The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended an ambitious second annual American Composers Showcase Saturday night with "Live, Gifted and Black," a program devoted to works by four African-American composers.
Described as a "reading session," once a performance of a work was complete, music director David Zinman sometimes returned problem spots, working on them a bit with the orchestra before moving on to the next piece. Thus, while the performances may not have been perfect, they were faithful enough to fix attention squarely on the music itself.
Some works survived this intense scrutiny better than others. For instance, Anthony M. Kelley's "Crosscurrents," for string orchestra, has considerable vitality and interest.
Mr. Kelley cited a wide variety of musical influences for his work, from jazz to a Grandmaster Flash rap. One he didn't mention was Bartok, whose presence was audible at almost every turn. This is no criticism -- like Bartok, Mr. Kelley creates imaginative, compelling harmony and counterpoint, animating it with propulsive, buoyant rhythms. Some composers See BSO, 2D, Col. 4BSO, from 1Dnever master such skills -- that Mr. Kelley has done so at such a young age (he is 26) augurs a promising future.
Noteworthy, too, was Gary Powell Nash's "Variants on the Holiday Season," a deftly orchestrated, rather serious fantasy on traditional and medieval Christmas songs, and by far the best-received work. Rafael Apontee-Ledee's "La Muchacha de las Bragas de Oro," a compact but challenging work that showed the orchestra to its best advantage, was last; it probably would have made a better impact earlier in the program.
Oddly enough, the least successful work was by a more well-known composer. Ed Bland's "Let Peace Be Free" clearly demonstrated its composer's impressive skills as a film music composer.
Therein was the problem: The too wide-ranging palette of harmonic and melodic materials would work well in film, where a composer must convey a wide variety of moods quickly and efficiently. In symphonic music, however, sounds themselves are paramount, and Mr. Bland's weren't sufficiently convincing.