Composer Jennifer Higdon (photo by Candace DiCarlo)
Beethoven's Egmont Overture opened the evening, a pleasing and vital work that brims with the heroic idealism and tragic fate of the historical Dutch nobleman, as seen through the German Romantic eye of Goethe. Part of the problem comes from the inevitable comparison in my ears to the concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier in the week, where the violin sound was so much more unified and clean. Part of the problem comes from Alsop's gesture, which is forceful and yet not all that clear, at least partially responsible for the deficit of ensemble unity and especially some ragged cutoffs.
The latest victim in Alsop's more or less backward traversal of the Dvořák symphonies (see previous reviews of the 9th, 8th, 6th) was the fifth symphony. Here again, the lack of crispness in Alsop's beat was worsened by the overall squirminess of her stance at the podium. She excels at expressive gestures, usually involving her entire body, but that physicality seems to reflect her approach to this kind of music, leading to a fairly frenetic interpretation. The first movement had a nice pulse, creating a joyful ebullience, perhaps a notch too fast in tempo choice. Again the playing was not always clean (problems with the flutes in the third movement, for example), but there was plenty of buoyancy and booming edge, especially in the roiling parts of the finale.
No, what Alsop does best and why the BSO is to be commended for holding on to her is her sponsorship of contemporary music. As she showed yet again at the microphone, during a brief introduction to the new violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon, is that she knows how to use her position as an advocate for new music. Higdon's music has proven eminently listenable on several occasions: for example, her choral work O Magnum Mysterium, the brief but bravura Fanfare ritmico, Zaka, the percussion concerto, the concerto for orchestra. The violin concerto is the most impressive work to hit my ears so far, a luscious score of considerable beauty, whose saccharine moments are balanced with the right amount of savory dissonance. Its memorable opening theme juxtaposes high violin notes and glassy harmonics with similarly high sounds from the glockenspiel, harp, and vibraphone (sometimes joined throughout the piece by the soloist's double or mirror image, the concertmaster), creating a sound that called to mind the Banquet Scene from The Tempest by Thomas Adès. The first movement's cadenza featured many complicated chains of parallel sevenths, the focus on certain intervals (unisons, sevenths, seconds, sixths) in the movement being determined by (or reflected in) its title, 1726, the address of the Curtis Institute of Music on Locust St. in Philadelphia.
Higdon and soloist Hilary Hahn met at Curtis, when Hahn took a course in 20th-century music from the composer (more on the history of the piece in Hahn's YouTube interview with Higdon -- you can also follow Hahn's online journal and her violin case's Twitterfeed). The young Baltimore-raised violinist returned home once again to perform the new concerto composed for her, and she has grown into the work quite nicely, playing from memory and making many nice sounds. Still, there was a sense that Higdon's concerto may be a little too large for Hahn, who is known more for her exquisite phrasing and subtlety than for blistering bravura tone. Hahn herself has acknowledged that Higdon "pushes the instrument a little," and her tone in the second movement -- Chaconni, an unwinding of several skeins of tone, although a short repeating harmonic pattern was difficult to pick out -- was somewhat brittle and waffling, warping out of tune especially while straining on the E string. The third movement, a dance-like exploration of shifting meters opened by brass and tubular bell strikes, went a little too close to a Mark O'Connor hoedown at times. Hahn may not end up being the best interpreter of this concerto, but these ears at least look forward to hearing it again (Deutsche Grammophon will release a recording).
While the National Symphony Orchestra is on tour in China and South Korea, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concludes its regular season this week with a concert featuring Yefim Bronfman playing Rachmaninov's third piano concerto and orchestral selections from the Ring Cycle (June 11 at Strathmore, June 12 to 14 in Baltimore).