Happy orchestras are all alike; every struggling orchestra is struggling in its own way. These days, most orchestras are struggling, but on Saturday night at Strathmore, at the end of its subscription season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra certainly looked like a happy and unified family in a well-conceived and well-performed program.
The Baltimore orchestra’s struggles have mainly been financial — this group is Exhibit A in terms of the challenges of maintaining a national-level orchestra in a midsize city without major industry and with plenty of financial problems of its own. The orchestra has responded consistently with pluck and determination. Where Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra has seen four music directors in the past 10 years (one of them, Ivan Fischer, technically a principal conductor), Marin Alsop has been in Baltimore that whole time, developing a distinctive approach, with the flourishing OrchKids program in inner-city schools and energetic programming with a strong American flavor. But the organization had a solid profile even before Alsop got there, after its years under David Zinman and the curiously underrated legend Yuri Temirkanov.
All of this was reflected in the refreshing energy and athleticism of Saturday’s performance, from the first bright, crisp note of Leonard Bernstein’s “Slava! A political overture,” a humorous and amiable burlesque with some lively music. Unlike the NSO, where the struggles have to do with motivation and ensemble playing, this is an orchestra speaking with one voice and having something to say.
The program focused on two tortured titans of the 20th century: Bernstein and Shostakovich. Bernstein was Alsop’s mentor when she was starting out, and I don’t think there’s a conductor in the United States who does a better job with his music. Time and again, Alsop focuses on Bernstein’s large serious scores — on Saturday, it was his second symphony-cum-piano concerto, “The Age of Anxiety” — and each time she makes a persuasive case for music to which not everyone can find the key. Bernstein’s musical language veers from lush, keening Romantic phrases from sad clarinets to manic jazzy syncopations, and Alsop effortlessly found a through line on Saturday that linked them without grandstanding, supported by Jon Kimura Parker, the fluid, mellifluous piano soloist.
The counterweight to this was the Shostakovich Fifth, which at first sounded a little bit too much like the Bernstein: attractive and appealing and polished in a way that took the edges off this rugged music, so that while it was large and powerful, it was never really anguished. It was, however, dramatic and muscular and propulsive, and the slight restraint in the first movement meant that Alsop left herself somewhere to go in the fourth, which after the pathos of the slow third movement was the largest and most dramatic of all. If it wasn’t the most idiomatic Shostakovich, it certainly was a respectable showing, winning a roar from the audience at the close and nicely setting the orchestra up for the BBC Proms, the highlight of the British summer season, where they will play the same program as part of their tour in August.
The orchestra aired its family business with a sincere tribute to five players retiring after a combined 148 years of service, two of whom were on the stage with Alsop and Peter Kjome, the orchestra’s president. It also showed a new face. A four-year collaboration with the Parsons School of Design has yielded prototypes for new concert clothing, elegant modifications of standard tails-and-black-dress concert wear, executed in more breathable and flexible fabrics (donated by Under Armour, the Baltimore athletic-wear titan). A group of musicians came out at the front of the stage at the start of the show to model the new look: a range of asymmetric dresses and modified tails that didn’t trumpet their differences — you might not notice if you didn’t know to look — but whose stylish athleticism proved a perfect fit for this ensemble, in more ways than one.