Music review: Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore

September 25, 2011

The Baltimore Symphony’s newly commissioned, Harriet Tubman-inspired work, James Lee III’s “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan,” kicked off the orchestra’s Strathmore Hall concert on Saturday with bursts of tonal color and an evocative layering of sonorities.

If the composer’s borrowed, Ivesian device of weaving snatches of spirituals and patriotic songs through a haze of strings lacked the pungency and startling originality of Ives’s own writing, his 12-minute tone poem nevertheless generated some potent atmosphere, with a hint of dissonance to flavor an otherwise warmly tonal writing style.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein did her part in making the thrice-familiar Dvorak Cello Concerto an urgently communicative event. Weilerstein’s sound is not huge, but she was expert at weaving her supple tone around the BSO strings, letting the solo writing submerge and surface as needed. The big moments drew an earthy trenchancy from her, but her most effective work came in the quieter passages, when her intense vibrato and tender way with phrasing blended to moving effect.

Conductor Marin Alsop — who drew fine, vividly engaged playing from her orchestra all evening — gave a shapely, dramatically aware reading of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, balancing her usual micromanagement of instrumental timbres with a surging drive in the emotionally fraught moments. It was the score’s passages of deepest tragedy — the despairing wind colloquy at the opening, the vaulting string figures in the final movement (where the sheen on the violins was positively luxurious), the mournfully hushed conclusion of the work — that showed this conductor at her considerable best.

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