Lively concert marks King's birthday

Review: Guest artists, the BSO and the With One Voice Ecumenical Choir provided polished performances.

January 17, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated in animated style before a capacity audience at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on what would have been the civil rights leader's 73rd birthday.

Tuesday's concert, the 16th annual presentation by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture was conducted by Leslie B. Dunner and brought together guest artists, the BSO and With One Voice Ecumenical Choir.

There were the traditional speeches from dignitaries, including Mayor O'Malley and the governor's chief of staff Alvin Collins. And there were the traditional opening and closing anthems, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "We Shall Overcome," as well as the traditional encore - a jaunty, infectious South African hymn that found Dunner suavely boogying across the stage (at one point with nimble violinist Madeline Adkins) and then through the aisles of the hall.

Of particular interest were selections from Kirke Mechem's Songs of the Slave, a 1994 work made up of material from his opera John Brown. The score, with its strong lyrical style, was at it most potent in Dear Husband, an aria for soprano using the words of a letter from a slave to her spouse, one of John Brown's followers. Detra Battle Sparrow sang the music with considerable warmth.

The chorus, which has members from several area church choirs, produced a big and expressive, if not always smoothly balanced, sound in "Blow Ye the Trumpet" and "Dan-u-el." Baritone Robert Cantrell's ardent solo in the latter could have used more projection.

Dunner coaxed a mostly polished sound from the orchestra, especially in the pensive introduction to "Blow Ye the Trumpet." The conductor also caught the sexy side of Bernstein's dances from "On the Town," which the BSO delivered in snazzy form; the trombones made a particularly vivid impression.

Eduardus Halim filled in for the originally scheduled piano soloist, Terrence Wilson, who had to cancel due to a death in the family. It's too bad that Halim didn't play the originally scheduled concerto by Ravel, which, with its use of jazz idioms, would have made a neat complement to the Bernstein dances.

Liszt's Concerto No. 1, a romantic chestnut, didn't quite fit but received a pleasant performance. Halim caressed the gentler passages with a silken touch and produced enough volume and color for the flash points. Dunner and the ensemble provided cohesive support. (Before the concerto could begin, there was some curiously clumsy business getting the piano into proper position for the performance, forcing Dunner to vamp 'til ready.)

It's hard to believe anyone could keep the old folk song "Kum-Ba-Yah" from being annoying, but arranger Woody Woods managed that feat by treating it as a kind of calypso/gospel number. The choir jumped into it with enthusiasm and bright articulation; Sparrow and Cantrell offered vibrant embellishments to the vocal line.

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