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November 23, 2009

Alsop, Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony face 'judgment day' in style

One of the most durable tunes over the centuries is the "Dies Irae," written in the Middle Ages for the Latin Requiem, to a text describing the “day of wrath, the day of judgment” that will be faced by the dead. Not the cheeriest of subject matters, but it inspired a pretty catchy melody, especially the first seven notes.

All sorts of composers have made use of that theme in all sorts of ways, a point Marin Alsop drove home in her latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra collaboration, one overflowing with references to the “Dies Irae.” Anchored by Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique” – the finale’s depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath makes fabulous use of the wrathful tune – the program had room for two more choices, one fairly mainstream, one from a little farther afield.

The familiar item was Liszt’s “Totentanz” for piano and orchestra, a work that beats the “Dies Irae” to death (so to speak). The novelty was the finale from Michael Daugherty’s “Metropolis” Symphony -- the “Red Cape Tango,” which gets its melodic wind primarily from that same medieval ditty. That ominous tango goes on a bit too long for its own good, but

it’s brilliantly orchestrated, as is usually the case with Daugherty. Alsop had the score churning with an edgy power Friday night at the Meyerhoff and drew some hot playing from the ensemble.

“Totentanz” provided a vehicle for the previous week’s starry soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I rather doubt it is possible to tackle the showy, even slightly nutty piano part with more sizzling virtuosity and variety of expressive coloring than Thibaudet demonstrated. Even when he plunged into the Liszt-as-Liberace-precursor passages, the pianist maintained a convincing sense of style, always managing to find true musical worth in the material. A fun performance. Alsop’s steady partnering and the BSO’s vivid work added to the enjoyment.

“Symphonie fantastique” was revolutionary when it was new, as revolutionary as anything by Beethoven – who died just a few years before Berlioz created it – and it can still sound startling today when played with freshness and boldness. Alsop's account of of the music generated a good deal of both qualities. The electrical current could have been even a little stronger in a few spots, the lyricism sweeter in others, but this was an arresting performance nonetheless. The last two movements, in particular, delivered sizable jolts. The BSO responded with admirably tight, character-rich playing. The English horn and oboe solos by Jane Marvine and Katherine Needleman, respectively, sang out exquisitely.

The whole evening proved rewarding, right down to the remarkably cough-, chat- and cell phone-free audience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (4)


I was there for the Saturday performance --perched a few rows in front of the harp section. The Red Cape Tango was refreshing and loaded with musical jokes. Thibaudet's performance in Totentantz was interesting, musical, and fun. We decided that the piece should be called Totenschmaltz.

If you haven't heard Thibaudet do Chopin, run over to Amazon and get 'The Chopin I Love.' If you enjoy 'earlier' instruments, you'll love his performance of 'Raindrop,' which he plays on a Broadwood.

Thanks for the news and views. Maybe next time Jean-Yves is with the BSO, he'll play one of the Chopin concertos. TIM

Tim, Good thing you missed Saturday night's performance! A cell phone loudly playing some horrible tune began at the end of the English horn solo in the third movement. It would have been a great musical moment, but the cell phone continued to play its trite tune to the end of the movement. Then, it continued and confused the orchestra and Alsop, and they had to restart the fourth movement as the cell phone continued its tune. I think it's time for the BSO to make an announcement to turn off cell phones before the concert!

Unbelievable. Yes, the announcement routine is long overdue at the Meyerhoff. And the BSO needs to follow the example of Washington National Opera, which admonishes cell phone users before the start of each act, not just once before the performance begins. That still doesn't stop everybody, but it helps. It would also be useful to try the method at Broadway theaters, where ushers go up and down the aisles in the minutes before curtain making personal pleas to turn the damn things off. TIM

I've got nothing much to add to your review beyond agreement that it was quite an enjoyable evening. The BSO double reeds are always excellent in my opinion and it was wonderful to hear an English horn part that was long and broad enough to really give Ms. Marvine a chance to shine.

Thanks for commenting. TIM

in Vienna, there is no announcement, just an imposing recording of a cel phone ringing. Does the job perfectly.

I remember that type of warning in Salzburg, too. Pretty clever. 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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