The opening kettledrum volleys in Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," played by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra Friday night at a volume better suited for a concert hall than the National Presbyterian Church, snapped the audience to attention. Starting off with a bang made perfect sense. This was, after all, a gala preview of what the Soviets will be hearing in the upcoming weeks -- music by American composers -- when Baltimore's Peabody players become cultural ambassadors as the first American conservatory orchestra to visit the Soviet Union in decades.
If this performance is any indication, the Soviets are in for an earful. Selected works by Copland, Ives, Barber and Harris, while stylistically different from one another, all have a distinctly American flavor -- they break ties with 19th-century European traditions by proudly asserting their individuality. "Three Poems of Fiona McLeod" by Charles Tomlinson Griffes was the exception, steeped as it is in the impressionist world.
Conductor Edward Polochick proved a decisive podium force, with thoughtful conceptions of how to approach these pieces. The orchestra responded favorably, even under great pressure. There are chaotic moments in the second movement of Ives' "Three Places in New England" when the orchestral fabric threatens to unravel completely. Polochick seemed on the brink of losing control here, but rallied his attentive forces and avoided serious problems.
Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson participated in "Three Poems of Fiona McLeod," which also featured outstanding contributions from the Peabody winds, and Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," whose prose-poetry text gave her strong voice more expressive flexibility. In her encore, she also spotlighted a moderately well known American composer overlooked in the program: George Gershwin. A lovely rendition of "Summertime" took care of that.