The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra usually emphasizes movie music and other lighter fare when the summer months arrive. There will still be such programs this year — a "Harry Potter" film score, some popular classics for Artscape, etc. — but something heavier and edgier will also be presented.
The BSO will launch a New Music Festival in mid-July with two concerts, one showcasing chamber pieces, the other orchestral works. The lineup includes a world premiere and six Baltimore premieres.
"A new music festival in Baltimore in July — why not?" said Marin Alsop, the BSO's music director. "We have a pretty vibrant arts scene here in terms of cutting-edge and alternative. I tried to put really intriguing music together."
Works by two major American, Pulitzer Prize-winning composers with Baltimore connections will be performed: Christopher Rouse, born and based here; Kevin Puts, who teaches at the Peabody Institute.
Also featured will be two buzz-generating composers living in New York: Iranian-born Gity Razaz and German-born, Syrian-American Malek Jandali.
Getting the most exposure in terms of works programmed will be Polish composer and soprano Agata Zubel, known for complex and boundary-pushing work.
"I am really excited about having her here," Alsop said. "She is an amazing vocalist. She will be featured both nights, and give a late-night performance after a chamber music concert."
That chamber music concert will open the festival on July 13 with BSO players, Zubel and other guest artists, including members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Zubel's multiple talents will be showcased in "Labyrinth," a complex, kinetic piece from 2012 for voice and chamber ensemble; she will be the soloist. The text is an English translation of a vivid poem by Wislawa Szymborska.
"It is about how we are all trying to run the labyrinth of our life," Zubel said, reached at her home in Poland. "I wanted to try to create what it would sound like if we are running all the time and trying to find an exit to escape."
The BSO will perform the festival's second concert, July 15, which includes two Zubel works.
"In the Shade of an Unshed Tear," commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, had its premiere by that orchestra last year.
"I think an instrumental piece can be a kind of story," Zubel said, "but I prefer not to say too much about this one. I would like everyone to find her or his own story in the music."
The other Zubel item receiving its BSO premiere on the program will be "Chapter 13" for soprano and instrumental ensemble, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first performed last year by the L.A. Phil New Music Group.
The composer was inspired by a section in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's popular, not-entirely-for-children book, "The Little Prince."
"It's the chapter about a businessman who is counting the stars because he thinks they belong to him," Zubel says. "Of course, the Little Prince doesn't understand the situation very much. The piece is a little bit funny."
The festival offers one standard classical piece, the finale of Schubert's popular "Trout" Quintet, included on the opening chamber music concert. That 19th-century souvenir is on the bill to provide context for what will follow — "The Red Snapper" Quintet by Puts, written a decade ago as a kind of companion to the Schubert masterwork.
Rouse's "Rotae Passionis (Passion Wheels)," a composition from 1983 that references Northern Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion, will also be part of the July 13 concert.
That work calls for an unusual percussive effect that the BSO is in a good position to fulfill, by bringing out the massive "Mahler hammer" invented by a player in the orchestra last fall for use in Mahler's Symphony No. 6.
Rounding out the chamber program will be "The Legend of Sigh" for cello and electronics by Razaz. The soloist will be Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev.
In addition to the pair of Zubel pieces, the July 15 BSO concert offers a reprise of "The City," the Baltimore-centric work by Puts and videographer James Bartolomeo that had its much-praised premiere last season.
Also scheduled is the world premiere of a not-yet-titled work being written now by Jandali.
"I met Malek only once," Alsop said, "but we had a very moving conversation about being an artist in a country [Syria] that is being destroyed. I think it will be very interesting for people to hear from him."
With composers and performers representing Syria, Iran, Israel, the U.S. and other countries in the festival, there could be more than just music in the air.
"I would like the music to be a jumping-off point for a discussion of international issues," Alsop said, "a discussion of nationalistic music, nationalism, borders, cultural separations — these are obviously very current topics."
Whether the festival budget will allow for holding such sessions is not yet known. But funding, Alsop said, has been secured for the concerts.
"We're really trying to do more things that are not entirely determined by the finances," she said. "We talked to people and companies specifically interested in sponsoring new music. We're not taking a risk."
It could be risky, though, in terms of acoustics and attendance, to hold a chamber music concert in the cavernous Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Alternate locations are being considered for that July 13 performance (the orchestral program on July 15 will be at the Meyerhoff).
Exploring new music is a longtime pursuit for Alsop, who last summer wrapped up 25 years as music director of the ever-adventurous Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in the California coastal city of Santa Cruz. She envisions the BSO's New Music Festival becoming an annual occurrence like Cabrillo.
"It would be exciting to build it into something substantive," Alsop said. "We can't recreate Santa Cruz, but Baltimore is a very cool place."
For more information on the New Music Festival, call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.