The Glow of Newness For Alsop and the BSO

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Music Center at Strathmore has been open a year and it still has that new-hall smell. Add to that the promise of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new music director and the outlook is optimistic at the orchestra's second home in suburban Washington. Though conductor Marin Alsop does not officially begin her stint with the BSO until the fall, her appearance Monday night whetted the audience's appetite.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 was a good vehicle for Alsop's expansive style. Cellos and violas glowed with a warm, woody sound in the opening. The violins embraced the lilting phrases with commitment, and the scherzo was smooth enough to skate on. The performance was boosted by the BSO's strong bottom tier -- cello, bass, trombone and tuba.

The "Tragic" Overture by Brahms also benefited from the orchestra's solid lower layer. Alsop's fluid yet emphatic style didn't allow sappy sentimentality, yet was convincingly passionate. The nearly subliminal repeated pattern laid down by the cellos and violas was particularly lovely, an ethereal plain over which wind solos came shining through. But the strident edge to the violin section, shrill when it should have been mellow, was a jolt back to reality.

Twenty years ago, Baltimore native Christopher Rouse wrote his Symphony No. 1 on a BSO commission. It was revived to commemorate the orchestra's 90th anniversary this season. The work thrives on extremes: A somber and contemplative chorale in one section was bracketed by bombastic explosiveness in another. Alsop's careful approach and her clear feeling for the music carried the performance from beginning to end.

-- Gail Wein

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