Time and Tchaik: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff, September 24, 2009

You know how on “Charlie Parker With Strings,” Bird and his group played standards with the titular accompaniment serving as ornament and sonic carpet but never driving the musical argument? Well, Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3” for the string trio Time for Three, which received its world premiere with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under music director Marin Alsop on Thursday night, should really be called “Time for Three With Strings.” Mind, J-Higgy wrote some interesting music in this concerto, but precious little of it ever leaves the hands of those three musicians.

Backing up: Tf3 (the group’s abbreviation, not mine!) consists of bassist Ranaan Meyer and two violinists: Zach De Pue and suburban Maryland’s own Nick Kendall. While studying at the Curtis Institute of Music up in Philly, they discovered that they loved to use their instruments to fiddle in the bluegrass mode, improvise like jazzmen, and shred like rockers as well as saw their way through the Classical Canon. Higdon, for her part, hails from Tennessee (cue Arrested Development) and retains affection for the bluegrass that filled the house in her youth. A composer-performer match made in heaven, right?

Well, you lose some things in the move from Tf3’s originals and covers to the “21st-century” idiom in which Higdon composed the work — specifically, you lose high-profile melody and a sense of play. The outer movements of “Concerto 4-3” sizzle and burn, but they don’t break into something recognizable and followable; they’re sensation above all, delivered by three entertaining musicians. In these movements, the orchestra souned thoroughly inessential to the musical argument; worse, only very occasionally did Higdon deliver the timbral felicities fans of her work have come to expect, and most of those came from deployment of percussion to underscore rhythms already explicit in the Tf3 music. (To ensure that Tf3 could be heard above the large orchestra, the trio was amplified, and the resulting imbalance put the orchestra further into the background; one hopes this will be corrected at future concerts.) Tf3 took an optional cadenza after the first movement, which in this context felt like more of the same. One remembered the Higdon violin concerto in which Alsop led the orchestra and Hilary Hahn last June and felt the absence of the robust interplay between soloists and orchestra here.

The middle movement, “Little River,” had more of the good stuff, especially a vein of hymnlike melody that flowed throughout (just like the title!). Higdon had the Tf3ers play glassy high harmonics eerily mimicked by tinkling bells in the orchestra, and the BSO’s winds came together with a fine choir sound over which to hear the long violin lines De Pue and Kendall essayed with sensitivity. But for crowd-pleasing value, nothing in Higdon’s concerto could touch Tf3’s encore, “Orange Blossom Special,” which borrowed unashamedly from the vernacular, playfully quoted other songs, buzzed with showoff virtuosity, and generally showed why Tf3 had a concerto written for them. Would that Higdon had given them less abstract music to play and got more from the backing band.

While Tf3’s violin lines coruscated and turned on dimes, the BSO strings played with the vagueness to which Alsop’s audiences must by now be accustomed. I have heard the BSO strings play with a degree of precision that Alsop simply seems disinclined to demand, preferring a warmer, more rounded sound, but she does not show enough flexibility in her preferences to make changes when warranted. “Time For Three With Strings” didn’t suffer too much simply because the strings weren’t doing anything interesting, but the three Brahms Hungarian Dances that opened the program simply didn’t have enough point to make a listener think of moving his or her body, and in Tchakovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which followed intermission, the third movement, which pips along mostly in pizzicato, foundered on indistinct plucking. I just don’t understand why Alsop doesn’t want that extra degree of precision (and I’m sure she has some reason for not wanting it).

That said, the rest of the Tchaikovsky Fourth hit pretty hard in terms of dramatic impact, from the massed horns intoning the stern Fate theme at the beginning of the work (and how absurd those horns would have sounded if there had not been an intermission after “Orange Blossom Special”!) to the even more massive outbursts of the finale. Alsop really had her Leonard Bernstein podium-jumpin’ mojo working on Thursday, and the BSO responded with just as much athleticism; even the most sentimental of the melodies (and those are pretty damn sentimental, in this work) had a kinetic quality that rescued them from becoming pure sap. (I loved the on-point, nicely present drumming punctuating the big melody of the first movement.) Alsop shaped the arguments and climaxes with attention to the whole span of the work, a task at which she has sometimes faltered in the past. Sometimes the symphonies following Alsop’s presentations of exciting modern works feel anticlimactic, but such was not the case here. If the orchestra had gotten to show these kind of chops when backing up Tf3, it might have been the concert of the year.

Other People’s Perspectives (hereinafter O.P.P.): Joe Banno, Charles T. Downey, Tim Smith, T.L. Ponick, Mike Unger


As Charles T. Downey noted in the review linked to above, Thursday was also Blogger Night at the BSO. This was a fun exercise in which we learned:

  • Blogging involves a lot of writing
  • It doesn’t pay
  • It sure is fun sometimes

That’s basically why I’m here. Thanks to Downey, Anne Midgette, and Tim Smith (who did not remember giving me pointers on writing reviews back in 2002, but he did anyway) for giving us their thoughts, and thanks to the BSO for providing the venue and free wine and munchies.

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