Marin Alsop gets an A for effort. As music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she does every single thing that a music director should do. She appears frequently with the orchestra. She’s a presence in the community. She thinks of different ways to present performances and different kinds of programming. And she works incredibly hard at simply making music: She is always brilliantly prepared.
All the effort in the world doesn’t always add up to really first-rate music-making. But it produces, often enough, something that is at least commendable — as it did on Saturday night, when the BSO brought Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” to Strathmore.
A big difference between the BSO and the National Symphony Orchestra can be seen at the position of concertmaster. At the NSO, Nurit Bar-Josef, a lovely musician with a beautiful lyrical tone, seems downright self-effacing compared with Jonathan Carney in Baltimore. Carney so palpably exudes a sense of responsibility that on Saturday it seemed at times — as when latecomers were seated after Mendelssohn’s first movement — that Alsop was deferring to him. He also plays like a leader; it’s telegraphed very obviously, but Baltimore’s violins did sound pretty great.
The Mendelssohn, lyrical and sharply detailed, was a sweet aperitif before what may be Mahler’s greatest work. “Das Lied,” actually six songs based on translations of Chinese poems, is in effect a sung symphony that starts on a searing note, all jagged edges and nightmare imagery, with “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”) belted out by a heldentenor over full orchestra. Saturday’s performance brought all of the dynamic force but held back on the expression: It sounded vaguely docile. Simon O’Neill, the tenor, makes a great, big, squeezed-out penetrating sound, with a timbre that seems it should belong to a smaller voice but the stamina to keep singing without tiring, even if the emotional connection is a little lacking.
The mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe made a richer sound, moving from strong lows up to only slightly smaller top notes with a creamy ease like the lines of wax pastels. But she, too, was a little obedient.
Alsop, meanwhile, presided over every detail. I had a sense of music transmitted as clear, unmistakable outlines, filled in as flat planes rather than as dimensional forms, with at times an odd foreshortening as lower voices leapt into the foreground. But excessive clarity is not the worst charge one can level against a performance. “Das Lied’s” final and most powerful song, the half-hour “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), sung by the mezzo, began with strong, thick, liquid chords that set the stage for this powerful song’s blue-black narrative of twilight, passing and a kind of resurrection. If Hanslowe sounded distant, she also sang gorgeously, and when she and Alsop reached the final lines of the song, where a great apotheosis evokes the idea of death and rebirth, the keening “Ewig, Ewig” (“Forever, Forever”) gave me chills. Baltimore is lucky to have a music director who works so hard and cares so much.