Baltimore Symphony gives John Adams concerto its first U.S. performance


US Navy Band Sea Chanters Chorus. (Courtesy of BSO)
September 22, 2013

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave a bang-up start to its subscription concert season at the Meyerhoff Hall on Friday night. Mainly, it offered the excitement of the new: the American premiere of a significant saxophone concerto by John Adams, arguably the orchestra world’s leading living composer. But the concerto was framed by war horses — Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” — that came pounding out of the gate, bristling with energy.

The BSO already had plenty to be happy about. Last week, it ratified a new three-year contract with its musicians, a significant gesture of successful collaborative work at a time when the orchestra world is watching the Minnesota Orchestra’s acrimonious year-long lockout of its musicians drag on. In recent years, the BSO musicians agreed to voluntary salary cuts; by the end of 2016, their base pay will be nearly back to 2009 levels. They’ll also be playing a new Sunday afternoon concert series at Strathmore, a boon to local audience members who prefer not to go out at night.

Marin Alsop, meanwhile, was fresh off a burst of publicity after breaking yet another gender barrier that never should have existed when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a traditional highlight on the British concert calendar, earlier this month.

All of this seemed to be reflected in the oomph of “Scheherazade,” in which the spasmodic repeated theme kept landing with the intensity of blows from a fist — perhaps a little more heavily than the piece actually warrants, but with an unmistakable ardor that was far more engaging than not. And the solo playing from the orchestra members was uniformly fine, led by the singing tone of concertmaster Jonathan Carney, which well represents the orchestra and its performance: a great sound sometimes pulled a bit awry by a tendency to exaggerate.

Adams is fond of staking new territory, be it an opera about Richard Nixon or a concerto for electric violin. With this concerto, which was co-commissioned by four orchestras and had its world premiere with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last month, he has contributed to a slender literature of classical saxophone works with a big, meaty, half-hour-long piece that combines the composer’s characteristic surface brilliance with a welcome authority.

Certainly this is a virtuosic piece, designed to test the limits of the soloist for whom it was written, Tim McAllister, who showed his technical chops and his expressive musicianship with a piece that had his instrument now noodling thoughtfully, now dashing in crazy, frenetic runs up and down the scale, a hallmark of the first movement. But rather than being merely driven, Adams also drew back and gave the music room to breathe, letting the runs subside into, for instance, a gentle, humid rocking in the orchestra while McAllister mused quasi-improvisationally above them.

Like many concertos written for instruments not generally associated with the symphony orchestra, this one involved a dialogue of styles and timbres; when McAllister and the orchestra passed phrases back and forth, there was a slight overtone of cultural exchange. Jazz was evoked rather than reproduced; Adams grew up conversant in the jazz idiom and often draws on nonclassical references, but his music is very much classical, informed by the knowledge of other styles rather than emulating them. Labels, however, are immaterial; this is a nice, expansive piece in a mode that, for Adams, can be described as positively relaxed.

It was an evening of good beginnings: The “1812 Overture” opened with absolutely stunning singing from the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, although in their later entrances there seemed to be some problems with coordination at the entrance.

Refreshingly, Alsop limited her onstage comments to the national anthem — played in a new arrangement by John Stafford Smith, a sort of illustrative tone poem sending up evocations of sea air and dawn and battle around the familiar melody — and the Tchaikovsky, rather than talking explicitly about the new work on the program; a refreshing if subtle signal that new music needed no special handling or introduction. “I’m not sure how John’s piece fits in,” she quipped before plunging into the Tchaikovsky, “but I’m sure we’ll find the connection.” You could posit a theme of Americana, because the “1812 Overture” has been adopted here as a patriotic, Fourth of July staple and Adams is a quintessentially American composer. But no larger theme was really needed than the idea of good, energetic starts, and — in the case of both Adams’s madcap final movement and Tchaikovsky’s cannons — fireworks at the finish.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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