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New Christopher Rouse Piece Highlights a Bravura BSO Program

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/26/2008

Christopher Rouse, Concerto for Orchestra

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Nov. 23

Marin Alsop's ambitious resurrection of Leonard Bernstein's Mass deserved all the media attention it received. When she guided her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra through full-evening performances in Baltimore and Manhattan, Alsop made a persuasive case that the considerable strengths of Bernstein's sprawling pastiche outweighed its undeniable flaws. This past weekend Alsop and the BSO accomplished something just as important, even if it got far less attention: the East Coast premiere of Christopher Rouse's Concerto for Orchestra.

Rouse's instrumental work may be less showy than Bernstein's vocal extravaganza, but it's a more consistent and satisfying piece of music. A concerto for orchestra is usually a way to showcase several different soloists in an ensemble, but Rouse--a native and once-again resident of Baltimore--is after something more than mere virtuosity. By pitting a variety of lone voices against the looming weight of the orchestra as a whole, he manages to evoke with great power the push-and-pull between the individual and society.

Last Sunday, Alsop stood on the podium in her pink-lined black suit and kicked off the concerto's ferocious beginning as stuttering trumpets strained against nervously twitching violins, conjuring up music that was fast, urban, and dissonant. Dissonance, the 20th century's great gift to music, is the echo of competing voices--the sound of democracy. Unlike the monarchial sound of older classical music, where strict order is imposed from above, this democratic sound bubbles up, clashing and crashing from below, daring the composer to pull some order out of seeming chaos. If he or she can't, the music disintegrates into mere noise, the sound of anarchy. But Rouse has risen to the challenge and discovered the harmonic convergences, the rhythmic patterns, the democratic alliances among the thrashing percussion, babbling woodwinds, and murmuring strings.

The fast opening section twice slowed down for short lulls, reflective respites before the jostling resumes. The concerto's long middle section, though, took its cue from those lulls, not only in its weary tempo, but also in its melancholy mood. The fragmentary melodies of the lulls were expanded into longer lines of great yearning. One by one various musicians took short solos, producing jaunty, optimistic tunes, but those solos were pitted against a dark undercurrent of unresolved chord progressions, droning reeds and jittery strings. As soon as one soloist was pulled into the undertow, another stepped forward to proclaim another variation on the bubbly theme.

By the time the fast, urban theme returned for the final, shorter movement, Rouse and Alsop had turned the give-and-take between soloist and ensemble, between section and section, into a genuine drama and into a grand musical structure. It's not that they pitted harmony against dissonance so much as they subsumed the clashing phrases within the greater scheme--much as democracy does when it works.

Alsop is at her best when she pairs new works with old, suggesting parallels and continuities across the centuries. This past weekend she sandwiched Rouse's 2008 concerto between Bach's 1721 Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky's 1893 Sixth Symphony ("Pathétique").

The Brandenburg is scored for just 11 musicians, but on Sunday there was a 12th--Alsop herself, playing violin next to concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The four violinists, three violists, and one bassist stood on either side of the harpsichordist and three cellists, and they tossed around Bach's muscular theme one to another in much the same way Rouse would circulate his themes around the orchestra. It was quite refreshing to see the BSO break down into a smaller subset of itself to tackle more intimate repertoire--it's something it should do more often. And it was a treat to hear Alsop playing as well as conducting.

The afternoon ended with the "Pathétique," which had its premiere just eight days before Tchaikovsky's death. Though it's the inverse of Rouse's structure--two slow movements flank a boisterous middle instead of the other way around--Tchaikovsky's symphony contrasts action and reflection, optimism and melancholy in much the same way Rouse's concerto does. The final movement of the "Pathétique" offers some of the most heartbreaking harmony you'll ever hear. Alsop has sometimes been criticized for a want of tonal color in her conducting, but in this movement, she coaxed rich veins of world weariness from her orchestra, a sound that both echoed Rouse's middle movement and built upon it.

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