Marin Alsop characterizes her first program of the new year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as an exploration of "brutality and primitivism," with a bit of inclusiveness and tolerance in the middle for balance. It all adds up to an exhilarating experience.
The big ticket item is Igor Stravinsky's ground-shifter from 1913, "The Rite of Spring," written for a ballet choreographed by the legendary Nijinsky depicting pagan ritual and human sacrifice (a hapless virgin, of course).
Serving as a bookend for the concert is "Medea's Dance of Vengeance," Samuel Barber's brief and brilliant score created in the 1940s for another legend, Martha Graham and based on one of the darker chapters of Greek mythology — we're talking unbridled jealousy, adult murder and infanticide.
More comforting thoughts and images are provided at the center of the program via the multicultural journey of Osvaldo Golijov's "Rose of the Winds," composed for Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble in 2007.
The Argentine-born Golijov, who has a Russian-Jewish heritage, is one of the most embracing figures in contemporary music. There are allusions in "Rose of the Winds" to an Arab-Christian tune, a vintage Spanish protest song, traditional klezmer idioms and murmurs of Mexican prayers (on prerecorded tape).
Most tellingly, flavors of Arab and Jewish folk music seem to fuse, as if common roots magically give way to a single bloom. And when, in Golijov's most inspired touch, shofars emerge in the finale, they could not sound more universal.
The music, as emotionally rich as it is sonically spicy, received an impressive performance Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The four soloists — Cristina Pato, Galacian bagpipe; Kayhan Kalhor, kamancheh (a traditional Iranian string instrument); David Krakauer, clarinet; Michael Ward-Bergeman, hyper-accordion (he invented it) — delivered technical wizardry matched with expressive heat. Alsop dovetailed the orchestral side of things nimbly and drew colorful playing from the BSO.
Highlights included the contrast between Pato's wonderfully wailing bagpipes and Kalhor's gentle phrasing in the first movement; the ethereal hymn intoned by strings and marimbas in the second; and the striking dialogue between Krakauer's piercing clarinet and the earthy shofars (played stereophonically in the balconies by Rabbi Moshe Shualy and Jack C. Crystal).
Pato, Kalhor, Krakauer and Ward-Bergeman responded to the vociferous ovation with an encore that rocked the place, aided by an audience clap-along.
Alsop shaped Barber's "Medea" with a keen appreciation for the bittersweet lyricism beneath the violent surface and effectively highlighted jazzy syncopations in the score. The orchestra responded in polished, vibrant fashion. Biting brass attacks proved especially memorable.
Stravinsky’s imposing "Rite," the musical equivalent of a great brutalist building, brought out the best in Alsop and the BSO.
The final seconds of the piece could have used a dash more color and kick, but the conductor's approach overall was compelling, her trademark flair for propulsion balanced by keen attention to subtle details.
Articulation remained, with a few little exceptions, pristine across the orchestra. The strings summoned a muscular tone when needed, but had abundant sheen to spare (the violas, in particular, did glowing work). Brass and percussion volleys hit home. And the several soloists within the ensemble added vividly to this rousing renewal of an ever-rewarding "Rite."