Symphony Number One opens season promisingly with Mahler, new sax concerto

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
There's a new orchestral ensemble in Baltimore, and it's got a cool approach to programming.

Baltimore has a new orchestral ensemble. Judging by the concert Sunday afternoon, it's a worthwhile addition to the scene.

The chamber-sized Symphony Number One, founded last year and led by Jordan Randall Smith, has been steadily building up resources to support its dual mission -- presenting masterworks alongside substantial pieces of new music.

Instead of the five-minute splash of modernity that satisfies the conscience of some groups, this one promises full-length freshness on each program. Recordings are also part of the plan.

The season-opener at Emmanuel Episcopal Church (I caught the second of two performances given there) offered Mahler's sublime Symphony No. 4 in the downsized arrangement made in 1921 by Erwin Stein, alongside the world premiere of the appealing Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra by Andrew Boss.

(Extra points to Symphony Number One for putting the new work at the end of the program; many an orchestra will get the new piece out of the way early, using better known stuff as audience-bait after intermission.)

Boss, who earned a graduate degree at Peabody a few years ago, has crafted a substantial, two-movement, half-hour concerto in a fundamentally tonal, often vividly spiced language. From the lush opening chord and the questioning response it generates from the saxophone, the music pulls you in gently.

The composer treats the solo instrument with a keen appreciation for its songful possibilities. In the first movement, the sax often soars in rhapsodic fashion above a glittering orchestral fabric. The second movement moves from wistful reverie to urban/folksy swirl to high drama, before a burst of aching lyricism ushers in a radiant, reflective close.

(That concluding passage, marked "Remembrance," is not just musically satisfying, tying up all that has gone before. There's an emotional release, too. The score, I am told, is partly haunted by memories of cellist Dmitry Volkov, who died unexpectedly in 2014, a year after premiering Boss' Cello Concerto.)

Saxophonist Sean Meyers offered technical aplomb and keen expressive nuance throughout. Smith was an attentive partner and drew a cohesive response from the ensemble. 

The only Mahler symphony that could easily survive a reduction to chamber forces is the Fourth, partly because so much of the original is already intimate in scale. Stein's arrangement captures the essence remarkably well.

There were some technical disappointments in the performance, especially intonation slippage in some of the string playing. But, overall, the group rose to the challenge. Clarinetist James Duncan's phrasing revealed an extra dash of color. Percussionists Nehemiah Russell and Chris Salvito were sturdy assets (as they were in the Boss concerto). 

Interpretively, I would have welcomed far more rhythmic freedom and more character-rich phrasing from Smith in the first two movements. But the conductor, who is doing is doctoral work at Peabody, shaped the remainder persuasively. The third movement, in particular, was quite sensitively molded.

For the finale, with its evocation of child's view of heaven, the orchestra was fortunate to have soprano Amanda Williams as soloist. She sang with consistent sweetness of tone and clarity of articulation, bringing the text to life endearingly.

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