Thrown off-course by a rude visitor named Isabel, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 2003-2004 season last night at Meyerhoff Hall 24 hours later than scheduled, but without really missing a beat.
A packed house was on hand to hear a program that might have been labeled, at least by low-imagination marketers, "Something Borrowed, Something New." John Corigliano's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which had its highly anticipated premiere, borrows from his Academy Award-winning film score The Red Violin, but contains a great deal of fresh material; John Adams' The Chairman Dances borrows from the first draft of his groundbreaking opera Nixon in China, but has its own life; and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 borrows liberally from Ukrainian folk songs, yet takes them on new paths.
Corigliano has crafted an extraordinary addition to the violin repertoire. Actually, he already did that with a concert piece fashioned from the Red Violin score back in 1997; this Chaconne now serves as the first movement to a mercurial, brilliantly colored concerto dedicated to the memory of the composer's father (a noted concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic). Driving that Chaconne, and haunting the remaining three movements, is the melancholy Red Violin theme, which rises and falls with Mahlerian eloquence. It is a quintessential Corigliano melody, full of soul and character, ripe for development.
To follow the intense workout that theme gets in the Chaconne, Corigliano has fashioned an ingenious scherzo that has soloist and orchestra rustling and bustling at a stage-whisper. A slow movement, introduced by some of the richest string chords since Samuel Barber, has the violin singing like, and duetting with, a flute. In the finale, breathless bursts of continually accelerating energy contrast with disarming lyricism, including a brief, exquisite moment when the Red Violin theme and a new, subtly ecstatic tune intertwine like reluctantly parting lovers.
Corigliano's writing for the violin - tender, spiky, silken, wildly virtuosic - is as assured and colorful as that for the orchestra, which is often unleashed in all of its percussive, brassy weight, yet never overwhelms the center of attention. In the end, the concerto achieves a rare combination of structural coherence, imaginative coloring, and, above all, intellectual and emotional depth.
The work, commissioned by the BSO and three other organizations, couldn't get a more persuasive proponent than Joshua Bell, with his sensual tone, superhuman technique and innate musicality. Conductor Marin Alsop was right with him every step of the way and had the BSO operating on all cylinders.
At the start of the evening, The Chairman Dances needed to be kicked up a notch, while the orchestra could have used more snap and polish, but the chugging music's wit still exerted a strong pull.
A few limp passages aside, Alsop shaped the Tchaikovsky symphony effectively, drawing out much of its charm and, in the finale, expressive heat. The opening horn solo and various other spots needed fine-tuning, but the overall thrust and vivid character of the performance easily compensated.
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 11 a.m. today
Tickets: $30 to $81