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BSO captures Baltimore in music

Some of the loudest, most propulsive sounds to be heard outside of an Ozzfest arena show hit unsuspecting Baltimore Symphony Orchestra audiences last year during a circus-theme program devised by music director Marin Alsop.

One of the thrashing works played on that occasion, to memorable effect, was a 2002 piece called "Screamer! — A Three-Ring Blur for Orchestra," by David T. Little.

"David is a real talent whose work has deservedly gained wide-spread recognition in recent years," Alsop said. "In the space of five minutes, 'Screamer!' offered listeners a sonic blast of all sorts of those crazy noises we associate with the circus, with a good dash of humor thrown in. It was a great success."

The New Jersey-born and -based Little is back in town this week to hear his latest piece, "Charm," which will receive its world premiere Saturday during the BSO's season-opening gala concert.

"During the time I was in Baltimore [in 2010], I talked with Marin about writing something for the orchestra," the composer said. "I mentioned that there's something in the city I felt a connection with, an energy that was related to my music."

Alsop encouraged Little to pursue that connection.

"I liked his imaginative voice so much that I wanted to see what he could do with a theme near to my heart: Baltimore," the conductor said.

Although the commission from the BSO was meant for a gala occasion, rather than a regular subscription concert, Little did not set out to write something lightweight and festive. The 10-minute score aims to reflect much more than the surface charms of Charm City.

"I have a sense of Baltimore having a realness and a rawness to it," Little, 32, said. "There is a cinematic quality to the piece. It's as if you are viewing the city starting from the skyline, then pan down to the electric grid, the foundations, the bedrock, and back up. It's taking in the whole city, not just the buildings and structures, but all the elements that make cities what they are."

The propulsive energy of "Charm," with a beat that reflects Little's background as a rock drummer, easily suggests a dynamic urban pulse.

"There is a cathartic moment, I hope, at the end," the composer said, "something of a surprise ending."

That surprise involves a tranquil, calming passage meant to convey what Little describes as "a sense of peace and reconciliation, both with the city and with ourselves as people," after experiencing a journey together. "But it's not programmatic music," the composer added. "It's more philosophical."

Even if no literal portrait of Baltimore is intended, the changing moods in the score may bring to mind "the shifts of neighborhoods, which I find very interesting," Little said. "It's a pretty great city, I have to say."

The orchestration contains some extra percussion instruments that add "a bright, metallic quality to the sound," the composer said. "An industrial quality also finds its way into my work."

Little's distinctive style has earned him a steady stream of commissions. In 2004, he formed his own group, an amplified octet called Newspeak, known for exploring both the intersection of rock and classical genres and the fusion of music and politics.

"I had a lot of different musical influences early on," Little said. "I was in a fife and drum corps, which is a strange thing to run through your veins for someone born in 1978 in New Jersey. But I feel connected to the tradition of classical music, even if I grew up playing rock and metal. The funny thing is that certain parts of Bach, Mozart and, especially, Beethoven are so punk in my mind."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's gala concert, conducted by Marin Alsop, features violinist Hilary Hahn, the OrchKids Bucket Band and others. Works by Handel, Mendelssohn, Aaron Copland, Joan Tower and David T. Little are on the program, which starts at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $50 and $75. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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