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May 4, 2012

Magnetic performances from Marin Alsop, Leon Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony

Meyerhoff Hall was the place to be Thursday night.

In a Baltimore Symphony program of Ravel and Shostakovich conducted by Marin Alsop, the intensity started early and never really let up.

The result was music-making that rivaled the hottest nights of the orchestra's years with former music director Yuri Temirkanov.

Local favorite -- heck, local hero -- Leon Fleisher helped light the fuse at the top of the program as soloist in Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand.

The pianist was greeted with ...

a stirring roar from the crowd when he walked out and again when the performance ended.

For four decades, Fleisher was limited to such pieces as this, having lost the use of his right hand to focal dystonia. New treatments allowed him to resumed limited ambidextrous performances in recent years, but it was great to hear him on this occasion using only one.

With abundant physical power as needed and an equal amount of expressive sensitivity, Fleisher brought out the alternately earthy, impressionistic, jazzy elements of this brilliant and unusual work. Alsop provided sensitive, well-timed partnering from the podium and drew playing from the orchestra that sizzled.

There's something quite defiant underneath Ravel's concerto, commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm as a soldier in World War I. The music suggests an effort, by sheer force of will, to overcome obstacles, to stand proud.

Fitting, then, that the concerto should be paired on this program with a symphony that is also about defiance, struggle and pride, a symphony that also owes its existence to an international conflict started by Germany.

Shostakovich's Seventh, known as the "Leningrad" Symphony, was written while the composer's native city was under siege during some of the ugliest, darkest days of World War II. Imagery of that whole hideous episode seems to infuse every note.

The score's back story cannot help but make an impact, even when the music sometimes loses inspiration and focus. The net effect remains compelling because of the way Shostakovich invariably manages to tighten the inner drama at key moments, from the famous prolonged and malevolent crescendo in the first movement to the fiercely determined stance in the coda of the finale.

Alsop may not have this symphony threaded through her DNA, as her predecessor here, Yuri Temrikanov, does, but she revealed a firm grasp of its elusive structure and its extraordinary emotional content. There was a coherence, tautness and clarity in her approach on Thursday, as well as a palpable sense of involvement.

(If those who have been staying away from the BSO because they never got over Temirkanov's departure -- and you know who you are -- had been at this concert, they might have finally realized that the orchestra is in very capable hands with his successor.)

I particularly admired the pianissimo start Alsop assured for the first movement crescendo, with Brian Prechtl so delicately articulating the snare drum solo to underline the barely audible, weirdly banal tune that depicts the gradual approach of evil. Each subsequent increase in volume, like the cruel twisting of a knife, was superbly controlled.

Alsop continued to bring out telling details, from the second movement's hints of the woodwind shudders in the "Abschied" of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" to the Adagio's grim poetry. And the end of the symphony was made terrifically effective by the way the conductor held her forces in reserve until just the right moment to unleash the full, brassy fury.

Throughout, the BSO delivered. The strings summoned a good deal of tonal depth; the viola section sounded warm and expressive in the third movement solo. With few exceptions, the woodwinds did shining work, while the brass produced mighty, beautifully blended walls of sound.

Sunday's repeat of the program should be a knock-out, too. On Friday and Saturday, Alsop leads an "Off the Cuff" examination of the Shostakovich symphony.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


A stunning, stirring, inspired performance!
It was a privilege to be in the audience last
night and to have Shostakovich's vision
brought to life with such brilliance.

Hello Tim,

As a conductor my self I must say, that only D. Rozdestvensky could beat Temirkanov's interpretation of Shostakovitch. With all due respect to the Marin Alsop but Russian thinking way can not be beaten when it come to the performances of Russian music.

Kind regards,
Symphony Orchestra Conductor - Rihards Buks

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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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