When board members of the Columbia Orchestra hired Jason Love to conduct the ensemble two years ago, they knew they were getting one of the area's strongest proponents of contemporary music.
Love's extensive experience with the avant-garde paid off handsomely Saturday evening when the orchestra presented American composer John Corigliano's "Pied Piper Fantasy" as the centerpiece of its spring concert at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.
Composed for James Galway, the Irish flutist and box office superstar, the "Pied Piper" is a flute concerto crammed full of dissonant, highly pictorial musical effects.
Keyed to the story line of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the legendary flutist turned rat catcher, the "Fantasy" proved to be an engaging, accessible work that the Columbians took to like the proverbial ducks to water.
Visiting solo flutist Alison Potter, whose credentials in the contemporary music field are imposing indeed, was a wonderful Piper. She entered into the dramatic character of her role with a host of extraordinary technical skills at her disposal, and her artistry went a long way toward inspiring the orchestra to hit such great heights.
The players accompanied her with admirable sensitivity in the opening song. And when it was time for Hamelin's rats to congregate, the orchestra strings scratched, scampered, scurried and screeched with rodent-like abandon.
The score's interactive moments were also well served, especially in the "Return of the Rats" where trumpets and timpani led the assault on the Piper's calm, self-congratulatory cadenza.
All in all, it was quite a tour-de force. And by the time the soloist marched out of the theater at the end of the work with 15 young Howard County flutists in tow, a rather knotty piece of contemporary fare had become an immense crowd-pleaser.
Two younger soloists dominated the first half of the program.
Clarinetist Teresa Wang, 15, a sophomore at Centennial High School, played a pair of "Bagatelles" by Gerald Finzi with stylish, graceful simplicity. Most impressive was her ability to establish definite contrasts between the lyrical and more animated portions of the two short works.
Indeed, I wish that the orchestra had shown greater sensitivity to those contrasts. Love was literally forced to his knees in attempts to get the players to shush so the soloist could play quietly and still be heard over the orchestra.
The other soloist was Richard Zhu, 13, an eighth-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School who is already a fiddler to be reckoned with. He tore through the third movement of Dmitri Kabalevsky's thumpy Violin Concerto with such abandon that, at times, he left the orchestra struggling in his wake.
What command of a violin he has at such a tender age. Richard has won competitions at the Peabody Institute and at the Indiana University String Academy. We may be hearing his name often in the future.
Alas, the orchestra that would attack Corigliano with such authority began the concert with a Berlioz "King Lear Overture" so full of glitches that one wondered if it should have been programmed at all. Discretion, valor and all that sort of thing, you know.