Harmonies from the Close of Two Centuries Ago: The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, March 17, 2011

James Ross presents thought-provoking programs as music director of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, finding relationships and championing repertoire that should interest even people who don’t live and work near the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Being so geographically lucky, I checked out Thursday night’s concert (which the students likely think of as “the midterm”).

Ross and the UMSO presented two big works by Johannes Brahms (his Symphony no. 3) and John Adams (Harmonielehre), respectively, in the Dekelboum Concert Hall, letting the listener compare and contrast, which stimulated the intellect. The UMSO’s playing, much of the time, stimulated the pleasure centers directly.

James Ross

"WE MUST PROTECT THIS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER!" James Ross takes a cue from other legendary Maryland team leaders.

Brahms’ Third, like his other works, cleaves to a harmonically conservative language, even in the face of “advances” (yeah, I scare-quoted that) from Wagner. Adams, meanwhile, named Harmonielehre after Arnold Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony while rejecting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone methods; Adams’ harmonies sound more, well, Wagnerian than anything else. Both works had some major-minor tension, constant in the Adams and, in the Brahms, found in the first movement, which spends a good amount of time flickering in and out of its nominal F major. A completely nonsubstantive link between the two is that they are separated by almost exactly a century; Brahms completed his Third in 1883, while Adams began work on Harmonielehre in 1984.

Brahms came first on Thursday’s program as well. From Ross’ treatment of the second theme, which had a just-perceptible touch of swing on it, he made it clear that he wanted his Brahms light on its feet and transparent. He also maxed out the drama where appropriate, trusting that the autumnal quality of the score would be indomitable even in a livelier interpretation than usual. And indeed, the second and third movements glimmered in echt-Brahmsian pastoral fashion, but all of Brahms’ counterpoint came through as well, giving a richly layered, nuanced effect. The finale, on the other hand, rocked pretty hard, with a big solid noise from the orchestra at climaxes and dynamic rhythms thrusting the score forward.

Brahms’ Third also showed that the UMSO is sounding good lately. The woodwinds provide a lot of the rich coloring of Brahms’ second and third movements, and they sounded awesome throughout Thursday night, giving their solos a personal quality, as if they felt Brahms had written for them. The strings were not far behind, with good ensemble playing for a student orchestra and lovely tone for anyone, shaping their melodies with keen feeling. The cellos and basses, especially, sounded rock-solid and expressive underneath the middle- and upper-range complexity. The horns did not quite reach the level of their colleagues, as messy entrances and imprecise notes kept cropping up, although the trumpeter took a well-deserved bow after Harmonielehre. Numerous members of the orchestra were dressed in green in recognition of the day, and the entrance of certain players onto the stage was met with raucous cheers from the gallery, but these accoutrements did not distract or detract from an involving performance.

I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the individual musicians and their playing during Harmonielehre, as the hall was dimmed so the projections of Tim McLoraine could be seen above the orchestra, against the chorister seats and the back wall of the Dekelboum.

I spent a while after the concert thinking about why Ross had decided to ask McLoraine to create projections for this concert (he’s worked with Ross and the UMSO before). Here’s my theory: Brahms works solidly within the symphonic tradition, with all the sonata and ternary forms that implies, while Adams shaped the three movements of Harmonielehre based on dreams and myths, with melodies, rhythms, and moods shifting according to their own logic. So McLoraine’s interpreation of/play with Harmonielehre would show one way to interpret its ambiguous narrative and give the audience, lacking its usual structural anchors, a way to stick with the music better.

Geometric shapes (notably small circles and line-drawn cubes) shared the space with clip art, occasional semi-legible cursive, and blurry, distorted landscapes; their movements and morphing resonated deeply with the music, as McLoraine kept his visuals in sync with the music from his seat in the balcony. At first, I watched the projections breathlessly awaiting the next transformation of a bunch of little circles and a shimmering water texture, but eventually the sheer power of the UMSO’s performance drew my eyes back to the stage, to see how they were doing it. Still, when the rainbow-colored headdress-looking thing (these were mostly not representational images) began unfolding itself from the inside out, then blew up into giant size and appeared to fly up out of the hall, I was definitely paying attention.

The collaboration pumped up the UMSO, which gave a performance worthy of the scale (45 minutes!) and expressive power of the work. Ross had a great feel for pacing and incidents, and the UMSO followed him everywhere he went, keeping the busy textures clear and sticking with the tricky rhythms. Apart from continued brass faults, the playing remained at a high level, and with even more players on stage than in the Brahms, the sound could grow truly gigantic — the second time in a week I’ve been pinned back in my seat at an orchestral concert. Not a bad feeling at all, in my book, and a great way to finish off a UMSO concert that was even more stimulating than usual.

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