Violently good time at Peabody

Graduate's work premiered Tuesday

MusicReview

October 01, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Death stalked Peabody Conservatory the other night. One victim was fatally stabbed, another left barely breathing after suffering severe premonitions of mortality. Fortunately, all of this took place entirely in the realm of musical imagination, as the Peabody Symphony Orchestra opened its season with a pair of dark contemporary works (and Dvorak's Seventh Symphony, which I didn't stay for).

The "fatality" came at the start of Tuesday's concert - the premiere of Murder by recent Peabody grad Michael H. Mak.

I trust Mak wasn't thinking of anyone in particular when he divided the piece into such sections as "Brooding of Hatred," "The Chase" and "Stabbing." In a program note, he elaborated on these images: "The murderer corners his victim in a dead-end alley ... [and] continues stabbing multiple times after the fatal blows are delivered."

All of this seems like overkill (so to speak), since the music works well enough on abstract terms as an exercise in tension-building and brutal colors. But the title certainly fits, as does some nifty slashing from the violins, a la Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack for Psycho. It's an assured, mostly effective score with cinematic sweep.

Bohuslav Rattay conducted skillfully and drew a hard-hitting response from the students.

Violence erupts during Alfred Schnittke's Viola Concerto, completed in 1985 days before this extraordinary Russian composer suffered a stroke. But the outbursts are offset by curiously calming remembrances - sardonic dance music, snippets of 18th century-style melodies. A sense of foreboding and leave-taking imbues everything as Schnittke takes us to what he called "the threshold of death." The predominantly dark orchestration, which leaves out violins, adds to the profound drama.

Richard Field, longtime principal violist of the Baltimore Symphony and Peabody faculty member, was the soloist, unruffled by the score's daunting demands. Except for some loss of tonal firmness in the upper register, he maintained admirable technical control as he carved out the anguished phrases.

Conductor Hajime Teri Murai seemed equally connected to the music's message and had the orchestra contributing powerfully to this rapt performance of a modern masterpiece.

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