Baltimore's Bright New Baton

Marin Alsop was stellar in her debut conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Marin Alsop was stellar in her debut conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

BALTIMORE, Jan. 12 -- Marin Alsop, the incoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- and, not so incidentally, the first woman in history selected to run a full-size, full-time ensemble of such distinction -- hit the ground running Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Whatever unhappiness may have preceded Alsop's sudden appointment six months ago -- most of the musicians had been in favor of continuing the search process but were overruled by the BSO's board of directors -- Thursday night's program suggested that conductor and orchestra already have gone a long way toward establishing a successful partnership. If this level of musicmaking -- urgent, elastic, colorful and versatile -- can be maintained, Baltimore will be in for some exciting times.

The first half of the concert, in particular, was ideally suited to Alsop, to the orchestra and to the city itself, as it contained a dense and wrenchingly beautiful piece by a Baltimore-born composer, Christopher Rouse, and a rare appearance by Leon Fleisher, the master pianist and legend-in-residence at the Peabody Conservatory since 1959. This was not only sensitive and intellectually interesting programming in itself but also a seeming declaration of intent on Alsop's part: The BSO's current music director, Yuri Temirkanov, for all of his interpretive strengths, has been widely perceived as terminally uninterested in American music and only peripherally connected to the city. The Alsop regime, she seemed to be insisting, will be very different.

More power to her -- and to what will become, in 2007, "her" BSO. Rouse's Symphony No. 1 (1986) is a dark and frankly expressionistic work in 25 minutes. The program notes compared it to Mahler and Bruckner; I was also reminded of the Symphony No. 7 by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, and the uncharacteristically violent and reiterative Symphony No. 6 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The symphony has an extremely long beginning and an even longer ending: At its center is an aching, transparent plaint for strings that sounds rather like something Aaron Copland might have sketched as a suicide note. And yet it is all Rouse -- moody, sumptuously orchestrated and, despite its nods to other composers, breathtakingly personal. Alsop never let the narrative drop for a moment, and the orchestra repaid her with a performance of exacting concentration and the widest spectrum of prismatic hues.

A very different sort of intensity was provided by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414. Fleisher effectively immobilized his right hand more than four decades ago, the result of fanatical over-practicing -- or, as he puts it, "pumping ivory." Fortunately, over the past few years, Botox injections have brought back much of his dexterity, with the result that a man who, as teacher and mentor, never stopped being a great musician is now a great pianist again. I've never heard his hands sound so immaculately balanced. His performance had both grace and gravity, and Alsop provided suitably accommodating accompaniment. She was there when she needed to be, mostly at the beginnings and ends of movements, but she was generally content to let Fleisher explore the cosmos in his wise and tender fashion.

Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, closed the evening. Alsop built the work as an unbroken statement, pausing for only a moment between each of the four movements, which only added to the symphony's inherent drama. It is quite an engaging work, filled with potent melodies, exuberantly healthy even at its most melancholy. Under Alsop's stirring, energetic direction, the BSO produced a big, hearty sound that never lost its transparency; this was a performance of energy and style.

The concert will be repeated Friday night at 8. To apply a familiar but appropriate quote from "Casablanca," this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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