Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s co-commissioned ‘Sidereus’

June 3, 2011

Perhaps it was simply the power of suggestion that brought to mind Gustav Holst’s thrice-familiar score, “The Planets,” as I listened to Osvaldo Golijov’s new piece, “Sidereus,” under Marin Alsop’s baton at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Strathmore Hall on Thursday. After all, “Sidereus” is inspired by Galileo’s ruminations on our moon and the motions of the celestial bodies in our solar system, and ever since “The Planets” premiered early in the last century, listeners have been hard-wired to hear any space-based music in the context of Holst’s mightily influential score.

“Sidereus,” which was co-commissioned by a consortium of 35 orchestras, including the BSO (clever thinking in financially strapped times), certainly evokes parts of “The Planets” in, say, the noble questing of its brass writing or its impressionistic washes of skittering strings and burbling winds. But Golijov also plays with swatches of Steve Reich-ian minimalism and subtly touches in Latin syncopations that give the piece a flavor all its own. Regardless of any programmatic content, “Sidereus” is yet another example of Golijov’s seductive way with melody, and the instant accessibility of his style. The orchestra played this new music with an ease and eloquence that would suggest a work that’s been in their repertoire for years.

It was fitting, as the official season draws to a close, for Alsop to pay tribute to the BSO’s consistently fine level of playing by programming Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” to show off her musicians an extra little bit. They delivered the piece, in a notably affectionate and molded reading from Alsop, with tremendous refinement and roundness of tone, impressing as much with their hushed playing as they did in the big, grandstanding moments.

Alsop, through her successful recordings of the Brahms symphonies, has marked herself as a perceptive, warmly communicative Brahmsian. She did a fine job of balancing bluster and rhapsody in the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 to close the program, drawing spirited (and often swooningly lovely) playing from the orchestra.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, who has also found notable success with Brahms in the recording studio, was in typical form as soloist: rigorous, classically poised and apt to phrase the composer’s subtler material like the fine chamber musician he is. One might look elsewhere for fire-breathing power, philosophical deconstruction or rarefied poetry. But few pianists play Brahms with such undemonstrative command and unvarnished honesty.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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