Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Alsop in New York

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Time Release [New York premiere]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
The Firebird – 1919 Suite

Colin Currie (percussion)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Nick Romeo

Reviewed: 9 February, 2008
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Marin Alsop. Photograph: Kym ThompsonEven with no knowledge of the story depicted in Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, it’s easy to hear that this is music of capers and mischief. The descending tri-tone of the opening melody contains an impish slyness that promises further antics. Strauss presents a musical dramatization of colorful scenes in which Till Eulenspiegel, a peasant rogue from German folklore, rides about on a stolen horse, masquerades as a priest and pursues the obligatory love-affair, the music conveying a general feeling of adventure and picaresque folly, an acoustic illustration. Marin Alsop, though not as dramatic a conductor as Leonard Bernstein, her mentor, conveyed the music’s spirit with sudden hip thrusts and jazzy shoulder rolls. She deftly captured the playfulness of the music by emphasizing the sudden contrasts between fortissimo bluster and pianissimo squeaks and scurries.

Colin Currie. Photograph: Chris Dawes The New York premiere of Steven Mackey’s Time Release, a concerto composed for percussionist Colin Currie, offered a mesmerizing mélange of sounds and a convincing argument for the marimba as a virtuoso instrument. As Mackey explained in a pre-concert lecture, the marimba lacks a tradition of virtuoso concertos, which means its players are particularly willing to collaborate with composers and composers eager to explore its possibilities. Mackey’s concerto does both. The music consists of brief motifs rather than extended melodies, certain note-patterns translated into different registers and timbres or becoming increasingly complex. Most remarkable is the number of multiple styles incorporated into a coherent whole; Mackey, who teaches counterpoint at Princeton, described the music as a voyage through shifting musical topographies. Currie was capable of a masterly delineation of multiple melodic lines; certain passages are purely percussive and he moved from a drum-kit to the marimba, as if to suggest the evolution from pure percussion to an instrument with pitch.

The sinuous chromatic descent from a C sharp to a G at the opening of Debussy’s Faune sets an atmosphere of a lush sensuality. The harp glissando that follows emerges from the texture of the orchestra like gusts of wind; the soundscape conjures a natural world, an afternoon dream of heat and lust. Alsop guided the Baltimore Symphony musicians through the shimmering textures with grace and sensitivity.

The program finished with the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The broad movement of the Firebird is from the calm to the savage and back to the serene. The orchestra rendered this journey perfectly. After the peace of the beginning they hit the sudden syncopation with the required explosive energy; the final section of the Suite was played with wistful beauty, combining a sense of peace with a sense of loss, as if to say that any rebirth entails an eventual death.

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