NSO's `Beyond Rivers of Vision' rouses the senses

Critic's Corner//Music

BSO also gives sterling effort via German, American masterworks

Music Column

October 24, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

First impressions may not be the most reliable of gauges, but, on the evidence of my initial encounter with the music of James Lee III, I'd say he's a composer who has what it takes. And has a future.

That his three-movement work, Beyond Rivers of Vision, written as a doctoral dissertation just last year for the University of Michigan should end up being premiered by conductor Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra last week at the Kennedy Center says a lot. That the piece should turn out to be an arresting earful says even more.

The 30-year-old, Michigan-born Lee recently joined the music faculty at Morgan State University, where he is likely to become a valuable asset. Local music organizations, including a certain big orchestra located much closer to Morgan State than the Kennedy Center is, ought to be rushing to make his acquaintance.

Beyond Rivers of Vision was inspired by Lee's biblical readings, particularly the Book of Revelation, which triggered various musical components, including a motif derived from the number 144,000. Knowing that background is obviously useful, but the most interesting element about the work that came through during the NSO's performance Friday afternoon was the brilliant sound of it.

From the attention-grabbing outburst of percussion that launched the first movement, the sonic richness never lets up. There is no shortage of melodic activity, either - even overloaded melodic activity, as when the violins, early on in that opening movement, produce a volley of notes at dizzying velocity.

Harmonically, Lee stands grounded in tonality, though pulled by a mostly persuasive undertow of dissonant activity. Occasional bluesy tints give an extra edge to the atmospheric second movement, which conjures up imagery of an inexorable river, complete with waves of insistent brass chords that rise and fall in intensity.

The finale recalls the rapturous visions of Olivier Messiaen's music in its gorgeous, surging string chords. A build-up of dissonance leads to a glistening coda of repose, with bells and wind chimes softly underlining a comforting chorale.

Not everything works or rings true in the piece. Some of the spicier harmonies sound more textbook-driven than inevitable, for example. But the overriding impression is of a composer with an assured handling of structure, development and large-palette orchestration. The roughly 15-minute score has something to say and says it in coherent, involving fashion.

And, although Lee might object, the first movement would make a great encore, with its quick-fire virtuosity and rhythmic snap.

Speaking of virtuosity, the NSO sounded terrific as Slatkin shaped the new work with his usual skill.

Conductor and ensemble were likewise in superb form (a woolly horn excepted) during Dvorak's well-worn Cello Concerto, providing a fresh and invigorating burst of lyrical power to complement the typically intense, deeply expressive playing of soloist Lynn Harrell.

I couldn't stay for the rest of the concert, capped by the complete Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel, but the abbreviated experience proved memorable. Fresh music, stellar music-making - not bad for an afternoon.

Friday evening wasn't bad, either. That was spent at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by highly valued guest conductor Gunther Herbig and featuring the exceptional young violinist Stefan Jackiw.

Other than a meltdown in the closing bars, the BSO gave a tight, forceful account of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture at the start. Herbig and the orchestra were operating in total synch when, after intermission, they turned to Brahms' Symphony No. 2.

The conductor shaped it lovingly, allowing poetic impulses to unfold in spacious fashion, without hindering the overall flow of the performance. He reached particularly eloquent heights in the Adagio, looking deeply into the music's dark beauty. Encountering such a big-hearted approach to Brahms is a treasurable thing, and it continued right through the concluding movement.

The players seemed thoroughly engaged in the experience, paying great attention to nuances of dynamics and coloring as they responded to Herbig's sure, sensitive guidance. A few details in the brass could have been even cleaner, but this was, on balance, a sterling BSO effort.

Between the two German masterworks came an American one, Barber's unabashedly romantic Violin Concerto.

Jackiw's unfailingly sweet tone found an ideal outlet in the melancholy themes of the first two movements, while his technical aplomb served him well in the whirlwind finale. His stylish, communicative playing was supply supported throughout by Herbig and the ensemble. Katherine Needleman's oboe solo was, as usual, of a rare quality.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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