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February 20, 2009

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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:48 AM | | Comments (2)


I attended the BSO performance Friday night and enjoyed the Ives, but I gave up trying to hear the "barely audible" strings. Six people I alter talked to were frustrated by not being able to hear them.I actually thought it was an Ives' joke and Marin's lovely conducting of the "silence" put me into a trance and I enjoyed a delightful doze, waking at the end of the flutes' cacophony. This put me in the mood to dream through the Mozart, only to be wowed by the Saint-Saens. Thanks for acknowledging James Harp. I was surprised not to find him recognized in the program.

I did think the placement of the strings was risky. Luckily the Strathmore crowd stayed quiet enough so the chords came through. I can't imagine it working at the larger Meyerhoff. Glad you enjoyed the rest of the program.TIM

My pick for an "unanswered question" would be: Why can't you people turn off your cell phones? What would have been an otherwise transcendent experience was ruined Friday night by the ringing of not one, not two, but *three* phones during the quietest moments of the Ives. You didn't mention if your experience was the same Thursday night, but I hope this isn't a sign of how inconsiderate Baltimore audiences have become.

Thanks for your comments. Luckily, I heard no phones at Strathmore, and the crowd was sufficiently quiet that I think the music was able to cast its intended spell. Seems to me the only solution for the phone plague is some sort of sophisticated jamming that renders them all inoperable while in a performing arts venue.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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