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BSO's gala features fiery moments and an eclectic lineup

The Baltimore Sun

Talk about your day of judgment.

Minutes after Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wrapped up a high-octane gala program Saturday night -- a program that included the fire-and-brimstone Dies Irae from Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem -- a propane tank exploded alongside the party tent across the street from Meyerhoff Hall, interrupting the dessert reception for patrons.

Luckily, a timely warning got everyone out before the eruption.

Not the best possible capstone to the occasion, which grossed $900,000 and drew a large and clearly happy audience. Hundreds paid a minimum of $750 a ticket, while 1,000 got to hear the music for just $25 -- a nice gesture to the community, which hasn't always had affordable access to the annual gala, a major fundraising event for the BSO.

The roughly hourlong concert packed in a lot of material, maybe too much to leave a coherent mark.

Alsop, who officially launches her tenure as BSO music director next week with the opening of the orchestra's 2007-2008 subscription series, didn't say a word to the audience -- unusual for her. But her eclectic sampling of repertoire said plenty. So did her idea of inviting local organizations to help perform it, the kind of reaching out that looks to be a signature element of her tenure here.

At the start came a pairing of brassy and percussive fanfares, Aaron Copland's famous one "for the common man" and Joan Tower's "for the uncommon woman."

Noisy, fun pieces by John Adams, Leos Janacek and Manuel de Falla followed (the latter's Ritual Fire Dance came complete with stomping feet from members of the Pastora Flamenco Dance Ensemble). Noisier still was the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore, with extra anviling provided by veterans of the construction crew that built Meyerhoff Hall. (The venue opened 25 years ago almost to the day.)

The Johns Hopkins University Yong Han Lion Dance Troupe cavorted in huge, colorful animal costumes to the strains of Li Huan Zhi's lightweight Spring Festival Overture.

Then came one of the oddest segues I've ever encountered in a concert -- from whirlwind Chinese dance to the gentle Pie Jesu passage of Gabriel Faure's Requiem, with the Children's Chorus of Maryland singing "Sweet Lord Jesus, grant them rest; grant them eternal rest." Huh?

That, in turn, led into those explosive outbursts from Verdi's Requiem about the "day of wrath" when all will be judged, with members of the Morgan State University Choir and Baltimore Choral Arts Society entering the fray.

That's not all -- there was a quick transition from that blast into the similarly thunderous O Fortuna of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, with its dire words about ever-changing fate.

Perhaps Alsop wanted to make a sly point about her own pending day of judgment, when a lot of attention will be paid to her season-opening performances with the BSO. Maybe she just wanted to hit the crowd with some exciting and, thanks to occasional use in TV commercials and movies, widely familiar music.

For a cheeky finale, there was the conductor's souped-up version of Maurice Ravel's Bolero, with extra support for its persistent rhythm from the Frederick Douglass High School Drumline and reinforcement for its persistent melody from all the choristers.

The orchestra mostly sounded fit and vibrant throughout the concert, while the guest ensembles held up their end of things neatly.

The gala certainly caught the upbeat spirit at the BSO these days. In preconcert remarks, board chairman Michael Bronfein announced that last year's budget was balanced, a considerable feat after years of large deficits. That stability and the arrival of Alsop, Bronfein said, suggest "the beginning of a renaissance."

In that light, perhaps the subsequent propane blast should be viewed merely as unplanned, celebratory fireworks.

Mencken opera uncorked

The Artist, a short, slight opera with a 1912 text by H.L. Mencken and music (based on Beethoven) written decades later by Louis Cheslock, was unearthed by the Maryland Historical Society and given what is believed to be its first real performance Saturday afternoon. Probably its last performance, too.

There's still some sting left in Mencken's cultural target: Americans who fawn over European artists. And the score has its witty moments, nicely exploited by energetic members of the Peabody Opera Theatre, directed by Roger Brunyate (who gamely took the role of a janitor). Kevin Wetzel's singing as the vain concert pianist made a strong impression.

As a bonus, there was an audience sing-along of a satirical ditty created in the 1920s by Mencken's famed Saturday Night Club, "I Am a One Hundred Percent American." It struck remarkably contemporary notes.

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