Sooner and later, contemporary compositions will be heard in town

MUSIC

Continuum coming to Shriver Hall

March 30, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There could never be enough contemporary music around here. As is true in too many places these days, Baltimore audiences prefer to stick with well-worn sounds, preferably by long-decomposing composers.

It doesn't help much to point out the obvious - if audiences way back when hadn't been willing to give new music a try, we might not be so familiar with the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky now. Still, I heartily recommend a periodic visit to Nicholas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, originally published in 1953, for a strong dose of reality. This compendium of "critical assaults on composers since Beethoven's time" can be especially helpful for those who have convinced themselves that they know modern music when they hear it.

Check out the reviews of Beethoven's "most piercing dissonances" (Fidelio) and "odious meowing" (Fifth Symphony). Consider the "mathematical music evolved with difficulty from an unimaginative brain" - Brahms' First Symphony. Or the "two dissonant chords [that sound] rather like scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife" - in Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.

Sure does help to put things in perspective, doesn't it? If you tend to fall into the anything-but-contemporary-music camp, my humble advice is to read a whole bunch of entries in Slonimsky's invaluable book - and then head straight for Shriver Hall on Sunday evening. That's where you can hear an attractively varied sampling of 20th- and 21st-century music from an ensemble that has ridden the modern trail for 38 years now.

The New York-based Continuum will perform items for different combinations of instruments, as well as for voice and instruments, by composers covering a spectrum of nationalities. The oldest works will be Igor Stravinsky's Septet for winds, strings and piano, and Conlon Nancarrow's Trio for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano. Four pieces from 1988 are included: Ursula Mamlok's Die Laterne, Mario Davidovsky's Romancero, Chen Yi's Near Distance and Alfred Schnittke's Piano Quartet.

From 2002, you'll find the Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Piano by Lawrence Moss. And, providing extra interest, the concert also includes the premiere of Elliott Sharp's No Time Like the Stranger, commissioned for Continuum.

This Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation will be at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at Shriver Hall Auditorium, the Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $33, $17 for students ($8 student rush). Call 410-516-7164.

New Chamber Festival

After you survive Continuum - and you will - immediately contact New Chamber Festival Baltimore and get your tickets for a three-day immersion into contemporary works for string quartet in June. The first biennial festival, in 2002, was quite a success in the quantity and quality of performances; the second promises the same.

Using Shriver Hall, Evergreen House and Peabody Conservatory, the fest will present three top ensembles - the Leipzig String Quartet from Germany, Endellion String Quartet from England and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano from Mexico.

Repertoire will be drawn from major works by such 20th-century luminaries as Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, Leos Janacek, Charles Ives, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, Benjamin Britten and Toru Takemitsu. Significant composers of the current scene, including Robin Holloway and Reza Vali, will also be represented.

The festival runs June 25-27 and offers pre-concert talks for each of the five performances. For more information, call 410-783-8570.

Choral Arts Society

If you could bottle all the humility, love and hope contained in Bach's B minor Mass, you'd have a cure for everything that ails the world. This isn't just a monument of Western music, containing an endlessly rewarding summation of baroque (and even some Renaissance) styles and techniques, but an affirmation of all that is decent about humanity.

Yes, it's a statement of faith; yes, it's specifically Christian in text. But for Bach, it's an inclusive, border-less faith. And, like magnificent religious paintings that adorn cathedrals and museums today, the Mass can be approached solely as a profound work of beauty. It is not limited or limiting. It cannot age.

Tom Hall led his Baltimore Choral Arts Society in a stirring account of the Mass Sunday night at Goucher College's unfortunately dry-sounding Kraushaar Auditorium. The conductor's tempos struck an effective balance that allowed plenty of propulsion for the dancing rhythms (the Et resurrexit and Osanna passages rocked), but plenty of breadth and repose for the score's most reflective moments.

The choristers were in terrific form, as careful and expressive at the softest volumes as they were boldly assertive at the loudest. Articulation was admirably clear and confident throughout. The guest soloists included the golden-toned mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, who made the Agnus Dei deeply moving. Sopranos Heather Buck and Jennifer Casey Cabot and baritone Thomas Meglioranza proved valuable assets as well, but tenor Ryan Turner made a decidedly undernourished sound.

The orchestra shone, too, from Mary Bisson's vivid horn solo and the sparkling contributions of Langston Fitzgerald III and his fellow trumpeters to the ethereal phrasing of flutist Emily Skala.

Bach and a packed house were well served.

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