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Alsop and BSO revisit Glass 'Icarus,' add Vivaldi to the equation

Last weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program paired music by Baltimore's own Philip Glass with Venice's own Antonio Vivaldi.

In terms of sharing a penchant for motor rhythms and periodically settling into reiterative melodic or harmonic patterns, a case can be made for putting the two composers together. I'll let others make it. I found it a bit odd.

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And don't get me started on the program arrangement, which resulted in a long dead-air stretch for the audience while the stage was reset after a brief Glass piece, an excerpt from  "LIFE: A Journey Through Time," at the start of the evening.

I thought we were in the era of orchestras being focused on enhancing the concert-going experience. Nothing more un-enhancing than watching a stage crew shift chairs around. Couldn't someone have chatted with the audience during that time -- perhaps about the music that was to follow?

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But I digress.

The Vivaldi portion involved trotting out four concertos in a row featuring BSO members as soloists, conducted by Marin Alsop. (Not, perhaps, the best way to disprove the old put-down that "Vivaldi didn't write 400 concertos, he wrote one concerto 400 times.")

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, violinists Qing Li, Ivan Stefanovic, Angela Lee and Kevin Smith and cellist Chang Woo Lee did a buoyant turn in the B minor Concerto for -- you guessed it, four violins and cello.

Andrew Balio and Rene Hernandez offered especially impressive work in the C major Concerto for Two Trumpets, playing from memory and maintaining a combination of sparkling tone and polished technique.

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Two of the violin concertos that constitute "The Four Seasons" followed, featuring concertmaster Jonathan Carney in sturdy, colorful form as soloist. The ensemble, which had sounded rather dutiful in the other concertos, really perked up here and delivered more nuanced dynamics.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to the multimedia version of Glass' "Icarus at the Edge of Time," narrated by the author of the story that inspired it, Columbia University physics and mathematics professor Brian Greene. He turns the Greek myth into a cool sci-fi tale of a boy who flies too close to black hole, rather than the sun.

A slick, moody video crafted by the filmmakers known as Al + Al is an integral part of the experience.

As I wrote when Alsop programmed the work the first time back in 2011 (the BSO co-commissioned it), the narration ends up distracting too much from the propulsive, richly layered activity Glass stirs up in the orchestra. I still think using supertitles for the film instead would provide a more tightly focused experience.

As happened at the recent collision of Shakespeare and Prokofiev at the BSO, the amplification for the voice got out of hand periodically at this performance.

That said, the text, co-fashioned by no less than playwright David Henry Hwang, received dynamic articulation from Greene. (In addition to narrating, he did a fun little intro that covered the science behind the story.)

And Alsop coaxed polished, vibrant playing from the ensemble, which seems more comfortable with the Glass idiom each time a work of his turns up here -- witness the expressive account of his Symphony No. 3 for string orchestra, conducted with great finesse by BSO assistant conductor Nicholas Hersh in September during the first Pulse series event.

So how about some more Glass from the BSO soon? I'm dreaming of really big stuff, like the last act of "Satyagraha." Yeah, I know, that's crazy dreaming.

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