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September 22, 2012

Baltimore Symphony celebrates American music in season-opener

Who needs the three B's when we've got two B's and a C?

Not that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra intended some grand, huzzah-huzzah patriotic statement or anything, but wasn't it nice to hear the season open without a single piece by a dead white European?

(OK, so the program features works by dead white Americans, but, still.)

Music director Marin Alsop chose three of the finest examples of 20th-century, tonally-grounded American classics -- Copland's Symphony No. 3 (I think of it as our Brahms' First), Barber's Violin Concerto (I think of it as our Bruch's G minor), and Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Warterfront" (I think of it as our Bernstein's Symphony Suite from "On the Waterfornt").

And wait -- there was a living American composer on the bill, too, after all. That would be ...

George Bogatko, a friend of Alsop's who was invited by her to fashion a new arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the season kick-off. (Plans call for the next several seasons to open with freshly commissioned versions of the national anthem).

I rather enjoyed Bogatko's treatment at the start of Thursday's Meyerhoff Hall performance, even if it did sound like it began in a tributary of Wagner's Rhine. Harmonically and, especially orchestration-wise, the anthem emerged in an effective, mostly subdued manner. (I suppose the BSO will hear complaints from some folks, especially those used to singing along with the traditional version.)

The orchestra did not always sound thoroughly unified and focused Thursday evening, but occasional unevenness caused little damage. The playing had plenty of communicative fire.

Bernstein fashioned a terrific film score for Elia Kazan's gritty dockworker drama. The composer clearly could have been a contender in Hollywood, had he chosen such a path. He poured some of his most lyrical and dramatic music into "On the Waterfront," offering a foretaste of what he would achieve in "West Side Story" a few years later.

The suite from the Kazan movie becomes a massive absorbing tone poem, and Alsop seized on the expressive bounty to fashion a soaring, crackling performance that inspired some particularly telling, full-throttle efforts from the brass and percussion.

The Barber concerto is ideally suited to the talents of Gil Shaham -- and his 1699 Stradivarius.

The violinist managed to unleash all the romantic yearning in the score's first two movements without a single cloying phrase, to dig into the most rhapsodic passages without turning showy. This sense of balance made the exquisite beauty of the music shine all the more brightly.

And when it came time for bravura, in the wild, blink-of-an-eye finale, Shaham delivered it handsomely, taking it at a supersonic clip that still allowed the notes to be savored.

Alsop was in the soloist's groove from the get-go and drew some stylish work from the orchestra. The pivotal second movement oboe solo was delivered in exceedingly touching fashion by Katherine Needleman.

Copland's epic Third wanders a bit at times, and it sticks with some thematic ideas a little too long. But what imaginative, absorbing, soulful stuff this is, imbued with an unmistakable flavor of Americana (how a Brooklyn guy could so perfectly evoke prairies and mountains is still astonishing).

Alsop let the tension slip here and there, but otherwise guided the sprawling symphony with a sure, sensitive hand. At its best, the ensemble responded with richly layered playing.

Earlier on Thursday afternoon, the BSO held an affecting memorial service for principal timpanist Dennis Kain. This extraordinary musician was still on everyone's mind that evening -- in between the Bernstein and Barber works on the concert, Alsop conducted "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" as a tribute to Mr. Kain.

The program will be repeated Saturday at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:33 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Beautiful concert. Couldn't believe the hall was only about three quarters full. Lots of empty seats even with a soloist of Gil Shaham's stature. That kind of support doesn't bode well for the future of the orchestra.

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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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