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Music review: BSO previews the season, talks to the audience at Strathmore

Starting early: Ilyich Rivas, who will make his official debut with the orchestra this fall, conducted Mahler on Friday.
Starting early: Ilyich Rivas, who will make his official debut with the orchestra this fall, conducted Mahler on Friday. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010

Orchestras all over the world are seeking ways to find new audiences, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is coming up with some particularly interesting ideas. It's been mining the ranks of amateur musicians, inviting them in to play with the orchestra in "Rusty Musicians" sessions, and will hold an intensive week-long academy for 47 of them this summer. It's also reaching out to audiences at its second home, Strathmore, where it will offer six additional concerts this season.

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On Friday, a night before the gala season opener, the orchestra offered a season preview there with $10 tickets, excerpts of works that will be featured on upcoming programs, and personal attentions from Marin Alsop and players during an extended intermission that had audience members consulting with musicians about what concerts, during the year ahead, they might especially like.

These are all good ideas, but it remains to be seen whether the extra work this entails for the players, who have taken several pay cuts recently, translates into better results at the box office. Friday's concert certainly generated a palpable sense of good will.

It might seem hard to keep the playing up to full concert standards at a performance featuring excerpts and lots of chat. What struck me on Friday was that the playing on the second half of the program, when Alsop realized the concert was going to go overtime after the long intermission, seemed more successful than the first half. Prokofiev's "Classical" symphony, which opened the concert, sounded plodding and not incisive. But the overture to "The Magic Flute" had lightness and spark, and Barber's "Essay No. 2" was appropriately lush. The program also introduced the 17-year-old Ilyich Rivas, who will make his official debut this fall, conducting "Blumine," a bit of Mahler's First symphony, very beautifully.

The biggest hit with the audience was John Williams's "Star Wars" theme, which will be featured on a space-themed January concert along with a co-commissioned work by Philip Glass. No judgments, here, about highbrow and lowbrow. The BSO is working to make people feel welcome, turning what has traditionally been a society event into a genuine social exchange.

When Alsop said "We should do this more often" at the end of the evening, it sounded like she meant it. Judging from the warm applause, the sentiment was reciprocated.

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