'Circus Maximus': sound and furious percussion by BSO

March 20, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Check your fears and hearing aids at the Meyerhoff door this weekend and brace yourselves for one of the most stimulating blasts to come from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in years.

Even before the actual blast of a shotgun, John Corigliano's surround-sound Symphony No. 3, "Circus Maximus," delivers more un-amplified volume than anything I can think of offhand, even Mahler at his most heaven-storming. It's a stunner in so many ways, from the concept itself - "a celebration and a warning," as the composer put it in remarks from the stage Thursday night at Strathmore - to the construction.

The work is scored for masses of woodwind and brass instruments, placed all over the hall; a marching band that marches around at one point; and an arsenal of percussion with enough firepower to start a small revolution.

Corigliano's symphony, taking its name from the celebrated mass-entertainment venue of ancient Rome, clearly took some folks by surprise Thursday; I saw a few holding their hands over their ears, a few others fleeing the hall before it was over. The peak decibel levels sure got parts of me vibrating that aren't usually awakened at classical concerts. But trust me: This is a must-hear event, a rare and visceral experience that will have you buzzing for hours afterward.

The score might evoke "Ben-Hur" chariot-race imagery one minute, big-city mayhem the next; the wailing of nocturnal animals one minute, glitzy advertisements the next. A mirror is held up to the appealing and appalling sides of life, and the listener is pushed and pulled every which way in the process. The penultimate, masterfully timed movement, "Prayer," momentarily stops the head-spinning to beg for some soul-searching, but the enticement of all that wildness out there is too great. The symphony throws the audience right back into the whirl for the ultimate circus stunt.

Marin Alsop marshaled her expanded forces with typical calm and assurance, summoning great swells of sound from the stage and players stationed along the back wall and in balconies and boxes (an assistant conductor was in one to do some cuing). But Alsop was equally interested in the softest portions of the score, ensuring, for example, that the atmospheric shimmer of the "Night Music I" movement emerged compellingly.

There might have been some articulation fuzziness along the way, but the playing by the BSO, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and Morgan State University's Magnificent Marching Machine was consistently impressive.

The experience can best be summed up in one of today's most overused words: awesome. If a hipper, younger crowd than usual turns out for the repeats today and Sunday at Meyerhoff, I would expect that word to be used a lot afterward.

If you go
The BSO performs "Circus Maximus" at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25-$85. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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