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Piano Magic

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Percussionist Sean Meehan and saxophonist Joe McPhee provided some of the High Zero fest's highlights.

By Josephine Yun | Posted 12/4/2002

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Nov. 17

2002-12-04-feedback2

If you saw the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall bouncing in the rain like a caffeinated UFO a couple of Sundays ago, be surprised, but not alarmed. It was indicative of what the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was doing inside. The program could brag of two favorites in the classical repertoire, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor") and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which were preceded by Network, a (very) new piece by 30-year-old composer Kevin Puts.

Percussionists had a field day. Network was a six-minute minimalist eyeopener that felt like the blinking lights of an Internet hub and sounded like stop-motion rush hour. Crisp, brassy fanfares and a variety of percussion instruments (marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks) were neatly mesmerizing yet invigorating in their layers of simple melodies and polyrhythms. Looking at the orchestra, it was clear who was having fun with Network and who wasn't. Percussion, winds, brass, and the lower strings dug it. The concertmaster, by default, loved it. But the violins behind him seemed less enthused, cramping the piece's full potential. Still, Network was less a melodramatic quickie than a sincere composition, and the audience seemed to appreciate it. The piece was like a swig of java before lunch.

Beethoven was lunch. The overwhelming majority of the piece's energy came from 20-year-old soloist Lang Lang, who reminded everyone that the piano is definitely a percussion instrument. His straight-fingered attack on the keys caused notes to explode without banging. Lang convulsed, electrocuted over chords, octaves, and arpeggios, then pulled back, arms extended, letting just his fingers play sweet chorales. An innocent superficiality underlaid his stance in the softer parts; though he played them well, it was the next round of superchords to itch for. The piece's anti-cadenza in particular was a trip--in the seconds he played it, Lang's hands dissolved in an impossible blur.

Conductor Yuri Temirkanov exuded a remarkable tenderness conducting in the warm, slow second movement. But there were times when orchestra and piano weren't together; the pizzicato wasn't as tight or together as it could have been. In the galloping, waltzy third movement, the violins initially dragged, holding Lang back, but he plowed through anyway, ending with the same steely strength he started with, carrying the orchestra with him.

After intermission, a husky, hushed bassoon opened Rite of Spring. In "Dances of the Young Girls," the lower strings accented a guttural, pagan groove before the brass swelled, embellished with ethereal bells. "Spring Round Dances" featured clarinets teasing each other, before Temirkanov cued a bass drum that went straight to the stomach, accompanied by heavy, circling strings. "Ritual of the Rival Tribes" featured brass and timpani in a crazily rhythmic duel. The triumphant "Dance of the Earth," seared with flaring cymbal, scurrying strings, and urgent brass, crescendoed to a pause.

Eerie, dissonant strings and winds began "The Sacrifice," followed by haunting harmonics from the violins. Throbbing bass drum and timpani were thrown against dark strings, flailing flute, and flutter-tongued trumpet. The final "Sacrificial Dance" pulsed, push-pulling with profane brass, warning strings, and ominous timpani. The flute let out one last flutter, then shrieked before the final blow.

There could have been more space and dynamic contrast in this rendition, but the percussion, winds, and brass were unnaturally fantastic. The extra push that often goes with last performances was missing from the violins--they could have been cleaner, more biting--but everyone else had a good time. Overall, it was a refreshing, enjoyable evening worth along bopping to.

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