Don't come here with cold feet

BSO's `Twist' series starts with sounds with heavy groove

ClassicalMusic

October 17, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Maybe they should call this one "Symphony With a Twist and Shout." Not that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be rock 'n' rolling when its annual Symphony With a Twist series opens tomorrow night, but the program's unifying theme boils down to: "It's got a good beat and you can dance to it."

This "Tap to Techno" lineup provides a neat summary of music connected to the feet. You'll hear the sounds of Western-style steppin' in the Buckaroo Holiday from Aaron Copland's 1943 Rodeo and the metallic protagonist in Morton Gould's one-of-a-kind Tap Dance Concerto from 1952 (with tap dancer Thomas Ford). And the hearty Americana of Virgil Thomson's 1938 ballet about an eventful day in the life of a pre-self-serve gas station attendant (with choreography by Anton Wilson).

Add in the world premiere of the suite from a 2002 ballet score by Michael Torke called The Contract and the Baltimore premiere of Todd Levin's 1993 Blur: Fragrance Free Mix, a hard-driving evocation of the club scene, and you've got some serious rhythm activity going on in Meyerhoff Hall.

"The obvious theme of the concert is American music that comes from dance," says conductor David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. "The more profound theme, I hope, is American composers being American, how you can sound American in myriad ways."

Miller, whose championing of Torke's work rivals that of former BSO music director David Zinman, asked the composer to contribute something to the Twist program. "I'm a huge fan of his music," Miller says, "and he's such a dance person. The program wouldn't have been complete without a Michael Torke piece, especially since the Baltimore Symphony has performed so much of his music. What a gift he gave us."

The Contract, a full-length ballet premiered by the National Ballet of Canada, is an intriguing dark variation on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. "It was kind of painful turning [the 70-minute score] into a suite," Torke says. "You're missing a lot of the themes I worked hard on."

"With most ballet suites," Miller says, "even the great ones Tchaikovsky did for Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, it's hard to feel it's a complete meal. Michael's probably suffers as well. But it is beautiful music, even painfully beautiful."

As the BSO plays through the suite for the first time in rehearsal, that beauty quickly emerges, as much in high-energy, brilliantly colored passages as in deeply lyrical ones. The players are not the only ones discovering the score.

"It's so different from when I heard the music played in an orchestra pit for the ballet," Torke says. "Hearing it in the concert hall, the sound is so beautiful; you have no idea how pleasurable that is. A ballet orchestra plays with a certain dryness and an edge on the front of the note, because that's what dancers are listening for. And all they think about is tempo. In a symphony orchestra, the main job is to play as beautifully as possible."

As the rehearsal proceeds, Torke sticks notes into his copy of the score so he can go over details of articulation and interpretation later with Miller. Not that he has any big complaints. "David's phrasing speaks right away, and the orchestra responds so well," Torke says. "But the sound is almost too rich. I can't let that seduce my ears. Ultimately, [portions of the score] should be much wilder and more dramatic."

Perhaps more ecstatic, too - a word that fits so much of Torke's output and now serves as the ideal designation of his newly formed record label. Torke established Ecstatic Records to preserve his discography on the now-defunct Argo label, which recorded a decade's worth of his repertoire starting in 1989. Torke has repackaged them in a retrospective (available at www.michaeltorke.com) that documents the technical ingenuity and expressive energy of his style, which has rhythmic roots in pop, jazz and minimalism, but speaks in its own, arresting manner.

The Suite from The Contract encapsulates Torke's musical lingo, making it an attractive introduction to anyone not already hooked. For that matter, tomorrow's entire Symphony With a Twist program provides an entry point into some of this country's most rewarding musical directions in the 20th, and now 21st, centuries.

"I know some people will think, "New music, yuck!" Miller says. "But all of this program is wonderfully accessible - and truly American."

Concert

What: Symphony With a Twist

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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