Symphony With a Twist series ends on a somber note

AIDS Quilt gives added power to Corigiliano

MusicReview

May 10, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For those who use theaters to escape unpleasantness of the real world -- and such a motivation sure is understandable these days -- Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was not a good place to be Saturday night. Reality filled the space in grim, visceral fashion.

The event, which deserved a much bigger audience, was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's final Symphony With a Twist program of the season. The concert focused on two composers known for using their music to challenge and confront -- Beethoven, represented by his boldly declamatory Piano Concerto No. 5, and John Corigiliano, by his Symphony No. 1, an anguished response to the toll of AIDS.

Throughout the evening, two large samples from the massive AIDS Memorial Quilt hung above the stage, testimony to the individuals and personalities behind the statistics of the incurable disease. And during the playing of Corigliano's work, photos of several more panels were projected onto large screens, along with the names of some of the friends Corigliano commemorated specifically in parts of the score.

This symphony does not need any visual reinforcement, of course; the music alone could not be more vivid in its chronicling "of rage and remembrance" (the composer's description). But such additions have an undeniable power.

While this 1990 piece is rooted in one particular cause of suffering, it can encompass many others. As the images of the quilt panels unfolded at Meyerhoff, it didn't take much to remember the all-too-common roll calls of the dead from two other current plagues, terrorism and war.

In his BSO debut, Keith Lockhart led a taut, sensitive account of Corigliano's searing symphony. The orchestra played as if deeply connected to the notes. Exquisite solos by cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn and Chang Woo Lee and pianist Eric Conway added greatly.

Lockhart, who leads the Boston Pops and Utah Symphony, provided steady, if not particularly distinctive, guidance in the Beethoven concerto. At the keyboard, Jean-Yves Thibaudet demonstrated his usual technical command, produced a bracing effect in the outer movements with his brisk tempos and had some eloquent moments in the Adagio.

At times, his phrasing was rather cool, taking some of the noble breadth out of the music. And a tendency to avoid gradations between loud and soft reduced opportunities for indelible coloring. Still, a solid, communicative performance.

Annapolis Symphony

Since the controversial, board-instigated departure of music director Leslie B. Dunner a year ago, the Annapolis Symphony has been in the changing hands of guest conductors. It was David Lockington's turn Friday night at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts; this former BSO associate conductor now directs the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Symphony.

This was my first chance to hear the ensemble this season. I remember greater precision of attack overall and, among the strings, more consistency of intonation last year, but there certainly were signs of strength and commitment as well.

Lockington opened with a mostly snappy account of an engaging, if lightweight, piece called Global Warming, written in 1991 by Michael Abels. The imitation of cicadas buzzing at the start had a fresh relevancy; the subsequent fusion of Irish and Middle Eastern folk music sounded colorful, but forced.(The "warming" here has to do with improving relations between different cultures, making the composition seem awfully idealistic right now.)

Violinist Dylana Jenson, who happens to be the conductor's wife, made a firm case for Karl Goldmark's under-appreciated Violin Concerto. Although her pitch and, in fast passages, articulation sometimes got slippery, the violinist's playing was stylish and impassioned, and she enjoyed smooth rapport with the ensemble.

In the extra-credit department, Jenson's encore consisted of dancing (quite sensually) an old tango, Mano a Mano, with a male partner, while her husband conducted and sang (quite nicely) the lyrics in Spanish. You don't get that kind of show every day at a symphony concert.

The evening closed with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Lockington paced the opening movement on the slow side, but without compensating intensity. His interpretation didn't really catch fire until the finale, which is when the orchestra did its most polished work, too.

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