- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

Under the baton of music director Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra returned to the Music Center at Strathmore Saturday to present the East Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s new Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The new work was bookended in this inventive program by Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” and Dvorak’s rarely heard Symphony No. 5 in F Major, Op. 76.

Popular young violinist Hilary Hahn — a former student of Ms. Higdon’s at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute — was soloist in the concerto, which was written specifically for her.

Clever choice, the “Egmont,” to open the evening’s program. It’s Beethoven’s stirring musical tribute to a heroic Dutch count who tried to free his people from Spanish domination in the 16th century.

The “Egmont” heralded Ms. Higdon’s concerto, which is revolutionary in its own way. Ms. Higdon is one of a growing band of newer composers who are connecting with classical audiences by writing accessible music that actually can be enjoyed.

Her work has won plaudits from many newspaper critics. It also has garnered its share of snubs from puerile academics and scribblers who still equate new tonal music with theoretically obsolete bourgeois tastes, which often happens when ideology trumps musical sense.

Well, throw me in with the bourgeoisie. While perhaps a trifle too long (Ms. Hahn specifically requested a “major” work), Ms. Higdon’s concerto is challenging, completely enjoyable, and very creative in a highly personal way.

It employs motifs rather than melodies and eschews traditional development. It’s driven instead by a kind of emotional logic, a stream-of-consciousness narrative in notes rather than words. To carry on the narrative, the composer frequently breaks up the full orchestra into smaller “chamber” ensembles — particularly in the strings and percussion — that carry on a dialogue with the soloist.

Given a chance to go one-on-one or four-on-one with the star attraction, the players are transformed from background accompaniment to full participants, demonstrating their own considerable skills in a way that enhances the concerto’s overall effectiveness.

An astute musician herself, Ms. Hahn clearly is in touch with this dynamic, leaning toward this and that ensemble as musical opportunities arise, helping create the chemistry that makes these creative conversations come alive. Of course, the composer provides Ms. Hahn with plenty of wicked solo challenges as well, many of them trickier than they look. Yet Ms. Hahn met them all brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly. A hat-tip as well to Ms. Alsop, whose well-thought-out game plan was in evidence from the first downbeat.

The evening concluded with a delightful performance of Dvorak’s neglected early symphony, which already demonstrates his mastery of form and color. The tricky finale, which rapidly negotiates its way from the tragic to the triumphant, showcased virtually flawless playing by the brass section.

This was an outstanding musical evening, performed with uncommon enthusiasm by an ensemble that is forging new paths under a leader who seems to truly comprehend where the 21st century is taking the symphony orchestra.

★★★★

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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