Taking the Pulse Of Classics, BSO Finds A Modern Beat

Alsop brought lithe athleticism to works by Shostakovich and Dvorak.
Alsop brought lithe athleticism to works by Shostakovich and Dvorak. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Classical music has grown increasingly serious over the years, as it seeks to counter charges of its own irrelevance with claims of its moral or artistic superiority. As a result, its works are becoming ever more monumental. Opera today is always grand; symphonies, earnest statements of a composer's purpose.

As a conductor, you have to live with this phenomenon in a couple of ways. You can open up and air out the classical closet, bringing in new works. And you can show that you are able to tilt at the giant windmills of the repertory. Marin Alsop, in her first season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is duly attempting both.

Her programs to date have sought to restore to the orchestra the contemporary flair it sported under David Zinman in the 1990s, juxtaposing new pieces with masterpieces. But on Thursday, she devoted herself wholly to the windmills: Shostakovich's dense First Violin Concerto and Dvorak's robust Eighth Symphony.

Both of these works are eminently vulnerable to the monumentality problem. Shostakovich has become something of a poster child, rightly or wrongly, for writing veiled protests against an unjust regime, and recorded evidence shows the emotional temperature of this concerto (held back until after Stalin's death) creeping upward over the years, from the intense but nuanced agility of its original interpreter, David Oistrakh, to something freighted with more obvious anguish. Similarly, Dvorak's symphony, which used to often be performed as an adroit agglomeration of lilting peasantlike melody, now lends itself to more earnest representations that underline its size.

It is to Alsop's credit that, even as she seeks to establish herself as a romantic conductor, she retains the lithe athleticism of her contemporary work. The Shostakovich, for all of its rich scoring, never felt heavy or padded; indeed, there was a certain intimacy to the performance. In the first movement the music was overstretched to such a tissue thinness that it threatened to dissolve entirely.

This lightness made a virtue of necessity, since it kept the orchestra from covering the soloist. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the violinist, is known as an unconventional player, admired by some for the intensity of her performance -- which drew the audience to its feet at the end of the piece -- and criticized by others for technical idiosyncrasies, not to say shortcomings, that made some of her expressionistic playing even more of an assault than she may have intended interpretively. The piece is hard, and it sounded it: a long and difficult journey that nearly derailed in the intricate second movement, in which soloist and orchestra appeared to inhabit entirely different worlds, and violent jabs of the violinist's bow were not sufficient to stitch together the fragments of the music. But the stop-and-start journey was not entirely of Alsop's making, and it was nice to hear the conductor skirt the pitfall of bathos.

If the Dvorak was more self-conscious, it was not entirely Alsop's fault, either. The performance was being recorded for her Dvorak cycle in progress -- following an acclaimed if uneven Brahms cycle as part of her bid for romantic mastery -- and it was played amid a thicket of microphones, like visual sets of quotation marks.

I first heard this symphony live played by the same orchestra under Alsop's predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, whose reading was typically debonair and slightly distanced. Alsop, by contrast, sought to plumb depths that may not actually be there in this stoutly bourgeois work. Under her, the orchestra still sounds very fine -- the cellos, in particular, were wonderful -- though balance with the brass was an issue in certain parts of the evening. And the first movement of the symphony retained the energy and thrust of the best parts of the Shostakovich. But the Adagio gave the conductor too much time to think; the mood was heightened to such a degree that the entrance of one of Dvorak's trademark rotund melodies became almost banal.

Another example of classical music's monumentality came at the very start of the program, which was opened by another conductor: Joseph Young, a fellow in a new joint program of the orchestra and the Peabody Conservatory, conducted the Overture to Mozart's "Magic Flute." The clearly talented Young drew lissome legatos from the strings, and palpably luxuriated in the sound of the orchestra before him. But the overture, alas, is not really a luxuriant piece. It looked like the conductor was having a lot more fun than the audience, as if we were watching an intimate act to which we were denied complete access.

And here is the problem with the monumental approach to classical music: It can tend to close out the wider audience it so hopes to reach. Still, there was much to like in an evening that showed genuine love of music given clear, if imperfect, expression.

The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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