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April 30, 2010

BSO offers Leshnoff premiere, Stravinsky concerto, Rachmaninoff symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made many an excursion into Russian repertoire during Yuri Temirkanov's brief era as music director. Turns out that his successor, Marin Alsop, likes that repertoire, too, and she has done her fair share of programming it here.

This week, she's focusing on Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. It happens to be something of a Temirkanov specialty; he achieved unforgettable results when he led performances of the work with the BSO in 2004. Alsop's account Thursday night at Strathmore was on a somewhat different level. More on that in a moment.

The program included a welcome premiere by gifted Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff and a sterling account of Stravinsky's spicy Violin Concerto with stellar soloist Gil Shaham. (The full program will be repeated at Meyerhoff Hall Friday night. On Saturday, Alsop will devote one of her popular, innovative "Off the Cuff" presentations exclusively to the Rachmaninoff symphony.)

Leshnoff has been building a name for himself over the past decade or so. Among his recent commissions is one from the Philadelphia Orchestra for a flute concerto that will be premiered next season. His first BSO commission has resulted in a short, eventful score called "Starburst." It's a curtain-raiser in the best sense of the word, full of energy and anticipation.

The composer's most distinctive talent may be for creating deeply lyrical themes, but, here, his focus is

on propulsion and creating a sense of almost frantic searching. From a short, up-and-down melodic motive, Leshnoff creates considerable action as harmonies tighten and nearly minimalist motor rhythms help drive the music along. Even a momentary repose partway through can't stop the sense of urgency, and the final arrival point suggests more of a temporary resolution than a final one, as if the notes could start churning all over again at the slightest provocation. It's a colorfully orchestrated work, and Alsop had the ensemble articulating deftly.

The Stravinsky item from 1931 finds the composer in his neoclassical groove, but, in the last of the four movements, with a hint of his earlier, kick-ass "Rite of Spring" days providing extra flair. It's cool music, clever and surprising. Stravinsky dismissed the grand gestures of romantic violin concertos, but still devised plenty of bravura activity for the soloist, while giving the orchestra vividly colored activity.

Shaham played with a sterling technique and wonderfully animated phrasing, interacting with the ensemble seamlessly (the romping duet with concertmaster Jonathan Carney in the finale came off particularly well). Alsop kept things firmly on track.

As for the Rachmaninoff Second, the conductor certainly had the orchestra playing superbly. It was impossible to miss the discipline and cohesion of the effort, qualities that Alsop has steadily cultivated. Missing, however, was a deeply distinctive interpretation.

Everything was in its proper place; the big tunes heated up when they were supposed to; the scherzo and finale took off with the expected dash; lots of inner details emerged with unusual clarity along the way. But when all was played and done, there was more control than tension or passion, more abstractness than personality. I was particularly disappointed with how the slow passages -- the first several minutes of the opening movement, for example -- sounded merely slow in Alsop's hands, rather than portentous or mysterious or sensual.

I proudly profess my love of this symphony (some of my colleagues would rather admit to a felony than tolerance for this piece, or much of anything by Rachmaninoff), and I can be easily swept up in its melodic eddies. I was stuck on the shore this time.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (3)


Dr. Leshnoff was my theory profesor at Peabody when I was working on my B.A. in Voice. He is a Good man with a lovely family and I have had the pleasure of listening to several concerts of his music including a notable performance by the BCO & Handel Choir of Baltimore. I am sad I missed this work but wish him the best as he is a truly gifted composer of our time.


Deeply distinctive interpretation lacking? I very much enjoyed the great drama and the luxuriant sound Alsop drew from the orchestra. The brass never sounded better. I was anything but "left on shore." I think your main beef is that Alsop is Temirkanov!
I loved his work - when he bothered to show up - and frankly at the time I thought his performance of Rach 2 was underpowered and over-nuanced.
The remarkable flow of melodic inspiration was 'tamed' while Alsop let it sing out without restraint. Nor did Temirkanov
bring out the full range of emotion inherent in the score.
He was too sophisticated to do that. Alsop wasn't.

I'll assume that was typo up there, and you meant to accuse me of complaining that Alsop isn't Temirkanov. That's absurd, of course. Given the number of Alsop performances I've praised, including in Russian rep, I don't think the record would back up your charge. If I had mentioned Mariss Jansons' blazing performance of the Rachmaninoff Second with the Concertgebouw in DC this season, perhaps I would have been accused of being mad that Alsop isn't Jansons. I just didn't find this particular interpretation on this particular occasion fully satisfying. By the way, I heard from someone who attended Friday's concert and his description was different from what I heard Thursday; performances can, of course, vary from night to night. TS

Tim, basically I disagree with your conclusion about Alsop's performance of Rachmaninoff's 2nd. I enjoyed it, you did not. I also enjoyed YT's - as you did - but believed it lacked something: vitality, raw emotion unbridled. I'm tempted to conclude that the Russians -YT and Rachmaninoff - shy away from letting the full expression of their emotions shine out.

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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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