BSO hits a high note with tribute to King

Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Soulful Symphony sat side by side Tuesday night in a vibrant concert commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The resulting mix of black and white musicians carried over into a program of works by black and white composers.

This 21st annual King tribute, a co-presentation of the BSO and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, drew a large crowd to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.


After a round of speeches, including one by Baltimore mayor designate Sheila Dixon, the focus was all musical.

Of particular note was the world premiere of Southern Folk Sketches by Darin Atwater, the BSO's composer in residence and the Soulful Symphony's founding artistic director.


It's a charmer, in the tradition of descriptive suites by Edward MacDowell, who, a century ago, likewise sought to capture assorted flavors of American life in music.

Atwater's neo-romantic score was inspired by memories of summer visits to his grandmother in North Carolina. Her up-at-5 morning habit, for example, is captured in a movement that uses a 5/4 rhythm and evokes both a sense of daily routine and a touch of anticipation.

"Wednesday Night Devotions," recalling Bible studies Atwater attended, is imbued with something of the nostalgia and lyricism in Samuel Barber's music. "Lightning Bugs in a Jar" gets amusing mileage from buzzing noises made with mouthpieces of brass instruments (I was reminded more of mosquitos).

"Southern Dusk," the last of the six short sketches, is a tender, beautifully written bit of atmosphere that again achieves a Barber-like mood, especially in the hushed final bars.

Not everything clicks. "Halftime Show," punctuated with slow, heavy percussion, goes on a little too long and doesn't quite conjure up the composer's intended image of an intense high school football scene. And "Salon Songs" just misses melodic distinctiveness.

But, except for overly generous application of wind chimes, the lush orchestration is admirable throughout the roughly 15-minute score. If there is a movie-music aspect to the work, it's quality movie music.

BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine led Southern Folks Sketches with considerable sensitivity and drew a vivid performance from the ensemble.

The program began with the Lyric for Strings by George Walker, whose work should turn up in concert much more often.


What a remarkable piece this is, so brief, yet so full of arresting ideas. Constantine made the most of it, coaxing a particularly eloquent response from the players at the end in a long diminuendo.

It wasn't a great programming idea to follow the slow Lyric with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, which begins with two slow movements.

But the selection certainly provided a welcome introduction to 22-year-old violinist Melissa White, a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute and a winner of the 2001 Sphinx Competition for young black and Hispanic musicians.

With her well-centered pitch and penetrating tone, White proved most impressive caressing the concerto's lyrical lines. In the dancing finale, taken rather sluggishly, the violinist encountered a few cloudy spots of articulation, but the expressiveness of her playing never faded. Constantine kept the orchestral side of things flowing smoothly.

George Gershwin's overworked Rhapsody in Blue was freshened up by pianist Stewart Goodyear, effectively partnered by Constantine and a lively orchestra.

The under-30, Canadian-born Goodyear dropped a few notes, but his kinetic, imaginative approach lit up the place. At one point, he even managed to offer an amusing, imitative response at the keyboard to an inopportune cell phone - not that there's any other kind during a concert.