Orchestra 2001 in a finale with substance

Posted: May 25, 2010

Though Samuel Barber's music was long considered a glorious postscript to a bygone era, his sweet-and-sour lyricism was the frequent starting point at Orchestra 2001's season finale last weekend. The particularly substantial 2 1/2-hour program - well prepared under conductor James Freeman - had two full concertos (both new to Philadelphia) and a new vocal work. Barber was represented only by his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, but his presence was pervasive.

The irony award goes to Andrew Rudin, whose Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra wasn't misnamed, but implied a modesty of means not borne out by this 40-minute work that covered too much musical territory for its own good - some of it not worth visiting. The most distinctive moments were daringly stark - a simple, moody ostinato full of unison piano writing. Later, as the piece took off in many different directions, Rudin's antecedents were particularly close to the surface - Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2, among others - and kept soloist Marcantonio Barone extremely busy without leaving much meaning in their wake.

Barberesque lyricism is the last thing I'd expect from the often-feverish Paul Moravec, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner who often piles on layer after layer of giddy rhythmic textures with engaging effect. Yet he's always had a lyrical streak, and rightly described the first movement of his Violin Concerto (heard in its world premiere) as a song without words. Which it was, with soaring lyricism suggesting Erich Korngold without the Viennese decadence.

Most interesting was the middle movement, with the soloist enjoying near-boundless expressive freedom thanks to a harmonically ambiguous backdrop of strings that felt simultaneously plush but tense - possibly enabled by quarter tones. Though violinist Maria Bachmann projected the music's emotionalism, the concerto was most convincing when Moravec was more like his old self in a dazzlingly attenuated final movement with a mounting cauldron of rhythm.

In contrast to the childlike view of home life in Barber's Knoxville, Robert Maggio's companion piece, Summer: 2 a.m. (another world premiere) showed mom on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Most song cycles set pre-existing poetry to music, but Maggio set new lyrics from Mary Liz McNamara that were partly inspired by soprano soloist Laura Heimes' recent experiences with motherhood.

A series of inner monologues explores bafflement over her baby's needs; too much information from self-help books; barely recognizing her own husband on a rare, exhausted night out; having dim memories of sex, and, as she ventures back into the world with a singing gig, negotiating with a police officer over her speedy tendencies and expired license.

Maggio matches the considerable wit of the words with music that often draws on recognizable forms - "Having a Baby Doesn't Change Us" is a breezy jazz waltz, for example - with masterfully integrated references to Barber's Knoxville. Heimes' obvious ownership of the piece, unfortunately, translated into a heavy-handed performance. No doubt the piece will thrive on subtle comic surprise as it enters the repertoire (which it will). But wouldn't it be great to hear a major Maggio work that's not a companion piece?

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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