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MacMillan percussion concerto, Elgar's 'Enigma' fuel hot night at the BSO

Colin Currie
Colin Currie (Linda Nylund)

An Anglo-Saxon-Scot lineup of works packed with brilliant ideas and expressive depth fueled a hot concert from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

The East Coast premiere of James MacMillan's Percussion Concerto No. 2, co-commissioned by the BSO, would alone have made the program worthwhile.

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The much-respected Scottish composer, knighted by Queen Elizabeth last year, combines intellectual and sensual elements to fashion some of the most distinctive music of our time. That was underlined in 2008, when, as a BSO guest conductor, he brought a couple of wildly imaginative works of his own to fill out a program with a Beethoven symphony.

As MacMillan noted in his remarks to the audience on Thursday, most composers would probably not end up writing two percussion concertos. "I'm a bit mad that way," he said.

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Mad, maybe, but awfully clever. This 25-minute, one-movement piece from 2014, written with a fellow Scotsman, percussionist Colin Currie, in mind, is an everything-but-the-kitchen sink sort of piece.

The soloist faces not just such expected things as marimba and vibraphone, but also steel drum, old auto parts, cowbells and an aluphone -- an instrument with rows of tuned aluminum bells. The point of all of that ammunition is not just to generate a tour de force performance, although that's certainly what Currie, in a welcome return to the BSO's guest artist roster, delivered.

The percussive battery is woven so tightly into the sonic tapestry of this large-scale score, and the musical material so rich in thematic substance, that the result is more of an orchestral tone poem than a concerto.

Following a traditional fast-slow-fast layout for the work's structure, MacMillan creates quite a satisfying drama that, even at its most unhurried, maintains a firm pulse.

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The opening section includes punchy, jazzy bits, sometimes calling to mind the kinetic dance episodes in Bernstein's "West Side Story"; the unsettling sound of a wailing siren deepens the urban imagery. The cellos produce their own siren-like effect at one point, among the most striking passages in a score full of surprises.

During the concerto's middle section, the cowbells and steel drum make affecting appearances. An aching theme in the strings proves just as riveting; a solo viola adds to the unsettled mood.

Against the soloist's kinetic efforts in the concluding portion, themes bubble -- or slither -- up inside the orchestra, wave after wave, providing vivid counterpoint. As the finale unfolds, the effect is akin to a huge machine propelling forward fearlessly, setting off alarms as it goes. A dark chorale theme from the brass could be a prayer of worry from those left in the wake.

This absorbing concerto inspired one heck of a performance from all involved. The indefatigable, unflappable Currie produced as many subtle nuances as emphatic outbursts. Alsop was a rock-solid partner, and the BSO operated on full steam.

A surprise encore found Currie joined by a contingent from OrchKids, along with BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl and Alsop, all hammering and clanging away for a few, fun, hard-driven minutes.

Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," written by the Saxon-born composer for England's King George II, got the evening off to an entertaining start. Alsop's tempos neatly balanced momentum and spaciousness; her phrasing had a natural, graceful flow. The BSO, with the strings minimizing vibrato, made a clean, transparent sound. The woodwinds and brass did colorful work.

Elgar's "Enigma" Variations capped the program. Alsop's second musical home has long been Britain, so it's not surprising that she has picked up an affinity for the music of its composers.

She approached this orchestral gem from 1899 with a keen eye on the architecture, a keen ear for its myriad orchestral coloring, and a keen appreciation for its personal content (each variation references someone close to Elgar).

The BSO sounded terrific, right from the initial statement of the moody theme that sets the piece on its eventful way.  During the lighthearted portions of the score, the playing had great character and finesse, especially in the wispy tenth and rambunctious eleventh variations.

There was much to savor as well during the most lyrical passages, notably the noble "Nimrod," when the strings poured on the a golden tone. (I wouldn't have minded even more spacious pacing and a longer-held last note -- but you knew that, didn't you? I'm funny that way.)

The solidity of the ensemble, the quality of the solo efforts within it, and the sensitive guidance from the podium served Elgar's ever-fascinating creation in admirable style.

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