Modern music finds an audience

`San Andreas Suite' has a rock quality


December 09, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

First of all (with apologies to FDR), let me assert my firm belief that the only thing a lot of concert-goers have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes them every time they face modern music.

It's amazing how much fun people can have when they loosen the bonds of that fear. Consider the case of two performances last weekend, where audiences not previously known for intrepidity gave every appearance of relishing heavy-on-the-contemporary programs.

The recital Sunday evening by Leila Josefowicz for the Shriver Hall Concert Series would have been worth a listen if this prodigiously gifted violinist had merely wanted to play scales for two hours. She brought with her a combustible mixture of 20th- and 21st-century pieces, and a single blast from the past.

Bay Area composer Mark Grey originally wrote the San Andreas Suite, for unaccompanied violin, on guitar - Eddie van Halen was a particular inspiration - and then adapted it for violin. The outer portions of the tightly constructed score have something of rock's punch; in between comes a meditation with a hint of Eastern music.

The suite makes one helluva vehicle for Josefowicz's startling technical facility, burnished tone and superior musicality.

Her fiddling in another unaccompanied workout, Lachen Verlent, by Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, was even more sensational. This 2002 piece, built around a chaconne (an ages-old device for laying a harmonic foundation), offers a wealth of tone colors and fevered expression.

The accompanied parts of the program, with polished, sensitive support from pianist John Novacek, included the solemn beauty of Messiaen's Theme and Variations from 1932 and Ravel's brash and bluesy 1927 Violin Sonata. A beautiful account of Beethoven's Op. 96 rounded out the evening.

On Saturday night at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, the Concert Artists of Baltimore started off with Bruckner's Mass in E minor from 1866, a work of richly layered harmonies, stirring melodic lines and imaginative wind instrument accompaniment. It glows with the sincerity of a true believer.

Edward Polochick led his finely honed chorus and attentive wind ensemble in a warmly shaded performance that reflected Bruckner's originality at every turn of phrase.

To complete the theme of this program, Polochick offered another item that eschews string instruments - John Adams' Grand Pianola Music from 1982. With two pianos as protagonists, winds and percussion as primary partners, and three amplified singers as extra backup and coloring, this minimalist score delivers a great kick.

Grand Pianola Music is never just about harmonic directness, reiteration and motion. It throws in abstraction, eloquence and wit as well to make an arresting statement.

Polochick didn't get a firmly in-gear response from the ensemble at the start, but the performance soon settled into a comfortable groove and reached an exhilarating lift in the finale. Pianists Clinton Adams and Jonathan Moyer proved brave and sturdy, matched in force by the other players.

Sopranos Ah Hong, Sara Berger and Yoo Jin Jeong articulated their almost entirely wordless lines brightly and tightly to maximize the pleasures in this masterpiece of minimalism.

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