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January 21, 2011

Baltimore Symphony focuses on Russian repertoire with Marin Alsop, Kirill Gerstein

In the years since Yuri Temirkanov stepped down as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the orchestra has dipped sparingly into the Russian repertoire he favored and achieved so many memorable performances with during his tenure.

kirill gersteinHis successor, Marin Alsop, understandably thought it a good idea to re-balance the programs. This season, though, she clearly threw the gate wide open again, and the likes of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff came bounding back into the picture in a big way.

The latest program, which repeats in full on Sunday, finds Alsop addressing one of Temirkanov's specialties, the gripping Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich. Two Rachmaninoff items fill out the concert.

The Shostakovich work will also be the focus of Alsop's "Off the Cuff" presentation Friday at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- a discussion of the symphony's turbulent history will be followed by a complete performance of the score at these concerts.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff, the BSO did not always sound totally settled into the groove. There was occasional roughness of articulation and loss of tone quality, both within sections of the ensemble and from several solo players. Still, there was enough expressive fuel to generate an absorbing experience.

The opening Rachmaninoff half of the evening got off to a

gentle start with the composer's exquisitely reflective "Vocalise." It was shaped with admirable rhythmic elasticity by Mihaela Cesa-Goje, a participant in the Taki-Concordia Conducting Fellowship spearheaded by Alsop to help bring more women to orchestra podiums.

Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos are all exciting and imaginative, but the public only clamors for No. 2 and No. 3 (the Second is on a BSO program next month). So it was all the more enjoyable to find No. 1 on this program. Reminiscent of Grieg's Piano Concerto in structure and mood, Rachmaninoff's First packs in a lot of melodic and coloristic material; a bold energy bubbles all the while beneath the surface.

The BSO was fortunate to have as soloist the exceptionally accomplished Kirill Gerstein. Winner of the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award (this non-competition honor has become one of the most prestigious in the piano field), Gerstein has just what it takes to unleash the richness of Rachmaninoff's music -- rock-solid technique, prismatic tone, impeccable taste. 

Without the slightest ostentation (no pointlessly fluttering hands, no facial mugging), the Russian pianist simply played the heck out of the challenging work. And without a trace of sentimentality, he also tapped persuasively and elegantly into the music's lyrical vein. Alsop dovetailed the orchestral side of things neatly.

Shostakovich's Fifth, which the composer supposedly wrote to win back favor of Soviet authorities angered by his modernist tendencies, has come to be seen by many as a defiant, even wonderfully subversive gesture. Whatever subtext is at work, it's a masterpiece of form and content, providing an emotional journey of Mahler-like depth (and, quite often, Mahler-like idioms).

Some Russian conductors -- Temirkanov, especially Rostropovich -- have been known to create an almost unbearable intensity and deeply personal feeling with this symphony. Alsop, conducting from memory, took a somewhat more detached approach. But, once past a blandly shaped first movement, she gradually and effectively turned up the heat.

Through it all, she kept the score's architecture clear and telling. The Largo movement emerged with particular sensitivity; the finale was given a bold, un-hurried sweep that allowed the music's undercurrent of anxiety to be strongly felt. Though not quite at the peak of its game, the BSO did some impressive work. Phil Munds' gleaming horn solos proved particularly satisfying.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:33 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


The Shostakovich Fifth last evening was very entertaining. Marin's Off the Cuff lecture was, at first, completely lecture ... I was afraid there would be no music demonstrations, but those came along in the second half of the talk.

The performance seemed tight and energetic. The music ... a bit frenetic for my taste. But it's good to try different things.

Afterward, Marin hung around for another half-hour or so answering audience questions. That was enjoyable too. I love Off the Cuff series and wish there were more during the season.

I can well imagine that series expanding. Be sure to let the BSO know (of course, they wouldn't dream of missing this blog, so they'll know of your support anyway). TIM

Mr. Smith one of the difficulties in learning something new (as I am to classical music) is to understand the vernacular of the new experience. In this post two such phrases were- "There was occasional roughness of articulation and loss of tone quality" and "But, once past a blandly shaped first movement." Could you articulate differently so that I may learn what you meant?. Thank you.

Thanks for telling us about Mihaela Cesa-Goje's performance in the concert. The Taki Fellows have fallen off the map recently. The new ones aren't on the Taki website and can't get their names straight. It's good to know that the program continues.

Tim, I urge you to answer 'anonymous' question about your meaning of phrases you use to describe virtually all performances of the BSO as having patches of 'ragged articulation' and the like. Sometimes you add that the "lapse" really didn't diminish the overall performance. It does seem to be akin to a nervous tic for you to throw in these phrases and urge you to say precisely what you mean by them.

I think if you look around at other newspapers, you'll find that I am well within the norms of music criticism as practiced today. Besides, if I pointed to specific measure numbers where, say, the strings were not together or the brass chords were not totally in tune, someone would quickly complain that I was being too technical (not to mention picky). If words like "ragged" and "lapse" are truly beyond the comprehension of readers, I'd be more depressed than usual. TS

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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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