You know something unusual has happened when guys with mops are called in to swab the stage during intermission. It was a performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of Tan Dun’s mesmerizing “Water Concerto” at Strathmore on Saturday that left the puddles. The soloist was percussionist Christopher Lamb, who premiered the work in 1998 and who presided elegantly over two large, transparent bowl-shaped basins full of water, a huge cylinder of water and an arsenal of stuff to play with in the water — things such as brass disks that got dunked and bowed with regular violin bows; small tubes that got slapped; small floating bowls that got drummed on; a “waterphone” (a sort of bowl surmounted by brass rods that was alternately swung like a High-Church censer, bowed or hit); and, of course, hands that cupped, dribbled and slapped like a baby in a bathtub.
But if the visuals these offered were intriguing, the sounds were even more so. Cool high harmonics emerged with no evident attack and rang as they morphed into different resonances, the effects of instruments being more or less submerged. These were new sounds without the canned mechanical edge that digital technology has bestowed on us. They were gentle and offered a new repertoire not just of tones but also of attacks and releases.
The orchestra was party to this show, producing its own array of scratchings, sputterings and pops and playing on mouthpieces unattached to instruments, sliding around on strings and sometimes mimicking the percussion. Guest conductor John Storgards, who is principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and Canada’s National Arts Center Orchestra Ottawa, held things together well, and Dun’s reverence for the playful and wayward nature of water, sometimes gentle and sometimes fearsome, spoke eloquently.
The after-intermission feature was a big, blazing performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” introduced by the premiere of Libby Larsen’s “Earth,” written to add the planet to Holst’s seven-planet collection. Larsen’s “Earth” is romantically colorful and, as if viewed from space, its main theme, the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth,” glows in a gorgeous, almost preternatural, mist.