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June 5, 2009

Hilary Hahn gives brilliant performance of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony

Hilary HahnThe first standing ovation came before a note was played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at the Meyerhoff. It was triggered by the arrival onstage of music director Marin Alsop, moments after BSO board chairman Michael Bronfein announced that she had just signed a five-year extension of her contract that will keep her at the artistic helm until 2015. All the cheers reaffirmed how strongly the conductor has connected with the public; the concert reaffirmed how strongly she has connected with the orchestra.

Before starting the program, Alsop praised the musicians “for their wonderful artistry and commitment” and said that their recent pledge of $1 million in concessions to help balance the BSO budget was one of the things that “made me want to be a part of this community.” (She recently bought a condo in the Mount Vernon area.)

It was quite the feel-good evening. The music wasn’t bad, either. The big news of the program was the East Coast premiere of ...

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, written for Baltimore’s own classical music star, Hilary Hahn. It’s a killer of a concerto in its technical demands, and it asks a lot of listeners, too. (Before the performance started, Alsop asked Higdon to stand – “It’s always good to know if you’re sitting next to the composer,” the conductor said. Good quip.)

Marin AlsopHahn wanted Higdon to write a “major” work. In terms of length, she certainly got it. Cast in three sizable movements, the concerto makes a grand statement, packed with thematic material and expansive development, all of it delivered with extraordinary prismatic colors. The opening of the score is stunning – plaintive musing from the violin against delicate wisps of percussion. It’s quite the ear-grabber, a wonderful way to begin what amounts to a long journey through moods and events, through light and shade.

The first movement contains other subtle passages, where the violin enters into a kind of conversation with individual instruments in the orchestra; the effect is compelling. There are less interesting moments, too. Higdon sometimes takes more time than seems necessary to arrive at a destination point, as in the finale, an extensive perpetual-motion exercise for the fiddler. The trouble with perpetual motion is that, if carried on too long, it becomes more about the motion than the music. That’s what happens here. I also think that the middle movement could use a little pruning so that its wonderful lyricism doesn’t become diluted.

That said, the concerto still achieves an impressive effect, overall. Higdon’s style, fundamentally tonal, yet imaginatively spiced, communicates with a refreshing directness and lack of pretension. The violin part encompasses an enormous range, technically and expressively (you can hear how the composer had Hahn’s remarkable virtuosity in mind at every turn), and the orchestra becomes every bit as important in this dialogue. The second movement is the heart of the work, bathed in almost Vaughan Williams-like sonorities, with richly textured chords supporting a slowly soaring melodic line. A rush of drama erupts near the end, but the calm returns, unfazed, somehow even more radiant.

Hahn, playing the daunting piece by memory, delivered a performance brimming with bravura, but her keen musicality ultimately took center stage. Alsop provided rock-solid support and had the orchestra responding brilliantly.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in a tidy, steady performance that could have benefited from a bit more personality. Dvorak’s rather neglected Symphony No. 5 provided an engaging close to the evening. Alsop, who has demonstrated quite an affinity for the composer’s music, made a convincing case for the work, right from the sunny rustling of woodwinds at the start. She let the lyrical tunes breathe, while never losing rhythmic tension, a knack that proved especially helpful in the sprawling finale. Some expressive peaks could have scaled with more impact, certain phrases imbued with more feeling, but the clarity and character in Alsop’s interpretation proved telling.

The orchestra responded warmly and demonstrated a discipline that has increasingly characterized its association with a music director who will be building on that rapport for at least six more years.

Performances continue Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (1)


A curious coupling. Great performances though, especially from the orchestra:

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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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