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The Baltimore Sun

Concertos New and Old
Generate Lots of Energy
There was enough power at the Peabody performance
Tuesday to keep California going for awhile.
February 2001


Music from out in left field overpowered Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall Tuesday evening, starting with a bit of Beethoven.

Yes, Beethoven. His "Grosse Fuge" seemed downright radical when it was new; parts of it still sound remarkably modern. Same for Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which has lost none of its revolutionary punch since 1913.

And just about anything Philip Glass writes is way off the conventional path; his new "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra" is novel enough in terms of structure; timpani concertos are about as rare as profound Britney Spears songs. But it's also unusual in that it doesn't always conform to expectations about Glass' trademark brand of minimalism.

All of this in-your-ear stuff had the musicians energized and the large audience riled up, too.

The main draw was the Glass piece, partly commissioned by Peabody Conservatory. It places the timpani - 14 of them - front and center, both physically (on the edge of the stage) and musically. Getting melodic lines out of kettle drums is a pretty neat trick; Glass carries it off quite effectively. Treating the timpani as more than rhythm-propellants prevents the concerto from slipping into a merely rowdy exercise and allows for considerable aural interest. More than that, it's just plain fun.

Snooty types have long laughed at the composer's work, while he has laughed his way to the bank. But Glass is not necessarily known for humor in his music. This concerto, though, seems to have a smile behind the notes. The music is constantly shifting gears and directions; there is surprisingly little in the way of Glass' familiar, oscillating chord patterns.

The opening motif - think of the "Mission: Impossible" theme's driving beat - is simple, but wonderfully invigorating, and its periodic return throughout the concerto provides a tensile thread. The whole first movement rocks with a seemingly spontaneous, dangerously unregulated energy. When it finally reaches the last bar, it's as if a heart-pounding amusement ride suddenly stopped dead, right after the biggest thrill.

The slow movement simmers rather uneventfully until the close, when the orchestra's percussion battery takes up a colorful, imaginative dialogue with the timpanists, who launch into a frenetic and playful, anything-you-can-drum-I-can-drum-louder-and-faster duel.

The finale gets things pulsating wildly again, as the timpani hammer away and the orchestra pumps out happy music that suggests a crazy dash of Gershwin and early rock 'n' roll.

Jonathan Haas, the noted percussion virtuoso who asked Glass to write the concerto, and Svetoslav Stoyanov, an extraordinary Peabody student with a bright future, brought a combination of dazzle, grace and total assurance to the demanding solo parts. The Peabody Symphony Orchestra, energetically led by Hajime Teri Murai, held on tight as the concerto spun its wild course.

Glass might want to rethink some of the orchestration; the timpani easily drowned out the ensemble. I kept wishing the strings could play everything an octave higher so they might have a better chance of slicing through the thunder of all those drums.

Murai's approach to Beethoven's complex, fierce "Grosse Fuge" (arranged for string orchestra) was a little too hard-edged at times, but he caught the work's bold stretch to the edge of traditional form and tonality. A few coordination slips aside, the players delivered the music tellingly.

In Stravinsky's daunting score, those strings were a little too polite articulating the slashing chords in the second scene, and the woodwinds and brass had some iffy moments elsewhere. But, for the most part, under Murai's attentive direction, the performance was admirably taut and potent.

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