Orchestra gives concert modern flair

Review: Peabody Symphony Orchestra poised in its presentation of works by Bartok, Berg and Bernstein.

February 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For generations of music lovers, the "Three B's" will always be Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Over the weekend, the Peabody Symphony Orchestra reminded listeners how awfully exclusive that list is by making a firm case for a 20th century "Three B's" - Bartok, Berg and Bernstein.

Meyerhoff Symphony Hall houses relatively little post-1900 music these days, so Saturday's concert seemed almost shocking, even though the most recent work on the program was nearly 40 years old. The presentation of all that "modern" stuff apparently was too much for a few folks, who beat a premature retreat for the exit. But the rest of the house seemed to enjoy itself. And why not?

To begin with, the orchestra was in terrific shape. The young players demonstrated considerable technical sheen and expressive force, spurred on by conductor Hajime Teri Murai. At the start of the evening, Bartok's Two Pictures received an assured account, ever attentive to the music's piquant coloring and vibrant pulse. The ensemble was likewise confident as it tackled Berg's Violin Concerto and Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, two pieces filled with myriad challenges.

The soloist in the concerto, Peabody faculty member and former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Herbert Greenberg, encountered a few rough patches. But he also brought a warmly lyrical touch to this poignant score. Murai was a solid partner, particularly adept at molding the waltzes that drive the first half of the concerto and the aching reference to a Bach chorale that haunts the second.

Bernstein spent much of life wrestling with questions of faith; in the Kaddish Symphony, he made those questions public in the form of a sometimes accusatory, ultimately comforting conversation with a silent God. The piece is a little too long-winded to be entirely successful, but its strengths (especially an emotional honesty) were emphasized here.

Rheda Becker recited the long text with the intense, affecting involvement offered by Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre, on her recording with the composer. Despite frayed edges, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson's contributions were always telling.

Four Peabody-affiliated choruses sang with discipline and vibrancy; the orchestra again responded potently to Murai's detailed, sensitive leadership.

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