BSO performs program of powerhouse Rouse, Wagner

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra didn’t think small when deciding to acknowledge the 2013 bicentennial of the birth of revolutionary composer, revolting human being Richard Wagner.

Three separate programs were plugged into the season, starting in February with a sizzling sampling of Wagner’s operas that included Act 1 of “Die Walkure,” the second part of Wagner’s gargantuan cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelungen.”

This week, we’re getting a hefty sampling of the entire “Ring,” without words, via a seamless orchestral arrangement by Henk de Vlieger. BSO music director Marin Alsop has cleverly paired that work with “Der gerettete Alberich,” a percussion concerto by Pulitzer Prize-winning Baltimore composer Christopher Rouse that incorporates and wildly develops melodic themes from the “Ring.”

But wait, that’s not all. If you get to Meyerhoff Hall Saturday night, you can also take in “A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner and Ludwig II,” the latest “symphonic play” created by Didi Balle, the BSO’s newly appointed playwright in residence.

The Wagner-Rouse program was impressively delivered Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall. The only sour note was the embarrassingly small turnout for one of the season’s most colorful and rewarding programs.
Vlieger’s synthesis of the “Ring” shortchanges the first two operas, “Das Rheingold” and “Walkure,” but the arranger makes up for it with extensive chunks from “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.”  

Even if 16 hours or so have been reduced to one, and even if there isn’t a single note sung or a single bit of staging, it’s easy to get a sense from this arrangement of just how magnificently eventful and detailed the cycle is as theater, how sublime and stirring it is as music. (Descriptions of the action being depicted are posted on a screen above the stage in the BSO presentation.)     

Alsop was in peak form Thursday. She kept the sprawling work firmly in hand right from the deep, dark swirling sounds signifying the mighty Rhein. She proceeded to dig into the juiciest themes, build crescendos deftly, and deftly highlight pictorial elements in the score.

All the while, she had the orchestra playing with vivid expression. The strings summoned considerable tonal sheen; the woodwinds and brass made rich contributions. Phil Munds’ technically and stylishly superb horn solos provided one more high in the experience.

Rouse’s work, dating from the late 1990s, draws its inspiration from one of the slimier characters in the “Ring,” the dwarf Alberich, whose theft of magic gold sets the epic cycle spinning.

In the Rouse score, Alberich, represented by the percussionist, seems to crawl out of a hole after the upheaval at the end of “Gotterdammerung” and start on a whole new series of adventures, perhaps a bit wiser now. Bits and pieces of Alberich-related themes from Wagner’s operas are inventively woven throughout.

Some of what ensues in “Der gerettete Alberich” (“Alberich Saved”) is a little obvious, even a little odd — a rock music outburst seems more tacked on than organic — but the finely structured, prismatically orchestrated piece adds up to a clever, rousing mini-epic.

Percussionist Colin Currie, who played the solo part when the BSO last programmed the piece in 2004, was back to demonstrate his calm, confident virtuosity and flair for making even the slightest tap or scrape as meaningful as the wildest volleys. Alsop was a sturdy collaborator; the orchestra was in great form.

For an encore, Currie was joined by a bucket brigade from the BSO’s OrchKids program in an infectious burst of percussive energy.

The program is repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday. “A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner and Ludwig II” will be presented at 7 p.m. tonight. Both events are at Meyerhoff Hall.

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