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

Symphony Number One showcases new work from diverse composers

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Baltimore’s cultural life frequently gets vivified by startups when young (or not so young) actors, musicians and visual artists create their own outlets. Among those adding to this energy is Symphony Number One, a chamber orchestra that debuted in 2015 and quickly made its mark by providing a vehicle for emerging composers, as well as musicians who relished playing new music as much as old.

To kick off the ensemble’s third season, audiences can hear a representative sampling of what Symphony Number One is all about. There will be an outdoor performance in Mount Vernon Place on Wednesday; over the weekend, two more programs are scheduled in town.

“We’ve got a range of diverse voices,” says Jordan Randall Smith, 34, the orchestra’s co-founder and conductor. “These concerts are the exact opposite of what we normally do. They’ll be shorter and will come with what I call a twist of pop.”

Those pop twists include Baltimore rapper Martina Lynch performing her biting “Dear Media” with a septet accompaniment; an arrangement of Dan Deacon’s edgy song “When I Was Done Dying”; and Sara Corry’s “Short Circuit,” which Smith describes as a “musical quilt” that has “everything from Beethoven to Britney Spears in it.”

(Stepping out of classical boundaries is nothing new for Symphony Number One; it has performed arrangements of songs by Radiohead, Lady Gaga and Leonard Cohen, too.)

The season-opening programs also have room for such items as “Cornerstone,” a nod by the orchestra’s newly named composer-in-residence, Ben Goldberg, to the time capsule recently uncovered at the Washington Monument; and Benjamin Buchanan’s wryly titled “Concerto-ish” for toy piano “and friends.”

The mainstream classical work in the mix will be the suite from Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”).

Such a cross-section of repertoire comes easily to Symphony Number One, which does anything but play by safe, old rules.

Past concerts have featured daunting Mahler symphonies in chamber-size versions, paired with equally long and challenging new pieces. In October at the War Memorial, the orchestra will play a chamber arrangement of a Bruckner symphony alongside a sizable world premiere.

Each season the ensemble issues a “call for scores.” The latest drew more than 200 works by more than 100 composers from several countries. Those selected for performance also have a chance to be recorded; Symphony Number One’s fourth commercial recording, featuring Nicholas Bentz’s nearly hour-long “Approaching Eternity,” is due out in November.

Bentz, who is studying composition and violin at the Peabody Institute, was a co-founder of the orchestra and its first composer in residence. He and Smith, who is working on his doctorate at Peabody, were joined by saxophonist and Peabody graduate Sean Meyers in launching the orchestra.

“It was tricky at first,” Smith says. “No one knew us. And composers wanted to see if we were legitimate. But it’s nice how there’s a rhythm to this now. One of our hopes is that someday people will look at the composers we’ve commissioned and see a Pulitzer winner or nominee.”

In addition to showcasing emerging composers, Symphony Number One will perform a new work by a seasoned one, the widely admired James Lee III, later this season.

With an annual budget of around $25,000, the orchestra puts most of its money into commissioning music and paying the musicians.

Boosting attendance is a major goal for the orchestra. But audience responses have been encouraging, Smith says, even when new pieces didn’t exactly please everyone.

“After a concert, a couple of people came up to me to suggest what the composer could do to fix the piece,” Smith says with a laugh. “That’s exactly what football fans do after a game. I thought it was great that they cared enough to tell me.”

If you go

Symphony Number One performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Upper Room, 514 Cathedral St.; and 3 p.m. Sunday at Light Street Presbyterian Church, 809 Light St. Tickets are $5 to $18. Go to symphonynumber.one.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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