Strauss, Stravinsky And Gusto

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

BALTIMORE, Jan. 11 -- This fall, Marin Alsop will become the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And if she chooses programs that play to her strengths -- such as the one she led Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall -- the city will be in for some exciting times.

Alsop is generally at her best in 20th-century music, and especially skilled in works that call for a strong rhythmic impetus. And so Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was a natural piece to close the evening -- a thunderous, rip-roaring, full-throttle performance that made up in decibels and commitment what it occasionally lacked in subtlety.

Still, it was the opening work, Richard Strauss's "Eine Alpensinfonie" ("An Alpine Symphony") that brought me to Meyerhoff, and it was no less fine. The BSO was joined by 57 students from the Peabody Conservatory, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year (and -- full disclosure -- where I have recently taught two graduate seminars). This 50-minute musical travelogue, a musical reminiscence of the young composer's hikes in the Alps, is hardly ever performed, for it demands a huge orchestra, an organ, a wind machine, cowbells and a certain amount of patience.

It used to be said that Strauss "lost" his powers in his middle period, with the "Alpine" (1915) cited as a prime example of this perceived deficiency. In fact, what Strauss lost during this time, along with most of his passion for modernism, was a certain tidiness of expression. If his muse never left him, the man who had created taut 18-minute symphonic masterpieces such as "Don Juan" (1889) and the thrilling 80-minute one-act opera "Elektra" (1908) was now content to let it sing on and on -- he became a "putter-inner" instead of a "taker-outer." Nobody questions the beauties in an opera such as "Der Rosenkavalier" (1910), but who hasn't wondered, in the middle of Act 2 or in the first half-hour of Act 3, whether it really has to be quite so long.

Much the same may be said for "An Alpine Symphony," which is full of noble and superbly evocative music, mingled with passages of mere technically brilliant busyness. "At last I have learned how to orchestrate," Strauss said during a rehearsal before the work's premiere, and in this comment may be found a clue to both its strengths and weaknesses.

Alsop managed to hold everything together, in part by keeping up an unyielding momentum throughout the work that sometimes veered close to steamrolling. I can imagine more poetry in the marvelously murky opening passages than she brought out, and greater majesty in the climaxes. But this is supremely difficult music, and the sense Alsop made of the score speaks well for her powers of organization.

Moreover, the orchestra played with exhilarating zeal throughout the evening, spurred on in part, perhaps, because of the gifted young artists sitting in with them, and in part because this was a chance to make one of the grandest and most joyful noises ever allowed to performing musicians.

The program will be repeated Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Meyerhoff Hall, and Saturday night at 8 at the Music Center at Strathmore.

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