Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop Produce an Enjoyable Evening

Marin Alsop, the BSO music director, led the orchestra on a graceful journey.
Marin Alsop, the BSO music director, led the orchestra on a graceful journey. (By Grant Leighton -- Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

BALTIMORE -- Michael Bronfein, the chairman of the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, took the stage at Meyerhoff Hall on Thursday night and, with a kind of easy informality that fit his subject, outlined the achievements of Marin Alsop, the orchestra's music director. His punch line was the news that Alsop had just signed a contract extension through August 2015. And the audience, which hadn't heard the news, cheered and rose to its feet to greet the conductor with a long ovation.

It's rare to see an audience so genuinely excited at the announcement of a contract extension. And it certainly affirmed that the BSO is doing a good job with the community orientation that's increasingly part of a 21st-century orchestra's goal. Where once audiences came to worship the music, orchestras today are ardently courting the audience in an attempt to reassert their importance. In Baltimore, this shift has been encapsulated by the contrast between Alsop's predecessor and Alsop herself. Yuri Temirkanov represented an old-school approach that focused primarily on making great music from the stage. Alsop is reaching out in every way possible; one of her notable achievements has been seeding, with her own money, an after-school music program for inner-city kids.

But the music remains the core of the orchestra's role, and it was the core of Thursday's performance, which was every bit as warm and sunny as its happy opening merited. It was also a distinctively Alsopian program in blending the new and unusual with the 19th-century tradition she has explored with considerable focus since arriving in Baltimore in 2007. The centerpiece was a new violin concerto Jennifer Higdon wrote in 2008 for the soloist Hilary Hahn, a Baltimore native. This was bracketed by Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture, a reminder of Alsop's Beethoven symphony cycle last season, and Dvorak's Fifth, which continued the Dvorak cycle with a piece that is not often heard and that was, in this performance, a tremendous amount of fun.

The violin concerto made a case for itself eloquently, from the moment the first movement opened with high unaccompanied notes from Hahn that evoked an old music box, soon augmented by the silvery shards of a glockenspiel. It set the tone for a piece that looked back to old models -- the lyrical orchestral opening of the second movement, the furious hell-for-leather virtuosity of the third -- without being at all retro. Higdon is a terrific composer; and this piece -- whose first movement's title alludes to the address of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Higdon was one of Hahn's teachers -- shows her ability to tailor music to a particular soloist. Hahn's trademark is matter-of-fact delicacy; she can play with steely strength and warmth, but the overriding impression is of light, deliberate clarity. Higdon's piece explored this by carrying the soloist through a range of chamberlike passages, playing her off against solo voices from the orchestra and taking her here into a warm burnished low, there into the singing stratosphere, before sending the full ensemble up in strong jagged chords around her. Hahn played with a clean radiance that lit up the music, but Higdon wrote pretty great music for her to illuminate.

As for the Dvorak: I confess I had never heard the Fifth live, and I found it an experience I'd be happy to repeat. Perhaps its charm lies precisely in the fact that it isn't a Great Symphony: It is simply amiable, and delighted with itself and its own accomplishments. The third-movement Scherzo dances around a tune slightly addictive in its sweetness; the fourth movement adds a note of earnestness, but the whole thing was too happy to do more than flirt with darkness. The orchestra sounded lithe and eager, Alsop kept everything involving and the organization was left resting on its laurels after an eminently feel-good evening.

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