Sophomoric to sublime in weekend offerings

Denyce Graves part of an eclectic mix


October 22, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Recent musical events in the area touched on the ridiculous, the sublime and points in between.

Every now and then, it's a good idea to have your artistic notions given a stiff kick. That's what a group of cultural revolutionaries delivered in the 1960s through a movement known as Fluxus, creating "event scores" far outside the mainstream. Last week, two veteran Fluxists, Alison Knowles and Larry Miller, collaborated with students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the Fine Arts Recital Hall for a whole bunch of event scores.

I can't imagine we'll get another chance soon to witness Miller's Remote Music - a model of a hand, index finger pointing out, slowly descends on string and lands on a piano keyboard. Or Knowles' Newspaper Event - an ensemble simultaneously reads texts in different languages and at varying volumes. Or Wall Piece for Orchestra by Yoko Ono - several "musicians" literally hit their heads against a wall.

It's hard not to view some of these creations as sophomoric, among them Nam June Paik's violin-smashing piece or Dick Higgins' Danger Music No. 17, with performers screaming at the audience as loudly as possible. (I would have been much more up for Danger Music No. 12 instead - Higgins' instructions are to "change your mind repeatedly in a lyrical manner about Roman Catholicism"). But the liberating, nose-thumbing element of Fluxus does exert a certain pull, and the UMBC show made a spirited case for the whole thing.

The program was followed by a concert by pianist Paul Hoffmann and percussionist Tom Goldstein that contained a ho-hum, Fluxus-like attempt aptly named Nothing New Under the Sun 2. Other premieres on the program proved more worthy, particularly James Romig's unhurried, pointillistic Islands That Never Were, which leads piano and vibraphone to a distant place of quiet rapture.

A scheduling conflict kept me from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Symphony With a Twist program Saturday night. But the final rehearsal the day before made clear the engaging talents of conductor David Alan Miller and the quality of Michael Torke's new Suite from The Contract, being given its premiere. Although the finale is anti-climactic, the rest of the brilliantly orchestrated score pulsates with energy and lyricism. The BSO sounded well-connected to the music, and also got deep into the groove of Todd Levin's Blur, a thumping salute to the club scene.

Thomas Ford danced the heck out of Morton Gould's Tap Dance Concerto, every click of toe and heel fitting neatly into the score's carefully synchronized fun. I'm sure he brought the house down at the concert. Anton Wilson's choreography for Virgil Thomson's The Filling Station worked well enough, and was executed with flair by a young ensemble. Miller drew wonderful colors from the orchestra during rehearsal of this heavy-on-the-Americana music.

Harpsichordist Blandine Rannou's recital at the Walters Museum got a late start Sunday afternoon, so I could only stay for the first pieces by Antoine Fourqueray. That was enough to affirm Rannou's flair for rhythmic vitality and her refreshingly spontaneous way of phrasing.

I hated to leave but couldn't pass up a recital by one of today's leading vocalists. So it was off to the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University, where a lamentably small crowd heard some terrific singing by mezzo Denyce Graves. She quickly reached an expressive peak in songs by Brahms, especially Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, which revealed her low register at its most sumptuous. She acted out exquisite songs of Henri Duparc as vividly as she did arias by Bizet and Saint-Saens.

Bradley Moore was the eloquent pianist; clarinetist Vincent Thomas joined in on a few numbers and also was a featured composer with an affecting new ballad he wrote for Graves. Her encores included two very wry songs about unfulfilled women - one turning to a dog for company (the singer's own dog ran out on cue for the last line); the other pleading with her thoughtless date for food ("Take me to McDonald's and leave me there!").

Throughout, the mezzo's diction was a model, as was her ability to communicate the essence of each piece of music. A metallic edge took the bloom off her voice at times, but the overriding sound was as warm as it was enveloping.

On Sunday night, the Shriver Hall Concert Series scored another hit with a recital by Gil Shaham, one of today's finest violinists. He and his remarkably incisive pianist, Akira Eguchi, did magical things in Copland's absurdly neglected Violin Sonata, revealing its interior logic and exploring the softest edges of sound to poetic effect. Copland's rambunctious, rarely played Ukelele Serenade had the duo really jammin'.

There were beautifully detailed performances of Faure favorites as well. But the evening would have been complete had it offered only Shaham's impassioned account of Bach's D minor Partita for solo violin. His technique had startling assurance, his tone an endless array of shades, his phrasing a rare and persuasive insight. The hush in the hall as the violinist played spoke volumes about his artistry. He couldn't return to Baltimore soon enough.

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