Work’s Chirpy Wit Caps Centennial For Baltimore SO

The Baltimore Symphony has been celebrating its centennial season with music director Marin Alsop. (Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony)
The Baltimore Symphony has been celebrating its centennial season with music director Marin Alsop.
(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony)
By Charles T. Downey

BALTIMORE — The centennial celebrations for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra officially came to an end  on Nov. 18 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where music director Marin Alsop conducted the last in a series of world premieres for the anniversary. An intriguing new short work by TJ Cole complemented another piece from this decade, John Adams’ Absolute Jest. Alsop guaranteed a full house by pairing them with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

TJ Cole composed 'Double Play' for the Baltimore Symphony.
TJ Cole composed ‘Double Play’ for the Baltimore Symphony.

Composers featured among the BSO’s centennial commissions have included well-known figures like Kevin Puts, Christopher Rouse,  Joan Tower, and Anna Clyne, as well as local favorites like Lori Laitman.

Cole, who was born in 1993, hails from the suburbs of Atlanta. Earlier this year, she finished her undergraduate studies in composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Jennifer Higdon, David Ludwig, and Richard Danielpour. Alsop worked with Cole at the Cabrillo Festival in 2014 when the composer was in residence there.

BSO audience members provided ideas for the short pieces in this series of commissions. Cole’s piece, Double Play, began with a request for a work celebrating the Baltimore oriole. The work opens with an oriole call on the flute, somewhat reminiscent of the opening bars of the bird’s theme in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. In her program note on the piece, Cole said she used “about eight different oriole calls as rhythmic and pitch material.”

The piece quickly grows into a four-square comic romp, somewhere between a cakewalk and a march. Cole’s title indicates a further oriole connection, to Baltimore’s Major League baseball team. Active, raucous, and irrepressible, this music pulsates with the energy of a crowd, teeming with garrulous challenges and musical influences. At least one theme from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the oscillating minor third and perfect fourth that percolates through the “Augurs of Spring” section, pops out of the texture.

Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop led a varied centennial program.
Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop led a varied centennial program.

Finally, Cole captures the rhythmic verve of pop music, even setting the piece mostly in the slow quadruple meter of almost every pop song. If there was a reference to the so-called “millennial whoop” that has permeated pop music in the last decade, it was not readily apparent. Rather than weighing down these popular song allusions with cynicism, as Shostakovich often did, Cole plays it straight. The piece is so short that it’s a shame the BSO did not play it twice to give listeners a chance to get to know this young composer better.

In Absolute Jest, composed for the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony in 2012, Adams followed a similar impulse. The piece is a pastiche of melodic odds and ends lifted from Beethoven. While Cole’s work has the virtue of brevity, Adams expands the genre of the scherzo into a twenty-five minute trek. Absolute Jest opens with the dotted motif from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth, an apt connection for this evening’s program, but the fun of playing “Name That Tune” wore thin about halfway through this long work.

Part of the piece’s failure was due to the composer’s decision to include a string quartet as a solo group. Arranged around Alsop’s podium, only the two violinists of the St. Lawrence String Quartet could really be heard, and then only by employing a strident tone that bent out of tune too often. The other shortcoming was that Adams, who has revised the work since its premiere, just did not know when to stop.

Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. was impressive in Beethoven's Ninth.
Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. was impressive in Beethoven’s Ninth.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was an obvious choice for this festive occasion, but the BSO has performed the work once a year now since 2014. Alsop’s interpretation, breathless and roughshod, has not changed at all since 2014. The sixteenth-note passages in the first movement were a chaotic blur, and most of the beauty of the slow movement went by too fast. The scherzo felt the most unified. It was played at a taut and dancing pace, with more differentiation of sounds and dynamics than the rest.

The amassed singers of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society responded in kind to Alsop, giving an ecstatic, incisive sound. Some voices pushed a little too hard, especially in the braying unisons of the “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” section. Yet the conclusion of that segment was thrilling, a frustrated howl at the empty silence of the heavens.

Most of the soloists could not really distinguish themselves in this performance of the concluding movement, which went from loud to louder. Only baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. made a mark with a prophetic introduction to the choral portion of the finale, set to Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Sleeping listeners near me were shaken awake by the rumble of his sound, a reminder of the stellar season he had last summer with Wolf Trap Opera Company. You will surely be reading more about him soon. And with any luck, the BSO will still be making music at its 200th anniversary.

Charles T. Downey is Music Critic and Associate Editor of Washington Classical Review ( He also writes freelance articles for The Washington Post and other publications.