For Conductor Marin Alsop, An Expressive BSO Engagement

Violinist Joshua Bell played with tidy but intensely musical elegance.
Violinist Joshua Bell played with tidy but intensely musical elegance. (Bw)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

BALTIMORE -- Marin Alsop, who will become the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in fall 2007 and who conducted the group last night at Meyerhoff Hall, brings some genuine merits to the table. At the very least, her directorship should be an interesting one, for she promises an abrupt about-face from the just-concluded tenure of Yuri Temirkanov.

Indeed, she is the closest thing to the "anti-Temirkanov" that I can imagine. His tastes were narrow but his performances of that part of the repertory he loved were luminous and often revelatory. Alsop's interests are broadly encompassing and her performances tend to be punchy, streamlined and energetic. Temirkanov had scant understanding of American music beyond Ives and Gershwin; Alsop seems comfortable in Copland, Barber, Glass, John Adams and any new score that is thrown her way, especially if it has a beat. Temirkanov, a Russian who was never happy away from his native land, was a somewhat shadowy figure in Baltimore cultural life and rarely spoke in public; Alsop plans to live in the city and likes to "explain" new works to the audience.

The contemporary conductor who seems to have the most in common with Alsop is Leonard Slatkin, not so much in his NSO days but back when he was the musical "Spirit of St. Louis" -- fighting for a financially troubled orchestra, finding new works to play and record, doing his best to re-create the symphonic repertory and serving as spokesman and cheerleader for a challenged but beautiful and undervalued city. This is not a bad model for Alsop as she prepares to take on Baltimore.

It all depends on what you're looking for, of course. Right now, if I were asked whether I'd rather hear Temirkanov or Alsop in Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich -- in virtually any of the masterpieces in the standard repertory -- I'd go for Temirkanov in a hummingbird's heartbeat. But if I were asked who was more likely, over time, to bring in new audiences and board members, to win over Baltimoreans who may never have attended a classical concert, to help revitalize both the orchestra and the city in which it is rooted, Alsop might get the nod. These are important duties for a music director, too -- especially now, especially here -- and Alsop is nothing if not ambitious.

For example, starting last night in this series of concerts, the BSO is making its first commercial recording in eight years -- a performance of John Corigliano's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra ("The Red Violin") with soloist Joshua Bell for the Sony Classical label. The concerto was adapted from Corigliano's score for a 1999 film, which has been praised for its effectiveness in the context of the screen action.

Corigliano has written some important pieces but the "Red Violin" concerto is not one of them. On a first hearing, it struck me as a rather dreary collage of sound effects and self-consciously "expressive" melodies for soloist, whether poignant or bravura, that might have come right out of -- surprise! -- a movie about a violin. Nothing about the concerto seemed organic, despite Corigliano's spectacular technical skills. Bell played with his usual tidy but intensely musical elegance and Alsop made quite a show of the purely orchestral passages, although she regularly allowed the BSO to drown out the violinist completely, urging her forces on at just the moments her ears should have told her to hold them back. I suspect that she may still be mastering the intricate acoustics of Meyerhoff Hall; still, the fact remains that I've never heard this orchestra play so thoughtlessly, but it was only following its leader.

The program began with Dmitri Kabalevsky's Overture to "Colas Breugnon," which launches an opera based on Romain Rolland's characteristically prim attempt to write a lusty novel. It is the only music from this score that is ever heard today; it was something of a hit 60 years ago, during the World War II vogue for all things Soviet, ranking right up there with Aram Khachaturian's "Gayne" and Kabalevsky's own "Comedians." The overture remains a clever little piece -- there was always a certain jauntiness to Kabalevsky that even Stalinism couldn't quite stomp out -- and Alsop and the BSO raced through it merrily.

It was probably a bad idea for Alsop to try to prove herself in Russian music so shortly after Temirkanov's departure. Her rendition of Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" was busy, flashy and often exciting, as she bobbed and weaved on the podium like an eager boxer, but if she had anything personal she wanted to say about this score, it eluded me. It is a great showpiece for conductor and orchestra, however, and ends with a big enough bang to ensure a standing ovation.

The concert will be repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow morning at 11 (without the Rachmaninoff).

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