A passionate program played with BSO fire

October 15, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

All art involves struggle. Beethoven couldn't get out of bed in the morning without struggling against someone or something. Wagner never ran out of issues and people to battle; he even provided the impetus for many an intense fight long after he died. Strauss loved to wrestle with popular tastes and expectations, especially if it guaranteed a reward at the box office.

The contentious spirits of those three men filled Meyerhoff Symphony Hall last night, along with a very much alive presence - Christopher Rouse, the exceptional, Baltimore-born composer. His Wagner-drenched fantasy Der gerettete Alberich was given a welcome reprise by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned it in 1998.

At the end of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelungen, one figure is unaccounted for as the Rhine washes over a charred Valhalla. He's Alberich, the dwarf who renounces love for power. Rouse imagines Alberich as a survivor who, in the form of a solo percussionist, has an awful lot of animus left in him.

Themes from Wagner's quadripartite opera are assaulted by weapons of mass deconstruction. The soloist employs all manner of drums and other objects in this process; the expanded orchestra throws in everything it has, too.

Except for an episode of agitated rock drumming, which has a tacked-on-for-the-heck-of-it feel, the work holds together firmly and engagingly. The sheer variety of sounds makes for quite a showpiece.

Colin Currie, in his BSO debut, was the striking - so to speak - soloist, moving seamlessly from battery to battery and producing both subtle and explosive effects not just with aplomb, but expressive effect. Guest conductor Roberto Abbado exerted tight control over the big picture and drew from the BSO some very hot playing.

Earlier, Abbado led an appealing, if slightly underpowered, account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. The orchestra sounded a little mushy, but attentive to details.

To close: Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, his sprawling attempt to put Nietzsche's philosophy into musical form. The irresolvable rift between ideal order and the imperfection of man propels the music to its indecisive close, stopping along the way for some indelible melodies. Abbado deftly underlined the lyrical elements, allowing the waltz passage to whirl beguilingly, and built up torments effectively.

Even more power would have been possible if the Meyerhoff housed a proper pipe organ; the electronic one on hand just couldn't cut it. Otherwise, the performance generated considerable richness and heat, if not always the cleanest articulation.

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight, 11 a.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $27 to $75 tonight, $20 to 47 tomorrow

Call: 410-783-8000

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