A night of sharp contrasts at BSO under Alsop's baton

Fanfares, then music with subtler sounds

Music Review

February 19, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two brassy, percussive outbursts open the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program - Aaron Copland's familiar Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's spirited response, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (No. 1). Taken together they can't help but suggest Fanfare for a New Music Director Candidate.

Marin Alsop, a frequent BSO guest in recent seasons, looks like the current odds-on favorite to succeed Yuri Temirkanov, which made her appearance Thursday night at the Meyerhoff doubly interesting.

Alsop led the Colorado Symphony for more than a decade and is now at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony in England, the first woman to head one of that country's major orchestras. She is certainly a marketing department's dream - an extraordinary success story in what remains largely a man's world (Tower's fanfare is dedicated to Alsop), an easy communicator with audiences (her dry wit has been a prominent feature of past BSO visits), a persuasive advocate for diverse repertoire.

She's also, of course, a very solid musician, a fact effectively reiterated during Thursday's concert, which, besides the dual fanfare blast, offered two somewhat elusive masterpieces - the Symphony No. 3 by Brahms and Violin Concerto No. 1 by Prokofiev, the latter featuring local favorite Hilary Hahn as soloist.

Both works are imbued with a restrained lyricism, subtle and introspective; both end quietly. Although flashes of drama and brilliance occur in each score, it's the gentleness that lingers, the sense of having been let in on a wonderful, consoling secret.

Hahn's impossibly perfect tone, so centered and sweet, etched the delicate side of the Prokofiev concerto with remarkable grace. In the agitated portions, some of her phrasing could have used a little more grit, but there still was plenty of character in her playing.

Alsop ensured that Hahn's stylish music-making was smoothly, sensitively partnered by the orchestra, although more refined nuances of dynamics or rhythm in a few key places could have added another layer to the concerto's rarefied atmosphere. (When Temirkanov conducted this concerto two seasons ago, with violinist Elisabeth Batiashvili, I remember a more ethereal sound from the ensemble at the shimmering close of the first and third movements.)

Hahn acknowledged the enthusiastic ovation with an exquisitely shaped, mesmerizing account of the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3.

Next week, the first installment in Alsop's cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the London Philharmonic will be released on the Naxos label. Adding Brahms - a cornerstone of symphonic music - to a discography so far mostly devoted to 20th-century American material is an important step for Alsop, guaranteeing fresh attention.

Her reading of the Third Symphony here had in its favor taut control, firm momentum. For all of the sweep, however, it lacked the element of surprise, the kind of personal touches that distinguish so many notable Brahms interpretations.

Alsop favored steady rhythms over elasticity, strongly defined levels of loud and soft over minute gradations in between, tightly leashed final chords over reluctantly relinquished ones. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just felt something, some extra spark, was missing.

The BSO's response proved admirable. The strings didn't summon all the dark, burnished tone some of us have come to cherish, but they offered discipline and power. The winds were sure and colorful.

As for those dual curtain-raisers, they were dispatched sturdily (excepting a few brass smudges). Tower's high-caffeine fanfare packs a lot of action into a few short minutes, and Alsop made sure that every second registered brightly.

BSO

Where: Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight at Strathmore; 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff

Tickets: Sold out at Strathmore; $30 to $81 at Meyerhoff

Call: 877-276-1444 for last-minute availability at Strathmore; 410-783-8000 for Meyerhoff

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