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26.2.12

Baltimore Symphony off the Cuff

Friday evening, Music Director Marin Alsop brought the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Music Center at Strathmore for an "Off the Cuff" performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. The intermission-less program began at 8:15 pm, with a thirty-minute introduction by Alsop and excerpts interspersed by the orchestra, followed by the fifth symphony in its entirety. Loosely based on Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Alsop, a protegee of Bernstein, cleverly used the "Off the Cuff" format to humanize Prokofiev and characterize his musical voice.

Alsop, as professor, story teller, and conductor, spoke about the looming monumentality of fifth symphonies, following Beethoven, given the sixteen-year span between Prokofiev's fourth and fifth, just enough about Sonata Allegro Form, and most interestingly about transformation. She then had the orchestra play contrasting examples and pointed out changes of harmony, meter, and register to show how Prokofiev can take an idea and run. Further excerpts helped map the symphony and its instrumentation, ending with the following practical advice: "You don't necessarily have to understand it, but you'll feel the organic quality of these movements." By this time, the thus far patient orchestra was ready to lunge into the work, and the audience ready to experience it.


Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Alsop leads BSO in high-voltage works by Prokofiev, MacMillan (Baltimore Sun, February 24)
Conducting from memory with tall vertical gestures instead of the tense hunch seen in previous years, Alsop led vigorously, yet with a loose enough grip to let the musicians create their ideal level of expression. In addition to stories, facts, and motifs, the audience was primed to create images when listening to this dramatic work that encompasses much tragedy, humor, and victory. One could picture Prokofiev conducting the premiere in Moscow on January 13th, 1945, when victorious news was spreading that the Red Army was crossing into Nazi Germany, or playful images cued by frolicking sounds that might possibly have been derived from the composer's first opera, premiered at the age of eight, during the blissful childhood that he was perpetually pained to seek in adulthood. The magical transformation from tragic heavy material to gorgeous textures in the upper registers in the third-movement Adagio was sublimely handled by Alsop, who wanted to express to her primed audience that this was truly "Prokofiev's voice." The cello section's gentle, fluttering trills in their highest ranges were most memorable.

The brass in the first movement had a bright sound that moved linearly; however, the BSO's irascible narrow-sounding splatting by the low brass (perhaps it is just one bad apple) resurfaced in the final movement, diminishing the impact of the work's concluding victory. The upper strings were so eager to please that Alsop often gave them the universal "talk to the hand/chill out" gesture in a forgiving way so that the winds could take the lead.

Next weekend, the BSO will perform a live score by Richard Einhorn to accompany a screening of the classic silent film Voices of Light (March 2 to 4). The next "Off the Cuff" concert will be the first weekend in May (May 4), showcasing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad").

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