Baltimore Symphony and the three Bs: Beethoven, Bartok, Barber
On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, the Bartok contribution, "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," proved especially welcome -- the BSO has programmed it only once, 31 years ago. It's a fascinating score from every angle, brilliantly fashioned out of unifying thematic ideas and strengthened by structural integrity (the arch shape of the first and third movements never fails to impress, intellectually and emotionally).
The piece, which is being recorded for the next BSO project with the Naxos label, is finely suited to music director Marin Alsop's skills; she seems to thrive on works that contain complex rhythms and intricate meshing of instrumental forces. There were a few spots on Thursday that could have been tighter and tauter in execution (and a few that were marred by audience noises, despite reminders of the recording going on), but this was an engrossing and impressive performance just the same.
The atmospheric Adagio, a night-scape punctuated by mysterious repeated notes from the xylophone at the beginning and end, emerged compellingly. And, except for a slight deflation of energy in the closing measures, the dancing finale generated great verve. For the most part, the strings offered impressive precision and color. The percussion section did shining work, as did Lura Johnson at the piano and Michael Sheppard at the celesta.
(By the way, as she often does with music that isn't widely familiar, Alsop gave the audience a little guide to the Bartok score that included excerpts from the piece and examples of some others to illustrate the composer's sound-world and techniques. Alsop invariably makes these demonstrations entertaining. I only wish she would come up with
The program opened with one of the most beloved works in the American repertoire, Barber's Adagio for Strings, written around the same time as the Bartok score, but inhabiting an entirely different aesthetic. Bartok had both feet firmly planted in the 20th century; Barber kept a few toes comfortably dug into the 19th.
Alsop drew from the BSO strings a gorgeous sound. I would not have minded a more spacious tempo (you knew I'd say that, didn't you?), but the poignancy of this ultra-lyrical work hit home.
The Beethoven portion of the program, wisely placed last, was devoted to his Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor." Andre Watts, who gave a spectacular account of a Brahms concerto with Alsop and the BSO a couple years ago, was back to deliver another memorable performance. This time, the dynamic range of his tone wasn't quite as wide, but he still produced a good deal of nuance along the way. There was an awful lot of energy, too.
The outer movements found the soloist churning out great power, but also a kind of twinkle-in-the-eye exuberance. He seemed to have so much fun bounding through the music that you couldn't help but be caught up in the high spirits. The Adagio's introspective poetry went unexpressed by the pianist initially; the way he struck many of the notes sounded, well, struck, rather than caressed or sung. But Watts eventually added more sensitivity in that movement to match the warmth coming from the orchestra, which was in sturdy form throughout the concerto. Alsop provided rock-solid partnering.
Sitting in a box seat quite near the stage Thursday night was another great American pianist, one who taught Watts at the Peabody Conservatory many years ago. Leon Fleisher could be seen adding heartily to the applause for his former student.
The concert repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.
PHOTO OF ANDRE WATTS BY STEVE J. SHERMAN COURTESY OF CM ARTISTS; PHOTO OF MARIN ALSOP BY DAVE HOFFMANN COURTESY OF BSO