Message key to concerts


May 14, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Music comes in any number of packages, from light and fat-free to heavy and message-laden, and almost never carries an expiration date.

Sunday afternoon's Sing for the Cure concert by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society was all about message; the actual music was almost secondary and suggested a relatively short shelf life. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Symphony With a Twist" program Friday and Saturday nights was all about great music that caused trouble of one kind or another, more or less unintentionally.

Also on Saturday, the Concert Artists of Baltimore served up several works that just celebrate music itself.

Giving the "Twist" program's look at scandals an extra degree of interest was the BSO debut of conductor Marin Alsop. Her chit-chat with some musicians, including an awfully reluctant percussionist, about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring could have been a little smoother Friday at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. But her cheeky tone struck the right note.

More important, of course, was the actual conducting. Alsop led a taut, disciplined account of the Stravinsky hair-raiser. This was an every-note-in-its-place performance, appreciative of each shift in decibels or hues; the head-long rush to the close of the score's first part was achieved with particular brilliance. An even more explosive, primeval approach to this score is possible, but Alsop put the essence across mightily.

It was a good night for the BSO, from Phil Kolker's bassoon to the slashing strings; a couple of smudges in the horns and trumpets aside, the brass, too, charged into the fray powerfully.

Also on the program was Barber's Violin Concerto, which fit the program's theme because of some messy business involving the patron and violinist who commissioned the piece. Today, it's hard to believe anyone could have found anything wrong with this rhapsodic, autumn-colored music.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg brought her customary intensity and little of her customary idiosyncrasies to the assignment. She ascended each melodic curve of the first two movements on a seamless web of ripe tones and impassioned phrases. She tore into the short, bravura finale, giving it a slightly sinister air that made it sound more like a natural complement to the rest of the concerto than it usually does.

Alsop supported the violinist seamlessly. Oboist Joseph Turner and the rest of the ensemble did the same.

Concert Artists

My first reaction to the Concert Artists presentation at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills was: So that's what they sound like. I've never had a chance to hear Edward Polochick's choral/orchestral ensemble in an acoustically beneficial venue; its regular hang-out at the College of Notre Dame does the musicians no favors.

Here, the choristers were enveloped in a warm glow as they explored British repertoire, including Elgar's There Is Sweet Music and Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, sensitively molded by Polochick. The blend of voices was smooth and elegant, articulation precise. (There should have been some lighting in the hall so the audience could follow along with the texts.)

The strings also enjoyed a remarkable sonic boost when they turned to Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. It was easy to imagine that there were 40 players, not 20. Polochick coaxed a refined, poetic performance from them.

Beethoven's Triple Concerto can't be bothered with imparting deep meaning or stirring up angst. It's too busy having fun. If the work doesn't always find Beethoven at his most imaginative, it sure finds him at his most exuberant. That's how the Concert Artists accepted it, with the considerable help of pianist Anne Schein, violinist Earl Carlyss and cellist Thomas Kraines.

The solo trio encountered a rough patch or two, but never lost the pulse or spirit of the concerto. There was much bravura playing, lots of expressive shading in the slow movement. Polochick was in his usual dynamic form, holding everything tightly together and giving the performance a propulsive kick.

The Gordon Center, which looks as good as it sounds, would make a great home for this organization, if an audience could be enticed into the wilds of suburban Baltimore. Sure would be worth a shot.

Sing for the Cure

The idea of employing music in the struggle to find a cure for breast cancer is as noble as John Corigliano's use of a symphony to express outrage and pain at the toll of AIDS. Unfortunately, Sing for the Cure, with words by Pamela Martin and music by 10 different composers, does not quite measure up to the subject matter.

The verbal cliches ("Love is stronger than death," "We are marching toward the promised land") are as plentiful as the musical ones. The banality of the score's various pop styles often hampers the potential emotional weight of the texts.

But conductor Tom Hall and his Baltimore Choral Arts Society gave the material their all Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall. This was especially true in Jill Gallina's Come to Me, Mother and W.T. Greer, III's Groundless Ground (with heart-stirring solos from guest artists Allison E. Miller and Al Johnson).

The Choral Arts singers demonstrated tonal richness, finely honed articulation and abundant emotion. Kathy Mattea narrated with such conviction and style that the sentences somehow gained in poetic nuance. The sweet voices of the Baltimore Girls High School Festival Chorus were effectively added to the mix, and the orchestra played potently.

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