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September 26, 2010

Baltimore Symphony opens season with Mahler and Mahler-ized Bach

Let the Mahler season roll.

Friday night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra fired the first shot in its commemoration of the composer's dual anniversary -- the 150th of his birth, the 100th of his death -- with a demanding program that made up in expressive energy for what it lacked in technical discipline.

The main item was Mahler's sprawling, quirky Symphony No. 7. This is the supposed problem child among his symphonies, the one that doesn't get much loving.

Part of the difficulty, perhaps, is that Mahler infused this score with layers of humor and even satire that aren't easily grasped. Some of the big, brassy gestures in the finale, for example, have a streak of parody in them; played too straight, they can just seem pretentious or hollow.

How seriously do we take the first movement's funeral march? And what's the relationship between a central scherzo, where things keep going bump in the night, and its surrounding movements labeled "night music" -- one sparked by odd marches, the other by the unexpected piquancy of mandolin and guitar?

It all adds up to quite a journey of the aural senses, and, for those of us easily drunk on Mahler, it all makes perfect sense, too.

BSO music director Marin Alsop has developed admirable chops for Mahler. Although she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein, she doesn't go in for quite the same sort of deep-emotion, soul-on-sleeve approach he developed. She tends to

make her points a little more objectively. That doesn't necessarily mean coolly, as evidenced by her richly satisfying performance of Mahler's Ninth last season.

For the Seventh, Alsop stressed propulsion above all. Although the first movement felt a little fast to me, the sense of tension and momentum proved effective. More in subtle gradations of dynamics and coloring would have been welcome in the three middle movements, but plenty of beauty and meaning nonetheless emerged through the conductor's shaping of phrases.

The finale suggests a crazy mash-up of Mozart's Overture to "Abduction from the Seraglio," Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger," Viennese operetta and any number of other Mahler symphonies. It's a fun, brilliant ride, and Alsop captured the music's spirit and drive with great panache.

Happily, by the time the BSO, expanded for the occasion with extra players, reached that bracing finale, it was sounding like a major orchestra and really rocking the place. Earlier, especially in the opening movement, things weren't always polished; assorted mishaps in the brass were particularly dreadful. Still, lots of the music-making had an impressive strength and character, especially from the strings, and several solo efforts, including from the tenor horn in the first movement, hit the spot.

The evening opened with a novelty -- Mahler's arrangement of movements from Bach's Orchestral Suites. When he prepared this material in 1909, Mahler didn't have to fear the historical authenticity police (we're closer now to true Bach performance practice than Mahler was a century ago). He freely used the full complement of strings, for example, and reinforced musical lines here and there. It's romanticized Bach, just as the transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski and others prepared in the decades after Mahler are romanticized, but entirely respectful and highly effective all the same.

Alsop fashioned an eloquent account of the suite and coaxed warm, cohesive playing from the BSO. There will be more of Mahler's intriguing arrangements later in the BSO's season. I can't wait.

PHOTO (by Dave Hoffmann) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:58 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

Happily, by the time the BSO, expanded for the occasion with extra players, reached that bracing finale, it was sounding like a major orchestra and really rocking the place.

Ouch.

Um, impending financial disaster notwithstanding, I think BSO *is* a major orchestra? Almost all orchestras need a few extra players from time to time for massive compositions like this.

Please forgive the bad sentence construction. I was just trying to make the point that the BSO had a decidedly off night for a good part of the Mahler and simply didn't start sounding like itself -- i.e., like the major orchestra it is -- until well into the score. I mentioned the use of extra players (many BSO programs call for extras, I know) to provide a possible explanation for the unusual number of technical shortcomings. TS

The tempo marking Mahler used for the last movement was fast, but not too fast. Alsip took it at a furious pace Saturday and the orchestra at one point wasn't playing together and musical lines were smeared.
Wasthis done because the extra players hadn't enough rehearsal time? It was surely unique and the the mish-mash complained or lauded was disturbing for one familiar with the symphony.

I didn't mind the fastness, since I'm rather partial to extremes. And on Friday, I thought the orchestra handeld the finale quite well, but, at that speed, anything can happen. TIM

This performance was the first Symphony I have ever heard live. My wife and I went to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Knowing almost nothing about classical music generally, and Mahler specifically, we bought a cd of the music two months ago in order to familiarize ourselves with it and then just showed up to hear it.

Our verdict: nice time. I don't think I'm one of those people who loves Mahler.

We'll probably go to another Symphony next year. (Next time I'll have to bring a flask, holy cow intermission is short!)

Boy, you sure picked a tough one for your first symphonic/Mahler experience. But I applaud you for giving it a try. The great thing about classical music is that there is so much variety, so many different experiences. This week, for example, there's Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony on the BSO program -- one of the most popular and instantly likable works in the repertoire. Anyway, I hope you'll try again. And thanks for writing. Oh yeah -- I really like the flask idea. 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 baltimoresun.com/artsmash. 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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