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May 14, 2011

Impassioned evening with Schumann, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony

Robert Schumann could have been the perfect poster child for musical romanticism.

He was intensely passionate about everything; capable of composing exceedingly beautiful and turbulent music; and prone to severe mood swings. That he also ended up certifiably insane seals the deal.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is peering into Schumann’s troubled mind with two programs — one all-music, the other a music-and-talk presentation complete with guest psychiatrist. The first was performed Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and will be repeated Sunday afternoon; the second will be given there Saturday night.

Even without any detailed discussion on Thursday, conductor Marin Alsop’s few words to the audience at the start of the concert neatly set the stage for considering Schumann in light of his mental illness. As she pointed out, knowing the composer’s fate — he died at the age of 46 in an asylum — makes it difficult to hear his music without sensing his bipolar personality.

It was quite fun on Thursday to wallow in Schumann’s anxieties, staring with the “Manfred” Overture, a piece inspired by the guilt-ridden hero — and celebrated romantic symbol — of Byron’s epic poem. This is wonderfully tense, unsettled music, and Alsop had the orchestra digging into that character effectively.

Schumann dubbed his Symphony No. 1 “Spring.” On the surface, it is all about the happy little buds and bees of May. But the slow introduction to the first movement suggests a bigger, deeper view of nature and its power, the sort of view that Gustav Mahler would explore decades later in his profound symphonies.

Speaking of Mahler, ...

his re-orchestration of the overture and Symphony No. 1 — he deemed Schumann’s own orchestration ineffectual — was chosen for this program. There should have been at least a brief before-and-after demonstration for the audience to drive home the point of Mahler’s arrangements.

Alsop did not extract all the mystery at the symphony’s start, but she generated great vitality in the rest of the movement and kept the expressive fire going thereafter. Telling, subtle points were made as well, including Emily Skala’s sweetly-phrased flute solo in the finale. The first violins sounded a bit wiry and a brass chord or two lacked smoothness, but, overall, the orchestra was in typically poised form.

Symphony No. 2, composed as Schumann came out of a severe depression, opens with another slow introduction. Alsop took a little more time with phrasing and dynamics here; the result proved quite absorbing.

The conductor pushed the scherzo along with a very effective thrust, and her spacious, sensitive molding of the slow movement, one of Schumann’s most poignant utterances, paid compelling dividends. The BSO responded with a consistently warm, balanced sound and vivid phrasing.

All in all, a well-balanced program devoted to a great, if ever so slightly imbalanced, mind.

By the way, my luck was true to form Thursday. I have a way of attracting annoying people to the rows around me in any performance venue. This time, it was the guy behind me. It sounded as if he were ripping pages of the program book through the whole of the first half. So I decided to stand in the back of the hall for the rest. Peace, at last.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:05 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Did you say anything to the guy? Should you have? Would it have made any difference?

Lots of "new" folks in the audience last night ... nice to see.

Tim, do you know why they moved the second violins, cellos, and basses last night? Is that part of the Mahler re-orchestration?

I assume the seating was changed as part of the Mahler score. That's what I recall Leonard Slatkin doing when he performed the Beethoven/Mahler orchestrations with the NSO years ago. But I hesitate to guess what the BSO is up to, since I am so often off base. Of course, if I would just ask, that would help. But it's like a guy asking for directions on a road trip -- forgeddaboutit. I'm still wondering why the past two programs have found the associate and assistant principal cellists switching seats. What's up with that?TIM

Thank you for your interest.

Indeed, Mahler was specific about his seating plan for the strings. From left to right: first violins, cellos, violas, second violins (opposing the first violins), with the double basses in back of the cellos and first violins.

Raymond Kreuger

Associate Orchestra Librarian

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Perhaps this might answer your question about the cellists:

Thanks. That confirms my only hunch. 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 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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