Alsop leads BSO in high-voltage works by Prokofiev, MacMillan
Music from the 20th century gets the lion's share of attention on the latest BSO program -- the operative word is lion.
Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony and James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" are meaty, sometimes fierce works that provide everyone -- conductor Marin Alsop, the orchestra and listeners -- with quite a workout.
A curiously small audience turned out for the encounter Thursday night at the Meyerhoff. Perhaps more people will show up for Sunday's repeat. (The "Off the Cuff" concerts tonight at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff will focus solely on the Prokofiev symphony.)
MacMillan, a Scottish composer who brings a set of strong religious beliefs (Catholic) and a social conscience to his music, was seized by the pitiful story of Isobel Gowdie.
She was one of the many women in Scotland who faced the hideous fate of being accused of witchcraft. Her astonishing confession in 1662 has been widely studied and discussed from many angles.
For MacMillan, this is a case of intolerance and misogyny -- Alsop told the audience that that the composer was speaking out against "persecuting people because they're different" -- and requires some act of atonement. His arresting score attempts to provide it.
"The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" achieves ...
a remarkable level of darkness and angst by means of some wonderfully pungent chords and startling percussive thunder. There's a palpable sense of a horrible drama unfolding, a drama that you know should be stopped from reaching its wretched conclusion, but you are powerless, just like the accused.
Eventually, the strings sing out softly the promise of peace, while ugly taunts and threats continue to shatter the air. The effect is gripping. So was the performance.
Alsop, an ardent champion of the composer's, had the BSO churning awesome waves of sound and fury; the final sustained note, building to nearly a heavy metal-level volume, was brilliantly executed. This was visceral music-making. Even without the strange and haunting back story, this is a striking piece.
Alsop does not have the personal connections that someone like Yuri Temirkanov has to Russian music -- not that there is anyone quite like Yuri Temirkanov -- but she brings her own considerable passion and conviction to the material. So it was on Thursday in Prokofiev's Fifth, which Alsop led from memory.
The symphony is partly covered with the shadows of World War II, but also partly illuminated with rays from the light at the end of a gruesome tunnel. Alsop made it easy to feel these conflicting emotions, to sense a journey gradually turning upward. The conductor's taut tempos still allowed for breathing room; her interest in generating mighty fortissimos was matched with attention to subtlety.
The BSO delivered a big-boned sound, technical discipline and high-octane expressive fuel.
In between these two mighty works came a trifle, Sarasate's Fantasy on Bizet's "Carmen" for violin and orchestra. (Naturally, the BSO's marketing title for this program is "Carmen Fantasy.")
Going directly from MacMillan's witch to Bizet's bewitch-er took a bit of a mental adjustment, but the bravura exercise provided a nice showcase for associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins, who sported a Carmen-worthy gown for the occasion.
It takes a Heifetz to produce all of the fireworks in the score with effortless articulation and unerring intonation. Mere mortal violinists tend to land a little short of that mark.
Except for a little tonal roughness early on and slippery going in the coda, Adkins demonstrated admirable polish, not to mention delightful personality. Her phrasing vividly conveyed the sensuality and spice in the music. Throughout, Alsop and the orchestra provided their colleague with supple support.
PHOTO OF JAMES MACMILLAN BY PHILIP GATWARD, PHOTO OF MADELINE ADKINS BY CASSIDY DUHON