Since taking the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 10 years ago, music director Marin Alsop has continued to champion contemporary composers and their creations. By commissioning new works and performing them regularly, the maestra has also cultivated an audience that is growing more open to modern compositions. Still, devoting an entire program to new contemporary music and billing it as such can be risky business. Fortunately for Alsop, her followers are both many and devoted, and it was gratifying to see them turn out in solid numbers Saturday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for the BSO’s inaugural New Music Festival.
For the second concert of the two-evening initiative, Alsop programmed four works written within the past two years, with only one that had been previously performed by the BSO. Together the compositions represented a cross-section of new music’s characteristics, and the orchestra presented them in the purest way possible, parsing and dissecting the musical elements as they would for any traditional classical work.
Commissioned by the BSO, Syrian American composer Malek Jandali’s “The Silent Ocean” found a rapt audience at its world premiere. The 17-minute symphonic poem for orchestra depicts the story of a little girl who escapes her war-torn home in Aleppo, Syria, and embarks a small boat, taking nothing but memories of a bedtime melody sung by her grandfather. Above the pulsating bass drum and timpani, the BSO created a Mediterranean soundscape, with strings undulating as woodwinds and brass took turns in cascading runs and melodies that evoked the wind and wisps of a remembered tune. A dissonant chord marked a tragic turn of events before a final English horn refrain gave way to a plaintive but hopeful cello solo.
Two works by Polish composer Agata Zubel received their East Coast premieres: “Chapter 13” (based on an excerpt from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, “The Little Prince”) and “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear.” For the former, Zubel herself joined nine BSO musicians onstage to perform the 10-minute composition. As she sang the roles of the Prince and the businessman in English, the assorted ensemble of violin, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass, piano and percussion buzzed, fluttered, tapped and punctuated Zubel’s vocal lines in kind. Those sorts of noises continued in Zubel’s latter work, a nearly 20-minute orchestral composition where BSO musicians could be seen rubbing and plucking strings or blowing air through mouthpieces when they weren’t spattering dissonant chords or racing in tandem through chromatic scales a half-step apart. The two pieces paired well but were a tough, if fascinating, listen back to back.
A previous BSO co-commissioned work — “The City,” written by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts — closed out the night and bookended the concert on a more harmonious note. Set to a film by James Bartolomeo, the composition celebrates Baltimore and its history. For this performance, the BSO played with reverence and assurance, thundering through the drum riffs and industrial hissing of cymbals to revel in the warmer sonorities and melodic passages.