The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra traditionally opens its subscription season with the national anthem. But last night, as the BSO initiated its 75th anniversary season, there was Ruth Rosenberg.
Rosenberg, who was honored by Mayor Kurt Schmoke and BS president Decatur Miller in brief remarks on stage before the concert, is not only one of the BSO's most faithful and generous supporters, she is also the benefactress of much of what is good on the city's classical music scene.
But another reason Rosenberg was on stage was because sh && was in the audience at the Lyric Theatre on Feb. 11, 1916 when the BSO gave its first concert. It was fitting that she would have an honor this season that is the symphony's equivalent of throwing out the first pitch at Memorial Stadium.
"I was only 16 years old, but I remember that it was a gala, gala, gala night for Baltimore," said Rosenberg, recalling the BSO's first concert to the Meyerhoff Hall audience.
"Here we are now, and look how we've grown."
Indeed, and there was another surprise when music director David Zinman led the national anthem. He had arranged it as a clever parody of a Bach overture, in the French style, with piercing high trumpets, glittering pseudo-Baroque ornamentation and neatly florid counterpoint.
It seemed to throw the audience for a moment; they didn't chime in singing until the smoother passages of "the rockets' red glare."
Then the serious business began. J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suit No. 4, (which because of its fewer players dictated the trimmed-down anthem arrangement), Michael Torke's "Ash" and Brahms' Second Symphony.
The best performance of the night came during the Torke piece, which was written a year ago for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Using a harmonic language that would not have sounded the least bit unusual to the BSO's first audience back in 1916 (indeed, perhaps even a bit old-fashioned), Torke weaves a fascinating texture of musical ideas which have a predominantly clear, understandable structure yet are constantly shifting (in a way that recalls minimalism) to form ever new patterns.
Unlike "Bright Blue Music," which BSO audiences heard a fe seasons ago, "Ash" paints in darker colors and with shorter, more obsessive musical motives. With its hammering alternating tonalities of F minor and A-flat major, a lot of "Ash" recalls the Fifth Symphony and "Eroica" of Beethoven.
We are going to hear much more of Torke this month, thanks to Zinman, and it should be a profitable experience.
The Bach suite and the Brahms symphony, though pleasing a times, were not on the same level as the Torke last night, probably owing to the extra rehearsal time required by the new work.
The concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday morning.