Marin Alsop and Baltimore Symphony end season with sonic fest
With 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 ...
Any 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.
PHOTO OF MARIN ALSOP (by Kym Thomson) COURTESY OF MARINALSOP.COM; PHOTO OF YEFIM BRONFMAN (by Dario Acosta) COURTESY OF YEFIMBRONFMAN.COM