Retelling of Orpheus myth displays power of music

February 05, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice -- his almost successful attempt to restore her to life -- is central to music. It tells us what music can do (nostalgically recollect the past) and what it cannot (bring it back). The most important musical treatmentThe myth of Orpheus and Eurydice -- his almost successful attempt to restore her to life -- is central to music. It tells us what music can do (nostalgically recollect the past) and what it cannot (bring it back). The most important musical treatment of this myth is Monteverdi's "Orfeo," and Gerhard Samuel's "Looking at Orpheus Looking" (1970) is both an interesting reconstruction of the legend and a fascinating look at Monteverdi's great opera.

The piece, which was played by the Baltimore Symphony last night in Meyerhoff Hall under resident conductor Christopher Seaman, is scored for big orchestra (an assortment of percussion instruments in addition to electronic organ and harpsichord).

Samuel, who teaches at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, does not provide a program -- but, of course, he did not have to. He represents Orpheus' descent into the Underworld through a variety of means that include blasts from the brass (to suggest the horrors the hero encounters), and also by the harpsichord (a series of almost continuous trills) and organ lines, which bring to mind the music that must have accompanied silent films as "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

At focal points of the score, the composer uses, quite affectingly, snippets of Monteverdi's original. Despite its use of late 20th century instrumentation and the use of a 12-tone row, "Looking at Orpheus Looking" is a distinguished addition to the Romantic tradition of the symphonic poem. The performance by the orchestra was accurate and strong, though not quite as moving as a tape of the work I have heard that is conducted, I presume, by the composer himself.

Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, which followed the Samuel work, was performed by Garrick Ohlsson with his usual taste and virtuosity. Seaman concluded the concert with a performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony that -- though somewhat unruly in its ensemble -- was open-hearted and exciting.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday at 11 a.m. Tonight's concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. lecture in the Green Room.

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