Peabody celebrates its renovation with a week of music


April 26, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Peabody Institute threw a weeklong party for itself to celebrate the reopening of a campus that has been spruced up to the tune of nearly $27 million, the most expansive renovation since this Mount Vernon Place landmark opened in 1866.

Several Peabody composers wrote fanfares to kick off programs that showcased faculty and students. Some programs also boasted premieres of larger works, underlining the sense of occasion. This happened in a big way Saturday night.

The opera Sophie's Choice by Nicholas Maw, one of the luminaries on Peabody's teaching staff, generated decidedly mixed reviews when it opened at London's Royal Opera House in 2002, but it affected audiences deeply and attracted the attention of other companies. Productions are slated for Berlin and Vienna in the fall of 2005.

Whatever the opera's ultimate place in the repertoire, Maw's Concert Suite from Sophie's Choice deserves to have a life of its own. The first performance on Saturday by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hajime Teri Murai, left a strong impression.

From the prayerful string chords at the start to the soft, high, slowly evaporating notes at the end, the suite serves up considerable tension and emotion in a richly textured musical language. If you knew nothing about the William Styron novel that inspired the opera, you could still sense the pain, love and cruelty that drive the story.

Maw has included an optional solo for mezzo-soprano - Sophie's final aria from the opera. I wasn't entirely persuaded by this idea, since there's no way for a suite to set up a clear sense of the context for the singer's words. Still, Elizabeth Healy's warm voice satisfied, as did the orchestra's carefully prepared, expressively heightened playing throughout.

Opening the concert was the premiere of Maw's Fanfare for Brass. Its spiky harmonies and propulsive melodic action left me wanting more.

Saturday's program also contained two piano concertos for left hand, featuring an almost legendary figure at Peabody, Leon Fleisher. The eminent pianist masterfully caught the grandeur and playfulness of Ravel's concerto, while Murai summoned a colorful response from the ensemble. But, despite similar qualities of execution, the concerto by Lukas Foss, written for Fleisher in 1993, sounded too concerned with structure, too repetitive in stylistic devices, and just too long.

Speaking of too long, Wednesday night's concert was over-stuffed, but conductor Edward Polochick did his best to keep all the music engaging. His hard-driven accounts of Shostakovich's schlocky Festive Overture and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 had the Peabody Concert Orchestra digging in with confidence and spirit.

Polochick brought Peabody's choral forces into the fray for a rip-roaring performance of Orff's Carmina Burana. Somehow, even the cheapest, most heavy-handed and musically arid portions of the score came off as inspired. But I could have done without the acting-out of the texts by some of the otherwise admirable vocal soloists; no need to gild a vulgar lily.

During Tuesday night's chamber music program, the Peabody Trio offered an incisive exploration of Beethoven's E-flat major Trio, Op. 70, No. 2. Every phrase came alive in this closely knit performance. The concert also featured the golden tones and innately expressive phrasing of soprano Hyunah Yu, a recent Peabody alumna, in Schubert's Auf dem Strom.

Providing the fanfares for these two programs were Peabody Institute director Robert Sirota, whose Music for the World proved to be a tight, bright, brassy curtain-raiser, and David Fetter, an administrator and teacher at the school. His Grand Reopening Fanfare for winds amusingly relived the noises of the construction.

After Saturday's formal concert, patrons could roam about to hear students making music in a variety of places and styles. In the Opera Studio, baritone Ryan de Ryke and mezzo Alisa Marie Grundmann presented their striking cabaret act, Brell and Weill on Love and War, an imaginative selection of message-laden songs. The singers and their consummate pianist, former Peabody student Jerome Tan, provided as powerful a demonstration as any last week of the school's ability to attract and mold remarkable talent.

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