A tinge of disappointment lingered over the audience as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra launched into “The Star-Spangled Banner” to inaugurate its new season.
The expected headliner of Thursday night’s season opener at Strathmore, superstar violinist and hometown darling Hilary Hahn, was to have returned to the stage after a summer hiatus due to injury. But Hahn this week announced a further withdrawal from performances, citing lingering “muscle strain,” and pressed into last-minute service was veteran soloist Pinchas Zukerman. The evening, led by music director Marin Alsop and devoted to Beethoven and Mahler, never quite shook off that sense of disappointment but nonetheless offered some compensations.
Zukerman, 66, is no longer quite at the height of his powers. His beloved sweetness of tone has taken on some wiriness, and his intonation on opening night in the Beethoven Violin Concerto proved occasionally fallible. Yet his musicianship remains honest and probing, and his command of Fritz Kreisler’s formidable cadenzas attested to a still-impressive technique.
Zukerman adopted spacious tempos, even in the concluding Rondo, favoring lyrical insight over dramatic urgency. Yet rather than coasting on the hum-along melodies, Zukerman offered an introspective reading, allying a sense of rapt concentration with innately musical phrasing. At times, the violinist’s inward approach and exploration of subtle nuances came at the cost of rhythmic tension and continuity. The rewards, however, were considerable, particularly in the poignant contrast between the playful and elegiac strains of the score.
Alsop seemed content to provide restrained accompaniment, with warm strings, lovingly caressed woodwind lines and gentle rubatos. Yet the soloist and orchestra were never fully in dialogue. Alsop’s stately, more conventionally beautiful approach offered an incongruous backdrop to Zukerman’s leaner, more rhetorical interpretation. Alsop appeared almost deferential to her soloist, yet also inhabited an altogether different sound world, perhaps a consequence of the late switch.
After intermission came the bucolic bliss and wistful nostalgia of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. In this gentlest of Mahler’s symphonies, Alsop favored detail over form, episodic expression over structural insight. She enforced lean and transparent textures, with obtrusive brass occasionally disrupting an otherwise astute orchestral balance. The strings played with filigreed elegance, the woodwinds with admirable finesse. This refinement, though, meant a loss of piquancy and character, particularly in the Scherzo’s grotesqueries.
In the first two movements, Alsop adopted leisurely tempos, as marked, yet her elastic beat and lingering over detail often sacrificed the underlying musical pulse. Interpretively, Alsop’s sculpted phrasing sustained a heightened contrast between the gentle lyricism and passionate outbursts of the score. Yet as tempos were pushed and pulled, tension and musical logic dissipated.
Mahler’s great slow movement proved the noteworthy exception, unfolding with sustained concentration and offering a vision of spiritual serenity. Alsop drew beautiful, eloquent playing from the strings, with warm sonorities and autumnal shadings. The movement’s climax, depicting the opening of the gates of heaven, felt powerful and ecstatic, while the coda’s hushed lyricism offered a quiet benediction. The fourth movement, alas, was a letdown, with Tamara Wilson’s matronly, almost operatic treatment of the solo soprano part at odds with its childlike character.
Incidentally, D.C. concertgoers have something else to look forward to: a new Sunday afternoon subscription series in the BSO’s second home at Strathmore, a welcome addition for matinee audiences.
Chin is a freelance writer.