For Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Alsop, fireworks lie in American program

By Anne Midgette
Monday, November 15, 2010

NEW YORK -- The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a veritable poster child for the pros and cons of the contemporary American orchestra. It's experimenting with different ways to reach its community. It's struggling with financial difficulties. Its most popular recent music directors, David Zinman and Marin Alsop, have championed new works. And it makes an athletic, sinewy and not unduly large sound (particularly in the strings), something it demonstrated again on Saturday night, when it appeared with Alsop at Carnegie Hall.

It didn't offer a typical American program, though. Having done Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" for her last BSO Carnegie appearance, in 2009, Alsop, or the powers-that-be, opted this time for convention -- that is, music written mainly by dead white European men, presented without comment from the podium. (To Alsop's credit, unlike many conductors known for talking to the audience during concerts, she doesn't espouse such conversation as a blanket prescription; on Saturday, she kept things formal.) The program, which Alsop and the orchestra offered in Baltimore earlier in the week, featured Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto and Beethoven's Third Symphony, "Eroica."

The Beethoven was given in Gustav Mahler's cover version, one of a number of Beethoven arrangements Mahler made that are emerging with some frequency this year, the 150th anniversary of his birth. (Leonard Slatkin offered a couple of them in his years with the NSO.) Beefing up the winds and brass, adding dynamic shadings and rhetorical pauses and exaggerations, Mahler created a relic of another style and era. It's not one to which Alsop is especially attuned, in that her approach was more about taut focus than Mahlerian sweep, and the sound, even with all those extra instruments, was more driven than lush. But she audibly relished some of the details and mood changes in the score.

The BSO presented Lang Lang's Carnegie Hall debut in 2001; on Saturday it was the turn of the rising 31-year-old Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, who is his temperamental opposite in his deliberate lack of showiness. The Prokofiev is a fiendishly hard piece with plenty of fireworks, but Trpceski emphasized its elegance and even gentleness, keeping a contained, soft sound even in the bravado flourish of the opening. It was thus an unflashy debut but an appealing one; the finger-twisting barrage of notes at the end of the work showered down like falling stars, distant and wonderful.

The orchestra, though, sounded best in the evening's sole American work, Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra, which opened the program. The orchestra gave it with a sense of freedom that wasn't always present in the two other pieces. What Alsop has to offer that's musically distinctive lies, I think, in this area. But it was a solid evening from an orchestra that sounds, if not breathtaking, in pretty good shape.

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