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The Baltimore Symphony's Space Adventure, Without the Cosmos

Saturday, September 20, 2008

It was clever of conductor Marin Alsop to open the Baltimore Symphony's program of "extraterrestrial" music at Meyerhoff Hall on Thursday with a work that depicts Earth ending in a fiery blaze. But "Brunnhilde's Immolation" -- the closing minutes from Wagner's 15-hour-long "Ring" cycle -- doesn't work so well without other music from the "Ring" to give it context. Here, Wagner's glorious writing came off as a tangle of heavy-breathing leitmotifs plopped down in an airless environment.

Making a more convincing landing was Michael Daugherty's 1999 percussion concerto "UFO" -- an ear-teasing amalgam of Saturday-morning cartoon music, '50s sci-fi soundtracks and spiky modernism that evokes Stravinsky and Varese. Played here with predictably jaw-dropping virtuosity by Evelyn Glennie (for whom it was written), the work alternates extended solos for xylophone, vibraphone and drum set with the alien whine of an instrument called the waterphone, and trippy sounds from a couple of dozen noisemaking toys. It proved as much fun to watch as to listen to.

It made sense to pair "UFO" with a work that could be its musical grandparent: Holst's "The Planets." But here, Alsop left the adventurous spirit of Daugherty's piece behind, and conducted a literal-minded reading more concerned with Elgarian stateliness than with sensual allure. Kudos to the musicians, though -- those strings are sounding truly splendid these days -- for using this showcase piece to really demonstrate their chops.

-- Joe Banno

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