NEW YORK — — The Ravens aren't Baltimore's only team worth talking about on a Monday morning. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played an impressive away game (so to speak) Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, scoring extra points with some super-sized Beethoven, and then tackled a gospel version of Handel's "Messiah" Sunday afternoon.
The BSO's previous two appearances at Carnegie guaranteed attention. In early 2008, the ensemble gave its first performance there since music director Marin Alsop made history as the first woman to lead a full-time, big-budgeted American orchestra. A lot of press and several celebrities, among them feminist icon Gloria Steinem, turned out on that occasion.
Later that same year, Alsop and the BSO returned to Carnegie to present Leonard Bernstein's eclectic, provocative "Mass," a project involving all sorts of players, singers and theatrics. That, too, attracted a lot of attention and some famous folk, including actor Alec Baldwin.
This time, the orchestra risked an anti-climactic atmosphere. Alsop's presence on the podium is no longer hot news, and the program she chose for the first of the weekend's two concerts wasn't necessarily stop-the-presses stuff. Even though I didn't spot any celebs, try as I might, the large crowd on Saturday acted like this was anything but a letdown. There was vociferous enthusiasm from the get-go.
I didn't expect to hear "bravos" shouted after the first item, Samuel Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra — audiences in most places tend to greet any concert-opener politely. But Alsop had the BSO sounding fully charged in this drama-rich, darkly lyrical piece, which perfectly captures the expressive power of one of America's greatest (and most undervalued) composers.
The music swelled mightily in Carnegie's famed acoustics. Hearing the BSO there is like hearing a totally different orchestra. As good as the orchestra's regular venues are ( Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Music Center at Strathmore), they just can't compete with the golden Carnegie sound, the extra depth, warmth and clarity that emanates from that historic stage.
The aural advantage added power to Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, the keyboard got swallowed up sometimes in the orchestral fabric. Here, just about every nuance could be savored in the playing by the remarkable Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski (this was his Carnegie debut).
His musicality, complemented by Alsop's supple partnering and a richly vibrant response from the orchestra, generated an absorbing performance.
After intermission, the BSO channeled the spirit of a brilliant Austrian composer/conductor who once called Carnegie Hall home a century ago — Gustav Mahler, during his all-too-brief tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic for the last few years of his life.
In addition to introducing New York audiences to his own symphonies, Mahler also programmed his controversial "re-touchings" of Beethoven symphonies, causing great wailing and gnashing of teeth in some corners of the press at the time. Mahler meant no disrespect to the deified Beethoven, but merely wanted to help Beethoven's music catch up with advances in instruments and increases in orchestra size.
Some people may still view Mahler's editions as heresy. I think they're respectful, fascinating and just plain cool. It's not just a matter of bigger sound, since Mahler left indications for tempo and phrasing, too, making these versions of Beethoven valuable in understanding how Mahler himself conducted.
For Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the one called "Eroica" ("Heroic"), Mahler added a whole bunch of extra brass and woodwinds, guaranteeing great impact in key passages. Call it "Mahler-oica." Alsop embraced the larger scale and the expressive force Mahler was after, and she had the orchestra digging into the score with admirable expressive fire.
The ovation for the Beethoven performance suggested that most of the Carnegie audience agreed. People seemed just as pleased with the colorful encore — in keeping with the theme, an arrangement by one composer (William Walton) of music by another (Bach).