Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Russian music is uneven

March 7

Our government may be pondering economic sanctions against Russia, but our musical institutions continue to feature the country’s music prominently. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered works by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich on Thursday evening, featuring Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The violinist is a frequent BSO guest, and she and Alsop have a close working relationship.

Salerno-Sonnenberg is an acquired taste. Her grimacing and jazz-musician performance schtick no longer bother me; lots of soloists make spectacles of themselves these days, and I’m getting good at tuning it out if the music-making is still of high quality. But Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance art often overwhelms the composition, as it did in her Tchaikovsky Concerto a couple of seasons back. The Shostakovich A Minor Concerto here was much more palatable. The two fast movements were frightening, hell-for-leather battles with the orchestra, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s virtuosity emerging victorious. The two slow movements suffered from her need to “say something” on every note — building long, coherent phrases doesn’t interest her — but Alsop created a spooky spider web around her in the Nocturne, and the playing somehow fit the atmosphere.

The concert opened, inexplicably, with the Rachmaninoff “Vocalise” in the composer’s gooey arrangement. With all the great Russian orchestra music out there, Alsop could only come up with this wilted, overplayed flower? The applause barely lasted long enough to get her offstage. The same composer’s “Symphonic Dances” was a different matter. Although the work goes downhill a little after a particularly brilliant opening movement, it is still an intoxicating romp for both players and listeners. Alsop and the BSO were at their best, digging into the muscular tunes and blazing fanfares with a spirit and energy that carried over into the Shostakovich encore, the final dance from his ballet “Bolt.”

Battey is a freelance writer.


Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. (Christian Steiner)
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