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April 6, 2009

Alsop, BSO reach eloquent heights in Mahler's Ninth Symphony

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is a journey of the human heart, through episodes of intense satisfaction and intense pain, with stops for humor, irony and even a little sarcasm along the way. In the closing minutes, the composer takes us to the very edge of earthly existence and, with an understandable hesitancy, peers into the unknown. Slowly, that tentativeness, with its unsettling melodic fragments and moments of total silence, gives way to an inner calm that allows the roughly 90-minute work to close in a gentle harmonic resolution of unspeakable beauty.

Satisfying performances of Mahler’s Ninth leave you rapt and even quite drained by those final sounds, as if you’ve been let in on the deepest emotions and secrets of another person’s life, only to realize that they’re yours, too.

In what I’d readily call her finest achievement to date at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop led her forces in a powerful, involving account of this enormously challenging score Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff.

The conductor sometimes seems to keep just enough distance from a piece of music to leave her own feelings in check. Not this time. From the start, she got far inside the notes, and there was something richly involving about the music-making throughout. It was gratifying to experience Alsop and the BSO on such a ...

taut wavelength; that rapport said a lot about everyone onstage, how far they’ve traveled together in a few short years.

The bittersweet quality of the first movement, the mix of resignation and angst, reflection and anger, emerged tellingly under Alsop’s guidance. Although I would have welcomed a little more nuance in the second movement, and a wilder rush in the coda of the third, the conductor’s deftly detailed approach to both of those portions of the symphony nonetheless spoke tellingly. The closing Adagio, a long, aching hymn of farewell, was allowed plenty of breathing room, but never lost its internal tension. And Alsop ensured that the autumnal, lit-from-within glow of Mahler’s orchestral coloring came though beautifully.

Although there were a few minor rough spots in the execution (primarily articulation slips in the finale), the overall discipline and commitment of the playing proved impressive throughout. There was great warmth from the strings, considerable strength and subtlety from the brass and woodwinds. Solo efforts were not of uniform polish, but all were expressively shaped. Those by concertmaster Jonathan Carney generated particular eloquence.

It was a great idea to open the program with a short work of Bernstein’s, the Opening Prayer for voice and orchestra, written a few years before the conductor/composer’s death in 1990. The piece offers a kind of condensed summation of Bernstein’s musical idioms, as if a few notes extracted from his symphonies and Broadway and film scores underwent a fusion process. The result is quite striking.

After the orchestra lays out darkly lyrical melodic ideas, a voice intones an ancient Hebrew text (“May the Lord bless you and keep you ... and give you peace”). That haunting prayer took on a deeper meaning in this context, providing a sort of mini-requiem to lead into Mahler’s symphony – and providing a reminder of the Bernstein/Mahler theme underlining the BSO’s programming this season. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, positioned in a box above the orchestra, sang the solo lines with an exquisite, velvety tone.

I only wish this magical prelude had not been followed by applause and a pause, while Alsop went back offstage for a few moments. How much more effective it would have been if, after Cooke’s last, serene, long-held high note, a brief silence had given way to the pensive opening of Mahler’s Ninth.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:16 AM | | Comments (6)


Tim, With this concert, 'Maestra' Alsop removed any remaining reservations I had about her conducting. We are indeed fortunate to have such a talent. I hope she renews her contract soon and doesn't keep us on edge too much longer.
I had been hoping to hear the Mahler 6th as originally scheduled, as the Peabody orchestra recently played the 9th. Frankly I doubted Alsop's ability to do much with this piece which is difficult for the orchestra and demands so much of a conductor.
I didn't hear the rough spots you did in the solo work: Carney was beautifully expressive, as was the cellist, the woodwinds and even - and this was a wonderful surprise - the horns. The orchestra has had so much trouble finding horn players who could play without the flubs and botched entrances that marred so many of Temirkanoff's performances.
Your idea of how the concert might have been played - without significant pause between pieces - is an inspired one.
I wonder if you could give your opinion on why Mahler inserted the second movement. The program notes and experiences mention that it quite a jarring transition from the first. To my ears, I wonder what Mahler was doing
with the movement. I agree that Alsop
didn't do as well with it as the others. I thought she and the orchestra really caught fire with the third movement - playing with great precision - and ended the piece ... to call the performance of it sublime is not an overstatement.

Thanks for sharing your observations. I, too, was looking forward to the Sixth, but I'll take a good Ninth any day. And, yes, the horns came through very nicely indeed. As for that second movement, I think it reflects Mahler's life-long interest in mixing the sublime and the ordinary, the refined and the earthy. I also think he may have been inspired by the ordering of Tchaikovsky's Sixth, which successfully follows an emotionally heavy first movement with a light (if rhythmically quirky) dance. Both symphonies also have a march in the third movement (Mahler's Rondo-Burleske obviously has a helluva lot more going on in it), before returning to the slow and solemn mood of the opening. This Tchaikovsky/Mahler comparison is not an original idea of mine, I hasten to add. Anyway, to me, the shift of mood makes perfect sense. TIM</i<

I'm sorry that I missed these concerts (sounds like Alsop is shaping up to be a true Mahlerian, though that should be expected ;^), but I _honestly_ feel that this is a symphony (like all of Mahler's, and all "great" works in general) which will improve with continued iterations between conductor and ensemble.

I'm _not_ sorry at all that I missed Temirkanov's first round with the Mahler 2nd, for example, because I am _absolutely_ delighted to say that I saw two performances of his second and final go-around with the piece and the orchestra. Those "reference" performances _deserved_ all of the thunderous applause they received.

The same, hopefully, will be said for Maestra Alsop's future performances of the Mahler 9th (as well as 1st and 5th) with the BSO. Mahler's symphonies are works well worth revisiting, and they benefit from the tightest of relationships between all involved.

(Hopefully, one day, she'll also tackle Bruckner, Rott, Sibelius, Schmidt, etc. Like Mahler, their best works truly separate the "good" conductors from the "great," but I digress...)

I'm also _really_ looking forward to whenever she tackles the 6th. In my opinion, performing (read: experiencing) the 6th would give the ensemble a decidedly sharper edge when the 9th appears once more.

Thanks for the comments. I'd like to see a Mahler marathon for the centennial of his death in 2011, when Alsop and the BSO could do that revisiting you mention, as well as tackle the symphonies they haven't done together. TIM

My goodness, YES! A Mahler marathon in 2011 _should_ be an absolute _must_!!! Are you listening, BSO??? I guarantee that I'd attend them all (barring death, serious illness, or coma). 8^D

My husband and I have had season tickets to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for 30 years. Residing now part-time in Maryland, we discovered the BSO just this year. Mahler's Ninth Symphony was the second concert with Marin Alsop at the helm that we have been an audience to and the first at the Meyerhoff. Wow what an amazing experience we had Saturday night. My husband looked at me after the concert (and the talk-back session before that we also attended) and exclaimed: "How lucky we are to witness this phenomenal musical genius!" And the emotion of that music that was so superbly performed has stayed with us. We knew in the moment that we had witnessed something incredibly special. Certainly the orchestra was fine, but it was Marin Alsop's night.

Thanks for sharing your experience. It's fascinating how certain performances can catch fire this way and leave a long-lasting mark.TIM

Speaking of Mahler, there is going to be a complete Mahler series at Carnegie Hall (NYC) between May 6 and May 17th next month. Conductors are either Pierre Boulez or Daniel Barenboim. Orchestra is Staatskapelle Berlin.

Mr. Smith, some weeks ago, I understand that a flyer inside the program for Swan Lake, at the Lyric, contained the following information:

"Dear Friends,

"Thank you for attending tonight's performance of The Moiseev Russian
Classical Ballet. This evening marks the third consecutive spring
performance of this wonderful ballet company at the Lyric Opera House
on their 4th annual US tour.

"I would like to take the opportunity this evening to announce the
formation of a new professional opera company in Baltimore, The
Baltimore Opera Theatre.

"The first season of the new company will begin with three of the most
popular and beloved operas in the repertoire . In fall 2009 we will
present Puccini's LA BOHEME, to be followed in winter-spring 2010 by

"The productions will all be full-scale and fully staged, with
symphonic orchestra, a professional chorus, and international soloists
from Europe and the USA.

"Since 1988 I have produced thousands of performances of opera and
ballet worldwide including over 700 performances in the USA at 105
different theatres including the Naples Philharmonic Center, the
Kravis Center in Palm Beach, the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston,
The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis, the New
Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, and the Cerritos Center for
the Performing Arts in Cerritos near Los Angeles.

"I am committed to producing many great seasons of opera in Baltimore.

"Dates and ticket information will be announced publicly in the coming

Giorgio Lalov
Artistic Director, Baltimore Opera Theatre
Exclusive Producer of Moiseev Russian Classical Ballet US tours

Haven't seen a word of this in the paper or in your blog. But if you weren't made aware of this, here it is for your comment. There's evidently some veracity in the notice, and one has to wonder where Mr. Lalov is getting the backing. If a lot of it is local, one has to wonder what held those backers up from doing something before this--and why they let the BOC's demise happen in the first place.

Thanks for sending me this. I had heard vague reports of the plans, but not the enough concrete info. I'll have much more to say in due time. Thanks again.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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