BSO showcases Kevin Puts, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and itself

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is wrapping up its 2011-12 season in extraordinary fashion with a program rich in musical substance -- and some good old-fashioned, over-the-top entertainment value.

The big news is the local premiere of Symphony No. 4 by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Conservatory faculty member who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music. The BSO has featured his work a few times before, but shorter pieces. It was rewarding to get a substantive dose this time.

The Fourth Symphony, from 2007, has an intriguing origin.

Subtitled "From Mission San Juan," it was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, headed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, and intended to honor a patron's ailing wife. Written expressly for performance in the San Juan Bautista Mission, the music is loosely based on songs of the Mutsun people who were there before the Spanish came.

It is easy to savor this lushly lyrical work without knowing any of that background, for Puts writes in such a clear-cut, instantly engaging manner, and organizes his thoughts into such sturdy structures.

The symphony offers quite an atmospheric experience. It is perhaps too cliched to talk about a journey, but that's what the work suggests, a sometimes bittersweet journey at that, but one where darkness is satisfyingly swept aside by a palpable radiance in the end.

The composer's mastery of orchestration is revealed at every step of the way, especially his ability to produce glittering effects.

The Prelude opens in mist, with ...

a plaintive theme emerging in a deliberately blurry manner (Puts intended to capitalize here on the mission's reverberation); it's as if memories are being slowly jogged. Low brass chords of Wagnerian portent flash out along the way, a contrast to Vaughan Williams-like lushness from the strings.

The narrative shifts gears in the second movement, with the arrival of folk dance rhythms and piquant instrumental coloring, evoking Mutsun culture. The way the increasingly lively material is eventually challenged by a stately hymn tune suggests that the pagans are determined to get one more good romp in before the missionaries clamp down.

The symphony then turns ruminative in an Interlude, with reflections on themes from the opening. A gradual increase in tension leads into a striking passage of turbulence that finds the strings practically screaming against an assault of brass.

This provides the set-up for a striking contrast, "Healing Song," which brings with it a genuine OMG moment.

Puts offers here a long, darkly beautiful melody that starts in a low register and keeps winding around the first note -- it's Rachmaninoff-meets-Native American, and it's incredibly stirring. Maybe even healing. This music sure does sound like it would be good for whatever ails you.

Alsop, who conducted the premiere of the symphony at Cabrillo, led an absorbing performance with the BSO Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall. Reflective passages were spaciously shaped; the second movement's burst of energy crackled nicely. The orchestra responded with playing of considerable expressive weight.

(Harmonia Mundi is recording the Puts symphony during these concerts. Alsop's request that the audience pause a couple seconds before applauding at the end, so the producers could get a clean take, when unheeded Thursday.)

The remainder of the program is devoted to chestnuts, each given a memorable performance.

Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto provides an opportunity to be reminded of just how out-in-left-field Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg can be.

During the orchestral introduction, the violinist suggested an anxious batter waiting for the pitch, rolling her shoulders and  shifting her feet before playing her first notes in the concerto. And what notes they were.

Salerno-Sonnenberg has always been a provocative musician, unafraid to twist a melody this way and that, to rush or slow a tempo as the mood strikes. Volatility is her strength (those who can't stand artistic license would call it her failing).

She milked the opening solo for all it was worth, making everyone wait for the orchestra to come back in -- just the first of the exaggerated effects. She proceeded through that movement with an abundance of slides, enough for a dozen fiddlers, and no end of phrase-bending before stretching out the cadenza to a glacial pace.

All of this is quite normal for Salerno-Sonnenberg. There's a sense of danger when she plays -- will she go too far? will she leave conductor and orchestra in the dust? -- and that's something you just don't find every day in the concert hall.

You don't see a standing ovation every day after the first movement of a concerto, either, and you shouldn't. But you also couldn't blame all the folks who jumped up Thursday night at the wrong time. It must have seemed like a whole concerto had been played, since so much wild, eventful stuff had happened.

The violinist yelled out, "Sorry, but the piece isn't over," and got back to business, delivering a rapt account of the Canzonetta and then tearing into the finale at a ferocious clip.

From her pianissimos of startling refinement and sweetness to her brutal slashes of the bow, Salerno-Sonnenberg made Tchaikovsky's well-worn concerto sound wildly new, even radical. (The way the violinist's hair covered up so much of her face as she played, making her look rather like Cousin Itt from "The Addams Family," only added to the unconventional effect.)

I wouldn't want to hear the piece played this way all the time, but there should always be a place for artists who want to choose their own path. Alsop, who had no apparent difficulty going along with the violinist, drew taut, vivid work from the BSO.

Stravinksy's "The Rite of Spring" closed the concert. All season long, it has been possible to sense a strengthening of the musical rapport between Alsop and the players. Thursday's performance was the most compelling evidence yet.

The confidence and virtuosity from the podium and the stands alike came through with each quick shift of tempo or dynamics. But this was much more than a case of technical precision.

There was visceral passion in this performance, a sense of spontaneity and just plain enjoyment emanating from the stage. An extra intensity in the articulation, an extra kick behind the phrasing helped make the score sound freshly revolutionary and primordial.