Dwarf Star: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, October 2, 2009
I have often maintained that the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra is the best student symphony in the DMV, even if we correct for my bias as a U-MD alumnus. (Excuse me for a minute: M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win! OK, that’s better.) James Ross, the UMSO’s music director, certainly programs for a collection of students playing at a professional level; the first program of the 2009-10 school year (I mean, season) featured three works that would tax any ensemble, one of which doesn’t come before audiences much and is big fun whenever it does.
Actually, let’s start with that work: Christopher Rouse’s “Der gerettete Alberich,” for percussion and orchestra, which involved so many instruments the stage of the Dekelboum Concert Hall could barely hold them. I wrote this about “Alberich” in 2004, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to think of a new way to introduce the piece:
What happens to Alberich? After all, Richard Wagner never reveals the fate of the dwarf whose offense at the beginning of “The Ring of the Nibelungen” leads to 15 hours of opera and the eventual death of the gods.
Christopher Rouse has filled this dramatic hole with a fantasy for solo percussion and orchestra, “Der gerettete Alberich” (“Alberich Saved”), in which the dwarf, represented by a vast array of percussion instruments, contends with motives derived (or deformed) from Wagner’s music.
In most performances, one person with superhuman recall and endurance plays all the percussion; in this one, three men, Tim McKay, Lee Hinkle and Daniel Villanueva, split the duties. It didn’t result in any dramatic discontinuities, as Alberich’s early skulking and scurrying on an array of scrapers and drums came off well, although said percussing occasionally outbalanced the orchestra in this performance. Bare string chords, hanging serene and static until Rouse finds their unpredictable successors, make up the middle section of the work, and the UMSO strings responded with clean, clear, lovely playing; they made a hypnotic bed for the xylophone plinks that, one fancies, find Alberich in a dark, warm cave, scurrying among stalactites and finding occasional rivulets. Ross shaped the couple of climaxes in this section well before Rouse broke it open with some riotous skins-thumping on a rock drum kit, after which orchestra and percussionists rode hard to an exciting finish (plus Rouse’s funny little pendant at the end). This piece demands a lot from everyone involved, and the UMSO met all its challenges.
Music director Ross also spends a lot of time thinking about how to present symphonic music, and he tried some tricks when opening this program, presenting only two movements from Mozart’s “Linz” symphony (No. 36, C major) and having everyone except the cellists stand, both of which orchestras did routinely back in Mozart’s day. The symphony’s first movement reminded one of how hard it is to play Mozart really well; the strings sloshed around the melodic line just a little bit in Mozart’s grand statements, enough to make their sound blustery rather than massive. The tauter music of the finale inspired tauter playing from the strings, and the winds and horns matched it. Throughout, the orchestra played with a great deal of energy and a sense that this was anything but a routine performance, which means Ross got what he wanted.
I brought a classical music novice to this concert and, just after intermission, told her that the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra that was soon to follow would be tremendous fun. Afterward, she agreed with my prediction, because at some level it is impossible not to enjoy the Concerto for Orchestra, particularly when Ross kept the rhythms snapping and the energy level high. Meanwhile, I had mentally catalogued a lengthy list of flaws in the performance (off-beat trumpets, squawking horns, winds not playing their second-movement duets tightly, brass playing notes not in the score, strings screeching, messy unisons on big downbeats, etc.) and had lost my personal feeling of momentum every time something infelicitous happened. I am not sure who was being the better listener here. But Ross and the orchestra have the entire school year left to work it out.