The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra marked the 100th anniversary of its first public concert in February. The celebration continued this week, as music director Marin Alsop led the orchestra in two new pieces commissioned for the centennial season. The program, heard on Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, was repeated at Carnegie Hall on Saturday.
Christopher Rouse’s “Processional” was the more successful of the two premieres, one of 10 five-minute anniversary works commissioned by the BSO. The Baltimore-born composer’s theme, chosen from options submitted by audience members, was a funeral march for Edgar Allan Poe. A solemn cortege in the triple meter of a lament — making for an apt combination with Mahler’s funeral march — the piece is a passacaglia, with a repeating bass line constructed from the letters of Poe’s name, Alsop said. Gong whooshes punctuate the piece at irregular intervals, and juicy dissonances abound.
The second premiere was effective primarily because of a video by James Bartolomeo, with many feel-good images of the city of Baltimore. The music that accompanied it, “The City” by Kevin Puts, was pleasant enough but had little to say on its own. Fast, active and busy, the large orchestra traded a full, undifferentiated sound with periodic “drum circle” sections. The work did not gloss over the civic unrest from a year ago, violence that was “required,” Alsop said, to end social injustice.
Regrettably, Alsop’s thinking on Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 has not changed much since she conducted it in 2007. Her interpretation was again long on the frenetic and unpredictable, with the weepy funeral march contrasted with a lot of chaotic hubbub. Unrestrained playing across the orchestra forced the woodwinds and strings into problems of intonation and ensemble unity, but it made for an exciting finale. The Scherzo was a little discombobulated, lacking the rarefied sound of the soft passages heard from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra earlier in the week. Worst of all, by trying to wring so much out of the Adagietto, Alsop smothered the movement’s organic development, with the orchestra never playing all that softly.