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20.9.14

BSO Opens the Season at Strathmore

This is a weekend of season openers, the first of which was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which kicked off its subscription series in the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night. Some listeners, who thought that Hilary Hahn playing Beethoven's violin concerto was the highlight of the program, were possibly disappointed that the soloist's recovery from a hand injury, taking longer than expected, forced her to cancel her engagement with the BSO. Veteran violinist Pinchas Zukerman must be thanked for stepping in on short notice to allow the concert to go on, but the Beethoven could have been omitted altogether, for the draw of this program was Mahler's fourth symphony, which thanks to soprano Tamara Wilson was as celestial as one could hope.

Marin Alsop last conducted this symphony with the BSO in 2009, when her soloist was the feather-light Susanna Phillips. By contrast, Wilson had all of the oomph and power she needed for the bigger moments of the symphony's finale, with the ability to float the final line of each strophe with precision, clarity, and translucent tone ("Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu!"). If heaven is not the way it is portrayed in this gorgeous music -- deer and rabbits run down the streets hoping to serve up their own flesh to the elect, the angels bake the bread, and fish swim up to be eaten on fast days -- it should be. Mahler once described the fourth symphony as a series of children's dreams, and Alsop and her musicians captured this guileless quality beautifully in each movement, the first movement more happy-go-lucky than driven or bubbly, the exposed flutes like Mahler whistling along on one of his Alpine walks, reveling in mawkish sentiment in places. Jonathan Carney produced a bold, mustache-twirling tone in the scordatura solos from Freund Hain in the second movement, amid a scherzo of Mendelssohnian lightness. The slow movement was perhaps just a notch too fast for its tempo marking of "Peaceful," not allowing one to wallow in the lush sound of the cellos, for example, but the massive swell of sound that begins the transition into the heavenly vision of the Des knaben Wunderhorn poem set in the fourth movement was given all of its shock and power.


Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO opens 99th season in great form with Beethoven, Mahler (Baltimore Sun, September 20)

Simon Chin, A reshuffled Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can’t quite fill the void after headliner’s exit (Washington Post, September 20)
It is the 200th anniversary of the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, as well as the season opener, and the BSO chose to open with one of its odder arrangements of the American national anthem, by Christopher Theofanidis, which is a little too odd to be effective for this kind of event. As for the Beethoven, it is difficult to make much of a mark with this piece, which is so overplayed, and Zukerman played it in a decidedly old-school way, with big tone, bruising vibrato, and Romantic phrasing, even playing along with the orchestra in the introduction and some of the interludes. The second movement did not seem to come together in terms of the pacing, perhaps the result of a disagreement between soloist and conductor, but the third, although a bit on the conservative side in tempo, was gutsy and full-voiced.

This concert repeats on Sunday afternoon, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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