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MSO colorless at times in recent concert

November 14, 1999

On Saturday evening, Nov. 13, the Maryland Symphony presented its second subscription concert under the musical direction of new conductor Elizabeth Schulze. A large, appreciative, occasionally patient audience listened intently to three compositions that, while different in style, were closely related by the presentation of programmatic content throughout each individual piece.

The Mendelssohn overture, "Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage," was based on two related poems of Goethe, for example, while the Christopher Rouse Flute Concerto was Irish-influenced, and the final Edward Elgar "Enigma Variations" had an elaborate program for each section, as portraits of personalities he personally knew.

When dealing with an abstract medium such as musical composition, the problem of describing sounds as illustrative of any but the most general portrayal of universal qualities, common to all ears that can comprehend the language presented, is enormous.

I can never truly know any of the personalities Elgar presented, any more than I can know the acrobats of Picasso, or the society lionesses of John Singer Sargent. Both the visual and musical portraits presented can actually have nothing to do with a real person, but can only abstract the perception and emotion with which we can sympathize as an audience. Therefore the emotion with which the orchestra performs must convey an intensity not observed by surface reflections, but drawn from the depths of expression.

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If the entire evening had conveyed this emotional depth, as did the Nimrod Variation of the Elgar, the concert would have been extraordinary. If the entire ensemble had seemed as one with the conductor in interpretation as did this Variation, which is, after all, one of the great moments ever written for orchestra, the entire evening could have been transcendent. Even so, the orchestra played with genuine commitment in a true effort to communicate the soul and seriousness of the repertoire. Maestro Schulze entirely conveys the intensity of the music through her efficient, yet impassioned podium technique.

The Mendelssohn Overture is a relatively weak piece of program music, somewhat like Victorian English watercolors of the seashore. This music has none of the distinction of the Midsummer-Night's Dream Overture written three years earlier than this work. It certainly is a limp depiction of the Goethe texts upon which it is based, which Beethoven had earlier set in a much more illustrative and beautiful version for choir and orchestra.

This does not, however, excuse the colorless sound quality of the orchestra in this piece. If the Elgar can sound inspiring, what happened in this piece? Once the concert starts, all performers should be present - inspirationally speaking - accountable and in tune.

The Rouse Flute Concerto presented the soloist Carol Wincenc performing in a composition commissioned by, and written for, her. Rouse, a native of Baltimore, and a member of the Rouse family which revolutionized urban development in Columbia, Md., now teaches at Eastman and is considered one of the foremost American contemporary composers.

As mentioned before, the concerto is essentially Irish in conception. Both Wincenc and the orchestra performed beautifully, Wincenc with the assurance that comes with fluent knowledge of the musical language, and the orchestra with an impressive technical command of a difficult language.

The Concerto has some impressive sections, including a truly elevating harmonic section in the slow movement, but too often it seemed aimless to this listener. This was where the audience was patient.

The Maryland Symphony is a great cultural asset and potential source of inspiration. I look forward to cheering at the next concert.

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