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Marin Alsop And BSO Revel In What Feels Like New

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

BALTIMORE, May 3 -- John Adams is probably the most adept popularizer we have had in classical music since Aaron Copland abandoned Americana in the early 1950s. A profoundly conservative composer -- in his harmonies, his structures, his inevitable striving toward the big gesture and the grand finale -- he nevertheless manages to pay homage to modernism, minimalism, world music and genteel pop stylings, and makes them all go down like a Vaughan Williams string fantasia coated in whipped cream.

Adams's concerto for electric violin and orchestra -- "The Dharma at Big Sur" -- is a sure crowd-pleaser, as Leila Josefowicz proved with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall. It is new music for those who don't want to explore new music deeply, but rather want to go just far enough to say they've been there. The 30-minute piece provides a workout for the violinist -- Josefowicz wailed and moaned with meticulously controlled abandon -- and permits a listener, as if by rumor, to encounter the reiterative Eastern semi-raga and unorthodox tunings that have been Terry Riley's chief claims to fame since he abandoned orthodox minimalism a quarter-century ago. The title is, of course, an invitation to parody for any self-respecting, hardheaded Easterner, and I won't spoil the fun by proffering my own suggestions.

Marin Alsop, the BSO's recently appointed music director, conducted. She does some things so well that it is always dismaying to find her doing other things so poorly. She had the right idea about the so-called "Blumine" movement that Gustav Mahler composed and then dropped from his Symphony No. 1: to play it as a free-standing interlude and not as part of a larger whole. But the fact remains that Alsop is a decidedly awkward interpreter of much romantic-era music, and usually at her worst in slow movements. In any event, this very simple, very direct nocturne sounded overfreighted and fussy Thursday night, despite some splendid solo playing from the Baltimore first-desk musicians.

The program closed with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," which has been an Alsop specialty for many years. Here, she was terrific -- what a tempestuous seascape she made of the first movement! -- and Jonathan Carney's playing of the solo violin part was both immaculate and soulful, a hard combination to pull off. No matter how often "Scheherazade" is played on FM radio, it remains a real masterpiece and inevitably takes on additional luster when it is performed in concert.

Alsop would seem to be settling in with her new orchestra. Her programming for next season is creative; her manner with an audience is friendly and informative; and she won much favor with her promise to live in Baltimore, which played well in a city with an endemic -- and absolutely undeserved -- inferiority complex.

The concert will be repeated Friday night and in truncated form (without the Adams) on Saturday morning.

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