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November 9, 2009

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Mozart, Mahler and Marin

The last word Gustav Mahler uttered on his deathbed — according to his wife, Alma — was “Mozart.” Perhaps the composer was already hearing sounds from the next world, or simply reliving some of his happiest memories from this one.

The deep connection Mahler felt to Mozart’s music is never more apparent than in the Symphony No. 4, where Mahler offers a melodic directness and transparency of texture that produce a Mozartean grace. That quality was all the more apparent in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program over the weekend, which paired Mahler’s Fourth with several Mozart items to satisfying effect.

Music director Marin Alsop led a lithe and winsome account of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” at the start of Sunday’s concert before a not-so-large audience at the Meyerhoff. Funny how such a popular work, one that many a non-classical music fan could hum a few bars of, doesn't actually get played by major orchestras very often. What a perfect little creation this is, a synthesis of 18th-century symmetry and sensibility, sparked by contagious good humor.

The inclusion of three concert arias for soprano on the program provided a strong link to the Mahler symphony, which, of course, famously ends with a soprano solo. The arias also gave the audience an extra opportunity to savor the talents of

Susanna Phillips, an Alabama-born singer with some impressive prizes and performance credits to her name.

She's the real deal, a soprano who can produce a consistently appealing tone that, even with some thinning in the lower register, never loses its silken finish, and who can get to the heart of a phrase. A case in point was the eloquent way that Phillips sculpted the lines of "Vado, ma dove?" Alsop drew refined support for the soprano from the orchestra in each of the arias.

I was terribly disappointed in the conductor's approach to the first movement of the Mahler symphony, which calls for much more in the way of rhythmic pliability and a deeper feeling of nostalgia. Alsop was in metronomic mode, focusing on neatness and structure while passing through some of Mahler's most exquisite writing without leaving any discernible trace of personal feeling.

But things improved markedly after that, starting with some delectable, poetic shaping of the trio sections in the scherzo. The third movement was sensitively paced so that the music always had an underlying motion, but was given a good deal of breathing space as well. Alsop's attention to subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics here yielded a truly Maherlian experience, rich in character and depth. The orchestra sounded marvelous, recalling similar tonal and technical heights in last season's account of Mahler's Ninth with Aslop.

The admirable music-making continued in the finale, which had the additional benefit of sweetly endearing vocalism from Phillips. She conveyed the folk poem about a child's description of heavenly delights with abundant charm and, in the last, gentle moments, an appropriately rapt beauty.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:54 PM | | Comments (4)


I'm glad Sunday's performance was so strong. While the Mozart was very good Friday night (the soprano's Italian wasn't so good, but her German diction was very good) the Mahler started off woefully. A bad note in the opening bar was followed by a number of questionable sounds and awkward balance from almost every section of the orchestra and, I felt, a failure to pull together this beautiful score on the part or the conductor. This was noticeable in very tepid playing from the basses in a few moments where they really should stand out. They had to have instructed to play like this. Contrast this with the power Bernstein draws from the basses in the Vienna performances from the mid 1970s. The orchestra did settle down as the movement continued, however. Fortunately, the second movement was very good, and third and fourth movements were outstanding - especially the third. The attendance was also very good Friday night. I wish I had come back for either Saturday or Sunday as I thought they might pull the first movement together. The soprano had a beautiful, full, and very expressive voice. Even with the marred first movement, this was a good night.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful and detailed report. It's amazing how much is in this music, if a conductor chooses to unleash it. For me, the benchmark will always be the 1939 Mengelberg recording, especially because of what happens in the first movement, all the magical rubato and portamento -- things that cannot be dismissed lightly considering how close the conductor and Mahler were (and how many suggestions are actually in the score). The composer conducted the Fourth with Mengelberg's orchestra on a program that contained nothing but two back-to-back performances of the work. I can't help but believe that Mengelberg was greatly influenced by how Mahler approached his own symphony. Had Alsop been willing to go even halfway in that direction, her first movement would surely have measured up to the rest. TIM

As Mahler's music responds so well to artful rubato, I couldn't _imagine_ hearing that first movement without judicious changes in touch and tempo. The music is some of Mahler's "cutesiest" stuff (intentionally), so it needs to be full of life and spontaneity. I can only hope that Alsop had the BSO "blow the roof off" at the climax of the third movement (something which Eschenbach did in Philly to tremendous effect) before gently gliding into the song (the end of which is amongst the most beautiful, calming moments in all of music).

They might not have blown the roof off, but I thought the third movement explosion had a wonderful impact. TIM

A quick follow up - Mengelberg's recording of the fourth is still my favorite - it was also the first recording of the piece I listened to. His German Requiem is also beautiful.

I have searched for a modern recording that captured the piece they way Mengelberg did but has the benefit of clean recording, and I've never found it.

The transition from the 3rd to 4th movement was a high point of the BSO performance. I remember it being much more jarring (in the wrong sense) 20 or so years ago when Zinman performed it.

Finally, my apologies if the negative comments about the first movement offended musicians. I'm not a musician and while I don't feel that professional musicians are at all above criticism, I do think they deserve the courtesy and respect of being criticized - at least publicly - by people with more training and knowledge than I. This is a fine orchestra and I've enjoyed it for many years.

I, too, know of no recording that comes close to Mengelberg's way with the first movement. I was lucky enough, however, to experience a live performance that had similar magic. James Judd was the conductor (isn't it high time the BSO invited him back?), with the now defunct Florida Philharmonic. His applied fabulous rubato all the way through. I also liked how his idea for the entrance of the soprano -- theatrical, I admit, but it sure was cool. Helen Donath walked out through the stands of the string players at a majestic gait during the climactic, fortissimo bursts of the third movement. TIM

I there and I was amazed by the BSO and these performances on Sunday afternoon. The Forte at the end of Mahlers 3rd movement of this symphony (4th) was one of the most emotional experiences I had in a long time. It was serious and Marin Alsop was very kind, pragmatic and personable in the Q&A session at the end. It was a great experience. I would like to thank them for an experience I will not forget. SUPPORT THE BSO!!!!!!

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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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