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Celebrating Wagner's 200th

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is on a roll this month. After a fine program centered on the Sibelius second symphony last week, conducted by Hannu Lintu, Marin Alsop led an all-Wagner program last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, the first of three concerts this season marking the 200th anniversary of the composer's birthday. Playing a whole evening of opera excerpts, perhaps especially operas by Wagner, is a risky venture: you may lead some in the regular symphony-going crowd to stay away (there were a few complaints heard last night), but you may also gain many opera-minded listeners, especially Wagner lovers (a few German conversations were also overheard). Anyone who loves Wagner's music will want to hear this program, especially since the voices on offer are generally well worth hearing.

At the top of that list is a voice more or less new to these ears, American dramatic soprano Heidi Melton, who was heard as the Third Norn in the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle. It is a big voice but one that is being wisely used, conserving some energy in a smooth, ecstatic Liebestod, from Tristan und Isolde, on the first half, forcing Marin Alsop at the podium to hold back the orchestra in proportion to her sound, but opening up for the climaxes of the first act of Die Walküre in the second half. Melton's diction and handling of Wagner's vocal demands have benefited from her recent work in Karlsruhe and Berlin, and the rich, buttery tone was always a pleasure to the ear. Although Isolde did not seem quite as comfortable for her, she was an incandescent Sieglinde, a role that she sings this season in Berlin. Fresh off what many thought a career-altering performance as Alberich in the Met's Ring cycle, Eric Owens made a wily, spiteful Hunding here, a smoky-toned voice giving vitriolic punch to this supporting role. As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich had a ringing, heroic tone that carried easily over the amassed orchestral sound. Although the top was not always fully sure and Winterstürme felt a little disjointed, he hit the mark at the climactic moment, the shouts of "Wälse! Wälse!".

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Trio of Americans make BSO’s all-Wagner program shine (Washington Post, February 18)

Tim Smith, The Baltimore Symphony delivers vivid Wagner program (Baltimore Sun, February 16)
If there was a deficiency in this performance, it was the conducting of Marin Alsop, whose default setting seems to be over-excited agitation. This caused a few ensemble alignment problems in the concert opener, the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with her jangling, dancing gestures seeming to communicate slightly different beats to different parts of the orchestra (she started the piece on the slow side but then seemed to want it to go a little faster). The BSO's sound, though, was grand and glowing, a wall of string sound, backed up by heraldic brass (only some high-profile awkwardness in the low brass -- the Wagner tubas, I think -- detracted), with a percolating woodwind section in the middle. The piece served its ultimate purpose as an overblown show-opener, but even the loudest textures, with a little more fine-tuning, can be more effective with more thoughtful balancing. Greater patience would likely have served the prelude to Tristan well, too, but Alsop is not one to linger over things, meaning that much of this most luxuriant music felt a little rushed. That impatient, impetuous approach did make the introduction to Die Walküre satisfyingly frenetic.

This program repeats this evening at Strathmore (February 16, 8 pm) and tomorrow afternoon in Baltimore (February 17, 3 pm).

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