Marin Alsop steps up to the Meyerhoff podium again


Music director-designate and the BSO appear ready to harmonize

Music Column


For the first time since a barrage of global headlines announced her historic appointment as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop -- the first woman to head a major American orchestra -- will be back on the podium here this week.

These previously scheduled subscription concerts Thursday and Friday evening and Saturday morning at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall obviously have greater significance now.

This will be the first time conductor and orchestra have collaborated since the controversy surrounding the appointment in July, when BSO players objected to the end of the music director search.

This will also be the first time Alsop has been onstage here since the MacArthur Foundation named her one of its 2005 fellows in September.

The coveted honor, popularly known as a "genius grant," carries an award of $500,000 "in recognition of creativity, originality and potential."

As if all this weren't enough to make the concerts newsy, they became even more so when the slated pianist, Piotr Anderszewski, suddenly canceled yesterday ("due to an over-commitment of performance engagements") and was replaced by celebrated keyboard artist Leon Fleisher.

The Baltimore-based Fleisher will play a different Mozart concerto than what was scheduled -- No. 12, instead of No. 14. It will be the first time that he has played a two-hand concerto with the orchestra since 1998, when he also played No. 12. (Nerve damage to his right hand in 1965 altered Fleisher's career; he has been using both hands more often and more confidently since he began a therapy of Botox injections in 2000.)

The rest of the program contains works by Dvorak and Christopher Rouse. (Call 410-783-8000 for tickets.)

Since the summer troubles at the BSO, which threw a harsh light on the steady erosion of relations between orchestra and management, things have settled down, at least to some extent.

Alsop, much to her credit, stayed in the game after all the fuss and has thrown herself into the business of planning for the orchestra's future. From all indications, she's going to be a very hands-on music director.

A recording deal is in the works; programming innovations can be safely expected when the 2006-2007 season is announced shortly. (Alsop will be music director-designate that season, assuming the full title in 2007-2008.)

A preview of Alsop's approach to the job, and to music-making in general, will be offered this week. She'll invite the audience to stick around for an informal discussion of the program, something she plans to do here on a regular basis.

BSO players have made fence-mending efforts over the past months, signaling to Alsop a willingness to leave the past in the past. The situation is no doubt still a little delicate, which explains why rehearsals this week have been closed to outsiders.

But, chances are, Alsop and the BSO will find a workable groove quickly and get on with the business of making music. They don't have much choice or time.

But however smoothly things may go with the players, Alsop will still face her share of challenges.

It will be interesting to see whether she ends up working long-term with the current administrative and board leadership, which has yet to demonstrate an ability to get the BSO out from under severe debt and a general impression of rudderless guidance.

Mistakes and miscalculations -- financial, programming, communication, etc. -- have not exactly been uncommon.

A lot of things will have to change and improve inside the BSO organization before confidence can be restored in management -- and before Alsop can be assured of a solid, dynamic underpinning beneath the first-rate orchestra with which she is about to make history.

Double-barrel Brahms

A music lover could go many months -- years, I imagine, in some places -- without encountering a live performance of the String Quintet in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. By a fortunate coincidence, there were two over the weekend in our region.

Sunday night, the Zukerman Chamber Players capped a lushly lyrical program for the Shriver Hall Concert Series in Baltimore with the quintet. The night before, the Cypress String Quartet, augmented by violist Atar Arad, played it as the finale in a rewarding appearance for Candlelight Concerts in Columbia.

The quintet finds Brahms in full romantic flower, the melodies almost giddy with song and atmosphere. The music got a sweeping account from the Zukerman ensemble, formed a few years ago by noted violinist Pinchas Zukerman to showcase young talent he has been mentoring. The well-matched colleagues produced a glowing tone and, for the most part, deeply poetic phrasing.

Mozart's expansive String Quintet in C major, K. 515, likewise benefited from the overall tightness and warmth of the playing. The charms of Dvorak's Terzetto, Op. 74, for two violins and viola, started the evening engagingly.

(In my recent column about David Baldwin, new executive director of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, I listed opera conductor Stewart Robertson among the clients whose European engagements Baldwin managed for ICM Artists Ltd., in London. I meant to write David Robertson, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony.)

The Cypress Quartet could not overcome the dry, muffled acoustics of Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, which kept the Brahms quintet from blossoming fully. But the musicians shaped the piece with considerable clarity and sensitivity.

Earlier, the Cypress players offered an elegant account of Haydn's Emperor Quartet and made a strong case for a work recently written for them by Benjamin Lees. In his String Quartet No. 6, Lees mixes a mild harmonic spice with rhythmic vitality and subtle instrumental coloring to fashion a concisely and logically constructed work.

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