BSO gala program includes rare Grofe score, unusual 'Rhapsody in Blue'

The scene in the tent for the 2014 BSO Gala
(Matthew Paul D'Agostino)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been showing a lot of love for the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore and the poem Francis Scott Key was inspired to write after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

The BSO celebrated that anniversary on Sept. 13 during the nationally televised Star-Spangled Spectacular concert at Pier Six, then kept the theme going for its annual gala, an all-American concert held Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

There was a good deal of novelty on the short program (in between dinner and dessert offered for premium gala-goers in a tent set up outside), starting with Ferde Grofe's "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner."

First heard at the 1932 opening of Radio City Music Hall under the title "September 13, 1814," it's a quick-moving tone poem weaving together snippets of "Rule, Britannia" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" to evoke the conflict and, of course, the outcome.

Other than a radio performance in the late 1930s (in a jazz orchestra arrangement), the music was forgotten until now. The revival came about through a nice bit of serendipity.

Neil Grauer, assistant director of editorial services for Johns Hopkins Medicine, had the program from the Radio City Music Hall opening, which his father and grandfather had attended. Grauer thought the Grofe item would be a good fit for the BSO and the anthem anniversary. He sought assistance from Charles Limb, a Hopkins doctor, researcher and BSO friend, who contacted the Library of Congress, the repository for Grofe's papers.

Nicholas Alexander Brown, a music specialist at the library, uncovered the neglected, never-published piece. With permission from the composer's son, Ferde Grofe Jr., arranger Jari Villanueva reconstructed the score. To add to the occasion, a video using clips from a 2004 History Channel program on the War of 1812 was assembled to accompany the BSO's performance.

Was all of that effort worth it for a five-minute work? I think so. It's a cool little item. I just wish there were more of it. If Grofe had written something longer, it might have a chance to replace Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," the historically inappropriate, go-to music for American patriotic concerts.

That said, the "Ode's" manipulation of themes is deft, the orchestration intriguingly thick, the mood vivid -- qualities that were readily apparent in the BSO's account, crisply conducted by Marin Alsop.

The middle of the gala was devoted to Copland. His "Lincoln Portrait" received a stirring performance. Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah delivered the narration in a finely nuanced style that even made the reiterative "This is what he said" refrains sound natural. Alsop shaped the evocative score very effectively and drew polished playing from the orchestra.

Any opportunity to hear the Morgan State University Choir is welcome, although three of Copland's "Old American Songs" did not provide the best showcase for the ensemble's talents.

To balance the Grofe novelty at the top of the program came more novelty at the close -- Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Novelty? Sure, the piece is thoroughly familiar, but the version heard here was anything but.

The performance featured the Marcus Roberts Trio instead of a single keyboard artist, extended improvisational flourishes instead of the usual notated piano solos. Gershwin would have loved it.

Roberts offered one brilliant riff after another on the familiar music, kicking up the jazz pulse a notch or two whenever he could (with bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis eager partners), and sometimes venturing into a kind of Ravel/Rachmaninoff mode to extra cool effect.

Alsop made sure that the deviations dovetailed smoothly with the score, and she had the orchestra charging into the experience with flair. Steven Barta's clarinet solo got the whole thing off to a dynamic start.

Members of the widely touted OrchKids project joined orchestra, trio and chorus for the encore, a raucous romp through James P. Johnson's "Victory Stride." The BSO's Rene Hernandez tossed in a hot trumpet solo along the way.

All in all, the concert made for a fun, celebratory occasion.

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