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Alsop, Baltimore Symphony in fate-filled program

In the quirkiest quirk of the BSO's scheduling so far this season, a big, imaginative program conducted by Marin Alsop (right) was performed exactly once over the weekend. If you missed it Friday at the Meyerhoff, you were out of luck, although one item from that evening, Brahms' Symphony No. 1, was carried over to Saturday's "Off the Cuff" presentation.

The lineup on Friday delivered a fate-filled theme: Tchaikovsky's rarely heard tone poem Hamlet, a portrait of Shakespeare's noble, doomed hero; Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World, a tribute to Martin Luther King's inspiring philosophy, and an unsettling reminder of his tragic death; and that Brahms symphony, with its references to the "fate" motive from Beethoven's Fifth. The Brahms score, of course, moves from darkness to light by the end, affirming the possibilities for our better angels to triumph.

It was great to find the Tchaikovsky piece on the bill, and it reminded me of his other under-played tone poems that I wish we could get around here: Fatum, The Tempest, Voyevoda. Alsop led a taut, often gripping account of the score. I only wish she had brought more weight to the solemn coda and, especially, had held onto the final chord much longer. There was a lot of admirable work from the ensemble, including some sit-up-and-take-notice playing from guest oboist Shea Scruggs, who was doing principal duties as part of his audition for the assistant oboe chair.   

Schwantner's eventful score, bristling with percussive flurries, ominous brass chords and Copland-esque warmth and directness, proved ...

as potent as it had Wednesday during the BSO's annual MLK concert. Kweisi Mfume was again the narrator, even more assured and vibrant in his delivery this time. Alsop again fashioned a telling, propulsive performance that had the orchestra sounding in top form.

The conductor's approach to Brahms varies in effectiveness from piece to piece. On Friday, her account of the First Symphony was just shy of being thoroughly convincing (same for her recording of it with the London Philharmonic, to my ears). There were many terrific things, to be sure, among them the bold thrust at the start of the first movement; the lovely lyrical molding of the two inner movements; and the wonderful pianissimo pizzicato she coaxed from the strings during the portentous opening of the finale. But the famous tune of that finale, the moment every Brahms lover is waiting for, passed by blandly, taken at such a slow pace and so limited in dynamic shading that the glorious melody sounded curiously drained of life and poetry. Still, Alsop made up for that deflation with plenty of  drama and incisiveness as the symphony headed toward its optimistic conclusion.

On Saturday night, I stopped by to hear Alsop discuss the Brahms symphony before a good-sized, age-diverse audience that dared ignore the Ravens game (the conductor sported purple cuffs underneath her trademark black suit for the occasion). The vociferous cheers that erupted at her first appearance reaffirmed just how strongly Alsop connects with many BSO fans -- such enthusiasm, needless to say, is not enjoyed by every conductor everywhere.

This was the second in her new "Off the Cuff" series, a concept that includes a spoken introduction (truly and coolly off the cuff in Alsop's case) and then a complete performance of a big work, with everything wrapped up in a neat package of about 75 minutes. I don't think it would have been too stuffy if Alsop had spent a little time on describing the structure of the symphony (never miss an opportunity to toss in good ol' sonata form, I say), but her remarks were entertaining and as pithy as ever. A nice touch was having the BSO's first-chair string players offer a sample of the chamber work that introduced a 12-year-old Alsop to Brahms.

Along the way, her comments were punctuated by apt excerpts from the First Symphony and music by Brahms' contemporaries, smoothly delivered by the orchestra. There also was a neat surprise -- principal horn Phil Munds (left) lifted a mile-long alp horn and played the tune Brahms apparently heard on a such an instrument during a visit to the mountains and, to haunting effect, incorporated into the finale of his symphony. 

 

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