BSO mixes beatboxer, Glass and Zappa

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra doesn't always generate hot sellers for its annual summer season, but it sure has a cool concert this year, surely one of the coolest programs in decades.

Marin Alsop, the BSO's intrepid music director, will lead the ensemble in examining two sides of an intriguing coin — orchestral works written by a Baltimore-born rock star, Frank Zappa; and a symphony written by a Baltimore-born composer, Philip Glass, inspired by the rock songs of David Bowie and Brian Eno.

That would be cool enough, but Friday's performance at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall also features Baltimore beatboxer Shodekeh. He'll be the soloist in a recent concerto by Finnish composer Jan Mikael Vainio called "Fujiko's Fairy Tale."

"I'm trying to highlight the fact that musical boundaries are much less rigid these days," Alsop says. "There's a fluidity now, a willingness to cross over and to share among different stylistic approaches and backgrounds."

Alsop has long championed the music of Glass, which received very little attention from the BSO before she took the podium in 2007. The conductor also has a good deal of Zappa in her repertoire. His pieces "show how drawn many pop artists are to the power of symphonic music," Alsop says. "He was one of the first. I like his music. It's very distinctive, individualistic and quirky, to say the least. And the titles are always fantastic."

Those titles include "G-Spot Tornado" and "Outrage at Valdez." "I like the fact that [the latter] is a protest of the Exxon Valdez," Alsop says. "This seems an appropriate moment to perform it."

The presence of Shodekeh guarantees an extra vibe for the concert. His extended vocal technique enables him to generate a remarkable array of percussion and bass tracks, to imitate assorted instruments, turntables and any number of other sound effects. "He's got a really deep bag of tricks," says Brian Sacawa, curator of Mobtown Modern, Baltimore's edgiest contemporary music organization.

"I hadn't thought about integrating beatboxer and orchestra before," Alsop says, "but I heard a concert in London last year that involved DJs and alternative music products. It was very effective."

Once Alsop learned about Baltimore's stellar beatboxer, she wanted to find a program for him. "The thing Shodekeh does is awesome," she says.

The beatboxer is not a stranger to Meyerhoff Hall.

"In the spring of 2004, I was an usher here," Shodekeh says, "just to get as close as I could to the music here. I was always drawn to classical music, mostly because of its use in films."

Although Shodekeh initially wanted to be a filmmaker, his move into music and beatboxing was a natural.

"I started, like a lot of kids, emulating sounds in an everyday environment — cars, motorcycles, 'Star Wars.' In the 1980s, I was exposed to beatboxing through Doug E. Fresh and Darren Robinson from the Fat Boys, the first tier of beatboxer pioneers," he said.

With lots of other musical influences when he was growing up, from reggae to the once-popular "Hooked on Classics" recordings that put dance rhythm tracks to classical favorites, Shodekeh developed considerable versatility. He has performed with hip-hop and rap artists, rock and jazz musicians, and a classical chamber group. He provides accompaniment to dance classes at Towson University and the American Dance Festival at Duke University.

The Vainio concerto provides a handy vehicle for Shodekeh's BSO debut. "I like it," Alsop says of the work. "It basically sets down a bed of strings playing melodic things for the beatboxer to play around with. It's pretty much an improvised solo part. And we're adding a couple of cadenzas for Shodekeh to riff on his own."

Shodekeh describes the concerto as "a piece that basically captures a moment in an imaginary fairy-tale land, with a lot of tension and adventure. It kind of felt it was speaking to me in a certain way."

Alsop didn't want to limit Shodekeh's involvement in the program to the concerto. She asked him to open the second half of the program with vocal improvisations. "I thought it would be a cool way to introduce the Glass symphony," the conductor says. (The BSO will perform four of the symphony's six movements.)

Shodekeh has been working on something appropriate for the pre-Glass slot. "I can't give it away," he says, "but I'm hoping the moment will create an inspiration for bridging gaps."

Such bridging is what the whole program is about.

"Music is music," Alsop says. "And we're all in this together."

If you go

The BSO performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $48. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

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