Musical pieces fall into place 'Gaea,' three piano concertos for two left-handed soloists, is an ingenious oddity that also manages to be affecting.

April 12, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It would have been unrealistic to expect William Bolcom to come up with a masterpiece for "Gaea," the work that received its world premiere last night in Meyerhoff Hall from pianists Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman. Only J. S. Bach -- not Beethoven and not even Mozart -- could have achieved greatness in circumstances such as Bolcom's. And even Bach didn't hit an "Art of the Fugue" every time he stepped up to the plate.

As everyone in Baltimore's music community surely knows by now, "Gaea" is three piano concertos: two different concertos for piano left hand and orchestra, which -- when performed simultaneously -- constitute a third work, a concerto for two pianos, left hand, and orchestra. All three works were played in succession on the first half of the BSO program. It is to Bolcom's great credit that in "Gaea," in its individual parts and its entirety, he has produced music that is honest as well as fascinating and, at least occasionally, moving.

This composer is certainly clever and then some. For each of the orchestras in Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Bolcom chose different instrumentation: Not a single BSO musician played in both concertos. The first concerto, which was performed by Graffman, had a preponderance of low instruments; the second concerto had higher parts. The only instruments -- besides a piano -- that appeared in both pieces were Thai gongs. When all of this was added up for Concerto No. 3, it made for a satisfying complement.

Bolcom's writing for the piano has always possessed grace and pizzazz. But his handling of the solo lines -- the way one ascended as the other descended, for example -- was satisfying to the ear and intriguing to watch.

But the whole -- Concerto No. 3 -- did not quite equal the sum of Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Concerto No. 2 has an absolutely terrific first movement, which required virtuosic skipping and jumping at a terrific clip by Fleisher; Concerto No. 1 has an even better second movement, with an intensity that is nothing short of hellish. But when these pieces were put together, what this listener heard was predominantly the first movement of Concerto No. 2 followed by what sounded essentially like the second movement of Concerto No. 1. The final movement of each piece is a fugue and they combined in Concerto No. 3 for a superbly playful double fugue that banished the gloom of the first and second movements. The end of the piece (especially in the combined Concerto No. 3), with each pianist plunking out middle Cs under the Thai gongs, was affecting in the manner of a Buddhist benediction.

If this was a slightly qualified triumph for the composer, no qualifications attach to that of the pianists, who played with intensity and bravura, and to that of the conductor and orchestra, who negotiated with ease thickets of notes and cues.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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