Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Mixed reactions in British press to BSO's Proms debut

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s debut at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, a particularly high-profile stop on its first international tour in 13 years, was met with mixed reactions in the British press.

A review in The Times by Neil Fisher awarded the concert three out of five stars.

“You couldn’t have an anniversary celebration of Leonard Bernstein at the Proms without one of his galvanising successors, Marin Alsop, who studied with the American composer-conductor, has championed his music and adopted his passion for social activism and musical education,” wrote Fisher. He went on to note that the BSO has not made progress in bringing African-American musicians into the orchestra since Alsop became music director in 2007.

In the performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Alsop “compellingly gathered the [work’s] strands together” and the orchestra revealed its “muscle.” But Fisher found that the account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 “had little of the same urgency. There was fine woodwind playing in the slow movement, but this is music that should shriek with defiance, and Alsop and the musicians largely stayed in their comfort zone.”

In the Sunday Times, a rather different take by Paul Driver, who described the BSO as “an ensemble of bursting elan, with a powerfully personable music director in Marin Alsop.” The Bernstein portion of the program found favor with the write — “Slava” was performed with “a hard-hitting, showbiz edge that the orchestra must relish,” and Symphony No. 2 “couldn’t have had a more ardent advocate than Alsop, or a more skillful soloist than Jean-Yves Thibaudet.” Driver also noted “Alsop’s equal ardour with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.”

The reviewer for the Telegraph, Ivan Hewett, gave the concert three-out-of-five stars. Of the Bernstein symphony, he wrote: “Marin Alsop, an ex-student of Bernstein’s, knows the piece as well as anyone alive, and paced the journey from anxiety to cautious radiance at the end with canny exactness.”

“Alsop brought the same virtues to” the Shostakovich symphony — “alertness to telling detail, rhythmic flexibility, and an eye to the music’s overall trajectory. This ensured that the performance had its eloquent moments ...”

But the review found Alsop’s interpretation “lacking” in plumbing “the music’s tragic depths … The stony beginning seemed like Shostakovich-lite … and the terrifying beginning of the Finale was too cautiously measured ... [There] are moments when a performer needs to throw strategic caution to the winds, and this was surely one of them.”

The BSO picked up an extra star from the online magazine Bachtrack — four out of five. Reviewer Chris Garlick dismissed Bernstein’s “Slava! A Political Overture” as “one of his weakest concert works, [which] outstayed its welcome after thirty seconds, despite perky and enthusiastic playing from the BSO.”

As for Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Alsop conducted it “to the manner born” and the performance “was as authentic and musically polished as it could be.”

Of Shostakovich’s Fifth: “Everything about the performance was entertaining and musically satisfying.” The woodwinds were singled out for their “beautiful playing” in the first movement; the BSO sounded “particularly rhythmically alert and crisp” in the second ... The finale successfully avoided bombast … and when the triumphant major key coda arrived, it felt well deserved ... Two lively encores … sent the appreciative audience away buzzing.”

And from the online magazine Seen and Heard International, Claire Seymour noted that Bernstein’s “Slava” received an “ebullient and effervescent reading” by the BSO “as Alsop — with characteristic broad, dynamic strokes and pulsing gestures — whipped up a madcap whirl of brash, brassy burlesque and dazzling dancing from the syncopated strings. But, it felt a rather light-weight prelude to the weighty deliberations to follow, and somewhat facile in today’s fraught political environment.”

The lengthy review went on to praise “a superbly well-integrated account” of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2. Comparing this performance to one last season by the London Symphony orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle, Seymour wrote that “Alsop seemed to knit together the stylistically eclectic variations of Part 1 with an even more instinctive grasp of the organic relationship between the constituent parts, always driving forward, but never neglecting to illuminate the evolving stages of the journey.”

The BSO was with Alsop “all the way: the cool clarinet dialogue at the start of the Prologue sang with a distant melancholy; the lower strings resonated with a dark, deep, warm grain, above which solos from the horn, leader Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski were beautiful crafted and clearly projected.”

In Part 2, “the Baltimore players demonstrated their virtuosity and single-mindedness, with the percussion too making a notable contribution guided by the pinpoint precision of Alsop’s baton.”

The review noted “great power” from the orchestra in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, shaped by Alsop in manner that “brought Bernstein’s own approach to mind.”

“Judging by the Prommers’ rapturous reception of the BSO’s debut performance,” Seymour concluded, “they’d clearly like the orchestra to be invited back soon.”

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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