'Metropolis Symphony': faster than a speeding bullet

January 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

A new piece of music rarely makes the impact Michael Daugherty's "Metropolis Symphony" made last night in Meyerhoff Hall. The audience, especially its younger members, was vocal in their appreciation when David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony finished this 40-minute, five-movement work.

The "Metropolis Symphony" is a work one either loves or hates. It's too loud to ignore (the Mahler-sized orchestra features an impressive percussion battery), and it has all the brashness and exaggeration that characterizes the source of its inspiration in the comic book exploits of Superman. (The Baltimore performances of the piece are being sponsored by Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. of Timonium).

This listener loves it.

Some of the effects Daugherty achieves in the work's scherzo-like third and fourth movements ("MXYZPTLK" and "Oh, Lois!") demonstrate almost Berliozan diabolism and wit.

That cleverness is found in the other movements, too -- the stereophonically placed police whistles in the first movement ("Lex") or the clever transmogrifications of "Holy Night" in the second ("Krypton") -- but the "Metropolis" Symphony is more than a grab bag of orchestral effects and allusions.

It's genuinely affecting, particularly in the final movement, "Red Cape Tango," which transforms the melody of the "Dies Irae," the medieval chant for the dead, into a tango that bids farewell with a Straussian sense of nostalgia.

Zinman and the BSO played the last four movements of this difficult music very well. But one hopes they improve their performance of the first movement by Sunday when they give the "Metropolis Symphony" its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall. This is music that must move like the blazes -- concertmaster Herbert Greenberg had to cope with what must be one of the most fiendish perpetual-motion solos in the literature -- but the composer's carefully wrought balances and details were sometimes lost in the rush.

The long first half of the program concluded with an atypically dazzling performance of Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand by pianist Leon Fleisher. One says "atypically" because Fleisher -- while he played the piece with his characteristic virtuosity, logic and beauty of sound -- reveled in the music's voluptuousness in a manner that was a departure from his previous performances, making what has been a great interpretation even better.

Zinman and the orchestra -- particularly contrabassoonist David Coombs -- supported the pianist beautifully.

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