BSO plays solidly up-to-date

Review: In three almost-contemporary pieces, Mario Venzago leads the musical exploration of the meaning of life.

January 29, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There really was quite a twist to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's second installment in its new "Symphony With a Twist" series. Where the first program back in the fall was basically a souped-up greatest-hits affair (the twist came in the limes served with cocktails in the lobby), this one offered a bracing jolt of 20th-century sounds and ideas, undiluted by any dumbing-down.

Part of the sizzle on Saturday evening came just from the chance to hear the BSO dig into so much repertoire that, while technically far from contemporary, still sounds contemporary. The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives hasn't lost any of its freshness after 95 years or so; the same can be said for The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartok after about 80 years and Nobody Knows de Trouble I See by Bernd Alois Zimmermann after about 50.

These three pieces have in common not just solid craftsmanship, which results in striking examples of orchestral coloring, but also philosophical probing. In a way, each work aims to uncover the meaning of existence.

Ives is the most obvious at this, with his lonely trumpet repeatedly seeking some sort of reply and encountering nothing more than the chattering of fools (represented by increasingly discordant flutes) and the unruffled flow of time and space (soft, slowly shifting chords from the strings).

Mario Venzago, the always welcome Swiss conductor who will be back to lead the BSO's annual Summer MusicFest, ensured a haunting account of The Unanswered Question. He had principal trumpeter Andrew Balio pose the query from various points in Meyerhoff Hall, as if speaking on behalf of those gathered there, and from distant places, suggesting the quest's endless nature. The strings maintained a warm, subtle sound (the last chord could have faded a little more delicately and reluctantly); the winds chattered effectively.

The Zimmermann score is an untraditional trumpet concerto. His approach to atonality is spicy and spiky, but never grating; the logic behind the notes and, above all, the imaginative orchestration, provide easy aural hooks.

Heard in this context, the piece sounded like an existentialistic extension of the Ives work, with the trumpet again doing the asking, the wondering. The old spiritual that gives the composition its name serves not just as thematic material (usually just a snippet or two of the tune can be detected), but as a mood; a haunting sense of uncertainty and melancholy lies beneath the music.

Balio delivered the solo lines with his usual technical elan and considerable expressiveness. Venzago had the orchestra playing solidly, vibrantly. An arresting performance all around.

In Bartok's once-banned ballet, a low-life version of Sex in the City, a young woman lures men to her lair so her accomplices can rob them. The third victim, a rich mandarin, proves to be a very difficult customer. Lust and violence ensue. The mandarin reveals a Rasputin-like ability to defy murder attempts; when death finally comes, many questions remain.

All of this is told to music of astonishing originality and vividness. Venzago relished every lurid turn of phrase and held the score together tautly. The BSO responded in potent form, producing alternately searing and simmering effects with admirable finesse.

Anton Wilson contributed a generally engaging visual component to the proceedings with evocative choreography by Jennifer Dancesia-Walden and Bat-Erdene Udval.

The part of the concert that didn't come off was the very end. Venzago appended an orchestrated Bach chorale to the Bartok work, as a way of answering the unanswered question. This weakened the ballet's ending and did little for the noble Bach. Better to have left a question mark hanging in the air.

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