The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 99th season -- Marin Alsop’s eighth as music director -- promises to be eventful. That’s the take-away from Friday night’s performance at Meyerhoff Hall, where the concert will be repeated Sunday afternoon.
Longtime BSO listeners cannot fail to notice the tightness of the ensemble these days, the disciplined articulation, the cohesive sound. Budget constraints have kept the orchestra from maximum strength for years (100-plus full-time players would be ideal; 80-something has been the norm), but this mean, lean machine can deliver a remarkably satisfying impact nonetheless.
It did so on Friday in a meaty program of Beethoven and Mahler. Even the program’s prelude, a refreshing arrangement of the national anthem by Christopher Theofanidis, gave proof through the bright, luxurious string playing that the evening would offer unusual rewards.
Originally, Baltimore’s own Hilary Hahn was to have been the soloist in Beethoven’s epic Violin Concerto. When she canceled due to muscle strain, the BSO engaged veteran violinist Pinchas Zukerman, long absent from the organization’s guest artist roster.
The poker-faced Zukerman has a way of establishing musical authority right from the first notes. That he did here. He produced a big, even muscular tone that easily filled the space. There was occasional grittiness in that sound, but it never interfered with Zukerman’s communicative, seemingly spontaneous phrasing, his ability to bring out the concerto’s noble character.
The low level of coughing in the hall during the performance was one tribute to the violinist’s ability to draw an audience in to an old, familiar score; the sustained ovation was another.
Alsop maintained tight rapport between the soloist and the orchestra, which, aside from a touch of unsteadiness in the horns, played with great finesse. The violin section handled pianissimo passages with particular care.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, the shortest and most intimate of his orchestral works, begins with the crisp sound of sleigh bells and ends with a kind of tolling from low, soft notes on a harp. In between, Mahler conjures up a world of nostalgia, innocence and hope.
Alsop tends to approach music from an objective, rather than subjective, perspective. This means that her Mahler performances can seem earthbound -- not a quality you want in his Fourth Symphony, which ends with a sublime evocation of heaven.
On Friday, though, the conductor offered some remarkably affecting, personal music-making. Except for the first movement, that is. Apparently unconvinced by Mahler’s instructions for the first measures (“deliberate,” “don’t hurry,” etc.), Alsop rushed the opening and kept on going. There wasn’t quite enough atmosphere, elasticity, breathing room.
But the rest of the symphony was superbly sculpted to allow for myriad subtleties of tempo, phrasing and dynamics. Alsop took her time in the slow movement to savor each melodic curve, each layer of emotion, and the orchestra responded eloquently. The strings hit a lyrical peak here; Katherine Needleman’s oboe solos were radiant.
The symphony’s unusual and perfect finale introduces a soprano soloist, who, against a backdrop of prismatic instrumentation, sings a poem about a child’s idea of heaven -- lots of food and dancing. Within the naive imagery is a profound beauty and peace.
Tamara Wilson has a large, Verdi-sized voice (she makes her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida this season), not the lighter type generally associated with Mahler’s Fourth. But the soprano’s singing had wonderful clarity and a tenderness that got to the heart of this endearing music.
Alsop paced the finale beautifully and coaxed such sensitivity from the musicians during the gentle fade at the end that Mahler's magical evocation of joyful innocence lingered long in the air.