Music review

Music review: Marin Alsop conducts Baltimore Symphony, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Monday, November 23, 2009

Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" -- written as a fevered, musical love letter to an actress the composer was obsessed with -- stands as one of the most forward-thinking (not to mention over the top) marvels of orchestral writing the 19th-century produced. Not that you'd have gotten that from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's thoroughly ordinary performance under Marin Alsop's baton at Meyerhoff Hall on Friday.

This is mad music, but Alsop's doggedly literal reading -- handsomely played though it was by this fine orchestra -- was built upon rhythmic regularity, tidy phrasing and an overall pulling of punches when it came to dynamics. What was missed was the frank emotion and vivid pictorialism written into every bar of this music -- two qualities that Alsop's much name-dropped mentor, Leonard Bernstein, could conjure in any score.

The first half of the program was a livelier affair, with the BSO relishing the sly dance rhythms and percussion-heavy eruptions in the "Red Cape Tango" movement from Michael Daugherty's Superman-inspired "Metropolis Symphony," and finding all the Day-Glo colors in Liszt's outrageously cheesy "Totentanz" ("Dance of Death"). The connective tissue among the evening's works was the medieval funeral chant melody "Dies irae" -- quoted in the final pages of the Berlioz -- which Daugherty engagingly spoofs and Liszt (no less entertainingly) sledgehammers.

Liszt tricked-out his mini-concerto, "Totentanz," with enough virtuosic hurdles to fill three full-length piano concertos. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's ability to combine lightning speed, pinpoint accuracy and genuine weight was a thing of wonder. His bravura performance actually made this goofy piece worth listening to.

-- Joe Banno

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