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Annapolis Symphony Orchestra celebrates 50 years

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Nonprofit music organizations face so many hurdles that each milestone successfully reached becomes all the more significant. No wonder the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra is wrapping up its golden anniversary season in a big way this weekend.

There will be performances Friday and Saturday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, and a gala Sunday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.

At both locations, music director Jose-Luis Novo will lead the orchestra in a rich program that includes the world premiere of a work by the ASO's composer-in-residence, Latin Grammy-winning Gabriela Lena Frank, one of the bright lights on the contemporary music scene.

"To celebrate a milestone like the 50th anniversary without doing new music is not a realistic service to your community," Novo said.

The Clarice Smith concert will get an extra dose of star power with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as guest artist. The soloist slot for the Maryland Hall performances will be filled by pianist Rachel Franklin, playing a Beethoven concerto.

With a budget of about $1.2 million and an endowment of roughly the same amount, the ASO, made up of professional freelancers in the region, has been a part of the capital's cultural life since 1962.

"Long-term Annapolitans know of the symphony, but newcomers may not be fully aware that there is a fine symphony in their backyard," said board chairman John Goldthwait Jr. "We are being very aggressive in our marketing. We have 200 new subscribers this year, which is a very good sign."

Since 2005, the podium has been in the hands of Novo, a Spanish-born conductor well-equipped with musicality and ideas. His tenure has seen the release of the orchestra's first CD, debuts at Clarice Smith and the Music Center at Strathmore, and a continual broadening of repertoire — the orchestra received an ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award in 2008.

"One of the things I enjoy the most about the ASO is the commitment everyone makes to the organization," Novo said. "Our players have a choice of what jobs to accept, but they accept most of what we offer them. And they keep rising to my challenges. We don't make it easy for ourselves."

For the anniversary concerts, the orchestra will tackle works by Dvorak and Ravel, along with the premiere work, "Raices: Concerto Suite for Orchestra." This roughly 20-minute score was created during the first season of Frank's two-year ASO residency, made possible by Music Alive, a project of the League of American Orchestras and Meet the Composer.

"Gabriela is not the type of composer who writes music to please audiences," Novo said. "She writes music she believes in. 'Raices' is an interesting, challenging piece with great colors and rhythmic life."

The title, the Spanish word for "roots," has multiple meanings for Frank, whose heritage is a mix of Peruvian, Chinese, Lithuanian and Jewish. She describes herself as "an American-born gringa-Latina," and her music reflects the diverse influences in her life.

"Raices" has a particularly personal root system.

"There are very specific strands that come from some of my previous pieces," Frank said. "I always wondered what would have happened if I had gone in a different direction, so I took a couple germs of ideas from those pieces and took them to new places in the concerto."

The influence of brilliant 20th-century composer Bela Bartok may be detected in the work.

"He's my hero," Frank said, "always in the background of everything I write. He's a barometer for how cross-cultural composing can be done."

Next season, Frank's ASO residency will include performances of a previous work and another premiere. By then, perhaps there will be some concrete steps toward upgrading the orchestra's home base, Maryland Hall, where the acoustics do music no favors.

"One of my highest aspirations is to improve the performance venue," Novo said. "It is one of the things stopping this orchestra from becoming much better."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $10 to $45. Call 410-263-0907. The gala concert with Denyce Graves is at 5 p.m. Sunday at Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Tickets are $15 to $150 (includes reception). Call 301-405-2787 or go to claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

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