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Baltimore Symphony opens season with Mahler and Mahler-ized Bach

Let the Mahler season roll.

Friday night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra fired the first shot in its commemoration of the composer's dual anniversary -- the 150th of his birth, the 100th of his death -- with a demanding program that made up in expressive energy for what it lacked in technical discipline.

The main item was Mahler's sprawling, quirky Symphony No. 7. This is the supposed problem child among his symphonies, the one that doesn't get much loving.

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Part of the difficulty, perhaps, is that Mahler infused this score with layers of humor and even satire that aren't easily grasped. Some of the big, brassy gestures in the finale, for example, have a streak of parody in them; played too straight, they can just seem pretentious or hollow.

How seriously do we take the first movement's funeral march? And what's the relationship between a central scherzo, where things keep going bump in the night, and its surrounding movements labeled "night music" -- one sparked by odd marches, the other by the unexpected piquancy of mandolin and guitar?

It all adds up to quite a journey of the aural senses, and, for those of us easily drunk on Mahler, it all makes perfect sense, too.

BSO music director Marin Alsop has developed admirable chops for Mahler. Although she was mentored by Leonard Bernstein, she doesn't go in for quite the same sort of deep-emotion, soul-on-sleeve approach he developed. She tends to

make her points a little more objectively. That doesn't necessarily mean coolly, as evidenced by her richly satisfying performance of Mahler's Ninth last season.

For the Seventh, Alsop stressed propulsion above all. Although the first movement felt a little fast to me, the sense of tension and momentum proved effective. More in subtle gradations of dynamics and coloring would have been welcome in the three middle movements, but plenty of beauty and meaning nonetheless emerged through the conductor's shaping of phrases.

The finale suggests a crazy mash-up of Mozart's Overture to "Abduction from the Seraglio," Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger," Viennese operetta and any number of other Mahler symphonies. It's a fun, brilliant ride, and Alsop captured the music's spirit and drive with great panache.

Happily, by the time the BSO, expanded for the occasion with extra players, reached that bracing finale, it was sounding like a major orchestra and really rocking the place. Earlier, especially in the opening movement, things weren't always polished; assorted mishaps in the brass were particularly dreadful. Still, lots of the music-making had an impressive strength and character, especially from the strings, and several solo efforts, including from the tenor horn in the first movement, hit the spot.

The evening opened with a novelty -- Mahler's arrangement of movements from Bach's Orchestral Suites. When he prepared this material in 1909, Mahler didn't have to fear the historical authenticity police (we're closer now to true Bach performance practice than Mahler was a century ago). He freely used the full complement of strings, for example, and reinforced musical lines here and there. It's romanticized Bach, just as the transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski and others prepared in the decades after Mahler are romanticized, but entirely respectful and highly effective all the same.

Alsop fashioned an eloquent account of the suite and coaxed warm, cohesive playing from the BSO. There will be more of Mahler's intriguing arrangements later in the BSO's season. I can't wait.

PHOTO (by Dave Hoffmann) COURTESY OF BSO

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