Saturday, March 8, 2008

Under the baton of Music Director Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its current program Thursday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore, featuring the Flute Concerto by contemporary American composer and native Baltimorean Christopher Rouse along with two popular works by Ludwig van Beethoven.

It has become standard practice for many symphony orchestras to bookend a contemporary work with more traditional fare, the better to avoid empty-seat syndrome. Hence, Thursday’s concert presented the Rouse concerto flanked on one side by Beethoven’s stirring “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and on the other by his immortal Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67.

However, the BSO’s audience needn’t have been concerned about the concerto. Mr. Rouse writes contemporary music that speaks to contemporary audiences in an original, accessible way. There is humanity in his compositions, helping his works achieve a rare intimacy with the audience.

Speaking from the podium before the performance, maestra Alsop described the structure of the Rouse Flute Concerto as an “arch” comprising five movements played essentially without pause, with the apex occurring during the third movement. Elegiac in nature, the concerto, first performed with the Detroit Symphony in 1994, riffs on English and Celtic folk-music motifs, creating a work that is essentially a meditation on life.

The work begins and ends with similar movements titled “Anhran” (Gaelic for “song”). Both these outer movements commence with the same enigmatic chord rippling through the percussion, leading to a plaintive melody introduced by the solo flute. The orchestra weaves an almost impressionistic background around the initial tune, with echoes of Claude Debussy’s piano prelude, “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.”

The initial “Anhran” is followed by a marchlike dance marked, appropriately, “Alla Marcia.” Its counterpart, a true “Scherzo,” follows the central slow movement. The “Anhran” music is reprised in variations after the scherzo, bringing the entire work to a quiet close.

The climactic central slow movement, marked “Elegia” (“Elegy”) is the heart of the work. It was written, according to the composer, in memory of a small English lad who was slaughtered inexplicably in the early 1990s by a pair of 10-year-old boys in a case that attracted worldwide shock and horror. Beginning quietly, the music surges to a huge, dissonant orchestral outcry before subsiding into stunned near-silence.

Though there are virtuosic moments in this concerto, it’s really more of an ensemble work, with the flute and the orchestra exchanging commentary and dialogue in equal measure. Yet the solo flute part is exquisite, providing the soloist with numerous opportunities to personalize the message.

Emily Skala, the BSO’s principal flutist, performed the concerto with skill and grace, although she apparently was in some distress from a cold. This did not deter her from shaping a genuinely distinguished reading of the work. She, along with the BSO, turned in a powerful, moving performance of a concerto that surely deserves a place in the contemporary repertoire.

Available space gives us little opportunity to comment on the BSO’s splendid work with the pair of Beethoven favorites. The “Leonore” Overture No. 3, was skillfully conducted by maestra Alsop and dashingly performed by the BSO as befits a work that — in a few short moments — summarizes the sorrow and heroism of “Fidelio,” the composer’s only opera. The orchestra’s reading of the Fifth Symphony, although starting a bit fast for this critic’s taste, echoed the same kind of emotions right down to its rousing final chords.


WHAT: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents Beethoven and Rouse

WHEN: Tomorrow at 3 p.m.

WHERE: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., No. 1, Baltimore

TICKETS: $40 to 60

PHONE: 877/BSO-1444


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