BSO does more than just play the notes


"Dance Mix," performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman conducting (Argo 444 454-2): This collection of 11 short dance pieces by 11 composers, including Aaron Jay Kernis, John Adams, Christopher Rouse and Leonard Bernstein, is probably the finest recording made by the Baltimore Symphony with its current music director, David Zinman. This is immensely difficult music, and conductor and orchestra perform all of it with enthusiasm, virtuosity and rhythmic pizazz.

To hear how far the Baltimore Symphony has come in the 10 years of the Zinman era, just compare the Baltimore version of Adams' "The Chairman Dances" with that recorded by the San Francisco Symphony and Edo de Waart in the late 1980s. De Waart and his better-known orchestra get all the notes and successfully circumnavigate Adams' metric land mines. But Zinman and his orchestra get what's in between the notes, capturing the sentiment, sensuousness and rhythmic seductiveness that the San Francisco version misses. It seems safe to say that no other orchestra and conductor play so much music by so many younger American composers with as much distinction as Baltimore and Zinman.

And this is a record filled with terrific music that -- with the exception of the Adams piece and Bernstein's "Mambo" (from "West Side Story") -- is not available elsewhere. One of the high points is Rouse's "Bonham," a 1988 tribute to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980. This listener doesn't know of another classically trained composer of distinction -- and that includes both George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein -- who responds to popular music as naturally as Rouse does. This seven-minute piece, scored for eight percussionists, hits the ear with enormous power, and its subtlety and rhythmic inventiveness make it worth hearing again and again.

Equally intriguing is Aaron Jay Kernis' "New Era Dance," which combines the "hot" sound of Latin salsa with the "cool" sound of 1950s jazz. Kernis' tumultuous mix ends with evocations of police sirens and whistles and rappers' grunts (from the members of the orchestra), suggesting that something terrible (or perhaps wonderful) is about to happen.

Not all the pieces collected here are as fine as those by Adams, Kernis and Rouse. But for those who want to know what some of the most interesting American composers of classical music are up to as the end of the millennium approaches, "Dance Mix" is essential listening.


To hear excerpts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Dance Mix," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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