« Midweek Madness: A musical romp through 'Downton Abbey' | Main | Monday Interlude: A potent date for opera singers »

February 24, 2012

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


In addition to yet another top-notch piece of writing reviewing this Prokofiev, MacMillan concert, I was appreciative of your feature on skull-crushing at Center Stage. Just saw the production (motivated by your review of it) and wondered: of what were the skulls made? Whether you or your editor chose this topic, I was delighted to find full backstage reporting and fun writing to read. Are there living people whose skulls you would actually like to crush?

A commenter or two, for a start. (And it was my idea, by the way.) TS

"A curiously small audience turned out for the encounter"
Curiously - really? Still don't understand Baltimore audiences, do we. But better than watching the Academy Awards!

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected