By Charles T. Downey
NORTH BETHESDA, Md. – One hundred years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played its first public concert. It is remarkable enough that the ensemble pulled through the economic crisis in 2008 and even more that it continues to thrive in today’s climate of declining audiences. Marin Alsop, who became music director in 2007, and the BSO are celebrating the centennial with a series of new commissions. After debuting pieces by Kevin Puts and Christopher Rouse, the first of which the BSO played at Carnegie Hall in April, the orchestra gave two more world premieres in the Music Center at Strathmore.
The evening opened with Joan Tower’s Sixth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, adding to her most famous work, launched in 1987 and completed in five parts in 1993. The piece began as a counterpart to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, with the first two fanfares using a brass ensemble with percussion as in the Copland. Parts 3 to 5 used different instrumentation; this new sixth part returns to the full orchestration of the fourth fanfare.
Tower opens with woodwinds and strings, which dominate this brief work and give it an overall light texture, supported here and there by delicate piano sounds. A pulsing motif of repeated notes, sometimes oscillating stepwise, runs throughout, giving a continuous line through many shifts in meter. After a couple of minutes, with the brass marking some of the arrival points, the piece ends somewhat unconvincingly. One is left with the same impression from the earlier parts: The Copland original far outshines its imitations.
Slightly more substantial was Abstractions, a new twenty-minute orchestral suite by London-born composer Anna Clyne. For each of its five movements, Clyne drew inspiration from contemporary artworks in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art and in the private collection of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, to whom the piece is dedicated. The colors and textures of the music are monochromatic, like the pale blues, grays, whites, and blacks of the artworks; whether this was by chance or by intention is hard to say.
Clyne is a gifted colorist, able to use orchestration to create unusual sounds and combinations. The first piece of hers I reviewed, Paint Box, involved a cellist cradling her instrument and cranking a tiny music box over its amplified body. Abstractions has something in common with Clyne’s orchestral piece <<rewind<<, which I heard played by the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The futuristic sound of bowed vibraphone is featured again as a decorative motif, as soft chords hover, morphing into each other over groaning brass and sustained pedal notes in the bass instruments. A major chord emerges and vanishes in the first movement (“Marble Moon”), with sections marked by percussive sounds from piano and marimba.
While <<rewind<< has an electronic component, the strings in the second movement (“Auguries”) create a digital reverb effect, as an active theme starts stand-by-stand in close counterpoint. In a driving triple meter, the cellos present a slow-moving, cinematic tune, again over pedal points that obscure the harmonic shifts. A flute solo opens the third movement (“Seascape”), followed by duets for oboes and harp, again over leisurely bass pedal notes, creating a tidal effect. There was more motion in the fourth movement (“River”), with its buzzing scalar figures rushing up and down, but again longer notes in the bass instruments, here in a triadic ostinato pattern, smooth out the rough edges.
Glints of bowed vibraphone pop up throughout the piece, and that reverb effect returns in the fifth movement (“Three”) in the divisi cellos on an arpeggiated motif. The idea rises up through the strings, whose parts resemble an extended technique exercise. While Clyne is able to sustain interest through this manipulation of color and unusual texture, it was hard not to wish for greater melodic character and harmonic variation.
The program, called “A Celebration of Uncommon Women,” was rounded out by two French evocations of Spain. Violinist Alexandra Soumm was the soloist in Symphonie espagnole, Édouard Lalo’s violin concerto in all but name, given with plenty of virtuosic panache but also some intonation problems here and there. Likewise, Alsop’s selection of orchestral excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen felt like pops concert fare appended to the program. The uncomfortable juxtaposition of the two concepts may have contributed to the relatively sparse audience.
Alsop introduced the concert by relating a story involving a boy and a girl who were seated next to her at one of her recent OrchKids events for young musicians. The boy confided to Alsop that he wanted to become a conductor one day, for which the girl chided him. “Don’t be silly. You know only girls can do that.” Uncommon women, indeed!
Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.