BSO's 'Sea Symphony' is sincere, but uneven

January 08, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony" opens with a rhetorical flourish as confident and as stirring as anything in the symphonic repertory; it ends with a sustained, quiet coda whose eloquence the poet John Milton would have envied. But here's the rub: The 70 minutes in between are like Chinese water torture.

The "Sea Symphony," which was performed last night by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Leonard Slatkin, falls -- as a fine, sympathetic note in the BSO program book by Jan Bedell points out -- somewhat uncomfortably between the European symphonic tradition and the British choral one. It's a setting of Walt Whitman, and it shares a lot of that poet's windy magnificence.

It's not a bad work, but what made it so frustrating for this listener -- no Vaughan Williams aficionado and a newcomer to this particular symphony -- is its unevenness. Page after page is filled with music so sincere that one wants to gag; it makes one feel as if you're enduring your high school graduation all over again. But it's also punctuated by energy, grandeur and mystical, contemplative calm that reveal the hand of a great composer.

Slatkin, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony, conducts British music superbly, and this performance was no exception. He caught the thrust of the opening magnificently, gave a rapt account of the second movement, cut through the choppy waters of the scherzo like a master, made the long span of the finale architecturally convincing and brought off the epilogue with exquisite tenderness.

He received strong support from the orchestra, which was playing the work for the first time, and from the enthusiastic singing of the BSO chorus. The soloists were baritone Richard Zeller, who had exactly the right weight in his voice, and soprano Linda Hohenfeld, who -- after some shrill moments early on -- settled into insightful, confident singing.

The opening work was John Corigliano's "Fantasia on an Ostinato," which began life as a piano solo written for the 1985 Cliburn Competition and was orchestrated in 1986. The ostinato of the title is the spookily repetitive passage from the allegretto of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Corigliano seizes upon its rhythmic possibilities with orchestral flair, turning out a piece filled with mysterious, almost ghastly glamour.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday at 11 a.m.

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