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June 1, 2010

New Baltimore Symphony/Marin Alsop recordings focus on Dvorak, Gershwin

Despite what you've heard -- for years and years and years -- about the death of the classical music recording biz, the releases just keep coming, most of them in the supposedly obsolete CD format. Go figure.

Never mind that sales figures are rarely worth mentioning (you have to be a Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel to light up the charts). If a few hundred discs are sold, most folks are happy. A few thousand, and they're ecstatic. Of course, things were much better in the old days, when record companies could afford to devote a small portion of their budgets to producing a lot of classical material while making tons off of pop and rock products. But it's still possible to find outlets, or, like a lot of orchestras have done lately, create your own label.

The Baltimore Symphony, which went just about unrecorded for nearly a decade (missing the Temirkanov years entirely, except for one in-house promo CD), benefited considerably with the arrival of music director Marin Alsop. She brought a valuable Naxos connection with her, and that company quickly added BSO products to their inventory -- a Dvorak symphony cycle (the initial entry, the "New World," earned great reviews) and Bernstein's "Mass" (nominated for a Grammy). The newest release in the Dvorak project, devoted to Symphonies No. 7 and 8, is another attractive recording that reconfirms the solid shape of the BSO with Alsop at the helm.

At the same time, Alsop and the BSO can also be found on a new release by another label, Decca, this one devoted to the Gershwin works for piano and orchestra recorded last fall at Meyerhoff Hall with starry soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. This hot recording should provide a nice boost for the orchestra's beyond-Baltimore profile, the way the Sony CD of Corigliano's "Red Violin" Concerto did back at the start of Alsop's tenure, when she and the BSO backed another of today's classical biggies, Joshua Bell.

My guess is that the "Thibaudet Plays Gershwin" CD will do especially well, sales-wise. The composer is still very popular internationally, and so is Thibaudet (he's the only who gets a photo -- a cool one with shades -- on the CD). What should really help move this item off of shelves and download sites is

the quality of the music-making and the novelty factor of the scores used for this recording. We get the jazziest side of Gershwin's concert works -- the original jazz band arrangement by Ferde Grofe of "Rhapsody in Blue" and, controversially, perhaps, the jazz band version of Concerto in F that Paul Whiteman prepared, much to the composer's annoyance (I think it makes a fascinating contrast with, and welcome companion to, Gershwin's own superb orchestration). For good measure, the original manuscript version of the "I Got Rhythm" Variations fills out the disc.

The results are engaging across the board. Thibaudet is one of the rare classical pianists who can swing naturally; his playing has a spontaneous edge, an abundance of color and, of course, superb virtuosity. By the same token, Alsop is one of the rare classical conductors who can swing naturally. She gets this music innately, knows how to pace it, bend it, push it. And the BSO responds with an impressive mix of fluency and character. It's a fun recording that stands up well in a crowded field.

There are, of course, lots and lots of Dvorak recordings, too. Making a major mark in this repertoire isn't the easiest thing for any conductor to do, not with so many distinctive performances already on disc. But Alsop has a genuine affinity for the composer's music and, as the "New World" recording made clear, can deliver the goods.

A side-by-side comparison with some vintage gems from the vaults might not always be favorable to her interpretation. Listen, for example, to the opening of Symphony No. 7 led in the 1960s by Istvan Kertesz with the London Symphony (the Kertesz Dvorak cycle has long been a benchmark) and you'll hear some compelling dynamic accents that add extra tension; Alsop's approach is more even-tempered and, well, a little duller.

That sort of contrast can be heard in other spots as well, but Alsop holds her own in terms of the big picture, leading a performance that ultimately carries substantial expressive weight. Same for Symphony No. 8, which emerges with lots of character and warmth. In both works, the BSO produces a vivid, disciplined sound.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:09 AM | | Comments (3)


Thanks for the information. I was at the performance where they were recording the Gershwin program. Heading off to Amazon now to order the CD!

Happy to be of service. TIM

According to media reports, plastic waste from consumer products is a major source of pollution to the environment. It is reported that there is an area of concentrated floating plastic junks the size of Texas in the Pacific. I sure wish future music recordings will all be in digital forms, so the plastic cd cover and cd case would be eventually turned into junk and be part of pollution.

CD is digital. It just happens to have substance, unlike the stuff you buy from Itunes. Unless you back it up. Then you're using resources. If you don't back it up ... well, good luck with that strategy.

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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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