Musical evening is Second to none

The Baltimore Sun

James MacMillan, the multi-faceted Scottish composer and conductor, is the latest "Beethoven of today" to participate in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season. Although a considerable force on the contemporary scene, he is not exactly well known around here, so his Explorer Series venture with the BSO provides a welcome introduction.

MacMillan's intriguing calling card includes two of his own works on the first half of the program - each containing a bundle of folk tunes, classical hit parade allusions, spiky harmonies and dry wit - and Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 on the second. It's a volatile juxtaposition. (By season's end, all nine of Beethoven's symphonies will have been performed, several of them conducted by major contemporary composers.)

On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the edgy, unpredictable qualities in MacMillan's music helped to reiterate just how edgy and unpredictable Beethoven could be, even in such an early symphony as this one. Every sudden dynamic shift in the latter recalled to mind all the surprises in the former.

And surprising is the word for MacMillan's Stomp (with Fate and Elvira) from 2006 and the Piano Concerto No. 2, which dates a couple of years earlier. He's not the only composer these days to make a practice of incorporating or deconstructing older material, but he runs with the pastiche principle in a way that is all his own, allowing familiar, accessible thematic material to coexist with unmistakably "modern" devices.

To create Stomp, the composer put the brassy "fate" theme from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, the dreamy slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (popularly known as the "Elvira Madigan" concerto) and some Celtic dance riffs into a blender and hit "grind." The result is a curious and engaging fusion that seems to move in several different directions, and for several different purposes, all at once.

The cleverness and humor of Stomp crop up as well in the Piano Concerto No. 2, which draws much of its fuel from Scottish folk tunes, but the overall atmosphere is darker, even vaguely sinister. The strange appearance in the second movement of a snippet from the Mad Scene of Donizetti's Walter Scott-inspired opera Lucia di Lammermoor adds an off-kilter jolt, from which the concerto never really recovers. That ghostly bit of tune, at one point tarted up in schmaltzy-waltzy fashion, haunts the last movement as well, and, in effect, drives the piano toward a crazed end. The concluding measures are quite literally hammered and punched out by the soloist in an unbridled barrage of massive, dissonant clusters, a leave-taking of all musical senses. It's very cool.

Along the way toward that explosive finale, the keyboard and ensemble (MacMillan uses only a string orchestra here) toss around catchy folk songs and dance rhythms in any number of ways, suggesting nostalgia in some places, drunken determination in others.

The cleverness and tension in the schizophrenic score came through vividly Thursday night. British pianist Rolf Hind played with a rather soft and self-effacing touch in the first two movements, which made his eventual explosions in the finale - including a passage where he was called upon to drum out frantic beats on the underside of the piano - all the more startling.

MacMillan brought obvious authority to the podium and drew some lively playing from the BSO strings in the concerto. In Stomp, he summoned from the full orchestra a good deal of sound and fury.

Except for the Sixth, Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies are considered by some to be less important, less eventful than the rest, an unfortunate and unsupportable viewpoint. The Second is particularly rich in potent ideas, as MacMillan illustrated in remarks to the audience before going on to produce a thoughtful, invigorating performance.

He offered much more than mere traffic control, emphasizing the work's sinewy power and paying attention to the subtleties that give it so much character. The orchestra jumped into the action with impressive force.

Chamber Orchestra

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra did some exploring of its own this week in another of the imaginative programs music director Markand Thakar has put together this season. Focusing only on the string sections of the orchestra, Thakar balanced two chestnuts, Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Dvorak's E major Serenade, with a little-played gem by Puccini, Crisantemi, and something rarer still - the U.S. premiere of the Veena Concerto by Canadian composer John Burge.

A seven-string instrument from southern India, the veena has a distinctive tone and, judging by this 2004 piece, a good deal of expressive possibilities. Burge wrote the concerto for Lakshmi Ranganathan, who doesn't read music. Not surprisingly, room is left for improvisation from the soloist, but within a tidy, three-movement structure.

Burge's style owes something to minimalism (which, of course, owes something to Eastern music), and he employs the technique to generally engaging effect. The second movement is particularly attractive, with the veena intoning a pensive, scale-like melody over gently shimmering, reiterative pulsing from the ensemble.

The performance Wednesday night at Goucher College flowed smoothly. Ranganathan, sitting cross-legged on a small platform, seemed in perfect synch with Thakar and the ensemble.

As for the rest of the concert, the Mozart piece passed by pleasantly, though with some unevenly matched violins. Thakar caught the mood of the elegiac Puccini work beautifully, and the playing was admirably sensitive. Other than the uneven tonal quality in the violins, the Dvorak gem received a nicely balanced, characterful performance.

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