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February 16, 2013

The Baltimore Symphony delivers vivid Wagner program

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chose some of Richard Wagner’s most radiant and involving music for a program this weekend to mark the composer’s bicentennial year. The results were pretty radiant, too, Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and will likely be even more so in the repeat performances, as things settle in more firmly.

As a person, Wagner was deplorable — vain, arrogant, manipulative, viciously and relentlessly anti-Semitic. As an artist, he reached the highest peaks. His importance to the evolution of Western music cannot be overstated; the fusion of intellectual brilliance and emotional power that propels his works cannot be overvalued.

The best way to appreciate this achievement is in an opera house enjoying a full staging of a Wagner music drama, but that opportunity is not going to arise in Baltimore any time soon. The BSO is offering the next best thing — a complete act from “Die Walkure” in concert form, with three excellent singers.

As a warm-up, there are samplings from “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger.” And warm was the word on Friday.

Conductor Marin Alsop emphasized the grandeur and humanity of the “Meistersinger” Prelude in equal measure. There was propulsion, but not haste, in her approach, and that helped the ingenious counterpoint in the score to shine through. The ensemble sounded sure and robust.

The BSO’s previous performances of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan” over the past decade have been orchestra-only. This time, there was a soprano in the house to do the honors in the “Liebestod” — the opera’s soul-stirring conclusion, when Isolde, having lost her beloved Tristan, essentially dies of love.

As in previous performances of the Prelude I’ve heard her conduct, Alsop ...

did not tap all the emotive possibilities of the score’s silences, or allow for much in the way of tempo-bending. I would have loved a finer pianissimo dynamic level, too. Still, the conductor unleashed much of the intensely poetic nature of this harmonically restless music, aided every measure of the way by the BSO, especially the strings.

In the “Liebestod,” Heidi Melton didn’t sound fully warmed up; top notes lacked ease. But the soprano’s phrasing communicated Isolde’s internal rapture vividly. Conducting this music for the first time with a vocalist, Alsop provided sensitive partnering. She kept the orchestra from swamping the singer, but hardly held back on passionate sweep.

Alsop was also leading a full act from a Wagner opera for the first time. What she achieved here suggests that she should consider doing more.

It is possible to extract more detail and nuance from Act 1 of “Walkure,” the second of the four works that make up Wagner’s towering “Ring of the Nibelung.” But Alsop kept singers and orchestra on the same tight wavelength as she shaped this hour-long scene, maintaining a strong inner pulse that still allowed room for breadth.

This act introduces three pivotal characters of the “Ring” — the heroic Siegmund who seeks refuge in a house that turns to be that of his long lost twin sister (soon-to-be lover) Sieglinde and her unpleasant husband, Hunding.

Brandon Jovanovich, as Siegmund, revealed a bright, warm tenor and an eloquent manner of phrasing. His top notes could have used a little more weight and stamina, but this was impressive Wagnerian singing just the same.

Melton blossomed as Sieglinde. Her vibrant, focused tone and attentiveness to text yielded a beautifully nuanced portrayal. She and Javonovich produced terrific intensity in the exultant closing minutes.

As Hunding, Eric Owens towered over everyone else onstage and unleashed a deeply resonant voice to match. His superb diction gave each word menacing impact.

Except for a wince-inducing slip or two in the brass section, the BSO delivered the goods handsomely, right from the dark, galloping music that opens the act. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski — the whole cello section, for that matter — made particularly subtle contributions in the score’s most tender passages.

The gradually diminishing coughs during the performance and the rousing ovation afterward made it clear that there is an audience eager here for Wagner. How about the complete Act 2 of “Tristan” next?

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:52 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes


Good review! It certainly was a riveting evening for this Wagner-starved town. Considering that it was her first (?) foray into opera performance, Alsop held a complex score all together, allowed the soloists breathing room while maintaining the music's arc.
Good as he was, I would have preferred a true bass for Hunding, one with really dark low notes. Thanks for listening.

Thanks so much for the comments. Alsop has conducted staged operas by Adams and Maw that I know of, perhaps more, but this was her debut in Wagnerland. I understand your feelings about Owens, but I thought his delivery made up for the lack of full-bass impact. TIM

I attended the friday performance at the Meyerhoff and from my seat (terrace level) Jovanovich was stupendous- better than almost every tenor that I have heard in this role. Melton did indeed warmed up beautifully for Sieglinde, and the luxury casting of Eric Owens (!) for 10 minutes of singing was amazing- I look forward to the return of each of these great singers. The flubs from the brass were terrible (3 of them!) but the other brass players and the rest of the orchestra were in top form. The strings in the stormy opening of Walkure were powerful and sumptuous. I was disappointed with the rather cautious approach from M. Alsop- perhaps when she becomes more familiar with Wagner's works there will be greater flexibility and command. yes, more Wagner please!

Dear Mr. Smith,
I would have to disagree with you on many counts. If you are not a frequent visitor at the MET or other major opera houses, then you are not very familiar with who is singing or how they're singing Wagner operas these days--because Brandon Jovanovich -I would say he is one of the best Siegmunds I have heard in many years and I am a regular at the MET. His top notes not only were full but they were round and sounded effortless!
Heidi Melton--sounded as glorious as ever. I recently heard her sing in San Francisco and this concert in Baltimore was even more beautiful and what a treat to hear her sing the Liebestod. Eric Owens is always a star, but I felt like he was holding back a bit! And--Maestra Alsop and the orchestra were splendid. To hear an entire act of Wagner here in Baltimore with the orchestra ON STAGE was super.

I reported on what I heard Friday night, not what I might have heard at the Met or anywhere else. ('If you are not a frequent' listener to other tenors delivering the cries of 'Walse,' perhaps you are not familiar with the different ways such momentous lines in that act can be, and have been, sung. )TS

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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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