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At Strathmore, BSO’s Americana optimism

By Charles T. Downey,

At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first subscription concert of the new season, heard at Strathmore on Saturday night, the orchestra played a program of classic Americana with grace and power. The music, from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, all sounded much the same, a reminder of the era before serialism and experimental composition had taken over classical music.

The symphonic suite from the film score for Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” was the first offering. It includes some of Leonard Bernstein’s most polished and searing music — from the suite’s plaintive opening horn solo and lonely wail of the saxophone, through the savage intensity of its percussion-driven fast sections to its fragile love theme massed into a raging surge. Conductor Marin Alsop led a convincing performance throughout.

Gil Shaham was on hand next as soloist in Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, part of the American violinist’s performing and recording project dedicated to violin concertos of the 1930s. Shaham’s intonation in high passages was a little perilous, and he did not bring much that was memorable either to the glowing first two movements or the “moto perpetuo” finale. Between these two works came the most moving performance of the evening, the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” offered in memory of Dennis Kain, the orchestra’s beloved principal timpanist, who passed away last weekend.

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, which rounded out the evening, relies heavily for its triumphant form on the composer’s reworking of his “Fanfare for the Common Man,” without the much-longer symphony really saying anything that the “Fanfare” did not. Still, its heady post-World War II optimism is something we could use hearing now as institutions such as the BSO struggle to stay afloat through bad economic times.

Alsop opened this concert with George M. Bogatko’s new arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” complete with a Wagnerian Rhine music introduction and decidedly Coplandesque re-harmonization. It is the first of several such commissioned arrangements to be performed each year leading up to the orchestra’s centennial celebration in 2016. How’s that for optimism?

The reviewer is a freelance writer.

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