Fusing classical music with the sounds of jazz

Classical Music

April 27, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The syncopated inflections of ragtime and jazz gave the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's program this week an extra kick. It provided a good opportunity to trace the influences of popular idioms on Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, two giants who helped define classical music in the 20th century.

Stravinsky's Ragtime, scored for 11 instruments, suggests a cubist take on Scott Joplin. Melodic fragments are tossed around, ending up in odd places and falling on odd beats; dynamic levels are quirky. You can hear Stravinsky tipping his hat to the rag-masters, acknowledging the contagious, liberating effect of their rhythms. But you can also hear him keeping a certain distance.

With Copland, there's no such barrier. His Music for the Theater embraces the saucy sounds of 1920s jazz and the bustle of vaudeville with disarming openness, not to mention imagination. His Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman in the 1940s, is half Appalachian Spring, half smoky jazz joint; both sides are equally persuasive and compelling.

Guest conductor Lara Webber neatly put orchestra members through their paces in Ragtime Wednesday night at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. The playing was crisp and confident, as it was when the full ensemble turned to Music for the Theater. Webber underlined the latter's decidedly American spirit and paid equal attention to the jaunty and lyrical elements. Exceptionally vibrant contributions came from the various soloists in the group.

The Clarinet Concerto featured Bill Jenken, the BCO's principal clarinetist (and the BSO's second clarinetist). He shaped the long lines of the first movement with admirable tone control and beautifully shaded phrases, touching the nostalgic heart of this exquisite music. He was just a little too straight-laced when it came to the remainder of the score, but there was enough snap in his delivery to do it justice.

Although Webber kept the orchestral side of things on track, the rhythmically tricky passages needed tightening. There were very warm sounds from most of the strings, but a raggedness among the first violins, who also had some trouble articulating cleanly in George Gershwin's tender little Lullaby.

The violins continued to be uneven in Edvard Grieg's pre-ragtime, but always welcome Holberg Suite, while the violas and cellos were in cohesive form in a well-paced performance that Webber fashioned with a sensitive touch.

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