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September 16, 2011

Marin Alsop, BSO open season with Mahler's epic 'Resurrection' Symphony

The most devout agnostic might easily be shaken to the core by the emotional force of Gustav Mahler's epic Symphony No. 2, nicknamed "Resurrection," the sole piece on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first subscription program of the season.

In the space of roughly 80 minutes, the music takes the willing listener from dark places, where suffering and death hover, into sunlit vistas, only to plunge again into even more grave-like depths.

Finally, after cataclysmic outbursts, tortured reflections and almost palpable pain, Mahler offers a mesmerizing, humbling glimpse of "a light that no eye has yet fathomed." In a magical effect, that light is gently spread by a chorus entering pianissimo to sing about how, after a short rest, we shall all rise again.

Whether one embraces that message or not, it is impossible to miss the monumental nature of this work from 1894, which reflects in every possible way the composer's belief that a symphony should encompass a whole world. And in a good performance, it is impossible not to be absorbed in -- and difficult not to be moved by -- the musical drama.

The BSO has done well by the "Resurrection" Symphony over the past decade or so. Former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov opened (in 2000) and closed (in 2006) his tenure with the piece. His successor, Marin Alsop, who has conducted several Mahler symphonies since taking the helm in 2007, is offering her first local performance of the Second in this week's concerts.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she led ...

an ultimately rewarding account of the score. It missed the kind of soulful depths that Temirkanov tapped into, but Alsop's interpretation had its own integrity and expressive force (and a level of orchestral discipline that Temirkanov did not exact.)

The long, eventful first movement needed a lot more fire and weight in places, but the second movement was gorgeously shaped and shaded; Alsop was admirably flexible in matters of tempo, attentive to subtle shifts in dynamics. She drew exquisite playing from the strings here.

The Scherzo was delivered with a good deal of bite. The ensuing "Urlicht" movement bathed the hall in a wonderful glow, thanks to the lush tone and poignant phrasing of mezzo Susan Platts.

Alsop held the sprawling finale together (a little too tightly sometimes) and had the orchestra producing considerable sonic power. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society was in peak form, from the hushed opening lines to the climactic peaks. Platts and soprano Layla Claire eloquently added their solo voices to the mix.

Although Alsop allowed the vocal phrases room to breathe and build mightily, the intensity level sagged a bit in the orchestral coda; the last notes lacked a truly visceral impact.

Still, all in all, a worthy account of one of the glories of the symphonic literature.

Some in Thursday's audience were not so worthy. Several folks wandered out at will while the music was in full bloom (one guy left about two minutes before the end, only to walk back in for the last 30 seconds -- what did he do, go out and spit?).

The worst offender, though, was the woman right in front of me who squirmed and fussed, kept digging something out of a noisy plastic bag, and, sure enough, started to talk once the chorus started to sing. I've known four-year-olds who could behave better at concerts. Geesh.

You know, it's pretty hard to concentrate on resurrection when you're thinking about murder.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:34 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


I thought it was a splendid performance and exuberant start to the season, especially with the necessarily enhanced brass and percussion sections. While the chorus and soloists' parts are small in comparison to the entire piece, they were beautifully rendered. Like you, I noticed the boorish movement among the audience - along with a surprising number of empty seats and the usual 'chorus of coughers' who seem to save it up for concerts and are especially prevalent during quiet passages. If only they had chosen to be the empty seats instead. This sort of behavior has seemed to be getting worse in recent years - a real shame given the quality of music the BSO can routinely provide.

Yes, those empty seats were worrisome. Mahler 2 should sell out a couple of performances in Baltimore without any difficulty at any time of the year. It's always hard to tell what's behind things like this, but I'd say it's certainly cause for concern. TIM

In my experience, most other halls do not allow people to wander in and out of the performance at will, and I am at a loss as to why the Meyerhoff does. I have seen audience members, quite rightly, refuse to allow someone to return to their middle-of-the-row seat in the closing minutes of a concert, but the management should not be putting patrons in the position of needing to do that.

Main Alsop is ALWAYS admirably flexible in terms of tempo. I am continually trying to describe to friends the Alsop accelerando and the Alsop ritardano, marvelous shadings, moldings, journeys instead of destinations.

It was a great concert and would have been even *more* mesmerizing had the gentleman directly next to me not decided that the best way to express deep introspection was to SCRITCH SCRATCHETY SCRITCHSCRATCH his beard-stubble during the most hushed and reverential sections. It was to the point where I had to wonder what he was even hearing of the concert. I mean, if his self-care was so loud to ME, sitting a fully human body-size away, how loud must it have been to HIM, whose ears (presumably) are ATTACHED TO HIS FACE?? It boggles the mind.

And don't get me started on the tuberculosis ward, or the people who decide it's perfectly okay to just start talking, especially if there's singing going on, because CLEARLY when words are happening, they want to be joined by MORE WORDS! Yaaaay, the more, the merrier!!

Seriously, what happened to LISTENING? Call me underdeveloped, or whatever, but I find it nearly impossible to get involved in the world of the piece when there's all this satellite nonsense happening around it, competing for my attention. NONE of it is as good or interesting or noteworthy as the music, and I wish people would realize this and either just keep quiet and relatively still or else STAY HOME. Nobody needs to hear your opinion on a particular phrase or dynamic WHILE THE PHRASE OR DYNAMIC (particularly if it's something in the "ppp" or "shut your face-hole" range) IS STILL GOING ON. Why is this so hard to grasp for some people?

Okay, sorry, Tim - just had to vent. Rant over. Thanks for your review!

Don't hold back, Michael! Rant away. Thanks. TIM

I'm not sure why even a concert of excellent content and implementation should be expected to be a sellout in 2011 when men and women, if lucky enough to be employed fulltime, must get up early to face a job the next morning. It may shock some elitists that most concetgoers don't live on catherdral ave or even Charles St, but in the boorish suburbs. Moreover the "Baltimore" Symphony is moving Saturday nite concerts increasingly to Bethesda for its more affluent and often more sophisticated DC area audiences. Sorry Baltimore, you don't have a symphony anymore, let alone a fulltime music director whose heart and wallet are now in Sao Paulo. Perhaps change the name to the Multicultural Symphony.

The BSO is performing 12 Saturday nights this season at Strathmore and 21 Saturday nights at the Meyerhoff.

I laughed out loud at your comments on the audience and, for once, was happy that I am out of town and NOT sitting in front of you, as usual! Keep it up. Maybe some of these actors will see themselves and shape up.


I'm not sure any of these folks can be shamed into shaping up, but here's hoping. TIM

On Friday night at the Q&A session someone mentioned how much audience noise angers him and told Marin he bet it upsets her even more. She replied that instead of anger she feels it's her fault because she isn't catching them up in the magic of the moment so she tries even harder!

She also talked about how lucky she is to work in both halls which are outstanding but very different, the Myerhoff having a very warm tone and Strathmore being bright.

Unhappily there were some empty seats for another magical performance.

Personally, I missed that larger than life quality that the greatest Mahler conductors bring, though I do agree about the orchestra discipline - an exception being some woodwinds where, by necessity, there were some "extra musicians."

But I was sad to see that Dennis Kain is still absent, though thankfully his name is still on the roster. Apparently, he's still recovering from his illness, so let's wish him to get healthy soon.

A study years ago showed that when the music becomes quiet, the adrenalin level of the listeners drops. And this allows them to cough, since adrenalin suppresses coughing.

Still, any hall that allows exit and re-entry during the music is run by people with a pop-music mentality. I've never heard of a reputable hall that allowed such nonsense.

Once during a Met Parsifal, a woman began the business with a cellophane wrapper. The guy sitting in front of her, reached back and grabbed her hand!! He held it firmly until the act ended. At that tie, those of us nearby faced him and applauded. I supposed he could have been arrested for assault, but she should have been arrested for theft of the performance for which we had paid.

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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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