The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made many an excursion into Russian repertoire during Yuri Temirkanov's brief era as music director. Turns out that his successor, Marin Alsop, likes that repertoire, too, and she has done her fair share of programming it here.
This week, she's focusing on Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. It happens to be something of a Temirkanov specialty; he achieved unforgettable results when he led performances of the work with the BSO in 2004. Alsop's account Thursday night at Strathmore was on a somewhat different level. More on that in a moment.
The program included a welcome premiere by gifted Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff and a sterling account of Stravinsky's spicy Violin Concerto with stellar soloist Gil Shaham. (The full program will be repeated at Meyerhoff Hall Friday night. On Saturday, Alsop will devote one of her popular, innovative "Off the Cuff" presentations exclusively to the Rachmaninoff symphony.)
Leshnoff has been building a name for himself over the past decade or so. Among his recent commissions is one from the Philadelphia Orchestra for a flute concerto that will be premiered next season. His first BSO commission has resulted in a short, eventful score called "Starburst." It's a curtain-raiser in the best sense of the word, full of energy and anticipation.
The composer's most distinctive talent may be for creating deeply lyrical themes, but, here, his focus is
on propulsion and creating a sense of almost frantic searching. From a short, up-and-down melodic motive, Leshnoff creates considerable action as harmonies tighten and nearly minimalist motor rhythms help drive the music along. Even a momentary repose partway through can't stop the sense of urgency, and the final arrival point suggests more of a temporary resolution than a final one, as if the notes could start churning all over again at the slightest provocation. It's a colorfully orchestrated work, and Alsop had the ensemble articulating deftly.
The Stravinsky item from 1931 finds the composer in his neoclassical groove, but, in the last of the four movements, with a hint of his earlier, kick-ass "Rite of Spring" days providing extra flair. It's cool music, clever and surprising. Stravinsky dismissed the grand gestures of romantic violin concertos, but still devised plenty of bravura activity for the soloist, while giving the orchestra vividly colored activity.
Shaham played with a sterling technique and wonderfully animated phrasing, interacting with the ensemble seamlessly (the romping duet with concertmaster Jonathan Carney in the finale came off particularly well). Alsop kept things firmly on track.
As for the Rachmaninoff Second, the conductor certainly had the orchestra playing superbly. It was impossible to miss the discipline and cohesion of the effort, qualities that Alsop has steadily cultivated. Missing, however, was a deeply distinctive interpretation.
Everything was in its proper place; the big tunes heated up when they were supposed to; the scherzo and finale took off with the expected dash; lots of inner details emerged with unusual clarity along the way. But when all was played and done, there was more control than tension or passion, more abstractness than personality. I was particularly disappointed with how the slow passages -- the first several minutes of the opening movement, for example -- sounded merely slow in Alsop's hands, rather than portentous or mysterious or sensual.
I proudly profess my love of this symphony (some of my colleagues would rather admit to a felony than tolerance for this piece, or much of anything by Rachmaninoff), and I can be easily swept up in its melodic eddies. I was stuck on the shore this time.
SUN STAFF PHOTO OF JONATHAN LESHNOFF; PHOTOS OF MARIN ALSOP (by Dave Hoffmann) and GIL SHAHAM (by Boyd Hagen) COURTESY OF BSO