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September 24, 2011

BSO premieres work by James Lee III about Harriet Tubman

In addition to such things as new recording contracts and a nationally recognized education program, Marin Alsop’s influence as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can be seen in the programming each season.

She typically weaves connective threads through concert repertoire. For 2011-12, that thread involves commemorating extraordinary women, including Joan of Arc in Novembver.

This weekend, Harriet Tubman is the focus, via the premiuere of a work by James Lee III, a Morgan State University professor whose finely crafted music has been gaining increased exposure nationally.

The 12-minute “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” was greeted warmly by the audience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the program will be repeated Sunday afternoon.

“Chuphshah” (Hebrew for “freedom”) provides a whirlwind portrait of Tubman’s life and struggles, with quotations from vintage tunes that provide guideposts for listeners. Those quotations can’t help but bring to mind Charles Ives, this country’s first great composer; Ives packed his music with melodic reminiscences of Americana.

Lee references spirituals and, to conjure images of the Civil War, snippets of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.” If the device tends to make the music sound like a soundtrack in search of a documentary, the piece nonetheless succeeds on it own. The orchestration is consistently vivid; harmonies are often richly layered; spicy dissonances here and there deliver a bracing kick.

On Friday, Alsop led the BSO in ... 

a strongly etched account of the work. Jane Marvine played the English horn solo -- Lee uses that soulful instrument to represent Tubman -- with impressive warmth.

The rest of the concert was devoted to two items from 1890s, both among the best-loved items in all of classical music.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto suggests an epic biography of some heroic, yet all-too-human, figure. It is unconcerned with mere technical display, but rather requires the soloist to burrow into an alternately eventful and reflective world beneath the surface of the notes.

Alisa Weilerstein, already a significant artist before being awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship last week (the so-called “genius grant”), sounded a bit unsettled at the opening of the concerto. But she soon settled into the music and gave a distinctively lyrical performance. The Adagio and the haunting moments just before the end of the concerto inspired particularly subtle and poignant playing.

Alsop offered the cellist supple support and drew considerable expressive power from the orchestra.

Except for some untidiness in the last movement, the BSO also did impressive work at the end of the program in Tchaikovsky’s searing Symphony No. 6, the “Pathetique.” The conducting, though, proved less persuasive.

The middle of the symphony fared best. The second movement, the almost-waltz in 5/4 time, could have been played with finer gradations of dynamics, but Alsop ensured that the music’s tension came through powerfully. Even more impressive was show she drove the third movement’s defiant march along with a bold sweep and kept the repetitive patterns from turning routine.

But in the outer movements and their tortured emotions, the conductor favored momentum over poetry and breadth. The familiar phrases still communicated, but didn’t touch; the death-suggestive gong in the finale hardly had time to register. It was all a little too dry-eyed for me.

PHOTO (by Christian Steiner) COURTESY OF BSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:44 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


I am surprised, to say the least, that Alsop's 6th Symphony was "unconvincing". It was the piece that she most persaded the public and critics with during her Stokowski Competition final. Is she spending too much time with Dvorak's 9th?

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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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