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BSO's 'Overture for 2012' draws rousing response

With a giant flag of 15 stars and stripes as a backdrop inside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a celebratory concert Sunday night drew a packed house to cap the weekend's commemoration of the War of 1812 bicentennial.

As if to underline that there are no hard feelings left over from that conflict between the Americans and the British, members of the Royal Marine Band were positioned outside the hall to entertain arriving concertgoers. Inside, this Star-Spangled Sailabration event featured the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters Chorus and Gov.Martin O'Malley's Celtic band, O'Malley's March.

A good number of men and women in military dress dotted the audience. They, along with veterans, got a chance to be recognized for their service when the Sea Chanters joined the BSO for a medley of armed forces anthems. BSO music director Marin Alsop asked people in each of the services to stand when they heard their particular song.

The newsy item on the program was the premiere of "Overture for 2012" by celebrated Baltimore-born composer Philip Glass — actually a co-premiere, for the piece was played simultaneously in Canada by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of the Luminato Festival there.

The overture was commissioned by that festival, the two orchestras, the City of Toronto, and the Maryland State Arts Council as a way of drawing attention to the War of 1812's impact on both countries (an American invasion of Canada was an early chapter) and the enduring friendship that blossomed afterward.

Except for a few dark brass chords, the "Overture for 2012" does not seem to be concerned with any past unpleasantness. The 75-year-old Glass, a guiding light in the genre known as minimalism, has fashioned an upbeat score that churns along steadily and engagingly.

An ear-catching outburst of brass and percussion, including the clang of an anvil, gets the short piece going. Strings and woodwinds soon join the picture, adding sonic richness and sparkle to a steady crescendo.

Alsop, a longtime champion of the composer's music, gyrated to the propulsive beat as she led the orchestra in a vigorous performance that drew a hearty response from the crowd.

Before launching into a set with his band, a tanned, casually dressed O'Malley spoke about the war's "pivotal role in our country's history and ongoing evolution."

He proceeded to sing about it in one of his trademark songs, "The Battle of Baltimore," an Irish-flavored tune about standing "alone for Baltimore and liberty." (His attempt to get the audience to sing along was only partially successful.)

The Sea Chanters provided several of the evening's highlights, from the a cappella delivery of "The Drunken Sailor" (complete with hiccups) to a tender account of "Shenandoah." With the BSO, the choristers also enriched a performance of "America the Beautiful," in the vintage, Hollywood-worthy arrangement by Carmen Dragon.

No one seemed to mind the incongruity of marking the anniversary of our War of 1812 with a work of music about another war that year, one between the Russians and the French. But Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" was an inevitable selection. An abbreviated version was offered here, but that was more than enough to bring down the house.

Alsop took advantage of the presence of the excellent Sea Chanters to use the rarely heard choral version of the piece; the choristers gamely sang in Russian, adding an atmospheric touch. The BSO, which contained quite a few substitute players, played with considerable flair.

Mounds of red, white and blue confetti burst from the ceiling in time with the taped sounds of cannon fire at the end of the overture, covering the audience and the floor. That was enough to put an already enthusiastic house in an even happier mood, which Alsop capitalized on by launching into an encore — this time all-American, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

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