To kick off their current season, the Baltimore Symphony is featuring several concerts with music by American composers. It was not that long ago that, with the exception of the occasional newly commissioned work, American orchestras rarely played American composers. That has fortunately changed and while odd omissions abound (Walter Piston and Peter Mennin, anyone?) American composers are finally being recognized.
For the opening concert, conductor Marin Alsop selected three well known and very accessible works. This season will have an emphasis on film music, it was appropriate to begin with the only original film score by Alsop’s mentor Leonard Bernstein.
And Bernstein hated the experience of writing the score for Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” Leave aside Kazan’s politics, Bernstein wrote about how his music was hacked to bits for the demands of being background music for a film. The composer got his revenge with this symphonic suite, incorporating the best music from the score as the composer intended it.
For example, the love music faded out to fit the dialogue of the scene, but here Bernstein lets it expand and reach a grand climax. The score also features the saxophone and other jazz elements for the more violent moments of the film, and a haunting horn solo that appears throughout the work. The BSO did a good job proving that this is one film score that can stand alone from the movie.
Bernstein was not the only American composer to suffer during commissions. Samuel Barber had an infamous experience composing his sole violin concerto for a very demanding patron. Barber was a neo-romantic before that term was ever defined, and the first two movements of his concerto are full of his typical lyricism.
When the patron complained that the concerto was not showy enough, Barber composed a brief final movement that was almost nonstop rapid passages and other virtuoso techniques. Then the patron complained about that. Whatever, the Barber concerto has survived as one of the few American concertos in the repertory, and the BSO with soloist Gil Shaham gave a lovely performance of this piece.
Shaham is a performer I have heard a lot about but never before seen perform live. He has the sure technique to make those opening movements sing while masking the difficult passages hidden in the score. For the finale, it was all virtuoso fireworks. Alsop and the BSO ably supported him throughout, with the orchestra often taking over the lush melodic lines or offering brief hints of melodies throughout that whirlwind finale.
Fortunately the dean of American composers, Aaron Copland, had no similar issues when composing his Symphony #3 – in fact, Barber and other composers were urging him at the time to write something that made a Big Statement. The Second World War had just ended and for Copland the time was right to compose his biggest composition.
The piece is typical Copland, and that means rapid mood and tempo shifts. Alsop led the BSO in a rousing rendition of this piece. The brief opening movement slides quickly between nostalgic innocence and suddenly violent passages, followed by the rowdy hoedown of a scherzo. There are kaleidoscopic changes throughout in the third movement and Alsop had firm control throughout. Only in the finale, dominated by the Fanfare for a Common Man, were there any issues. This is an over the top piece and the BSO felt a little too reigned in on those final pages.
As part of the BSO’s upcoming centennial in 2016, the orchestra has commissioned a series of arrangements of the National Anthem that they will premiere during the opening concert each season up to 2016. This year marked the first commission, by George Bogatko, which opened the program with a more lyrical version of the anthem that gradually built to a more familiar grand utterance. Then in an unannounced break from the program, the BSO orchestra played a moving rendition of the “Nimrod” section from Elgar’s Engima Variation in honor of long time timpanist Dennis Kain who died from cancer earlier this month.
Thus opens the current BSO season at Strathmore, with plenty of concerts still to come. An emphasis this season is for music for film, playing the movie while the orchestra performs live. Highlights include Prokofieff’s famous score for the silent film “Alexander Nevsky,” Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and ending with Bernstein’s own “West Side Story.” Other highlights include several concerts celebrating the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, Orff’s epic cantata Carmina Burana, Mozart’s Requiem, and several concertos by Bela Bartok.
The Off the Cuff series investigates such varied music as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s gigantic Third Piano Concerto. The Pops concerts include a tribute to Motown, 50 years of James Bond, and a performance of “Hairspray” in concert.
For more information on the BSO season, call 1 (877) BSO-1444 or go online to www.BSOmusic.org
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic