Composer on the fast track

Bible-inspired work earns premiere by National Symphony

Music Column

October 17, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

If you're up on your Book of Revelations, the number 144,000 will have an immediate significance. If you're up on your musical training, you may be able to hear that number - and other biblical references - translated into sound when the National Symphony Orchestra premieres Beyond Rivers of Vision this week.

The composer is James Lee III, who recently joined the faculty at Morgan State University as an assistant professor in composition and theory. And the three-movement composition was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor - written less than a year ago.

That the score should get its first performance in such a high-profile manner, with NSO music director and American music champion Leonard Slatkin conducting, makes quite a statement.

"I was very lucky," says the Michigan-born Lee, 30. One of his former teachers, eminent composer William Bolcom, brought Lee to Slatkin's attention.

The conductor "looked at the score on a Tuesday, and by Thursday that same week he said he would schedule a performance," Lee says.

Slatkin had no reservations about putting the new piece on a fast track. "When James came to see me, what I found was somebody who clearly knows what he wants both musically and orchestrationally," he says. "I found the work not only engaging and colorful, but also deeply moving."

The Lee premiere has been placed on a subscription program with such big draws as Dvorak's Cello Concerto (with stellar soloist Lynn Harrell) and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe.

Beyond Rivers of Vision is deeply immersed in biblical study. "I had been reading the Book of Revelations and was drawn to the imagery in it," Lee says. The Book of Daniel also figures into the music.

"I used images from these books as a conscious thing, not out of proselytizing, but just to bring attention to these books, which I don't think many people have read," the composer says.

Lee describes the music as being inspired by "various rivers in the Bible, on men based near those rivers and on visions connected with those men."

As for the number 144,000 - mentioned twice in the Book of Revelations - Lee translates that into pitches, as he does with the name Michael, which appears in both Revelations and Daniel.

If listeners don't catch all these inner details, they are still likely to follow the piece easily. "I use some atonal techniques, but my music has a tonal center," he says. "You could call it quasi-tonal."

More works by the composer are scheduled for performance in February at Morgan State, where he has formed a chamber group that will premiere a trio for flute, clarinet and piano. "I'm also writing my second piano sonata," Lee says. "I'll premiere that myself."

The NSO performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center. For tickets, call 800-444- 1324 or visit kennedy-center.org.

Emerson plus/minus

A certain amount of switch-hitting is common in the top-drawer Emerson String Quartet, where the two violinists routinely take turns playing in the first chair.

Still more versatility was at work Sunday evening when the ensemble was presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series. With violist Lawrence Dutton recovering from shoulder surgery for a few months, violinist Eugene Drucker has gamely switched to viola so the ensemble, in its 30th year, can keep on track.

In this trio form, the group addressed Mozart's Divertimento, K. 563, a late, long and extraordinarily dynamic piece that often sounds ahead of its time. Drucker, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel tapped into that forward-looking side, with an arresting combination of charm and muscle.

The Emerson players were then joined by veteran pianist Menahem Pressler, founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, for the Piano Quartet in G minor.

Now in his 80s, Pressler revealed a certain loss of his technical polish. The string playing wasn't always seamless, either. But the musicality was high all around, and the lyrical power of the score heated up the hall nicely.

Czech-ing out the BSO

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra focused over the weekend on music that tells tales - some charming, some downright creepy. This season-opener for the Symphony With a Twist series proved unusually imaginative and rewarding.

Dvorak's The Wood Dove - such a misleadingly innocent title - conjures up a husband-poisoning young woman who jumps into marriage with someone she likes a lot better, only to be driven insane by guilt. Smetana's Sarka introduces us to an even more problematic damsel who fakes distress to lure a whole bunch of unsuspecting men to their slaughter. Fun stuff. And great, under-appreciated music.

There was room, too, for cheerier fare from Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, populated with animals, symbols and messages about nature and love. Smetana's familiar, upbeat and molto descriptive Moldau rounded things out.

Jon Spelman, a Maryland-based, professional storyteller, introduced the pieces with admirable naturalness, simplicity and understandable poetic license Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.

BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine, who put together the program, revealed keen appreciation for the structural and coloristic qualities of each item. His assured, sensitive guidance drew poised and involved playing from the orchestra, which seemed to enjoy digging into so much under-exposed repertoire (the ever-floating Moldau excepted, of course).

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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