It's too early to predict if Marin Alsop's vision of an annual New Music Festival under the auspices of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be fulfilled. But, judging from the inaugural concert Thursday night at the Peabody Institute, it sure deserves a shot.
The festival offers a varied lineup of composers covering different nationalities, generations, styles. In addition to Christopher Rouse and Kevin Puts, long championed by Alsop, there are artists new to her and to Baltimore — Polish composer and soprano Agata Zubel, Iranian-born Gity Razaz and Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali.
Given the usual resistance to contemporary music around here, the notion of a festival, even with only two concert hall performances, is awfully risky for Baltimore. Add in the off-season timing, and the risk is even greater. You have to admire the moxie.
The first concert, devoted to chamber works, was given in an intimate spot, Peabody's Griswold Hall, and drew a full house to hear a mix of BSO players and guest musicians tackle a demanding, engrossing program with technical elan and expressive weight.
In a neat little twist, the first notes heard at the New Music Festival were actually very old — the fourth movement from Schubert's popular Piano Quintet, the movement containing variations on his song "The Trout," composed 200 years ago.
A finely nuanced performance, which took on particular warmth from the sweet-toned phrasing of violinist Wyatt Underhill and cellist Inbal Segev, served as a neat set-up to the Piano Quintet by Puts. He likewise devotes a movement of his 2005 score to variations on a song, in this case one titled "The Red Snapper."
Just as everyone refers to the Schubert piece as the "Trout" Quintet, the nickname "Red Snapper" Quintet has stuck to Puts' composition, which may well suggest something rather light. But, as Puts told Thursday's audience, the work was commissioned in memory of a Boston Symphony player.
The Quintet, in arc form, begins with poignant shimmerings that become especially haunting when they return at the end. The music in between, including the potent variations, achieves something of the tension and emotional depth of Shostakovich or Britten.
The well-matched players delved into this darkly beautiful world with admirable cohesiveness and richness of phrasing. Bassist Timothy Dilenschneider proved particularly impressive at getting the instrument to "sing."
Segev's rich tone and supple technique served her well in "The Legend of Sigh," a colorful, if not entirely persuasive, piece by Razaz for cello and electronics.
In prismatic fashion, Zubel delivered the virtuosic, part-sung, part-recited vocal part of her 2011 composition "The Labyrinth," which has a text by Wislawa Szymborska that conveys the unnerving sense of being trapped and exitless. Zubel was joined by Marcia Kamper (flute), Alex Fiterstein (clarinet), Matthew Barker (trumpet) and Dilenschneider in a bravura performance conducted by Alsop.
The evening closed with "Rotae Passionis," a 1983 piece by Rouse that seeks to convey "a very human view" of the Passion of Christ, emphasizing the suffering of the man.
This intense tone poem, with its battery of percussion underlining each painful step on the road to Calvary, would be an ear-grabber even without knowing the subtext. Rouse employs instruments with uncanny skill to extract their widest range, while building massive waves and blasts of sound.
The intricately worked-out score is just as effective when it eventually recedes into music of introspection and uncertainty.
Alsop led an intrepid group in a gripping account of Rotae Passionis that found Fiterstein articulating with extra brilliance and terrific percussionists Svet Stoyanov and John Locke making the loudest and softest notes count equally. The loudest ones came from the thunderous box Locke built for the BSO's performances of Mahler's Sixth Symphony last season. Who would have guessed that instrument would get a second workout so soon?
For the record, the other valuable participants in Thursday's concert were violinist Boram Kang, violist Mark Holloway and pianist Lura Johnson.
If you go
The New Music Festival continues with a "Chamber Jam" at 8 p.m. Friday at Joe Squared, 33 W. North Ave. Free. The BSO performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.