The Beginning of a Beautiful Relationship

Kicking off her tenure with the BSO at Strathmore, Marin Alsop threw herself into the music, which included Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
Kicking off her tenure with the BSO at Strathmore, Marin Alsop threw herself into the music, which included Mahler's Fifth Symphony. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

Marin Alsop officially began her tenure as the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night with an exhilarating program that promises much for the future of this partnership. A capacity audience at the Music Center at Strathmore came to cheer and was not disappointed.

The program began with "Fearful Symmetries" (1988), one of the two or three strongest works of the American composer John Adams -- a delicious compote that combines high intellectual rigor with sheer aural pleasure. This 25-minute piece, scored for full orchestra, keyboards, electronics and a saxophone quartet, is somewhat unusual among contemporary works in that it is immediately comprehendible -- indeed, its steady-state rhythmic insistence not only permits but practically demands a physical response, whether head-nodding or toe-tapping, but never delves into neo-romantic bathos.

Alsop is a lot of fun to watch. Like her great mentor, Leonard Bernstein, when she is conducting she seems a map of the score -- vigorously alive, sensitive to every passing idea, riding the waves. True, there are times when one suspects that she is more of an inspired dancer, playing to the house, than an autocratic leader -- that she is in effect responding to the music rather than making it happen -- but one sometimes felt that way about Bernstein too. And the Baltimore Symphony sounded terrific, with its crooning saxes, loamy croaks from the lower brass, surging strings and taut percussion, and you don't get such eager and colorful playing without a guide.

Mahler's Symphony No. 5 made up the second half of the program. For the most part, it was a thrilling reading -- the first three movements have rarely seemed so engrossing and nuanced, and they were brilliantly played. Alsop managed to summon a fierce dramatic intensity without lapsing into the blatancy and angst that so often trips up conductors who take on this difficult piece (and, believe me, it can be one of the longest symphonies on the planet).

Yet Alsop was woefully unpersuasive in the great Adagietto. Balances were uneven, she never seemed to settle on a tempo, and the result sounded both insecure and curiously nerveless. At this point in her career, she is strongest when she is doing many things at once -- counting rhythms, cueing instruments, keeping several balls afloat: the conductor as workaholic. When she conducts slow, emotionally direct music that demands a different sort of intensity, it isn't always there.

The Adagietto is usually the highlight of any evening; on Thursday, it was the least interesting selection by far. I wonder if there is any other conductor out there today whose strongest work is so vastly removed from her weakest.

Still, it's better to have four movements that compel a listener's close attention and one that fizzles out than the more usual situation with the Mahler Five, which is pretty close to the other way around.

The Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop make beautiful music together. If the conductor (let's skip the silly buzzword "maestra" that dominates Alsop's publicity juggernaut) can fulfill all of her ambitions -- recordings, radio, outreach programs, an emphasis on smart and diverse contemporary music -- we ought to have an exciting time ahead of us.

The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in downtown Baltimore.

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