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The BSO and TF3: Time for Energy

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jennifer Higdon composed her "Concerto 4-3," which premiered in Philadelphia in 2008, to showcase the classical-bluegrass crossover ensemble Time for Three. The performance of the work on Saturday evening at Strathmore by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop's baton and featuring Time for Three, revealed a punchy, engaging work. Not a particularly deep or groundbreaking piece, it's essentially a hunk of feel-good, neo-romantic Americana by a composer with a sharp mind and a persuasive way with orchestral color. The concerto rightly focused, and took inspiration from, TF3's mix of virtuoso classical chops and high-octane bluegrass fiddling.

If an encore by the ensemble -- which consists of two violinists and a double-bass player, all of whom trained at the Curtis Institute of Music -- got an even bigger ovation than the well-received concerto, that wasn't Higdon's fault. Classical works based on so-called "vernacular music" (such as bluegrass) have a tendency to tame and formalize the wilder energy of their source material. (Take the three Hungarian Dances by Brahms that opened the program: Selected as folk-based parallels to the Higdon work, they proved more effective as vehicles for the BSO's elegant and sumptuous-sounding string section.) When Time for Three got a chance to play its own, more dressed-down material, the sheer dexterity, wit and rhythmic verve notched up the adrenaline level in the hall considerably.

Adrenaline was present, too, in Alsop's extroverted, expressively molded reading of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, and those BSO strings -- not to mention the notably eloquent brass and winds -- were again a delight to hear.

-- Joe Banno

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