Composer's masterful anniversary work deserves many anniversaries of its own Music review: From fanfare to quiet coda, 'Vessels of Courage and Hope' is a worthy tribute to the nation of Israel.

May 23, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the nation of Israel, which the Baltimore Symphony chose to celebrate by commissioning the Israeli-born and American-trained composer Shulamit Ran to write a piece for the occasion.

The work, "Vessels of Courage and Hope," was paid for by a generous grant from the Albert Shapiro Foundation and received its world premiere Thursday night in Meyerhoff Hall.

The performance also honored the 50th anniversary of the voyage of the SS President Warfield/Exodus, which steamed from Baltimore and brought the plight of thousands of homeless Jewish survivors of World War II to world attention.

Works written for such long-remembered occasions tend to be quickly forgotten. I hope that will not be the case for "Vessels of Courage and Hope," which is a distinguished work by one of our most gifted composers.

She has written a work for a huge orchestra, lasting more than 20 minutes, which is neither overloud and tedious, nor ugly and shamelessly accessible and derivative.

That in itself constitutes an achievement.

But "Vessels of Courage and Hope," while not a programmatic work, also has a compelling narrative quality.

It begins with an imposing fanfare, which dissolves as scurrying and menacing figures run up and down the orchestra; it continues with a section that uses the large percussion battery and brasses to frightening effect; it follows with a yearning passage, which invokes exotic-sounding Middle Eastern modalities and uses solos for violin and cello most affectingly; and it ends with a surprisingly quiet, sighing coda, which quotes the melody of "The Moldau," the most famous episode of Smetana's "My Homeland," to exquisite effect.

The clear, concise and eloquent performance was part of an impressive guest-conducting debut by Stefan Sanderling, the younger of the two conductor-sons of the world-famous Kurt Sanderling.

His performance of William Walton's fiery oratorio, "Belshazzar's Feast," solicited detailed and urgent playing from the orchestra and biting, intense singing by the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. The baritone soloist, firm and dark of tone, was the excellent Mark Rucker.

Sanderling, who is still in his early 30s, also gave a fine performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, which served up massiveness and fierceness instead of the usual Rossini-like songfulness and elegance.

The program will be repeated at 11 a.m. today.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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