- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

While tried and true works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky appeared on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Strathmore Center program Saturday, the heart of the evening belonged to contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon. Her brashly enjoyable “Concerto 4-3” simply rocked the nearly full auditorium.

Scored for orchestra and string trio — specifically Time-for-Three (Tf3) members Zachary De Pue and Nicholas Kendall (violins) and Ranaan Meyer (double bass), who appeared as soloists in Saturday’s concert — the concerto’s traditional three movements embrace jazz, rock, and bluegrass idioms with a wink at techno while remaining firmly rooted in the classical firmament.

Unusual in a classical venue, Tf3’s acoustic musicians were electronically amped and positioned in front of conductor Marin Alsop, following her lead on a TV monitor. The electronic assist was not obtrusive, however. It helped bring out the musicians’ percussive techniques as well as the jazzy, pizzicato double bass, whose low notes and slides would have otherwise been drowned out by the full orchestra.

Loaded with drive and ambition, the concerto’s first movement showcased the trio’s superb musicianship and uncanny ability to blend a variety of influences into a uniquely modern sound.

The composer makes room for the trio to improvise between movements. Tf3 seized upon this opportunity by bridging the first to the second movement with an intense, disciplined display of virtuosity. They then eased back into the concerto proper, whose slow movement serves as a lyrical interlude before the raucous finale erupts.

This breakneck concluding movement is a little like the Seldom Scene meets Blues Alley in a concert hall — a rapid, rhythmic, rock-tinged pyrotechnical display. It gives orchestra and soloists a chance to show their stuff as they barrel ahead into an abrupt but satisfying conclusion, which is precisely what they did Saturday evening. And they were generously rewarded for their efforts.

The instantaneous eruption of the Strathmore audience in a demonstration of unbridled enthusiasm for the soloists, their hometown band (and for Jennifer Higdon who appeared onstage), is something you don’t often see for a contemporary work. But it’s starting to happen here with the BSO. Attention must be paid.

Tf3 paid back this audience approval by offering their own quirky version of the traditional bluegrass tune “Orange Blossom Special” as an unusual midconcert encore, igniting yet another celebratory outburst in the hall.

While the Higdon concerto was refreshing and new, it would be churlish to neglect mention of the BSO’s fine performances of three Brahms Hungarian Dances and the stirring Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 that began and ended Saturday’s program.

Maestra Alsop’s broadly rubato interpretation of Brahms’ popular dances was a refreshing break from the way they’re usually performed.

The Tchaikovsky work was spring-loaded with energy and graced by particularly good playing from the brass and woodwind sections. The opening of the famous pizzicato scherzo was a bit too faint, even for the front rows, but the rest of the movement, along with the viscerally exciting finale more than made up for it.

★★★½

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