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Making merry with intricate modern music


A few seconds into the National Orchestral Institute's final performance over the weekend at the University of Maryland, I found myself thinking, "This is so cool."

The feeling never abated.

To begin with, there was the program - colorful, riveting works by Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez.

The material qualified, technically, as all-20th-century fare. (The earliest item, En saga by Sibelius, has roots in the 19th, but he extensively revised the piece in 1902, so it still counts.) An all-20th-century orchestral concert remains a novelty these days, so that made the evening significant by itself.

Even more fun was how the music challenged everyone in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's concert hall in College Park on Saturday night, demanding unusual technical skill and interpretive sensitivity from the performers, long attention spans from the listeners. In the case of Boulez's Notations, we're talking some really tough stuff, almost as scary and unpredictable as Tom Cruise's recent TV interviews.

Intensifying the rush was the combination of exceptionally confident playing by the students and post-grads in the institute orchestra and the inspired, inspiring conducting of the much-talked-about David Robertson.

He's about to start his tenure as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which has had a string of financial and labor troubles in recent years. Robertson's gifts - honed during years of work in Europe - should spark a reversal of those problems.

At the very least, Robertson's appointment suggests the long-awaited time of the American conductor has come at last. Just look around. Americans now hold top podium jobs in Boston, New York, Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta, among others. Unprecedented.

Robertson is sure to enliven the music scene greatly, if his appearance with the National Orchestral Institute is any indication. This was conducting of a rare order.

It's impressive to hear what a bunch of young players, thrown together for three weeks of artistic honing and career preparation can achieve. Saturday's result was on a level that, in a blind test, probably would have had many an unsuspecting ear fooled into thinking that a long-established, top-drawer orchestra was onstage.

You could hear the caliber right at the start of En saga, in the controlled way the violins produced a delicate, expectant shimmer to launch this unconventional and underexposed tone poem.

The tight, highly responsive music-making continued throughout, as Robertson shaped each composition from the inside out. Even Stravinksy's relatively well-known Petroushka took on fresh hues and generated new sparks, thanks to the clarity and snap of the conductor's approach. Robertson kept the work's constant shifts of mood and coloring flowing with a seamless logic.

But the main event was the Boulez work. Notations consists of five movements, each originally written for solo piano in the 1940s, before the composer had fully developed his distinctive, expectation-shattering style of atonality.

Not that those keyboard pieces are simple; they're decidedly modern in their own right. But orchestrating four of them in 1980 and a fifth in 1997 gave Boulez an opportunity to re-imagine the music, to take what Roberston described as black and white "thumbnail sketches" and transform them into super-sized, full-color canvases.

In terms of complexity, you could say that Boulez went from an e.e. cummings verse to a James Joyce novel, adding a prism of tonal shades, along with astounding layers of intellectual and expressive activity.

Robertson, a former music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain that Boulez founded in Paris, understands the composer's musical language deeply and knows how to get an orchestra to grasp it. This performance had a visceral impact, unleashing the richness of the sonic tapestry, from the glistening to the explosive, and underlining the brilliant structural design.

I've got to believe that if more people could hear unstintingly modern music given such unstintingly committed, polished performances they would grow to appreciate its power and unconventional beauty.

The modest-sized crowd at this concert got a bonus in the form of an introduction to the music led by Robertson, who seems to enjoy trying to pry open potentially reluctant ears.

He started by taking the audience through one entire piece, contrasting the original piano version with the orchestral one, measure by measure, demonstrating the myriad ways Boulez expanded on melodic fragments or fleshed out harmonies. Then Robertson had excellent pianist Daniel Spiegel play each piece before the orchestra did the same. Music education in nonthreatening, noncondescending action.

Such an intensely rewarding experience ought to be a regular part of concert-going. The irrational fear of atonality should likewise be fought all the time, by all orchestras. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra audiences haven't heard anything as demanding as Boulez's Notations - or anything by Boulez, for that matter - in years. That's not just a shame, but a crime.)

Sure, some listeners will never be convinced of the artistic merits of such music, just as some viewers will never see anything but a multi-can paint spill when they stare at a Jackson Pollack creation. But that's no excuse to avoid the exposure.

Robertson and the eager, responsive players of the National Orchestral Institute provided a model demonstration of how to keep the 20th century's musical legacy alive - and why it's well worth the effort.

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