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Affecting pairing of Adams, Beethoven from the Baltimore Symphony

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

6:43 AM EDT, June 7, 2014

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A year after 9/11, the New York Philharmonic premiered "On the Transmigration of Souls," a reflective work for chorus and orchestra by John Adams that incorporates words and phrases from messages posted near the site of the World Trade Center, from interviews with survivors and, most chillingly, from a flight attendant on one of the doomed planes.

To follow such a somber work, the Philharmonic's then-music director Lorin Maazel chose music of solidarity and joy, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

This pairing seemed just right to me when I heard that Philharmonic concert almost 12 years ago. It seemed just as right, just as effective, when Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in this same pairing on Thursday night at Meeryhoff Hall to close the 2013-2014 season.

It was all the more moving to hear the Adams piece so soon after the opening of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

And, given all of the fresh references to the Taliban back in the news after the release of an American soldier involved in a war that resulted from the events of 2001, it seemed a very good time to hear Beethoven's plea for brotherhood again.

This also turned out to be an exceptional night of music-making from Alsop, the BSO and the other forces assembled.

"On the Transmigration of Souls" incorporates sounds on tape — voices reading names of the dead, street noises, etc. The music emerges delicately out of that soundscape and begins a kind of journey, slowly rising in intensity before subsiding, all the while gently pulsing with Adams’ distinctive style of minimalism.

The choral forces — adult and children’s choirs — are incorporated seamlessly into the fabric. Each fragment of text ("He was the apple of my father’s eye," "She had a voice like an angel") speaks volumes.

If the score comes across as a little cliched at times, a little too theatrical at others, it represents a substantial attempt to sum up the irreparable, irreplaceable, inexpressible loss on that bright blue September day.

Alsop sculpted the score sensitively and drew refined playing from the orchestra. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Peabody Children's Chorus fulfilled their roles with admirable beauty of tone and tenderness of expression.

Beethoven's Ninth turns up a little too often around here (it will be back on the BSO lineup next season). And more often than not, I've been disappointed in the results. Not this time.

Alsop brought out the tension and turbulence of the first movement to keen effect and kept the pressure building in the Scherzo. Other than an unsettled moment at the start, the orchestra responded with considerable polish and power; timpanist James Wyman made gripping contributions in both of those first two movements.

In the poignant Adagio, Alsop let the music breathe to truly poetic effect. There was warmly nuanced phrasing, especially from the strings (the violins sounded oddly thin in tone, but otherwise impressive).

The famous finale emerged with fresh force. Alsop seemed to thrive on the ever-shifting tempos and dynamics, ensuring a great deal of color and personality in the orchestra's playing. She shaped the "Ode to Joy" theme in the cellos and basses with particular sensitivity; the playing had remarkable eloquence.

Eloquent, too, were the tone and phrasing of Eric Owens, the celebrated bass-baritone (substituting for an indisposed James Morris). The other soloists were also stellar: Tenor Dimitri Pittas, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and, especially, soprano Angela Meade, whose radiant voice lit up the stage.

The Choral Arts Society performed from memory, which heightened the singers' firm connection to the music as they produced a cohesive sound and articulated with great care.

Alsop kept all the forces in tight focus, building the tension effectively all the while and letting the last measures really rip. A notable Ninth all around.

The concert will be repeated at Strathmore Saturday night, the Meyeroff on Sunday afternoon.