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3 musical centuries

November 13, 2008

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra marks the city's founding with a history tour

By Tim Smith

The ASO's selections illustrated styles and orchestra sizes since Annapolis was chartered in 1708. (Baltimore Sun photo by Monica Lopossay / November 8, 2008)

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra saluted the 300th anniversary of its hometown last weekend with a musical history tour that covered the past three centuries and also took a brief look at the present. It seemed doubly appropriate for such activity to take place "during a week when we have been surrounded by historic events," as conductor Jose-Luis Novo noted in remarks to Friday night's audience at Maryland Hall.

Novo did not try to fashion a thoroughly cohesive assortment of repertoire but simply offered pieces that helped to illustrate the evolution of styles and orchestra sizes since 1708, when Annapolis was chartered.

Representing the sound-world of the early 18th century was Arcangelo Corelli's F major Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9, a baroque gem for strings that received a buoyant, warmly phrased account at the start of the evening. Not all of the sounds were finely honed, but the players seemed strongly connected to the dance rhythms and spirited counterpoint.

In choosing something from 1808, Novo had an obvious, commanding candidate - Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, a work so striking in its originality and emotional charge that it influenced musical thinking for at least a century, all by itself.

Naturally, this war horse was placed at the end of the concert (it's an awfully tough act to follow), but it didn't turn out to be a case of saving the best for last. The challenge for a conductor approaching the iconic Fifth is to make it sound fresh. The challenge for an orchestra is to play it with such muscle and elan that each familiar measure has impact. Neither outcome occurred Friday.

Novo took safe tempos that had the music churning along effectively enough, but an extra edge of propulsion or drama would have been welcome (he was almost laid-back in the finale, keeping the lid on the potentially explosive material). The second movement proved most successful, with Novo allowing for eloquent breadth of phrasing, while still maintaining a firm pulse.

The orchestra's spirit seemed willing, its execution a little weak. The famous four notes that launch the symphony sounded more like three because articulation was not decisive enough; ragged edges cropped up in the winds and brass throughout. The most impressive efforts came from the strings in the third movement, when they tore into the contrapuntal flurries with a bracing, well-disciplined flourish.

A more impressive showing by the ASO came earlier in the evening when attention turned to 1908, by way of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, one of the most prismatic works in the orchestral canon.

Not surprisingly, Novo paid particular attention to the score's Spanish rhythms, bringing out not just their vitality but also their sensual pull. Throughout, the conductor's elegant sculpting yielded a sense of naturalness and spontaneity.

Once past an off-kilter start, the ensemble delivered cohesive, dynamic playing; the woodwinds made especially effective contributions. There was so much panache that, for a moment at least, it was possible to forget how acoustically detrimental Maryland Hall is to any serious classical music-making.

No art form survives with only backward glances. The ASO made an admirable investment in the future by holding a competition for young composers as part of the Annapolis tricentennial. From more than 100 applicants, four finalists were commissioned to write a 7- to 10-minute piece; the results were introduced during concerts last season.

After all was played and done, a jury that included Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and noted composer Bright Sheng, chose the winning work, as Novo put it, "almost unanimously." That piece - Tri-Sattawat (Three Centuries) by Narong Prangcharoen - was reprised on last week's program, which was recorded for release on CD.

The 35-year-old Thai composer's eventful, arresting score accomplishes a great deal in a short span. The opening bassoon solo, against ethereal violins and violas, suggests a call to a prayer, but what follows is decidedly earthy, mixing folk melody, piquant harmony, organic rhythm and vivid instrumentation into a kind of Asian version of Sensemaya by Mexico's Silvestre Revueltas.

Novo had the orchestra responding with considerable flair to Prangcharoen's evocative score, which deserves to be heard beyond Annapolis.