With the new year underway, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is focusing on the New World. This weekend's program offers music by two Americans and a visitor to America, music from very different eras, but with a pulsing lyricism in common.
Things got started Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which has retained the public's affection since it appeared in 1938. Conductor Marin Alsop's had the work's eloquence emerging in subtle fashion (more heart-in-pocket than heart-on-sleeve), aided by the clarity and tonal sheen from the BSO players.
The Adagio provided a telling link to Jonathan Leshnoff's Guitar Concerto, co-commissioned by the BSO and three other orchestras and receiving its premiere performances at these concerts.
The gem of the new piece is its second movement, which, in effect, is another Adagio for strings -- in addition to the guitar, the orchestra's string sections and harp, the score employs the technique of drawing a string bow against the edges of a vibraphone.
In this introspective Adagio (the movement also bears a Hebrew title, "Hod"), the guitar's gently questioning melodic lines emerge against alternately shimmering and aching chords. It's an exquisite reverie, and it inspired beautiful playing on Thursday from both soloist Manuel Barrueco -- the concerto's dedicatee -- and the ensemble.
The outer movements deliver rewards as well. The opening one grabs attention with its initial, arcing phrase, which gets a vigorous, colorful workout from guitar and ensemble alike.
The finale has abundant kinetic energy and lots of Latin flavor, but could probably stand some trims and tweaking. The reiterative, flamenco-y guitar strumming starts to sound forced after a while; the orchestra stays too long in a subdued groove; and the last measures sort of peter out instead of delivering a good jolt (this may have been more the result of the performance than the writing).
Still, the concerto makes a worthy, welcome entry into the repertoire. It reconfirms that Leshnoff, a Towson University faculty member with a presence far beyond Baltimore, is an assured composer who has a lot to say and a directly communicative way of saying it.
Also reconfirmed: The exceptional gifts of Barrueco, one the world's most prominent classical guitarists and a valued Peabody Conservatory faculty member. His supple, sensitive performance, a model of understated virtuosity, was given deft support from Alsop and the BSO.
The rest of the evening was devoted to Dvorak's drama-rich Symphony No. 9. Written while he was living in the States and given the title "From the New World," this is still a fundamentally, gloriously Czech piece. If memory serves, this is the third time since 2007 that Alsop has conducted it here. Nothing against the work, but having it back every three years or so does seem a bit excessive.
That said, the conductor certainly stirred up a satisfying account of the war horse. I especially admired the drive she maintained in the first movement, along with the extra surge she achieved in the finale as all the symphony's principal themes came together for one great mash-up. And Alsop gave the last chord enough time to fade away with a telling tinge of melancholy.
The famous Largo emerged with an extra glow, aided by Jane Marvine's warmly poetic English horn solo. There were several other commendable individual contributions throughout the symphony; the rock-solid ones by principal timpanist James Wyman proved especially compelling.
A few passages could have been cleaner and tighter (the brass chorales in the Largo, for one thing), but this was still a hot, involving performance.
As it unfolded, I couldn't help but recall those astonishing comments that recently surfaced from some male conductors, including former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov, claiming women aren't cut out for conducting and orchestras can't play well for women on the podium.
Even such dismissive men would surely have to change their tune if they heard what Alsop and the BSO achieved in the "New World" Symphony -- for that matter, what they accomplish together in a whole lot of repertoire, week after week.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun