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January 21, 2012

Alsop leads BSO in blockbusters; Olga Kern featured in Tcahikovsky concerto

It is possible to quibble with the idea of cramming three blockbuster works into a single program, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra carries it off.

Ravel’s “Bolero,” that brilliant study in rhythmic and melodic reiteration, not to mention crescendo, is more likely to serve as a concert finale than a curtain-raiser, leading into Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming Piano Concerto No. 1. But here they are, back to back.

And after two of classical music’s Greatest Hits, why not one more? Well, at least one of classical music’s Greatest Minutes — the introductory passage of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” forever identified as the theme from the sci-fi classic “2001.” The rest of Strauss’ ambitious reflections on the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may not be quite as popular, but the whole thing is a marvelous showpiece.

What makes these three war horses well worth trotting out together is the terrific music-making they inspire. On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the connection between music director Marin Alsop and the BSO sounded like it had reached a tighter, more spirited level. This was especially evident in “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Of course, there was an instant let-down at the very start. The indelible opening, with its gradual sunburst of C major, should rattle your chair, tingle your spine. It has a lot better chance to do that when ...

there’s a pipe organ in the house, as Strauss calls for, delivering a shattering tonal foundation.

Alas, Meyerhoff is not equipped with such an instrument, so a puny electronic substitute has to suffice. I know it’s just a pipe dream, but can’t some fabulous donor make a giant gift to pay for the installation of a first-rate pipe organ? Ah, but I digress. .

Strauss’ music can be heard as a tense drama between intellect and emotion, art and science, nature and religion. Or it can be enjoyed simply as a tour de force of thematic development and orchestral coloring. Whatever the notion, this is eventful stuff.

Back at the start of her tenure here, Alsop could be a little stiff with such emotionally charged works, more concerned with the technical points of a score, and the orchestra tended to respond in kind. Things are very different now.

The conductor led a fully impassioned, beautifully shaped performance. She was sensitive to small details and ensured that each explosive peak had sufficient impact. Alsop also caught the quizzical mood at the end, the conflict of tonalities that represents how difficult some questions of existence are, how out of reach some answers will always be.

There was an all-hands-on-deck effort from the ensemble. The strings summoned a burnished tone and sang out all those ecstatic, only-by-Strauss melodic curves and leaps (the cellos and basses did sound out of sorts, intonation-wise, at the start of the fugue, but that was a minor matter). The brass and woodwinds offered considerable warmth and power.

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney delivered the solos in the “Dance of the Superman” passage — only Strauss could envision Nietzsche’s hero as a happy Viennese waltzer — with great charm.

The only good reason to drag out the Tchaikovsky concerto yet again, rather than the composer’s under-appreciated No. 2, is to present a formidable keyboard artist. Olga Kern, winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition a decade ago, is certainly that.

She has the requisite athletic prowess, for one thing. Consider how Kern attacked the wild octave passages in the outer movements on Thursday. More often, when pianists are tempted to go for broke in those measures (almost all of them are now), you get nothing but a big blur of bravado. Kern managed to maintain a remarkable degree of clarity even at supersonic speed.

The pianist had plenty of passion for the grand lyrical tunes, and made something meaningful out of most of the material in between. Softer dynamics and other nuances would have been welcome here and there; a bit of Mendelssohn-like delicacy in the middle of the second movement, for example, could have added a lot. Still, this was a formidable display of pianistic gifts.

Alsop did not just maintain smooth sailing from the podium, but brought considerable nuance to the orchestral side of things. She did that as well in “Bolero” at the start of the concert, drawing out a good deal of expressive solo playing and, ultimately, smoothly leading the combined the forces into quite a satisfying sonic release.

The full program is repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff. Alsop's offers an "Off the Cuff" exploration of "Also sprach Zarathustra" at 7 p.m. Saturday. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


I appreciated your review of Olga Kern's performance with the BSO and am wondering if you will also be reviewing Lise de LaSalle as well.
Jim Huitema

Review ran on this blog the other day Here's a link:

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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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