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November 12, 2010

Baltimore Symphony shines in program of Barber, Prokofiev, Beethoven

It will be interesting to see how a New York audience reacts to the program that the Baltimore Symphony will perform in Carnegie Hall on Saturday. I thought it was terrific Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall (there's a repeat there Friday), and, from the sound of it, so did the rest of the hometown crowd.

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

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

There was a time when it was commonplace for conductors to put their personal stamp on a piece of music. This can certainly be said of Ms. Alsop's predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, and conductors like Leonard Bernstein among others.

We now seem to live in the world of musical accuracy; the attempt to reproduce exactly what is written on the page. While this may reduce the chance of a bad performance, it also reduces the chance of hearing a truly great and memorable one.

So what we experienced last week was a sort of compromise. The orchestra faithfully reproduced exactly what was written on the page. What was written on the page was some conductor’s personal stamp on a piece of music.

You said "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."
Having a positive bias for the "home team" is only natural, but our high opinion of the BSO is being affirmed by many sources far from Baltimore.
The most recent I have seen was in Great Britian's prestigious classical music magazine, Gramophone, the BSO/Alsop recording of Bernstein's Mass was accorded the honor as the "Editor's Choice" for the best classical release of the last year. (It was "Best of the Month" In September, 2009). And Gramophone is hardly known for an American bias - long time readers of the publication will be aware of a decidely "pro-British" outlook from the magazine.
The BSO/Alsop recordings of the Dvorak Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies continue to receive praise from far and wide - regarding the disc of the 7th and 8th, Gramophone's review read, in part: “The amount of felicitous detail here is more than enough to justify purchase, even if you already own one or more versions of either work...Alsop should please both the eager newcomer on the lookout for a recommendation and the seasoned collector who knows and loves the music but fancies listening between the staves.” While BBC Music Magazine posited about the disc of the Ninth Symphony and Symphonic Variations: “It is rare to be able to say that a performance forces one to listen to a work anew, but this is exactly what Alsop's reading achieves. Excellently recorded and with an elegant and witty performance of the Symphonic Variations as makeweight, this is a superb issue all round.”
So the "local opinion" seems to be pretty widely shared - that the BSO is emerging from the ranks of "Very Good" orchestras with a claim to be included among the "Great" orchestras of the world.
Bravi tutti!
The BSO disc of the Dvorak Sixth has just been released (at least in the UK), but from the few samples I've heard, especially what sounds like a sparkling performance of the "filler", the Scherzo capriccioso, I expect this new disc will also draw rave reviews.

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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.
View the Artsmash blog
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