Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Classical review

Reflections on life and death as BSO performs Rouse, Mozart

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s latest program is a matter of life and death.

In “Berceuse Infinie,” receiving its world premiere, the eminent Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse spins a spellbinding, not necessarily soothing lullaby for adults. Punctuated by the eerie sound of orchestra members exhaling, the music suggests a reflection on how fragile and temporal our existence is, but still, somehow, keeps renewing.

Mozart unexpectedly faced his own mortality as he tried to fulfill a commission for a musical setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead. He left an unfinished Requiem that, completed by a pupil, effectively addresses mourning and dread, faith and hope.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the two pieces added up to an unusually rewarding concert.

Rouse dedicated “Berceuse Infinie” (“Infinite Lullaby”) to BSO music director Marin Alsop. She returned the compliment by ensuring that the score received a terrific first performance, drawing richly communicative playing from the orchestra and the many soloists within.

Right from the ruminative opening, which includes the first of the exhaled sighs, Rouse grabs the ear with at once dark and beautiful melodic ideas that emerge from a kind of mist. They are given a gently rocking rhythmic pulse that holds the roughly 15-minute score together.

The composer’s sophisticated harmonic language adds color and texture. His familiar mastery of orchestration is everywhere in evidence, as much in the subtlest percussion touches as in the lushest string chords.

The score has a sublime close, when a few questioning sounds give way to a kind of serenity and the last of the audible sighs. (That use of human breaths could turn gimmicky, but Rouse employs the device deftly.)

There’s something very private, yet open, about this music. Its most piercing passages bring to mind a description someone once gave to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — “a requiem for the living” — but its most radiant moments vibrate with hope.

We’ll never know how Mozart would have completed the Requiem. For all of the various attempts over the years, especially in recent times, to devise alternatives, the version prepared by Franz Xaver Sussmayr shortly after Mozart’s death remains the standard. Whatever its shortcomings, it satisfies when approached with conviction.

Alsop brought her familiar flair for propulsion to the score, underlining the drama of the “Dies Irae” and generating extra energy in the “Offertorium.” She also shaped tender moments, notably the “Lacrimosa,” with sensitivity.

The excellent University of Maryland Concert Choir (finely honed by director Edward Maclary) maintained a supple blend, articulated pristinely and, above all, animated every phrase. A softer, more ethereal sound from the choristers in the “Salva me” and “Voca me” passages would have been welcome, but that proved a minor disappointment.

The vocal soloists — soprano Alisa Jordheim, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, bass-baritone Michael Dean and, especially, the lustrous-toned mezzo Diana Moore — sang vividly. There was much to savor, too, in the BSO’s playing, which provided a firm foundation throughout this dynamic performance.


If you go

The Rouse-Mozart program will be performed at 3 p.m. Dec. 3 at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Mozart's Requiem will be discussed and performed in an Off the Cuff concert 8:15 p.m. Dec. 1 at Strathmore, 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $33 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.


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