Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, and John Adams: The teacher, the pupil, and the other guy. The Baltimore Symphony’s program Thursday night intrigued me enough to drag my behind up to Meyerhoff (it won’t be offered at Strathmore), but I thought that the BSO had missed a chance to program three related composers when they were already almost there.
It turns out that Scheherazade, the Firebird Suite, and Adams’ violin concerto do share something striking: They all drench the listener in novel instrumental colors, seducing and surprising by turns. And on Thursday, they shared something else: guest conductor Robert Spano led the BSO in bringing all those colors to extremely vivid life, in performances to remind you that sometimes you need to turn off the CD player and get to the concert hall, ’cause ain’t nothing like hearing the real thing, baby.
Spano has served as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director for nine years and has brought notable new repertoire to the ATL; I’ve just about worn out the bits on the Spano/ASO CD of Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra and CityScape. In Scheherazade, one of the more excruciatingly familiar of all the symphonic blockbusters, he showed his chops early, as the BSO violins perfectly articulated the rocking of the sea at a steady tempo, building the tension to build to an initial climax that genuinely surprised me, much as I knew it was coming. The woodwindy aftermath seemed to float up in the air, establishing the hallmarks of Thursday’s performance: excellent BSO playing, rock-solid rhythms, well-controlled tempos, and super-detailed attention to orchestral textures that let Rimsky’s colors glow and singe like you always wish they would.
Felicitous details abounded throughout. In the “Kalendar Prince” second movement, the wind solos effortlessly channeled the Middle Eastern instruments that inspired R-K. The strings rustled sensuously, plucked precisely, and made a rough, commanding noise when called for too. (Remember when I was complaining about Marin Alsop not getting really precise playing from the BSO strings? Thursday is Exhibit A that they can do it.) The brass snarled and cooed, the percussion came right on time, and all the various players sounded like a unit in service to Rimsky’s coloristic inspiration; notably, they and Spano found myriad purposeful gradations of “loud,” saving the biggest and baddest for the final movement’s depiction of a shipwreck.
If you wanted to nitpick, the playing was not 100 percent gold-plated note-perfect. Also, concertmaster Jonathan Carney approached his solo Scheherazading as more of a 19th-century virtuoso than as a desperate storytelling seductress talking through the violin. Not to say he didn’t play seductively; his high, lonely whisper in the work’s final pages made an appropriately gorgeous ending to a truly memorable performance.
Violinist Leila Josefowicz joined Spano and the BSO for Adams’ violin concerto after intermission. Josefowicz, according to the extremely helpful program note, has been the concerto’s primary advocate in concert halls. I, on the other hand, had never heard this concerto before, and while listening I wished I’d picked up a recording before coming to the concert hall, as I kept understanding what had happened without being able to predict what was going to happen.
Adams works in his minimalist vein, with cells of notes evolving slowly over time, but in his concerto the violin has a complex, sometimes problematic relationship with said cells and their evolution. In the first movement, which Adams, in an extremely awesome move, titled “First Movement,” Josefowicz even goes to war with the orchestra over what rhythm to play (4/4 vs. 3/4, respectively). That part sounds pretty brutal, with the violin gradually reduced to insistent stabs, but the music leading up to the climax sounds like a cloud gathering into a storm. Adams uses two synthesizers in the orchestra, and they spend all their time making blurry, gauzy sounds, removing whatever edge remained on already very gentle orchestration and allowing the sharp sound of Josefowicz’s solo violin to stand out, rhapsodizing above. It need hardly be said at this point that Spano and the BSO rendered said accompaniment with attention to detail and minute gradations of color.
Adams has fun with the idea of a chaconne in the second movement, titled “Body through which the dream flows,” starting with a repeated bass figure in traditional chaconne style but eventually moving it around and tweaking it ever so slightly in the minimalist manner. The violin (the dream) weaves and soars in and out of the softest possible textures (the body), which are punctuated only in the gentlest possible manner. I became obsessed with a bell that occasionally rang, waiting for it to ring, then forgetting about it for a few seconds during which it would invariably ring, then feeling that of course the bell rang there, because look what happened. A game of the most beautiful kind. Josefowicz got her virtuoso on in the third movement, a blowout Toccata that rocked appropriately hard and featured a violin-drum duel with a hilarious surprise ending.
A bunch of audience members left the Meyerhoff after Josefowicz left the stage; the Stravinsky didn’t start until 9:50. As your intrepid critic, I stayed, but I have to admit that after two really intense listening experiences, I didn’t have enough steam left for a third. I could hear Spano and the BSO doing neat stuff — a mesmerizing hush in the Firebird’s Dance and Variations, raucous offbeat thrusts in the Infernal Dance — but didn’t feel them psychologically. Still, better than not hearing Stravinsky at all, and what an evening overall. The best BSO concert I’ve been to in a long time.
HELL IS OTHER DRIVERS
I realize there is absolutely nothing the BSO can do about this, but everyone in the Cathedral Street Garage after the concert either drove like a giant jerk (cutting in line, trying to make two lanes where one is clearly intended, sending pedestrians scurrying like mice into corners for safety) or had to deal with the inconvenience posed by the giant jerks. Not much takes the shine off the ending of Firebird quicker, I found, than having some jackass in a Jaguar back, tires screeching, across your path when he sees a nanometer of daylight open up between cars. Reason #237 why I prefer public transportation, although there is of course no way I am going to take Amtrak and associated additional trains to and from Meyerhoff on a work night, thus getting home at 12:30 am if I got home at all.
I LIKE SCHEHERAZADE
As a composition of which I became enamored in high school, Scheherazade is extremely close to my heart. In fact, my main problem with hearing Scheherazade in the concert hall is that I want to punch the air repeatedly and jump around like a meth-addicted frog during the fourth movement, which is what I do when I am listening at home (to the Fritz Reiner recording; I’ve tried others). My secondary problem is that I want performances of Scheherazade to be nearly perfect or I walk out disproportionately dissatisfied, because no one can be disappointed as hard as high-schoolers can, and I totally revert whenever I listen to Scheherazade. It is my considered opinion that Thursday’s performance was nearly perfect.
O.P.P.: Tim Smith agreed with me. He even did a quickie review like I did earlier. (His full review is not up yet as I write this.)