BSO premieres colorful works by Anna Clyne, Joan Tower

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The Baltimore Symphony salutes uncommon women, including two composers with distinctive, ear-grabbing styles.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which works regularly with an uncommon woman, devoted its latest program to several of them.

Conducted by music director Marin Alsop, the ensemble premiered deftly crafted works composed by Anna Clyne and Joan Tower; collaborated with violinist Alexandra Soumm in Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole"; and gave a nod to the decidedly uncommon title character of Bizet's evergreen opera "Carmen."

I caught up with the program at its last performance, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The premieres proved intriguing, the standard pieces entertaining. (Nice symmetry, too -- a premiere followed by a work by a French composer imitating Spanish music on the first half; ditto for the second.)

As a counterweight to Copland's ubiquitous "Fanfare for the Common Man," Tower penned her first "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" nearly 30 years ago (that one was dedicated to Alsop).

If there's a cheeky element to the American composer's idea of responding to Copland, and far out-producing him in the fanfare department, there's certainly a serious side as well. Tower's command of orchestral coloring and her firm rhythmic sense generates music that communicates clearly and vividly.

That's the case with the latest fanfare, commissioned for the BSO's centennial season by Classical Movements, Inc. as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program.

A repeated note opens the score and becomes an insistent idea throughout, interspersed with brassy bursts and churning, swirling material that builds up a good amount of tension. Tower doesn't wrap all of this up strongly; the music oddly loses steam. Still, all in all, a solid curtain-raiser, energetically delivered by Alsop and the orchestra. Tower was on hand to enjoy an ovation.

Clyne also was present. In brief remarks, the British-born composer and Alsop recounted the origins of "Abstractions," a BSO commission by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter in honor of her friends, Baltimore philanthropists Rheda Becker and Robert E. Meyerhoff.

Visual art is the key to "Abstractions." Clyne was drawn to five works of art in Meyerhoff's private collection or the Baltimore Museum of Art that helped inspire the score. Knowing the images helps bring the music into focus, but the five-movement work easily stands on its own, thanks to the clarity and expressive nuance of Clyne's writing.

Each movement is rich in ideas and instrumental shades; except for the finale, which could use a more convincing coda, each makes a fully rounded statement.

Clyne's most poetic ideas have particular impact -- in the opening "Marble Moon," a beguiling theme emerges between high-and low-pitched layers; the placid "Seascape" includes elegant woodwind lines riding delicate waves from the harp.

The strings get terrific material in "Auguries" -- wild whirls that produce an effect almost akin to a wind machine. The BSO players tore into that movement with great panache. All sections of the orchestra pitched in firmly throughout "Abstractions," producing plenty of vibrancy in "River," with its pop-music-like energy, and reveling in the counterpoint of "Three."

The audience responded enthusiastically.

There were cheers, too, for Soumm's account of the Lalo work. The Russian violinist brought a lush tone, technical aplomb and abundant personality to the performance, nowhere more impressively than in the emotional, gypsy-flavored Andante. 

Alsop gave the soloist expert support and drew from the BSO stylish playing. The strings handled the pizzicato work in the scherzo with remarkable subtlety.

A parade of greatest hits from "Carmen," paced effectively by Alsop and performed in tight fashion by the orchestra, closed the concert. The many solos were handled with care by principal players; principal trumpet Andrew Balio stood out for the extra does of suavity he slipped into the well-worn "Toreador Song."

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