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MSO opening night includes audience favorites/Review

October 20, 2003|by SCOTT BEARD

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra opened its 22nd season with a concert titled "American Impressions."

Ably led by Music Director Elizabeth Schulze, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Tom Marks, a member of the MSO's violin section, who died suddenly in May.

After a rousing rendition of the national anthem, Schulze and the MSO got down to business, opening the concert with one of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances.

These audience favorites, despite their familiarity, are quite difficult to perform. They are full of lightning-quick changes of mood and tonality, and reveal the more delicate side of the orchestra in solos, ensemble entrances and cutoffs. If the MSO wasn't always quite up to the task, Schulze, along with the brass and percussion sections, gave an energetic performance.


The program continued with what is perhaps American composer Charles Ives' most famous orchestral work, "Three Places in New England." Schulze's lengthy spoken remarks revealed a deep understanding of Ives' music and helped to impart a greater comprehension of this work to the MSO audience.

It truly is amazing that nearly 100 years after its composition and premiere, the music of Ives still sounds fresh and challenging.

It is admirable that Schulze, now well into her tenure with the MSO, is delving into more interesting works that challenge both the musicians and listeners. Perhaps programming an even more recently composed work might have spoken to even greater lengths about the state of American music in today's' world.

The MSO was on surer ground with the Ives piece, giving a finely-nuanced performance. Kudos to solos from most of the sections of the orchestra, including some deftly-turned figures on piano and celesta from Mary Beth Pearce, which added greatly to the musical fabric of the work. As always, it is a pleasure to see and hear the results of Schulze's sure musical leadership, characterized by clear gestures and an intensely expressive outlook.

The first half closed with Samuel Barber's setting of James Agee's narrative prose work, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber (a star at the Met in the 1940s and '50s), "Knoxville" is a veritable concerto for voice and orchestra.

In addition, Barber's expressive writing and sure feeling for the setting of the text is apparent throughout. Coming from the viewpoint of the child within, speaking of families on the lawn and on rocking chairs on front porches, soprano Leontyne Price (a famed singer of Barber's works) has said that it "simply smells of the South!"

While one would have hoped for a bit warmer sound in the string section, all in all, the orchestra met the challenge of Barber's intricate writing and accompanied ably with good attention to balance with the soloist.

Soprano Linda Hohenfeld gave an expressive performance of this intensely personal work, but seemed to have trouble at the high end of her range, often having a hard edge to the tone.

The MSO closed its opening concert with a passionate reading of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. This additional "Czech connection" to American made a fine bookend to a successful opening concert.

Scott Beard is coordinator of keyboard studies at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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