Welcome attention from Concert Artists

Early Puccini and overlooked Vaughan Williams


November 10, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's hardly news that the Concert Artists of Baltimore serves up interesting programs with panache. Still, Saturday night's performance at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills commanded extra attention and seemed, in its own way, as notable as the lunar eclipse going on outside.

The concert offered a rare alignment of repertoire - the boldly confident, sometimes almost cheeky Mass for chorus and orchestra written by a young Giacomo Puccini; and the exquisitely pastoral Symphony No. 5 written by Ralph Vaughan Williams at the height of his creative powers amid the darkness of World War II. Neither work turns up with the frequency it deserves. (Vaughan Williams, though, is getting unusual attention this season. The Peabody Symphony Orchestra recently offered an emotionally charged account of his compelling Symphony No. 6, led by Hajime Teri Murai. I wonder if the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will ever notice this composer's richly rewarding symphonies.)

Concert Artists conductor Edward Polochick took a gamble with Vaughan Williams' Fifth, which is not ordinarily played by a chamber orchestra. Lush string writing is a prime component of this symphony, which usually means you need a whole bunch of string players. But Polochick figured his forces could do the piece justice. They did.

From the plaintive call of the horns that launches the symphony, like some lonely beacon across a bleak, unfathomable sea, to the serene fade-out that closes it, the musicians made a warm, cohesive sound and seemed vividly connected to the material. Eloquent English horn and oboe solos, along with considerable tonal strength from the strings, made the prayerful third movement register deeply.

Polochick had the music unfolding unhurriedly, yet with a certain tension underneath that did not relax until the extraordinary closing measures, when the music seems to be gently slipping away, like the old spacecraft Voyager I last week, into a whole new world.

Puccini once said that God had tapped him "with His little finger and said, `Write for the theater, only the theater.' " Perhaps the Almighty had just heard his Mass, which sounds like an opera in choral robes. Written as a final school exercise at the age of 22 and forgotten until decades after Puccini's death, the score is filled with soaring melodies and effective bits of drama generated directly by the text. The big gem in this Mass is the Gloria section (the work's nickname is Messa di Gloria), driven by a catchy, jaunty tune that would have made a few heads turn in church back in 1880.

Polochick committed at least a misdemeanor offense in the court of music by reprising the rousing conclusion of that Gloria right after Puccini's beautifully reflective finale, the Agnus Dei. Of course, audiences always like loud endings, and this appendage provided one quite effectively. Still, I wasn't totally persuaded by the conductorial license. I was, however, won over by the combination of sensitivity and theatricality of Polochick's interpretation; the smoothly blended, colorful choral singing; and the fervent solo singing by tenor David Smith, baritone James Dobson and bass Thomas McNichols.

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