The performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony that Marin Alsop conducted with the Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore Hall on Thursday was a far cry from the kind of Mahler her celebrated mentor, Leonard Bernstein, used to conduct.
Bernstein’s uncompromising Mahler was all about heat and color and incident and heart-on-the-sleeve angst. Dynamics could rocket from unearthly quiet to heaven-storming volume, and tempos were expressively elastic.
Alsop is a far more controlled Mahler interpreter. That’s not to say she was unengaged Thursday. The opening movement’s pastoral episode had diaphanous, almost Mendelssohnian charm. The sardonic laughter built into the wind writing in the Scherzo was loud and clear. And Alsop generated a fair head of steam during the second half of the Finale.
But in this most restless and despairing symphony of the Mahler cycle, Alsop chose cogency over trenchancy much of the time. Limning the work’s structure in long, lucid paragraphs, she led a reading of consistent tempos and subtly calibrated internal balances, allowing dramatic events to organically unfold.
That emphasis on clearheaded musical storytelling drew attention to the playing of the BSO, which was at the top of its game. String tone was lustrous, and between the confidently forthright wind chording and the pungency in the lower brass, the score’s riot of color was not slighted. I liked the fact, too, that Alsop gave acoustic prominence to the celesta, allowing its otherworldly timbre to really register.
Alsop was also smart in placing the Andante Moderato second in the order of movements. Mahler waffled on whether it should be the second or third movement. But in the second position, this introspective serenade gives welcome respite between the boisterous Allegro and Scherzo. Here was another example of the rational thinking Alsop brought to Mahler’s dark night of the soul.