A Substantial Season-Ender

for The Baltimore Sun, June 12, 2007

The National Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its 2006-2007 season with a concert that found both the ensemble and its music director, Leonard Slatkin, at the top of their game.

As usual, Slatkin came up with a deft mix of repertoire: symphonies by Haydn and Mahler surrounded a première by American composer Mark Adamo. The latter’s Four Angels, a concerto for harp and orchestra, was commissioned by the NSO for its longtime harpist, Dotian Levalier. It’s a significant, substantial piece.

Best known for his operatic work, especially Little Women (which gets its area première next week by Summer Opera Theater in Washington), Adamo writes music of direct appeal. You can detect an assortment of influences; but an individuality shines through his fundamentally tonal style, and it does so with considerable effectiveness in this concerto.

Adamo goes in for a lot of extra-musical connections here. Each of the movements pertains to a celestial being – the Kabbalah’s Metatron, Zoroastrianism’s Sraosha, the Queen of Heaven, the archangel Michael. But none of the religious and literary allusions seemed essential to drink in this rich, symphonic dialogue between harp and orchestra.

Adamo does not shy away from using lots of arpeggios – the most familiar effect on the harp – but he manages to make almost all of them sound as though they have an expressive point. And the harp is beautifully integrated into the orchestral fabric, which is, in itself, remarkably colorful, with a wealth of color from the percussion. The quizzical end of the first movement and the almost ecstatic outpouring of lyricism in the third are among the most memorable passages in the roughly 25-minute score.

Levalier offered technical mastery and vivid phrasing. Slatkin and the NSO backed their colleague sensitively.

An arresting performance.

Tim Smith (tim.smith@baltsun.com) is the principal music critic of The Baltimore Sun.