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Marin Alsop leads Baltimore Symphony in propulsive program

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If it has a good beat, you can count on Marin Alsop to conduct it with infectious energy. That point is being driven home by her latest program with the Baltimore Symphony, which has one more local performance before the orchestra takes it to Carnegie Hall on Monday.

To start this sampling of 20th and 21st century repertoire, there is the pulsating “Shaker Loops,” an early-1980s classic of minimalism for string orchestra by John Adams. To close, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4 (the revised version of 1947), a work with a powerful motoric foundation. In between, the bluegrass-spiced drive of Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3” from 2008.

It was fascinating to hear little connections between these disparate pieces Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore — bits of the Prokofiev score that seemed to presage minimalism’s use of reiterative patterns; chunks of the Higdon score that gave a friendly nod to minimalism’s kinetic force.

“Shaker Loops” gets its name from the religious sect known for its trance-like dancing and the practice of splicing loops of pre-recorded tape together to create potentially endless repetitions. But that description hardly begins to explain what Adams so brilliantly achieves.

The music, which explores all sorts of string sounds, has a haunting urgency. There is something bittersweet beneath the churning, and Alsop drew that quality out impressively as she led the BSO strings through the tricky material.

The players got tightly into the rhythmic groove and, for the most part, articulated with a subtle radiance that enveloped the hall.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Higdon, one of today’s most colorful and accessible composers, wrote “Concerto 4-3” for the trio known as Time for Three (get it?).

The members of that ensemble — violinists Zachary DePue and Nicolas Kendall, bassist Ranaan Meyer — like to call themselves the first “classically trained garage band.” They started jamming when they were studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where Higdon is on the faculty, and went on to make a go of it after graduating about a decade ago, mixing styles the whole way.

Higdon was particularly inspired by these musicians’ flair for bluegrass, a genre that gives the concerto its kick.

When the trio joined Alsop and the BSO for a performance of the concerto in 2009, the work struck me as superficial and stingy on the orchestral portion. To some extent, that’s what it sounded like on Thursday, but, this time, the sheer energy of it all proved irresistible.

Time for Three took every advantage afforded by the concerto to show off brilliant technique and seamless synchronization, with each player burrowing into the folksy themes. Had the closing moments been taken any faster, smoke would have started coming out of the instruments. Alsop drew likewise dynamic work from the BSO.

All of that drive carried over after intermission into a remarkable account of the Prokofiev symphony. There can’t be too many conductors who have committed this underappreciated work to memory, but Alsop has done so, and her command of the score came through strongly here.

She was not just attuned to the momentum generated by the composer — and she had the wildest passages of the symphony really kicking up some dirt — but also the lyrical side. There was an organic flow to the performance, which found the orchestra percolating with technical panache and expressive bite.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall, and, to open the week-long Spring for Music orchestra festival, at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Carnegie Hall.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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