BSO brings ingenuity of `Oz' score to the fore

Critic's Corner//Music

Music Column

June 26, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Back -- way back -- in the day, big movie palaces had orchestras on hand to provide live music for silent films, creating a kind of opera without words. Once talkies came in, of course, everything changed.

You can still come across the occasional opportunity to relive the wonderful aural experience of a silent movie with live orchestral accompaniment. Lately, it has also been possible to encounter such accompaniment with old sound movies. A particular popular example of the latter is The Wizard of Oz, which blew into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday night and drew a large, age-diverse crowd.

In essence, the orchestral music is digitally separated from the voices, allowing the score to be re-created onstage in sync with the screen. I was skeptical that this would amount to something substantially better than, say, a DVD of the movie with remastered sound played on high-quality equipment. But from the first notes of the opening-credits music, lushly played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I was quite taken with the idea of bringing this first-class movie score to the fore.

Very much to the fore -- the iconic celluloid cast sounded as if they were speaking from Kansas. A lot of folks in the house probably knew the dialogue by heart, so the poor audio for the voices wasn't totally disastrous. It was easy to forget about dialogue and just zero in on the symphonic treats being stirred up.

Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos effectively drew out the charm, atmosphere and ingenuity of the score, from the perfect songs by Harold Arlen to the music by Herbert Stothart and others that fills in the rest of the picture.

As many times as I've seen Oz, I never fully appreciated things like the clever usage of "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" and "Home Sweet Home" in the score. The rich orchestration also registered here with terrific impact.

Wind quintet excels

Astral Winds, a quintet that includes BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman, gave a remarkably polished performance of a far-ranging program Friday night at An die Musik.

Of particular note was Autumn Music by Jennifer Higdon. Like a daydream, the harmonically restless score flows from incident to incident, color to color. It's not always clearly focused, yet somehow always perfectly sensible.

Fun works by Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert were in the mix, along with breezy, colorful pieces by August Klughardt and Eugene Bozza. Everything was played with clarity and warmth by Needleman, Jasmine Choi (flute), Jose Franch-Ballester (clarinet), Larisa Gelman (bassoon) and Paul LaFollette (horn).

New hall, new perspective

New concert halls typically make contemporary architectural statements. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tenn., boldly, even defiantly, speaks with a retro accent.

If the neo-classical structure suggests conservative tastes, its principal occupant, the Nashville Symphony, exudes freshness. Hearing that ensemble perform in the elegant 1,860-seat, shoe box-shaped theater last week, while I was in town to catch some of the American Symphony Orchestra League conference, was a highlight of my season.

The Nashville players demonstrated keen technical and expressive strengths throughout a program led in typically dynamic fashion by the orchestra's music adviser, Leonard Slatkin. (The $123 million center is named after longtime Nashville Symphony music director Kenneth Schermerhorn, who died in 2005.)

To start, there was a taut account of Joan Tower's almost too-romantic Made in America. In Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, Slatkin emphasized the organic quality of the music, while 14-year-old Chinese-born pianist Peng Peng revealed great fingers and marketability.

Instead of the standard Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Slatkin shed new light on the music by using his own multiarrangement compilation that included often startling instrumentation by the likes of Leopold Stokowski, Henry Wood and Sergei Gorchakov. I didn't think I could ever have so much fun hearing that war horse again.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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