By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 9, 2011
The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra might not be considered among the world’s top orchestras, but don’t tell its players that. Opening this year’s season Saturday night under the baton of Music Director Kim Allen Kluge, the ASO turned in a jaw-dropping performance, premiering a virtuosic cello concerto by David Balakrishnan and infusing Hector Berlioz’s venerable old war horse, the “Symphonie Fantastique,” with so much vitality, electricity and excitement that it sounded like it was written last week.
The concert — at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria — opened with two works by Balakrishnan, a composer and violinist on the front lines of what’s loosely called “crossover music” — music that incorporates pop genres into classical settings. “Little Mouse Jumps” is a sort of concertino for violin, and Balakrishnan took the lead role on amplified violin. The title, taken from a Native American folk tale, set the mood; it was a playful, almost cartoonishly colorful piece, dipping easily into jazz and blues and skimming agreeably across the surface of any number of genres.
Balakrishnan’s new cello concerto, “Force of Nature,” was a weightier work, written for and performed by Mark Summer, a longtime friend of Balakrishnan’s and co-founder of the Turtle Island Quartet. It’s a tour de force of technique, careening through an eclectic pastiche of styles — big-band show tunes, 1930s Paris and . . . was that Eric Clapton? — that seemed to switch gears every few seconds. Summer kept the momentum barreling forward (his bluesy, improvised cadenza was a highlight), but it was hard to escape the feeling that the composer was weaving genres together not because it made musical sense, but rather to show how well he could do it. The result was a skillful collage, imaginatively done and great fun to listen to, but without a strong identity of its own.
Kluge has named this year’s program “Season of Dreams,” so it was fitting that opening night included Berlioz’s allegedly opium-induced musical phantasmagoria, “Symphonie Fantastique.” But there was nothing soporific about this performance; Kluge drew a detailed, insightful and spectacularly vibrant interpretation from his players — a world-class performance that made it clear that the orchestra is a force to be reckoned with.