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.
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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.