Baltimore Symphony program showcases American music, familiar and rare

Marin Alsop's dedication to American music is well known and justly admired. Her interest in Edward Collins' contributions to American music is, I suspect, much less familiar -- just like Edward Collins himself.

Alsop, who has recorded many works by Collins, chose one of them to balance the standard fare by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland in the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program. It's a particularly timely choice, too, given Veterans Day.

The "Tragic Overture," dating form the early 1920s, sums up Collins' response to his experiences fighting in World War I -- he first titled the piece "1914." The score has a dramatic punch, alleviated occasionally with sweeter material, but references to "Taps" near the end leave no doubt as to the underlying message of the music.

The Illinois-born Collins, who died in 1951, enjoyed modest success during his lifetime and may enjoy a degree of renewed interest at some point.

Alsop certainly gave every indication of commitment to the man and his neo-romantic, expertly crafted music Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Hall. She drew from the BSO a dynamic performance of the "Tragic Overture" that needed only ...

more solid intonation from the brass at the close.

The audience's hearty response suggested that folks here would welcome an opportunity to hear more by this unsung American composer.

The Copland portion of the evening included the familiar "Appalachian Spring." The woodwind section seemed a little out of sorts in places, but the ensemble otherwise produced a beautifully nuanced sound as Alsop shaped the score with a tender touch.

Copland's "Old American Songs," an endearing souvenir of 19th century gems, requires a vocal soloist with a thoroughly natural, highly communicative style. That's exactly what the BSO had in baritone William Sharp.

This was a long overdue engagement -- the exemplary singer, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, last appeared with the orchestra in 1992.

Meyerhoff is not the most hospitable acoustic environment for a singer, and Sharp does not have a particularly large voice. Still, his articulation was so clear, his phrasing so genial and telling that he communicated the essence of each of the seven songs with ease.

He achieved particularly exquisite results in the ballad "Long Time Ago," but was just as impressive letting loose in "I Bought Me a Cat" and other lighthearted items.

Alsop made a valiant effort to keep the orchestra from swamping the baritone, while also drawing out delectable subtleties of Copland's instrumental coloring. The ensemble's  playing had considerable character.

Capping the evening was a buoyant account of Gershwin's evergreen "An American in Paris."

The full program will be repeated Sunday afternoon; the Copland items will be featured on Saturday evening's "Off the Cuff" presentation.


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