Alsop, BSO joining tribute to Leonard Bernstein

Music Column

December 18, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will help pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein at New York's Carnegie Hall next season, performing his eclectic Mass with the Morgan State University Choir and Brooklyn (N.Y.) Youth Chorus.

BSO music director and Bernstein protege Marin Alsop will conduct the Carnegie performance Oct. 24, as well as another concert the next day at the United Palace Theater, a restored vaudeville/movie venue in the uptown New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. The second performance will involve hundreds of New York City public-school students.

Mass, subtitled "a theater piece for singers, players and dancers," inaugurated the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1971. Bernstein poured into the score almost every possible style, from stark atonality to pop song, as he examined the issue of faith in a troubled time.

Critical reaction tended toward the negative, if not downright hostile, but the work gradually won champions over the years, among them Alsop, who studied conducting with Bernstein.

"I think it's a terrific piece," she said yesterday from her Colorado home. "It feels to me far more topical than when it was written. The themes really are universal. It asks: What does religion mean? What does faith mean? Why are we so divided, and how can we come together? It's a very healing kind of piece."

Carnegie Hall's citywide festival, "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds," commemorates the 90th anniversary of the conductor/composer's birth and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

The Philharmonic, which Bernstein led for 11 memorable years, will be led by music director Lorin Maazel and music director designate Alan Gilbert. The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, will open the festival, which runs from Sept. 24-Dec. 13 and includes a wide range of performances, lectures and more throughout New York.

Shortly after becoming BSO music director designate in 2005, Alsop began discussing the prospect of producing the Bernstein work in Baltimore and New York. Local performances of Mass will take place a week before the New York ones. (The BSO will announce its full 2008-2009 season in February.)

Alsop's 1999 presentation of Mass at California's Cabrillo Music Festival, where she is music director, played to sold-out houses. In 2005, she won praise from the British press for a performance of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra, although Mass itself still generated some carping - one critic called it "tripe."

"People who respond to it like that aren't listening with fresh ears," Alsop said.

For more information on Carnegie Hall's Bernstein festival, go to

Balanced budget

An official audit of the BSO's 2007 fiscal year, to be released later this week, will confirm what board chairman Michael Bronfein announced at the orchestra's annual gala in September: a successfully balanced budget. The audit will even show a surplus.

This achievement follows years of accumulated deficits. The BSO's annual budget is about $25 million.

There is similar good fiscal news elsewhere around the country. In recent weeks, the San Francisco Symphony (annual budget $58 million) and the Minnesota Orchestra ($31 million) announced balanced budgets and unexpected surpluses.

Holiday treats

If you're looking for classical holiday CDs with a local connection, two former BSO music directors can oblige.

From RCA comes Karolju, a collection of Christmas works by Christopher Rouse, Witold Lutoslawksi and Joaquin Rodrigo, all with David Zinman conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Baltimore-based Rouse wrote Karolju (he made up the word) for the BSO in 1991. Brilliantly orchestrated, the score strings together short pieces in a variety of languages. Rouse wrote the texts, which he describes as "not intelligibly translatable for long periods of time" (sure enough, no translations are provided). Instead, the mere sound of the words is meant to evoke Christmas, which is exactly what happens. The music, too, seems almost as familiar on first hearing as well-worn carols.

Zinman leads a charming performance in this premiere recording of Rouse's seasonal salute (the fine Philharmonia Chorus does the singing). Rodrigo's Retablo de Navidad and selections from Lutoslawski's Polish Christmas Carols likewise prove endearing.

Yuri Temirkanov and his powerhouse St. Petersburg Philharmonic offer Tchaikovsky's beloved Nutcracker Suite on a new EMI release clearly aimed at holiday shoppers. I wish they had done the compete ballet score, given how Temirkanov's affinity for this music is so strong and the playing here so vivid. But the suite certainly sparkles.

The recording is filled out with non-Christmasy works - flavorful, virtuosic accounts of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije and a warhorse not necessarily associated with Temirkanov, The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Dukas.


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