Baltimore Symphony shines in program of Barber, Prokofiev, Beethoven
Of course, we may all be too partial around here, but it really is heartening to hear the orchestra sounding so cohesive and dynamic week after week. And this particular concert offered unexpected pleasures at every turn.
To start, there was a dash of Samuel Barber, and one of his less frequently encountered works, the Essay No. 2, a taut score that packs a good deal of emotional material into a short frame. Marin Alsop conducted a bracing account of the piece. A little more nuance in phrasing and a little more polish in the playing wouldn't have hurt, but it was still an impressive curtain-raiser.
The vaguely Russian flavor of that Essay, in terms of dark lyricism and rich orchestration (I may have just imagined it) made the music a perfect segue into Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3.
This is Prokofiev at his most dazzling, imaginative and ingratiating, with memorable themes popping up continually to be brilliantly treated.
The fascinating thing about this performance was how the soloist, Simon Trpceski, seemed intent on
downplaying the athletic and glittery elements of the work in favor of subtlety and elegance. I love hearing the concerto played with a bigger, bolder touch at the keyboard, but I loved Trpceski's glistening articulation, too. He made the familiar music seem warmer than usual, and more personal, too. Alsop delivered her usual rock-solid support, and the BSO seemed to relish the coloristic score.
This being the Mahler anniversary season, orchestras everywhere are playing more of his music than usual. A few clever orchestras, including the BSO and London Philharmonic, are going one step farther and playing some of Mahler's controversial "re-touchings" of works by other composers, offering another way to get inside Mahler's creative thinking.
Alsop chose Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony for this program and did a memorable job with it. The conductor can come across as a little square with Beethoven's music, maintaining generally fast tempos and keeping phrases within tight boundaries.
Here, she seemed inspired not just by the extra sonic power from Mahler's tweaking of the orchestration, but also by the opportunity to savor Mahler's ideas about rhythmic pulse and the molding of a melodic line. Alsop took the funeral march movement, for example, at a true funereal pace, slower than when she led the pure-Beethoven version of the symphony a couple years ago. This is surely close to how Mahler conducted it.
And, come on, you've got to admit it's so cool to hear all those extra instruments Mahler puts into the score -- four flutes, four oboes, five clarinets (including E-flat clarinet, which hadn't even been invented in Beethoven's day), four bassoons, four trumpets and a whole gaggle of horns.
Mahler didn't just want more sound, but wanted more of Beethoven's themes to emerge clearly and with impact. He was hardly the first or last conductor to tamper with the Bard of Bonn's original intentions, and he certainly didn't do it just to show off or annoy the purists. There's an honesty and sincerity here, and Alsop's sensitive approach made it shine.
The performance had, in a word, gravitas. And the BSO's disciplined, vibrant response suggested that the musicians fully relished the novelty and the artistry of this "Mahler-oica."
PHOTO OF SIMON TRPCESKI (by Jillian Edelstein) COURTESY OF BSO