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

The BSO's New Music Festival strikes a potent chord

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

As I approached Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday night for the final event in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural New Music Festival, my usual skepticism kicked into high gear. I mean, really — contemporary music in Baltimore in July in a 2,400-seat hall? Please. I was bound to see one big, empty place.

Well, shut my naysaying mouth.

Whatever the reason — a decision, made by the BSO a week earlier, to scrap a $25 ticket price and make the concert free; a previously unsuspected base of folks crazy for new music; the dreadful Orioles season — a sizable crowd chose to check out the action. An enthusiastic crowd, too, one that got to experience vivid compositions and first-rate music-making.

I am sure there will be lots of analysis inside the BSO in the months ahead to determine whether a second festival can be attempted, whether it could afford free ticketing again, whether more performances could be planned, etc. (While such matters are being discussed, I’d suggest coming up with a catchier name than New Music Festival.)

One thing is sure. BSO music director Marin Alsop had a great idea and saw it through, giving Baltimore a little taste of what she presided over so successfully for 25 years in California as music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which packs numerous world, U.S. and regional premieres into a couple of weeks.

We might not be able to support that much new music here, but it ought to be possible to grow this venture beyond the two concerts — one chamber-sized, one orchestral — and an informal jam session at a nightspot that constituted the BSO’s first festival. The appetite has certainly been whetted.

Saturday’s intermissionless program provided a followup showcase for Agata Zubel and Kevin Puts, who were on Thursday’s lineup.

It was good to get a reprise of “The City,” the remarkably effective piece Puts created with filmmaker James Bartolomeo, premiered by Alsop and the BSO in 2015.

The Baltimore-focused video, which includes extensive footage of the Freddie Gray unrest, provides an affecting ode to the good and bad, the hopeful and defeating elements of this city — almost any city, really. And the music Puts created, so full of urgency and rich in atmosphere, sounded as vital as it did when the work was first performed. The BSO poured on the expressive steam, led with expert timing by Alsop.

A pair of East Coast premieres provided an opportunity to absorb different aspects of Zubel’s art.

Her droll “Chapter 13,” with a text from “The Little Prince,” takes a mostly pointillist approach to the voice — the composer was the soloist — and to the compact, percussion-dominant ensemble employed. Zubel’s way of setting the word “stars” in a stratospheric range with lots of shimmery melismas proved especially effective, as did her bravura articulation.

Even more striking was “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear,” an orchestral score that finds Zubel creating a wealth of sounds and contrasts in a wonderfully dense atonal language.

The juxtaposition of piercing brass outbursts and tense, barely audible passages (the cellos eerily bowing high up near the tuning pegs, for example) makes for an involving journey. Moments of silence communicate just as strongly. Zubel aims for something deep here and, at the end, with just soft, dull thuds from the orchestra, there’s an unsettling sense of a heavy loss.

Alsop conducted strongly etched accounts of both Zubel works, drawing a confident, pinpoint response from the BSO players.

A world premiere opened the evening — Malek Jandali’s “The Silent Ocean,” a score haunted by the appalling loss of life from the war in Syria. The composer outlines here a scenario of a young girl who flees the conflict on a boat and is drowned when it capsizes.

The style seems to start where Debussy’s “La Mer” left off, evoking waves and horizons with something similar to that early work’s harmonic and rhythmic motions. Jandali’s use of a traditional Syrian melody adds a rich undercurrent, accented by subtle percussion and brooding strings.

The composer achieves considerable suspense as he works out his thematic material, leading to a convulsive peak. That gives way to a gentle coda, with a solo cello representing, Jandali says, the soul of the girl. The coda is a little too short; there's room for more extended reflection after so much drama.

The music’s sincerity and heartache were underlined by Alsop in a performance that found the orchestra producing a darkly lyrical sound. Associate principal cellist Chang Woo Lee phrased the final moments with a poetic touch.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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