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Marin Alsop and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra.
Marin Alsop and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. (Homewood Photo)

Baltimore audiences got two opportunities last weekend to hear music of Brahms paired with works by contemporary American composers. Both experiences proved worthwhile.

On Friday night, the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Peabody Conservatory's Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, Marin Alsop led the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a provocative work by Aaron Jay Kernis. His Second Symphony from 1991 reflects his intense reaction to what he describes as "the absurdity and cruelty" of the Persian Gulf War.

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Kernis does not mince words in his program note -- "brutality"; "hollow moralizing"; a description of 500 residents killed when their building was mistakenly "flattened by American bombs just before the end of the war."

The composer's titles for the work's three movements -- "Alarm," "Air/Ground," "Barricade" -- allows you to brace for the what's in store, but the actual sound of the music still startles. This is visceral, confrontational, important art.

In between the extremely tense outer movements is what might be described as a desperate lyricism, a mix of elegy and profound regret. Long melodic lines, at one point exquisitely explored by clarinet and violas, seem to be seeking a way out of the darkness.

Aching, arching music opens the finale, only to be cut off by chilling rat-a-tat outbursts. As the symphony nears its end, Kernis unleashes what amounts to sonic hysteria, which evokes, with deafening weight, the impact of massive bombing.

Alsop and the Peabody musicians, who recorded the symphony earlier in the week for a future Naxos release, delivered a galvanizing account of the Kernis score. The playing was as communicative as it was technically confident.

This being a conservatory, the modern work was allowed to come after intermission -- so refreshing. The golden oldie at the start of the evening was another Second Symphony, the radiant one by Brahms.

More bloom and less brawn from Alsop would have been welcome; her straight-ahead approach left some of the music's warmth untapped.

More refinement and consistency from the orchestra would have been even more welcome. The performance often sounded ragged and unsubtle.

This was my first experience in the hall since the first phrase of an acoustical renovation was made over the summer. With the stage expanded and extended more into the house, the sound is much bigger, if not necessarily richer. That may come later. I hope a bit more reverberation can be achieved, too.

On Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society opened its 51st season with an impressively non-mainstream program, joined by a sturdy regional ensemble -- the Reading Symphony Orchestra -- and its music director, Andrew Constantine.

Brahms provided the bookends -- his "Tragic" Overture to give the concert a bracing start; his soulful "Schicksalslied" to provide an introspective close.

In between came two pieces for the unusual combination of solo viola, chorus and orchestra: Jonathan Leshnoff's evocative "Dark Bells" (its Baltimore premiere) and Vaughan Williams' gently rhapsodic "Flos Campi."

The Baltimore-based Leshnoff has chosen poetry by Edgar Allan Poe to fashion an attractive five-movement work that gives particular emphasis to vivid verses from "The Bells." (Rachmaninoff also set that poem to music to memorable effect.)

After a plaintive introduction for viola and strings, the chorus bursts out with what is -- for Poe, at least -- quite a cheery image of "jingling"- and "tinkling"-generated "merriment."

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An inward-looking movement devoted to the melancholy poem "Alone" separates the next passage from "The Bells," which shifts the imagery to "brazen" and "clamorous" eruptions signaling "terror." That dark, tense movement is followed by a calm finale, "Eldorado," a subtle reflection on an ebbing life.

In terms of structure, I wonder if the score would be more effective without clean breaks between movements, offering instead a continual thread from the viola. But no matter. The strengths of "Dark Bells" are considerable.

This is directly communicative, highly evocative music containing lush, irresistible harmonies. The choral writing is vivid, the orchestration prismatic (the interplay of viola and clarinet in the finale is especially gorgeous).

Violist Peter Minkler, who commissioned the work, demonstrated supple technique and maintained a burnished tone as he articulated the often angular, unsettled melodic lines -- as angular and unsettled as Poe, you might say.

Constantine provided supple guidance from the podium, drawing a warm, balanced sound from the choristers and attentive playing from the Reading ensemble. The pianissimo close of "Alone" was realized with particular care.

Minkler also did stylish work in "Flos Campi," a work of exquisite refinement that Constantine molded stylishly. The wordless choral part was intoned with admirable finesse and dynamic nuance.

The performance of "Schicksalslied" at the end of the afternoon proved quite effective.

Just as he did when associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a decade or so ago, Constantine revealed a fine sense of momentum and line; his handling of the hushed coda was especially telling.

Singers and orchestra responded in expressive form, capturing the mix of doubt and hope that permeates this remarkable piece.

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