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Marin Alsop Keeps It Traditional

On Saturday night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of the New Year in its home away from home, the Music Center at Strathmore. It was a program that had drawn concerned remarks from the area's two major newspaper critics, including Anne Midgette's first review as Interim Classical Music Critic at the Post, but the concert hall in North Bethesda was sold out and filled to capacity. There were no living composers to confront in this week's program. Once a pedestrian Magic Flute overture led in name only by BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellow Joseph Young was out of the way, there was only Marin Alsop and two major works of the standard repertoire.

For the first, Shostakovich's first violin concerto (A minor, op. 99), she shared the stage with soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. A brutish force of nature with a violin in her hands, Salerno-Sonnenberg stalked and stomped her way through much of the piece, slashing at the shrieking multiple stops in the extended cadenza leading to the fourth movement, for example, with athletic abandon and a tone that was occasionally rabid. She seemed a little wild, veering unpredictably ahead of Alsop and the orchestra at points in the second and fourth movements. The quiet opening of the concerto, an understated Nocturne, contains some of its best moments, and here Salerno-Sonnenberg summoned beautifully hushed sounds, as in the night-bird dialogues with piccolo and celesta. This was moving Shostakovich, although Salerno-Sonnenberg did not have all of the technical details in place (she seemed to have a cough) and there was something Russian missing. It is hard to define but it is definitely there in the recordings by David Oistrakh, who premiered the work, and Maxim Vengerov (with Mstislav Rostropovich).

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Different sound for familiar BSO piece (Baltimore Sun, January 12)

Anne Midgette, Taking the Pulse Of Classics, BSO Finds A Modern Beat (Washington Post, January 12)
Marin Alsop had a focused and precise approach to the Shostakovich, keeping her podium dancing to a minimum as she struggled to keep the fast passages on the rails at times. She may never be able to match the intensity and cool confidence with Shostakovich of her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov. For the second half of this concert, she programmed a masterpiece of the 19th century. Alsop's Brahms has not impressed me that much, in concert or on disc, but this rendition of Antonín Dvořák's eighth symphony was exciting and convincingly played (certainly more so than the last time it was under review, during Rostropovich's ill-fated final appearance with the NSO). The work opened, with that luscious cello melody, in an atmosphere heavy with fate and exultant with triumph, with bird calls and folk inflections from the Czech countryside in the second movement.

Alsop has burnished the string sound to a warm tone you could wrap yourself in, exactly what is needed for this music, and the clarion trumpet calls leading to the fourth movement were spot-on. The third movement was on the fast side of grazioso, with a skippy, light-hearted trio, and the fourth movement was crisp and tightly knit in spite of the fact that Alsop was mostly ignoring the ma non troppo part of the tempo indication. The only drawback of this driving approach, which certainly provided many thrills, was that the accelerando that closes the work did not have room left with the tempo already so brisk. All of this constitutes encouraging signs for Alsop's planned Dvořák cycle with the BSO.

Next month, Marin Alsop will conduct an interesting program combining music by Steven Mackey, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Strauss (February 7 and 8, in Baltimore only). Steven Mackey will speak as part of the Composers in Conversation series at the Meyerhoff that week (February 6, 7:30 pm).

Marin Alsop will appear on Charlie Rose's show on PBS tomorrow night (January 15), in the same episode that also features an interview with Alex Ross. Check your local listings for air times. (Hat tip to Critical Mass)

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