Stirring, engaging program from BSO, Alsop

Concert Review

October 27, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The musical relationship between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Marin Alsop hit a new plateau Thursday night. Just about everything clicked tightly and expressively in a meaty program that drew a big, happy crowd - and a TV crew from CBS Evening News gathering footage for future use.

After a few weeks of spotty attendance for guest conductor-led programs, it was reassuring to see the turnout at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, although I couldn't help but wonder whether months of heavy, Alsop-centric marketing means that the public now only wants to hear her performances. Be that as it may, the evening sure delivered the goods.

Given the BSO's association with former music director Yuri Temirkanov and all the Russian repertoire he guided the ensemble through so distinctively, it was particularly rewarding to hear Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 played with so much fire and power. If a few passages could have used a greater surge of deep Russian soul or a little more breathing room, the overall effect was rich in emotional sweep, admirable in technical flourish.

Alsop had a firm grasp on the score's architecture, ensuring that climactic heights were scaled with impressive intensity. But she was just as attentive to those tender, aching themes that give the symphony its poetry and personality; her shaping of the melodic outpouring by the violins in the first movement was one telling example.

There were many subtle details in tempo and mood along the way, enabling the symphony's mix of melancholy, anxiety and determination to register strongly. Above all, the conductor drew from the BSO terrific cohesiveness, and not just in articulation. It sounded as if everyone onstage was thoroughly engaged in the experience.

The woodwinds made an especially strong showing, with lots of dark, penetrating tone colors. The strings produced considerable warmth and richness. Some brass chords lacked refinement, but there certainly was power to spare. Philip Munds sculpted the famous horn solo sensitively.

Alsop opened the evening with a taut, involving account of Brahms' Tragic Overture that likewise showcased the BSO's strengths.

At the center of the program was Samuel Barber's 1962 Piano Concerto, which doesn't get much attention, but deserves it. This is something of a schizoid piece. The outer movements are craggy, edgy, explosive, with lots of dissonant spice (or, at least, enough "wrong" notes to help the work qualify as contemporary). But even in those movements, you sense Barber's true, lyrical nature trying to jump out and dominate.

That nature takes over completely in the centrally placed Canzone, based on a previous composition for flute and piano that the composer reworked into one of the most touching, tender, unashamedly romantic passages in 20th-century music.

If only for the opportunity to drink in that songful music, the concerto ought to be programmed more often - as long as there's a soloist as inspired and persuasive as Garrick Ohlsson to do it justice.

He played the heck out of the bravura, finger-busting portions, making every bold cluster of notes sound meaningful and integrated into the total picture. The slow movement found Ohlsson at his most sensual, bringing to the recurring melody a haunting beauty.

Alsop was a supple partner to the pianist and had the BSO digging vividly into the music. Emily Skala offered a dreamy flute solo in the Canzone.

A hearty ovation prompted an encore from Ohlsson, who played Chopin's Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op, 64, No. 2) with disarming elegance. His gossamer touch in right-hand flurries and his rhythmic flexibility throughout brought to mind the individualistic artistry of great pianists from long, long ago.

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