After lackluster season openers last week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra season truly got under way with its first subscription concert Thursday night at Strathmore. Music director Marin Alsop returned to the podium, along with the news that she will step down as music director of California’s Cabrillo Festival next summer.
British-born composer Anna Clyne’s introduction to her piece, “Masquerade,” was even more concise than the work, a five-minute wild rumpus of metric shifts, swashbuckling brass, overbearing percussion and Hollywood strings. Pianist Olga Kern brought her own fireworks to Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” driving Alsop’s tempo forward in the fast passages, with a breathless approach to the demanding finger work. Although the orchestra was sometimes out of step, Kern’s forceful sound helped the ensemble balances. Kern knows how to caress a Rachmaninoff turn of phrase, confirmed here in the oozing schmaltz of the slow variations, as well as an encore of the composer’s dazzling E minor “Moment musical” (Op. 16 No. 4).
Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan recently described Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony” as a grandiose work that “sums up all of Western orchestral art.” From the bitonal clashes that shimmer in the murky night scenes to the cowbells and bleating woodwinds of the mountain pasture scene, Alsop led a performance convincing in both climaxes and calms. The solos were all excellent, with the exception of a few strained moments in the trumpet. The traumatic storm scene rattled the senses with a lovely clatter of thunder sheet, but no recorded storm track as Alsop has favored in some previous performances.
Assistant conductor Nicholas Hersh’s kooky arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the fourth in the BSO’s commission celebrating the national anthem’s anniversary, was entertaining in its mixture of the tune with Bernstein-esque Latin rhythms. Still, it was awkward that some people stood for its performance, while most of the house, following Alsop’s instructions, remained seated.
Downey is a freelance writer.