Marin Alsop's inaugural season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is ending pretty much the way it started, with a program that places a sizable contemporary American work alongside a blockbuster from the standard European canon. In this case, the former is Joan Tower's big and often bracing Concerto for Orchestra; the latter is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
The results Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore were also pretty much the same as at the season launch back in September - a hot performance of the modern piece, something less than a totally persuasive account of the venerable classic.
Tower, nearing 70, is a quintessential American composer in many ways. Her music is honest, welcoming and plain-spoken, even at its most complicated. It's all about taut strength and rhythmic vitality.
The composer, in brief (and oddly awkward) remarks to the packed crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore, described the opening of the piece as a flat horizon suddenly animated by a moving object. That object generates small thematic cells that spin out in all sorts of directions, expanding and developing in logical, imaginative, engaging fashion. Wonderful sounds pour out from each section of the orchestra and soloists within each section.
Alsop's attention to structure and inner detail in the half-hour score yielded from the BSO considerable power and sensitivity. In one particularly arresting passage, the cellos explored subtly shifting harmonies to beautiful effect. The remarkable tuba solo - a lonely song emerging from an uncertain landscape - was, a cloudy note or two aside, tellingly delivered by David Fedderly.
Great performances of Beethoven's Ninth are full-fledged, four-act dramas, with each of the symphony's movements equally potent and absorbing. This one seemed heavily weighted toward the much-loved choral finale, leaving the earlier portions of the score under-fueled.
Alsop, as she did in other Beethoven symphonies she conducted here this season, kept things on the brisk and strict side. That's as valid an approach as any, of course, and she's hardly the only one in today's music world who favors such a steady approach to tempos. Even so, it's hard to see how a little less of the four-square direction, a little more breathing room between the end of one phrase and the beginning of another, would be such a bad thing.
I didn't hear much mystery or tension or portent in the first movement. The second flew by nicely, but without a great deal of character. There were, to be sure, lovely things in Alsop's phrasing of the Adagio, though the tendency to push ahead left some of the music's internal poetry untouched.
At the start of the finale, where Beethoven throws out so many ideas to set up the subsequent release of the "Ode to Joy," Alsop could have emphasized that uncertainty and contrast more interestingly. And, later, she could have taken a longer, anticipation-inducing pause before the tenor solo. Otherwise, she was in her element, and had the music crackling with energy and import.
There was some slipperiness in the BSO's execution Thursday, but the playing nonetheless revealed a good deal of discipline and clarity.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, prepared by Leo Wanenchak, fulfilled its assignment vibrantly. The solo vocal quartet offered particularly sturdy, vivid work at the register extremes - soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and bass Kevin Deas. I couldn't hear much of mezzo Susan Platts, and what I heard of tenor Richard Clement was unfortunately lightweight and often strained.
If you go
The BSO performs at 8 tonight and at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Remaining tickets $37 to $57. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.