New piece whispers in a world of memory

BSO performs work honoring conductor

Music Review

November 21, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Those of us who have been hoping that Yuri Temirkanov would eventually lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a substantial product of new music were rewarded last night at Meyerhoff Hall with the U.S. premiere of a riveting, 30-minute piece by Giya Kancheli.

Written in 2000 and dedicated to Temirkanov, the composition bears the intriguing title ... al niente, an Italian phrase meaning "to nothing." It's also written throughout the score to indicate certain notes that are meant to fade away.

The whole work ultimately leads into that nothingness, but it's also where the music comes from, emerging out of a blank, distant sphere, like an impossibly distant star that comes into view through a telescope for the first time. By the time the last sound - one solo violin note - dissipates al niente, it's as if that star were flickering out, painlessly passing from our understanding of existence, perhaps into whole new realm of being.

Kancheli, born in 1935 in what was then the Soviet republic of Georgia and now based in Belgium, writes in a style all his own, firmly rooted in traditional harmony (many of the chord progressions in this work could have come out of any standard pop song) yet totally unfettered by conventions of time or space.

Unfolding glacially, with frequent, long pauses of silence, and only occasionally reaching a volume level above pianissimo, ... al niente forces the listener to forgo comfortable landmarks and signposts. Melodies - mostly wistful, sometimes folksy or even unabashedly banal, at one point lightly jazzy - start up, only to stop abruptly. Unexpected, massive buildups of sonority and energy suddenly evaporate before they can achieve anything conclusive, while a faint musical thread plays on like some unearthly, unhurried echo.

Kancheli does not place his ideas into a clear-cut structure. It seems, rather, that those ideas spring up and die out spontaneously, creating some sort of internal logic.

Easy to appreciate on purely abstract terms, the piece is even easier to hear as a very personal dream that recalls people and places and events, usually fondly, but also with some hurt. A circular, seven-note theme that appears from time to time, like a half-remembered song, becomes more touching with each return, perhaps "misty, water-colored memories" of the way things might have been, should have been, or can be no more.

Temirkanov was clearly deep inside the music and took the orchestra with him. (Except for the usual coughers, squirmers, program-book-droppers and recipients of cell phone calls, most of the modest-sized audience seemed to go along, too. There was a sustained, hearty ovation afterward.) The performance enjoyed telling solos from the woodwind section, exceedingly sensitive ones from the harpist and pianist, carefully modulated dynamics from the strings, incisive articulation from the brass and percussion. The overall level of concentration and commitment within the ensemble became palpable. I imagine the remaining performances will only get more intense and rewarding.

To conclude the program, there was a solid, sweeping account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the ever-reliable Andre Watts as soloist. His playing turned muddy here and there, but always had an underlying vibrancy as he carved out the music's impassioned drama. Temirkanov provided attentive partnering, the orchestra warm, mostly disciplined support.

Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker will be played instead of the Kancheli piece tomorrow morning, but that still leaves two more chances to hear ... al niente. Don't let the opportunity fade away.


When: 8 p.m. tonight, 11 a.m. tomorrow, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $30 to $81 tonight and Sunday, $23 to $52 tomorrow

Call: 410-783-8000

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