Performing arts: The Baltimore Symphony, Conrad Tao, the BBC Concert Orchestra

Monday, November 8, 2010


Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop has always thought deeply about how to engage today's classical music audience, an elusive moving target. As school music programs are either cut or reoriented toward other genres, today's concertgoers come with the hunger to learn, perhaps, but also trepidation.

Alsop's "Off the Cuff" series, begun with her tenure in Baltimore and now added to the BSO's offerings at the Music Center at Strathmore, seeks to draw listeners into a composer's world by enfolding the music within a presentation of drama, projections and narration.

On Friday evening, the first offering in the series was "Analyze This: Mahler and Freud," an imagined dramatization of a four-hour meeting and psychoanalytic session between the two titans the year before Mahler died in 1911. Freud made no notes of the session, and there are only indirect and cryptic mentions in a few letters of Mahler and his wife, Alma. Thus, dramatist Didi Balle had a blank canvas upon which to paint.

She sketched several short scenes, played by three actors. Kristina Lewis, as Alma, also sang a song from "Kindertotenlieder" and a song by Alma herself. The action was performed at the front of the stage, with the orchestra behind; on a large screen just above the musicians were projections of the actual characters, as well as scores, texts and other images.

Presiding over everything was Alsop, who tied together the scenes and musical excerpts with her own narrative and musical analysis. One could certainly quibble with much of what was presented. The connections between the dialogue and the musical examples were a bit strained, and Alsop could spend inordinate amounts of time discussing and demonstrating minutiae (using odd percussion instruments at fleeting moments doesn't make someone a genius). But as an exercise in drawing listeners deeper into a composer's world and engendering increased interest, this series is well thought out and worthwhile. Future presentations include explorations of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schumann.

-- Robert Battey


Conrad Tao, pianist

Conrad Tao, wunderkind composer/pianist (he's apparently a mean violinist, too) was the featured entertainment at a lavish event at the Chinese Embassy on Saturday evening. The 16-year-old's brief performance was part of a program that included cocktails, speeches (the music began about 15 minutes late), fancy buffet and photo ops.

The music itself was difficult to enjoy. Although many embassies offer occasional concerts, few have acoustically decent spaces, and the opulent Pei-designed complex in upper Northwest isn't among them. A fully carpeted floor and low ceiling drained the sound of any resonance or color, and softer passages had to compete with the room's noisy air-handling system. How the adolescent artist kept his concentration with the embassy's several cameramen clicking (some with flash) as he played is a mystery to me. It was certainly an irritation to those in the audience.

Tao, though, is indeed a remarkably gifted young man. After opening with three Debussy preludes, he gave the premiere of his own "Three Songs" -- well-constructed miniatures exploiting different moods and textures on the piano. The juxtaposition was admirable; Tao made no bones about concealing his influences, with Debussy first and foremost in addition to conservative Americans like William Schuman and David Diamond. But influences aside, his compositional voice is not "derivative" at all; you can discern a clear, fresh imagination, and with more development and study he could be an important composer someday.

As a pianist, Tao is also mature beyond his years. His platform demeanor is unself-conscious and totally focused on the music. While his technique is formidable, it too is still developing; there were some struggles (though no missed notes) in Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," and the pulse was sometimes lumpy in Chopin's "Barcarolle." His sound is not always centered; excessive arm movements sometimes made for uneven musical lines. But this was unquestionably a prodigious talent on display.

-- Robert Battey

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