September 28, 2007


John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Live performance at Strathmore Music Center, North Bethesda, Maryland, September 27, 2007.

      The various furors and tempests in teapots relating to Marin Alsop’s selection as the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are now old news, and Alsop has officially assumed her new duties with an opening-night concert that shows her to be an uncompromising programmer and a fine podium showman…or is that showwoman? She chose a long and difficult program to launch the BSO’s 2007-2008 season, and handled everything with panache if not always perfect musicality.

      The first work, John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries, is filled with catchy rhythms, clever orchestral textures, good humor and lots and lots of noise. It is also much too long; or perhaps, if you accept Adams’ approach to this 1988 work, too short. Adams himself was on hand to introduce the piece and pump it up a bit, but his speech mostly showed how difficult it is to talk people into or through music. Fearful Symmetries is essentially an exercise in orchestral color and continuous driving rhythms, played until the very end entirely at mf through fff dynamics. Supplementing a full orchestra with saxophones, synthesizer and more, Adams essentially creates a half-hour ostinato above which rock and heavy metal styles merge (or clash) with traditional classical ones. The work has no apparent organizational principle in terms of its length – this is why it could easily be shorter or longer. It is an Alice in Wonderland case of “begin at the beginning; continue until you get to the end; then stop.” Alsop and the BSO certainly gave the work everything they had, with enormous masses of sound rolling off this very well-balanced ensemble while Alsop paid meticulous attention to details: a pizzicato here, a wind screech or brass outcry there. And Alsop made herself into a big part of the show, bending and bouncing and cajoling and stretching to emphasize a point or cue a musician way at the back of the stage. She was fun to watch; the work was fun to hear; but there is less to this music than meets the ear.

      Mahler’s Fifth was another sonic world altogether. This is a huge and complex symphony and an important one, marking Mahler’s return to pure orchestral expression after three symphonies in which voices had important roles. Mahler said it is in three parts: the first two movements; the third; and the fourth and fifth. First trumpet Andrew Balio presented the opening solo with clarity, and in general the brass was very impressive (although Balio had one embarrassing missed note later in the movement). There was demonic energy here, but Alsop had an irritating tendency to insert fussy little hesitations at the start of almost every new section – exactly the opposite of what Mahler intended. The result was unwonted fragmentation of the movement. Alsop did bring out many lovely details, but her decision to re-seat the orchestra with the cellos to her right – the BSO had previously placed the violas there – led to some muddiness in the middle voices. Alsop wisely went immediately into the second movement, which was stürmisch indeed until the beautiful cello-and-viola section, which seemed to come from another planet (again, though, the violas’ position meant the cellos nearly drowned them).

      The complete mood change of the third movement was well handled, with the horns outstanding and the lithe ländler rhythms nicely shaped. But again, Alsop introduced uncalled-for rubato from time to time, missing the overall shape of the movement, which is more than a disconnected series of marginally related episodes.

      The fourth and fifth movements proved the most effective. In the gorgeous Adagietto, for strings and harp, the BSO’s outstandingly warm string sections shone, and Alsop let the music swell and subside naturally. And the finale was given a strong, propulsive flow as Alsop kept its sections moving smartly into each other, leading to a stirring brass choir and satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

      In all, Alsop offered a meticulous Mahler Fifth, with very good attention to detail but little sense that she has a personal overview of the grand shape of the music. She is certainly a conductor to watch – in fact, one who is very enjoyable to watch. And she seems to have a genuine vision for the future development of the BSO. Now she needs one for the music as well.

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