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

BSO opens season with colorful mix of new, old

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought out a colorful assortment of the new and the old for the opening subscription program of the season and served it up engagingly.

To start things off Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, music director Marin Alsop provided then-and-now samples of John Adams, America’s preeminent contemporary composer.

“Short Ride on a Fast Machine” comes from the late 1980s, when the label of minimalism still stuck, more or less, to Adams.

By this point, that machine has been on more rides than a New York taxi, but if the score is a little over-exposed, it’s always worth hearing when Alsop is at the wheel. She knows just how to get it percolating and how to keep an orchestra locked into the groove, which was the result on this occasion.

“Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance” was written last year and dedicated to Alsop, a salute to her 25 years as music director of the adventurous Cabrillo Festival in California.

The music, an offshoot of the Adams opera “Girls of the Golden West,” which will be premiered this season in San Francisco, was inspired by the history of a 19th-century Irish actress who somehow ended up in the Sierras entertaining gold miners in some sort of arachnid outfit.

I find that delicious back story a little more interesting than the actual composition, which offers moody harmonies and angular motions (all far removed from those minimalist days) for a few minutes. Alsop led a poised account of the piece, drawing especially expressive playing from the ensemble in the wry close, with its high-low extremes of instrumentation and one last squish.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s most popular work, “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra, provided an ideal BSO debut vehicle for Lukasz Kuropaczewski.

The guitarist, who did his advanced studies at the Peabody Institute with the stellar Manuel Barrueco, played with as much elegance as virtuosity, phrasing poetically in the famous, bittersweet slow movement. The BSO sounded refined of tone and touch. Alsop maintained a smooth rapport throughout.

(Classical guitars are typically amplified in large spaces, as was the case here. I found the level just a little too loud; the guitar leapt out of the sonic fabric in fortissimo passages. Balances may be better when the program is repeated at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.)

An appreciative audience coaxed a generous encore from Kuropaczewski — “Leyenda” (also known as “Asturias”) by Albeniz, which was articulated with effortless technique and exquisite nuance.

A Tchaikovsky golden-oldie, Symphony No. 5, closed the evening. Alsop, conducting from memory, shaped the music firmly. More flexible tempos in some places, more attention to inner details in others, could have given the interpretation greater profile, ensuring momentum without sacrificing breathing room.

Other than a couple of bumps (principal horn Philip Munds had a practically unheard-of off-night), the BSO maintained an impressive level. The colorful playing from the woodwinds — the clarinets glowed — added richly to the performance.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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