"Any composer's writing is the sum of himself, of all his roots and influences," Leonard Bernstein wrote. "I have deep roots, each different from one another. I can only hope it adds up to something you could call universal."
Gustav Mahler felt pretty much the same way.
Both men poured a lot of themselves into their first symphonies, striving to make a grand, distinctive and embracing statement. Both succeeded. Those two works are the focus of the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, performed last night at the Music Center at Strathmore.
Bernstein's impassioned advocacy of Mahler's music in the 1960s ignited a wider appreciation for the composer than earlier champions generated.
Both were conductors who composed. Both were unusually animated on the podium, alternately praised and vilified for their interpretive ideas. Both directed the New York Philharmonic. Both were Jewish and sometimes conflicted over matters of faith; Jewish music is woven into their first symphonies, a trace of klezmer in Mahler's, references to liturgical melodies in Bernstein's.
The orchestra's music director, Marin Alsop, was mentored by Bernstein, who is being remembered in a big way in what would have been his 90th birthday.
Last night found Alsop's particularly persuasive account of Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah." In three taut movements, this 1944 score covers vivid emotional ground, presenting a kind of struggle that is at once deeply personal and communal. Uncertainty, insecurity and resignation are the predominant moods. But the composer does not wallow here in darkness; there is a grave, affecting beauty in this music, and Alsop tapped into it effectively.
There were many deft touches in the performance, including a poignant, long-lasting fade at the end of the first movement and great rhythmic snap in the second (where my ears pick up the melodic origins of "Maria" from West Side Story). In the finale, mezzo Kelley O'Connor intoned the verses from the Lamentations with considerable expressive weight. The orchestra's closing measures could have been given greater spaciousness, but, otherwise, Alsop's conducting was telling throughout, and the playing had admirable clarity and richness.
Mahler famously declared that "to write a symphony is, for me, to construct a world." His No. 1 does that, from the primordial mist at the start to the cosmic burst of power at the close. Alsop and the BSO are recording Mahler's First for the Naxos label during the remaining performances in Baltimore. Last night, the conductor did terrific things with the outer movements, taking time to let the music breathe and soar or sigh and coaxing a dynamic, generally tight response from the ensemble.
The Scherzo, though, sounded mostly metronomic and, in the middle section, short on charm and sentiment. The third movement was more colorful, but also needed more character. The orchestra, too, wasn't quite settled at times (the tuba solo, in particular, was not a thing of beauty). Alsop chose to have the entire bass section play what is usually a bass solo at the start of that third movement. I am told Mahler sanctioned this alternate approach, but I found it disconcerting.
if you go
The BSO performs at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.