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

BSO New Music Festival filled with eclectic works, electric performances

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Marin Alsop has accomplished a great deal during her decade-plus tenure as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director, starting with a steady honing of the ensemble’s technical skills; a new wave of recording projects; and an expansion of educational and community activities that includes the nationally recognized OrchKids.

On any list of valuable things Alsop has done here I’d save a high-ranking slot for her pronounced advocacy for contemporary composers.

That commitment led to one of her boldest and most satisfying adventures — the BSO New Music Festival, launched last year right after the regular season. She brings a particularly keen ear for this sort of endeavor, along with considerable experience, having guided the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California for 25 years.

The diverse and diverting second installment of what now promises to be the annual BSO New Music Festival wrapped up over the weekend after taking audiences on a colorful ride. As was the case at the inaugural fest, the choice of composers and their works this year was imaginative, the performances vibrant and persuasive.

Saturday night’s concluding festival event at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall drew a sizable, vociferously appreciative audience for a program featuring the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ Oboe Concerto, written for the BSO’s ever-impressive principal oboist Katherine Needleman.

The new piece comes with a nickname already attached — “Moonlight.” Unlike Beethoven’s famous piano sonata, which acquired that same moniker after his death, the “Moonlight” Concerto got its designation directly from the composer.

The choice reflects the inspiration Puts derived from seeing the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight,” which sparked ideas for his concerto (the first of the score’s three movements is also titled “Moonlight”).

The movie’s bittersweet quality wasn’t the only influence on the composer. The 2016 presidential election got under his skin, too; the result, as he told the crowd on Saturday, was “a blow to my sense of everything.” (Alsop asked Puts to avoid being “too political” in his comments, but he still got his points across.)

Whatever the impetus behind the notes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Puts, a Peabody Institute faculty member, has crafted a very effective concerto. Knowing his feelings makes it easy to hear it as a drama of conviction, doubt, anxiety and at least a little hope. But it is just as easy to accept it as an abstract, beautifully proportioned structure filled with engaging thematic ideas and enhanced by refined orchestration.

The outer movements contain a gentle pulse that supports lyrical, often poignant melodic lines from the oboe against a shimmering orchestral fabric.

The agitated central section (titled “Folly”) puts me in mind of Beethoven, this time the Andante of his Piano Concerto No. 4, where angry strings are tamed by gentle utterances from the piano. Here, it’s the oboe that, toward the end of the movement, suggests a beacon of purity rising above and slowly calming the orchestra’s angry persistence.

Needleman delivered the solo part with her usual unflappable technique and golden tone, spinning out deeply expressive phrases in the concerto’s touching, time-suspending close. She enjoyed excellent support from Alsop and the ensemble throughout.

Eminent Scottish composer James MacMillan dedicated his “Woman of the Apocalypse” to Alsop, who conducted the premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in 2012. The title references a figure in the Book of Revelation — a pregnant woman threatened by a dragon — and the many paintings done of her over the centuries.

It’s a massive, even audacious, orchestral piece full of wild colors and outbursts, especially from the brass and percussion. MacMillan keeps the sonic surprises coming as the half-hour work unfolds. Waves of melodic lines bubbling upward from the woodwinds and shattering declamations from the brass are but two examples; an edgy passage for string quartet is another.

Alsop kept a tight rein on the score and drew virtuosic playing from the BSO. During the fourth section of the piece (“She is given the wings of a great eagle”), the strings sounded particularly impressive, articulating even at supersonic speed with startling clarity and expressive urgency.

The program also offered “Slow Portraits,” a work by Du Yun — another Pulitzer winner and Peabody faculty member — that unleashes intense orchestral growling, slithering, shaking and sliding while David Michalek’s equally intense super-slo-mo video portraits unfold on a screen above the stage, showing actors going through assorted movements, gestures and reactions.

The sonic-visual effect proved absorbing. Alsop drew a taut, urgent performance from the BSO.

Dan Visconti’s “Low Country Haze,” which opened the concert, provides a subtle, poetic evocation of the strange, inviting sound-world that 16th-century Spanish explorers encountered in what is now part of the American South. It’s a beguiling piece, and it was beguilingly played.

(I’m not sure if it was a question of timing or communication, but the concluding portion that calls for the manipulation of tuned wine glasses didn’t quite come off — just as some musicians scrambled to grab the glasses, the performance ended.)

Thursday’s chamber music program at the Peabody Institute, featuring BSO players and guest artists, opened with a droll example of what might be called percussive theater.

Thierry De Mey’s “Table Music” calls on three percussionists to “play” wooden boards, using just their hands. The variety of the sounds (sliding across the surface with the back of the hand is one of coolest) and bits of visual humor (even page-turning is carefully choreographed) run out a little sooner than the piece does, but no matter.

Sitting side by side, Svet Stoyanov, Matt Keown and Jeff Stern gave a superbly synchronized performance.

The melancholy “Mariel” by Osvaldo Golijov inspired exquisite playing from Stoyanov on marimba and cellist Inbal Segev (she co-curated the program with Alsop). The last, introspective minutes, leading to a deep, long-held note of disarming beauty from Segev, left a haunting impression.

In another combination of music and video, “Tattooed in Snow,” Du Yun juxtaposed a string quartet and a curious video by Lu Yang that depicts a sort of live-action Japanese anime character. Not being cohesive seems to be the point, and it succeeds.

That said, the purely musical side of things is quite rich, the four string instruments separated spatially, their lines interacting and intersecting intricately. At one point, a throwback to the baroque era emerges amid the edgy soundscape, like a repressed memory. The tight, nuanced performance featured Segev, violinists Audrey Wright and Kevin Smith, and violist Jacob Shack.

Visconti’s “Black Bend” for string quintet is an expert fusion of blues idioms with something a little more up-town. Wright, Smith and Shack were joined by cellist Darius Skoraczewski and bass Tim Dilenschneider for a dynamic account of the clever, atmospheric piece.

The evening ended with MacMillan’s “The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul,” a reflection on a 1986 incident in El Salvador, where a village was attacked by a helicopter. When the residents emerged unscathed, a celebration became what the composer describes as a “strangely comical dance” that served to exorcise the evil in the sky.

With characteristic finesse, Alsop led a well-matched, 14-piece ensemble through the musical thicket. The score felt long to me, its ideas stretched a little thin, but the cumulative effect still had considerable impact, thanks to the potent playing. That level of energy and commitment fueled the entire festival.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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