A feast of sonic showpieces brings out the best in Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
No composer had a healthier ego than Richard Strauss, and it's vividly displayed in the BSO's latest program.

After experiencing rapture and ecstasy, a megalomaniacal trip is the natural next step. That's the irresistible progression of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program.

Music director Marin Alsop has chosen three sonic showpieces from different times and places, each reflecting a brilliant understanding of how to maximize the orchestral palette. This isn't just a sound-fest, though, since the works also have in common very engaging ideas behind all the luxuriant notes.

From our own era comes "Rapture," a 2000 work by eminent Baltimore-born and -based composer Christopher Rouse, who was on hand Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to take a bow.

The score starts with low, soft rumbles and questioning melodic flurries that, as tempo and harmonic tension subtly increase, lead inexorably toward an incandescent aural light. There is something communal about the experience, as if the music is trying to pull orchestra and audience alike into some sort of benevolent maelstrom that takes you higher and higher.  

Alsop paced the journey masterfully, making each gradation of volume and pace register tellingly, and she drew polished, expressively textured playing from the musicians (the percussion section made particularly memorable contributions). The closing measures had an impact that really did feel, well, rapturous.

Achieving a state of cosmic bliss is the goal behind Alexander Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy." The Russian composer, who knew how to use every instrument to extract maximum color and atmosphere, was heavily into mysticism. Heavily into fooling around, too.

He left his wife and kids for a young woman around the time he conceived his ecstatic "Poem," which has a smoldering sensuality behind all the philosophical musing. It also boasts some of the most imaginative, visceral orchestral effects in the repertoire.

The luscious score got an impressive workout on Thursday. Alsop maintained terrific tautness and momentum, all the while shaping melodic lines with considerable sensitivity. I would have loved an even longer hold on the final, triumphant chord, but the ending still hit home.

A touch or two of tonal unevenness aside, the BSO excelled. The strings produced a particularly radiant quality; the brass playing also gleamed.

In addition to being a brilliant orchestrator, Scriabin was known to be quite the egotist, but he didn't write a gigantic work all about himself. That was a feat left to Richard Strauss, whose self-confidence knew no bounds.

When he unveiled his symphonic poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life") in 1899, Strauss made it pretty clear he was the model for the noble character depicted in the piece.

For the passage meant to depict the hero recalling his achievements, Strauss tossed in all sorts of snippets from his earlier compositions, ingeniously stitched together. And in a section titled "The Hero's Adversaries," crudely carping woodwinds sound suspiciously like parodies of all the critics who had found fault with Strauss' music over the years.

If "Ein Heldenleben" were really just some exercise in massive pride, it would never have turned out to be such a towering masterwork. It's a wordless drama as eventful, richly evocative and absorbing as a play or opera, and it couldn't be more prismatically scored.

Alsop set a swaggering tempo for the hero's opening theme and proceeded to emphasize momentum to keen effect ("The Hero's Battlefield" heated up wonderfully). But the conductor took plenty of time to savor the music's deeply romantic or wistful moods as well; her phrasing in the last two portions of the score achieved exquisitely lyrical results.

The orchestra proved its mettle once again. This was more than a cohesive, disciplined effort. There was something downright passionate going on here. For one thing, I have never seen so many BSO string players put their bodies into motion, the way concertmaster Jonathan Carney routinely does.

Speaking of the concertmaster, he delivered the pivotal, demanding violin solos with vibrant personality. It was a notable night, too, for principal horn Philip Munds.

All in all, another very hot night in what so far has been a remarkably rewarding season for Alsop and the BSO.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

If you go

Marin Alsop and the BSO repeat the Rouse-Scriabin-Strauss program at 3 p.m. Sunday at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckmeran Lane, North Bethesda.

Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" will be discussed and performed during an "Off the Cuff" presentation at 8:15 tonight at Strathmore, and 7 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

48°