BSO introduces a concerto

The orchestra commissioned new Brewbaker work

June 17, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There are no words to explain ... how when a player touches the strings, it is me playing and being played."

From those words by 13th-century Sufi poet Jelal al-Din Rumi, composer Daniel Brewbaker drew the title and the essence of his violin concerto, premiered last night by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Given the propulsive energy that drives much of the work, Playing and Being Played, listeners may wonder if it also owes something to Rumi's extra-poesy claim to fame as founder of the Islamic sect known as the Whirling Dervishes.

"I was reading Rumi's poetry on a daily basis while composing this piece," Brewbaker says. "It's hard to talk about this without sounding overblown, but much of the piece has to do with living in a sort of ecstatic consciousness, being in the present. It's about responses to life. I'm disclosing parts of myself -- to myself -- in this music."

Scored for violin and large orchestra (including about two dozen percussion instruments), the roughly 20-minute concerto was commissioned by the BSO and music director Yuri Temirkanov, underwritten by BSO board member Solomon H. Snyder and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Neuroscience.

The orchestra introduced its audiences to Brewbaker's music in 2002, playing a vibrant piece called Blue Fire.

Temirkanov heard a good deal about the Illinois-born Brewbaker several years ago in Russia, where St. Petersburg's famed Kirov Opera commissioned an oratorio for the 1999 bicentennial of poet Alexander Pushkin. Brewbaker was the first American composer commissioned by the company.

The prospect of composing for one of Russia's finest cultural institutions to honor Russia's most beloved poet had particularly rich meaning for the composer. Brewbaker, 53, attributes his passion for writing music to what he calls the "truly transformative musical experience" of hearing a great Russian orchestral work, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, when he was about 10 years old.

Although Brewbaker's style doesn't sound particularly Russian, it does seem to strike a chord with Russians. In addition to Temirkanov and Gergiev, they include top-notch violinist Vadim Repin, whose interest in playing a new Brewbaker work sparked the BSO commission.

Although Temirkanov canceled his BSO appearances this month due to a back ailment, Repin remains as soloist.

"It's a very difficult, very charged piece," he says. "There's a lot of notes." (By the composer's own tally, about 33,000.)

Repin describes Playing and Being Played as "like a poem, a little journey. It was very hard to play it at the beginning," he says. "But once it gets into your mind, it's very logical."

Part of the challenge of mastering the notes involves mastering the rhythms, which change frequently, often at fast speed. "The music is swinging in a way," Repin says. "You have to forget your classical attitude and dive into the rhythmic part. You have to stop counting and just get on the wave."

That wave, with hints of hot and cool jazz and touches of folk dance, reflect Brewbaker's interest in the spectrum of musical genres. "I've traveled widely, and I love crossing boundaries," he says. "Universal experiences of being human always override differences."

As he set about writing the concerto, he drew upon those travels. "I've gone to Crete and Ireland and to Gypsy festivals to hear the different ways the violin is played," he says. "I wanted to somehow embody that energy, the wild improvisatory side, but also the lyrical side of those different kinds of music. I wanted to find the thread that they have in common."

About midway through Playing and Being Played, a gentle, ear-catching theme appears, contrasting strongly with the edgy, dance-inspired drive that comes before and after.

Repin, who is also performing Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto on the BSO program, finds this lyricism in Brewbaker's score particularly appealing. "It shows that melody hasn't died," the violinist says. "Very often new works have no melodic background at all, just noises and surprises."

Brewbaker's flair for writing unabashedly beautiful themes may seem unusual, given the list of eminent composers who were among his teachers and mentors -- Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze. Not an old-fashioned melodist in the bunch.

"I never thought you had to make a choice between tonality and atonality," Brewbaker says. "There is very little obvious influence on my music from my teachers. I absorbed things about harmony from Carter in a way that would not remind you of him. And Sessions was able to put his aesthetics aside to bring forth the personality of the student. He once told me, `Ultimately, do exactly as you please and send everyone else to hell -- and that includes me.'"

Like Repin, James Judd, the British conductor substituting for Temirkanov, learned Brewbaker's concerto in about two weeks.

"I've enjoyed the experience enormously," Judd says. "The piece seems to me to have a real heart, as well as rhythmic exuberance. I imagine it will have a long life."

That's music to any composer's ears.

"I feel I brought together many parts of myself in this piece," Brewbaker says. "When the players touch the strings, it really is me that is playing."

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda

When: 8 tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff, 8 p.m. tomorrow at Strathmore

Tickets: $27 to $75 at Meyerhoff, limited availability at Strathmore

Call: 410-783-8000

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