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Bernstein Does Not Measure up to Mahler

Marin Alsop continues to program American contemporary music in her second season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. After Michael Daugherty's percussion concerto UFO last week, it was time this weekend to begin her tribute to her one-time mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic are co-sponsoring a Bernstein Festival, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 50th anniversary of his appointment to lead the NYPO; the Philadelphia Orchestra has hosted something similar. Alsop has programmed a few of his works this season, most notably the gargantuan and often-grotesque Mass. For these concerts and another series in April, Alsop has paired Bernstein with the music of the composer he did so much to champion, Gustav Mahler.

The chance to hear Bernstein's first symphony, an evocation of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, was welcome. One of several parallels between Mahler and Bernstein is a Jewish upbringing that was later submerged under other sympathies. Bernstein dedicated the "Jeremiah" symphony to his father, Sam, who was a Talmudic scholar, and his grandfather and great-grandfather had been rabbis in Russia. Those who are familiar with Jewish liturgical music have identified quotations of it throughout Bernstein's music, even Westside Story. Although Bernstein often asserted his independence from his heritage, like most composers, the music he heard sung by his father or in the synagogue was in his DNA.

Good to hear, but not hard to understand why it is performed so infrequently. The sound is typical Bernstein, Hollywood harmony tarted up with bits of dissonance and multi-metrics. The second movement, "Profanation," is particularly forgettable, a mocking scherzo reminiscent at times of a Yiddish-accented "I Want to Be in America." The high point is the elegiac third movement, "Lamentation," in which a mezzo-soprano sings selections from Lamentations, in Hebrew, a dramatic accompanied recitative about the devastation over the destruction of Jerusalem, a movement that would make an excellent choice to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The soloist on Friday night was Kelley O'Connor, and her wine-dark lower register, throaty but not growling, was just right for the work, although a couple higher passages sounded under-supported and breathy.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO explores worlds of Mahler and Bernstein (Baltimore Sun, September 26)
Alsop is an eloquent champion of Bernstein, as she showed in her charming introduction to the work, speaking from the podium. Ironically, pairing "Jeremiah" with Mahler's first symphony only underscored the American work's shortcomings. The Mahler was performed in its final version, after the title "Der Titan" and the descriptive movement titles had been dropped, as well as the second movement, "Blumine" (which Alsop performed with the BSO two seasons ago). The playing was generally good (a few problems in the horn section), opening with the tense melodic drone of the springtime awakening in the first movement. Alsop wisely kept the sound hushed in the soft passages, allowing the bird calls to sound clearly without being harsh. The tempo of the second movement never seemed set, opening at a slow pace that was not returned to at the repeat of the scherzo. Alsop also applied some unusual tenuti in the third movement, after a solemn opening on the Bruder Martin theme, the funeral march based on the "Callot" scene. It was certainly exciting to hear, a lot of boom and swell, if not yet a profound reading of the work.

The next major series of concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will feature Bernstein's Mass (October 16 to 18 in Baltimore and October 26 at the Kennedy Center).

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