A modern success from ASO

Review: Annapolis Symphony delivers an impressive performance that includes pieces from two living American composers.

April 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Much to its credit, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra resists the temptation to coast along playing nothing but familiar repertoire. Surprises continually turn up, sometimes in abundance, under Leslie B. Dunner's imaginative guidance.

On Friday evening at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, he led the ensemble in a potent, entirely chestnut-free program. The main item was unusual enough - Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony" for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, from the first decade of the 20th century.

More remarkable still, the remainder of the concert was devoted to music by two - count 'em, two - living, breathing American composers. Well worth the trip, on all counts.

Although no one would mistake the ASO for the BSO, Dunner's orchestra can make an impressive showing that belies its modest budget. The playing on Friday was dynamic and, for the most part, technically accomplished, allowing the qualities in each work on the bill to come through strongly.

The evening got under way with a freshly written piece by Stephen Paulus, the always-busy and engaging composer who was the ASO's composer-in-residence this season as part of a "Music Alive!" program through the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer.

"Dialogues" packs a good deal of interest and creativity into six minutes. Paulus, in a generous gesture, provided a local hook to the new work by incorporating themes by seven student composers from the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra he worked with during his residency. (He even shared his bow with them after the world premiere performance.)

The quiet, lyrical opening of the piece comes from three of those students and provides an effective contrast to the celebratory music that follows. Paulus easily fuses the outside material with his own typically engaging ideas to fashion a cohesive, colorfully orchestrated score propelled by a restless pulse.

Sheila Silver, the second noted American composer included in the concert, was represented by "Three Preludes for Orchestra" from 1993. With such descriptive titles as "Dawn," "Wind over Water" and "The Mountain," the music suggests all sorts of images; the echoing motives from the brass and rolling thunder from the timpani make a decidedly evocative impression in "The Mountain."

Like Paulus, Silver embraces tonal and dissonant languages; her style in these "Preludes" has an expressive directness, if not always pronounced originality. Dunner coaxed from the orchestra a generally clean, vivid performance.

"A Sea Symphony," based on poetry of Walt Whitman, springs from the grand Victorian tradition of earnest choral singing. Parts of the long score can sound a little too earnest, not to mention overblown. But with his lushly harmonized melodies and genuine belief in Whitman's message of brotherhood and daring, Vaughan Williams created a work of considerable breadth and depth.

Dunner molded a probing performance that evoked the literal and symbolic waves in the piece. He gave particular attention to the hushed, final moments, when Vaughan Williams paints in sound a haunting image of souls sailing the vast, unknown "seas of God."

There was admirable warmth from the strings, power and color from the winds. Soprano Linda Hohenfeld and baritone Steven Rainbolt made up for any shortage of tonal bloom with sensitive phrasing. The Heritage Signature Chorale, prepared by Stanley Thurston, sometimes lacked smoothness of blend and technical discipline, but vibrantly conveyed the spirit of both words and music.

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