BY JOHN WIRT, Music critic

February 23, 2013

Thursday’s Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series featured a pair of major compositions by beloved classical composers and one early 20th-century work more likely to be appreciated by scholars and professional musicians who, in the course of their music education, found themselves studying the work of such early 20th-century innovators as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Ironically, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were all Austrian, the city that produced so much tuneful, accessible, danceable music in the centuries before the latter trio confounded listeners in the 1920s.

Written nearly 90 years ago though it was, Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, remains a difficult piece for many to grasp. To that end, conductor Timothy Muffitt turned to the audience at the River Center Theatre and explained Webern’s precisely organized, atonal techniques.

Rather than work in conventional major or minor keys, Webern composed in a style called serialism. The approach establishes a scheme of notes, durations of notes, intervals and whatever else the composer may elect, for use within a specific piece.

Muffitt’s explanation of the concert’s Webern selection may have lasted nearly as long as the piece itself. Symphony, Op. 21, has only two movements. It is nine minutes long.

The Webern symphony’s first movement is a sparely orchestrated series of clipped, sputtering figures. The music leaps from instrument to instrument within an unusually small ensemble.

The second movement, which Muffitt described as a theme and variations without a theme, was the more active and engaging of the two, especially in the horn section. Despite the conductor’s efforts to encourage his audience to give serialism a chance, he probably won few converts.

Having opened the concert with challenging music, Muffitt and the orchestra next turned to a reliable old crowd pleaser. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major isn’t the composer’s best-known work, but it is distinctly Beethoven, and it contains the qualities that have won him so many fans for two centuries.

As Symphony No. 8’s major key signature signals, it’s among the famously brooding composer’s brighter works. The music’s happy melodies and dance-like rhythms also suggest it’s among the German-born Beethoven’s most Viennese compositions.

Muffitt and the orchestra gave Beethoven’s high-spirited score a dynamic performance. Ensemble-wide accents were percussively sharp and, for added percussive effect, the timpani contributed its booming depth.

Also reflecting No. 8’s cheerful mood, it unconventionally lacks a slow movement. Instead, the work’s two middle movements are marked allegretto scherzando and tempo ti minuetto.

Much of the Beethoven symphony’s excitement appeared in the especially vibrant finale, marked allregro vivace. Formidable, quick-tempo music though the concluding movement is, Muffitt and the orchestra are so adept at the Romantic symphonic repertoire that they made is look easy.

The Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus as well a quartet of soloists gathered on stage for a wholly successful performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s legendary Requiem in D minor.

The chorus, obviously well-prepped by chorus master David Shaler, may have never sounded better. The group’s ensemble work was precise, its collective tone, especially in the female voices, appropriately ethereal. Among the soloists, Michael Hendrick particularly poured on the emotion, something heard all the more because of his bright tenor tone.

John WirtThe Advocate (Baton Rouge)