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June 12, 2009

Marin Alsop and Baltimore Symphony end season with sonic fest

Marin AlsopWith a coming-full-circle flourish, the Baltimore Symphony offers quite the grand finale to its 2008-2009 season this week.

Way back in the fall, music director Marin Alsop started things off with the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, those traumatic/cleansing moments at the end of the composer’s massive Ring Cycle. This week’s program ends with a good 50 minutes or so of excerpts from the four Ring operas, culminating, of course, with that cathartic Immolation Scene. Nice symmetry.

All the splendid Wagner sounds would be more than enough to put the grand into this finale, but there’s more. The first half of the program has a lot of big-statement music in it, too ...

-- Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with a fearless, powerhouse soloist, Yefim Bronfman. Talk about sensory overload. To get all that sweeping, swooning, storming Wagner and Rachmaninoff in one night could be too much for some sensitive hearts to stand. But I couldn’t get enough of this romantic fest Thursday night at Strathmore. I might even go back for more when the program is repeated at the Meyerhoff.

Yefim BronfmanAny occasion to hear Bronfman is valuable. He’s one of the most persuasive virtuosos around these days, a pianist whose disarming technical ease allows him to play as fast or as loud as he wants, but whose innate tastefulness prevents a descent into mere showoff indulgence.

That said, there was no question Thursday what side of the Rachmaninoff Third he wanted to emphasize – speed and volume. Like a horse getting antsy at the starting gate, Bronfman couldn’t wait to charge into the torrents of notes. Sometimes, especially in the last movement, his velocity seemed to startle Alsop and the orchestra, but they weren’t about to be left in the dust.

The pianist maintained remarkable clarity as he went, even in the explosive first movement cadenza, and he always managed to keep things musical, even when he was at his most thunderous. No, his playing wasn’t the last word on lyricism, and a few passages, like the very end of the first movement, where the music takes an unexpectedly inward turn, could have used a softer, more mysterious touch. But this was a sensational performance of the daunting concerto, spontaneous and passionate, totally involving.

Once past some cloudy wind playing at the start, the orchestra, too, did impressive work. The strings, in particular, put a good deal of heat into their phrasing. Things got hot, too, when Alsop and the BSO turned to Wagner.

The orchestra couldn’t program enough Wagner to satisfy me, so devoting half a program to Ring highlights represented a major step in the right direction. Of course, condensing 16 hours of opera into 50 minutes or so of orchestra-only excerpts is the musical equivalent of Twittering. But Alsop’s choice of what to include in this abbreviated package provided an effective narrative – a seamless, eventful tone poem.

During the performance, some passages came and went without enough impact; the Ride of the Valkyries, for example, seemed rather earthbound. Others, like the anvil-punctuated descent into Alberich’s kingdom, registered with plenty of force (putting the percussionists, stereophonically, in balconies was a nice touch). Alsop occasionally seemed to be focused more intently on details of rhythm and articulation, rather than the big, architectural picture. Still, she built to many an expressive peak, unleashed many a colorful episode with terrific flair. Wotan’s Farewell and the closing moments of the redemptive Immolation Scene proved especially effective and affecting, with the orchestra responding richly to the conductor’s ardent phrasing.

The expanded brass section, including Wagner tubas, held quite steady; Phil Munds delivered Siegfried’s horn calls with panache; the strings were, by and large, at their best in terms of cohesiveness and tone.

All things considered, a remarkably satisfying way to bring the curtain down on what turned out to be quite a successful second season in the Alsop/BSO partnership.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (1)


First, I _love_ Bronfman. He's a big guy (like me!) with a generous tone and plenty of (good) attitude. Though he's by no means a youngster, I think he still revels in "sowing his oats" with the technical aspect of his playing, especially in the matter of concertos. His chamber-music performances (e.g., Beethoven, Brahms) tend to be a little mellower (and, thus, richer in emotion). What a pity he hasn't tackled too much Schubert on record -- that might just be the right kind of thing he needs to calm him down a bit, while still allowing for plenty of galloping through the flames!

(I enjoy his Beethoven piano concertos with Zinman/Zürich very much!)

Second, as for the Wagner, I'm not surprised that Alsop "held in the reins" a little with some of the music. She does, after all, have quite a penchant for Brahms, where that focus on clarity and preciseness are an absolute must. Wagner requires these, of course, but a certain level of willingness to "let go" helps to push the music into that higher realm where it belongs. ;^)

How about staging a "Parsifal" concert in 2-3 years? (With chorus, at least, if not soloists -- similar to what Abbado released on DG?) We certainly aren't going to be seeing _that_ at the Lyric anytime soon, methinks, so here's to hoping!

Oh, nuts, now I'm going to have to listen to Vickers/Knapp immediately!!!

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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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