should also note that, while a building with the logo of the short-lived Examiner flashes by, there doesn't seem to be any reference to the enduring Baltimore Sun.)

In the end, though, the film portion of the piece has considerable impact, thanks to Bartolomeo's flair for rapid editing and his imaginative mix of still photos, home movies and more. It's an eclectic film, and that sure is Baltimore all over.

As for the score, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Puts, who teaches at the Peabody Institute, never disappoints in terms of orchestral coloring, and he revels in prismatic possibilities here. There's also a terrific rhythmic tension to the piece, right from the cool opening barrage of drumming, brilliantly evocative of urban energy, yet tinged with something more unsettled.

That drumming becomes a significant element of the piece, which deftly moves through various moods, each tinted by the composer's distinctive lyrical style. Most telling are the passages of intense melodic fire that suggest a searching for answers ever out of reach. The music reveals beauty, grit, worry, charm and a certain dignity -- and that's just like Baltimore, too.

"The City" will be repeated tonight at Meyerhoff Hall and Saturday at Carnegie Hall, which co-commissioned the work with the BSO. The commission was underwritten by Claire and Dr. Allen Jensen, along with the Catalyst Fund of the Johns Hopkins University.

Thursday's concert opened with the premiere of another Baltimore-related piece, "Processional," by Baltimore's own Christopher Rouse, a centennial commission for Alsop and the BSO by Classical Movements, Inc. The short, moody, subtly scored work imagines a funeral cortege for Edgar Allan Poe.

The evening's main item, Mahler's Symphony No. 5, was on the program Alsop led at the start of her tenure as BSO music director in 2007. Thursday’s performance had the same basic urgency and structural unity she brought to the symphony then, but I sensed a deeper burrowing into the notes and keener rhythmic flexibility this time.

If the conductor missed some opportunities to heighten suspense in the first movement, especially during the opening and closing moments, she shaped the mercurial second assuredly, holding the shifting moods together to make a big, bracing statement.

Alsop gave the Scherzo a jaunty workout, but took time to draw out lovely, lilting phrases along the way as well. Her approach to the famous Adagietto had a good deal of eloquence, and she capped the performance with a sure-footed, muscular romp through the Rondo-Finale.

By and large, the orchestra (beefed up for the occasion with freelancers) played well; the repeat performances are bound to get even firmer.

Except in the Adagietto, when the violins lacked tightness, the strings had a strong night. The brass blazed through the coda of the finale to particularly impressive effect.

Principal trumpet Andrew Balio encountered a bit of fuzzy intonation early on, but otherwise demonstrated admiral polish in his pivotal solos. The almost concerto-worthy solos in the Scherzo were delivered by principal horn Phil Munds with a rich tone and supple, sensitive phrasing.

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If you go

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Kevin Puts' "The City" and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at 8 p.m. April 15 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $35 to $105. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org. Also, 8 p.m. April 16 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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