In new music, a dance of death and rebirth

The BSO will perform the premiere of a fresh American work -- 'October' by George Tsontaksis.

Classical Music

March 11, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

This week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program is a triple-decker attraction. Distinguished guest conductor James DePreist will be on the podium; sensational pianist Arcadi Volodos will make his BSO debut; and the orchestra will perform the world premiere of a work by noted American composer George Tsontakis.

The premiere is particularly newsworthy because it is the only premiere of the 2001-2002 season. And since no new music at all is slated for next season, the Tsontakis piece becomes even more significant, especially for an orchestra that built part of its enviable reputation on championing fresh American scores.

"This orchestra has a lot of commitment to commissioning American works," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "We're not ready to announce the details yet, but we have two commissioning projects heading toward completion in the next few years."

Still, it looks as if a scarcity of new compositions will be a characteristic of Yuri Temirkanov's tenure as music director. A clearer departure from the reign of David Zinman would be hard to identify.

"We know Temirkanov doesn't have the knowledge of American composers that Zinman had," Gidwitz says. "A lot of American music is just not for him."

But Temirkanov was involved in the process of selecting the composer for this commission.

About two years ago, a committee made of BSO musicians, board members and others began sifting through possible choices. Tsontakis, whose music the orchestra had played during the Zinman years, ended up on a short list that was presented to Temirkanov, who had not yet officially assumed the music directorship. The conductor gave Tsontakis the nod.

"We wanted a work that would have something to say to our musicians and our audiences," Gidwitz says. "Tsontakis doesn't sound like anyone else. And his music is very expressive, not in a heart-on-sleeve way, but an internal way."

October inspiration

That description applies to the new commission, made possible by a grant from Randolph S. Rothschild (the score is dedicated to him). Tsontakis found his inspiration for the work in the time and place of its inception -- the view outside his country home in Shokan, N.Y., last October.

"More than most of my pieces, this one was affected by what was around me while I was writing it," the composer says. "The colors were so beautiful.

"But it was more than the usual things about October. It was also the mystical things -- things that grow, things that die, and the beauty of this dying."

For Tsontakis, who was born in October (in 1951), the month has always had rich significance.

"In October, you still look back at the wonderful summer you had, but you're also looking forward to winter at the same time," he says. "It's a pivotal month. There can be a somber quality to it, but also rebirth.

"I don't want to get too philosophical about it, but this has to do with the state of my music, too. I never know if it is looking forward or backward."

In choosing a title for the work, Tsontakis did not have to think hard. "There was only one choice," he says.

It's called "October." Scored for large orchestra, with a sizable percussion battery, it's in two movements. Tsontakis describes the first as the "antecedent," the second as the "consequence."

He composed the second one first, quickly. "It just came out," he says.

It's also the one most closely linked with his views about October. It begins quietly; the instruction on the first measure is "Forlorn, but warm."

As the movement proceeds, other moods and images are touched upon -- "Spacious, but shrouded"; "Gentle (introverted)"; "Intimate (hesitant)"; "Explosive"; "Massive (an inner pulse arises and fades ...)"; "Whimpering (shattered)"; and, finally, "Somber, not slow."

Such precise descriptions fill the first movement as well, from the evocative "Autumnal, Shimmering" at the opening, to the playful "But Seriously ... ," to the curious "Bombastically Circus!"

"I think the descriptions are really helpful for conductors," Tsontakis says.

Getting an interpretation to sound as he imagined while composing is not easy. In addition to all of those colorful instructions, conductors have plenty of metronome markings to consider -- precise indications of how fast or slow each passage should go.

Tsontakis has been disappointed in the past with how conductors have chosen to follow those annotations. Once when Zinman kept taking a work too slowly in rehearsal, the composer finally lied and said there was a mistake in the score -- the metronome mark was really much faster than the one indicated. That did the trick.

He's had some disagreements in the past with DePreist too. But judging by that conductor's 1997 recording of Tsontakis' powerfully emotional "Four Symphonic Quartets," the composer is sure to get plenty of respect from the podium this week.

Music and poetry

The bigger question is how the audience will respond after only one hearing of the approximately 20-minute "October."

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