Strathmore was the place to be Thursday evening for Marin Alsop’s debut as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, leading John Adam’s Fearful Symmetries (1988) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Broadcast live on XM Satellite Radio, the performance was framed by an on-stage interview with Adams, who referred to his work a “25-minute ode to boogie,” and Maestra Alsop as the most "physically palpable conductor of American music since Leonard Bernstein" – meaning that she gets it. Adams joked that “a lot of people in my neighborhood don’t know who I am” and further characterized Fearful Symmetries as being minimalist with an “industrial-strength pulse, and symmetric harmony.”
Marin Alsop on Her Vespa, photo by Paul Schraub
Fearful Symmetries is named after a poem by William Blake (Tyger) and was further characterized by Adams in the program notes as featuring “maddeningly symmetrical four- and eight-bar phrases lined up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse… It’s clearly an example of what I call my ‘traveling music,’ music that gives the impression of continuous movement over a shifting landscape.” Performing with world-class precision, the BSO, who had taken to the stage smiling, enthralled the audience with well-blended synthesizer sounds and a fierce journey through truly unique textural transformations. A sweet, musical vulnerability was sensed toward the end of the work when it mellows, in addition to the feeling of regret that it was ending.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 features an extensive transformation from dark/death (mvts. 1 and 2) to light/life/love, etc. (mvts. 3, 4, and 5). The first movement begins with a plaintive statement by solo trumpet soon followed by a jarring tutti boom that demanded the full attention of the audience, whose attention was fully held to the end of the work. The soft, gentle second theme began flexibly with an appreciated hesitation. Alsop restrained the jolly scherzo (mvt. 3) to a tempo on the verge of slow, which led to a wonderful outcome of strength and clarity. Since slower tempi allow room to do more, all entrances were well placed, portamenti enjoyed, the details of the basses heard during the fugue. Excluding one divergence during the brief section for string quartet when the concertmaster unfortunately rushed (beyond flexibility) for a moment into another tempo, the unity of this performance was truly special for an American orchestra.
Tim Page, The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship (Washington Post, September 29)
T. L. Ponick, Pulsating rhythms with BSO (Washington Times, September 29)
Tim Smith, For BSO, it's music, maestra, please (Baltimore Sun, September 28)
Tim Smith, Alsop, BSO generate sparks at Meyerhoff Hall (Critical Mass, September 29)
Chris Kaltenbach, An Ovation for Alsop (Baltimore Sun, September 29)
Anthony Tommasini, A Baton Leads Baltimore Into a New Era (New York Times, October 1)
George Loomis, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Alsop, Maryland (Financial Times, October 3)
Barrymore Laurence Scherer, Leading the Baltimore in a New Direction (Wall Street Journal, September 26)
The Adagietto suffered from a lack of warmth and too much volume, which left the ensemble nowhere to go in terms of dynamics. Additionally, the strings tended to clunk from note to note instead of welding their way through the sublime movement. In fairness, coordination became better toward the end of the movement. The fugue in the final movement suffered from sawdust -- read: strings sawing on individual notes instead of creating musical figures, or groups of notes to make shapes -- and slight coordination issues that were before absent. The descending brass sequences nearing the end were incredible, as was the chorale-like harmonic stability at the very end.
Thus, in terms of quality of playing, the BSO has set the bar very high. Will this quality continue through the entire season, even without the pressures of microphones? (Some of the BSO’s best recent playing was heard during the weekend part of their Dvořák cycle, recorded at the end of last season.) One is eager to encourage the BSO musicians to meet and surpass their potential. We know what you are capable of; don’t let it slip.
Additional Comments by Charles T. Downey:
Marin Alsop had only to walk onto the stage of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Friday night to receive a standing ovation. Rare have been the evenings with that hall so full for a concert by the Baltimore Symphony in recent years. One can only hope that the honeymoon will be long-lasting for Alsop and Charm City. That this renewal was consecrated over a program of John Adams and Mahler is all the more remarkable. The future looks bright for all of us who want to hear more contemporary music from the area's major ensembles.
Fearful Symmetries provides a good workout for an ensemble, requiring a different sort of sustained virtuosity. In Friday night's performance, the BSO performed with a good sense of shape, guided well by Alsop in color and scope. The only lack was in the ensemble unity, which just never quite gelled, and Alsop's three or four gestures to various corners of the orchestra -- two fingers stabbed at her eyes -- indicated that all parties were not on the same page. The brass section occasionally seemed to be pushing the edge of Alsop's beat, while the most off-kilter pacing came from the synthesizers, placed far away and at the side. If Alsop could forego some of her dancing, crouching act on the podium, her beat might be clearer. Even with minor imperfections, this piece can provide, when you listen with your eyes closed, some beautiful expansive American landscape imagery. With regular workouts like this, the BSO is hopefully headed toward a honed, specialist sensitivity to contemporary music.
Marin Alsop's "Media Juggernaut" at work
Alsop's Mahler 5 added up to about 70 minutes of music, roughly similar to the Rattle and Solti recordings. Even after strenuous moments in the Adams, the brass had apocalyptic strength up to the astounding final measures of the fifth symphony, with very good performances from the principal trumpet and trombone, as well as a generally fine solo horn in the miniature horn concerto of the third movement. The funeral march was steady, if reserved, with pronounced rubato on the openings of phrases. The fast sections were generally frenetic, even manic, and Alsop tended to blast by significant moments like the end of the second movement, where there was little sense of wonder or transcendence. The scherzo had a driven, disjointed feel, contrasting beautifully with the gentler trios. There was plenty of excitement and strong, confident playing, but the Adagietto, in particular, was a disappointment. Alsop never seemed to settle into a comfortable reading and never brought the orchestra down to a true pianissimo. It was not Mahler to remember, but the experience of Mahler 5 live is almost always rewarding.
John Adams will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next week (October 4 to 6) in two of his own works and Beethoven's 7th symphony. The next local performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 will be by Het Concertgebouworkest, brought to the Kennedy Center by Washington Performing Arts Society (February 3, 2008). Now that will likely be Mahler to remember.