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Pictures at the symphony: BSO performs works by Mussorgsky, Hindemith and Brubeck

It was possible Friday night to believe that there is life in post-blizzard Baltimore. There'd surely be even more action if the city could somehow manage to push just a little more snow off the roads, so we could get just a few more lanes of traffic operational, but I know I'm being much too demanding, not to mention unrealistic.

Anyway, the cool thing was finding such a big crowd at the Meyerhoff to hear a hefty program of visual art-inspired works performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

This was the first time the BSO had been back in business since last weekend's storm, which knocked out all performances of a Tchaikovsky-Vaughan Williams-Gershwin program, and the subsequent punch from the skies, which forced the cancelation of Thursday's scheduled concert at Strathmore.

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As I understand it, the orchestra wasn't able to get in all of the rehearsals for this latest program, and that showed a little on Friday night, but there was no mistaking the sound of musicians eager to be

back in the thick of it. Marin Alsop was clearly relishing the return to normality, too; in remarks to the audience about the music, she inserted several references to being cooped up for the week.

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The conductor's cohesive theme for the program was how composers can be inspired by the art they see. The one, obvious war horse, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," was balanced by two rarer items: Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler," drawn from his opera on the Reformation-era painter Matthias Grunewald; and "Ansel Adams: America," jointly composed by Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, and receiving its East Coast premiere.

The presence of the Brubeck name on the bill no doubt generated some of the turnout (Chris Brubeck attended), but it did not generate the most memorable results. Played while several Ansel Adams photographs were projected (weakly) on a screen above the stage, the work opened with a promising, atmospheric brass chorale, then settled into film score routines of rather nondescript, but richly orchestrated, tunes. Long stretches were stuck in a waltz tempo, not the first rhythmic motion I would readily associate with Adams' rugged landscapes.

In the end, it was all very pleasant, and all very ably, sensitively performed. But it didn't begin to match the startling images on the screen; Adams conveyed more meaningful color with his black and white pictures than all the instrumental flourishes employed by the Brubecks.

Hindemith's symphony, relating to three religious paintings by Grunewald but easy to appreciate in abstract terms, is an involving masterwork that speaks vividly, even if the melodic and harmonic language is more intellectual than emotional. It ought to be heard much more often -- same for a lot of Hindemith's music. It was great of Alsop to give it attention, and seemed to be strongly connected to the material throughout, focusing on structural and expressive detail with equal power.

The players, once past a tentative start, dug into the surging poetic imagery in the first movement and, especially, the battle of taut thematic ideas in the finale. The reflective middle movement found the strings summoning a gorgeous tone and phrasing with admirable subtlety.

The Mussorgsky crowd-pleaser, performed here in the familiar Ravel orchestration, received a vibrant, genuinely evocative account. Alsop kept the momentum going, emphasized dynamic contrasts and bursts of character, and lit an impressive fuse under the brass in "Great Gate at Kiev." The several soloists, among them trumpeter Andrew Balio with his laser-beam articulation and saxophonist Brian Sacawa with his mellow phrasing, made valuable contributions along the way.

Saturday morning's "casual concert" includes the Brubeck and Hindemith works; Saturday evening's "off the cuff" program concentrates on the Mussorgsky. Either ought to be worth dodging snow drifts for.

PHOTO BY DAVE HOFFMANN, COURTESY OF THE BSO

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