Alsop, BSO effective in mix of Ives, Mozart, Saint-Saens
This seems a particular apt week to confront The Unanswered Question, the brief, provocative work written about 100 years ago by the great American maverick composer Charles Ives. Although he was referring to a search for the meaning of existence, his music can just as easily trigger other deeply vexing queries. Take your pick: Will the stimulus package really stimulate? Will the mortgage rescue plan really save the housing market? Will the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ever really be released on DVD? All unanswered, all unsettling.
The extraordinary originality of the Ives score – it sounds more daring than a ton of other music written over the last century – was effectively reaffirmed last night at the opening of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program at the Music Center at Strathmore. Conductor Marin Alsop used the opportunity to apply a certain theatricality, starting with low lighting. The strings were offstage and barely audible as they intoned the slowly shifting chords that suggest the unflappable, eternal elements of the universe. The angular trumpet notes that represent humankind's inquisitive impulse were played, also unseen, through various doors of the hall – questions in surround-sound. The four flutes, whose dissonant and increasingly unsettled interjections suggest futile attempts to provide “answers,” were the only instruments onstage. Except for one rough trumpet line, the performance proceeded smoothly and tellingly.
The Ives piece did not provide a natural lead-in to the Mozart symphony -- No. 29 – that followed, but no matter. Ives invariably stands alone. So does Mozart, whose symphony Alsop had unfolding at a graceful, elegant pace. This was some of the most relaxed conducting I’ve experienced from her, and it seemed to inspire the orchestra. The strings may not have always been at their tightest, but they produced a lovely, soft-grained tone as they inflected phrases with a great deal of nuance. The winds, too, exuded a poetic quality.
Saint-Saens’s evergreen Organ Symphony, which occupied the second half of the evening, likewise found Alsop in persuasive and engaging form. She took time to relish the lyrical warmth along the way, especially in the second movement, which exuded quite a vibrant glow, and ensured that the rich palette of instrumental coloring registered effectively. There was drama and sweep in the famous organ-fortified finale, but the performance, as a whole, was more about refinement and proportion. Once past some off-kilter spots early on, the BSO made an impressive showing. James Harp was the assured organist. Too bad he didn’t have a true pipe organ at his disposal, a feature sadly lacking at Strathmore, not to mention Meyerhoff Hall, where the program is repeated tonight and tomorrow.