Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's sterling Mahler Seventh Symphony

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mahler's gloriously weird Seventh Symphony has defeated more than a few conductors. Some get lost in its eccentric flights of fancy. Others try to make something tidy and classically restrained out of music that moves from haunted-house creepiness through fractured Viennese waltzes and mandolin serenades to an Elgar-on-steroids, parade-ground finale.

Marin Alsop clearly gets it. In a performance she conducted with the Baltimore Symphony at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday, she embraced all of the work's wrenching gear-shifts of rhythm and volume and threw herself into the giddy atmospherics of the central movements. Her accustomed fastidious control over phrasing was very much in evidence -- there was shape and coherence in even the rangy opening movement -- but in this reading there was heat, tenderness and a certain wild freedom, too. The orchestra did sterling work all evening, most notably in the beauty the violins were able to sustain in the febrile writing at the upper end of their range, and in the huge, burnished sound the lower brass unleashed in their solos.

Alsop's one serious misstep was in the program-opening performance of Mahler's "Suite" -- his retooling of popular movements from J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suites for a gargantuan, modern orchestra. In some misguided attempt at historically informed sound, Alsop replaced Mahler's distinctively modern piano part with a prepared piano that was made to sound like a harpsichord, completely misrepresenting both Mahler and Bach. It was the musical equivalent of slapping Maserati hubcaps on a Humvee and trying to convince us it's a sports car.

-- Joe Banno

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